The Singularity

When making presentation on AI, I often look into the future a bit and discuss “The Singuilarity.” When I do so, I often discover that folks don’t know what I’m talking about. So, here’s a bit of an explanation.

First, what I mean. By “The Singularity,” I mean, “the point in time at which the processing power of a physical device and/or algorithm can match that of a human brain.” That will be quite a milestone. But that is by no means the only definition of The Singularity.

A more sci-fi sounding presentation of the concept was made by I.J. Good back in 1965 when he speculated that machines teaching machines could create “the first ultraintelligent machine,” and that it would “far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever.” It would be “the last invention that man would ever need make.”

An Enigma decryption machine, called a “bombe.” This machine, made by National Cash Register of Dayton, Ohio, eliminated all possible encryptions from intercepted messages until it arrived at the correct solution. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Discussions of ultraintelligent machines go back even further: in 1847, R. Thornton wrote about the possibility of a calculator that could “grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind.” Samuel Butler in 1863 concluded that “the technological evolution of the machines will continue inevitably until the point that eventually machines will replace men altogether.” In 1951 Alan Turning wrote, “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers.”

The term “singularity” in this sense was first used when John von Neumann wrote in 1958, ““the ever accelerating progress of technology … gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”

Many more discussions of the “technological singularity” appeared over the next 40-50 years and are discussed here.

Vernor Vinge wrote in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity that this would signal the end of the human era, as the new superintelligence would continue to upgrade itself and would advance technologically at an incomprehensible rate.

The Singularity idea was finally popularized by Ray Kurzweil in his seminal 2006 book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.”

I particularly enjoy this quote by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine: the Singularity is the point at which “all the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.”

Note that these discussions generally avoid the metaphysical ideas of computers being “sentient,” “conscious,” or “self-aware” and stick to processing power. (That is not to say that the concept of conscious computers is not absolutely fascinating and worth discussion.)

The basic idea that the “intelligence” of computers will so far outstrip ours that we will not be able to comprehend their abilities is at the core of much of the fear being expressed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. (See several of my prior posts.)

We do not know precisely when The Singularity will occur, but I know of no student of AI who doesn’t believe it is coming. The most common estimates of the timing have it upon us in 25-40 years.


And Now Today’s Legal AI News

  • Bloomberg Law’s “Points of Law” is machine learning applied to a database of 13 million court opinions that “helps you quickly find language critical to a court’s reasoning, even when buried deep in the text. Bloomberg Law enables you to shorten research time….”


  • UK insurance law firm Keoghs has selected iManage Extract to “streamline the handling of insurance disputes.”