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Singularity and the New $600 Man

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Technology advances rapidly, exponentially even.  We rarely bother to ask where all this is headed.  We just know the next time we swap out our cell phone the new one will be better, stronger, faster (Six Million Dollar Man sound here) and generally it’ll cost the same or less than the one it replaces.

Ray Kurzweil has thought a lot about where we’re headed.  In “The Singularity is Near,” he calculates the upper limit for computational advancement.  With nano-technology we will be able to process information at the atomic and even subatomic level.  Individual molecules, not silicon chips, will be processors.  With these we should be able to create a device the size of a laptop that could “function at the equivalent brain power of five trillion trillion human civilizations.  Such a laptop could perform the equivalent of all human thought over the last ten thousand years (that is, ten billion human brains operating for ten thousand years) in one ten-thousandth of a nanosecond.”  Better, stronger, faster…and only a couple hundred dollars with trade in, when you qualify for an upgrade.

Technological evolution is an extension of biological evolution.  They merge in an event Kurzweil and others call the Singularity.  At that point, biological human intelligence alone will no longer be needed to, or indeed capable of, directing further advances.  Biology and technology will be united; man and machine become one.

Right now, it is biological intelligence, or rather the needs of the particular biological creatures we are, that have put us on this path.  Biological evolution is directed toward survival and we will survive beyond our wildest dreams.  We will ultimately become one with the universe, a universe we will be expanding out into, reorganizing it into bio-technological intelligence as we go.  The universe will be sort of like the internet, and we will all be uploaded into it.  The vast, unintelligently ordered void will flee before us in pursuit, reorganizing everything we touch into ourselves.  The final frontier will be our bitch.

Doubts remain.  For now, I mention one that seems vital.  Advances in technology lead to the acceleration of further technological advances; this is the meaning of exponential growth.  This law of accelerating returns must apply to more than just computer technology, the area in which exponential growth is probably most obvious.  Education is another area of such growth, according to Kurzweil: “Another implication of the law of accelerating returns is exponential growth in education and learning.”

But it turns out that what Kurzweil means by “exponential growth in education and learning,” is really exponential growth in “investment in K-12 education,” as well as “a hundredfold increase in the number of college students.”  For now, my biological intelligence still tells me there’s a difference between growth in education and learning on the one hand, and growth in spending on education and number of students enrolled in college, on the other.  Who knows, once we are all technologically enhanced this difference may disappear.  Education then might track perfectly with investment; fortunately the cost of technology also falls exponentially.  In the near future we will all be six million dollar men, but for more like $600…

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