03 January 2011

Yet another step towards the singularity...

A few years back, I remember reading an article about Vernor Vinge and his case for the technological singularity. I found it fascinating, but soon it crept to the back of my mind. I didn't see much evidence that it was approaching anytime soon. But recently, some breakthroughs in science and a wonderful new book by Mark Stevenson, have made me revisit the idea. In its simplest expression, it basically just says that at some point in the not-too-distant future, accelerating returns will result in a watershed moment, after which humankind will be so changed that all of our current assumptions about even the most fundamental concepts will be swept away, leaving us in a world so completely different from the one we had come to know as a species, that it will be essentially impossible to predict from this side of the singularity. So when will this point be reached? It is not too surprising that no two people agree and even less so that many people think the whole concept is bunk. But people like Ray Kurzweil seem to feel that many people alive today will live to see it. I am not sufficiently convinced even of the validity of the idea just yet, never mind having an opinion about timing. But after reading books like Mr. Stevenson's and seeing some of the mind-blowing advances happening in so many fields, it is certainly something that won't be creeping off again to the back of my mind any time soon.

To cite just one (albeit very powerful) example, consider Eureqa, a program developed by Professors M. Schmidt and H. Lipson at Cornell. Mr. Stevenson visited the team at Cornell and discusses it in his book. Basically, this AI 'program' - calling it a program seems akin to calling Mt Everest a 'mound of dirt' - takes your data and derives principles on which such data are built. That may sound rather dry and dull, but consider this: it figured out Newton's Laws of Motion based on data it was fed. In a few hours. So imagine brilliant careers in research distilled down to a few hours. Then consider that of course such minds won't retire after they feed an AI like Eureqa some great data and get some cool new fundamental laws. They will keep going. So imagine Newton figuring out his laws in a day and then going for another 40 years or so. (Well, OK, he DID keep going for another 40 years or so, but you get the point.) Starting to see how accelerating returns might be leading us somewhere unrecognizable?

If you're one of the select few scientists with access, you can feed...oh, wait, what?! Eureqa is a free download. Anyone in the world can use it. I have.* It's laid out like Excel. I'm no scientist and I doubt I will come up with any Earth-shattering theorems with Eureqa. But imagine this tool in the hands of thousands of brilliant researchers around the world.

Hold on to your hats, folks. It's gonna get wild.


*I love playing with economic data, so I fed it 30 years worth of such data to see what equations it would come up with. This was just to amuse myself, mind you: one must be careful to distinguish between deriving laws from data gotten from the natural world v just plain data-mining. My exercise was essentially the latter. In other words, any equation derived from something as erratic as economic data will serve just one purpose: more or less accurately predicting a data point within the universe of data already provided to the AI. So if I got an equation for predicting, say, the value of the S&P 500 based on CPI and consumer confidence, all I could be certain of would be that the equation could more or less accurately 'predict' the values for 1987, using the other 29 points of data within its universe. Still, it may serve to give a general sense of trends.

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