Saturday, April 29, 2006

Will there be a technological singularity?

I wrote before about the concept of a technological singularity which some writers foresee arriving sometime in the next 50 years. The singularity is the point at which the exponential increase in the sophistication of computer technology reaches the point where it both surpasses Human intelligence, and where it can re-engineer the world at a fundamental level via nano-technology and - perhaps - molecular computing.

Vernor Vinge is a mathematician and science fiction writer who explores the idea of the singularity in his books. You can listen to an interesting interview with him via the Dr Helen site.

For an alternative view, heres what physicist Freeman Dyson had to say about the idea in a fascinating interview with wired magazine from a few years ago:

The technical tricks these people are talking about are only a small part of the human experience. They vastly overestimate their own importance. I look at the world in a very different way. It's partly a matter of being old, but I look at the subway networks in cities, for instance. They also have the N-squared law. If you have a subway network with N routes, its value to the passenger is N squared. That's fine. But once you get to a certain number of routes, like 20 or so, there's very rapid growth, followed by saturation. This will also happen with chips. To some extent, it already has. It's true that the price per megaflop is going down according to Moore's Law, but what you can do with the processing power isn't increasing at the same rate.

I remember doing a study on the cost of nuclear power in the 1950s, when people thought it would be very cheap. We studied what the economic effect would be if the cost of electricity were zero. The answer is, "Not much." It costs far more to use electricity than it does to make it. There's about a 5 percent drop in the GNP if electricity is free. So cheap energy is all it takes. The same is true of computing power.

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