The Singularity and the Selfie

“Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon.”
― Michio Kaku, Physics Of The Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny And Our Daily Lives By The Year 2100

Three or four decades ago NASA was home to one of the fastest and largest network of computers in the world. It’s amazing to think that all of that now fits inside your pocket. I’m sure if you asked most NASA engineers at the time what size a room full of computers would eventually be able to fit into a single future device, they wouldn’t have said something smaller and thinner than a human hand. But that’s Moore’s Law for you.

Now we have self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and near instant communication from anywhere around the world. Extrapolate these trends into the future at the exponential rate of progress we see today and it’s hard to imagine where things are headed.

When considering the rapid advancement of AI, some of the brightest and most well-respected scientists in the world believe that our technology may one day reach a major tipping point and become smarter than us on almost every level--perhaps even presenting a major threat. This future event is referred to by many as the Singularity, which Wikipedia describes below:

The technological singularity is a hypothetical event related to the advent of artificial general intelligence (also known as "strong AI"). Such a computer, computer network, or robot would theoretically be capable of recursive self-improvement (redesigning itself), or of designing and building computers or robots better than itself. Repetitions of this cycle would likely result in a runaway effect – an intelligence explosion – where smart machines design successive generations of increasingly powerful machines, creating intelligence far exceeding human intellectual capacity and control. Because the capabilities of such a superintelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence.

That all sounds nice, but there’s only one problem with the idea of machine superintelligence: the selfie.

Some think that the selfie actually guarantees our intelligence will be surpassed by machines as future generations become mindless zombies staring into their phone or taking endless pictures of themselves at work, home, school, or various sporting events.

But that misses the bigger picture. The selfie is a symbol of something that most tech-futurists seem to miss.

Not only do millions around the globe use their personal supercomputers for taking pictures of themselves (and others) but they also impart to it their deepest thoughts, memories, secrets, passions, choices, and beliefs...basically everything that makes us human.

Since a computer is only as good as its programming and the data fed into it ("garbage in, garbage out"), we must recognize that technology is not separate from us, racing away from human intelligence but rather a mirror, becoming better and better at capturing our digital collective portrait and reflecting it back to us.

The better technology gets, the more intelligent it becomes, and the more data we upload, the higher the resolution of that collective image.

But what of the Singularity then? Will there be such a thing and, if so, how should we think about it?

Let's answer this question with a brief thought experiment. Imagine if we took all your data, profile images, search results, social network, purchases—everything!—and created a digital selfie that looked like you, spoke like you, thought like you and, well, acted as closely to you as it possibly could.

As technology improves and the software program becomes more responsive to the data fed into it, your digital selfie will become more and more lifelike. Welcome to the world of big data and real-time interactive simulation.

Now imagine that we did the same thing for everyone in the world and compressed this information into one singular form or person. What would this composite image or digital incarnation of the world look like? How would it think and behave? Would it be intelligent? Would it be self-aware?

The answers to all these questions are quite obvious. It will look like the world. It will think like the world. It will be superintelligent from the world's point-of-view. It will be self-aware since it is aware of you.

I started this piece with a quote from Michio Kaku. Here is one more from that same book:

‎By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared. But our tools will not be magic wands and potions but the science of computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and most of all, the quantum theory.

I fully agree. As the selfie symbolizes the use of technology to worship our own self-image, the Singularity represents our final deification and worship of the collective self-image.

Follow me on twitter: @CrisSheridan

Related links and articles:
Rothbard on Hegel and the Man-God
The Global Economic ObservatoryBanking Big on the Singularity
The Crowd Mine
Big Data and the Doomsday Machine
A.I.: The New God of Economics, Banking, and Finance
Facing the Leviathan
Fearing the Machine: AI vs. Cybernetics

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