How near is the Singularity?

February 10, 2011

The Singularity is back in the spotlight, thanks to a Time cover story focusing on inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil and his forecast that “the end of human civilization as we know it” will come in about 35 years — ¬†just as Kurzweil is nearing his 100th birthday.

Kurzweil is doing everything in his power to make sure he’s ready for the big event, which he calls the Singularity. He takes 150 pills a day, keeps himself in shape and looks forward to the day when he can start re-engineering his own body for immortality. And he’s not alone. Kurzweil has been spreading the word about the Singularity in a series of books and two documentaries (The Singularity Is Near and Transcendent Man) as well as academic programs at Singularity University in California’s Silicon Valley.

Kurzweil projects that computers will match human brain power by around the year 2030, opening the way for a rapid merging of electronic and biological intelligence. Around the year 2045, that merger will lead to a worldwide transformation so dramatic that its follow-on effects would be hard to predict. (Hence the term “singularity.”)

“It’s a little alarmist, but the idea is that … it’s a kind of cyborgian era, when there’s a combination of man and machine. Even now, Parkinson’s patients have neural implants in their brain, basically,” Time’s managing editor, Richard Stengel, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today. “Why couldn’t you be doing that for regular folks, to increase memory, bandwidth, all of that kind of stuff?”

The development of a search-engine/smart-phone/machine-translator system that’s wired directly into our brains would certainly mark a turning point. I referred to the Bluetooth/Google/Babelfish implant four years ago, but the idea goes back at least to the “microsofts” described by William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

Would such devices count as the merging of man and machine? Is the Singularity nearer than we think? I’m betting that the human-vs.-machine divide will become fuzzier and fuzzier¬†— thanks to gimmicks such as Wafaa Bilal’s webcam implant and next week’s “Jeopardy” face-off as well as more substantive developments. What’s your bet? Will the Singularity still be science fiction in 2045? Or will it be ancient history?