15 January 2011

Hardware, Interface

I am an enemy of the The Singularity.

Let me rephrase that slightly - I am an enemy of The Singularity as it is currently in vogue to imagine. I don't think that the singularity will be as dramatic, as life-changing, as flashy, or, most importantly, as soon as some people imagine. Kurzweil and those who look to him as a prophet of the future are looking too hard in the wrong place.

Computing is indeed expanding in power and decreasing in cost at a tremendous rate, along with the information that it has been made to handle. Problem is, these things expand at different rates: information is the elephant in the corner, and hardware the precocious child that everyone knows will succeed but no one quite knows how or when. Between the two of them lies the invisible aspect - the interface. In my view, this is where the singularity breaks down.

I believe that The Singularity occurs when hardware is indistinguishable from interface.

Computing power is needed to access information and to manipulate it; right now, the manipulation is being done by Google and Pixar and any number of high-powered computing/analysis firms). What Kurzweil's singularity does is move this computing power into our hands (actually, heads), along with both the tools to utilize it and be changed by it. Pretty heady stuff, actually, but I feel that it misses a critical juncture - how does it go smoothly from 'access Google from the refrigerator' to 'hey new drivers for my eye'? We've had keyboards for ages, mice for a long time, speech recognition is not quite there yet, and let's not even bother with video...and then look at the other aspect, delivery - just one path there, really, and that's screens. Small, large, flexible, they're still the same thing. This is not technology that is ready to be implanted into our bodies in 50 years.

Why, though, do we feel so close to the information? A keyboard is a keyboard, but we work around its limitations with fantastic ease, and screens are developing in ways and directions astounding and myriad. The thing that gets glossed over in talk of the imminent and inevitable Singularity is that our interfaces must change substantially for all of the things predicted to become true, and this is not going to happen any time soon. I think that it may end up happening later on, but only for certain values of X exceeding 100 years.

Notice, though, that I said 'things predicted.' I think that we need to look at the common car as an examplar - well, actually, not the car so much as our relationship with it. When driving, one more or less internalizes the car as part of the body. 'He hit me!' instead of 'He hit my car!', avoiding the feeling of barely controlling a massive chunk of metal, and jetting in and out of crazy traffic with many other peo - there I go again, internalizing. It is also completely physical, not at all any kind of wetware interface. Keyboards, multitouch interfaces, mice, all are physical in a similar way.

The extension of our selves that we feel when using these, when driving, that is what The Singularity ignores - we can almost achieve an end result of The Singularity already, sans wetware, sans ultra-powerful external computing. Until a paradigm shift - until something quantitatively massively different and better comes along, completely replacing what already exists, this key point will prevent The Singularity from occurring as some envision. It might not prevent another Singularity, one that is perhaps more subtle and less intrusive, but it probably won't lead to the Kurzweil Singularity or another kind of man/machine interface.

While I do believe all of this, here's the best part: there is always a chance of something from left field. Something may happen, or a development may occur, and suddenly we're sitting in the modified future in 50 years, reading this and laughing at my ignorance.

1 comment:

Adam Wykes said...

Hah, thanks for the opposing point of view.

When I got to ask William Gibson my one question at the book signing I went to in Chicago for his new novel, Zero History, I asked something along the lines of "is Zero History's title a reference to the sort of lacuna future generations will have regarding their understanding of the present time, such that they will feel like they have no history, and is this trend of yours toward setting your books further and further into the recent past a symptom of a prognosticating writer faced with the blinding wall of a singularity come nigh?"

Of course I asked it much less intelligently, but I asked it all he same, and once I had articulated myself painfully he made it clear that he thought the Singularity was hogwash; an idea to be rejected simply on the basis of its religiosity, if not the very real wall that silicon chips are coming up against in terms of raw processing power.

So you have a powerful friend on your side, but I have to say not even this can make me believe that a sea change is in the works for human history in the first century of this millenium.

For me, the singularity isn't as defined as Kurzweil's or the other common flavors - machine sentience or sudden material wealth for everyone courtesy of Santa Claus Machines. All three of these singularities are hard and require leaps that as you aptly intuit are beyond our grasp and will be for quite some time.

The nearing singularity that I imagine has more to do with the rate of change. You take a look at any number of statistics in the 20th century and you will see that it was a century of ramping up - in population, in computing power, in global GDP, in city populations, in genetic research, etc.

So long as the rate of change in most of these areas continues at an increasing rate, we will have a Change Singularity. That is, human society will be forced to adapt to rates of change so far beyond anything previously encountered even in the previous generation that few to no prior historical events will compare or offer a hint of how we should move forward.

The early part of the 2000s seem ripe for that kind of a Singularity:

1. World population is expected to climb exponentially until somewhere around 2050.

2. Computing power and genetic know-how are as of yet still increasing exponentially.

3. The problem of global warming will put extra pressure on the rising population as habitable lands become scarcer.

4. The internet looks set to keep increasing its audience at a faster pace worldwide than print, radio, or television ever did.

5. Global GDP looks set to keep rising.

6. The number of scientific papers published every year continues to increase exponentially.

7. Cell phones and other mobile devices are maintaining an exponential trend of penetration into markets worldwide.

If I were a Science Fiction author, I would look for my Singularity at the intersection of one or more of these skeins.