Mark Boswell, Star Tribune

Approaching 'singularity'

  • Article by: Karen Youso
  • Star Tribune
  • February 21, 2009 - 9:17 AM
Consider the telephone. Since its invention in the 1800s, it went from crank-style to push-button to cell by the 1980s. Quickly it became smaller and smaller, smarter and smarter. Now phones take pictures, play music, send text and soon will wrap around your wrist like a bracelet. Or, consider the nanoparticle. The number of products on store shelves using nanotechnology -- manipulating atoms to create new materials -- in 1990 was near zero. In 2004, it was 212. Today, it's more than 800 and increasing by three or four a week.

See a pattern here? Things are moving faster and faster. It feels like you can't keep up. Remember the last months of 2008, and the dramatic series of events from presidential campaign, election, Wall Street collapse, wild stock market swings, the bailouts? It was enough to make your head spin. Indeed, society is changing at a pace that can seem like it's whirling out of control. And you haven't seen anything yet.

"We're in the midst of accelerating change, and changes in technology always bring changes in society, and vice versa," said John Moravec, director of the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development's Leapfrog Institutes.

Like a snowball rolling downhill, change is only going to get faster, and its effects larger, experts predict. There's a word for where it's headed -- and it's not "crash" at the bottom of the hill. It's headed straight for the "singularity." That's the watershed moment when accelerating technology becomes so advanced that it surpasses what the human brain can comprehend. And because it can improve its own programming, change happens instantly, almost without us being aware of it.

Futurists, scientists and an increasing number of corporate leaders believe the singularity will be here soon, by 2050, and that there will be a boatload of changes along the way. To understand the singularity, and why we're headed there, it's best to understand exponential growth. Computing technology, for example, has been doubling every two years, which is why, just when you get used to a new phone or computer, it's outdated and you have to upgrade.

Snowball starts rolling

Of course, everybody expects change and progress -- they just expect it to be the pace it is now. But it doesn't work that way, and hasn't since the advent of life on Earth, writes Ray Kurzweil, inventor and author of books on accelerating change. Exponential changes have always been happening, even 1,000 years ago, according to the MIT-trained scientist. But they were at that very early state, barely noticeable. The beginning of the snowball rolling downhill.

There have been some standout moments. Industrialization built cities, ending the nomad way of life, said Moravec. And the printing press put information into people's hands, which fueled the Reformation, created nations instead of kingdoms, spread literacy and science.

But now, the time between changes is getting shorter; progress is accelerating. The rate of change itself is growing exponentially, explains Kurzweil, so we now notice it. The snowball is well down the hill.

Like the printing press before it, the Internet has increased access to information, but on a much larger scale, said Moravec. We can expect similar upheaval in society and institutions, and faster, but Moravec says that the Internet is still evolving. "We don't yet know how far and deep the effects, but it will be transformative."

You can already see it in the young, those born in the 1990s, who have only known life with the Internet. They're "digital natives," according to futurist Glen Hiemstra. They approach all matters of everyday life differently, he says. Homework, visiting, dating, shopping -- it's all done online. The rest of us, the "digital immigrants," have to learn this new way of living; it's not second nature.

An irrelevant education?

The kids may know their way around the Internet, but experts warn that they aren't prepared for the future.

"We send kids to school, they move grade by grade, using the 18th-century model, and during that time, the whole world has changed so much. How relevant is that education?" asked Moravec. "We're training them for jobs that existed 20 years ago, not for those that'll exist when they finish school."

Who even knows what those jobs will be? The top 10 in-demand jobs for 2010 did not exist in 2004, according to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

With technical knowledge doubling every two years, half of what a student learns about technology as a freshman in college is out of date by the time he or she graduates from college. Some say technical knowledge will be doubling every 72 hours by 2010.

Survival, naturally, depends upon innovation, especially in times of economic uncertainty.

"The corporations that survive and go on to excel are going to be the ones that use this time to increase their use of technology and data gathering, and find new and innovative ways to use it," said Karl Fisch, a high school technology educator in Colorado and author of "Shift Happens," a video on educating for the future.

They are the ones who will be bringing us more and increasingly sophisticated robots; medical treatments delivered directly to cells, turning on and off as needed; instant information so you'll know who the person is who just waved to you across the street and why you know them, and, instead of screens, 3-D images that pop up midair to be talked to and controlled. Going shopping? Just manipulate a little image of yourself, an avatar, to virtually try on jeans -- you never leave the house.

Google, entrepreneurs and scientists aren't waiting around. This month they launched a graduate program, Singularity University at NASA's Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley, where the brightest will collaborate and innovate in accelerating science and technology to solve what they called "humanity's grandest challenges." NASA is on board because it gives the agency affordable access to technologies that advance their missions -- including the next step of settling the solar system. "The various people who sponsor this, that will make billions of dollars off these technologies, we can use those," said NASA Ames director S. Peter Worden.

Sound like science fiction? Not in a mature world of accelerating change.

"We aren't going to experience 100 years of progress this century," Kurzweil predicts. "Rather, we will witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress this century -- at today's rate, that is." Remember, the rate itself is accelerating.

After the singularity

Nobody can say for sure what happens after we reach the singularity. Kurzweil and others suspect that technology will meld with biology. They see enhanced humans with better bodies, better brains and, with luck, better imaginations to see what can be possible.

Whether the singularity will be good or bad depends on whom you ask. Some see it as a breakthrough event, the time we solve stubborn problems such as pollution, energy, climate change and hunger. Enhanced brains and bodies would lead to a better life for all, an almost nirvanalike state of peace and plenty for the planet. Others see danger: institutional control, no privacy, a new kind of pollution by nanoparticles, more deadly terrorist attacks, even the end of human life.

Like all progress, technological singularity -- if, indeed, we get there -- will have two sides, bringing benefits as well as risks.

"It's exciting, but also scary," Moravec said.

Progress always is -- no matter how fast it happens.

Karen Youso • 612-673-4407

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