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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Is the Singularity Near?

Is the Singularity Near?
One of the hottest topics in futurology concerns the possibility of what is called a technological singularity. Those who imagine a singularity postulate that computers will keep getting faster and smarter, following the trajectory of Moore's Law (the rule that every two years there is a doubling of the number of transistors that can be packed on a circuit board). Before long, it is argued, we will be able to fit the computing power of a hundred human brains on a single desktop computer. Presumably this will lead to the emergence of computerized superintelligence. This emergence of superintelligence (in what is called an “intelligence explosion”) is referred to as the singularity.

The term singularity was popularized by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil predicted that this singularity would occur around the year 2045. His book contains quite a few logarithmic diagrams plotting the growth of computing power over the past twenty five years. Extending the trend line a few decades into the future, he estimates that within a few decades the total brainpower of all computers will match the total brainpower of all humans. Singularity enthusiasts postulate that soon this “intelligence explosion” will lead to computers that are far more intelligent than humans. Singularity enthusiasts also imagine there will before long be a merging between computers and men, allowing people to have their minds connected to computers or enhanced by computers.

If someone tries to cite possible limits to how small silicon chips can be miniaturized, advocates of a singularity will mention other promising technologies such as quantum computing and biological computing, which may well allow Moore's Law to continue for many decades, with computers basically getting twice as fast and powerful every two years.

However, there is a huge bottleneck that well may mean that such a singularity does not occur anywhere near as quickly as its advocates predict. The bottleneck is software. Large advances in computer intelligence require equal progress on two different fronts: the hardware front and the software front. To create a computer as intelligent as a human being, you would need not only hardware vastly better than anything available today, but also software thousands or millions of times better than anything available today.

Unfortunately the annual progress rate of software is much slower than the annual progress rate of software. Software development progress does not at all follow any rule of progress as dramatic as Moore's Law.

At what rate of progress is software improving from year to year? There is really no exact way to answer this question. Any answer is a subjective judgment call.

In his book Kurzweil estimates that software is improving at a rate of doubling in power every six years. But he provides no reasoning to back up this claim, and it seems that he just kind of picked the number out of a hat. As someone who has worked in software development over the past twenty years, I can say that from a development standpoint it doesn't seem like software is four times more powerful than it was twelve years ago. In 1997 programmers would develop programs mainly by using compilers with graphical user interfaces, the internet, object oriented languages, and class libraries. That's exactly how programmers develop software today.

But to be generous to singularity enthusiasts, let's suppose that figure is correct. If software doubles in power or excellence every six years, it will still mean a huge and growing gap between our future advancement in software and our future advancement in hardware.

To see how big this gap is, let's see what figures we get if we double
hardware power every two years, and double software power every six years.
This table uses a number of 1000 as an arbitrary starting point. 

What we find is that by the year 2043 computer hardware power has increased by a factor of 32,000 times, but computer software power has increased by only 32 times. The end result is that computer hardware ends up being 1000 times more powerful than computer software.

What does this mean in practical terms? It suggests that the technological singularity will not occur anywhere near as quickly as singularity enthusiasts imagine. We will not at all have anything like superintelligent machines (or even computers as smart as human beings) if they are using software that is only 32 times better than today's software. We probably won't have computers as smart as human beings until we have software that is many thousands of times better than today's software.

This gap between the fast rate of progress of hardware and the slow rate of progress of software is called the software gap. The software gap may mean that you won't see any singularity in your lifetime unless you are young. There are currently singularity enthusiasts in their fifties who imagine that they will be able to escape death by uploading their minds into computers or robots, after computers and robots become as intelligent as people. I have no such hope. I don't think the software will be ready before I die.

To see Paul Allen's argument about the singularity (similar to mine), use the link below: