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Center For Inquiry Austin discussion on technological Singularity, 11/09/2011

P1110959 Mike Ignatowski (right) was the moderator of the discussion on technological Singularity at the CFI Austin monthly disc

10 people were at the discussion. Some have heard more about the concept of the Singularity, others less. Moderator Mike Ignatowski described two common Singularity scenarios. They are:

-- "hard takeoff": a computer develops human-level AI, and then within a few hours doubles, quadruples it, etc., and very soon becomes intelligent beyond our comprehension and takes over the world;

-- "soft takeoff" -- technological advance is gradual enough so any given human does not lose comprehension of what's happening; however, in a few hundreds of years the society and technology nonetheless changes so much that it's incomprehensible to a modern-day human.

We examined some of those scenarios and objections to them.

Uploading a human mind into computer, simulating a human mind on a computer. This did not seem likely to some of us, as it is almost unimaginable that a computer could simulate physical sensations (pain, pleasure, color) or emotions. Yet this neural activity, more than intellect, is what makes up the majority of any human's inner experience. How would you this encode something as subjective as that in a program? However, Patrick argued that it should be possible, at least in theory, simulate every neural interaction in one's body or brain. So we might not need to know the "code" that produces a sensation of seeing green -- it's enough if we replicate all of a person's neuron firings in code over time, and sensation of color green will emerge from all that, as will other sensations and emotions.

All this may not even be important to the question of whether Singularity will arise. Some Singularity thinkers say the problem of brain uploading is just a distraction. Intelligence is a collection of capabilities. A computer can be intelligent without having human emotions or physical sensations. (I, too, don't think that lack of those would keep it from taking over the world. -- E.)

But won't we be able to shut it down? Even if physically we might be able to, it may not be realistic. The AI may be running a critical part of the economy; we would not even understand just how many critical everyday functions may be under its control. Shutting it down may be back-to-the-stone-age catastrophic.

Mike Ignatowski (right) and other people

Mike Ignatowski (right) and other participants in the Singularity discussion. See more pictures from Center For Inquiry Austin events in my photo gallery.

Is AI in itself a distraction? Maybe the whole assumption that Artificial Intelligence is necessary for Singularity is a distraction, says Mike. Just the developments in computer and biotechnology, such as mental performance-enhancing drugs and neural implants, will change society unrecognizeably in 200-300 years. In that case we are already living in a slowly-unfolding Singularity, a slow takeoff. Humans tend to overestimate the rate of change in the near term (expecting flying cars, jetpacks, etc. by now), but drastically underestimate the rate of change in the far term. Witness huge, slow computers in the old science fiction movies and TV shows.

Economical Singularity. One aspect of technological Singularity is economical Singularity. The economic output of human race has been doubling every 15 years after the Industrial Revolution, said Mike. There will soon be a time when we'll double the world's economic output every month. Even at a slower rate, if it doubled only every year, there would still be a profound problem. The only way this doubling could happen is if robots did most of the production. But if so, will there be enough work for people to do in this situation? With robots doing most of the work, there won't be much need for human labor. Mike asked, do we think there will come a time when most people, despite their intelligence and skills, will no longer find jobs. There was a round of nods around the table, and several people said we already have that situation.

Job-based society not viable? We should move away from job-based society, Patrick suggested. We can already feed everyone in the world, so there is no reason those people couldn't just live without working. They could all be artists then. But capitalism is inefficient like that: it does not let us replace job-based making a living with something else. (Myself, I would add that such a system would need to not just feed everyone, but also provide shelter and healthcare to everyone; healthcare may be the hardest part, because it's a highly-skilled and highly-paid service. We may have to wait for robonurses and robodoctors to resolve scarcity of healthcare. -- E.) Even so, the end of material scarcity may be temporary until we have mined out all the rare elements in solar system to make consumer gadgets. Patrick referred to it as "peak solar system".

Another question is, what would be the currency in post-scarcity economy? What would markets trade? Maybe such intangibles as reputation or attention? When we are all artists, who's going to look at all that art? Attention becomes a scarce commodity (with social media, it already is).