A particularly bad attack on the Singularity

Whilst I am not a raging advocate of ‘sitting back and ‘waiting’ for the Singularity to happen (I prefer to get excited about the technologies that underlie the concept of it), I feel that I have a responsibility to defend the poor meme in the case where an argument against is is actually very wrong, such as in this article from Science Not Fiction:

Genomics Has Bad News For The Singularity

The basic argument that the article puts forward is that the cost of sequencing the human genome has fallen following a super-exponential trend over the past 10 years. And yet, we do not have amazing breakthroughs in drug treatment and designer therapies. So how could we expect to have “genuine artificial intelligence, self-replicating nanorobots, and human-machine hybrids” even though Moore’s law is ensuring that the cost of processing power is falling? And it is falling at a much slower rate than genome sequencing costs!

The article states:

“In less than a decade, genomics has shown that improvements in the cost and speed of a technology do not guarantee real-world applications or immediate paradigm shifts in how we live our day-to-day lives.”

I feel however, that the article is somewhat comparing apples and oranges. I have two arguments against the comparison:

The first is that sequencing the genome just gives us data. There’s no algorithmic component. We still have little idea of how most of the code is actually implemented in the making of an organism. We don’t have the protein algorithmics. It’s like having the source code for an AGI without a compiler. But we do have reasonable physical and algorithmic models for neurons (and even entire brains!), we just lack the computational power to simulate billions of neurons in a highly connected structure. We can simulate larger and larger neural networks as hardware increases in speed, connectivity, and efficiency. And given that the algorithm is ‘captured’ in the very structure of the neural net, the algorithm advances as the hardware improves. This is not the case in genome sequencing.

The second argument is that sequencing genomes is not a process that can be bootstrapped. The very process of knowing a genome sequence isn’t going to help us sequence genomes faster or help you engineer designer drugs. But building smart AI systems – or “genuine artificial intelligence” as the article states – CAN enable you to bootstrap the process, as you will have access to copyable capital for almost no cost: Intelligent machines which can be put to the task of designing more intelligent machines. If we can build AIs that pass a particular threshold in terms of being able to design improved algorithmic versions of themselves, why should this be limited by hardware requirements at all? Moore’s law really just gives us an upper bound on the resources necessary to build intelligent systems if we approach the problem using a brute-force method.

We still need people working on the algorithmic side of things in AI – just as we need people working on how genes are actually expressed and give rise to characteristics in organisms. But in the case of AI, we already have an existence proof for such an object – the human brain, and so even with no algorithmic advances, we should be able to build one in-silico. Applications for genomics do not have such a clearly defined goal based on something that exists naturally (though harnessing effetcs like the way in which cancer cells avoid apoptosis might be a good place to start).

I’d be interested in hearing people thoughts on this.


9 thoughts on “A particularly bad attack on the Singularity

  1. Mike G says:

    I think one of the problems with the Singularity is the religious/mystic aspect placed on it by it’s “followers”. The culture built around it seems to put people into categories such believers/non-believers and winners/losers. I find the aura of propheteering, self-promotion, and self-importance that folks at the Singularity University and h+ take open themselves to be completely distracting and annoying. Some of the h+ summit bios could have stood along side self-help gurus and been nearly indistinguishable. I agree with you that I like the idea of thinking and discussing about the technologies that will change our society, but in a manner conducive with open discussion. Calling the article an “attack on the Singularity” rings too close to the phrases like an “attack on Christianity” which puts people on the defensive and can polarize dialog. Like it has to me 😦

    • physicsandcake says:

      Maybe I should have called the article ‘a particularly illogical criticism of the Singularity’

      The ‘attack’ phrasing didn’t immediately strike me as having religious connotations, although perhaps you are right and most people’s response would be to think that was what was meant.

      In the article, this sentence stood out to me:

      “The technological Singularity, pushed by Kurzweil and his zealots at the Singularity University”

      The author sounds more like he was basing his argument on a personal dislike of Kurzweil rather than refuting the central points of the technological advances that may lead to a singularity scenario (which is not just Kurzweil’s idea, and some believe have nothing to do with Moore’s law). Hence my phrase ‘attack’ rather than criticism.

      I guess in most cases the people who scream the loudest tend to end up defining a meme (think militant atheism, etc.) so those who wish to make ‘the singularity’ into a religion will get the most attention. I don’t think this can be avoided.

      An interesting question would be:

      Would you rather have people trying to turn ‘the singularity’ into a religion or have those same people take no interest at all, or worse, take aversion to the idea. I don’t know the answer, but it seems like a bit of a Catch 22. People like to have things to believe in. The best we can do is continue to work quietly around that, I guess.

    • Joel Pitt says:

      Hi Mike,

      As the secretary of H+ I’m sorry to hear you felt that the h+ summit bios were overly self-promoting. While I wasn’t directly involved in the summit (due to being in New Zealand ;-( ) I believe it was run with the best of intentions. If you have particular bios in mind that are guilty of this, please let me know. I’ll take it the comments to the board at the next meeting and we can try to avoid it for the next one!

      I do believe you have a point to some extent. There are a lot of STRONG personalities involved. I guess this is because you’ve got to be pretty confident to have belief in such a non-conventional idea… or at least, an idea that was non-conventional 10 years ago when we were all getting involved in this. Due to this awareness I try my utmost to remain grounded and personable 😉


  2. melior says:

    Lower-order terms do not drive the asymptotic system behavior. Unless there is some evidence to outweigh the face that the rate of rate of growth (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of human knowledge is strongly positive, it’s an irrelevant distraction from the situation at hand.

  3. @Mike: there is a religious/mystic aspect placed on the Singularity by BOTH it’s “followers” and critics. If you analyse the arguments of most critics in depth, you find little more than obsolete religious notions: humility, Thou-Shalt-Not, respect for the will of god, reverence for nature etc.

    I do not deny that some critics of the Singularity idea have valid arguments, but it is often just the fight of an old religion against a new one.

    If I have to choose one of these two religions, I choose the dynamic, solar and optimist Singularity religion over the old boring and tired religion, without the slightest hesitation.

    Cancer is natural and curing cancer is artificial – does not mean that cancer is good and curing cancer is bad. On the contrary, I think cancer is bad, and curing cancer is good.

  4. Mike G says:

    @physics&cake, you do have a point with your catch22 comment. And there is a good chance that discussion will do a lot of good, even more so that the hype that surrounds/surrounded topics like string theory, High Tc carbon electronics, and quantum computing. I don’t mean that last statement in a bad way. All of those have are generating intellectual or commercial “products” that are different from what the hype promised.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to step on anyone’s toes. Thank you for your response. My comments about the bios might not have been completely fair, since my conclusion can’t be drawn about most speaker if I don’t assume they share Wurzweil’s persona.

    I can see your point about both sides using faith based arguments to further their ideas. I get turned off by feeling manipulated into feeling one way or the other. While I’m guessing most folks interested in the singularity have good intentions, there is money to be made out of people’s fears and insecurities about an unknown future. In the same way that not everyone involved in the writing of the bible thought about the money they would make from scaring the bejebus out of your plans for the afterlife, the worries of fiery hell do keep a lot of priests employed.

  5. Russell Hanson says:

    It just seems to me like this guy is largely and particularly ignorant of the many remarkable things that low-cost sequencing has and can accomplish. You’re right, it is a particularly bad attack.

  6. null says:

    Part of the difference is how we as society spend on prevention vs. ‘consumption’. Genome being on the prevention side and computer tech on the later. The other reason is expectation — what would a complete understanding of the genome result in? What would a ‘perfect’ computing platform be capable of?

  7. Chakravanti says:

    I find the reference to a singularity in any terms of tense to be comical. The singularity of mind, for that is exactly what a technological singularity is…an incomrehensibly dense collection of information so massive that it indiscriminately collapses upon itself and absorbs by sheer factor of awesomness (mental gravity). It can only be acknowledged by its nature as singluar dimension: spin. All effects of the spin to our multiple dimensions are so wickedly monumental that nothing we could imagine would come close to the effect such a thing would have.

    In fact, just realizing a fragment of the gravitational wave of that singularity from a distant arperature in whatever terms might end up being used to describe the mental planes of relativity is enough to cause religious notions.

    Because time travel is only possible very close to a singularity and once you have time travel you always have.

    Prentending the cult of singularity is any different than the old relgions is as absurd as all of the old religions being taken out of the context of a the possibility of a singularity being real.

    If it is possible with matter and we see similar laws of gravitational effects upon mind then why is it so absurd to suggest that Jesus Christ was T4 model?

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