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See Inside January 2012

In the Year 9595

Why the singularity is not near, but hope springs eternal



Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

Watson is the IBM computer built by David Ferrucci and his team of 25 research scientists tasked with designing an artificial-intelligence (AI) system that can rival human champions at the game of Jeopardy. After beating the greatest Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in February 2011, the computer is now being employed in more practical tasks such as answering diagnostic medical questions.

I have a question: Does Watson know that it won Jeopardy? Did it think, “Oh, yeah! I beat the great Ken Jen!”? In other words, did Watson feel flushed with pride after its victory? This has been my standard response when someone asks me about the great human-versus-machine Jeopardy shoot-out; people always respond in the negative, understanding that such self-awareness is not yet the province of computers. So I put the line of inquiry to none other than Ferrucci at a recent conference. His answer surprised me: “Yes, Watson knows it won Jeopardy.” I was skeptical: How can that be, since such self-awareness is not yet possible in computers? “Because I told it that it won,” he replied with a wry smile.

Of course. You could even program Watson to vocalize a Howard Dean–like victory scream, but that is still a far cry from its feeling triumphant. That level of self-awareness in computers, and the time when it might be achieved, was a common theme at the Singularity Summit held in New York City on the weekend of October 15–16, 2011. There hundreds of singularitarians gathered to be apprised of our progress toward the date of 2045, set by visionary computer scientist Ray Kurzweil as being when computer intelligence will exceed that of all humanity by one billion times, humans will realize immortality, and technological change will be so rapid and profound that we will witness an intellectual event horizon beyond which, like its astronomical black hole namesake, life is not the same.

I was at once both inspired and skeptical. When asked my position on immortality, for example, I replied, “I’m for it!” But wishing for eternal life—and being offered unprovable ways of achieving it—has been a theme for billions of people throughout history. My baloney-detection alarm goes off whenever a soothsayer writes himself and his generation into the forecast, proclaiming that the Biggest Thing to Happen to Humanity Ever will occur in the prophet’s own lifetime. I abide by the Copernican principle that we are not special. For once, I would like to hear a futurist or religious diviner predict that “it” is going to happen in, say, the year 2525 or 7510. But where’s the hope in that? Herein lies the appeal of Kurzweil and his band of singularity hopefuls. No matter how distressing it may be when the bad news daily assaults our senses, our eyes should be on the prize just over the horizon. Be patient.

Patience is what we are going to need because, in my opinion, we are centuries away from AI matching human intelligence. As California Institute of Technology neuroscientist Christof Koch noted in narrating the wiring diagram of the entire nervous system of Caenorhabditis elegans, we are clueless in understanding how this simple roundworm “thinks,” much less in explicating (and reproducing in a computer) a human mind billions of times more complex. We don’t even know how our brain produces conscious thoughts or where the “self” is located (if it can be found anywhere at all), much less how to program a machine to do the same. Pop rock duo Zager and Evans were probably closer in their 1969 hit song In the Year 2525’s prediction that the biggest milestones would happen between the years 2525 and 9595, their exordium and terminus.

An irony: amid all this highfalutin braggadocio of how close we are to computers taking over the world and emulating human thought, I had to give my talk on the “social singularity” (progress in political, economic and social systems over the past 10,000 years) early because Rice University computer scientist James McLurkin could not get his small swarm of robots to work. Either someone’s wireless mic or the room’s wireless network was interfering with the tiny robots’ communications system, and no one could figure out how to solve the problem. My prediction for the Singularity: we are 10 years away ... and always will be.

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