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Main Content

What is the Singularity?

By Sue Lange.

The scientists, the engineers, the people that know, the people that observe, intuit, and surmise, even those that pay no attention whatsoever, have all noticed that lately, the rate of technological change has increased at a phenomenal rate. Notice the use of the word "rate" twice in that last sentence. The rate has increased at a high rate. That's rate squared.

One or two of us have noticed its increase is so great, in fact, that we are about to hit a point of no return - the Singularity.

But what is that point of no return, that Singularity? The Singularity is that exact instant when artificial intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence. When computers become smarter than people. They already are, you argue. True, sort of. They calculate faster, certainly, but intuition - that trait of humanity alone - seems to escape them. They can't pass a Turing test.* But one day our engineers will unravel the dark mystery of intuition, and they will bestow it upon AI. They will do this by mimicking the protocols, the processes, the ways and means of the human brain. They will discover how to define, describe, copy, digitize, the mind of humanity. Our brains will become downloadable. You see now what is meant by point of no return.

Once the human brain can be copied, it will be copied. And uploaded. Onto what? Who knows. A new body maybe, synthetic or mostly that way. Or maybe a data bank in Cleveland. Or a wafer of space-age polymer plastic, ready to be popped into an iPod device and hologrammed into a virtual reality world where fake smells and tastes are pumped in via tiny nanosphere robots that will see to this post-human's every need. Regardless, the human mind, and perhaps the human itself by whatever definition we use, will be able to live forever. Point of no return.

So, we've got techno-geek groupies of Ray Kurzweil who look forward to the Singularity with excitement. They prepare themselves mentally and physically
for the great day of immortality. They happily plan to become cyborgs, incorporating artificial organs and molecular-sized robots into their tired and worn-out bodies, creating a new them. They eschew learning by experience. One day all knowledge will be uploaded.

These people prepare their current bodies as best they can with today's primitive technology, an artificial joint here, a valve replacement there. They race against time, extending their pathetic lives just long enough to meet the Singularity. On that day, people in the know, people who are on the leading edge of scientific endeavor (and have enough credit) will be able to purchase a new body, or replace parts easily available from the local organist, and I'm not talking piano player here.

On the other hand, some human technocrats (the naysayers among the futurists who follow the general Bill Joy position to the extreme) are frightened by the prospect of computers able to think and know better than humans. They are scared of half-biological, half-hardware beings that are super human. What will such creatures do to the rest of us? The most of us. The members of the middle class that find the idea of weekly transfusions of smartblood to get to the second
coming a little off-putting. Not to mention the fact that nobody's health care plan covers experimental therapy straight out of a science fiction story.

This group of fear-mongers insists that robots - computers with legs - will have no use in the future for the weaker race, Luddites who stupidly cling to the old ways. Surely the future superior beings, robots with their quicker reaction times, faster computation skills, bigger, fatter memory and the power to access it at a nanosecond's notice (they don't even need to scratch their heads), will want to enslave the humans. Or worse, euthanize us to put us out of our misery.

Then there are the few, the lonely, the crackpot cranks who suspect that a funny thing could happen on the way to the Singularity. Maybe the robots will buck intuition. Maybe they'll prefer to remain stonecold sober. Maybe their software will become obsolete the minute they get it out the door. Maybe the AVs and Others will discover love and want to remain.

And here's another thing: who's to say the Singularity hasn't already occurred? We're all so patched into our TV sets, mp3-player headphones, hi-speed Internet,
and Bluetooth devices, we have no idea what's going on out there in reality anyway. We already are our technology. In the end what's the difference?

Call it fate. Call it Manifest Destiny. Call it Murphy's Law. One thing is for sure: If there's a way to screw up the human race, you can count on us to do it.

*The Turing test was invented by Alan Turing in the 1950s and consists of a computer fooling a human into thinking it - the computer, that is - is a human. That it is alive, sentient, aware, awake. I myself often have trouble convincing my partner that I'm human, awake, and aware, so a computer that is able to do it is certainly impressive. See for Dr. Turing's paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence."

Additional Reading

For information on the actual theory of the Singularity, start with Vernor Vinge's piece on the subject (Vernor Vinge on the Singularity: For the science behind the theory read Ray Kurzweil's, "The Singularity is Near", (Penguin, 2005). To find out what the very real transhumanists
are up to visit To read Bill Joy's controversial Wired article questioning our unbridled development of technology, see Wired, April 2000, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us",

We, Robots

This article was taken from the afterword to "We, Robots" by Sue Lange, science fiction author. Sue teased us with the possibility of flying over from the US to join us for our Matrix or Metropolis event. This was not to be, but she did send us this article so, who knows, maybe we'll see her at a future Café of Ideas.

Biography of Sue Lange

Sue Lange has always had a love of art and science. Armed with a degree in chemistry and eight-years' experience running a rock band, she stands poised to reconcile these two supposedly opposing arms of humanity's highest achievement.

Always searching for connections between the left brain and the right, her fiction reflects the philosophy of one who sees little difference between physics and drama, calculus and symphony, biochemistry and soap opera, high art and crass commercialism. In her mind, all the world's a stage for string theory to play on.

Her stories have appeared in Challenging Destiny, Apex Science Fiction and Horror, and Astounding Tales. Her first novel, Tritcheon Hash, was published in 2003. She resides on a farm in Pennsylvania with her partner, Gary Celima, three cats, two horses, one unridable devil pony named Pogo, and a hundred Early Girl tomato plants. Visit her blog at LiveJournal: scusteister.

Created by Hubagent on 01 January 2011.

Last updated by Hubagent on 21 May 2011.

Posted in category: COI Articles

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