15 June 2010

The Biological Singularity

Posted by Ryan

If you’re a sci-fi reader, you are probably familiar with the idea of the “technological singularity“. For the uninitiated, the Singularity is the idea that computational power is increasing so rapidly that soon there will be genuine artificial intelligence that will far surpass humans. Essentially, once you have smarter-than-human computers, they will drive their own advancement and we will no longer be able to comprehend the technology.

We can debate whether the singularity will or will not happen, and what the consequences might be, for a long time, but that’s not the point of this post. This post was inspired by the final chapter in Denialism by Michael Specter. In that chapter, Specter talks about the rapid advancement in biotechnology. Specifically, he points to the rapid increase in computational power and the resulting rapid increase in the speed of genome processing.

I always sort of knew that both fields were advancing rapidly, but for some reason it clicked while I was reading that chapter. A lot of people talk about nanotechnology as some sort of miracle technology that is just around the corner: we will be able to create tiny machines that can do our bidding to build things at the molecular level. Traditionally these machines are seen as tiny robots, but as I read that chapter in Denialism, I realized that nanotech is both closer than I expected and not “robotic” at all!

Maybe custom-designed organisms will make nano-scale machines like this unnecessary.

Nanotechnology already exists: it’s called life. Think about it. Why construct little robots to do our bidding, when living cells fit the bill perfectly? With exponentially increasing computing power, we will be able to sequence genomes in seconds or less. Sooner or later, we will understand the genes well enough to start designing entirely new forms of life.

So if we’re using our super-intelligent computers to design new forms of life, what happens when the computers become smarter than us? The singularity might not end with a catastrophic “grey goo” but with an explosion of bio-diversity. Of course the line between biology and computers might become so blurred that there is no meaningful distinction between the two.

The post biological singularity world might be a very strange place indeed. On the one hand, it could be great. Imagine instead of factories, huge colonies of carefully tended micro-organisms. Need a new car? Just culture some bacteria that deposit steel the way corals deposit carbonate. Keep them fed with raw ore and tended, and they grow the car for you.Or perhaps we do away with the distinction between life and technology. Maybe our vehicles will be living, intelligent things along the lines of those in the novel Leviathan. Of course, post-singularity, there might not be humans anymore. The post-humans might take over and see humans as obsolete.

Another thought that occurs to me is that this level of biotechnology might open up the solar system in a way that previous technologies could not. Terraforming could become much easier if you can design micro-organisms that can survive and thrive on Venus or Mars under current conditions. But why stop there, why not just design your astronauts so that they can survive on the surface. Instead of terraforming a whole planet, Areo-form the individuals who will explore it!

I think this is a really cool but also sort of disturbing idea to think about. One of the difficulties with science fiction these days is that the pace of advancement is so fast that it’s difficult to say what the future will be like even ten years down the road. I think the only thing we can really say for sure is that it will surprise us.