Sunday, October 16, 2011

Singularity on a Plane

I had a delightful conversation on a plane (new for me) with a gentleman who was reading about Gettysburg. I was advocating futurism, he was celebrating history, but somehow, we both agreed with Ray Kurzweil. Things change at an ever increasing rate- what will happen when this rate is really, really fast?

Kurzweil's ideas are controversial, and I rarely share my enthusiasm for fear that I'll be labelled a freak. It took a conversation about the Civil War to build my confidence to defend Kurzweil here.

Kurzweil's main point is so simple, and yet so devastatingly undeniable, that even this older Gettysburg enthusiast supported it:

1. Things change. (Undeniable)
2. The pace of change itself is quickening (The Law of Accelerating Returns).
3. Will this continue to quicken? (History shows no significant slow-downs.)
4. What will happen when things change so fast that it's hard to keep up? (Kurzweil's guesses are fun.)
5. When will the pace of change reach this rate? (Read The Singularity is Near for more fun guesses.)

To dismiss these points as unimportant is cavalier. To dismiss those, like Kurzweil, who actively engage these questions and pose answers based on a solid look at evidence is not fair.

Why do I still feel nervous endorsing Kurzweil in public?


Steve-MDJourney said...

Hey Aaron, what do you think about this article?

This quote stood out to me: "Kurzweil's reasoning rests on the Law of Accelerating Returns and its siblings, but these are not physical laws. They are assertions about how past rates of scientific and technical progress can predict the future rate. Therefore, like other attempts to forecast the future from the past, these "laws" will work until they don't. More problematically for the singularity, these kinds of extrapolations derive much of their overall exponential shape from supposing that there will be a constant supply of increasingly more powerful computing capabilities."

astupple said...

Dr. Journey (presuming....),

Yes, this article caught my attention- thanks for sharing it here.

First, I admire Allen's and Greaves's tone for not being snide. Yes, the arrival in 2045 is bold, and I don't fault anyone for doubting it. However, the changes Kurzweil is supposing are SO fantastic, that even if there's a 1% chance of this happening, it's still worth considering. Likewise, it's worth it if he's off by 100 years.

Second- your quote, yes, calling them laws is a semantic issue, but so is calling any law semantic. Nothing is irrefutable, and I'm sure Kurzweil wouldn't claim that accelerating returns is irrefutable either. And yes, this is a great and valid critique. However, it only gives reason to doubt, it doesn't indicate that Kurzweil is wrong. They work until they don't, but just because they might fail doesn't mean they WILL fail.

Finally, I think this quote sums up where Allen and Greaves really get it wrong, in my humble opinion:

"if the singularity is to arrive by 2045, it will take unforeseeable and fundamentally unpredictable breakthroughs."

This is PRECISELY what Kurzweil is talking about- the link I provided celebrates reams of breakthroughs. He tracks the RATES of breakthroughs, and indicates that it's info technology that provides the backbone. He takes stabs at the kinds of breakthroughs, but his main claim is that unforeseeable breakthroughs will tumble forth.

Thanks so much for commenting, and forgive me for mangling your name.


ps- Paul Allen is way, WAY smarter than me. Yet, I have to pick a horse. Kurzweil's seems a long-shot, but the potential payoff is staggering.

Steve-MDJourney said...

Thanks for the response- not a doctor yet, MD Journey is just my blog name!

As an optimist I appreciate your comments. Even if the singularity will not occur in the foreseeable future, it is worth hoping for.

Secondly I think your logic is sound in response to Allen and Greave's comments. I may have to read Kurzweil's book.

astupple said...

Wow, great to hear. I'm interested to hear what you think of it, it's quite the book.

astupple said...

Steve, Kurzweil recently addressed the Allen article.