No Singularity for you!

Posted on June 18, 2015 by TheSaint in Artifical Life, Things that NEED to be said

All nerds everywhere have heard of the legendary AI genius Ray Kurzweil and his page turning opus on the transcendence of the human condition into machines. The basic premise of Kurzweils argument is that human intelligence and knowledge appears to be accelerating exponentially and if human technology continues to accelerate at its current rate we’ll all be god like cyber-entities by next Monday.

Kurzweil says that even though most of the people in the field think we’re still several decades away from creating a human level intelligence, he puts the date at 2029 — less than 15 years away.

Interestingly it’s not just Kurzweil making this claim. It seems to be a mantra getting adopted by many of the technology industries greatest and most respected minds.


Bill Gates stops by one of The Saints public appearances to thank him for setting him straight on the whole AI thing…

“I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

-Bill Gates

Even the world’s governments are funding massive research projects to produce human brain simulations;

Thus with respect to the many esteemed minds who seem to share this view, I wish to reject this premise and assert that they are all morons that don’t know what they are talking about. No immanent robot transcendence is in anybody’s near future. Now don’t get me wrong I hold many of these folks in great esteem… but they happen to be completely and obviously wrong on this account and I have two credentials in my pocket that I believe make my case worth serious consideration.

First I have multi-generation experience with the problem, I am a 5th generation AI engineer. My great, great grandfather Edgar Bristol pioneered the use of analog neural networks for factory automation in the 1920’s and my family has been working with them ever since.

Back in the 1920s, when Edgar Bristol, Sr., was inventing the very first loop controller”

Today I work on machine learning technologies that involve self-programming systems and my brother Aaron with his masters in AI, makes video games.   My great great grandfather would have said of today’s digital neural networks that they are farther from simulating human intelligence than the primitive analog ones he worked with in the 1920’s, for reasons that I will articulate shortly.

Number two, I have a pretty good track record of calling BS on trendy technology hype before everybody else eventually comes around to agreeing with me. I wrote an extensive series of blog articles that were critical of the Human Brain Project when it was announced. Almost two years later the consensus appears to have gone my way. Here’s what I said about the Human Brain Project almost two years ago when it was announced and everybody was leaping with enthusiasm for it.


Here’s what they’re saying about it today….

“The report says that ambitions for whole-brain simulation are premature”

So why do I know better than all these brilliant people that we are in no danger of being dominated by or becoming intelligent machines anytime soon? My family has worked on it for several generations and I’ve worked on machine intelligence for several decades and here’s what we’ve learned about the problem;

The analog computers my great great grandfather worked on were closer to simulating a real brain than a digital computer based neural network because man-made digital computers have had the noise and chaos beaten out of them. Yes it’s true that we have made machines that think, this achievement may arguably be even greater because we made machines that think NOTHING like us. The very forces of physics that give rise to life and organic computing and thought have been systematically erased from digital machines. Our computers are the wrong architecture, they cannot simulate the turbulent systems that give rise to life and biological thought. Yes we can use a computer to crudely simulate these forces at tremendous computational expense but we can never do it perfectly or fast with a digital machine. The analog signals that living systems compute with can solve problems involving infinities, trillions of simultaneous variables and synchronize timing events at the quantum level almost instantaneously. No digital computer will ever match these computational capabilities at any clock speed or scale. When you examine the calculations that are really involved in computing “life” it becomes obvious that we are using the wrong tools to try to solve the problem.

The fact that nobody else seems to say this as clearly and unambiguously as I just have is a persistent mystery to me. All these intelligent people should KNOW that our computers just can’t do that and won’t be able to do that in 15 years let alone 100 years if we don’t junk the digital architecture and start over again. Now I know what some of you reading this are thinking… you’re thinking “But QUANTUM computers are right around the corner! …and they can compute anything!” This is another one of these modern “cold fusion” kind of computing fantasies that mystifies me… sure quantum computing sounds groovy, I hope it works, but I don’t really give a damn… because we don’t need them to compute life or artificial intelligence… we don’t use them ourselves to think! An analog computer that could compute with signals instead of bits could solve amazing computing problems NOW without any science-fiction premise required. In the 1980’s when I was first studying 3D ray-tracing and light simulation the promise of optical computing was all the rage. We were right around the corner from being able to compute with light interference patterns instead of silicon! I’m 48 years old now, most of my hair is gone… and there are still no commercial parallel optical computing chips in mainstream use for some reason… I can wait for quantum computing, we don’t appear to need it for any of the interesting problems…

Now I hate to be a wet blanket and shatter everyone’s Star-Trek fantasies about how the future will unfold but as somebody who really wants to participate in achieving amazing scientific and computational advances, I have to begin with a brutally grounded rational foundation.   I’m not going to invent anything amazing if I demand that reality conforms to how I WISH things worked. When I study how living systems compute I find a computing model that cannot be simulated practically in a machine and that many of life’s most important properties, like the ability to self-program and systematically evolve derive from physics forces we can’t practically simulate with a digital machine.

So what does this mean for Kurzweil and his grand delusions about machine intelligence? I think he may ultimately be right but I see two definitive barriers to his anticipated singularity.

  1. 11edison_1_600

    Thomas Edison posing with his “talking machine”.

    Sometime between here and bionic transcendence we will have to completely ditch the digital computing paradigm and that transition may be difficult and slow. There will be no real advances in “Artificial Intelligence” until that happens. Everything we call AI today is really just humans making tape recordings of ourselves and calling them “intelligent” when the recording sounds like us. This is the case with all of our achievements in modern neural networks, they are just interestingly life-like marionettes. REAL neural networks, design and program themselves… that’s what makes them intelligent.

  2. There is a limit to intelligence but no limit to stupid. It’s not clear or maybe even plausible that a liquid computer the size of a grapefruit trapped inside our skulls can ever be smart enough to comprehend its own design well enough to consciously replicate and improve on itself. Kurzweil may have FAITH that collecting enough of these computing grapefruits to collaborate with one another can solve the problem but in my experience the larger the collection of people the more ignorance and self-interest dominates any collaboration. It is not true that technology improves with time, it just gets more complicated and unwieldy until economic forces require that the old solution be discarded in favor of something simpler that a thinking grapefruit can manage. Therefore we inherently cap the ultimate potential complexity of any technology we make to suit our individual human limitations… as demonstrated by our invention of thinking machines that aren’t allowed to have thoughts we can’t understand.

This may sound like a pessimistic view of the future but I have found it to be very liberating when it comes to doing pioneering AI work. When you accept that the machines we’ve made will never evolve into Commander Data but are remarkable in their own way, what follows is the realization that we have created the opportunity to explore ways of thinking and computing that are NOTHING like the ones we are most familiar and comfortable with. Living computers have major limitations, predominantly among them the need to survive and perpetuate themselves at the expense of any higher purpose. This constraint has made our computing paradigm amazing but also brutally pragmatic. We quickly lose interest in computing solutions to problems that don’t directly result in getting food, shelter, reproduction or entertainment. Computers on the other hand have infinite patience and fascination for any problem we turn them to. The real opportunity for “Artificial Intelligence” is getting machines to think about things we can’t or won’t think about. This observation however requires giving up control and full comprehension of how the computer solves these kinds of problems. If we can comprehend how the computer solved the problem then we restricted it to solving only problems we could figure out for ourselves. We have to sacrifice the RESTRICTION we impose on AI that it works in a way we can comprehend in order to produce AI that can do something new and amazing. If you accept the premise that any interesting computed AI must by some definition be “incomprehensible” to us, then it becomes easy to recognize dead-ends in modern AI research.

The big buzz word in modern AI research is “Deep Learning” with convolutional neural networks. This is a very fancy way of saying that human beings are hand coding neural networks to solve interesting problems. I assert that there is only ONE interesting problem worth solving in this space and it is creating a neural network that can design and optimize itself to find solutions to problems without being specified by a human engineer. Without this requirement all we are doing is making recordings of our own intelligence and playing them back.

Mechanical Turk

This is the world’s first “Chess playing robot” from the Victorian era. Modern “Deep Learning” neural networks operate on the same principal.

Today, as in 1769 when the legendary Mechanical Turk chess playing robot spread awe and wonder around the world, little has actually changed. The 2015 Mechanical Turks we have designed are no closer to actually being intelligent without a human agent puppeteering them.

So if I accept Kurzweils premise that there is something like a “singularity” to look forward to, which I’m actually inclined to do. I would modify his vision in a couple important regards.

  1. There will never be a robot body or digital mind that we can migrate to. They don’t work.
  2. We may successfully employ the thinking machines we have created to devise medical technologies that extend our organic lives indefinitely and that advances in this area may accelerate exponentially

self-operating napkin




  1. How embarrassing is it for you that Google has created an interesting product using deep learning that does not involve solving problems?

    • We make interesting products with code all the time and it’s cool that we are starting to program with neural networks. It’s not embarrassing at all that they are useful tools for solving certain classes of computing problem.. just don’t confuse them with being anything like artificial intelligence. They’re not.

  2. What if building smarter machines is more like playing Jeopardy than like being a human? This one ability is what Kurzweil’s Singularity is all about, after all.

    • Yes there is a lot of confusing parroting with being conscious going on out there.

      • Confusing consciousness with intelligence is also common. There have been normally intelligent people with no indication of self-awareness. Sleepwalkers, like John Parks, make decisions and perform complex tasks unconsciously. It follows that an AI might be capable of starting Kurzweil’s Singularity, but be otherwise not very intelligent; and even if it is very intelligent, it might not be conscious.

        • Now you’re talking Don. One could argue that the Internet has already become intelligent. Evolution has shaped it to maximally incentivize humans to add processing power and provide energy for it. You could argue that it increasingly shares properties with a colonial organism like a jellyfish in which each of us, functioning as cells acting in our own individual self-interest, leads us to unconsciously form a larger organism. Human cities share a lot in common with coral reefs. We make them out of calcified lime, they have nervous, circulatory, respiratory, temperature regulatory and digestive waste processing systems carried out by individual animals acting in their own interest without a centralized nervous system or common genome to guide them. They are even bio-luminescent at night, we burn coal to illuminate them. Given that humans appear to “unwittingly” participate in organisms… it might be more fair to say that the evidence is that we’re not sentient either.
          I think it’s interesting to observe that advances in human communication technologies causes us to increasingly function like a hive mind. We can negotiate instantly for the resources we need to survive AND reproduce from one another via the internet with increasing energy efficiency. That’s the big incentive for cells to form colonies, efficiency of scale for survival. In that context our individual identities are already being absorbed by a machine. How easily could anybody survive, reproduce or acquire wealth today without connectivity to the Internet? One might argue that it is already evident that Kurzweils vision of the future is false, what is happening is that we are being absorbed and “digested” by machines as sources of energy and reproduction for them. Show us a funny cat video, we buy an iPad and add computing power and pay an electrical bill for the organism. There will be no robot war, the machines won’t become “sentient” or develop feelings, we won’t “jack” into them for anything more productive than feeling good. Why subject ourselves to stress, adversity and physical peril to feel achievement when it can be delivered via a game or just a needle? Cells assemble themselves from organic compounds, animals assemble themselves from cells, the internet assembles itself from us. I would observe that living systems may indeed be “sentient” but that humans actually are not, we are just confused. The force that enables living systems to self-program and self-assemble is the root of sentience and all living systems exhibit it. We are definitely a higher form of expression of that property of life but apparently not the top one. Personally I can’t study the inner-workings of cells and living systems without concluding “That Amoeba with no brain is still THINKING!” and if it’s thinking and planning and engineering itself and its environment, what really separates it from us?
          For some reason people seem to have a deep need to believe that we are aliens that were put on this planet fully formed and different and somehow removed from our own environment. It’s a very biblical idea even in it’s modern “The world is melting and we’re all guilty of killing the planet” kind of formulation. We WANT to think that forming our little glowing lime colonies is somehow “unnatural” and destructive even as we worry about not having enough of them growing in the ocean.

          • “Who shall say that a man does see or hear? He is such a hive and swarm of parasites that it is doubtful whether his body is not more theirs than his, and whether he is anything but another kind of ant-heap after all. May not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines? An affectionate machine-tickling aphid?”

            “It is said by some that our blood is composed of infinite living agents which go up and down the highways and byways of our bodies as people in the streets of a city. When we look down from a high place upon crowded thoroughfares, is it possible not to think of corpuscles of blood travelling through veins and nourishing the heart of the town? No mention shall be made of sewers, nor of the hidden nerves which serve to communicate sensations from one part of the town’s body to another; nor of the yawning jaws of the railway stations, whereby the circulation is carried directly into the heart — which receive the venous lines, and disgorge the arterial, with an eternal pulse of people. And the sleep of the town, how life-like! with its change in the circulation.”

            Samuel Butler, 1872

  3. “This may sound like a pessimistic view of the future…”. It’s needed pessimism in some circles.

    The hype around Deep Learning reminds me a lot of the old hype around Genetic Algorithms and Evolutionary Algorithms. Powerful tools, but a waste your time if you don’t acknowledge their limits.

    • yep.. and I do love that stuff but they are not going to give rise to Skynet anytime soon.

      • People really don’t seem to like discussing the limitations of tech, even engineers who should know better. I find it useful to know these limits, it prevents people form doing unnecessary work. Even relatively “academic” theory like the Halting Problem or Godel’s Theorem’s have very real ramifications for large scale projects.

  4. Fascinating topic! Obviously this borders on the argument of spiritual reality. And, this topic argues the point of intelligence and consciousness at the ‘definition level’.

    In a practical view: if someone is ‘living forever’ does that give them some kind of a slow decay? Its clear that the singularity is over-promising. And, in effect, you are causing the greatest friction in a world which depends on death to continue life.

    its almost as if people who want to live forever are the most scared of death, and therefore missing out on some of the most profound observations of being alive.

    Then again, the wisdom of the ancient cultures (pre-monotheistic, say 10k+ years back) has been mostly erased or hidden. There are some remaining clues as to how they saw this kind topic: where there already exists a form of infinite spiritual continuity.


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