Monday, October 18, 2010

The Singularity

There's a concept among futurists and science fiction folks known as The Singularity.  While there is no formal definition, it goes something like this:

Mankind's progress and rate of learning so far has been limited by the ability of our brains to process, assemble, and assimilate information.  There may come a time in the future when we build a robot or a software computer program that is, effectively, smarter than we are.  At that point, the pace and progress of learning is no longer bound by our brains.

That moment is known as the singularity.  After that moment, it becomes impossible for us to predict the future, because it grows faster than we can comprehend.  Vernor Vinge wrote about this in a 1993 article, but it was really first coined in an article from way back in 1965: "Speculations Concerning the First Ultimate Machine."  Since then, many books and articles have been written about it.  Business Week even had a blurb on it back in 1999, as they were making predictions for the 21st century.

I tell you all this as background, for it appears we're one step closer to this point: Carnegie Mellon has devised a computer that can read, and learn from, the internet.  Called NELL, for Never Ending Language Learner, it can browse and parse the internet, and form "beliefs" based on what's out there.

I freely grant that the internet is not the Paragon of Truth, and based on volume, NELL is more likely to emerge as a whiny teenager with a penchant for anarchy than it is to become a wise oracle.  But still: it can learn and process, and it can browse and internalize a whole lot more of the internet than you or I can.  With a few more years and a few more terabytes of memory, we could be in for a heck of a ride.

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