complexity and singularity

My dad recently gave me a couple of lectures from John von Neumann on the “theory of self-reproducing automata.” He gave me a print copy, so I don’t have a PDF to repost, but maybe it’s on JSTOR. Anyway, in the fifth lecture, I came across this interesting passage:

“There is thus this completely decisive property of complexity, that there exists a critical size below which the process of synthesis is degenerative, but above which the phenomenon of synthesis, if properly arranged, can become explosive, in other words, where syntheses of automata can proceed in such a manner that each automaton will produce other automata which are more complex and of higher potentialities than itself.”

To an sf reader, this of course evokes Vinge’s technological singularity, that rapture-eschaton that will happen (very quickly, by assumption) when humanity is capable of creating machinery more intelligent than itself. The idea is, of course, that such machinery, being more intelligent than humanity, will also be able to create machinery more intelligent than itself, and the positive feedback loop in intelligence will render humanity obsolete. (There are obviously a number of ways in which this sequence of events doesn’t follow — in particular, you can imagine a machine that’s smarter than a human, and therefore smart enough to create a machine smarter than a human, but still not smart enough to create a machine smarter than itself, which stalls the loop. Also, machines that are smarter than humans might be smart enough not to make life hard for themselves by synthesizing competitors, although in that case humanity might still be screwed. Nonetheless, the Singularity seems to be a popular organizing metaphor in contemporary sf and certain futurist circles, and it’s produced at least one good novel, so it bears some small contemplation.)

Anyway. All I really wanted to point out with this post was that von Neumann seems to have anticipated Vinge and, in his inimitable polymathic way, done him one better. (In fact, Wikipedia cites a conversation between von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam as one of the first traces of the Singularity in the noosphere.) “Natural automata” have been creating automata smarter than themselves for billions of years. The Singularity is now, says von Neumann — but it’s moving a little bit slower than you thought.


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