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This issue of the IAE Newsletter
is the first of two newsletters on the topic of Technological
Singularity, and is part of the Education for Student’s Futures series
Education for Students' Futures
Part 20: The Coming Technological Singularity
Professor Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon
“Any sufficiently advanced technology
is indistinguishable from magic.” (Arthur C. Clarke; British science
fiction author, inventor, and futurist; 1917-2008.)
The term technological singularity
refers to some time in the future when computers become much “smarter”
than people. Right now the rate of technological progress is both large
and increasing. We have artificially intelligent computer systems that
are more capable than humans in certain limited areas. However, we
still seem far from a time in which computer intelligence exceeds human
intelligence over the broad range of human intellectual endeavors.
The first use of the term "singularity"
in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958,
regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam
described "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the
mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some
essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human
affairs, as we know them, could not continue."
Irving Jack Good was a mathematician/cryptologist who worked with Alan
Turing. He believed an ultra intelligent computer might be built before
the end of the 20th century. Quoting from (Good, 1965):
Let an ultra intelligent machine be
defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual
activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is
one of these intellectual activities, an ultra intelligent machine
could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be
an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left
far behind. Thus the first ultra intelligent machine is the last
invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile
enough to tell us how to keep it under control.... It is more probable
than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultra intelligent
machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man
The idea of a technological singularity has been popularized by science
fiction writer and mathematician/computer scientist Vernor Vinge
(Vinge, 1993). Quoting Vinge:
The acceleration of technological
progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this
paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human
life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent
creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.
Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist and engineer who has
written and talked extensively about the coming singularity. See the
two videos (Kurzweil, 4/28/2009; Kurzweil 6/4/2014), and his book, The Singularity Is Near (2005). We
are creeping up on the technological singularity. Here is a forecast
from Kurzweil (6/4/2014):
"Jeopardy" is a very broad natural
language game, and Watson got a higher score than the best two [human]
players combined. It got this query correct: "A long, tiresome speech
delivered by a frothy pie topping," and it quickly responded, "What is
a meringue harangue?" And Jennings and the other guy didn't get that.
It's a pretty sophisticated example of computers actually understanding
human language, and it actually got its knowledge by reading Wikipedia
and several other encyclopedias.
Five to 10 years from now, search engines will actually be based on not
just looking for combinations of words and links but actually
understanding, reading for understanding the billions of pages on the
web and in books. So you'll be walking along, and Google will pop up
and say, "You know, Mary, you expressed concern to me a month ago that
your glutathione supplement wasn't getting past the blood-brain
barrier. Well, new research just came out 13 seconds ago that shows a
whole new approach to that and a new way to take glutathione. Let me
summarize it for you."
Twenty years from now, we'll have nanobots, because another exponential
trend is the shrinking of technology. They'll go into our brain through
the capillaries and basically connect our neocortex to a synthetic
neocortex in the cloud providing an extension of our neocortex.
Many Are Concerned by
the Technology Trend
Are you frightened by the concept of a technological
singularity? Do you want the technological singularity to occur? If the
technological singularity does occur, it certainly will disrupt
Stephen Hawking is one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists
(Cellan-Jones, 12/2/2014). Quoting from this BBC article:
Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain's
pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking
machines pose a threat to our very existence.
He told the BBC: "The development of full artificial intelligence could
spell the end of the human race."
The theoretical physicist [Hawking], who has the motor neurone disease
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new system developed by
Intel to speak.
Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey were also
involved in its creation. Their technology, already employed as a
smartphone keyboard app, learns how the professor thinks and suggests
the words he might want to use next.
Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence
developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the
consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.
The possibility of a technological singularity is an interesting and
challenging global problem. Kurzweil and others argue that it is
inevitable. They argue among themselves about when it might happen, and
they point to the rapid progress that is occurring. Hawking and others
express fear of it happening, or argue that it will never happen. The
naysayers argue that there are many aspects of a human being that can
never be captured in a machine.
Certainly technological progress and the changes it is bringing to our
world are a major and ongoing situation that is affecting all of us.
Thus, a modern education should certainly include helping students
understand the current and increasing pace of change in technology, how
it is affecting them now, and how it will affect them in the future. As
a teacher or parent, you can stay informed about major technological
changes and share your insights with the students and others in your
Kurzweil, R. (2005). The singularity
is near. When humans transcend biology. NY: Viking.
Vinge, V. (1993). The coming
technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era.
Retrieved 2/22/2015 from http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html.
The original version of this article was presented at the VISION-21
Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio
David Moursund is an
Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and
coeditor of the IAE Newsletter.
His professional career includes founding the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive
officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology.
He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral
students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and
workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books
and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free
online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007,
Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free
online educational materials via its IAE-pedia,
IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
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