Q: Okay, well you've officially blown my mind from all this Singularity talk. But there must be some intelligent people out there that don’t believe all this futuristic talk right?

Well the Singularity certainly has critics, though I would say that the majority of people don’t necessarily argue that it won’t happen, but rather that it won’t happen in the short timeframes provided. Let's look at a few of the primary causes for concern:

Q: Sure. Let’s start with the strongest arguments

Well for starters, a primary argument is that in order for us to create super-intelligent AI, we first need to create human level AI, to which we are currently no where close.

Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is another outspoken critic of the Singularity and especially the "law of accelerating returns" and the timeline provided by Kurzweil. In short, he argues that in order to develop the tech needed for the Singularity to happen, we need to have a full understanding of the human brain so that we can use it as an architectural guide. Right now, we are nowhere near this and Allen believes it'll be many more decades until we come even close.1

He argues that there is a major difference between technological advancement and scientific understanding, and that we'll ultimately hit what he refers to as the "complexity brake" with regards to our understanding of the mind. Where a computer structure is relatively uniform throughout, a human brain that is designed through evolution is incredibly complex and unique.  Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understanding.

Miguel Nicolelis is another outspoken critic of the Singularity and a top neuroscientist and pioneer in the brain-machine interface industry. Where Allen believes that we are simply “no where close” to understanding the brain, Nicolelis believes that we actually never will get close. He believes that the brain is simply “not computable” and thinks that human consciousness simply can’t be replicated in silicon because it’s most important features are the result of unpredictable, nonlinear interactions among billions of cells.2

Q: But I thought we already developed super smart AI that can beat humans in chess and Jeopardy?

Sure, we've been able to build computers that can easily beat the best chess players in the world for a while now but we can’t yet fully quantify the difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence. It’s critical to note that these computers are built solely to optimize their performance for a given task. A computer program that plays excellent chess cannot effectively leverage that knowledge and skill for another unrelated task.

In reality computers are actually no match for humans when it comes to long-term strategic thinking. In chess for example, humans lose simply because we make short-term tactical blunders, often when we’re tired or distracted. Give humans the ability to double-check their moves with a super basic laptop and we can dominate even the strongest computer chess machines. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer is an overwhelming match.3

In Jeopardy, Watson's primary advantage was being able to respond faster than humans. When it came to answering abstract questions even Watson faired no match for a competent human, getting trounced in an exhibition game by Representative Rush Holt Jr.

A computer's strength is in its ability to perform brute-force calculations and memory retrieval. They’re not so good at pattern recognition, learning, or the ability to parse meaning and ambiguity. 

Q: Well that seems like a fairly strong argument. Does Kurzweil have a response?

Indeed he does. Kurzweil argues that we’ll be able to map the brain from the inside through the development of nondestructive brain scanners that will allow us to precisely take a snapshot a person’s living brain at the subneuron level. He suggests that these scanners would most likely operate from inside the brain via millions of injectable medical nanobots. He puts forth further argument in his most recent book aptly titled “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed”4

But of course, Allen responds to this argument by saying that:

“Brain duplication strategies like these presuppose that there is no fundamental issue in getting to human cognition other than having sufficient computer power and neuron structure maps to do the simulation. While this may be true theoretically, it has not worked out that way in practice, because it doesn’t address everything that is actually needed to build the software.”5

The bottom line is that it’s a hotly debated topic and one of the strongest cases against the Singularity.

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With regards to the complexity of the brain, Allen states:

"As we go deeper and deeper in our understanding of natural systems, we typically find that we require more and more specialized knowledge to characterize them, and we are forced to continuously expand our scientific theories in more and more complex ways. The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. "

Building the complex software that would allow the singularity to happen requires us to first have a detailed scientific understanding of how the human brain works that we can use as an architectural guide, or else create it all de novo. This means not just knowing the physical structure of the brain, but also how the brain reacts and changes, and how billions of parallel neuron interactions can result in human consciousness and original thought."a

As for Kurzweil’s rebuttal, he sees these brain mapping strategies as a needed advancement that will help gate the Singularity:

“Computers could exhibit human-level intelligence simply by loading the state and connectivity of each of a brain’s neurons inside a massive digital brain simulator, hooking up inputs and outputs, and pressing “start.”b

To elaborate on Allen’s rebuttal, he says that:

"To fully simulate the flight of an actual bird, we also need to know how everything functions together. In neuroscience, there is a parallel situation. Hundreds of attempts have been made (using many different organisms) to chain together simulations of different neurons along with their chemical environment. The uniform result of these attempts is that in order to create an adequate simulation of the real ongoing neural activity of an organism, you also need a vast amount of knowledge about the functional role that these neurons play, how their connection patterns evolve, how they are structured into groups to turn raw stimuli into information, and how neural information processing ultimately affects an organism’s behavior.

"It’s one thing to sit here and say okay, a smart phone five years from now is going to have a much better screen and a faster processor and it’s going to have more storage and what can I do with that? And that’s Moore’s Law. It’s a different thing to say, “Okay, I’m trying to understand the human brain. It’s so complex, what can we do to start working our way into understanding that complexity?” And you look at where you can evolve technology, and some of that is helped by Moore’s Law, when you are talking about tiny little probes that you can stick in to watch the electrical activity of the brain. There are [better] cameras that you can use to take pictures. The calcium dyes [used to stain neurons], all those things get better as technology improves. But when you start talking about theory and the insights that can come to cause a breakthrough that would be a Nobel Prize, that’s not predictable."c


Q: Well even if we can’t map the brain, didn’t you mention that we could simply “upload” our consciousness?

While many people this is possible, others claim that it has no basis. Writer Charlie Stross is another outspoken critic of the Singularity who takes major issue with the concept of "mind-uploading" because he believes it denies the biological nature of human existence. He states:

“Our form of conscious intelligence emerged from our evolutionary heritage, which in turn was shaped by our biological environment. We are not evolved for existence as disembodied intelligences, as “brains in a vat”, and we ignore E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis at our peril; I strongly suspect that the hardest part of mind uploading won’t be the mind part, but the body and its interactions with its surroundings.”6

He argues that we often overlook the fact that the brain's development is directly tied to its interaction with the environment. Think of how many different factors influence the performance of the brain, from hormones to nutrition to physical activity. Consider identical twins that have the exact same DNA and grow up in incredibly similar environments, but still end up completely different Ultimately he says that there are many external factors that shape the development of the brain and the current proposals defining the feasibility of brain-uploading fail to account for these.

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In order to even have a chance at developing the possibility of uploading a personality, there are tons of questions that have to be answered. This includes:d

  •  How is information coded in neural activity?
  •  How are memories stored and retrieved?
  •  What does the baseline activity in the brain represent?
  •  How do brains simulate the future?
  •  What are emotions?
  •  What is intelligence?
  •  How is time represented in the brain?
  •  Why do brains sleep and dream?
  •  How do the specialized systems of the brain integrate with one another?
  •  What is consciousness?
  • •(Not in Discover): How do brains balance plasticity against retention?


Q: Those are some strong arguments, but you’ve convinced me that the future holds an enormous amount of technological change. What can I do to get involved right now?

I’ll refer this question to Jaan Taalin, co-founder of both Skype and Kazaa, and huge Singularity advocate. According to him, the one thing you can do is:

“Just spread the idea that, although this sounds like science fiction, it is deadly serious. We definitely need way more resources to work on the safety aspects of developing artificial intelligence and possibly superhuman intelligence. Right now we are spending vastly more on lipstick research than planning for changes of galactic scale."7

He emphasizes that the Singularity isn’t some crazy cult-like group, but rather one where rational thought and healthy skepticism are core values in the community.

Supporting Taalin, Yudkowsky (Founder of Machine Intelligence Research Institute) says that we are heading for the critical point of all human history, and the impact on our world depends on exactly what kind of minds go through the tipping point.

He says “this is probably the single most important issue in the world right now, and almost no one is paying attention.”8


Credit of the feature image to the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/can-reality-set-us-free-t_2_b_3306377.html

Credit of the mind-loading image to KurzweilAI at http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/uploading.png

1 http://www.technologyreview.com/view/425733/paul-allen-the-singularity-isnt-near/
2 http://www.technologyreview.com/view/511421/the-brain-is-not-computable/
3 http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2011/06/23/whats-the-likelihood-of-the-singularity-part-one-artificial-intelligence/
4 http://www.amazon.com/How-Create-Mind-Thought-Revealed/dp/0143124048
5 http://www.technologyreview.com/view/425733/paul-allen-the-singularity-isnt-near/
6 http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2011/06/24/whats-the-likelihood-of-the-singularity-part-two-uploading-the-brain/
7 http://www.theverge.com/2012/10/22/3535518/singularity-rapture-of-the-nerds-gods-end-human-race
8 http://yudkowsky.net/singularity/intro/

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