Kurt Anderson has an interesting article at Vanity Fair that looks at the debate among technologists about the singularity: Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence | Vanity Fair.
Machines performing unimaginably complicated calculations unimaginably fast—that’s what computers have always done. Computers were called “electronic brains” from the beginning. But the great open question is whether a computer really will be able to do all that your brain can do, and more. Two decades from now, will artificial intelligence—A.I.—go from soft to hard, equaling and then quickly surpassing the human kind? And if the Singularity is near, will it bring about global techno-Nirvana or civilizational ruin?
The article discusses figures like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, who strongly believe the singularity is coming and are optimistic about it, and skeptics like Jaron Lanier and Mitch Kapor, who are skeptical of singularity claims.
Personally, I put myself somewhere in the middle. I’m skeptical that there’s going to be a hard takeoff singularity in the next 20-30 years, an event where technological progress runs away into a technological rapture of the nerds. But I do think many of the claims that singularitarians make may come true, eventually. But “eventually” might be centuries down the road.
My skepticism comes from two broad observations. The first is that I’m not completely convinced that Moore’s Law, the observation by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors on semiconductor chips doubles every two years, is going to continue indefinitely into the future.
No one knows exactly when we’ll hit the limits of semiconductor technology, but logic-gate sizes are getting closer to the size of atoms, often understood to be a fundamental limit. It’s an article of faith among staunch singularitarians that some new technology, like quantum or optic computing, will step in to continue the progress, but I can’t see any guarantee of that. Of course, there’s no guarantee that one of those new technologies won’t soar into even higher exponential progress, but beating our chests about it and proclaiming trust in its eventuality is more emotion than rationality.
The second observation is that the people making predictions of a technological singularity understand computing technology (although not all of them), but not neuroscience. In other words, they understand one side of the equation, but not the other. The other day I linked to a study which showed that predictions of hard AI since Turing had been consistently over optimistic, not necessarily on the technology, but on where the technology would have to be to function anywhere like an organic brain (human or not).
Now, that being said, I do think many of the skeptics are too skeptical. Many of them insist that we’ll never be able to build a machine that can match the human brain, that we’ll never understand it well enough to do so. I can’t see any real basis for that level of pessimism.
In my experience, when someone claims that X will be forever unknowable, what they’re really saying, explicitly or implicitly, is that we shouldn’t ever have that knowledge. I can’t disagree more with that kind of thinking. Maybe there will be areas of reality we’ll never be able to understand, but I certainly hope the people who a priori conclude that about those areas never get the ability to prevent others from trying.
There are a lot of other things singularitarians assert, such as the whole universe being converted into “computronium” or beings able to completely defy our current understanding of physics. I think these types of predictions are simply unhinged speculation. Sure, we can’t rule them out, but having any level of confidence in them strikes me as silly.
None of this is to say that there won’t be amazing progress with AI in the next few years. We’ll see computers able to do things that will surprise and delight us, and make many people nervous. In other words, the current trends will continue. I think we’ll eventually get there, and I’d love it if it happened in my lifetime, but I suspect it will be a much longer and harder slog than most of the singularity advocates imagine.