Peet Brits

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Posts Tagged ‘jeff hawkins’

The Singularity – What?

Posted by Peet Brits on September 12, 2010

The Singularity is the notion that computers will eventually take over the role of humans, or at least create a new entity with smarter-than-human intelligence. This is not exactly like sci-fi movies, such as The Terminator. For a more descriptive overview, see SIAI and Wikipidea. The current estimate for the coming singularity is the year 2045 (Kurzweil, 2005).

Why It Feels Silly

My ex-colleague Marius thought it completely silly, especially when they talk about human extinction by AI, and the more I think about it the more I agree with him. Let me explain why I belief these ideas are nothing but pies in the sky.

I am halfway through the book “On Intelligence” by Jeff Hawkins, a man with firm roots in computing and possessing great knowledge about neuroscience. His main argument against the coming singularity is that we do not understand the nature of intelligence. Bigger and faster does not equal intelligent. Hawkins expressed that, although computers are already five million times faster than the human brain, it cannot do tasks like recognizing a cat in a photograph. I still have to read about his new suggested framework, but it does not change the concept.

Computers and brains are fundamentally different, and they achieve fundamentally different tasks. Computers are brilliant at mathematical calculations, but terrible and inferred ideas. For example, chess is a big challenge for a computer, but it can reach professional level. With the Chinese game Go, computers can just about reach strong amateur level. Many AI researchers believe that Go mimics elements of human thought much more than chess. (Anybody wants to learn Go?)

Hawkins claimed that Turing’s definition for intelligence is incomplete. He explained, through the thought experiment of the Chinese room, that one cannot measure understanding by external behaviour, and therefore “programs are neither constitutive of nor sufficient for minds.” Some criticism on Wikipedia agrees that it is impossible for machines to be truly intelligent.

I have yet to compare the ideas with that of the brilliant futurist Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity is near.” His predictions are probably more related to sudden technological growth, not just intelligence.

For the Paranoid

I wanted to label this section “For the Religious and the Paranoid,” but that would only get me in trouble. The older generation often gets paranoid, and it just so happens that many of them are religious. The late Douglas Adams explained the concept of people’s paranoia about the future very nicely:

1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Whoever you are, I have good news for you. If the idea of a coming singularity makes you feel uneasy and angry, then do not worry, because it will probably not happen in your lifetime. On the other hand, if you are getting butterflies of excitement, then hold your thumbs and keep your eyes open.


I am a big fan of Douglas Adams. He has a brilliant way of mocking the overall silliness of humanity in his books, especially in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Humans are constantly on the search for some sort of a greater meaning, yet none exists. Yes, you heard me. There is no greater meaning or ultimate answer to our existence other than that which we give it.

Referring back to Jeff Hawkins, it is in our nature to create patterns, and so we find them even where none exists. Whatever the nature of the coming singularity will be, it will probably be no more harmful than the internet and computers were for the previous generation, and rock-and-roll music for the generation before that, and probably even the wheel back when the cave dwellers invented it.


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