Technological Singularity Overview for Journalists
Up-to-date as of 4/1/2009
Journalists often ask me about what is happening in the Singularity movement,
who the major names, ideas, and organizations are, and so on. To make all that
info publicly available in one place, I've created this short page.
What does "the Singularity" mean?
- The original meaning, given by Vernor
Vinge in 1993, was "the technological creation of greater than human
intelligence". Vinge wrote, "What are the consequences of this event?
When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be
much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would
not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities -- on a still-shorter
- Other meanings have emerged since then, usually associated with accelerating
technological change, but these are logically independent from the original
- Greater than human intelligence and accelerating technological change are
often conflated in reporting on the Singularity, causing confusion.
- Oxford philosophy professor and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute,
Nick Bostrom, has contributed important and widely influential arguments to
the original Vinge idea, in papers such as "How
long before superintelligence", where he defines superintelligence
as "an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically
every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills",
and outlines an argument that superintelligence could be developed before
roughly 2035, and "Ethical
Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence", where he writes "Since
the superintelligence may become unstoppably powerful because of its intellectual
superiority and the technologies it could develop, it is crucial that it be
provided with human-friendly motivations."
- There are three major
schools of Singularity thought -- accelerating change, event horizon,
and intelligence explosion. The major promulgators of these schools are Ray
Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and Eliezer Yudkowsky respectively.
The word "Singularity" has been used by many, but the central
Overview on the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI)
- Founded in 2000 by AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, Brian Atkins, and Sabine
- The Wikipedia article is here.
- The Singularity Institute is a non-profit organization focused on developing
a theoretical framework for confirming the long term safety of artificial
intelligence designs. A major element of this involves developing a reflective
decision theory, building on decades of prior work on decision theory in mathematics
- Several employees do AI research for SIAI full time and a larger group of
grad students work on the problem in the Bay Area during the summers with
assistance from Research Fellow Eliezer Yudkowsky.
- Many consider "real
AI", the type pursued by the Singularity Institute, to be centuries
away, but the history of science shows that many high impact technologies
are considered centuries away even by those closest to them mere years before
their development. For intance, Orville Wright said in 1901 that "man
will not fly for fifty years" and Ernest Rutherford said in 1933 that
"anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the
atoms was talking moonshine".
- Several notable futurists have voiced support for Friendly AI, including
Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, and medical life extension advocate Aubrey de
Overview on the Singularity Summit (put on by SIAI)
- The Singularity Summit is an annual event put on by the Singularity Institute
where influential figures in the fields of business, science and technology
discuss the Singularity and issues relating to technologies commonly associated
with the Singularity like nanotechnology and robotics.
- The 2006 Summit was held at Stanford,
in San Francisco, 2008 Summit
in San Jose, 2009 Summit will be held in New York.
- All Singularity Summit audio and many transcripts are available online at
the websites linked in the previous bullet point. Notable presenters include
Peter Norvig, Google's Director of Search Quality, Steve Jurvetson, Managing
Partner of VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Rodney Brooks, a robotics pioneer
from MIT, writer John Horgan, a skeptic of the Singularity, and environmentalist
Bill McKibben, another skeptic.
- See "Will
machines outsmart man?" at Guardian.co.uk for coverage of the 2008
Singularity Summit, "Coming
to Grips with Intelligent Machines" on CNET News for coverage of
the 2007 Summit, and "Smarter
than thou?" for coverage of the 2006 Summit. Full coverage list of
2008 is here, 2007
is here, and 2006
is here. The 2007 Summit received
front-page coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Overview on the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute
Overview on the Conference on Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)
- Annual conference. 2008 AGI conference
was held in Memphis, Tennessee, the 2009
conference was held in Arlington, Virginia.
- Attended by over 100 researchers representing the emerging field of general
AI, also known as artificial general intelligence (AGI).
- While this conference mainly focuses on academic approaches to Artificial
Intelligence, the 2009 conference was followed by a workshop on futurism.
Overview on Ray Kurzweil
- Successful inventor, has developed electronic synthesizers, reading machines
for the blind, voice recognition software, and much else.
- In his 2005 best-selling book The
Singularity is Near, Kurzweil claims that AI will reach human capacity
around 2029, from high-resolution brain scanning coupled with faster computers.
He also predicts advanced robotics deriving from advances in nanotechnology
and other areas.
- Founded Singularity
University at NASA Ames Research Center with the help of Google, NASA,
and many distinguished scientists. The stated aim is to "assemble, educate
and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the
development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide
these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges."
- Bill Gates calls Kurzweil "the best person I know at predicting the
future of artificial intelligence".
- An independently produced film on Kurzweil's life, Transcendent
Man, will be released on 27 March 2009.
- The Singularity is Near,
a film based on Kurzweil's book, will be released in late 2009.
End of overview. For more info, see the Wikipedia page on the technological