The Singularity is Nigh
About 3 weeks ago a very important milestone in technology passed with little fanfare or notice. For years now, we have had 3D printers. These are exactly what they sound like, machines capable of printing rigid, 3D objects using plastic, resin, or some other similar material that can be laid down in layers. They are often used for rapid prototyping, but also see use for weirder applications like making custom figurines of World of Warcraft characters. The important event, though is that one of these machines built a working copy of itself.
Now before you run out of the room screaming to find a tinfoil hat, it didn’t just decided to make a copy of itself. The creators of this machine have been working towards this goal for a long time and finally got there on June 4th. This is a big deal because if I have one of these machines, then I can instruct it to make a copy of itself for all of my friends. Each of those friends can then do the same for all of their friends. In a short period of time, the number of these machines has increased dramatically and will continue to increase exponentially, much like a viral infection.
Now let’s take it to the next, and for now hypothetical, level. Imagine these machines can be told what to make with simple voice commands and they’re advanced enough to break down soil, plastic, water, and whatever else is nearby to power itself and to create the materials it needs to use to build things. This is still pretty far off, but it’s not an unreasonable guess about where the technology will end up. Machines like the ones I’ve described would be capable of making pretty much anything for free. For you Star Trek geeks out there, think replicators. Obviously this would pretty drastically change the economy, but we’ve seen something like it before: the Internet. Personal computers and the Internet have lowered the cost of copy ideas and many creative works (music, movies, books, etc.) to zero. As any high school or college student will tell you, it’s easy to get free music on Bittorrent and other P2P networks. This will do the same thing for physical objects. The great antique desk your friend has? You can have an exact copy. Poor, but want the latest hybrid sports car with free gas for life? Done. So it extends the copying culture of the Internet into the physical world.
In some ways it’s great because it acts as the ultimate democratizing force since everyone can have whatever they want. On the other hand, it could easily destabilize economies and governments while possibly putting dangerous weapons (yes, nukes are free, too) into the hands of criminals and other dangerous organizations. Of course, that all assumes that computers aren’t getting smarter while we’re developing these self-replicating super-machines. But what happens if computers are getting faster and smarter that whole time?
That leads us to what a lot of sci fi authors, futurists, and other geeks call the Singularity. It’s easy to see that the pace of technological innovation has been increasing over the course of history (it took thousands of years to get to electricity and less than a hundred years later we have the Internet). Well if innovation keeps accelerating faster and faster, it will eventually approach infinity. Think for a minute what infinitely fast technological process would mean. Overnight we would be able to travel great distances in space and death would become a thing of the past. They theory is that all of this will happen because computers will get smarter and more powerful until they eventually become the equivalent of a god. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense that there will be little they are not capable of. If and when computers reach this point, the hope is that they will be kind to their creators, but there’s no reason they wouldn’t just kill all us pesky humans that are just getting in the way and taking up useful resources.
I certainly hope that our computer overlords will treat us kindly and help us out by giving us amazing technology. The trick, of course, is staying alive until then. One writer, Ray Kurzweil, is so sure the that the Singularity will happen in this century that he’s hired an assistant just to help him keep track of the hundreds of pills and supplements he takes everyday. His theory is that if he can just make it to the Singularity, he can live forever. Honestly, that’s not such a bad plan and I think he has a decent chance of being right. The Singularity seems like the logical end of rapidly improving technology. So as long as we humans manage to not kill each other too soon, I’d be pretty surprised if the Singularity or something like it didn’t happen. Of course, I also believe in AI which is definitely a prerequisite for the kind of event I’m talking about and not everyone thinks that AI is possible.
The first self-replicating machine is a small, but important step towards an amazing and sometimes frightening future. I can’t wait to see it.