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Exploring the Technological Singularity:
Seeking the Universal Drivers of
Accelerating Change


John Smart is a leading researcher in the nascent field of singularity studies, the study of models of exponentiating and asymptotic accelerating change, from both local and universal perspectives. He is also chairman of a nonprofit organization, Accelerating.org, the Foundation for Research in Accelerating Change (FRAC). FRAC is a Web community, conference host and reading group network that explores universal and local drivers of accelerating change, and connects lay and professional scholars with interest in these topics. A professional futurist, he is passionate about generating greater public awareness of historically important trends so our society may be better equipped to act wisely and proactively in what promises to be the most challenging and exciting chapter in human history. He is presently writing his first book, "Destiny of Species," which explores potential universal mechanisms and the apparent near-term trajectory of accelerating physical and computational change.

This extended interview, which features original questions edited for convenience, was conducted via e-mail between June 2001 and February 2002 and serves as a preview of Smart's book. It spans a broad range of ideas and resources that may be relevant to understanding the technological singularity, including the speculative paradigm of the developmental singularity that attempts to place the apparently inevitable technological singularity in a universal developmental context. A few academic references are cited, but most are accessible generalist works intended for an educated non-specialist audience.

Abstract - 1

Technological singularity, the condition of fully autonomous, human-equivalent machine intelligence, is coming soon, by many accounts circa 2040, whether we are ready for it or not. The transition will be a bottom-up process of evolutionary development within the newly emerging technological complex adaptive system, or universal computational substrate. Nevertheless, this process may seem to us to be largely a top-down, human-guided and human-aided activity. Significant machine intelligence will mostly be missing from the human environment for at least another three decades, but will suddenly explode into high-level, fully self-catalyzing capacity within a few short years. Most of humanity, even in technological environments, will probably not notice the emergence, as this intelligence will be deeply symbiotic with human ends and largely constrained to travel much farther down the presently understandable trajectories of greater intelligence (simulation capacity), immunity and ethical interdependence already incrementally displayed by today's technology-aided societies as they increase their own adaptive complexity. In other words, the technological singularity will represent only a partial cognitive singularity--only certain special elements of the subjective state and goals of intelligent machines will essentially be unknowable to biological minds. One dominant feature of post-singularity society will be the smoothness and rapidity with which remaining human problems are solved. Another will likely be free and reversible integration paths, allowing human intelligence to migrate, effectively unidirectionally after a brief period of bidirectionality, into the faster, more stable and far more flexible machine substrate. By all present indications, technological evolutionary development (cyberspace, nanotechnology and nanocomputation) promises to be a true superset of the biological experience. What happens to postbiological intelligence after this imminent transition is presently a matter of speculative debate, but I propose that all post-singularity systems are constrained to create, in a very short period of time thereafter (centuries? millennia?), a near-instantaneous computational system capable of outgrowing the physics of the universe that created it, and then rapidly transcending to a new multiversal domain.

logistic growth ("S" curves), exponential growth and Moore's law, simulations, matter-energy and space-time efficiency of computation, hyperbolic (asymptotic) growth, mathematical and physical singularities, evolutionary development, cellular automata, evolvable hardware, hardware encoding of environmental algorithms, autonomous technology and the multi-millionfold speed-up in technological vs. genetic learning, complexity and information, computational "substrates", free energy rate density (Phi), SETI and the transcension scenario, disposable soma theory, cosmological natural selection, the anthropic principle, the developmental singularity hypothesis, a law of locally asymptotic computation, the oversimplification of technological determinism, self-replicating systems, self-organization, nanoscience and nanocomputation, reconfigurable computation, the fluid and incomplete nature of self, co-evolution of technology and biology, scenarios for emergent AI, the "cognitive iceberg," information meta-laws and evolutionary ethics, uploading, the developmental spiral and subjective immortality, social insulation from accelerating technological change, the educational challenge of democracy, singularity studies efforts and conferences, an overview of the systems sciences.]

Abstract II from first question & answer of below mention interview:
An Interview with John Smart for KurzweilAI.net, 6.2002

Questions by Sander Olson, Jeff Thompson and Amara Angelica.

1. What does the word "singularity" and the phrase "technological singularity" mean to you? Do you think we can presently see somewhat beyond the coming singularity? If so, why call it a singularity? What's really being discussed here?

Futurists often discuss the singularity concept in vague and even contradictory ways. In brief, mathematical and physical singularities occur in any universal domain where physical law allows an "asymptotic" (tending toward infinity in a finite time) acceleration to a new environment, a place where a new and different set of general laws emerge. Interestingly, physical law allows this kind of runaway only occasionally. We know of a limited, but growing number of such domains, and it is worth comparing and contrasting them. All singularities appear to involve very special types of computation, if we broadly define computation as a specific kind of exploration of universal space and time by physical systems. Let's take a quick look at a few examples.

The accelerating process of black hole creation in collapsed stars is one famous place where singularities arise. We also see them in fluid dynamics, in the development of vortex tubes, breaking up symmetric flow and moving into turbulence. They arise in such situations as the pinching off of a droplet from a capillary column, perhaps analogous to the way our multiverse cosmologists suggest new universes may be budding off from our own. Phase changes, such as the acceleration of a rotating coin as it spins down onto a desk, offer another example. Finally, the continual faster-than-exponential acceleration of computing devices, as physical law allows them to re-encode themselves into continually smaller, faster and more resource-efficient forms, appears to be yet another. This latter example, with its capacity to create a human-surpassing intelligence in the near-term future, and the exponential economics that have resulted from accelerating computational complexity in recent decades, is the main concern of those who talk about the coming "technological singularity." But before we dig further into these fascinating topics, let's take a look at the more general concept of accelerating change. To organize our inquiry, at least three important strategic choices must be made.

First, we need to determine what dimensions of change we will study. Physical properties (beginning with, but not limited to, such easily conceptualized properties as matter, energy, space and time, or MEST), known and suspected physical law (including universal initial parameters and boundary conditions) and the computational and informational implications of physical change (including the emergence of new physical laws or other constraints, if we can discern them) will be the guiding perspective of our approach. Physical properties, laws and their computational-informational implications are unique in that they can be used as frameworks to analyze physical change, both qualitatively and quantitatively, at all known levels of observation.

Second, we must choose to analyze accelerating physical processes within some universal paradigm of change. Two very common paradigms that have historically been used to analyze change are strict Newtonian determinism and classical "random" evolutionary theory. In this book summary, I will propose the need for a third alternative, evolutionary development, one of several possible useful syntheses of these two opposing perspectives. The paradigm you use to analyze universal change will, of course, deeply influence the way you interpret what you see. For this reason, we should periodically attempt to use all reasonable paradigms to explain the data we observe; it is possible each has applicability only in particular domains.

Third, we must decide what disciplines of study will be most useful to understanding the processes of accelerating change. It is our contention that computation, as both a local and general universal process, is most useful when considered from a widely multidisciplinary systems theory perspective. As we look at a range of disciplines, we also should attempt to interrelate, if possible, all known processes that appear to have similar dynamics.  Fortunately, as mentioned above, there is a menagerie of singularities that we may profitably consider. All are models of a process of change that accelerates to some infinite or otherwise unrecognizable, irreversible point in which new global rules and dynamics emerge. Briefly, the following six general classes of singularities, while all apparently related, each have their own semi-independent literature. Comparing and contrasting this literature can be quite illuminating.

1. Mathematical singularities (the oldest singularity literature available) are systems of equations that lead, under certain conditions, to infinities, uncomputability or irreversible emergences (e.g., those hidden in the mathematics of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and uncovered by the impressive theoretical work of Karl Schwarzchild, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, Mikhail Zak's work with "terminal chaos" in differential equations, singularities in topology theory, etc). Only a small subset of possible mathematical singularities reflect known physical processes. To our knowledge, there have been no published attempts to explain the coming technological singularity in the language of mathematical singularities, though such work is clearly needed.

2. Physical (a.k.a., "dynamical") singularities include symmetry breaking, phase changes, self-organized criticality, catastrophe points, and other rapidly emergent and discontinous non-linear behavior in real physical systems, including the emergence of new physical law. Dynamically discontinous systems have been notably explored by Per Bak, Rene Thom, various complexity and non-linear systems theorists, and the ecological psychology academic community. The study of singularities in real non-linear dynamical systems (e.g., fluid dynamics) is both challenging and a real frontier of physical theory. The "discontinuity," or rupture, aspect of the physical singularity is an important component of the technological singularity proposal, as we will discuss.

3. Cosmological (a.k.a., "astrophysical" or "spacetime") singularities include black holes (primordial, quasar, stellar, supermassive, extreme), white holes, Big Bangs and (presently doubtful) Big Crunches, incrementally deduced in theory by John Michell, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, Robert Oppenheimer, Roy Kerr, Edwin Salpeter, Yakov Zel'dovich, John Wheeler, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking and, with regard to black holes, experimentally confirmed by our intrepid astronomical community. Cosmological singularities may be our best model for understanding the global attractors (endpoints, in this universe) of a variety of processes of universal development, including, in the developmental singularity idea, cosmic intelligence itself.

4. Computational (a.k.a., "cognitive", "simulational" or "informational") singularities assume the proposition of the universe-as-computing system, and a range of different semi-autonomous computing/ universe-simulating "substrates" operating within it, from atoms to autonomous intelligences, from molecules to minds. Our still-early ideas of the universe as a simulation system have been pioneered by such visionary thinkers as Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Ed Fredkin, Stephen Wolfram, many complexity and systems theorists, and speculative philosophers and physicists, such as Frank Tipler. Computational singularities occur when a mode of simulation/computation used by any discrete adaptive physical system undergoes an irreversible change, a type of phase transition to a new regime. Solitary insects simulate their external world in a particular way. Social insects (such as bees, ants or termites) add a whole new layer of simulation complexity. The shift in reference frame between these two simulation systems represents a computational singularity. Each operates in a relatively discrete computational domain and organisms in one domain (say, an ant or a chimpanzee) cannot understand certain simulations occurring in another’s domain once the latter's simulation system has become sufficiently quantitatively or qualitatively different. Also known as "cognitive" singularities, these play an important role in understanding the coming technological singularity.

5. Developmental (a.k.a., "reproductive" or "asymptotically accelerating") singularities assume continuous accelerating change as an inevitable process of new substrate creation in universal development, with elements or variations proposed by Carl Sagan, Eric Chaisson, Andrei Linde, Valeri Frolov, Alan Guth, Lee Smolin, Martin Rees, John Gribbin, Edward Harrison and myself. Like the computational singularity, this variant expands cosmology to include intelligence/information-processing/computation, but further proposes that the major features of computation (past, present and future), including its continuously accelerating and ever more matter-, energy-, space- and time-compressed ("MEST-compressed") new local substrates, are part of a statistically determined physical developmental process, prespecified in the special initial conditions of the "seed" (Big Bang) that created our universe. Developmental theory also includes the concept of self-organization (cyclic development, incrementally tuned for future-specific emergent order). This suggests that universal unfolding may be understood as a chain of mathematical, physical, cosmological and computational singularities, and the universe itself may be parsimoniously viewed as a complex, adaptive, developmental substrate unfolding within the multiverse. As a result, the developmental singularity hypothesis might be considered a universal "singularity of singularities," though it would still involve strong finite processes and, thus, by no means be an "ultimate" singularity. The asymptotically accelerating change component of the developmental singularity is another important aspect of the technological singularity idea.

6. Technological (a.k.a., "human competitive" or "effective machine consciousness") singularities represent the usual meaning of the term "singularity" when used generically by futurists. The technological singularity proposal is an amalgam of at least four discrete concepts:

1)      "singular" human-competitive AI emergence (AI "singularity")
2)      discontinuity (a property of physical-dynamical singularities)
3)      unknowability (a property of computational-cognitive singularities)
4)      instantaneity (via continuous acceleration, an aspect of developmental singularity)

Note that the first word of each of these concepts (singular, discontinous, unknowable, instantaneous) denotes a property of singularities in general. As we will discuss later, I believe the last three concepts are best understood within the framework of the physical-dynamical, computational-cognitive and developmental singularity literature and, where possible, should be addressed as such.

The word "singular" refers to the new, unique and one-time-only nature of the emergence of any singularity. This is a simple and an often-overlooked dimension of the singularity concept. Yet, given the pre-existing singularity literature, the one unique idea that the technological singularity proposes is its first one: that general technological change must soon capture and permanently exceed even the highest-level features of human biological intelligence and autonomy. In futurist and transhumanist literature, this has been called the AI "singularity" component of the technological singularity meme that focuses on the human-competitive aspect of intelligence development, now occurring in global technological systems.  The AI singularity idea proposes there will be one singular time on Earth when technological intelligence surpasses human biological intelligence as the dominant form of local computation. It will be difficult to know exactly when this competitive and permanent event will have occurred, so various measures have been proposed. A machine solution to a generalized Turing Test of "effective consciousness" (regardless of the actual inner subjective state of the system) is most commonly suggested as a useful indication of its arrival.

Note also that the technological singularity meme complex (idea set) does not require the imminent runaway of local intelligence must have some universal significance, but leaves that issue as an open question. Prominent explorers and advocates of the technological singularity idea have been John Von Neumann, I.J. Good, Hans Moravec, Vernor Vinge, Danny Hillis, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Damien Broderick, Ben Goertzel, myself and other transhumanists and, most eloquently to date, Ray Kurzweil in his book summary, "The Law of Accelerating Returns". Those who would like some historical context for these ideas might also enjoy A Brief Populist History of Intellectual Discussion of the (Technological) Singularity at our SingularityWatch.com Web site.

Singularities have been studied for over a century within the theoretical discipline of mathematics
, for mathematical singularities and within the applied disciplines of general relativity and mathematical physics for cosmological singularities. In the last three decades, these quantitative efforts have been expanded to non-linear science and theoretical computer science (for physical-dynamical and computational singularities).  Evolutionary psychology, ecological psychology and cognitive science are also promising new areas of exploration for cognitive singularities. The AI singularity can be explored within the many pastures of artificial intelligence, including, but not limited to, such disciplines as cognitive science, computer science, information theory and computational neurobiology.

Unfortunately, neither the full definition of the technological singularity nor the developmental singularity hypotheses are yet studied in formal academic programs. This intellectual oversight is a state of affairs that FRAC hopes will change in coming years. Nevertheless, there are specialist and generalist degree programs--future studies, science and technology studies, information studies, evolutionary and developmental biology, evolutionary and biologically inspired computation, and astrobiology--that would provide valuable preparation for such work.

About John SMART
E-mail: johnsmart@SingularityWatch.com

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