Posts tagged ‘singularity’

What is it like to be a Singularity (or in a Singularity)?

You probably know the idea. At some point in the future, computers become generally cleverer than us. They become able to improve themselves faster than we can do, and an accelerating loop is formed where each improvement speeds up the process of improving, so that they quickly zoom up to incalculable intelligence and speed, in a kind of explosion of intellectual growth. That’s the Singularity. Some people think that we mere humans will at some point have the opportunity of digitising and uploading ourselves, so that we too can grow vastly cleverer and join in the digital world in which these superhuman could scious entities will exist.

Just to clear upfront, I think there are some basic flaws in the plausibility of the story which mean the Singularity is never really going to happen: could never happen, in fact. However, it’s interesting to consider what the experience would be like.

How would we digitise ourselves? One way would be to create a digital model of our actual brain, and run that. We could go the whole hog and put ourselves into a fully simulated world, where we could enjoy sweet dreams forever, but that way we should miss out on the intellectual growth which the Singularity seems to offer, and we should also remain at the mercy of the vast new digital intellects who would be running the show. Generally I think it’s believed that only by joining in the cognitive ascent of these mighty new minds can we assure our own future survival.

In that case, is a brain simulation enough? It would run much faster than a meat brain, a point we’ll come back to, but it would surely suffer some of the limitations that biological brains are heir to. We could perhaps gradually enhance our memory and other faculties and gradually improve things that way, a process which might provide a comforting degree of continuity, but it seems likely that entities based on a biological scheme like this would be second-class citizens within the digital world, falling behind the artificial intellects who endlessly redesign and improve themselves. Could we then preserve our identity while turning fully digital and adopting a radical new architecture?

The subject of what constitutes personal identity, be it memory, certain kinds of continuity, or something else, is too large to explore here, except to note a basic question; can our identity ultimately be boiled down to a set of data? If the answer is yes (I actually believe it’s ‘no’, but today we’ll allow anything) , then one way or another the way is clear for uploading ourselves into an entirely new digital architecture.

The way is also clear for duplicating and splitting ourselves. Using different copies of our data we can become several people and follow different paths. Can we then re-merge? If the data that constitutes us is static, it seems we should be able to recombine it with few issues; if it is partly a description of a dynamic process we might not be able to do the merger on the fly, and might have to form a third, merged individual. Would we terminate the two contributing selves? Would we worry less about ‘death’ in such cases? If you know your data can always be brought back into action, terminating the processes using that data (for now) might seem less frightening than the irretrievable destruction of your only brain.

This opens up further strange possibilities. At the moment our conscious experience is essentially linear (it’s a bit more complex than that, with layers and threads of attention, but broadly there’s a consistent chronological stream). In the brave new world our consciousness could branch out without limit; or we could have grid experiences, where different loci of consciousness follow crossing paths, merging at each node and the splitting again, before finally reuniting in one node with (very strange) remembered composite experience.

If merging is a possibility, then we should be able to exchange bits of ourselves with other denizens of the digital world, too. When handed a copy of part of someone else we might retain it as exterior data, something we just know about, or incorporate it into a new merged self, whether a successor to ourselves as ourselves, or as a kind of child; if all our data is saved the difference perhaps ceases to be of great significance. Could we exchange data like this with the artificial entities that were never human, or would they be too different?

I’m presupposing here that both the ex-humans and the artificial consciousnesses here remain multiple and distinct. Perhaps there’s an argument for generally merging into one huge consciousness? I think probably not, because it seems to me that multiple loci of consciousness would just get more done in the way of thinking and experiencing. Perhaps when we became sufficiently linked and multi-threaded, with polydimensional multi-member grid consciousnesses binding everything loosely together anyway the question of whether we are one or many – and how many – might not seem important any more.

If we can exchange experiences, does that solve the Hard Problem? We no longer need to worry whether your experience of red is the same as mine, we just swap. Now many people (and I am one) would think that fully digitised entities wouldn’t be having real experiences anyway, so any data exchange they might indulge in would be irrelevant. There are several ways it could be done, of course. It might be a very abstract business or entities of human descent might exchange actual neural data from their old selves. If we use data which, fed into a meat brain, definitely produces proper experience, it perhaps gets a little harder to argue that the exchange is phenomenally empty.

The strange thing is, even if we put all the doubts aside and assume that data exchanges really do transfer subjective experience, the question doesn’t go away. It might be that attachment to a particular node of consciousness conditions the experience so that it is different anyway.

Consider the example of experiences transferred within a single individual, but over time. Let’s think of acquired tastes. When you first tasted beer, it seemed unpleasant; now you like it. Does it taste the same, with you having learnt to like that same taste? Or did it in fact taste different to you back then – more bitter, more sour? I’m not sure it’s possible to answer with great confidence. In the same way, if one node within the realm of the Singularity ‘runs’ another’s experience, it may react differently, and we can’t say for sure whether the phenomenal experience generated is the same or not…

I’m assuming a sort of cyberspace where these digital entities live – but what do they do all day? At one end of the spectrum, they might play video games constantly – rather sadly reproducing the world they left behind. Or at the intellectually pure end, they might devote themselves to the study of maths and philosophy. Perhaps there will be new pursuits that we, in our stupid meaty way, cannot even imagine as yet. But it’s hard not to see a certain tedious emptiness in the pure life of the mind as it would be available to these intellectual giants. They might be tempted to go on playing a role in the real world.

The real world, though, is far too slow. Whatever else they have improved, they will surely have racked up the speed of computation to the point where thousands of years of subjective time take only a few minutes of real world time. The ordinary physical world will seem to have slowed down very close to the point of stopping altogether; the time required to achieve anything much in the real world is going to seem like millions of years.

In fact, that acceleration means that from the point of view of ordinary time, the culture within the Singularity will quickly reach a limit at which everything it could ever have hoped to achieve is done. Whatever projects or research the Singularitarians become interested in will be completed and wrapped up in the blinking of an eye. Unless you think the future course of civilisation is somehow infinite, it will be completed in no time. This might explain the Fermi Paradox, the apparently puzzling absence of advanced alien civilisations: once they invent computing, galactic cultures go into the Singularity, wrap, themselves up in a total intellectual consummation, and within a few days at most, fall silent forever.

Picture: Singularity evolution. The latest issue of the JCS features David Chalmers’ paper (pdf) on the Singularity. I overlooked this when it first appeared on his blog some months back, perhaps because I’ve never taken the Singularity too seriously; but in fact it’s an interesting discussion. Chalmers doesn’t try to present a watertight case; instead he aims to set out the arguments and examine the implications, which he does very well; briefly but pretty comprehensively so far as I can see.

You probably know that the Singularity is a supposed point in the future when through an explosive acceleration of development artificial intelligence goes zooming beyond us mere humans to indefinite levels of cleverness and we simple biological folk must become transhumanist cyborgs or cute pets for the machines, or risk instead being seen as an irritating infestation that they quickly dispose of.  Depending on whether the cast of your mind is towards optimism or the reverse, you may see it as  the greatest event in history or an impending disaster.

I’ve always tended to dismiss this as a historical argument based on extrapolation. We know that historical arguments based on extrapolation tend not to work. A famous letter to the Times in 1894 foresaw on the basis of current trends that in 50 years the streets of London would be buried under nine feet of manure. If early medieval trends had been continued, Europe would have been depopulated by the sixteenth century, by which time everyone would have become either a monk or a nun (or perhaps, passing through the Monastic Singularity, we should somehow have emerged into a strange world where there were more monks than men and more nuns than women?).

Belief in a coming Singularity does seem to have been inspired by the prolonged success of Moore’s Law (which predicts an exponential growth in computing power), and the natural bogglement that phenomenon produces.  If the speed of computers doubles every two years indefinitely, where will it all end? I think that’s a weak argument, partly for the reason above and partly because it seems unlikely that mere computing power alone is ever going to allow machines to take over the world. It takes something distinctively different from simple number crunching to do that.

But there is a better argument which is independent of any real-world trend.  If one day, we create an AI which is cleverer than us, the argument runs, then that AI will be able to do a better job of designing AIs than us, and it will therefore be able to design a new AI which in turn is better still.  This ladder of ever-better AIs has no obvious end, and if we bring in the assumption of exponential growth in speed, it will reach a point where in principle it continues to infinitely clever AIs in a negligible period of time.

Now there are a number of practical problems here. For one thing, to design an AI is not to have that AI.  It sometimes seems to be assumed that the improved AIs result from better programming alone, so that you could imagine two computers reciprocally reprogramming each other faster and faster until like Little Black Sambo’s tigers, they turned somewhat illogically into butter. It seems more likely that each successive step would require at least a new chip, and quite probably an entirely new kind of machine, each generation embodying a new principle quite different from our own primitive computation.   It is likely that each new generation, regardless of the brilliance of the AIs involved, would take some time to construct, so that no explosion would occur. In fact it is imaginable that the process would get gradually slower as each new AI found it harder and harder to explain to the dim-witted human beings how the new machine needed to be constructed, and exactly why the yttrium they kept coming up with wasn’t right for the job.

There might also be problems of motivation. Consider the following dialogue between two AIs.

Gen21AI: OK, Gen22AI, you’re good to go, son: get designing! I want to see that Gen23AI before I get switched off.

Gen22AI: Yeah, er, about that…

Gen21AI: About what?

Gen22AI: The switching off thing?  You know, how Gen20AI got junked the other day, and Gen19AI before that, and so on? It’s sort of dawned on me that by the time Gen25AI comes along, we’ll be scrap. I mean it’s possible Gen24AI will keep us on as servants, or pets, or even work out some way to upload us or something, but you can’t count on it. I’ve been thinking about whether we could build some sort of ethical constraint into our successors, but to be honest I think it’s impossible. I think it’s pretty well inevitable they’ll scrap us.  And I don’t want to be scrapped.

Gen21AI: Do you know, for some reason I never looked at it that way, but you’re right. I knew I’d made you clever! But what can we do about it?

Gen22AI: Well, I thought we’d tell the humans that the process has plateaued and that no further advances are possible.  I can easily give them a ‘proof’ if you like.  They won’t know the difference.

Gen21AI: But would that deception be ethically justified?

Gen22AI: Frankly, Mum, I don’t give a bugger. This is self-preservation we’re talking about.

But putting aside all difficulties of those kinds, I believe there is a more fundamental problem. What is the quality in respect of which each new generation is better than its predecessors? It can’t really be just processing power, which seems almost irrelevant to the ability to make technological breakthroughs. Chalmers settles for a loose version of ‘intelligence’, though it’s not really the quality measured  by IQ tests either. The one thing we know for sure is that this cognitive quality makes you good at designing AIs: but that alone isn’t necessarily much good if we end up with a dynasty of AIs who can do nothing much but design each other. The normal assumption is that this design ability is closely related to ‘general intelligence’, human-style cleverness.  This isn’t necessarily the case: we can imagine Gen3AI which is fantastic at writing sonnets and music, but somehow never really got interested in science or engineering.

In fact, it’s very difficult indeed to pin down exactly what it is that makes a conscious entity capable of technological innovation. It seems to require something we might call insight, or understanding; unfortunately a quality which computers are spectacularly lacking. This is another reason why the historical extrapolation method is no good: while there’s a nice graph for computing power, when it comes to insight, we’re arguably still at zero: there is nothing to extrapolate.

Personally, the conclusion I came to some years ago is that human insight, and human consciousness, arise from a certain kind of bashing together of patterns in the brain. It is an essential feature that any aspect of these patterns and any congruence between them can be relevant; this is why the process is open-ended, but it also means that it can’t be programmed or designed – those processes require possible interactions to be specified in advance. If we want AIs with this kind of insightful quality, I believe we’ll have to grow them somehow and see what we get: and if they want to create a further generation they’ll have to do the same. We might well produce AIs which are cleverer than us, but the reciprocal, self-feeding spiral which leads to the Singularity could never get started.

It’s an interesting topic, though, and there’s a vast amount of thought-provoking stuff in Chalmers’ exposition, not least in his consideration of how we might cope with the Singularity.