Very few books change the way you look at the life and the world. Even fewer books- like maybe one or two in your life – change the way you think about everything. One such book is “The Singularity is Near” by Raymond Kurzweil.
No other book that I’ve read or heard about puts the changes that we are experiencing, technologically, into more perspective than this book. No other book that I’ve read so convincingly lays out a roadmap for the dramatic and unprecedented changes that we will experience in the next 30 years.
I first heard about “The Singularity” from Terry Crowley https://www.linkedin.com/in/terry-crowley-124795/.
Terry is, by any account, an amazing engineering leader. As the longtime Engineering Leader for Microsoft Office, Terry drove huge changes and improved the engineering system along the way in profoundly impactful fashion.
I happened to be talking about some subject with Terry about 4 or 5 years ago when he brought up the topic of “The Singularity”. My mind was immediately blown by the idea of The Singularity. And I’ve never really stopped thinking about this and the implications.
The Technological Singularity is one of those things where, after you’ve heard it, you never quite see the world in the same way again. For those of you who might not have heard about this, the idea of The Singularity is actually pretty easy to describe, even though it is provocative in the extreme and remains widely controversial.
Here is the core thesis: in the near future there will be a computer that someone will build that will be smarter than a human. At that point, computers will be smart enough to make their own improvements and advancements. So, the computers themselves will begin to build smarter and smarter computers until a computer isn’t just smarter than the smartest human but a trillion times smarter than any human. At this point, not only are they that smart, they also have access to all human knowledge via the network they are plugged into. So then you’ll have computers that aren’t just trillion times smarter than the smartest human, they know the sum of all human knowledge!
This situation is what Raymond Kurzweil calls “The Singularity”. The term is a mathematical expression, but in this case, what it essentially says is that this moment is so profound in its impact that there is no way to predict what will happen after that.
Kurzweil is predicts the date for The Singularity as follows:
“I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045. The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”
This all leads to a bit of a morbid joke. A bunch of these computers are sitting around and they are all a trillion times smarter than you and they all know the sum of all human knowledge. You walk up to them and a ask them what they are talking about. They slowly turn and look at you, like you are barely worth responding to, and say “Stuff”…
We can laugh… or we can cry, but Mr. Kurzweil makes a very compelling argument that this is going to happen whether we like it or not.
But it isn’t just computation and intelligent computation that will have an impact. The book discusses three fields that he dubs “GNR” that will greatly affect what happens to humanity in the next 2 or 3 decades.
G stands for Genomics. N stands for Nanotechnology. And R stands for Robotics.
All three of these fields are advancing at an exponential rate and are poised to profoundly change the way we live or lives. In fact, we are living in a time where, according to Kurzweil, in the next 30 years (sooner in some cases), we will see the eradication of all disease. We may even be able to reverse the effects of aging so that we never have to die as our bodies are replaced, bit-by -bit with more effective and more durable non-biological versions of our own organs and limbs. At some point, we should even be able to upload our consciousness to a computer so that even our brain becomes non-biological.
In fact, Mr. Kurzweil is doing everything he can to live long enough to be able to eventually “upload” his brain into a computer so that he will be able to literally live forever. But don’t think of this as if you are sitting in a server farm somewhere in Eastern Washington – a disembodied personality with ever increasing intelligence but no way to interact with the world. By the time all this comes about, Robots will be more supple than humans and so you’ll have a body that is better than a human body in every way.
Of all three of the fields he discusses, the most disturbing to me is not smart computers, but, rather, nanotechnology. On the plus side, there will soon be nanobots that can manufacture anything we want. We’ll tell them what to build and they will take a pile of raw material and produce whatever we want in a matter of minutes. In this way, all manufacturing will be distributed and there will no longer be any centralized manufacturing processes. The worrisome bit: Nanobots that are self-replicating could, if uncontained and unstoppable, consume the entire biosphere of the planet to a pile of what he calls “grey goo” in a matter of hours. To combat such an outcome, he argues that we build a anti-viral network of nanobots who would be on the lookout for biosphere eating nanobots and could attack them if they started such an extinction event.
Once you grasp the implications for harm that all this exponentially advancing technology could have, you might be driven to suggest that we should just stop it all for the good of humanity. The problem with that argument, as he so clearly and accurately outlines in the book, is that the advancements will continue relatively unabated whether it’s done for good or for evil so we might was well make sure it’s being done for good.
So, if you think that we’ve seen geo-political upheaval that have been driven by technological advances up until now, the realization is that that is nothing compared to what will happen over the next 30 years through the power of unceasing exponential advances in Genomics, Nanotech, and Robotics.
Buckle your seat belt, this is going to be a very interesting ride.