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The Singularity Q&A

Q: What is the Singularity?

A: The term Singularity was first used in its futurist context by science fiction author Vernor Vinge:

"Here I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss.  It's a problem we face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.  When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity -- a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied -- and the world will pass beyond our understanding."  [True Names and Other Dangers, p.47 1987, Baen]

In other words, it seems inevitable that our current paths of technological progress will someday enable the creation of greater intelligence, an event with consequences that we may literally be incapable of imagining with our current minds.  The moment when this new level of intelligence is achieved may thus mark the end of the world as we know it -- a world with ample room for improvements smarter minds could help us make.

In Astronomy, a "singularity" is a point where the laws of physics do not apply; this point theoretically resides at the center of a black hole -- an object with a gravitational pull so strong light cannot escape it.  The extreme difficulty of trying to predict greater-than-human thoughts renders our own future similarly mysterious.   And yet, humanity seems drawn to this "singular" moment in history as though by gravitational force.

Others have reached similar conclusions regarding the advent and significance of greater intelligence, some of which are more closely tied with the accelerating technological progress associated with it.  While Singularity (sometimes Technological Singularity) is the most common term for the phenomenon, there are others, such as The Spike, used by Damien Broderick in his book by the same name [The Spike, 2002 TOR].




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