Yup, that’s right, I’m cannibalizing my own work. Below is the afterword from my book, We, Robots, (Aqueduct Press, 2007) which is a work of fiction. It’s a story about the Singularity told from the point of view of the artificial intelligence. I included an afterword to explain the references to the Singularity sprinkled throughout the book. I thought it’d make a great blog post.
…But what Is the Singularity?
The scientists, the engineers, the people that know,
the people that observe, intuit, and surmise, even those
that pay no attention whatsoever, have all noticed that
lately, the rate of technological change has increased at
a phenomenal rate. Notice the use of the word “rate”
twice in that last sentence. The rate has increased at a
high rate. That’s rate squared.
One or two of us have noticed its increase is so
great, in fact, that we are about to hit a point of no
But what is that point of no return, that Singularity?
The Singularity is that exact instant when artificial
intelligence, AI, surpasses biological intelligence. When
computers become smarter than people. They already
are, you argue. True, sort of. They calculate faster, certainly,
but intuition—that trait of humanity alone—
seems to escape them. They can’t pass a Turing test.*
But one day our engineers will unravel the dark mystery
of intuition, and they will bestow it upon AI. They
will do this by mimicking the protocols, the processes,
the ways and means of the human brain. They will
discover how to define, describe, copy, digitize, the mind
of humanity. Our brains will become downloadable.
You see now what is meant by point of no return.
Once the human brain can be copied, it will be copied.
And uploaded. Onto what? Who knows. A new body
maybe, synthetic or mostly that way. Or maybe a data
bank in Cleveland. Or a wafer of space-age polymer
plastic, ready to be popped into an iPod device and
hologrammed into a virtual reality world where fake
smells and tastes are pumped in via tiny nanosphere
robots that will see to this post-human’s every need.
Regardless, the human mind, and perhaps the human
itself by whatever definition we use, will be able to live
forever. Point of no return.
So, we’ve got techno-geek groupies of Ray Kurzweil
who look forward to the Singularity with excitement.
They prepare themselves mentally and physically
for the great day of immortality. They happily plan to
become cyborgs, incorporating artificial organs and
molecular-sized robots into their tired and worn-out
bodies, creating a new them. They eschew learning by
experience. One day all knowledge will be uploaded.
These people prepare their current bodies as best they
can with today’s primitive technology, an artificial joint
here, a valve replacement there. They race against time,
extending their pathetic man-born-of-woman lives
just long enough to meet the Singularity. On that day,
people in the know, people who are on the leading edge
of scientific endeavor (and have enough credit) will be able
to purchase a new body, or replace parts easily available
from the local organist, and I’m not talking piano player here.
On the other hand, some human technocrats (the
naysayers among the futurists who follow the general
Bill Joy position to the extreme) are frightened by the
prospect of computers able to think and know better
than humans. They are scared of half-biological,
half-hardware beings that are super human. What will
such creatures do to the rest of us? The most of us.
The members of the middle class that find the idea of
weekly transfusions of smartblood to get to the second
coming a little off-putting. Not to mention the fact that
nobody’s health care plan covers experimental therapy
straight out of a science fiction story.
This group of fear-mongers insists that robots—
computers with legs—will have no use in the future
for the weaker race, Luddites who stupidly cling to the
old ways. Surely the future superior beings, robots with
their quicker reaction times, faster computation skills,
bigger, fatter memory and the power to access it at a
nanosecond’s notice (they don’t even need to scratch
their heads), will want to enslave the humans. Or worse,
euthanize us to put us out of our misery.
Then there are the few, the lonely, the crackpot
cranks who suspect that a funny thing could happen
on the way to the Singularity. Maybe the robots will
buck intuition. Maybe they’ll prefer to remain stonecold
sober. Maybe their software will become obsolete
the minute they get it out the door. Maybe the AVs and
Others will discover love and want to “remain.”
And here’s another thing: who’s to say the Singularity
hasn’t already occurred? We’re all so patched into
our TV sets, mp3-player headphones, hi-speed Internet,
and Bluetooth devices, we have no idea what’s
going on out there in reality anyway. We already are our
technology. In the end what’s the difference?
Call it fate. Call it Manifest Destiny. Call it Murphy’s
Law. One thing is for sure: If there’s a way to screw up
the human race, you can count on us to do it.
*The Turing test was invented by Alan Turing in the
1950s and consists of a computer fooling a human into
thinking it—the computer, that is—is a human. That
it is alive, sentient, aware, awake. I myself often have
trouble convincing my partner that I’m human, awake,
and aware, so a computer that is able to do it is certainly
impressive. See http://cogprints.org/499/00/turing.
html for Dr. Turing’s paper, “Computing Machinery
For information on the actual theory of the Singularity,
start with Vernor Vinge’s piece on the subject
(Vernor Vinge on the Singularity: http://mindstalk.
net/vinge/vinge-sing.html). For the science behind the
theory read Ray Kurzweil’s, “The Singularity is Near,”
(Penguin, 2005). To find out what the very real transhumanists
are up to visit http://www.transhumanism.
org. To read Bill Joy’s controversial Wired article questioning
our unbridled development of technology, see
Wired, April 2000, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,”