future-1-wsAre you interested in the future?

You may want to reply – “Isn’t everyone?” Well, no, most people aren’t. We’re living in a time when most people have their eyes very carefully averted from the future. Science fiction films may get big turnouts, but it’s mostly for the entertainment.It wasn’t for nothing that George Lukas placed the Star Wars films in another galaxy “far away and long ago”. Those films were not about the future. Neither was The Matrix (let’s hope), except as a reflection of our deep fear of the future.

Fear of the future is evident in much of our behavior. Our strong appetite for diversions – TV, film, etc – and the never-ending party mood of our time may be fueled by that fear.

I’ve been fascinated by the future since I was 13 in the late 1950s, when I began to read the dazzling science fiction of that time. Those stories, and the steady advances in computers and robotics that followed, convinced me long ago that AI and robots are going to play a big role in our future. But you don’t hear much about AI. Most people don’t want to know about it, so the media doesn’t either. When a major film, Steven Spielberg’s AI, tackled the subject head-on, it got a pretty cool reception (despite being one of the best SF films ever).

Recently I began searching for a book that could bring me up to date on AI. I found it in spades – Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Over six hundred pages long, it’s an encyclopedia of the near future.

Kurzweil is a successful robotics developer with a good record of predicting the future. He wrote this book because he saw that most of us are sleep-walking into the future, which could prove disastrous. For, although our eyes may be averted from the future, we’re marching directly into it. New technologies, drugs, genetic procedures, etc, arrive month after month and receive almost no resistance. If we continue this lemming-like advance, we may be sorry.

Back in the 1950s, physicist/mathematician John von Neumann observed that if technology continued to evolve at the steadily accelerating pace we’d already seen, there would come a critical point when that acceleration would turn into an explosion – the Singularity.

Kurzweil believes the Singularity is close (his predicted date – 2045). Because of this, he says our century will not simply be another 100 years of technological progress – it will be 20,000 years worth of progress.

In other words, the future is going to come all at once. If faster-than-light travel is possible, it will probably happen in this century. Super-intelligent robots, some with bodies indistinguishable from yours, may fill the streets by mid-century. Most of what science-fiction writers expected to come in 100 – 200 years is probably just around the corner.

Here’s another example. The brains of living creatures have enormous computational power. The average laptop has less computing power than a mouse. To get in the mouse’s ballpark, you need a Cray super-computer.

But by 2020 Kurzweil says it is reasonable to expect that for $1,000, adjusted for inflation, you will be able to buy a PC with the capacity of a human brain. By 2030, for the same money, you will be able to buy a computer with the power of 1,000 human brains. By 2050, he says that money will buy a computer with more thinking power than all the human brains on Earth. That will be your home computer. What a super-computer will be like is beyond imagining.

Do you see what may be coming? If there are no gods now, they are coming soon. If our gods are real, what on Earth are they going to make of these upstarts that we have created?

Are you concerned that we’ll be no match for robots and AI, that they will simply replace us? The science-fiction of Isaac Asimov tried to reassure us, insisting that they will always be required to protect and assist humans (the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’).

Kurzweil thinks Asimov was wrong. He admits that super-intelligence will be uncontrollable.  So we better make sure that it’s on our side, which means that we should be working on that relationship now.

Well, what are we doing to prepare for this? Anything at all?

I’m not finished with The Sigularity is Near, but I’ll stop there for now.



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