Sorry Kurzweil But The Singularity Is Not Near

"The Singularity."
Image credit: link CC0 license

Ray Kurzweil is a famous futurologist that has famously predicted that human technology will eventually get so advanced that it will no longer be human technology. It will become AI technology.

When that day occurs the computers will start inventing and creating themselves and discovering new science and tech. They will eventually be able to replicate their own minds and also increase their own IQs.

The current pace of technological advancement is pretty brisk, when the AI's get in the game it will become white hot.

This changeover has been called "The Singularity" and it is predicted to occur in the year 2045.

Proponents of this hypothesis need to calm down and here is why.

The Sigmoid Function

There is a nice little function in mathematics called the sigmoid function or sigmoid curve or sometimes the logistic function. It is a function that looks a little like the letter 'S' as shown in the image.

The Sigmoid Curve.
Wikimedia user: kef link Public domain image.

The function is characterized by exponential growth at first, the growth tapers off and then flattens out. This curve is useful because it describes the many natural systems in the real world.

For example, growth of an organism is often fast at first but then tapers off and stops once that creature reaches maturity. It has to, otherwise it would soon grow larger than the planet.

The sigmoid curve also describes the population of living creatures in a habitat with lots of food. Put some bacteria in a petri dish and they will start to grow exponentially at first. In time the finite food source depletes and the growth slows and stops.

In nature, what looks exponential and unstoppable at first always slows down and stops.

The Sigmoid Function and Machines

The same effect can often be seen with technology. Whenever a new technology is invented development of that device is often very fast at first. Over time the improvements slow down and eventually stop.

A Machine Gun In Action.
Image credit U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jeffrey Lehrberg link Public domain image.
The Machine Gun:

For example, the machine gun was invented in the mid-1800's. The first machine guns were heavy and clunky affairs that jammed often. Later models that were lighter and more efficient but overheated quickly because they fired ammo more rapidly. Later machine gun models were improved on the production side until eventually the AK-47 was invented which can be made quickly and cheaply. This gun was invented in 1945 and improved over the following decade.

In the 70 or so years that it has been around its design is still very much the same as in those early days. The machine gun is therefore a good example of a technology's advancements eventually slowing down. New models are only incremental improvements over previous models.

Moore's Law - Processing Speed Over Time
Image credit: link CC BY-SA 4.0 license
Computing Power

It could be said that the first true, modern, electronic computers were invented shortly after the Second World War. The first computers were slow and very large. A single early computer would fill an entire room. Programming these behemoths was a manual process and involved moving electric plugs from receptacle to receptacle.

The integrated circuit (IC) and CPUs were invented giving computers a massive boost in processing power. Computer processing power increased steadily in the following decades. This trend was noticed and is known as Moore's Law. It is not a 'law' in the true sense of science but would be more accurately called a correlation </end pedantry>.

Moore's Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. This is the very definition of an exponential function.

However there is a problem with Moore's Law, it is slowing down. The transistors in CPU's and other IC's are getting so small that they are approaching the atomic level in size. At these sizes unwanted quantum effects are starting to manifest causing interference with the orderly behaviour needed in deterministic CPU's.

Implications For The "Singularity"

Technologies therefore seem to have an exponential development phase when they are first developed. The improvements and advancements in the new tech builds quickly at first and it would appear to the naive that the sky is the limit.

At first.

However, in time advances in any technology slow down and eventually come to a stop or a near stop. Look at the 747 jetliner. It was announced in the 1960's and is only being replaced now, ..., with a jetliner that looks only a little bit different (i.e. the 787 Dreamliner).

Image credit: link CC0 license

Closing Words

The prediction of Kurzweil that computers will get so fast and/or an artificial intelligence will be developed appears to be an overly enthusiastic and naive prediction of someone who is only looking at the exponential part of the sigmoid curve.

Development of any given technology always slows down eventually, as the tapering in Moore's Law is proving.

Even quantum computers or the postulated creation of true neural net circuitry will slow down and reach levels that will fall short of the so-called singularity.

So I think that we can all relax, the AI's are not going to take over the world any time soon (if at all).

The good news is that we will not have robot overlords. The bad news is that we will not be getting robot butlers any time soon.

Thank you for reading my post.

Post Sources

[1] The Singularity Is Near
[2] Technological singularity
[3] Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045
[4] Sigmoid Function
[5] Machine Gun - Wikipedia
[6] The AK-47 - Wikipedia
[7] Moore's Law
[8] Boeing 747 Jetliner - Wikipedia
[9] Boeing 787 Dreamliner - Wikipedia


Thanks for your article!

There are many overlapping technological developments which could / will reinforce each other, e.g.
-artificial intelligence
-3D printing
-energy (nuclear fusion, solar, etc.) --> energy abundance would change almost everything
-gene editing
-quantum computing (which could solve the problem of the transistors' size)

Up to now, Kurzweil's predictions have been quite exact.

Great reply.

These are all very interesting technologies but my guess is that advancements in all of these fields will be exponential at first, then they will taper and eventually stop far short of the so-called singularity.

Who knows? Kurzweil says it will all happen 2045 so we have 27 years to wait and watch.

If I am wrong and extreme life extension falls out of the mix then I will happily write a retraction to this post on my 150th birthday.

Let's hope he is right ;-)

Didn't Kurzweil also predict a number of things that were supposed to happen already, but have not? I seem to recall there were a number he stated were to happen by 2018 that we haven't seen materialize.

I could be wrong. I have been before and will be again.

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You always write good articles. Your beginnings are easy to understand and help the biggest part of the readers to come in the main theme.
I really like reading this post.
Good job, man!

The (technological) singularity pertains to more than just Artificial Intelligence.

Good point. I wanted to write about life extension and microbiology etc but I think an internet post needs to be 5 or 6 screens long. So I truncated.

I still think all of these other areas will also grow exponentially and then taper and stop at something far short of the singularity.

Agreed, personally I wish I'm around long enough to see breakthroughs in cybernetics, nano-tech, quantum and bio computing. All can help keep us humans ahead of the game or at least sparring with AI in near the future.

Found this...

"One day this (Moore's Law) will no longer hold true when miniaturization limits are reached"

Helps your point, the singularity may never arrive as we reach these sort of limits.

Great replies. I like the "sparring with AI" phrasing and may steal it for future use.

Kurzwei has gone this time too ahead of himself with his expectations or predictions. It will be long before the AI will be overtaking the world.

This is quite an interesting angle on things. In any case I think most of the work seems to be on focused AI to do specific things (like driving a car) but something that can make high level decisions like human's seem's a way off.

I don't see actual consciousness or true understanding with the current boolean digital architecture. Maybe when true neural nets on silicon are developed then we will see some real AI minds.

I dont know if a world like that would be true or not but by the description of it looks scary as hell. I dont know what Kurzweil based his predction on.I know the world is growing faster but as you said after every major leap their is gonnna be slow moving ahead.
Hopefully there never will come a time when the World will be governed by AI and I would be living in that.

I tend to agree. If it does come about and doesn't kill us it will definitely turn us all into domesticated pets.

Awesome article, I like the informations here.

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Does the Sigmoid Function manifest itself universally in technological developments, or might the Singularity be an exception?