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The Singularity: when machines become smarter than humans

By Dick Pelletier

      

    What can we expect when machines surpass humans in intelligence, a point in time that futurists predict will happen by mid-2030s to mid-2040s? Though it's impossible to forecast this far in advance with 100% accuracy, by combining predicted technology breakthroughs with present-day knowledge, we can make plausible guesses about how tomorrow's super-intelligent machines might affect our lives.

    The concept for the Singularity goes something like this: As computers become faster with increased memory capabilities, they will eventually develop intelligence comparable to humans. These machines will not only defeat us in chess and quiz games like Jeopardy, but also will drive cars, write books, make decisions, and replace humans in customer service; and one day, they may even emulate consciousness.

    With today's manufacturers adding more speed and memory into computers each year, by 2030, these silicon creations could become efficient enough to manufacture their own new models, adding more intelligence into each generation and shortening the timeframe between generations.

    Our computer wonders could then keep on developing until they reach higher-than-human levels of intelligence, a phase predicted to happen between 2035 and 2045. This event will also speed other technology developments; in fact, the future could advance faster than our 2011 brains can understand. This defines the 'Singularity,' a point in time when technologies evolve faster than we can comprehend.

    Some worry that it may be impossible to predict the behavior of these future super-intelligent machines. Will they be dangerous and want to take over our world; or will they be eager to help solve problems that have forever plagued society, such as crime, violence, wars, and health issues.

    J. Storrs Hall, in his book Beyond AI, believes that as computer/robots advance, technologies will allow us to interface our brains with these creations and share their vast intelligence. In this way, Hall says, humans will always remain smarter than their machines, and will not need to fear them.

    Other forward thinkers predict that in the coming decades, we will merge with our silicon cousins. Celebrated entrepreneurial future watchers Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil envision a time when tomorrow's robots will become more and more human-like; and humans, by swapping much of their biology for non-biological 'immortal' parts, will develop stronger bodies, becoming more machine-like.

    This trend will enable society to view the merger of humans with their machines, as simply the next natural phase of evolution. However, naysayers wonder, "Are we ready to become Cyborgs?"

    This writer is amazed at how fast the future is advancing. Just thinking about how far technologies have progressed during my 80-year lifetime is overwhelming. Jet travel did not exist in 1930; a five-day ocean trip was the main way to go from America to Europe, and 'wireless' meant the wood-paneled Zenith radio in the living room. TV finally arrived in 1950, providing the magic of moving pictures in our homes.

    TV represented a new dimension in communications. For the first time, healthcare and medical products were presented to the public through programs and commercials. People became more health-conscious, which was an important factor in the rise of life expectancy from 55 in 1930 to nearly 80 today.

    In other advances, we've walked on the moon, created the Internet, mapped the genome, and outfitted half the world with net-connected wireless phones, which have empowered common citizens to overthrow unwelcome dictators, as is happening in some mid-eastern countries today.

    As we move closer to the Singularity, other breakthroughs will appear. Experts predict that over the next three decades, stem cells, genetic engineering, human-like robots, and nano-replicators that provide household essentials at little or no cost, will create a remarkable future.

    A positive post-Singularity world could include affordable healthcare that would provide most of the world's citizens with indefinite lifespans, and a strong global economy powerful enough to erase today's gap between the rich and poor.

    Could this sci-fi-like "magical future" happen in just 3 decades? Positive futurists believe that it can.

This article appeared in various print publications and on-line blogs. Comments always welcome.

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