This weekend in New York City, the Singularity Institute organised the 2011 Singularity Summit, an international gathering of scientist and futurologists.
When scientists and futurologists get together, they tend to talk about important, controversial, and clever stuff, and there are few things more controversial, important and cleverer than the singularity.
It is an event of the greatest magnitude imaginable. It is the pinnacle and the end of all human invention, the quantum leap in human evolution, the point after which we cannot even begin to imagine what our future will be.
The definition goes something like this: at some point in the future, whether artificially, or by merging human and artificial intelligence, we will create intelligence greater than our own. This new intelligence will then be able to spawn even greater intelligences, and so on. These über intelligences will inevitably trigger the future we cannot even begin to imagine. That event horizon is Singularity.
The Singularity summit usually deals with what-ifs, and grand ideas, and hypotheses. People try to explore how (or if) this event will ever come to pass. Great talks, wonderful ideas, and really smart people discussing and exploring future hypotheses...until this year.
This year things changed. This year people spoke about things that have actually happened. Things, which just a short while ago, were the stuff of speculation and science fiction. It looks like we will look back at 2011 as the year when the Singularity actually began.
This year a computer called Watson, stormed the quiz show Jeopardy. A program called CleverBot arguably passed a Turing test. Scientists from China, Germany, and UK have joined Google in what is fast becoming a not-so-exclusive club, and created a self-driving car. A computer, called Adam, from Aberystwyth University in Wales was programmed with our collected scientific knowledge regarding yeast, and then used that knowledge to pose its own hypotheses, before testing them, analysing the results, and making original scientific discoveries.
And it is not just that machines are getting closer to us. We are getting closer to the machines. Also this year, scientists performed the amazing feat of establishing a successful two-way connection between a machine and the brain. Monkeys, and even a paralysed person, were able to control robotic arms using a direct brain-to-machine interface. But an even more fascinating achievement was revealed few weeks ago: a monkey was able to "feel" artificial texture with his artificial hands.
Just putting this on paper makes my heart beat faster. Not in fear, mind you. In sheer excitement.
People have fears about technology. When I speak to people about this, all I hear is "freaky" and "scary". With an occasional "run for the hills" cry. This is more than just our inbuilt fear of change and the unknown. I am not sure if it is because science fiction and Hollywood has conditioned us with its disaster stories, or if it's because we are somehow hardwired to expect our descendants to overcome us and make us obsolete. Is it because we believe that machines are by definition so alien and so cold that they will take our very humanity away from us? Or is it because this last one scenario could already be happening?
Machines are an inevitable part of our existence. They are so intertwined in our everyday existence that our world would just crumble without them. They make our lives easier, longer, and more enjoyable. But these machines are alien. They are different from us. They cannot understand and navigate our world. So we must make concessions, and change the world to help them help us.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have learned to live in a sort of symbiotic relationship with them. We do command and control the machines, but they command and control our world. This is not something we immediately recognise, but all it takes is to look at the world around us. We have streets and highways made for cars. Big railways and terminals made for trains, we have phone numbers, and QR codes, and NFC tags, and Tiny URLs. We live in a world increasingly alien to us. A world designed for machines. A world we cannot live in and navigate without them.
This is why I am excited about the future these advances in Artificial Intelligence research bring. Because, the only way to bridge this gap, to stop this vicious circle of alienation, and to humanise the world, is to make machines more like us. Machines that can navigate and understand the world in the same way we can. Intelligent machines. Dextrous machines. The world we create for them, will be the world made for us. For all of us.
Then, when the synergy happens, we can be certain that we will have our place in it. And we will enjoy it.