Allen vs Kurzweil in the battle of the Singularity

This opinion pieceby Paul Allen argues the singularity (the point where computing power surpasses human brain power) is not very near, if possible. They base their criticism on Kurzweils law of Accelerating Returns, which assumes that computing power development will undergo substantial acceleration before slowing to assume the “S” curve all development eventually exhibits. SOme of Kurzweils writing seems to question if computing power development will EVER “S” curve into decline, since once it is taken over by synthetic intelligence, it will act more like a nuclear chain reaction, than past technology development. Allen doesn’t buy this. Additionally he invokes “the Complexity Brake” that questions whether a complex adaptive system like the human brain can be “understood” in the usual sense of the word.

Kurzweil responds here He starts off unfortunately ad homimen criticizing Allen rather than his arguments and makes a sort of “appeal to his own authority” based on assuming Allen has not sufficiently studied his work. He simply repeats his arguments after claiming Allen is unaware of them rather than dealing with them. Kurzweil does have some good arguments, but ultimately we have the argument that ever exponential growth scenario eventually “S-curves out”, by Allen, and “except this one” by Kurweill. Both claim empirical evidence on their side. Kurzweil is correct that so far the “large S-curve” of his Law of Accelerating Returns” is composed of finer scale S-Curves that are working over shorter and short timescales. Allen is correct that this type of behavior is not unprecedented, and that ulimately the “macro level” S-curve flattens out.

Kuzrweil gets on thin ice when he criticizes thee “complexity Brake” by stating:

Allen’s statement that every structure and neural circuit is unique is simply impossible. That would mean that the design of the brain would require hundreds of trillions of bytes of information. Yet the design of the brain (like the rest of the body) is contained in the genome. And while the translation of the genome into a brain is not straightforward, the brain cannot have more design information than the genome. Note that epigenetic information (such as the peptides controlling gene expression) do not appreciably add to the amount of information in the genome.

This declaration against the emergence of information content in a complex adaptive system is puzzling coming from someone who relies on this very thing happening for the singularity to occur. Self-replicating machines that increase in complexity requires that the “design” of this increasingly complex system of machine intelligence would have to arise from a lessor amount of initial information. Since we are only getting at the tip off the epigenic information iceberg, the claim that these interactions do not add to the information in genome is inexplicable.

The thing that neither deals with is what I think may be the uncross-able divide is that of the machine paradigm being digital while the neurons of the brain have electro-chemical analogue characteristics. I am attracted to (but treat as pure speculation) the notion that in addition to an analogue component there could also be a quantum mechanical component. The philosophical argument of the origin of free will and the seat of consciousness gets into some heady stuff there, but notion that biological systems can play games with quantum superposition of information adds a level to human consciousness, that require a fundamentally different technology than digital circuitry to deal with on level deeper than mathematical calculation.

For more on that see Stuart Kauffman on the topic


About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."

Posted on December 4, 2011, in Philosophistry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. (Posted for Jeff Cadman becasue I had a setting wrong on the comments permissions – should be fixed now.)

    “Paul, I think you miss Kurzweil’s point about the epigenetic information. I don’t believe that he is claiming that presence, and actions, of the epigenome don’t contribute significant amounts of information encoded within the brain – simply that the “rules” and “recipe” that define the epigenetic mechanism doesn’t demand a significant increase in the amount of information needed for storage.

    Perhaps Allen and Kurzweil are talking past each other (though I tend to fall into the side of Kurzweil), but I think that Allen is trying to claim that the brain is so complex & unique that it could never emerge from a significantly less complicated rule-set.a seemingly silly claim. I think Kurzweil is merely emphasizing that we don’t need to develop an “instruction manual” as complicated as the ultimate product we are trying to build. In fact, I think the reason that the genome & epigenome can code for the complexity of the brain is exactly because the DON’T code for any SPECIFIC complexity of the brain. That is, every human DNA sequence is nearly identical and can’t be used to “turn the crank” and develop a specific brain (your DNA doesn’t code your brain, my DNA doesn’t code mine). It’s exactly the complex adaptive process of the epigenome responding to constantly varying environmental conditions that results in incredibly complex – and unique – brains for each individual. But I think that this outcome could be developed from a system that can be developed/built by humans (with the aid of the machines we have built to that point).

    On your last point, I again disagree. I don’t think there’s anything special about electro-chemical analogue communications that NECESSITATE those types of information flow in order for intelligence or consciousness (probably different things) to emerge. If you look at a small enough level, it may be that everything is ultimately digital (though, I guess string theory might argue that it’s analogue resonance at its base). But, for the purposes of the interactions that are required to convert the limited information in the genome/epigenome into the complex machine that is the brain, I don’t think the variability of those electro-chemical interactions isn’t anything that couldn’t be effectively simulated in a digital fashion. — Jeff”

  2. Obviously siding more with Allen, I think you are correct that they (and we) are talking past each other. The problme comes, as usual in differences in definitions and assumptions. last point first, I would point to the example of protein folding as an example of “non-digital” analogue storage of information that it is very difficult to translate into a digital form. This “dynamic, emergent” storage medium combines aspects of data compression, encryption and configural energy to not just store information, but transport it to the “right place, at the right time” within a braoder complex adaptive system (a developing embryo).

    I think this indeed repersnts a “significant increase in the amount of information stored” over and above the genome itself. The genome is not simply a blueprint for the product, but the plan for the factory, the harvesting of building materials and emergent, unpredictible ‘architectural details’. It succeeds in essence “building the airplane while in flight”.

    “But I think that this outcome could be developed from a system that can be developed/built by humans (with the aid of the machines we have built to that point).”

    I still am not sure that we will ever synthesize anything near the process that it took evolution several billion years to create. I am all but sertain we will not do it by 2045 (probably not by 2450).

    But i know that Kurweil does not believe that it take ‘artificial life’ to achieve the Singularity. In my mind is overly parses words in that argument (In spiritual machines IIRC? I lent my copy out and never got it back…) I think to say you “achieve the singularity” but the result is “not life” (necessarly – it could be) begs the question of what “life” is then?

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