Reply to George Dvorsky: Singularity ‘lies’ and truths

io9 has an article by George Dvorsky about “​The Worst Lies You’ve Been Told About the Singularity.” The article has provoked interesting discussions. My comments below.

“You’ve probably heard of a concept known as the Technological Singularity — a nebulous event that’s supposed to happen in the not-too-distant future,” says George. “Much of the uncertainty surrounding this possibility, however, has led to wild speculation, confusion, and outright denial. Here are the worst myths you’ve been told about the Singularity.”

“The Singularity Is Not Going to Happen”

George says: “Oh, I wouldn’t bet against it,” and I agree. A problem is that the concept is not defined very clearly: ask two person interested in the Singularity just what it is, and you get different answers. See Anders Sandberg’s article in The Transhumanist Reader, titled “An Overview of Models of Technological Singularity.” I think something similar to one or another of these models is quite likely to happen in this century, and I think of “Singularity” as a useful generic, deliberately vague, loose term that can indicate any or all of these models.

“Artificial Superintelligence Will Be Conscious”

George says “Nope.” I totally disagree.

But I agree with George’s consideration in the following paragraph: “To be fair, there is the possibility that an ASI [Artificial Super Intelligence] could be designed to be conscious. It might even re-design itself to be self-aware. But should this happen, it would still represent a mind-space vastly different from anything we know of. A machine mind’s subjective experience would scarcely resemble that of our own.”

As for “Singularity,” we don’t have a precise definition of what “consciousness” is. Of course, we all know what our particular flavor of human consciousness feels like, and we are all able to see it in others. The consciousness of a non-biological ASI would probably have flavors and textures very different from our own. But denying it seems very provincial to me, and reminds me of those ancestors of ours who denied full humanity to blacks, or women. I think “some kind of” consciousness is a necessary attribute of any sufficiently general and complex intelligence. It may feel very different from ours, sure — but so what? We all remember that being a baby feels different from being an adult, yet babies become adults and nobody denies that adults are conscious: we just grow out of baby-consciousness and into adult-consciousness. With ASIs, we will grow out of human1.0 consciousness and into human2.0 consciousness. But adults can communicate with babies. If an ASI talks to me and communicates (some of) his thoughts to me, I will consider him as a conscious entity.

“Artificial Superintelligence Has to Be Friendly”

Here, I agree with George. It doesn’t.

“Accelerating Change is the Singularity”

Accelerating change is a process, one of the processes that can lead to a Singularity, whatever that is.

“Humans Will Merge With the Machines”

I am one of those who are persuaded that “we don’t need to worry about the Singularity because we’ll just tag along for the ride. By the time the Singularity arrives, goes the argument, we’ll be so closely integrated with our machines we’ll be one-in-the-same.”

George disagrees, because he thinks that “human cyborgization and/or uploading will happen at a much slower pace than advancements in AI.” I wouldn’t bet on that. On the contrary, I think these technologies will advance in synergistic steps, with advances in one stimulating advances in the others, and at a comparable pace. In particular, uploading (copying a human consciousness to a machine) may be one of the simplest ways to create the first generation of true AIs. In this case, yes, we will just tag along for the ride. Then, I believe the distinction between organic and machine intelligences will blur and fade away, until a point where it is impossible (and pointless) to tell which is which.

George says: “Sure, an ASI may decide to merge itself with as many humans as possible — but that has some rather dystopian connotations to it.” This seems to me, again, a very provincial, parochial point of view. There is nothing dystopian in children becoming adults. Sure, we abandon some of the modes of consciousness of children and grow into other modes of consciousness, not understandable by the children we were, but is that really a big deal? We all know that adults can have as much fun as children, and more.

“We Will Be As Gods”

George seems afraid of “how much intelligence a single mind can handle.” I say, let’s cross that bridge when we get there. Back to the example of babies, children, and adults, I remember crying in the night when I was 5 or so, because soon I wouldn’t be a child anymore (I remember thinking of that as not being me anymore). Perhaps you remember something like that too. Well, we have grown up, haven’t we, and we are still us. I think the next self-directed, post-biological phase of our evolution, will take us very, very far among the stars. As Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion (see chapter “Little Green Men”), “Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.” I can’t wait to grow out of childhood and join our god-like brothers among the stars.

“Things Won’t Change Too Radically After the Singularity”

Here, I agree with George. They will.