The Singularity. The event when the rate of technological change becomes human-surpassing, just as the advent of human civilization a few millenia ago surpassed the comprehension of non-human creatures. So when will this event happen?
There is a great deal of speculation on the 'what' of the Singularity, whether it will create a utopia for humans, cause the extinction of humans, or some outcome in between. Versions of optimism (Star Trek) and pessimism (The Matrix, Terminator) all become fashionable at some point. No one can predict this reliably, because the very definition of the singularity itself precludes such prediction. Given the accelerating nature of technological change, it is just as hard to predict the world of 2050 from 2009, as it would have been to predict 2009 from, say, 1200 AD. So our topic today is not going to be about the 'what', but rather the 'when' of the Singularity.
Let us take a few independent methods to arrive at estimations on the timing of the Singularity.
1) Ray Kurzweil has constructed this logarithmic chart that combines 15 unrelated lists of key historic events since the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. The exact selection of events is less important than the undeniable fact that the intervals between such independently selected events are shrinking exponentially. This, of course, means that the next several major events will occur within single human lifetimes.
Kurzweil wrote with great confidence, in 2005, that the Singularity would arrive in 2045. One thing I find about Kurzweil is that he usually predicts the nature of an event very accurately, but overestimates the rate of progress by 50%. Part of this is because he insists that computer power per dollar doubles every year, when it actually doubles every 18 months, which results in every other date he predicts to be distorted as a downstream byproduct of this figure. Another part of this is that Kurzweil, born in 1948, is taking extreme measures to extend his lifespan, and quite possibly may have an expectation of living until 100 but not necessarily beyond that. A Singularity in 2045 would be before his century mark, but herein lies a lesson for us all. Those who have a positive expectation of what the Singularity will bring tend to have a subconscious bias towards estimating it to happen within their expected lifetimes. We have to be watchful enough to not let this bias influence us. So when Kurzweil says that the Singularity will be 40 years from 2005, we can apply the discount to estimate that it will be 60 years from 2005, or in 2065.
2) John Smart is a brilliant futurist with a distinctly different view on accelerating change from Ray Kurzweil, but he has produced very little visible new content in the last 5 years. In 2003, he predicted the Singularity for 2060, +/- 20 years. Others like Hans Moravec and Vernor Vinge also have declared predictions at points in the mid/late 21st century.
3) Ever since the start of the fictional Star Trek franchise in 1966, they have made a number of predictions about the decades since, with impressive accuracy. In Star Trek canon, humanity experiences a major acceleration of progress starting from 2063, upon first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. While my views on first contact are somewhat different from the Star Trek prediction, it is interesting to note that their version of a 'Singularity' happened to occur in 2063 (as per the 1996 film Star Trek : First Contact).
4) Now for my own methodology. We shall first take a look at novel from 1863 by Jules Verne, titled "Paris in the 20th Century". Set about a century in the future from Verne's perspective, the novel predicts innovations such as air conditioning, automobiles, helicopters, fax machines, and skyscrapers in detail. Such accuracy makes Jules Verne the greatest futurist of the 19th century, but notice how his predictions involve innovations that occured within 120 years of writing. Verne did not predict exponential growth in computation, genomics, artificial intelligence, cellular phones, and other innovations that emerged more than 120 years after 1863. Thus, Jules Verne was up against a 'prediction wall' of 120 years, which was much longer than a human lifespan in the 19th century.
But now, the wall is closer. In the 3.5 years since the inception of The Futurist, I have consistently noticed a 'prediction wall' on all long-term forecasts, that makes it very difficult to make specific predictions beyond 2040 or so. In contrast, it was not very hard to predict the state of technology in 1930 from the year 1900, just 30 years prior. Despite all the inventions between 1900 and 1930, the diffusion rate was very slow, and it took well over 30 years for many innovations to affect the majority of the population. The diffusion rate of innovation is much faster today, and the pervasive Impact of Computing is impossible to ignore. This 'event horizon' that we now see does not mean the Singularity will be as soon as 2040, as the final couple of decades before the Singularity may still be too fast to make predictions about until we get much closer. But the compression of such a wall/horizon from 120 years in Jules Verne's time to 30 years today gives us some idea of the second derivative in the rate of change, and many other top futurists have observed the same approaching phenomenon. By 2030, the prediction wall may thus be only 15 years away. By the time of the Singularity, the wall would be almost immediately ahead from a human perspective.
So we can return to the Impact of Computing as a driver of the 21st century economy. In the article, I have written about how about $700 Billion per year as of 2008, which is 1.5% of World GDP, comprises of products that improve at an average of 59% a year per dollar spent. Moore's Law is a subset of this, but this cost deflation applies to storage, software, biotechnology, and a few other industries as well.
If products tied to the Impact of Computing are 1.5% of the global economy today, what happens when they are 3%? 5%? Perhaps we would reach a Singularity when such products are 50% of the global economy, because from that point forward, the other 50% would very quickly diminish into a tiny percentage of the economy, particularly if that 50% was occupied by human-surpassing artificial intelligence.
We can thus calculate a range of dates by when products tied to the Impact of Computing become more than half of the world economy. In the table, the columns signify whether one assumes that 1%, 1.5%, or 2% of the world economy is currently tied, and the rows signify the rate at which this percentage share of the economy is increasing, whether 6%, 7%, or 8%. This range is derived from the fact that the semiconductor industry has a 12-14%% nominal growth trend, while nominal world GDP grows at 6-7% (some of which is inflation). Another way of reading the table is that if you consider the Impact of Computing to affect 1% of World GDP, but that share grows by 8% a year, then that 1% will cross the 50% threshold in 2059. Note how a substantial downward revision in the assumptions moves the date outward only by years, rather than centuries or even decades.
We see these parameters deliver a series of years, with the median values arriving at around the same dates as aforementioned estimates. Taking all of these points in combination, we can predict the timing of the Singularity. I hereby predict that the Technological Singularity will occur in :
2060-65 ± 10 years
So the earliest that it can occur is 2050 (hence the URL of this site), and the latest is 2075, with the highest probability of occurance in 2060-65. There is virtually no statistical probability that it can occur outside of the 2050-75 range (sorry, Ray).
So now we know the 'when' of the Singularity. We just don't know the 'what', nor can we with any certainty.