The robot singularity is almost here

The moment geeks have feared for decades may be just around the corner. The first signs of the impending technological singularity are beginning to appear, one of which being the adorably named 3D printer RepRap.

The technological singularity can simply be defined as the point in time in which artificial intelligence becomes capable of recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of  building smarter and more powerful machines independent of human help. Vernor Vinge of San Diego State University addresses this topic in his paper “The Coming Technological Singularity: How To Survive in the Post Human Era.”

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” he wrote. “Shortly after the human era will be ended.”

Vinge claims that singularity will be as dramatic a change to the planet as the rise of humanity once was, and that these changes will happen at a rate with which humanity will struggle to cope.

“From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in ‘a million years’ (if ever) will likely happen in the next century,” Vinge wrote.

The first version of RepRap, or the self-replicating rapid prototyper, was created by Professor Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath in 2008. That year, the original RepRap (Called Darwin around the lab) began printing parts to self-repair. Shortly thereafter, Darwin began work printing parts a second generation of itself, a “child.” This child began printing parts for Darwin’s grandbaby just minutes after its own assembly was completed.

Fortunately for humanity, RepRap is incapable of self assembly thus far. It can only generate the parts. Human hands are still required. And, the most advanced version of RepRap is only 73 percent self-replicable. There are some parts, like motors and cables, that cannot be 3D-printed just yet.

What RepRap cannot do, a robot at the University of Cambridge can. This robot can assemble and design child bots without human help. This robot has been programmed to design based on the principles of natural selection. It builds sets of child bots with varying traits, and then tests how quickly these bots can cross a fixed amount of space. After testing, the bot takes the designs of the most effective robots and models new children after them. By the end of the trial period, the robot had created offspring that could perform twice as fast as the original generation. The only thing limiting the robot’s production was its inability to generate parts.

Combine RepRap with the Cambridge robot and a motor and you have a fully functional singularity. As terrifying as scientists such as Vinge make this out to be, it might not be so bad. Ray Kurzweil, the biggest and most public proponent of singularity, chooses to think of it as the moment in time in which humanity overcomes the limitations of biology, rather than surefire doom.

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” Kurweil said. “That is what it means to be human—to extend who we are.”

Kurzweil is planning to live far beyond the typical human lifespan and to use the power of singularity to resurrect his dead father. He believes that after the year 2030, we will have the ability to download the human consciousness onto a computer system.

Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal, believes that the future of humanity rests on our ability to successfully attain singularity before the problems humanity created catch up with us.

“The singularity will either be really successful, in which [case] we’re going to have the biggest boom ever, or it is probably going to blow up the whole world,” Theil said at the San Francisco Singularity Summit of 2007.

Richard Dawkins echoes Theil’s fatalistic view of humanity’s position. He gives us only a 50-50 chance of surviving the next century. Our survival, according to Dawkins, is dependent on someone getting a whole lot smarter and becoming capable of solving the problems that can kill us, like climate change. That someone either has to be us, or, it could be, as Theil hopes, something we create to do the heavy lifting for us.

Either way, we are approaching a critical moment in the story of humanity. Hopefully when singularity comes it ensures the permanence of our existence rather than our downfall.