ScienceBlogs’ Razib is back from the Singularity Summit, with summaries of a good portion of the proceedings and some interesting links. Relatively recently I’ve written about why the Singularity very well may not happen (at least not the wilder version) – roughly, the growth curve of technology may be logistic rather than exponential thanks to the limiting effect of physical laws.
Probably the most passionate proponent of the Singularity is Ray Kurtzweil, and according to a piece Razib links, he disagrees. (The piece itself is somewhat old, but apparently he presented an updated version at the conference.) I find his disagreement profoundly unconvincing, but interesting enough to comment upon. Let me quote the first few sentences before getting to the meat, much later in the essay:
An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.
Yeesh. That surely made the mathematically inclined readers wince. Of course there’s exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. That’s the definition of exponential. The growth of the growth of the growth of the growth [repeat as desired] will be exponential too, for as far as you want to carry it. That’s just the way any exponential function works. Moving on, and skipping way down to the relevant bit:
Why Intelligence is More Powerful than Physics
As intelligence saturates the matter and energy available to it, it turns dumb matter into smart matter. Although smart matter still nominally follows the laws of physics, it is so exquisitely intelligent that it can harness the most subtle aspects of the laws to manipulate matter and energy to its will. So it would at least appear that intelligence is more powerful than physics.
Counterexample: the most powerful intelligence in the world, human or computer or (for that matter) God himself, cannot beat me in Tic-Tac-Toe without cheating. The rules simply don’t allow any room for increased intelligence to result in increased performance. Perfect play requires only childlike intelligence plus a few games worth of experience. The laws of the universe are not fully known and in any case are much more complicated. But we have no reason to believe they can be bent at will by sufficient smarts. If our current knowledge is correct, plenty of things will remain impossible – breaking lightspeed, breaking the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, violating the conservation laws, and so forth. It might not be correct, but it seems a stretch to assume that the rules cease to apply when a genius examines them.
Perhaps what I should say is that intelligence is more powerful than cosmology. That is, once matter evolves into smart matter (matter fully saturated with intelligence), it can manipulate matter and energy to do whatever it wants. This perspective has not been considered in discussions of future cosmology. It is assumed that intelligence is irrelevant to events and processes on a cosmological scale. Stars are born and die; galaxies go through their cycles of creation and destruction. The Universe itself was born in a big bang and will end with a crunch or a whimper, we’re not yet sure which. But intelligence has little to do with it. Intelligence is just a bit of froth, an ebullition of little creatures darting in and out of inexorable universal forces. The mindless mechanism of the Universe is winding up or down to a distant future, and there’s nothing intelligence can do about it.
That’s the common wisdom, but I don’t agree with it. Intelligence will be more powerful than these impersonal forces. Once a planet yields a technology creating species and that species creates computation (as has happened here on Earth), it is only a matter of a few centuries before its intelligence saturates the matter and energy in its vicinity, and it begins to expand outward at the speed of light or greater. It will then overcome gravity (through exquisite and vast technology) and other cosmological forces (or, to be fully accurate, will maneuver and control these forces) and create the Universe it wants. This is the goal of the Singularity.
At this point one must genuflect in the direction of the greatest science fiction short story every written, but I’m pretty sure it will remain fiction. Why in the world should gravity be able to be overcome, any more than the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe? There’s much we don’t understand about gravity on the cosmic and microscopic scales, but there’s a whole bunch we do understand. It points in the direction of mathematical impossibility to simply overcome it at will.
I am optimistic about the future of technology, and I’m sure it will change the world in many profound and interesting ways. Science and technology have a lot of room left to grow. But I’m pretty sure it’s not infinite. If the effort to rule the laws of the entire cosmos were traded on Wall Street, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be investing.