Directory:Akahele/The Singularity is near, but does it matter?

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The Singularity is near, but does it matter?

In 2005, the inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near, an expansion of his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines which was itself a revised version of his 1987 book The Age of Intelligent Machines. Kurzweil's "Singularity" postulates that because technology is evolving at an exponential rate, an evolutionary leap that combines biology and technology is inevitable. This will create a new concept of life, in which what we now think of as being reality will become increasingly interchangeable with virtual reality.

Part of this picture painted by Kurzweil suggests that machines will soon be able to function along the same parameters as the human brain. This suggestion has been contested by many scientists (including physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, which suggests that the brain might use quantum properties for its calculations); however, it does seem evident that machines will be used increasingly to reason and even to make choices in place of humans.

The electronic musician Jeffrey Stolet has used this type of machine-generated process as part of his compositional process, notably in his 2002 work for MIDI PIano and infrared sensors "Tokyo Lick".

Stolet's work was explained as follows :

In his program, Mr. Stolet will focus on the technology and the human-performance elements in Tokyo Lick, his composition for infrared sensors, custom interactive software, and MIDI piano. He performs Tokyo Lick by moving his hands through two invisible infrared spheres and directing the data derived from those motions to algorithms residing in customized interactive software created in the Max multimedia programming environment. Tokyo Lick contains no sequences or pre-recorded material. Mr. Stolet will perform every note in real-time. Using a technology he refers to as “algorithm flipping,” he can rapidly change the specific algorithm or algorithms governing the response to the incoming MIDI control data. He actuates the algorithmic changes through pre-composed schedules, musical contexts, or through explicit intervention. Taken together, these techniques provide a conceptual framework for practical input/output mapping (action --> specified outcome) and for control and performance flexibility, while offering a truly new paradigm for virtuoso music performance.

While this type of performance seems to make the creative act more accessible to the masses (in essence crowd-sourcing the act of musical composition, traditionally an extremely elitist practice), the programming of the correlation between the movements made by the performer and the actual notes produced requires the same level of compositional activity as any other form of musical creation. So, the choices made by the machine do not replace the choices made by humans, but rather provide other, perhaps unexplored, avenues of creation. Clearly, the human interaction is necessary in this instance to create the performative work.

Steve Lohr's recent article in the New York Times, The Crowd Is Wise (When It’s Focused) would seem to reinforce the idea that effective crowdsourcing requires the crowd to be intelligent, informed, and preferably extremely well-versed in the subject. To quote Thomas W. Malone, director of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“There is this misconception that you can sprinkle crowd wisdom on something and things will turn out for the best. That’s not true. It’s not magic.”

Dr. Malone's 2009 paper, Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence (written with Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas), uses a Kurzweil-like genetic analogy to discuss why certain models using crowdsourcing succeed and why others do not. The biological parallel to a virtual reality phenomenon is already beginning to lead this idea from a purely imaginary concept to something which could indeed have repercussions on biology in the way that Kurzweil seems to be suggesting.

The reasoning behind the information presented in this article is clearly flawed, as the authors appear to believe that contributors' stated objectives for working in "crowdsourced" projects are their actual real objectives. The reasons why people do things and why people say that they do things are often completely different in real life. There is no reason to believe that the same sort of motivations are any different on the Internet.

Of special interest is the chart on page 12 which attempts to describe the processes involved in creating, maintaining, and deleting articles on Wikipedia, giving the primary motivations as "Love" and "Glory", completely ignoring the inherent conflict of interest issues involved in this pseudo-anonymous environment, the issues of interactions between editors (friend and foe), and also the whole "gaming" aspect which is inherently part of the Wikipedia process.

The framing of the deletion process on Wikipedia as a "vote" is a sign that the authors of this article did not fully investigate these processes and that their reasoning is based on only a superficial examination of the outcome, rather than actually studying the underlying motivations involved.

Indeed, this type of conflicting motivation makes one wonder what the Singularity would really be like, if we were to evolve to the point where it actually existed. At the present time, it is possible to avoid these endless process discussions, the game playing, and people who do-it-for-the-lulz, simply by turning off one's computer and taking a trip to the real world, even if only until one's next Twitter feed arrives. If the Singularity does arrive and we all end up as electronic bits on computers somewhere, will we be able to turn this stuff off?

What is obvious from all of this is that technology cannot solve all existing problems, no matter how advanced the technology. A great artist such as Jeffrey Stolet will continue to make exciting new music no matter what process he uses to create it. But a crowd of pseudo-anonymous nobodies who are making statements based on each speaker's own hidden personal agenda will continue to produce questionable results, regardless of the technology used to convey the statements.

This problem will only be solved when such sites as Encyclopedia Dramatica and are entirely run and populated by Artificial Intelligence constructs who are all doin' it for the lulz.


3 Responses to “The Singularity is near, but does it matter?”

Thanks for an interesting an well written piece, Paul. Two points I see here that cannot be over-emphasized: 1) “crowdsourcing” as that term is used by the Web 2.0 “gurus” is in essence magical thinking; and 2) any technology that can be created by humans can be abused by humans, and nearly always is to one degree or another. It is a gross delusion to assert that Web 2.0 offers humanity The Great Panacea for which people have pined throughout the ages.
Gregory Kohs
Couple of thoughts hit me while reading this fascinating article. First, I couldn’t believe that Jeffrey Stolet was manipulating his music — it sounded to me that it was entirely pre-recorded and just on “Play” mode. I’m just curious what that same performance would have sounded like if he had just done something simple with his hands, like the Queen Elizabeth II wave.
Second, Wehage says that musical composition is traditionally an elitist practice. Really? What about my 5-year-old daughter who makes up and sings a new song, just about every day? Her composing sure seems accessible to her (and me). Might you elaborate on what you meant there, Paul?
Paul Wehage
I’ll try to get Jeffrey Stolet to comment on this, but the gestures do change the music.
Secondly, about your daughter making up a tune every day: it sounds as if she’s got the composition bug. Kids don’t understand that making music is supposed to be difficult and just do it naturally (as it should be done). Your daughter sounds like a very talented young person.
However, what happens when you start taking actual “music” lessons and the music teacher (who is getting paid big bucks to make it seem as playing or writing music is some huge magical thing, rather than a normal human activity) is that the idea that somehow music is only for old, dead, white guys and not for kids…read, “especially not for girls”. This is, of course, hogwash.
This is why it’s so important to really talk to your child’s first music teacher and make sure that this person is psychologically sound and not going to stop all of this great creativity.
(Of course, if it ever gets out that even kids can write music, then there goes my next commission….so keep this under your hat, if you would…)