by Lev Grossman
On Feb. 15, 1965, a diffident but self-possessed high school student named Raymond Kurzweil appeared as a guest on a game show called I’ve Got a Secret.
He was introduced by the host, Steve Allen, then he played a short musical composition on a piano. The idea was that Kurzweil was hiding an unusual fact and the panelists – they included a comedian and a former Miss America – had to guess what it was.
On the show (see the clip on YouTube), the beauty queen did a good job of grilling Kurzweil, but the comedian got the win: the music was composed by a computer. Kurzweil got $200.
Kurzweil then demonstrated the computer, which he built himself – a desk-size affair with loudly clacking relays, hooked up to a typewriter. The panelists were pretty blasé about it; they were more impressed by Kurzweil’s age than by anything he’d actually done.
They were ready to move on to Mrs. Chester Loney of Rough and Ready, Calif., whose secret was that she’d been President Lyndon Johnson’s first-grade teacher. But Kurzweil would spend much of the rest of his career working out what his demonstration meant.
Creating a work of art is one of those activities we reserve for humans and humans only. It’s an act of self-expression; you’re not supposed to be able to do it if you don’t have a self. To see creativity, the exclusive domain of humans, usurped by a computer built by a 17-year-old is to watch a line blur that cannot be unblurred, the line between organic intelligence and artificial intelligence.
That was Kurzweil’s real secret, and back in 1965 nobody guessed it. Maybe not even him, not yet. But now, 46 years later, Kurzweil believes that we’re approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity – our bodies, our minds, our civilization – will be completely and irreversibly transformed.
He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away.
Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster faster – that is, the rate at which they’re getting faster is increasing.
So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence.
All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness – not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.
If you can swallow that idea, and Kurzweil and a lot of other very smart people can, then all bets are off. From that point on, there’s no reason to think computers would stop getting more powerful. They would keep on developing until they were far more intelligent than we are. Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creators.
Imagine a computer scientist that was itself a super-intelligent computer. It would work incredibly quickly. It could draw on huge amounts of data effortlessly. It wouldn’t even take breaks to play Farmville. Probably.
It’s impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you’d be as smart as they would be.
But there are a lot of theories about it.
Maybe we’ll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities.
Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we’ll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011.
This transformation has a name: the Singularity.
The difficult thing to keep sight of when you’re talking about the Singularity is that even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn’t, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It’s not a fringe idea; it’s a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth.
There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.
People are spending a lot of money trying to understand it. The three-year-old Singularity University, which offers inter-disciplinary courses of study for graduate students and executives, is hosted by NASA. Google was a founding sponsor; its CEO and co-founder Larry Page spoke there last year. People are attracted to the Singularity for the shock value, like an intellectual freak show, but they stay because there’s more to it than they expected.
And of course, in the event that it turns out to be real, it will be the most important thing to happen to human beings since the invention of language. The Singularity isn’t a wholly new idea, just newish.
In 1965 the British mathematician I.J. Good described something he called an “intelligence explosion”:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever.
Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
The word singularity is borrowed from astrophysics:
it refers to a point in space-time – for example, inside a black hole – at which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply.
In the 1980s the science-fiction novelist Vernor Vinge attached it to Good’s intelligence-explosion scenario.
At a NASA symposium in 1993, Vinge announced that,
“within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
By that time Kurzweil was thinking about the Singularity too.
He’d been busy since his appearance on I’ve Got a Secret. He’d made several fortunes as an engineer and inventor; he founded and then sold his first software company while he was still at MIT. He went on to build the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind – Stevie Wonder was customer No. 1 – and made innovations in a range of technical fields, including music synthesizers and speech recognition.
He holds 39 patents and 19 honorary doctorates. In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology.
But Kurzweil was also pursuing a parallel career as a futurist: he has been publishing his thoughts about the future of human and machine-kind for 20 years, most recently in The Singularity Is Near, which was a best seller when it came out in 2005.
A documentary by the same name, starring Kurzweil, Tony Robbins and Alan Dershowitz, among others, was released in January. (Kurzweil is actually the subject of two current documentaries. The other one, less authorized but more informative, is called The Transcendent Man.)
Bill Gates has called him,
“the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”
In real life, the transcendent man is an unimposing figure who could pass for Woody Allen’s even nerdier younger brother.