22 June 2010

Signs of the Singularity (III)

I'm continuing to work on figuring out what signs I should be looking for to figure out whether or not the Singularity is going to come about.  

I tend toward the Robin Hanson view of the Singularity: a sharp increase in economic growth; multiple large changes in the ways we live and work.  The singularity is fueled by a growing knowledge economy as more and more workers are employed to solve design problems instead of growing food, manufacturing goods, or providing rote services.  The core technologies are computers which will take over rote services, help humans collaborate more efficiently, and help humans find design solutions, and nanotechnology which is used to develop new materials and build more efficient machines.

Of course, we've seen dramatic improvements in communications over the past 50 years if not longer.  Other areas where we would expect to see lifestyle changes if the Singularity is to arise include health care, energy, and transportation.

In the field of health care, plasmids, as discussed in Scientific American, are looking like they may be a sign of the singularity.  Plasmids provide a new technology for inserting drug manufacturing machines directly into human cells.  It looks like plasmids will provide a strong infrastructure for attacking a variety of health problems that a previous generation of technology failed to solve.

In the field of energy, we are seeing new materials becoming useful, particularly in the area of photovoltaics, and in carbon-fiber windmills.  We haven't yet seen the breakthrough here.  A real breakthrough would dramatically decrease the cost of energy making coal economically uncompetitive.  Exceedingly cheap energy is an enabling technology for many other changes in our lives.  Cheap energy can be converted into abundant fresh water and reduces the cost of transportation.  The type of breakthrough we would be looking for would be photovoltaic panels that cost as much to build and install as shingles, and which provide the same benefits as shingles in addition to producing electricity.  Effectively we would obtain the energy to power a house for no cost.

For transportation, carbon fiber and electric cars are relatively small iterative improvements.  The real benefits should come as cars become intelligent.  Smart cars should be able to dramatically decrease the amount of space between cars on freeways both front-to-back and left-to-right.  Smart cars should be able to schedule when they pass through intersections both to better optimize the flow of traffic and to optimize acceleration and braking to improve energy consumption.

With sufficient improvements to economic growth, we may see increases in the number of distinctly different kinds of cars that a household maintains.  Each household might use small commute-mobiles for getting to and from work.  Larger mini-vans and SUVs for family functions might be reserved for weekends.  Instead of having two general purpose cars, a household might have three or four cars customized to specific purposes with other custom-purpose cars being easily rentable when needed.

I think we can start to see how, 25 years from now, the way we live will be entirely different than the last half of the 20th century.  Health technology will provide vaccines that robustly protect us from viruses.  A few vaccines administered one would protect us from all forms of flu without the need for yearly updates that help a little bit.  HIV and heptatitis C would be scourges of a prior era.  Thousands of new in vivo manufactured drugs would be available to treat a wide variety of diseases: diabetes, hemophelia, Alzheimers, schizophrenia, many forms of cancer,  aspects of heart disease, lung disease, and strokes.  Life expectancy will be pushed up to the historic limit of 120 years waiting for a new technology that moves us past fighting off invaders and a lack of important protiens to rejuvenating tissue.

In 25 years, photovoltaics and wind energy will be widespread each providing over 10% and growing of our total energy consumption at prices below subsidized coal.  Cheap energy will be providing increased freshwater supplies to our cities while nanotechnology improves salt-filtering membranes.

In 25 years, our cars will be electric, made of strong, light carbon fiber, and be intelligent.  Intelligent cars will increase traffic density and speeds on freeways, reducing congestion.  Intelligent cars will platoon to decrease air resistance.  Human productivity will increase as brain power is switched from navigating a car to performing design, learning, and research activities while being transported by the car.  People will live much farther away from where they work.

And the internet will be far more intelligent.  When we use google today, we see flashes of human level intelligence.  Estimates equating computer power to brain power suggest that google has the hardware equivalent of 1,000 human brains.  These brains are timeshared across a couple of billion users.  In 25 years, google's users will effectively interact with a dedicated human brain equivalent.