Last month at the NASA-Ames Research Center, a group of top scientists and business leaders gathered to plan a new university devoted to the idea that computers will soon become smarter than people.
The details of Singularity University, as the new institution will be called, are still being worked out — and so far the organizers are tight-lipped about their plans. But to hold such a discussion at all is a sign of growing acceptance that a new wave of computing technologies may be just ahead — with revolutionary implications for research and teaching.
The idea that gave the new university its name is championed by Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist who argues that by 2030, a moment — the "singularity" — will be reached when computers will outthink human brains. His argument is that several technologies that now seem grossly undeveloped — including nanotechnology and artificial-intelligence software — are growing at an exponential rate and thus will mature much faster than most linear-minded people realize. Once they do, computers will take leaps forward that most people can hardly imagine today. In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005), Mr. Kurzweil presents a utopian vision in which these supersmart machines quickly help human researchers cure diseases and vastly extend the human life span.
Plenty of academics think that's far-fetched. After all, early proponents of artificial intelligence made similarly bold promises decades ago that went unfulfilled. (Except the ones about computers beating human chess masters — that has actually happened.)
But let's say, for argument's sake, that Mr. Kurzweil is right, and that the animated Microsoft Office paper clip will become the next Einstein. Here are some predictions, based on interviews with researchers who believe that the singularity really is near, about how thinking machines would reshape campus life.
Computers Extend Brainpower
To understand what's coming, it's important to recognize how computers — and the Internet — have already revolutionized research and sped up developments in many fields, says Larry L. Smarr, a supercomputer expert who directs the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, a joint venture of the University of California's campuses in Irvine and San Diego.
"I can't imagine doing my research without Google — I don't remember how I did it," says Mr. Smarr, who attended the planning meeting for Singularity University. "I'm one or two orders of magnitude more productive today because of the global knowledge system the Internet has enabled."
As computers reach new heights, they will further extend that productivity, he argues. Perhaps we'll soon have machines recording everything we say, see, and hear, allowing us to retrieve experiences we now lose to forgetfulness. Superadvanced social-networking systems might regularly link us to like-minded colleagues to solve problems more quickly.
Computerized research assistants might even do some of the work that graduate assistants do today. Professors will be able to assign hundreds of these electronic assistants to problems without having to get grant money to pay them.
Machines Become Teachers
Computers will become better at teaching than most human professors are once artificial intelligence exceeds the abilities of people, argues Ben Goertzel, director of research at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in Palo Alto, Cal., a private organization promoting Mr. Kurzweil's ideas.
These new computer teachers will have more patience than any human lecturer, and they will be able to offer every student individual attention — which sure beats a 500-person lecture course.
Virtual professors probably won't ask for tenure. And Mr. Goertzel sees them as key to expanding educational opportunities, by greatly reducing the price of a high-quality education.
Or, Horrible Things Happen
What if the story ends differently, though? Anyone who's seen a Hollywood science-fiction film knows how smart machines could turn on us. In The Terminator, for instance, brilliant but emotionless machines set out to eradicate humans.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Singularity University - Computers Replace Faculty
I've read Kurzweil's book - The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which gets pretty far fetched in the second half, so I'm somewhat skeptical. But I've been to CalIT2, met Larry Smarr and his team and seen what they're doing - pretty cutting-edge stuff. There's a lot of really bright people working on this stuff and when you consider the dramatic changes that have occured in the last 22 years (1986-2008), would you really be surprised in what the next 22 years could bring? Will Electric Professors Dream of Virtual Tenure?