Re: Anti-singularity spam.

From: Richard Loosemore (
Date: Fri Apr 28 2006 - 08:54:07 MDT


Thanks for the thoughtful response.

On some of your points I agree with (too much hype about stuff that
turns out to be vapornology), but there is a core point that I think you
are missing, that seems to undermine your main thesis.

All previous technologies provided us with something that did not
substantially change the nature of the discovery process itself. A
better steam shovel could never cause any individual creative genius to
suddenly acquire the ability to invent things at ten, a hundred, or a
thousand times the rate that she was inventing things before the steam
shovel came along.

Now, someone might say that this is what PCs and the internet are so
good at: they amplify our intelligence in such a way that a given
inventor really could become brighter, more productive, etc. ...... but
actually I would still be on your side and argue against such a claim,
because I think the enhancement (or amplification) is fairly marginal.

BUT, now imagine that I succeed in building the combination of hardware
and software that I call a "Discovery Engine": a machine that is smart
enough to understand the world by itself and invent new technology and
make new discoveries (call it an "AI" if you like: I like to make a
distinction here, but that is not too important to the present point).

If that discovery engine were to be built tomorrow, it would be "used"
to build faster versions of itself, and those would be used to build
faster versions of themselves, and so on in the familiar pattern that is
the core thesis of the Singularity idea. Within a short time, we would
have systems that produced new inventions at a rate that would be
thousands or millions of times faster than unaided human minds can achieve.

A thousand times speedup would involve things like: Einstein wakes up
one morning with no knowledge of physics, then he does some reading and
thinking, and by breakfast the next morning he has invented special and
general relativity. Or, a million discovery engines start working
together on the problem of nanotechnology, and a year later they deliver
a complete system for re-engineering the human body to make it immune to
disease and effectively immortal.

Now *that* is not business as usual. For the first time, the technology
changes the generator of new technology. Never happened before. Not
just more of the same, but a whole new ball game.

That is what the Singularity is all about, and why it makes no sense to
say that new technology is not such a big deal.

Richard Loosemore

Bob Seidensticker wrote:
> Sorry for coming into this discussion late in the game. I'm the author
> of the book Future Hype that got this started. I've read your posts
> with interest. I'd like to add a few comments.
> First, one small issue. While I appreciate Robin's forwarding my
> original email, of course, I don't think it was actually spam. Robin,
> you and I exchanged emails about five years ago on a Lojban vocabulary
> training program that I'd written. Still, it's understandable that
> you've forgotten.
> As for the comments that have gone back and forth, I have gotten a bit
> of this in other circles. That is, some people say, "This is
> *completely* off base!" while others say "But it does present some valid
> concerns."
> A couple of postings suggest that my comments (sound bites?) are too
> extreme. Touche! There are some places (more on the web site than in
> the book) where I succumb to marketing needs/desires and use too much
> marketing hyperbole. That's a bit embarassing in front of, not a
> consumer audience, but a technically-aware one.
> I'm clearly going to be at odds with anyone who takes an extreme
> the-Singularity-is-near position. Given that inherent challenge, let me
> elaborate on where I'm coming from.
> On the topic of "the Internet and PC are not that big a deal." Sure,
> the Internet and PC unprecedented -- but that's true for every other
> major technology that's come before. We've never had the kind of
> communications ability that the Internet gives us. But we never before
> had the kind of transportation ability that the jet airplane gave us
> (1950s), or, before that, the railroad (1850s). The skyscraper and
> other big civil engineering projects had their heyday in the early
> 1900s. The transition from information as cargo to information as data
> came with the telegraph -- *that* was a big deal. And keep in mind that
> it wasn't the Internet that brought information to the masses, it was
> the fast steam printing presses of the early 1800s. (Micah Glasser's
> 4/13 post had an excellent list of prior art that puts the Internet and
> PC in perspective.)
> Exponential curves were mentioned. On this topic, let's talk about
> Moore's Law. Truly amazing. And yet, the increases at the low level
> have a hard time percolating up to the user level. A PC that's twice as
> fast as the one you have now won't make you twice as productive (unless
> you have an unusual application that's compute-bound). A PC that's a
> *hundred* times faster won't even make you twice as productive. And yet
> look at something as mundane as a dump truck. You double the primary
> specification, its capacity, and you double the productivity of the
> operator. Construction equipment, farming equipment, factory machines
> -- they all work this way. If only the PC did the same ...
> One other pitfall we need to avoid is when we compare today's technology
> marvels vs. those of some previous period. With all the hype we see in
> the press and from tech companies, it's easy to put into the "Today's
> Technology" bin not only things like PCs and the Internet, which are
> indeed causing much change today, but also all the stuff on the cover of
> Popular Science -- that is, things that are still in the lab. These
> would be technologies like nanotech, biotech, electronic paper, the
> hydrogen economy, and so on. It's not a fair comparison if we pad
> today's technology with stuff that *might* make it. (I don't need to
> tell you of the long list of promised technology that didn't materialize
> as promised -- videophone, fusion power, moon bases, AI, home robots,
> personal flying vehicles, and so on. Sorry to have to break it to you,
> but all those cool technologies in the lab are *not* inevitable.)
> I don't think this is going to have you and me holding hands and singing
> Kumbaya, but hopefully you have a bit more information of what I'm saying.
> Bob

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