Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Singularity

               Singularity is a future period during which the pace of technological change 
               will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.
                                                                                   ― Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near


Vernor Vinge is a retired San Diego State University mathematics professor, computer scientist and science fiction author who I met locally. In his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity he predicted that the creation of superhuman artificial intelligence would mark the point beyond which no current models of reality are sufficient to predict what will happen. (1) He believes that shortly after the Singularity arrives the human era will be ended.

Vernor Vinge was the first to coin the phrase, “Technological Singularity” to describe a future point at which technology creates intelligences beyond human comprehension. The term is now in wide use among futurists. Some 20 years later, he remains firm on his views about the collapse of civilization after the Singularity.  In my opinion, this is more than a little tinged with his futuristic science fiction imagination. (2)

Principal Supporter

Ray Kurzweil’s is a distinguished MIT graduate, a prizewinning author and scientist who received the National Medal of Technology& Innovation in 1999. He has been inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, has received 20 honorary doctorates, has been awarded honors from three U.S. presidents, and has authored 7 books (5 of them national bestsellers).

About 25 years ago, Ray Kurzweil changed his job description to "societal visionary". He became Director of Engineering of Google in 2012, saying that his sole job is to make computers as smart as humans, with natural language understanding.

Ray Kurzweil published two books that got me hooked on his futuristic thinking: The Age of Intelligent Machines (Oct. 1990); and The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. (Jan. 2000)

Ray Kurzweil’s 670-page tome, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology was published in 2011. (3) The book was a New York Times bestseller and has been #1 on Amazon in both science and philosophy. It portrays what life will be like after the Singularity – a human-machine civilization when human experiences shift from real to virtual reality. I got an advance copy at a conference where Ray Kurzweil was the keynote speaker, and have been carrying an e-copy around on my Kindle since.

Approaching Singularity

Ray Kurzweil offers a framework for envisioning the twenty-first century – an age in which the marriage of human sensitivity and artificial intelligence fundamentally alters and improves the way we live. Kurzweil's prophetic blueprint for the future takes us through the advances that inexorably result in computers exceeding the memory capacity and computational ability of the human brain by the year 2020 (with human-level capabilities not far behind); in relationships with automated personalities who will be our teachers, companions, and lovers; and in information fed straight into our brains along direct neural pathways. (4)

Here's what Ray Kurzweil expects:

"Within just a few decades, life as we know it will be completely different. Non-biological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. It will then speed past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, with the ability of machines to share their knowledge instantly. By 2045, we'll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that un-enhanced human intelligence won't keep pace."

Ray Kurzweil’s movies, Singularity and Transcendent Man are different versions of the same idea. Ray discusses a hypothetical future paradise in which humans will become "more creative and more loving" by adding artificial intelligence to their brains.
Ray Kurzweil turned 68 this year (February 2016) and expects to live forever, with his intelligence downloaded to a machine. In the meantime, he is reprogramming his metabolism for extreme longevity by taking about 200 pills a day. He says, "I think I'll make it through to when I can at least back myself up."

 Time Cover Story

In Feb 2011 the cover of TIME magazine featured the headline: "2045 - The Year Man Becomes Immortal". The cover-story shows Ray Kurzweil in front of a theater showing his movie, and the article headlines the definition of Singularity: "The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". (5)(6)

TIME's coverage of Ray Kurzweil came just a few days after USA Today interviewed him about the Jeopardy match between IBM's supercomputer Watson, which won against two of the game's human champions. The match was reminiscent of the historic chess win by IBM's Deep Blue against world chess-champion Garry Kasporov in 1997. Years before it happened, Kurzweil foretold that computers would defeat humans in chess


Will there be a Singularity? On one hand, it could potentially solve most human problems, even mortality. Unshackled by human limitations, advanced life could eventually do amazing things beyond our abilities. On the other hand, it could destroy life, as we know it. 

The Singularity could be the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity. Yet, largely, it is shrugged off. A common argument is that there is no scientific proof that any disaster scenarios will occur.  On the optimistic side, digital technologies will diagnose diseases more accurately than doctors can, apply enormous data sets to transform retailing, and accomplish many tasks once considered uniquely human. 

Some people think that the Singularity seems far-fetched. But, when I travel halfway across the globe with ivory-tower objectivity at 40,000 feet, I keep imagining how the world continues to accelerate through technology. I get a strange feeling that indeed some significant transition is inevitable. It won't be a smooth shift – more like an inflection point, a fairly rapid switch.


The interconnected, planet-wide web is already more complex than a human brain and has surpassed the 20-petahertz threshold for potential intelligence. In 10 years, it will be a thousand times more powerful. (7) So, will super intelligence emerge on the Web? And, if it does, will it be manageable? Or, will it take charge and manage? Already, some are predicting transhuman and posthuman intelligence. Can anyone say with certainty that this cannot or will not happen?

At this stage, perhaps we can only just muse about these ideas. Before you shrug them off or completely dismiss them, please read Ray Kurweil's book – or maybe read the first couple of chapters on


In any case, you might enjoy this song, a humorous Singularitarian version of Gilbert & Sullivan's I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General from the opera, The Pirates of Penzance.

Here's a sample of the lyrics. Below, you’ll find a link to a YouTube video version:  (8)

I am the very model of a Singularitarian
I'm combination Transhuman, Immortalist, Extropian,
Aggressively I'm changing all my body's biochemistry
Because my body's heritage is obsolete genetically,
I'll try to improve these patterns with optimal biology,
Expand my mental faculties by merging with technology

Economic Singularity

I was reminded of my attraction to and fascination with the concept of the Singularity when the financial guru John Mauldin, who writes remarkably well, brought it up recently in his Thoughts from the Frontline newsletter. (9)

John writes: The black hole is the point of no return – the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great that nothing can escape; conventional models no longer work.

John Mauldin is correct to draw a parallel between the technological singularity and the black hole that is being approached with the current global economic situation. An economic bubble of any type, but especially a debt bubble, can be thought of as an emergent black hole. When the bubble gets too big and then collapses in upon itself, it creates its own black hole with all traditional economic modeling breaks down.

Any economic theory that does not attempt to transcend the event horizon associated with excessive debt will be incapable of offering a viable solution to an economic crisis. Even worse, it is likely that any proposed solution will make the crisis more severe.

Clearly, there’s a significant parallel between the technological singularity, and the economic and financial black hole that has been developing in the world. Will the two singularities occur simultaneously? Or will one of them cause the other?


Google’s autonomous cars have now logged thousands of miles on American highways.  In 2014, a vice-chairman of General Motors stated that self-driving cars should “hit the road soon” because they will be safer than vehicles driven by people. (10) So, humans won’t drive anymore – they’ll be driven by artificial intelligence (AI).

Clearly Governments and business could follow much the same pattern – using machine intelligence to go beyond human capabilities and eliminate human fallibility. How far will this develop until AI has the ability to take over?

By 2020 over 6 billion people will own smart-phones, about 70% of the world’s population. In fact, total mobile subscriptions (including Internet services) will actually number 9.2 billion by that time. Taking into account Internet-of-things and M2M services, mobile broadband and even some basic remaining feature phones, there will be 26 billion connected devices in five years’ time. This is an indication of just how dominant these devices are becoming with how people communicate with each other. (11)

Beyond just making phone calls, smartphones provide GPS directions (few use map-books anymore), keep track of appointments and contacts, take pictures, play music, mingle via social media, and look up everything on Google. Through the installation of apps, the list of possible smartphone uses multiplies by tens of thousands and keeps growing longer. (12)

In my view, the takeover process won’t be top-down (some dominant science-fiction-like giant), but steady bottom-up spread into the human psyche. Humans are already slaves.

Let’s Engage

Please answer the following questions. If you wish, you may share your own views via the blog. Or, send your responses to me and I’ll publish.

  1. Do you recognize technology acceleration in your own life? Does it excite you? Or does it make you uncomfortable?
  2. Where do you think technology is leading? Has it changed your own life?
  3. Do you use a desktop? Tablet? Smartphone? What are your major uses?
  4. What do YOU think smartphones will do in 5, 10 or 20 years?
  5. Will computers be smarter than humans? When?
  6. Is your grandchild using smart gadgets today? How will he/she be using in 20 years?
  7. Do you see a sudden Singularity arriving? Or will it come creeping?
  8. Could the Singularity be triggered via the expected world financial collapse?
  9. Please share your own comments. Write a sentence or two. Or, a whole essay.

  1. Vernor Vinge on the Technological Singularity:
  2. Vernor Vinge Optimistic About the Collapse of Civilization:
  3. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology:
  4. IEEE Special Report- The Singularity:
  5. TIME 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal:
  6. Robots about to rise - Google's new director of engineering:
  7. WIRED - We Are the Web:
  8. Youtube video – I am the very model of a Singularitarian:
  9. John Mauldin - The Economic Singularity:
  10. Self-driving cars safer than those driven by humans:
  11. 6.1 billion Smartphone Users Globally By 2020:
  12. The Benefits of Smartphone Technology:

Jim Pinto
Carlsbad, CA.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Human Longevity

It's paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone,
but the idea of getting old doesn't appeal to anyone. 
– Andy Rooney

In a recent issue of his regular financial newsletter, John Mauldin wrote about the Gray Wave, an insightful essay on the coming retirement crisis. This stimulated my thinking on the subject of human longevity. (1)

Population History & Projections

Global population reached 1 billion around the year 1800; the second billion took only 130 years (1930), the third billion in 30 years (1960), the fourth billion in 15 years (1975), and the fifth billion in only 13 years (1987). During the 20th century alone, the population in the world has grown from 1.65 billion to 6 billion. In 2016 it is about 7.5 billion, and future guesstimates vary. (2)

Late-20th century acceleration in population growth was a result of modern vaccinations and medications. Other future technologies will have similar impacts. Unpredictable future events could have negative effects: wars, famines, epidemics and the like.

The highest population growth rates are in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. The lowest growth rates (even decline) are in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Japan.   Total growth masks the shrinking population in much of the developed world.

Population Dynamics

Globally, the combination of falling fertility and longer lifespan means that, in the next few years, the world will have more people over age 65 than it has children under 5. (3) This means that there will be fewer younger people supporting a larger number of older people. Recognizing that children also need care, the real problem will be shortages of young and middle-aged people to support children and the elderly.

For every 100 working age (20-64) people, there will be almost 80 children and retirees who will require support. Most children are going to be in Africa and Asia-Pacific, while most retirees will be in the developed world and China.

China’s one-child policy is creating an upside-down pyramid. Each worker in that generation in China will end up supporting two parents, four grandparents, and probably some of the worker’s own children, too. China does not have a Social Security program or the safety nets that have been created in the developed world.

If predicted fertility trends continue, within decades most of the world will be reproducing at below-replacement rate. Total population will have to peak at some point and then begin to fall.

Longer Lifespan

Medical advancements are adding many years to human lifespan. The rich live longer because new technologies are expensive and won’t be available to everyone. But they will spread fairly quickly. Cures for obesity, heart disease and cancer are all foreseeable within the next 10 years, with more advances over future decades.

The primary construct of most modern cultures is to prolong life. UN estimates that human life expectancy will exceed 100 years over the next century. The cover story of the February 23, 2015 issue of Time Magazine was, "This baby could live to be 142 years old". (4) The question arises: who would want to live that long?

The same question could have been asked in 1880, about living to 75, when life expectancy was only 40. And the same answers would be given: "Is that good?" and  "Why would anyone want to live that long?" 

Medical care will continue to advance steadily and life-extension technologies will continue to proliferate because it makes economic sense to keep people alive and productive as long as possible.


For most of human history, people worked as long as they were physically able and died soon thereafter. In some parts of the world the period between no longer being able to work and dying was longer for people who had families to care for them. (5)

This began to change in the 19th century when industrialized agriculture started allowing farmers to feed their families and still have food to sell. Then support for older folks was shared between families and governments; programs like Social Security were created that guaranteed some income to the retired. Businesses did the same with pension plans. People who reached retirement age could stop working and depend on a combination of 3 things: (a) their own savings or pensions; (b) government; and (c) family (mainly their children).

While still in relatively good health, many older people do not retire. With life expectancy over 100 years, they continue to work and live comfortably on savings, pensions and Social Security. Older people are enjoying better health in their later years than their parents did. They work longer simply because they can and because they enjoy it and have little else to do. Many who are fortunate enough to own a home can use it as a retirement asset, either by selling and downsizing, or by getting a reverse mortgage.

Retirement problems are not just a US issue. Much of Europe and the developed world will be going through dramatic changes in their entitlement and retirement programs as budgets and debt escalate in the coming years.

Retirement Crisis

Retirement age is rising, but not as much as life expectancy advances. Retirees need more because (6) healthcare costs are high and rising. Low interest rates reduce what retirees can earn from savings, so they must make principal withdrawals.

In the US, the average net worth of somebody between 55 and 64 is $46,000 and many realize that they don’t have enough money to retire at 65. Because they expect to live a lot longer, they typically need more than they can afford. Many are dependent primarily on Social Security and have almost nothing to fall back on. This is quite scary for those who are approaching retirement age and haven’t saved enough.

Financial problems started when interest income became virtually nothing, pensions were reduced or eliminated, savings were lost in stock market declines and expected Social Security increases stopped. Older people started to work again, to boost their income – witness the Wal-Mart greeter. 

US Health Care Spending

Consider this: 5% of the US population generates 50% of overall health care spending. 65% of medical expenses are for the elderly. In the US, health care costs today amount to 17.5% of GDP compared to 9% in 1980. Projected increases exceed GDP growth and the total will increase to almost 20% over the next decade. Many think this is collusion between health insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Complications arise when health problems occur. Some elderly people may have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just for medical treatments. At some point they are unable to work and must draw on their assets, or get family support. Without family assistance, many simply decline into poverty, or die.

Some families may feel obliged to take on the costs of medical treatment for uninsured elderly relatives, which could be a considerable amount. This may extends life for only a short time. One couple went deep into debt to save a parent who died soon after. One doctor remarked cynically: The cheapest patient is a dead patient.

Old Age Ailments

After the age of about 60 many diseases and infirmities come into play: Osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s – the list goes on. The incidence of all of these diseases increases rapidly with aging.

In his new (2016) book: Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, (7) Michael Kinsley writes about how he is handling his own early-onset Parkinson’s disease – he was diagnosed at age 42. He writes, “Sometimes, I feel like a scout from my generation, sent out ahead to experience in my fifties what even the healthiest Boomers are going to experience in their sixties, seventies, or eighties.”

End of Life

Aging and death are realities in every life. No insurance policy, gym membership, or super diets can fully protect anyone against a frightening, sad, depressing, or burdensome trajectory in the final days. These issues need to be considered before they eventually demand attention. (8)

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist, wrote an article in The Atlantic, October 2014, with the title, Why I hope to die at 75.  Says Emanuel, when he reaches 75, he won’t actively end his life, but will stop seeking medical treatments to actively prolong it. The blunt, unsentimental humanity with which he presents his case is admirable. He was 57 when he wrote this; one wonders whether his views will change as he nears 75. (9) 

Let’s Engage

Recognizing the problems of old age and the inevitability of death, an important question remains: When would you prefer to die? (10)

Please answer the following questions for yourself. If you wish, you may share them via the blog. Or, send your responses to me, and I’ll publish on the blog.

  1. How long do you wish to live?  Or more bluntly, when will your life end?
  2. Would you like to know when (at what age) you will die? Or, would you prefer not to know in advance?
  3. Here’s an insightful exercise. If you prefer not to answer, why?
  4. You are informed that you will die within a week – Sunday, at noon. Please respond to the following questions:
a.     What will you do immediately? Will you keep it a secret? Why?
b.     Will you inform your loved ones? Anyone beyond immediate friends and family?
c.     Will you stay at home? Or travel to share the news with other?
d.     Do you think you’ll be able to sleep soundly? Why? Why not?
e.     Will you try to lead a normal life? Still go to work? Watch TV? Go to the movies?
f.      It is Saturday – you know you will die tomorrow. What will you do today?
g.     Sunday morning arrives. You know you will die at noon. Will you stay in bed to wait the inevitable? Or, will you go for a walk – on the beach perhaps, or a place you enjoy? Will you go alone? Or, with someone you love?  Will you return to bed to spend your last moments? How will you choose to make your exit?
  1. Did this exercise make you uncomfortable? Why?

  1. John Mauldin: Welcome to the Pale Gray Dot:
  2. US Census Bureau report, An Aging World 2015:
  3. People 65 and Older Will Outnumber Children Under 5:
  4. TIME: This Baby Could Live To Be 142 Years Old:
  5. Will Baby Boomers Change the Meaning of Retirement?
  6. Retirement Crisis Is Getting Worse for Average Americans:
  7. Old Age: A Beginner's Guide:
  8. JimPinto blog: Death Dynamics:
  9. Ezekiel J. Emanuel - Why I hope to die at 75:
  10. Death Clock - Calculate when you’ll die:

Jim Pinto
Carlsbad, CA.