The Internet of Things (IoT) is and will continue to change the world through sensors that can instantly generate information and respond to needs and insights in real-time. This technology currently exists in our personal devices, in factories, and in agriculture. However, while this provides innumerable possibilities for the future efficiency of countless processes, some fear that it might be the first step necessary in bringing us closer to the prophesized technological singularity.
What is the Singularity?
In general, the term singularity refers to the moment when a civilization changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. Originating from the physics concept denoting a point in space and time where the gravitational field becomes infinite, the Singularity in society will essentially mark a runaway effect or tipping point for history.
The Singularity is believed to occur in the form of the technological singularity, in which computing power will not just meet but exceed human intelligence. It is speculated that when this occurs, humans will have no control or understanding over the advanced level of intelligence among machines.
How the IoT Moves us Closer to the Singularity
According to Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay “Technological Singularity”, which popularized the concept, some of the means to induce the Singularity are involvement with large computer networks and intimate user/computer interfaces.
The Internet of Things works to create these two ideas. The sensors (things) that collect data for different purposes are essential to the entire system and often respond to stimuli to gain an understanding of their specific purpose. Many of the gesture-based interfaces that we make with technology are becoming part of the Internet of Things, giving the cloud information about our interactions with technology. This ensures user/computer interfaces on a level of intimacy in which the computer might know more about you than you know about yourself.
The idea of large computer networks applies to the Internet of Things because it is the key defining aspect of the IoT. The data that is collected through the sensors becomes part of this massive computer network, which gives it comprehensive knowledge on countless aspects of technology and related user interactions.
However, the technological singularity requires more than just a knowledgeable computer network. According to Vinge and other minds that have written on the topic, the superhuman intelligence maintained via the Internet must undergo some kind of “awakening” for the major change to take place. In other words, the Singularity is dependent on artificial intelligence (AI).
The Internet of Things could also help to achieve this goal. The IoT has the capability to take in a great deal of information, but issues do come up with how to manage and sift through all of that data. Because of this, some type of AI could improve the Internet of Things drastically, allowing it to manage all of the insights that are captured from different sensors and devices. This AI could create the intelligence explosion that ultimately leads to the Singularity.
Advantages of the Singularity
As previously noted, a singularity occurs when a civilization’s rules and technologies become incomprehensible to previous generations. A good way of understanding this is to imagine how you would explain the Internet to someone from the year 1200. Even overlooking issues with language, it would be practically impossible to clearly convey this idea because the individual wouldn’t understand any of the parameters that you could provide.
This thought can be overwhelming, but it isn’t necessarily inherently bad. Modern technology has greatly advanced the world, and while it has made people abandon the baselines of the past, it has not changed human beings entirely. The technological singularity might be the same.
With the technological singularity, we will have technological developments at a level that our minds aren’t even capable of processing. This not only means advancements in computer technology, but even the potential to advance biology and extend the lifespan of living things.
Harms of the Singularity
Whenever the Singularity and its related concepts are intellectually explored, they are almost always presented as something bad. Just look at the presentations of the technological singularity in popular culture – The Terminator, The Matrix, and so many other sci-fi stories all indicate a singularity that has caused an apocalypse.
Much of this derives from one idea: if artificial intelligence and any related machines or robots are to achieve singularity, knowing things that we cannot even begin to comprehend, why would they need us?
As Vinge notes in his essay, any intelligent machines “would not be humankind’s ‘tool’ – any more than humans are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees.” Even though the development of the Singularity is sparked by humans (through the creation of robots, AI, etc.), there is no reason to expect it to work for our convenience.
A hyper-intelligent AI can easily seem terrifying, considering that it knows us better than we know ourselves.
Standards and the Singularity
Any form of progress in industry actually drives us closer to the Singularity. If a standard practice or requirement is published on a concept related to computers and information technology, that set of guidelines is another piece of innovation that builds upon the foundation necessary to set off the Singularity.
As for the Singularity itself, it is the ultimate standard. Any requirement or need for production and industry can be managed through it. It wouldn’t need consensus or competition, simply because it is connected with everything.
Perhaps we don’t have anything to worry about. In his essay, Vinge also speculates that the Singularity might not happen at all, and he gives examples of potential symptoms that would indicate that it can’t happen in our society.
The Singularity could also be catered to advance humankind so that it maintains a level of competition with any advanced artificial intelligence. This could lead to miraculous innovations such as immortality, which surely brings up additional moral and ethical issues.
However, the possibility of this future shouldn’t serve as a hindrance for innovation. As stated by Vinge, “the competitive advantage — economic, military, even artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.”