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Singularity: the Future is Near

Category: Business Strategy
Published Date Written by Keith Harasyn

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2012 Newsletter. It is reprinted as part of our archive article series.

The Singularity is Near - cover

In his book The Singularity is Near, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil paints a picture of a not too distant future where intelligent machines have surpassed human capacity for cognitive thought and reasoning. His predictions, while not unlike many authors of science fiction who describe fantastic future possibilities, is different in one main respect: he predicts these events will occur within most people's lifetime. And the foundation of his premise is the law of accelerating returns.


Have you noticed the technology around you is advancing at an ever increasing rate? This is due to the law of accelerating returns. The law was first made popular by Intel co-founder Gordon E Moore, who described the trend in a paper he released in 1965 and for whom the trend was subsequently named, Moore's Law:

"the complexity for minimal component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year....Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not increase."

Moore's LawThis was a profound observation in many ways, but most importantly it demonstrated the exponential, as opposed to linear, nature of technological advances. Ray Kurzweil noticed that this exponential principle applied to more than just semiconductor circuits, but to a wide range of information technology metrics. In his book, he illustrates the smooth exponential or logarithmic curves for everything from networks, such as the number of internet end nodes over time, to healthcare research, such as rapid advances in sequential coding in the human genome project, to advances in new forms of energy, including the use of nanotechnology in the manufacture of solar cells.

The key in all of these analogies is that technology per unit of cost now roughly doubles every 11 months. So projecting these curves into the future means that the amount of change in the next 50 years will be equivalent to 32 times the amount of change in the last 50 years. Under this premise, one can begin to imagine that the advances in information technology will continuously increase until machines surpass human intellect, and additional advances can only be comprehended by machines themselves. This point in time is referred to as the Singularity.

How will the singularity affect me?

Ray Kurzweil tells both sides of the story, but in the end, projects an optimistic vision of a utopian society. It is true that the three cornerstones of information technology, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including artificial intelligence), could be used for evil purposes. However Ray argues that the benefits outweigh the inherent risks, and any attempt to stifle technological advances should be avoided. This means that people can expect to live longer, taking advantages of medical breakthroughs and improved pharmaceuticals in the treatment of diseases. Gene therapy will also become more prevalent to prevent disease and cure illnesses.

On a manufacturing level, downward pressure on costs will continue to occur as more automation is introduced. Smart technology will become integrated into manufacturing operations to further reduce and eliminate the seven wastes (transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, and defects). It follows that Engineers and support personnel with a lean manufacturing background will be natural leaders in this new economy. For certain, employees that can adapt to change, keeping up with technology advances, and willing to learn new processes will become invaluable in this type of manufacturing environment. As an aside, the certification program offered by ASQ to recognize and promote these specialized skills, such as Certified Quality Engineer, can be a valuable asset that differentiates you from the crowd.

When will the Singularity Occur?

The prediction for the singularity is based on a number of factors that Ray Kurzweil elaborates and extrapolates with great care. He examines the current state of knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain to assert that the functionality of the brain is quantifiable as the number of neuron firings per square inch per second multiplied by the area of the brain. He then takes the capacity and density of computer chips, measured by the calculations per second of a typical $1000 computer, and using the exponential law of accelerating returns, calculates the date when computer artificial intelligence will surpass that of the combined total of all human intellect. In his model, this occurs in the year 2045. Obviously, many technology factors need to continue on the exponential path for this to occur, but he demonstrates that this trend has not altered for more than 100 years, through 5 paradigm shifts (electromechanical, relay-based, vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuit, refer to reference diagram). He shows that as each doubling technology matures and it begins to level off, it is replaced by an entirely new technology that once again advances at an exponential rate. What these new technologies are is uncertain, although Ray speculates that quantum computing will emerge next, however he postulates that whatever technology emerges to replace integrated circuits, it will continue to evolve at an exponential pace.

Ray Kurzweil's book is a fascinating journey of possibilities, delivered at breakneck pace. Although it has provoked controversy and endless debate among futurist, it is hard to argue against the observable fact of accelerating returns.

The Singularity is Near - cover

Author(s) Raymond Kurzweil

Country  United States

Language English

Publisher Viking Publication date 2005

Pages 652 ISBN 9780670033843

OCLC Number 57201348

Dewey Decimal 153.9

LC Classification QP376 .K85


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