May 27, 2024

For decades, Silicon Valley has waited for the moment when a new technology emerges and changes everything.It unites humans and machines, possibly for better but also for worse, and divides history into forward and back.

The name of this milestone: Singularity.

It can happen in many ways. One possibility is that people will add the processing power of computers to their own innate intelligence, becoming supercharged versions of themselves. Or maybe computers will get so sophisticated that they can actually think, creating a global brain.

In either case, the resulting changes will be drastic, exponential and irreversible. A superhuman machine with self-awareness could design its own improvements faster than any team of scientists could, sparking an intelligence explosion. Centuries of progress can happen in years or even months. The singularity is the slingshot to the future.

Artificial intelligence is sweeping technology, business, and politics in recent memory. Listening to what Silicon Valley is saying, it seems that the long-promised virtual paradise is finally within reach.

Always low-key Google CEO Sundar Pichai calls artificial intelligence “Deeper than fire or electricity Or anything we’ve done in the past. “The power to make positive change in the world is about to get the biggest boost it’s ever had,” said billionaire investor Reid Hoffman. ” and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced artificial intelligence “It will change the way people work, study, travel, access healthcare and interact with each other.”

Artificial intelligence is the ultimate new product from Silicon Valley: on-demand transcendence.

But there is a dark twist. It’s as if tech companies rolled out self-driving cars and warned that they might blow up before you even get to Walmart.

“The emergence of general artificial intelligence has been called the singularity because it’s hard to predict what will happen after that,” said Elon Musk, who runs Twitter and Tesla. told CNBC last monthHe said he thought “an age of abundance” would come, but that it “had the potential” to “destroy humanity”.

The tech world’s biggest AI proponent is Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the startup that sparked the current frenzy with its ChatGPT chatbot.He said artificial intelligence will be the “economic empowerment and many people got rich We’ve seen it. “

But he also said that Mr. Musk, a critic of artificial intelligence who also founded a company to develop brain-computer interfaces, may be right.

Apocalypse is familiar, even beloved territory for Silicon Valley. A few years ago, it seemed like every tech executive had a well-stocked doomsday bunker in a remote but accessible location. In 2016, Mr. Altman said he was accumulating “guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israel Defense Forces, and a whole lot of land in Big Sur that I could fly to.” For some time, The coronavirus pandemic has made tech preppers feel right.

Now, they are preparing for the singularity.

“They like to think they’re sensible people making sensible comments, but they sound more like 1,000-year-old monks talking about carnival,” says Baldur Bjarnason, who is “Intellectual illusiona critical look at AI “It’s kind of scary,” he said.

The roots of the idea of ​​the singularity can be traced back to John von Neumann, a pioneering computer scientist, who in the 1950s spoke of how “constantly accelerating technological progress” would produce “some fundamental singularities in the history of the race.”

British mathematician Irving John Good, who helped decipher the German Enigma at Bletchley Park during World War II, was also an influential supporter. “Humanity’s Survival Depends on Early Construction of Superintelligent Machines,” He wrote in 1964Director Stanley Kubrick consults Mr. Goode about the benign-turned-malicious computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey — an early example of the blurred lines between computer science and science fiction.

Hans Moravec, an adjunct professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that AI will not only benefit the living: the dead will also be brought back to life in the singularity. “We will have the opportunity to recreate the past and interact with it in a real and immediate way,” he writes in Mind Children: The Future of Robotic and Human Intelligence.

Entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil has been the biggest advocate of the Singularity in recent years. Mr. Kurzweil wrote “The Age of Intelligent Machines” in 1990, “The Singularity Is Near” in 2005, and is currently writing “The Singularity Is Near”.

By the end of the century, he wants computers to pass the Turing test and be indistinguishable from humans. Fifteen years later, he calculates, true transcendence will come: the moment “computing will become part of ourselves, and we will increase our intelligence a million-fold.”

Mr. Kurzweil will then be 97 years old. With the help of vitamins and supplements, he plans to live to 97.

To some critics of the Singularity, replicating an organized religious belief system in the software kingdom is an intellectually dubious attempt.

“They all want to live forever without the inconvenience of believing in God,” said Rodney Brooks, former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The innovation powering today’s singularity debate is large language models, the type of AI system that powers chatbots. Start a conversation with one of these LLMs, and it can spit out answers quickly, coherently, and often with a fair amount of enlightenment.

“When you ask a question, these models interpret what it means, determine what its response should mean, and then translate it back to text—if that’s not the definition of general intelligence, what is?” Jerry Kaplan said. He is a longtime AI entrepreneur and author of Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Mr. Kaplan said he was skeptical of such revered marvels as self-driving cars and cryptocurrencies. He confronts the latest AI craze with the same misgivings, but says he’s convinced.

“If this isn’t a ‘singularity,’ it certainly is: a transformative technological step that will broadly accelerate the development of a whole host of arts, sciences, and human knowledge—and create some questions,” he said.

Critics counter that even the LLM’s impressive results are a far cry from the vast global intelligence that Singularity has long promised. Part of the problem with accurately separating hype from reality is that the engines that drive this technology are becoming invisible. OpenAI started as a nonprofit using open source code and is now a for-profit enterprise, which critics say is effectively a black box. Google and Microsoft also offer limited visibility.

Much of the AI ​​research is conducted by companies that can benefit greatly from the results. Microsoft researchers invest $13 billion in OpenAI, Papers published in April It concluded that a preliminary version of the latest OpenAI model “demonstrates many characteristics of intelligence,” including “abstraction, comprehension, vision, encoding” and “an understanding of human motivation and emotion.”

Rylan Schaeffer, a doctoral student in computer science at Stanford University, says some AI researchers paint an inaccurate picture of how these large language models exhibit “emergency capabilities” — unexplainable abilities that are ineffective in smaller versions. is not obvious.

Mr. Schaeffer studied this question with two Stanford colleagues, Brando Miranda and Sanmi Koyejo Research Papers published last month and concluded that the emergent properties are “mirages” caused by measurement errors. In effect, researchers are seeing what they want to see.

In Washington, London and Brussels, lawmakers are focusing on the opportunities and problems of AI and starting to discuss regulation. Mr. Altman is on the roadshow, trying to deflect early criticism and pitch OpenAI as the shepherd of the singularity.

That includes being open to regulation, but exactly what that looks like is unclear. There is a widespread belief in Silicon Valley that governments are too slow and stupid to oversee the development of rapidly breaking technologies.

“No one in government can do it well,” said former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. explain Arguing the case for AI self-regulation in an interview with “Meet the Press” last month. “But the industry can roughly do that.”

AI, like the singularity, has been described as irreversible. “Stopping it would require something like a global surveillance regime, and even that is not guaranteed to be effective,” said Mr Altman and some of his colleagues wrote last month. If Silicon Valley can’t do it, others will, they added.

Less discussed are the huge profits made from the uploading world. For all the talk about artificial intelligence being an infinite wealth-creating machine, the people who get rich are almost always the ones who are already rich.

Microsoft’s market value has soared $500 billion this year. Nvidia, maker of the chips that run AI systems, recently became one of the most valuable public companies in the U.S. as it said demand for those chips had soared.

“AI is the technology the world has always wanted,” Mr Altman tweeted.

This is of course the technology the tech world has always wanted, arriving at the absolute best time. Silicon Valley struggled last year with layoffs and rising interest rates. Cryptocurrencies, formerly booming, are mired in fraud and disappointment.

Follow the money, says Charles Stross, co-author of the novel “Nerdy Rapture,” a comedy about the singularity, and “Acceleration,” his more serious attempt to describe how life is very What’s going to happen soon.

“The real hope here is that companies will be able to replace many of their flawed, expensive, slow, manual information processing subunits with some software that speeds things up and reduces their overhead,” he said.

The Singularity has long been imagined as a cosmic event that is nothing short of exciting. It still might be.

But it may first manifest—thanks in part to Silicon Valley’s obsession with the bottom line these days—as a tool for cutting corporate America’s headcount. Heaven can wait as you sprint to add trillions of dollars in market cap.

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