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October 17, 2011
The Singularity, Postponed
I've had some problems over the years with the Singularity-Is-Near line of thought, and some problems with the "If we can build a new generations of microchips in five years, we ought to be able to cure cancer in ten" idea. Here's an article by Paul Allen in Technology Review that takes aim at both of these simultaneously:
The complexity of the brain is simply awesome. Every structure has been precisely shaped by millions of years of evolution to do a particular thing, whatever it might be. It is not like a computer, with billions of identical transistors in regular memory arrays that are controlled by a CPU with a few different elements. In the brain every individual structure and neural circuit has been individually refined by evolution and environmental factors. The closer we look at the brain, the greater the degree of neural variation we find. Understanding the neural structure of the human brain is getting harder as we learn more. Put another way, the more we learn, the more we realize there is to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings. We believe that one day this steady increase in complexity will end—the brain is, after all, a finite set of neurons and operates according to physical principles. But for the foreseeable future, it is the complexity brake and arrival of powerful new theories, rather than the Law of Accelerating Returns, that will govern the pace of scientific progress required to achieve the singularity.
Very true. Imagine a fiendishly complex chip diagram, but with not a single component of it standardized. It's one bespoke piece of hardware after another, billions of them, and the wiring between them was put together the same idiosyncratic way. And it's altering while you study it - in fact, it may be altering because you're studying it. Glorious stuff, and understanding it is going to give us extraordinary powers. But that's not happening soon, or on anyone's schedule.
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