Thursday, May 17, 2007

Singularity Part 2

This is a follow up post to the one I made on Tuesday about Vernor Vinge's 1993 essay "The Coming Technological Singularity." In part one I lead with a quotation from the essay. Here it is again:
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
In part one I offered some thoughts on the first sentence of this quotation -- the time horizon for the development of superhuman intelligence. In this second part I will discuss the second sentence.

Vinge is wrong.

The human era has already ended.

And this points out an interesting fact about Singularities as a phenomenon. When you are in the midst of one, you can only see a little ahead and a little behind. So you don't really notice the gradual change underway. Only in hindsight can you look back and see that something fundamental changed at some point which made everything that came afterwards different.

Why do I say that the human era has already ended? Over the 40 years of my lifetime, humanity has developed a symbiotic relationship with computers -- a relationship which has now become a dependency. Over the 100 years before that we developed a dependency on industrialization and electricity, but this is fundamentally different. Imagine for a moment what would happen to our civilization if we were, for some reason, no longer able to use computers. Would the human race come to an end? No. Would hundreds of millions of people around the world perish? Almost certainly.

But leaving aside the obvious dependencies on computers for agriculture, transportation, safety and the like. And focus on one specific category of human endeavor, what economists like to call the "knowledge worker." The most productive category of our citizenry, the category that makes all of the advances in the rest of our society possible, is the knowledge worker. Scientist, engineer, designer, analyst, adviser... All of these people are dependent upon computers to do their jobs.

The next amazing medical breakthrough, the next computer chip, the next bridge or political campaign -- all of these things will be possible because a human being and a computer are working together. When you think about "superhuman intelligence" don't leave the human out of the equation. The very first superhuman intelligences are already here amongst us -- they are us, every time we use a computer to do something that, as a human, we couldn't have done on our own.

What is the most populous city on the planet? Mumbai, with over 13 million people. Am I so smart that I know this? No. Google told me about Wikipedia which has a page listing the most populous cities in the world.

Trying to understand Colony Collapse Disorder in which huge numbers of bees are dying? Scientists are using computerized DNA sequencing to uncover the reasons.

Designing a complex new product? You are probably using one of the many specialized Computer Aided Design software packages to make it possible.

Reading this post? Even if it is on paper, someone needed a computer to access it and print it out for you.

Our symbiotic relationship with computers has already made it possible for our generation to accomplish things that no previous human being could have done. We are already living in an age of "superhuman intelligence" -- one that will continue to accelerate as these computers continue to become more powerful and as they become more integrated into everything that we do.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The End of Flickr?

UPDATE: Stewart offers an apology and explanation and says it was a mistake...

On May 2nd, the Digg Community took control of Digg's editorial policy, ensuring that the encryption key for HD DVDs would be widely publicized.

Flickr may similarly remember May 15th as the day that their community rises up against an editorial policy decision which seems, to them, to be unfair.

On Monday, May 14th, respected photographer (and Zooomr CEO) Thomas Hawk published this post on his blog, relating the story of another Flickr photographer who alleged that her photographs were being ripped off. Along with this blog post, he posted this photo, which if you click on the link you will see is now missing, removed by Flickr staff.

So far, there are 8 other Technorati posts linking to Thomas Hawk's post.

And 18 comments on Flickr -- MOST FROM PRO USERS.

I predict that this is going to be an important moment for Flickr, which under Yahoo's watchful gaze has pretty much kept its independence since it was acquired a little over a year ago. But Yahoo (like Digg) would prefer not to be in the middle of a lawsuit. So they would rather remove content, on request, then get into the debate about who is right on the underlying issue. But what does it mean then to be the printing press for the citizenry?

That was the underlying test over at Digg, and Digg ended up giving in to the demands of the community. Yahoo is a bit bigger and more able to combat an angry audience. So will the audience rise up, as they did with Digg, and keep posting the photograph at the core of this conflict over and over again?

Half way to Vernor Vinge's Singularity

In 1993 Vernor Vinge wrote:
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
He didn't write this in a science fiction novel. This was not hyperbole. Vernor Vinge, a faculty member of the San Diego State University department of Mathematical Sciences is also a science fiction author. But his goal, in the non-fiction essay "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era," was to outline what he calls "The Singularity" -- defined as a course of events that would bring the human race to "...a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules."

We are now almost to the halfway point of his 30 year prediction. With 15 years behind us and 15 years to go, are we still enroute to the Singularity?

It is easy to think, living in the early 21st century, that human life goes on much as it has in the past. As Ray Kurzweil details in his book on this subject, The Singularity is Near, human beings are ill-equipped to evaluate the pace of change that they are experiencing. Our perceptions of the now are mired in our own personal memories of the past. We judge our surroundings according to the relatively limited knowledge that we each contain. Furthermore we have no historical or personal experience that prepares us to comprehend the speed of change which is now occurring.

Just the changes that have occurred in the short 41 years I have been alive are staggering. As Vinge points out in his essay, the core technical innovation necessary to bring about the Singularity is computational power. In 1966 nothing on the planet existed that we would think of as a computer. In 1993, when Vinge wrote his essay, there were only a handful of computers. Last week I walked into the co-location facility where a portion of Technorati's server farm lives -- the room (one room on one floor of an immense building) throbbed with power -- heat and light came from every rack. There was more computational power in that one room than has previously existed in the history of mankind... multiply that room by the dozens of such rooms in that one building and then the thousands of such buildings around the planet and the size and scope of the transformation begins to come into focus.

In reviewing his own essay, in a set of thoughts 10 years after his original prediction, Vinge writes (in 2003) of his prediction of sufficient technical progress to bring about the Singularity within 30 years:
Now in 2003, I still think this time range statement is reasonable.
The Intel website details the hypothesis proposed by Gordon Moore commonly known as Moore's Law:
In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore saw the future. His prediction, now popularly known as Moore's Law, states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. This observation about silicon integration, made a reality by Intel, the world's largest silicon supplier, has fueled the worldwide technology revolution.
Amazingly, Moore's 1965 vision has continued to hold true to this day. So following this graph out to the 2023 date in Vinge's Singularity prediction, we can expect that the 1 trillion transistors available in 2006 will double roughly 8 times to 128 trillion transistors. The computing power that will fit into that Technorati server room will be roughly 128 times more powerful than it is today in just 15 years.

In Ray Kurzweil's 2001 essay The Law of Accelerating Returns, he provides an analysis of the computational power necessary to represent a functioning brain of a variety of different species -- insects, mice, humans... and when that computational power is likely to be available (again according to Moore's law). The date by which he has proposed modeling a mouse brain is right about now. And is if on cue, just last month a team was about to run a "simulated mouse brain at 1/10 time." From the team's write-up:
We deployed the simulator on a 4096-processor BlueGene/L supercomputer with 256 MB per CPU. We were able to represent 8,000,000 neurons (80% excitatory) and 6,300 synapses per neuron in the 1 TB main memory of the system. Using a synthetic pattern of neuronal interconnections, at a 1 ms resolution and an average firing rate of 1 Hz, we were able to run 1s of model time in 10s of real time!
The scientific team working on this research noted that there were numerous problems that they encountered in trying to provide a realistic simulation of a mouse brain in this test. But the news bulletin for the rest of us is simple -- the supposedly radical suggestion that Vinge made way back in 1993 is now coming to pass. 15 years into his 30 year time horizon, the milestones are being achieved, on schedule.

What does this mean for all of us alive today who are still likely to be around in 15 years? Stay tuned for part 2 of this post...