This statistical analysis was conducted in 2012 on ‘public response’ to the concept of the Singularity popularized by Ray Kurzweil.
The dynamic exchange between humanity and its technology has been evolving. Sociologists have begun to think about how this relationship works and question the very foundations of what technology is, and how it impacts society. As the world grows denser with technology, the connections between the two become more apparent. Those that subscribe to the social constructivist approach believe that society drives technology and that the balance of influence is always directed by societal needs. Technological determinism, an alternative perspective observes the idea that once technology has been integrated within a society it almost takes on a life of its own and impacts society in unregulated ways. These two opposing views are often represented within public discourse regarding the concept of the ‘singularity’. The singularity is the culmination of all technological accomplishments of humanity as it represents a time when our technological creations surpass our biological limitations in both intelligence and processing power. There are three general perspectives represented in those that believe the singularity will occur; the technological determinists, the social constructivists and those that believe both scenarios are just as likely to happen. Technological determinists would posit that this transitional point would represent the beginning of the end. As they perceive technology as a determinant of society and as this future technology is far more intelligent than society that it would not act in our best interest, but its own. Social constructivists on the other hand imagine a more harmonious world where humanity benefits immensely from technologies that supercede human capabilities. There also exists a large population of people of whom don’t believe the singularity will occur at all for a number of reasons. Although the idea of the singularity is not known to most people around the world, there is a substantially large population of which have had exposure. This group is generally well educated, and many reside within the U.S., the concepts birthplace. In this analysis data was collected on public responses to the singularity from a number of sources including; newspapers, forums/blogs, and online polls. There is a lack of analysis conducted on the topic of ‘public response’ to the singularity, as a result sources for data are highly skewed and as such should not be recognized as conclusive. But the trends observed in responses between groups do make at least for an interesting study and provides a very loose perspective on what might be expected if a more rigorous investigation were to be conducted.
Scientists, science fiction writers, tech geeks and people from all walks of life have begun to think about what kind of impact the acceleration of technological development will have on society in the years to come. Vernor Vinge a mathematician and author coined the term “Technological Singularity.” It was first only used as a phrase in the introduction to his story The Whirligig of Time published in 1988. “Barring a worldwide catastrophe, I believe that technology will achieve our wildest dreams, and soon. When we raise our own intelligence and that of our creations, we are no longer in a world of human-sized characters. At that point we have fallen into a technological “black hole,” a ‘technological singularity’ (Vinge, pg.72, 1988).” In 1993 he took the idea further and increased awareness by publishing the essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. The original version of this article was written and presented at a symposium sponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute (Vinge, 1993). The term was widely popularized by Ray Kurzweil in his bestselling book The Singularity is Near. The Wall Street Journal has referred to Kurzweil as “the restless genius,” and Forbes described him as the “ultimate thinking machine.” He was ranked among the top 8 entrepreneurs in the United States by Inc. magazine and has been cited as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison” on many occasions (Kurzweil, 2011). Vinge effectively planted the seeds of the singularity idea for potential growth, and Kurzweil came along and magnified the spotlight truly bringing it into the public domain.
The first documented historical reference to the singularity dates back to 1847 when R. Thornton, an editor of the Primitive Expounder responded to the recent invention of the four-function mechanical calculator, “…such machines, by which the scholar may, by turning a crank, grind out the solution of a problem without the fatigue of mental application, would by its introduction into schools, do incalculable injury. But who knows that such machines when brought to greater perfection, may not think of a plan to remedy all their own defects and then grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind (Thornton, p.281, 1847)!” Documented citations implying the singularity did not begin to appear again until the 1950’s, influential minds include; Alan Turing, Stanisław Ulam I. J. Good, Samuel R. Delaney, Ray Solomonoff, and Hans Moravec.
The singularity has as many definitions as there are people willing to talk about it. Across definitions the singularity exhibits two general tenets. First, current technological progress is leading up to an event horizon of which the culmination will be the creation of greater-than-human artificial intelligence (AI). Intelligence is commonly interpreted in many different contexts within this field, the majority reference computer AI as the primary form of intelligence but other considerations include; direct brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation of the brain, genetic engineering, and ultra-high-resolution scans of the brain followed by computer emulation. The second tenet embraces the idea of an intelligence explosion of which a greater-than-human AI will create a more sophisticated intelligence beyond itself. As this pattern is replicated the intelligence of each generation of AI will increase exponentially thus creating an intelligence explosion or ‘singularity.’ The exponentiality of growth within the computer hardware industry today will then be a lead into the exponentiality of growth in the AI actualization in the years to come. Both trends are said to be reflective of the singularity of which humanity is approaching and as such is considered to be an event horizon because of society’s current lack in ability to predict what will occur beyond it.
As would be expected with a large movement of people who believe in the singularity there is also a counter movement of those who do not. The opposition disagrees with the ‘singulatarians’ for many reasons. The first is in regards to the law of accelerating returns of which Moore’s Law falls under. This law, created by Kurzweil himself, claims that in both biology and technology the ‘returns’ of an evolutionary process (such as the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” of a process) increase exponentially over time. He states that “In an evolutionary process, positive feedback increases order exponentially (Kurzweil, 2004).“ This can be argued on two levels; one is that positive feedback does not necessarily increase order exponentially in evolutionary processes, and also that past rates of scientific and technical progress do not necessarily predict future rates. Although Moore’s Law does seem to be holding strong, the rate of technological innovation has slowed down. For the law to apply and the singularity to occur by the year 2045, the advances in capability have to occur not only in hardware technologies (memory, processing power, etc.) but also in the software domain. Many claim that it is impossible for the rate of progress within the software industry to maintain pace with observed rates within the hardware industry. The reason for this is that computer hardware is much easier to create and improve upon than software is; as software demands a more creative and time intensive development process.
Another common argument posed against this movement is that of religion. Many feel that Kurzweil has misinterpreted the nature of technology and twisted it into a religious ideology to support false conceptions of immortality. He himself has announced to the public that he has no intention of dying, and is doing everything in his power to live long enough to see the singularity come to fruition so that he can be immortalized. His genius is undeniable, but his obsession with defeating death is somewhat disturbing. The aggressive manner in which he has displayed his emotions on a number of occasions regarding the immortality factor of the singularity begs the question of whether or not his science and reason could somehow be influenced by this emotional drive to satisfy his own spiritual and psychological needs. With a large population of atheists around the world who base their beliefs in science this is a very attractive option as no real alternatives exist. With the promise of ‘salvation’ and a ‘technological utopia,’ it’s not surprising that so many have embraced these ideals. Those of whom ascribe to organized religion(s) oppose the singularity as well; not only because it appears to be a pseudo-religion of sorts which means competition. But also because it challenges established belief systems within many faiths and on multiple levels.
The last and most popular argument regarding the singularity points to philosophical questions as in what is intelligence, and what is consciousness? Even Kurzweil admits that he does not have the ability to accurately answer these questions as human beings have been trying to answer these questions for over 2000 years. The argument begins with the recognition that if one cannot define the object of which it is claiming to emerge then the whole idea must be false. If human beings do not have the ability to understand intelligence or consciousness themselves, then it would follow that we would not have the ability create a situation for those things to exist outside of ourselves let alone have the ability to perceive whether or not it was actually happening. The second argument posits that even if we were able to collapse on a universal truth of what intelligence and consciousness are, we would not necessarily or even likely be able to re-create those things outside of ourselves even if we did have the ability to recognize them if they were created. These arguments are basically ‘what if questions’, and exist circularly, so no clear conclusion can be achieved; but they do raise some interesting points. As can be imagined with so much controversy from scientific, religious and philosophical perspectives public responses have been extremely mixed.
Those that believe the singularity will come tend towards three possible futures. The first group takes an optimistic perspective of which Kurzweil represents. This group tends to approach the singularity from a social constructivist view with the expectation that radical changes in technology will be good for humanity. Society and AI’s of superior intelligence will work together to innovate a world that is best for all. The pessimistic perspective that Bill Joy of the Singularity Institute ascribes to is reflective of the technological determinist approach. In this view greater-than-human AI is imagined to completely overtake society leaving the human race at the mercy of this new form of intelligence. This could potentially result in the complete eradication of human beings from this planet. Those that subscribe to the technological determinist approach discuss and actively conduct risk analysis scenarios and attempt to create AI safeguards and establish security measures to prepare for the impending future. The singularity institute was established for this purpose. The third category of believers choose not to take a stance on the topic. They think that both impending doom and peaceful co-existence with highly advanced AI’s are equally likely. It seems that many people are hesitant to take sides on this issue, as they don’t necessarily want to be wrong. Many ‘on the fence’ accounts tended to construct strong arguments for both opposing views and treat them as a single opinion. Although these statements are completely contradictory within themselves they also provide an opportunity for users to be ‘correct’ about their predictions in either case. For example the user Caliban from the UK posted two somewhat contradictory statements within a single post on a singularity poll from the website longcity.org:
Statement one: “In my humble opinion: The whole “Signularity” biz is not only inadequately named, but a lot of hyped-up cerebral masturbation.When it comes to truly “uploading” YOUR mind onto a computer, NONE OF US will ever see that happen. Certainly not within our natural life span.” (spelling mistakes not mine)
Statement two: “I am not saying that “Singularity” is not feasible, or that it will never happen. I am not saying that the concept does not entail very interesting philosophical problems that challenging (if not very useful) to explore (Longecity Advocacy & Research for unlimited Lifespans, 2002).”
This may be something that occurs more often in online forums than would during live conversations, as debates in real time demand support and clarification whereas on a forum posts can be created without enduring an automatic response from another participant. A gap exists within the communications on the web as real time social responsibility to defend ideas is not as easily commanded by those leaving written messages for each other and many times on an anonymous basis.
Of the nine online polls and analytical reports exploring questions regarding public perceptions of the singularity portions of eight of them were able to utilized within a cross-comparison analysis. As questions across polls were different, the data had to be normalized in order to be useful. The first step in this process involved searching for similar questions across polls to establish a baseline. The two most commonly asked questions across polls were:
- When will the singularity happen?
- Do you think the singularity will happen?
The first question here is highly skewed as it assumes that the singularity will happen, it’s just a matter of time as to when it will occur. The second question is much less skewed, although it does assume the user has a comprehension of the singularity; some polls included this definition and others did not. Of the eight sets of data of which were used the total n across the board was 3,085. For question one we had a total n of 2,827 and for question two the n was much smaller at 258. Both the questions themselves and the available options for answers were normalized. Regarding question number one, the time frames had to be normalized and so for some polls multiple answers were combined into one option. For example any polls that contained answers to this question with multiple predictions beyond the year 2100 were all combined into the option 2100+. The options never, other and prefer not to make predictions did not exist on all polls drawn from; the lack of similar options across polls will likely have skewed the results. These combinations and simplifications of questions and answers were crafted thoughtfully and carefully but are by no means to be considered statistically significant. Standard error has not been calculated here, as both the source data and normalization process hinder accuracy of any levels of statistical significance.
|When will the singularity happen?||Do you think the singularity will happen?|
|Before 2020? 2.87%2020-2050? 27.59%2050-2100? 12.52%
Prefer not to make predictions. 3.29%
|Yes 50.78%No 32.95%Maybe 14.73%
*Question 1 n = 2,827, question 2 n= 258
The options for answering question number two were easier to combine. In general there were more variations of answers that assumed the singularity will happen but referenced different outcomes; all of these options were normalized into yes for analysis purposes. The n/a and maybe options were also not present across polls, the lack of consistency makes these results somewhat skewed.
In cross comparing question 1 to question 2 by breaking down the results into yes, no, maybe and anything else answers we find that the numbers are still pretty close while factoring in for major discrepancies and unreliable data collection techniques. Question 1 believers are at about 57% while question 2 are at about 50%. We also observe a similar discrepancy in percentage difference within the non-believers. This discrepancy may be attributed to the lack of a maybe option within the question 1 category among other things. But the interesting result to take note of here is that in both cases and across polls more than 50% of people believe that the singularity will occur at some point. Although this does not reflect that believers assume everything Kurzweil claims will occur. Things like uploading human consciousness into a computer may not have been expectations of those that voted the singularity would occur within these polls. As definitions for the singularity differ across mediums and people and as such cannot be considered all inclusive.
|Normalization||Question 1||Question 2|
*n = 3,085
All newspaper articles dating back to 2007 regarding the singularity were catalogued and assigned to a specific category in line with the above normalization of polling questions. The three categories include supporters of the singularity, non-supporters of the singularity, and people on the fence. Articles that were deemed to be in support of the singularity either explicitly stated the singularity was coming, or the majority of the content and the authors perspective tended towards the fruition of the singularity. Opinions of what the singularity means varied, but overall the majority of articles supported the singularity coming at some point and with a somewhat vague definition. Articles that were deemed to not be in support of the singularity either aggressively stated the singularity will not happen or they did not necessarily claim that it would or would not but maintained an air of doubt. The category of those on the fence perceive the likelihood of the singularity occurring or not occurring equally. Beyond those three general options a catalogue was also established to measure how many of these newspaper articles were promotional in nature. Promotional refers to articles that were written as a means to promote either books or movies created by singularity icons, or schools and organizational events associated with the singularity. The majority of promotional articles that were catalogued covered events occurring at the Singularity University of which Ray Kurzweil is actively involved.
|Supporters of the singularity||Non-supporters (singularity is not going to happen, its ridiculous)||On the Fence (Singularity may or may not happen)||Promotional in nature|
*n = 74
About 77% of articles distributed between 2007 and April 2012 supported the singularity as a likely coming event at some time in the future but without much agreement upon what exactly this would entail. Only about 8% of these articles claimed the impossibility of the occurrence of the singularity. About 15% took no sides and gave the impression that both scenarios were just as likely. Interestingly about 23% of these articles were promotional in nature, as also make up a substantial portion of the supporter category. So if we were to take away the articles of which were promotional in nature we would get a bit of a different picture in terms of dominant messaging within articles concerning the singularity. With an n value of 57 the ratios fluctuate a bit, but overall articles in support of the singularity were still dominant at 70%.
Newspaper Sources – (minus promotional articles)
|Supporters of the singularity||Non-supporters (singularity is not going to happen, it’s ridiculous)||On the Fence (Singularity may or may not happen)|
*n = 57
Of the 35 forum entries observed over eight different websites regarding the singularity opinions were similar to averages observed within the polling section. Opinions observed in forums are much more difficult to catalogue as users post multiple times and within conversations tend to contradict themselves. In cases where contradictions occurred the opinion numbers below reflect the dominant tone of individual responses.
|Believers (not skewed either way)||28.6%|
|Believers (technological determinists)||5.7%|
|Believers (social constructivists)||20%|
|On the fence (singularity may or may not happen)||14.3%|
*n = 35
Normalization across all results
|Normalization||Poll Question 1||Poll Question 2||News Sources||Forum Comments|
In general supporters of the singularity are above the 50% mark in all categories. With news sources being the highest it would be likely that this is because news stories are used as a marketing tool as was discussed above. Even stories that are not specifically promotional in content can still be leveraged as a means for promoting an idea. Most good marketing and communications professionals working for large institutions have established strong relationships with the media and reporters of whom they encourage to create stories of all natures for timely and desired effects. It does seem that a lot of what is being done within the singularity movement is about marketing; even the singularity institute appears to be a marketing tool for the idea. Not to take away from the possibility that there may something bigger at work here; but even if so someone somewhere probably Kurzweil himself recognizes the need for exposure on a big scale and as such is doing everything that can be done to promote it. As far as the singularity coming to be our only option is to wait and see. But even the small possibility that something of this magnitude could occur commands that society at least prepare for the event. Although the data viewed above cannot be considered conclusive, it does at least reveal that a portion of society is thinking about these things, and of those on average more than half believe that some sort of singularity will occur. There is no real agreement on what this will entail exactly and whether or not all of Kurzweil’s predictions surrounding the topic will come true, but people do seem to feel a momentum of something coming. And this concept seems to resonate with that intuition. Hopefully the social constructivists are right, or alternatively that the Singularity Institute will be able to institute safety measures within our design and engineering processes before we accidentally create something that views humanity as a threat to the planet.
- Kurzweil, Ray (2004). Kurzweil’s Law (aka “the law of accelerating returns”). Retrieved from: http://www.kurzweilai.net/kurzweils-law-aka-the-law-of-accelerating-returns.
- Kurzweil, Ray (2012). Ray Kurzweil Bio. Retrieved 4/12, http://www.kurzweilai.net/ray-kurzweil-bio.
- Longecity Advocacy & Research for unlimited Lifespans (2002). Caliban, Re: Singularity Poll: Arrival. Retrieved 4/12 http://www.longecity.org/forum/topic/53-singularity-poll-arrival/.
- Thornton, Richard (1847), The Expounder of Primitive Christianity; Devoted to Theoretical and Practical Religion. Thornton & Arnold publishers, Vol.4, Ann Arbor, Michigan (p. 281).
- Vinge, Vernor (1988). Threats and Other Promises: The Whirligig of Time. Baen (p.72).
- Vinge, Vernor (1993). What is the Singularity? Retrieved 4/12 http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html.
- Ben Goetzels’/Klein Report
- Future of Humanity Institute Oxford Study