A few of the articles:
Computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (and who's 1993 article "The Coming Technological Singularity", that introduced the term) introduces the special report and looks at Signs of the Singularity. Not surprisingly he sees the signs are there.
Spectrum editor Glenn Zorpette has his own, less glowing, intro, "Waiting for the Rapture."
The leading spokesman for the life-everlasting version of the singularity is the entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who’s also behind the movie The Singularity Is Near and a recent book of the same title. Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.University of Sheffield polymer physicist Richard A.L. Jones looks at "Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture: Biological nanobots could repair and improve the human body, but they'll be more bio than bot." The article points out that the science of molecular nanotechnology is still in its infancy.
It's not that the singularity vision is completely unrecognizable in today's work. It's just that the gulf between the two is a bit like the gap between traveling by horse and buggy and by interplanetary transport. The birth of nanotechnology is popularly taken to be 1989, when IBM Fellow Don Eigler used a scanning tunneling microscope to create the company's logo out of xenon atoms. [. . .] However, it is a very long way indeed from a top-notch tennis racket to smart nanoscale robots capable of swarming in our bodies like infinitesimal guardian angels, recognizing and fixing damaged cells or DNA, and detecting, chasing, and destroying harmful viruses and bacteria. But the transhumanists underestimate the magnitude of that leap. They look beyond the manipulation of an atom or molecule with a scanning tunneling microscope and see swarms of manipulators that are themselves nanoscale. Under software control, these “nanofactories” would be able to arrange atoms in any pattern consistent with the laws of physics.CalTech professor of biology and engineering Christof Koch and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Guilio Tononi ask Can machines be conscious?
They makes an interesting point: while consciousness requires brain activity, it doesn't actually require any input from or interaction with the environment. It doesn't require emotions, or attention, or memory, or language - all the things that seem to make us human. Instead consciousness has to do with integration of information, and that gives scientists a place to start for the development of conscious machines. They argue that trying to replicate the human brain is unlikely to happen "in the foreseeable future". Instead they suggest that it might work better to start with a simple "brain" and let it learn and evolve in the hopes it will develop consciousness on its own. In a related sidebar Koch asks "Do you need a Quantum Computer to Achieve Machine Consciousness? " The short answer: no.
Data from clinical studies and from basic research laboratories, made possible by the use of sophisticated instruments that detect and record neuronal activity, have given us a complex if still rudimentary understanding of the myriad processes that give rise to consciousness. We are still a very long way from being able to use this knowledge to build a conscious machine. Yet we can already take the first step in that long journey: we can list some aspects of consciousness that are not strictly necessary for building such an artifact.
IEEE Spectrum writer Sally Adee looks at "Reverse Engineering the Brain." Her focus is the work being done to map the fruit fly brain at Janelia Farm "a kind of Bell Labs for neuro-biology." Director Gerry Rubin points out that the basic wiring of the human brain should follow the same rules, so understanding the fruit fly's mind is a way of understanding our own. But that doesn't mean it's a simple task:
In Rubin's mind, solving the fruit-fly brain is a 20-year problem. “After we solve this, I'd say we're one-fifth of the way to understanding the human mind.”In "Tech Luminaries Address Singularity" the Spectrum asked scientists and technologists their opinion on whether the singularity and/or machine conscious will occur. The interviewees include Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University who studies computer modeling of mental processes, Jeff Hawkins of Numenta (and Palm Computing), John Casti - computer modeler of "complex human systems" like the stock market, writer and cofounder of the futurist Kenos Circle, TJ Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, software entrepreneur Eric Hahn, Microsoft's Gordon Bell, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Gorden Moore of Intel, Jim Fruchterman of Benetech Initiative, and "commentator and evangelist for emerging technologies" Esther Dyson. Interestingly, only Casti, Hahn, and Fruchterman think the singularity will occur within 70 years. Maybe they should talk to the biologists.
Other articles in the report:
- Who's Who in the Singularity
- A Bit of Theory: Consciousness as Integrated Information
- Ray Kurzweil and Neil Gershenfeld: Two Paths to the Singularity
- Economics of the Singularity
Tags:singularity, transhumanism, biology, neuroscience