In our modern world of ever-expanding technology and automation, it’s natural to wonder just how far advancements can go. Today, it’s not absurd to wonder whether artificial intelligence could ever replace every human worker. Some folks have this exact question on their minds – and they’re not reading too much science fiction. They’re clued into a very real theory that’s been around for decades.
The term “singularity” means the point at which an equation is not defined or well-behaved, or at which it becomes infinite. Singularity is also the term coined for the theory that, at some point, the massive evolution of computing power and artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence. In its worst form, the singularity is predicted to produce the result of an all-out, machine driven take over of human enterprise.
I admit, at its core, the singularity theory sounds like something out of a Ray Bradbury or George Orwell novel. But with Amazon’s seeming world dominance of commerce, and IBM’s Watson computer beating human Chess Grand Masters at their own game, the singularity doesn’t sound as implausible as it used to for some people. The key is how we frame the continued evolution of technology.
If artificial intelligence continues to grow, it doesn’t mean that machines will inevitably take over the world. What’s much more likely is that humans will reap significant benefits by harnessing this technology, especially in areas like medical advancements. The positive (and more plausible) spin is that the singularity could lead humans to live longer, richer, fuller lives.
Where did the idea of unfettered technological growth come from? Take Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel and the veritable godfather of the semiconductor business. These days, Moore is worth about $8 billion. More interesting than his net worth, however, were his thoughts on the trajectory of technology.
Back in the mid-1960s, Moore put forth the thesis that the speed and power of semiconductors would double every year. Later, he revised his estimate to a two-fold increase every two years. Today, Intel says performance actually doubles every 18 months. This measure of the speed of technological advancement is now called “Moore’s law.”
As it relates to technology, the theory of singularity extrapolates Moore’s law. Building on the standard identified by Moore and Intel, author, futurist, and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has hypothesized that if artificial intelligence doubles every year to two years, by the year 2045, technology will surpass human capacity.
With the speed at which technology has advanced, especially over the past couple of decades, commentators, scientists, and regular working people alike are questioning whether we’re witnessing a global transition to the singularity. It’s a scary proposition. But the direst predictions will never come true because of a few strong, basic principles of human existence.
Remember that we are emotional and psychologically motivated beings. Artificial intelligence can’t replicate human feelings – it is rooted only in rationality. So there are human traits that extend beyond the realm of the technological. And our psychology puts us in charge of deciding how to grow and harness artificial intelligence.
For the singularity to wreak havoc on jobs, economic incentives would have to be there for companies to invest in the rise of artificial intelligence over human jobs. If taken too far, this proposition becomes self-defeating. If businesses switch to fully automated systems of delivery, there will be no human wage-earners left to buy their products. Hence, artificial intelligence in its most extreme form is self-destructive. It would bring down the very world it takes over.
And the singularity isn’t all bad. If the singularity swings upward, it may bring about significant benefits, like enhanced human longevity through medical and biotechnology advancements. More humans with longer life spans translate into more demand for services from our economy – not less. As our population continues to grow and live into even older ages, we’ll need services like skilled nursing, more abundant medical care, and home services, like grocery delivery, in-home health aids, and lawn care.
Of course, some jobs will be lost in the creative destruction process of artificial intelligence. But, as is always the case with advancements, new jobs will undoubtedly be created. And ultimately, our continued technological growth will create many more benefits than harm. If you think about it, it already has.