“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
This had been the premise given by mathematician and futurist Vernor Vinge in 1993, when describing what he foresaw as the inevitable end of humankind along with the rise of artificial intelligence. Vinge coined a term for this turning point in our eventual future: the Singularity.
Among the chief tenets of “Singularity”, especially as it relates to artificial intelligence, is the concept of intelligent machines that not only become capable of self awareness, but also of self improvement and replication.
A form of robotic self-replication/improvement in an assessment-based approach was achieved recently within a Cambridge engineering study, where a robotic “mother” was able to utilize a process likened to natural selection to create baby robots, and then selecting the best from the previous batch to steer the way the next collection are assembled.
Quartz reported that the project had been inspired by Dawin’s evolutionary theory:
The team, led by Cambridge Engineering researcher Fumiya Iida, seemingly took inspiration from Darwin and his evolutionary theory to build a “mother” robot that can make “children” bots and determine which one has the best traits. The mother, an arm-shaped robot, built five sets of 10 children, using information from each round of building to make an even better baby bot. The mother looked at each robot and decided which ones performed their tasks the best, choosing, as the team called it, “the fittest” robots to base the next version on. The mother measured how far one of its babies could travel from its starting position in a given amount of time.
In the video below, the “momma bot” can be seen in action:
The results of the study were subsequently published by the Cambridge team in the journal Plos One under the title, “Morphological Evolution of Physical Robots through Model-Free Phenotype Development.”
Often, research such as this is presented in a flippant manner, poking fun at the concerns that arise pertaining to robotic self-replication and intelligent machines. Such notions are echoes from ideas initially expressed by the likes of Vinge, although memes such as the destructive “killer robot” have existed in fictional portrayals for much longer.
Vinge had been writing science fiction by the middle 1960s, and three decades later when he announced the coming “Singularity,” as he called it, he was already seeing the mass shift toward greater than exponential technological trends, capable of moving faster than the speed of culture:
“[I]deas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in the middle ’60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.”
As Vinge noted in 1993, “In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the construction of “a machine in the likeness of the human mind”. In fact, the competitive advantage — economic, military, even artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.”
In essence, the Singularity is not only near, but it is inevitable. “If the technological Singularity can happen, it will,” Vinge wrote. “Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue.”
Vinge’s notions hadn’t fallen among the flippant minded, obviously. While many advocates of technological advancement in the realms of artificial intelligence express more hopeful attitudes about themes such as these, concerns remain persistent as well, and new worries will no doubt be yielded as further advancements bring us closer to a singular point beyond which, as a species, humankind may not even be capable of thought or imagination. The dawn of the post-human era, as it were.
Or, perhaps it will merely be humankind’s eventual reconciliation with change, in which we, like the adaptive robots we build, will change as well.
Regardless, whatever follows will likely cease to be “human” as we know ourselves to be today.