The Singularity is one form of the idea that machines are constantly being improved and will one day make us all unemployable. Phrased that way, it should be no surprise that discussions of the Singularity are often compared with those of the Luddites from 1816.
“It’s different now!” many people say. Are they right to think that those differences are important?
There have been so many articles and blog posts (and books) about the Singularity that I need to be careful to make clear which type of “Singularity” I’m writing about.
I don’t believe in real infinities. Any of them. Something will get in the way before you reach them. I therefore do not believe in any single runaway process that becomes a deity-like A.I. in a finite time.
That doesn’t stop me worrying about “paperclip optimisers” that are just smart enough to cause catastrophic damage (this already definitely happens even with very dumb A.I.); nor does it stop me worrying about the effect of machines with an IQ of only 200 that can outsmart all but the single smartest human, and rendering mental labour as redundant as physical labour already is, or even an IQ of 85, which would make 15.9% of the world permanently unemployable (some do claim that machines can never be artistic, but, well, machines are already doing “creative” jobs in music, literature and painting, and even if they were not there is a limit as to how many such jobs there can be).
So, for “the Singularity”, what I mean is this:
“A date after which the average human cannot keep up with the rate of progress.”
By this definition, I think it’s already happened. How many people have kept track of these things?:
- You can chat online with more people than you will have heartbeats.
- A £4 computer does arithmetic faster than all of humanity combined, and still would even if we were all as good as the current world record holder.
- We have augmented reality text-translation and (multiple) systems for real-time voice translation, search engines that can cope with images, answer engines that can solve calculus, decent voice controls on most new mobile phones, tablets and watches.
- There are self-driving cars that (almost) never cause accidents have driven significantly further than the average American will in a lifetime. Did you read that those cars need special 3D maps of the roads? Well, guess what Google Street View is. Did you read that the software can’t cope with street signs? They’ve started putting street signs into CAPTCHAs, meaning you’re teaching it to read them just by using the internet.
- There are over-night software updates that add autopilot modes to cars bought years earlier.
- We can print internal organs. We did that 5 years ago. Now we’re onto new 3D printed ovaries that allow infertile mice to give birth.
- Matthew 11:5 says the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers healed, the deaf hear, and the dead raised to life. We’ve been able to make the deaf hear for some time, but did you know we can make (an increasing fraction of) the blind see? We cured leprosy ages ago, but did you know that Oscar Pistorius was banned from an olympic race because his artificial legs gave him an advantage over able-bodied humans? As for raising the dead… not yet (I’m aware of but do not buy into the argument that the definition of “dead” has moved since biblical times, because an extra 5 minutes of “well technically” isn’t good enough for me).
- Even the lame who keep their legs can benefit from robotic exoskeletons.
- We send rockets between planets. Divert rivers. Move mountains. Turn stone and sand into mechanical servants. (Mark Stanley pointed that one out, so don’t give me credit!)
- We can make self-replicating, evolving, chemicals. We can make entire custom genomes. We can synthesise working cells just from knowing their DNA sequence.
- A.I. have taught themselves our artistic styles and shown us they can apply those styles to arbitrary existing images.
- A.I. have taught themselves to play many of our games, at super-human levels. Not just Go.
- There are at least 5 projects to reverse extinction.
- Between its creation in 2009 and a blog dated 26 Jan 2016, the Bitcoin protocol calculated 18±10% septillion hashes. And yes, “septillion” is a real number, it’s a trillion multiplied by a trillion.
- We can analyse the atmosphere of planets ~40 light years away. Oh, and we have found thousands of planets outside our solar system.
- We do, to an extent, control the weather. We make snow in industrial quantities and we stop the wind.
- We can wear robot arms that improvise a drum beat for us.
- The best 3D printing is already at the 10nm stage, only a factor of 100 or so from atomic resolution.
- Accidentally post a photo of your keys online? Well, that means criminals can print a copy and let themselves in at their own pleasure. Kept photos off the internet? Well, that just means the criminals need a telescopic lens.
- We can look around corners with time-of-flight sensors, and listen through glass by using high-frame-rate cameras to watch plants vibrate from the noise.
- We can make autonomous weapons. We can print rocket engines and jet engines. We can print some printers.
- Think seeing is believing? How does the real-time manipulation of standard video footage make you feel?
- Machines can figure out from the way we write that “man” is to “woman” as “king” is to “queen”, without being taught explicitly by any programmer.
- Writing used to be a purely human endeavour. But there are machine journalists now. (The Japanese novel you may have read about is better described as AI-assisted, not AI-created. Like my music A.I., only, well, good).
- Think we need people to milk the cows? Robots have been milking cows for us since the early 1990s! Similar things are happening to harvesting, even for fruit crops such as grapes and strawberries where “traditional” machines like combine harvesters would be out of place.
Most of this was unbelievable science fiction when I was born. Between my birth and 2006, only a few of these things became reality. More than half are things that happened or were invented in the 2010s. When Google’s AlphaGo went up against Lee Sedol he thought he’d easily beat it, 5-0 or 4-1, instead he lost 1-4.
If you’re too young to have a Facebook account, there’s a good chance you’ll never need to learn any foreign language. Or make any physical object. Or learn to drive… there’s a fairly good chance you won’t be allowed to drive. And once you become an adult, if you come up with an invention or a plot for a novel or a motif for a song, there will be at least four billion other humans racing against you to publish it.
Sure, we don’t have a von Neumann probe nor even a clanking replicator at this stage (we don’t even know how to make one yet, unless you count “copy an existing life form”), but given we’ve got 3D printers working at 10 nanometers already, it’s not all that unreasonable to assume we will in the near future. The fact that life exists proves such machines are possible, after all.
None of this is to say humans cannot or will not adapt to change. We’ve been adapting to changes for a long time, we have a lot of experience of adapting to changes, we will adapt more. But there is a question:
“How fast can you adapt?”
Time, as they say, is money. Does it take you a week to learn a new job? A machine that already knows how to do it has a £500 advantage over you. A month? The machine has a £2,200 advantage. You need to get another degree? It has an £80,000 advantage even if the degree was free. That’s just for the average UK salary with none of the extra things employers have to care about.
We don’t face problems just from the machines outsmarting us, we face problems if all the people working on automation can between them outpace any significant fraction of the workforce. And there’s a strong business incentive to pay for such automation, because humans are one of the most expensive things businesses have to pay for.
I don’t have enough of a feeling for economics to guess what might happen if too many people are unemployed and therefore unable to afford the goods produced by machine labour, all I can say is that when I was in secondary school, all of us young enough to be without income, pirating software and music was common. (I was the only one with a Mac, so I had to make do with magazine cover CDs for my software, but I think the observation is still worth something).