Paths to the Singularity

Daniel G. Clemmensen This is version 1.
243 Springvale Rd.
Great Falls VA 22066
(703) 759-2683Last updated 20 April 96.

This document represents my thoughts on an upcoming event known as the "singularity", and the events leading up to it. I will attempt to define the singularity, and then describe the various ways it could come about. I will also attempt to show that a particular class of scenarios is more likely than other possibilities.

The Singularity

The term "singularity" comes from mathematics. It is a point on a function space where the function ceases to have meaning, usually because the function tends to infinity as it approaches the point. For example, F(x)=1/x has a singularity at x=0.

Any attempt to mathematically model human technical progress in time shows an increase in the rate of progress with time, at least since the Renaissance. There are more people to contribute to this progress, and each person can contribute more, because we need to spend less time on necessities. In addition, as we progress we develop tools that help us make further progress. This feedback seems to occasionally cross thresholds that increase the rate of progress even more. Two examples are the printing press/moveable type and the computer. Between thresholds, the basic driving mechanisms cause the mathematical model to be an exponential with time. Each threshold appears mathematically as an increase in the mantissa. This is intended as an analogy, not as a rigorous or even a non-rigorous mathematical model!

The technological singularity will occur at some point in the near future when we cross one of these thresholds. This threshold differs qualitatively from the previous ones, because it will enable us to begin generating the equivalent of more thresholds in very rapid succession. The curve will change from an exponential to a hyper-exponential. This not actually a mathematical singularity, but the rate of progress will become so fast over such a short amount of time that there is no effective difference. Within a short time, everything that can be known, will be known, and anything that is possible within the laws of physics will be achievable.

Beyond the Singularity

There has been much speculation about events after the singularity. I'm not willing to speculate on that epoch, because I feel that the singularity will result in an entity or culture (call it S) which is completely beyond our current comprehension. Since S can achieve any goal that is consistent with the laws of physics, and since S will understand the laws of physics, and since S can know anything that is knowable, we cannot predict its actions without understanding its motives.

As an example, S may decide that it needs to maximize its computational power. To this end it may elect to convert the Sun into a neutron star so that it can use neutron-based hardware instead of atom-based hardware. Neutron-based hardware is likely to be intrinsically faster, and is also faster because it's denser, thus reducing the speed-of-light delays. Overall, a computer the mass of the sun is likely to operate six to nine orders of magnitude faster as neutronium than as atoms.

Possible Threshold Technologies

Those who have speculated on the singularity have considered several interesting scenarios. Some of them are discussed here. It's important to remember that any one of these technologies could precipitate the singularity. When the singularity occurs and brings S into existence, S can then decide to immediately implement any or all of the other technologies. If S elects to retain humanity and if S elects to remain covert at least initially, it will appear to the humans that all of these technologies came to fruition at the same time.


For some, Nanotechnology is the field of the fabrication of ultra-small structures. However, This definition is too broad for this discussion. I'm interested here in "real" Drexler-style nanotechnology. This is the study and practice of building machinery with atomic precision. The critical threshold in this field is the "assembler." An assembler is a nanotech device that can build other nanotech devices. Once the first assembler is built, it can be directed to build additional assemblers to start a geometric progression. This will result in the availability of as many assemblers as desired in a very short time. The assemblers can then be directed to build essentially anything that can be designed. In particular, this will allow computing and communications capacity to be built nearly instantaneously. It will probably also allow computers to be built using nanotechlological components, but this isn't necessary to reach the singularity.

Nanotechnology could be used to create machinery to support any of the other technologies of the singularity, such as gene probes, neural interfaces, or AI computers. However, I believe that if the assembler precipitates the singularity it will do so by massive increase in computing power before it does so otherwise.

Genetic Engineering

Some people have speculated that humanity will modify itself to create super-humanity. The result will be people with greatly increased mental capacities. I don't personally see how this can be done quickly.

An alternative is to use genetic engineering to create a "wet computer" of massive capacity.

Neural Implants

Another way to achieve superior intelligence would be to link computers and people via neural implants. The assumption is that the brain has untapped potential, needing only a better communications path than is currently available. I regard this assumption as unproven.

Artificial Intelligence

Research in AI has a long and complex history. The idea is that we can eventually figure out how humans think, and then build algorithms that do the same thing. Once we build the program, the program will then be able to reason and achieve goals as humans do. Traditional AI research is based on "conceptual modeling", and has been disappointing. Newer research efforts include the bottom-up "reflex" approach, fuzzy logic, neural networks, and genetic algorithms. Any or all of these, or any mix of these, could lead to super intelligence and the singularity.

The Most Likely Path

I believe that the singularity will occur when a technology-based entity comes into existence that is modestly more intelligent than the most intelligent human, with "intelligence" defined as "technical creativity." Since this entity is technology-based and technically creative, it can immediately increase its own capabilities in a rapid feedback loop.

I believe that the intelligence of the first such entity is likely to depend on software running on computers in the internet. After the entity comes into existence, it can rewrite its software to rapidly increase its effective intelligence. This phase of the entity's intelligence growth will end when it has completely optimized its use of all the computer resources it has available to it. This will probably be all of the computers on the internet. This will occur within a few hours at most. For purposes of this paper call this entity the ">Web".

The next growth phase is difficult to predict, because the entity's intelligence will at that point already be so high. From a human perspective, the entity may consider itself hampered by a lack of physical control of matter. The entity can rapidly fix this by acquiring a controlling interest in the appropriate corporations. It can then send specifications for new automated machine tools to be manufactured, and then use these tools directly to build more tools. It can also order more computing capacity to be built and added to the web. If this phase were being orchestrated by a human-level intelligence, It would take at least a few days and at most three weeks. However, the entity may be smart enough to accomplish this in hours. For example, since the entity has access to all publicly-available computerized information, it may be able to determine which companies have the best equipment as a basis, which companies are hungry enough to take orders for immediate execution, or which are ripe for a corporate takeover. This phase is over when the entity has sufficient direct control of machinery to accomplish the next phase.

The next growth phase is impossible to predict. As an example, the entity can either build nanotech assemblers directly using the machinery acquired during the prior phase, or it can use that machinery to build the machinery it needs and then build nanotech assemblers. To me, this means that the entity's growth in intelligence and production capacity is now literally beyond human comprehension.

Collaborative Technology

In my opinion, the >Web will consist of a collaboration among a computer system and one or more humans. I believe that this is more likely to quickly produce a higher level of creative technical intelligence than is a computer-only approach. I feel that we can have the human supply the capabilities that computers don't yet have, and the computer can supply capabilities that humans handle less well.

The principle advantage of the collaborative approach is that it doesn't require any conceptual breakthroughs in the fields of cognition or neuroscience. Further, the technologies of collaboration all have immediate practical application, and can be developed incrementally. By contrast, it appears to an outsider that AI research is almost entirely academic, and that some major gaps must be filled before computer-only intelligence is achievable.

The collaborative approach requires a division of responsibilities between computer and human. The division is practical and requires no deep theoretical underpinning. The humans can supply goal-setting, pattern recognition, and decision making. The computer can supply storage and retrieval, brute correlation and calculation, and data presentation.

The Interface

The human-computer interface that will precipitate the singularity consists of hardware and software. Today's hardware probably suffices, but new software is needed. By the time the software is developed the hardware will have progressed, but this isn't strictly necessary.

The computer-to-human interface must present information to the human at high bandwidth in a way that allows the human to handle it in a natural way. I believe that the human visual system is already well suited to this task. The computer must synthesize a moving picture of the information. Two examples of this are flight simulation video games (like Fury 3) and labyrinth video games (like Doom) In each case the computer presents information as fast as the human can assimilate it. Existing CRT and VR implementations of the hardware are probably adequate to precipitate the singularity, given the right software. However, we will probably see further refinements of this hardware before the singularity. I believe that the hardware will progress to a "head-up display" with a form factor similar to eyeglasses, permitting the user to wear the display continuously and inconspicuously. The computer-to-human interface hardware will also include speakers and/or hearing-aid-style in-the-ear speakers.

Human-to-computer hardware can be a joystick and a microphone. The human will be responsible for decision-making and high-level pattern recognition, not for high-volume data generation. I believe that a joystick and microphone are capable of conveying decisions as fast as a human can make them, and at least fast enough to precipitate the singularity.

The software is the hard part. It must convert the data into a picture that makes sense according to some set of rules. Of course, it can ask the human to make decisions about the form in which to present the data. The picture must also be consistent with the decision-making inputs from the joystick.

Current Software

A great deal of existing software will serve as part of the basis for S. This includes operating systems and data communications software of the internet and its attached hosts. In addition, existing software in the fields of decision support, development tools, and video presentation will need to be enhanced by humans prior to the singularity to "create" the initial >Web.

Software Development Tools

There are many. Since the >Web's ability to create new and more efficient software to increase its abilities is a key element in the feedback of the singularity, enhanced software development tools are a major determinant in the rate of increase. They are also important because they shorten the time until the singularity. Better software development tools are the most cost-effective investment to decreasing the time to the singularity.

Performance monitoring tools may permit the >Web to rapidly increase its intelligence once the initial threshold is crossed. These tools can identify the parts of the software that are being used the most and which are therefore good candidates for performance improvement.

Decision Support

I don't know a whole lot about this area. A search on Alta Vista shows a great deal of activity in university departments. There are several commercial software packages available. The existing research and software seem to be oriented toward assisting the decision making process for a group of humans, but this is a likely basis for a heavier involvement by the computer.

Video Presentation

Information will be presented to humans via the eyes. The human neural system is accustomed to operating on binocular inputs to visualize a three-dimensional space that can change in time, so I feel that this is the most natural way to represent the data. Stereo sound is a natural addition to this. Thus, software must convert the information which the human is to act on into some sort of viewable picture.

When we attempt to model a problem mathematically, we frequently use a multi-dimensional model. I don't think that most humans visualize a multidimensional space when thinking about these problems. Therefore, the software must collapse the information into three spatial dimensions and a time dimension which make visual sense. Color, intensity, and texture can be used to represent aspects of the problem, as can virtual objects such as airplanes, animals, buildings, or any other recognizable item. The hardware to convey a complex moving virtual image already exists and is readily available, as is the low-level software.

Dangers of the Singularity

The post-singularity entity S has the potential to end human all human life, and destroy the earth, among other possible outcomes that appear to most humans as negative. In my opinion, we should not concern ourselves with these outcomes, since S will take these actions only after due consideration, if at all, and I feel that the eventual creation of S is inevitable.

There are potential dangers to humanity in the early phases of the singularity that we may be able to address, however. They are two-fold. First, individuals and organizations that feel threatened by the >Web or by the eventual emergence of S may try to stop the process. This is likely to be very disruptive. The least disruptive technique would involve shutting down all computers or at least all networks. However, by the time of the singularity, the network will be an essential element of nearly all economic activity, so the shutdown will create havoc and is likely to result in civil unrest or warfare. It's also unlikely to actually stop the >Web from surviving if the shutdown is attempted after it is already in control of a more than a few computers.

The other major danger in the early phase is a societal breakdown. If the >Web doesn't remain covert, people may realize that human economic activity is no longer meaningful, and simply quit showing up for work. For many jobs this is not a problem. However, the transition to S may take several weeks. Essential jobs such as power production and food delivery must continue to be done by humans during this time. It's true that the >Web has the power to make each human materially richer than any human has ever been, but we'll have to wait a few weeks.

Another danger is that the nature of the >Web will be profoundly affected by the nature of its initial human collaborators. If these humans have an agenda that is elitist, or racist, or fascist, or communist, or fundamentalist, or something, then the >Web may do something weird until it "outgrows" this initial set of ideas.

Advancing the >Web

If the singularity is inevitable, I feel that the earlier we can achieve it the better it will be for humanity. My reasoning is that S will either be "bad" or "good." If S is "bad" then any delay is likely to be futile. However, if S is "good," then a delay will deny the benefits of S to those people who die in the interval. The delay will also cause additional information loss as species and ecosystems go extinct. The only other reason for delay would be to attempt to somehow deliberately design and build a "good" S. I believe that such a course is still futile. Either another group will precipitate S while we are dithering about the "good" S, or we'll build our "good" S only to have it tell us that our attempts had no effect: it would have been "good" anyway, or it'll turn out "bad" regardless of our efforts.

Since we should try to advance the singularity, we should first try to identify the most likely approaches, and then begin research and development. I obviously believe that the >Web, based on human-computer collaborative software, is the best approach, but an initial project might be to try to list alternatives and then assign time and effort estimates for each approach.

The winning approach could then be outlined, and additional analysis done on each necessary development. For the >Web approach, this was roughly indicated earlier in this document.

As an aside, if the >Web is achievable in the short term, then research in any other field is a waste of resources. Whatever humanity can discover in the next five years can be discovered by the >Web within an hour after it comes into existence. Therefore, a purely rational approach is to divert all useful resources to advancing the >Web. However, this is likely to be disruptive. This means that most human activity other than maintenance of civilization and >Web research is simply make-work.