Get ready for Singularity: it’s closer to reality than we think

Hooked to a computer, your brain will be able to answer a question before you even knew to ask it


I HAVE spent a lot of the past week checking out Ray Kurzweil’s world after reading Carole Cadwalladr’s interview with him in The Observer. It is a pretty eye-opening experience. Google’s new director of engineering estimates that computers will gain ‘consciousness’ by 2029 - i.e. when the machines have learned to make their own decisions.

Kurzweil is one of the poster boys of Singularity, defined by Wikipedia as the "moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence”. Associated with this are the concepts of Human 2.0 or Transhumanism, which are when humans begin to augment or replace parts of themselves with robots or computers.

Kurzweil has a great deal to say about a future in which we have reverse-engineered the brain - i.e. figured out what every bit of our grey matter does, how and why. According to Kurzweil,

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"By 2030, reverse-engineering of the human brain will have been completed and non-biological intelligence will merge with our biological brains.” (He wrote this in 2003 by the way.)

What does this even mean? Well, it means we’ll have connected our brains to computers. They’ll be able to monitor everything we hear, see and think, plus everything in our email box and answer our questions before we’ve thought of them.

Asked recently ‘why would we do this?', Kurzweil responded: “Our search engines will… watch everything we're reading and writing and saying and hearing, and then they'll be like an assistant. It'll say... ‘You were wondering who the actor was in that movie with the robot that can speak six million languages and here she is and here's background about her.’

“Since that helps you through the day, we'll answer your questions before you ask them or even before you realise you have a question, and you'll just get used to this information popping up that you wanted and you'll be frustrated if you're thinking about something and it doesn't immediately pop up without you even having to ask for it.”

Does that sound far-fetched? In fact, we’re already connecting our minds and bodies to computers. I recently met Olivier Oullier , Professor of Behavioral and Brain Science at Aix-Marseille University, who uses wearable technology and neurofeedback to train people out of cigarette addiction and obesity. With the help of some special glasses (see picture below) which monitor where you are looking, a brain monitor that senses and records what parts of your brain are being activated and your mobile phone, he can train your brain to better control food or cigarette craving in a video-game like setting.

Outlier? No. Scientists in Malta have developed software that allows you to control your music (play, fast forward, turn it up to 11) with your brain. Researchers in Washington connected two people’s brains together - allowing one person to control another’s hand movements by thought. The FDA in the US has granted pre-market approval to Neuropace, a company whose brain implant reduces seizures in epileptic patients by identifying dangerous patterns of brain activity.

Meanwhile Braingate has implanted sensors in your brain which allow a woman with tetraplegia to use her thoughts to steer a robot arm to grasp a bottle of coffee and lift it to her lips. The scientists at Proteus combine wearable and ingestible sensors to gather information about medication-taking, activity and rest patterns. Can’t remember if you took your last dose of heart medication? Sensors in the pills will send the information to your phone alerting you to rest easy.

Most of us with an iPhone have experienced Siri’s (in)ability to translate your voice into simple commands. In my experience its better at calling my mother than finding directions to a restaurant, but while there are numerous, humorous examples of #Sirifails you can bet each version will be better.

And with life-blogging devices like Narrative which capture your every move in pictures (a "searchable and shareable photographic memory”) you can see how we might not be too far away from Kurzweil’s vision of predictive search.


Edie Lush tweets at @edielush

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Edie Lush is a journalist and communications coach. She is executive editor of Hub Culture and has been associate editor of Spectator Business, a political analyst for Hedge Fund Omega Partners and UBS, and a reporter for Bloomberg Television.