A Review of "The Singularity"

A documentary film entitled The Singularity will be released tomorrow. It is the latest in a line of works from recent years to examine the near future of technology and its implications: a convergence of biotechnology, ever-increasing computing power, and molecular nanotechnology means that we will become capable of engineering ourselves to much the same degree as we presently choose to engineer our surroundings. Why would we stick with the flaky, error-prone, and short-lived evolved version of human biology when far better and more cost-effective replacements can be built?

Here is a short review:

Doug Wolens' latest documentary, released 1 November, captures the argument between the two sides. The Singularity takes the form of a series of intercut interviews, with animations illustrating various points (intentionally or not, they're a little reminiscent of how entries in the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were depicted in the classic BBC television adaptation).

Wolens' subjects include, unsurprisingly, people like Kurzweil himself, roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. But Wolens also interviews people not normally associated with the speculative edge of artificial intelligence and biomolecular engineering, such as Richard A. Clarke, the former chief counterterrorism advisor to the U.S. National Security Council, and the current U.S. secretary of defense, Leon Panetta.

While The Singularity doesn't cover a great deal of ground that's new to anyone already familiar with the concept, it does provide crisp snapshots of the current state of the debate and many of the main players.

The most vocal proponents of the technological singularity as a concept tend to focus on artificial intelligence and machine capabilities rather than advances in biotechnology. This is fair enough: the original definition is one of recursively self-enhancing artificial intelligence rather than any other technology. When biology does become involved, the picture that is often brought to the table is one of blurring the line between biology and machinery, between a living entity and its tools. We will merge with our machines - but again, the view there is very much focused on expanding the boundaries and capabilities of the human mind.

In past years, I've pointed out that the likely timescales here put reverse engineering the brain by brute force simulation as a contemporary to meaningful progress in the first true rejuvenation biotechnology - of the sort envisaged in the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Development of both will be underway in earnest in the late 2020s through the 2030s: the key to that timing is the minimum level of processing power needed for brain simulation on the one hand versus an optimistic hope for the future of SENS funding on the other. What this suggests is that we'll be a fair way down the road of working out how to repair aging and better maintain the biology we have long before we can enjoy any of the myriad potential economic and research benefits of strong artificial intelligence - such as the ability to create legions of cheap, tireless knowledge workers to order.

One can argue about whether the 2030s will see significant man-machine mergers, such as engineered protein machinery and nanorobot swarms in the body for medical applications, such as surrogate immune systems - though by now it is becoming clear that any future nanoscale robot stands a good chance of being an artificial cell, bacterium, or cell component rather than a tiny device made of precision-placed carbon atoms. Brain interfaces driven by similar nanomachinery don't seem likely to be out of the laboratory by then, however: understanding the structure and mechanisms of the brain sufficiently well at a low level to accomplish this task will be a research effort still in full swing two decades from now, and no doubt consuming many multiples of present levels of funding.

The past few paragraphs were a long-winded way of saying that work on the more machine-focused side of technologies envisaged for the technological singularity is not as important as straightforward biotechnology, or at least not to my eyes. First things first: building the first generation of therapies to repair and reverse the damage that causes aging needs to happen the old-fashioned way. No waiting around for strong AI and mind enhancements to make the research happen faster - that technology isn't going to arrive in time for us.


"that technology isn't going to arrive in time for us."


You just wrote that strong AI and SENS will both be "in earnest" in the 2020-2030s.

You then say that the limiting factor for strong AI is computing power. But we're about to reach brain-level computing power by 2029 (according to Kurzweil's calculations). That's the same time scale as SENS, not "long" after.

Also, you seem to hinge strong AI on "brain simulation." You don't have to simulate the whole brain to get strong AI or its benefits. You could just reverse engineer the cortex, or whatever-part-does-abstract-reasoning. Reverse engineer it, implement it in a computer, and then scale up the size, processing power, and memory of the computer. There's no need to simulate human memory, or the amygdala, or the hippocampus, or a 1000 other things.

Remember, also, that strong AI will be able to solve SENS and any other problem radically faster than us. So, even if you want SENS to happen, strong AI might be the fastest way to get there.

Lastly: Reason, why don't you ever answer my question about why you focus on exercise and CR, instead of social ties and conscientiousness? The book The Longevity Project shows that social ties and conscientiousness are very helpful to longevity - about as helpful as exercise and CR (both of which have, at best, very modest lifespan benefits). Are you just ignoring my question?

Posted by: Kip at October 31st, 2012 4:51 PM

@Kip: Development will be underway in earnest, not the result of development.

Posted by: Reason at October 31st, 2012 5:02 PM

That's true for both AI and SENS. You still haven't given a compelling reason to think that the "result" of AI will be much slower than SENS.

Nor have you answered my question about The Longevity Project.

Posted by: Kip at October 31st, 2012 7:35 PM


Are you still there?

This is about the fifth time that I've asked you about the Longevity Project. Do you just want to ignore those questions? If you plan on ignoring them forever, just let me know and I can stop asking!

Posted by: Kip at November 1st, 2012 4:33 PM

The military is a good sources of funding for nanotech and we need to convince people that it make sense and is a lot more cost effective to take money away from those people who want to kill and rule over other people. Why are we supporting a vast welfare system for these big high tech companies that employ smart, creative people to make bombs etc, that enable more rounds of endless destruction and war. Having lots of soldiers that do nothing productive, they do not manufacture electronic devices, build homes, make computer chips...those people who do are the productive ones we should respect. Military systems do not compute your taxes or make the latest computational science computer modelling breakthroughs, make the next generation nanobots. People may and do say that military science research leads to usefull consumer devices in 20 years, but china proves that making things to sell to you builds empires faster that killing your customer. It's more efficient to spent 1 million dollars developing and producing a new computer chip and computer to sell to people that it is to use 1 billion dollars to build an ICBM to kill people and then you have to spend another 10 billion keeping it functional in case you need it to kill people....and then what do you do (you haven't made any money selling somebody something, you haven't use the nuke to kill people...you have wasted your time and money doing nothing productive!). You could have taken advantage of the scientific and engineering manpower to use that supercomputer you designed the ICBM's delivery systems and the bombs with to model the next generation of smart nanobots to cure that cancer that will kill you 10 years from now, you could have used the same money and computer power to make a new generation of neural network chips to make the even next generation of nanobots to repair your aging cells and make you and even older people like you younger again, longevity, reversing aging, the goal of humans since time began...we are so close, yet we still spend 10,00's of billions of dollars building war machines when we could have cured aging, build cities of the future with nanotbots, using sunlight to power recycling nanobots (no more waste and pollution), everyone lives free of want and the mental disease of wanting to wage wars....or if your brain wants war, our faster than light tech will take you to the private plant WAR in the red neck nebula where you can fight out your macho fantasy with or with or without repair nanobots..your choice, just leave us adults alone okay?

Posted by: Gary at November 2nd, 2012 12:52 AM

Thomas Donaldson predicted that the bio-engineering version of nanotech such as artificial cells and cell components would be developed instead of purely nano-mechanical devices such as precision-place carbon atom devices. It looks like his prediction is becoming a reality.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at November 4th, 2012 9:59 AM

@ Gary,

Truth be told, there are members of the service that are looking into this and would be highly offended by your comment - so don't base your assumptions on everyone in the Armed Forces are hell-bent on destruction. That's not the case. Of course there's bad apples here and there, but some of us (myself included) are trying to promote SENS.

To digress just a tad, instead of bashing soldiers, check out the DoD labs that don't do anything productive - that's where the extreme waste is! It's not the soldiers dude, it's the people at these labs that sit on there ass all day and look at a clock while worrying about a pension and their paycheck. Eliminate those positions!

Anyway, may I suggest that you reach out to soldiers about SENS? Here's why - soldiers have a hard work ethic, and if you break it down to a mission statement, we will work hard to get it done.

In closing, Gary, maybe you should help out and encourage, along with me, uniformed members to look into SENS. I already helped out a fellow solider look into applying to grad school in this field - very fulfilling.

I'm not trying to go tit-for-tat with you, but wanted to give you another perspective. It's not the soliders' fault, and I will stick up for them as I am one. But there's other waste out there, trust me, that would leave you speechless. I am witness to it.


Posted by: VictorVictor5 at November 4th, 2012 12:17 PM

I think VV5 is generally correct about the military with regards to war. The military brass and soldiers themselves are generally reticent about committing to war. This is because, by virtue of being combat veterans, they know what war is about. It is the politicians, most of whom having never served in the military themselves, who are often eager to pursue war when non-conflict options are available.

The military and DARPA are very keen on developing biotechnologies such as stem-cell regeneration and the like that will allow for faster and more effective recovery from battlefield injuries.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at November 4th, 2012 5:41 PM

@ Abelard Lindsey,

Thanks for posting your comment. Very true about what you said about DARPA.

I'm all about SENS, etc. Hopefully to Gary, and again, no offense to anyone, he can reach out instead of criticizing us. Criticizing gets us no where, but action and education is what it's all about.

Here's a good line to describe SENS, straight from Gandhi, and I've felt this on my campus when trying to reach out for/on behalf SENS - "First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Posted by: VictorVictor5 at November 4th, 2012 6:13 PM

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