February 19th, 2011

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The singularity has not arrived (nor will it).

I have not watched the computer named Watson beat its human rivals at Jeopardy, but I have been following the fringes about what has been reported on it, because that's a lot more interesting to me. A good number of the people around me have expressed quite a bit of interest in it, though, and perhaps because my social network is populated with a lot of creative writery types and scientists and transhumanists of all stripes, this is not terribly surprising.

Occasionally I take some flak at work for making statements like “this can never happen” or moreso “this will never happen again”, because for most people, experientially, the fact that something happened makes it more likely that it will happen again. I apologize if opening with "The singularity can never happen" pisses you off, that's not my intent. It's a genuine desire to induce a question in your heads: “why am I making this argument?”

I make the counterargument, though, not because I am against progress and technology (far from it) nor because I fear our machine overlords (I fear them even less than other overlords, and that's slim, too). I don't make the argument from a position of scarcity or constrained resource (although the scarcity/abundance paradigm will become more of a theme in upcoming blog posts). I'm going to make the argument from the approach that you can attempt to answer the wrong question and mistake a right answer for success.

I am being unduly influenced by the format of a recent blog post that I read, completely off topic on the subject of marriage. You can read the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tracy-mcmillan/why-youre-not-married_b_822088.html. Go ahead- it's worth reading. Not, however, because of the content, though, but for the same reason that many people get tripped up (usually once) by the “St Ives” story/joke. You know, seven wives, seven sacks, seven cats. It's not a terribly funny joke to play, because it's only funny once. And “funny once” is a recurring theme in my latest reading nearer to the subject of this blog post, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, by Heinlein. If you aren't reading that blog post carefully, you might miss the part where the writer says, “I've been married three times” (read: to jerks), and the whole point, I think, is that she's not providing you with prescription, but trying to induce you to question what you think is sound- why you want what you want, and how “how you go about it” influences the outcome.

So in the same format as that blog post on why you're not married, I will explain why the singularity is not near. Not exhaustively, mind you, smarter people than me are working on this, and others have perfectly good arguments: Steven Pinker, for example, here: http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/tech-luminaries-address-singularity. But I think I might have a different- not novel, but... distinctive, perhaps minority outlook on the subject, and as always, would appreciate feedback.
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