Humans have been able to change the world because we're smart. When machines outpace us, they'll change it all over again.
Part two in a GOOD miniseries on the singularity by Michael Anissimov and Roko Mijic. New posts every Monday from November 16 to January 23.
Last time, we took our first look at the concept of the technological singularity-a point in time when a genuinely smarter-than-human intelligence is developed-and saw that it is an old idea which has gained momentum and is more relevant today than ever before. Now we'll look at why smarter than human intelligence is worthy of more attention than other futuristic technologies such as spaceflight or cleaner energy technology which, on the surface, seem just as exciting.
Why are singularity researchers so concerned about the prospect of smarter-than-human intelligence? To answer this question, we must first unlearn something we all instinctively know: We must unlearn the idea that human intelligence is nothing special. In everyday life, our human intelligence-including our language ability, social intelligence, strategic thinking, planning ability, rationality, and scientific skill-is ubiquitous, so we take it for granted. But it is amazingly powerful compared to the level of intelligence that other higher animals have. There are no chimps that win Nobel Prizes in physics, no dogs that are CEOs of major corporations.
Once one realizes that the notion of human intelligence encompasses every useful skill that we perform with our brains, one begins to see that intelligence is the reason that human beings have taken control of much of the planet's land mass, constructed skyscrapers, developed economies, and invented nuclear weapons. The speed of the human takeover of earth was startling relative to the slow changes that came before it. In just a few tens of thousands of years, humans took control of a 4-billion-year-old biosphere. The effect of human intelligence on many other species living on this planet has been fatal: Human beings have caused the extinction of millions of other species, primarily because of the power that our intelligence brings. This historical perspective is key to understanding what the technological singularity is about. It isn't about shiny new gadgets or mundane, Jetsons-style futurism where humans live the same lifestyle as today but against a flashier background. It is about the next iteration of the most powerful force in the universe: intelligence. The correct metaphor for the singularity is not the image of a shiny, chrome-plated robot, it is the leap from wild animals to human societies, but this time with humans as the starting point.
In the 21st century, cognitive science or artificial intelligence researchers may find out how to construct an intelligence that surpasses ours in the same way human intelligence surpasses that of chimps. Given what happened the last time a new level of intelligence emerged (the rapid rise of humans 12,000 years ago), this is likely to be the most important event in the history of the human race. We should expect smarter-than-human intelligence to wield immense power-to be able to think through complex problems in a fraction of a second, to uniformly outclass humans in mathematics, physics, and computer science, and to build technological artifacts with superlative properties. Smarter-than-human intelligences will stand a good chance of solving the problem of how to make themselves even smarter, spiraling into ever greater heights of intelligence.
Genuinely smarter beings could solve many of the problems that humans currently find hard to deal with, such as involuntary death, disease and aging, global inequality and poverty, war and environmental degradation. If a smarter-than-human intelligence were put to the task of solving these human problems, it might not be able to solve all of them, but I bet that it could do a much better job than we are. We should expect that the result of a sequence of self-improving intelligences could probably cure all human diseases, harvest the entire energy output of the sun, and colonize the galaxy at a speed approaching the speed of light. If this kind of power seems unreasonable to you, then I agree-but reality is not limited by our very human sense of reasonableness.
Roko Mijic is a Cambridge University mathematics graduate, and has worked in ultra low-temperature engineering, pure mathematics, digital evolution and artificial intelligence. In his spare time he blogs about the future of the human race and the philosophical foundations of ethics and human values.