Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Singularity has arrived

There is increasing talk of the possibility of a singularity where super human intelligence is created. One of the first people to suggest this was Vernon Vinge who stated in 1993
"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." These themes have been taken up by other futurologists such as Kurzweil in his recent book "The singularity is near". Now this may seem the stuff of science fiction, but I'm not so sure.

I was struck the other day at just how "intelligent" Google was. I asked it two questions "Can I burn Leylandii (a type of wood)" and what was "Mary Hopkin's greatest hit". For both these questions the answer was contained within one of the top 3 web pages that was returned. It struck me that the ability to answer questions and return pages containing the answers is indeed a form of intelligence.

Lest you need further convincing, let me ask you a question. If you were playing "Who wants to be a millionaire", would you rather a lifeline that enabled you to "ask a friend" or a lifeline that gave you 45 seconds on Google to find the answer. I'd wager that most people would prefer to ask Google.

If the knowledge of facts is important to man (what did we do at school for all those years if facts aren't important) and the definition of intelligence, then a simple test of man vs machine would be to ask a series of factual questions to an individual and to a search engine and see whether the individual can answer more questions correctly or the search engine produce the answer in (say) the top 3 web pages it returns.

I agree this isn't the Turing Test (a test to see if you can distinguish between man and machine), but it seems indisputable that Google can provide the answers to a wider range of questions than any living human being, and in one sense, therefore, is superhuman. We need to recognise that it is not necessary to ape human behaviour and human methods to create something superhuman.

Interestingly, this has not - as these authors would predict, come about as a result of some form of artificial intelligence but as the direct result of millions of individuals contributing their knowledge to a common data source (the internet) and some clever (but not that clever) data search and retrieval mechanisms. It is the record volumes of data and its accessability that has created this 'intelligence' not a fundemental breakthrough in artificial intelligence or indeed any other scientific discipline.

It also suggests that even minor improvements in data search, analysis, mining and retrieval could be of immense value when multiplied by the vast volume of data accessible through the internet. If we can improve the value of each piece of data stored on the internet even slightly by making it more relevant and accessible to the appropriate queries, when multiplied by the number of data items that exist, huge amounts of intelligence will be created.