ELI5: what is singularity?



The term singularity has meaning across many subjects. In mathematics, it denotes a point where a mathematical object isn’t defined — for instance, it’s infinite. In science, it relates to black holes or the existence before the big bang.

With the growth of technology, the term also has meaning for the tech world. It increasingly refers to a potential tech-infused future. It’s this technological singularity that’s making modern headlines and has prominent minds worrying. But what is it?

Here, we explain. When it comes to technology, what is singularity?


The technological singularity

The term and concept of the technological singularity first saw mention by John Von Neumann in 1957. But it didn’t become popular until Vernor Vinge’s 1993 essay, The Coming Technological Singularity.

The technological singularity is a hypothetical point in the future. It’s the moment that technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversibly changes life as we know it.

So, there are two key elements in the answer to the ‘what is singularity’ question.

  1. It is accelerated growth in the abilities of technology beyond the control of humans.
  2. It is a state of irreversible change to human life as a result of this uncontrollable growth. The nature of this change is unfathomable to us in the present day.

Superintelligence and the singularity

The most popular understanding of the technological singularity entwines with artificial superintelligence. It’s suggested that AI advancements could bring a technological singularity.

Known as ‘intelligence explosion’, this is where an AI becomes capable of improving itself (or producing improved AI) over time. As the AI gets smarter, it’s able to improve itself faster and better. So, the smarter the AI gets, the faster it improves. The faster the AI improves, the smarter it gets.

Eventually, it surpasses human knowledge and ability and leaves humans behind.

In other words, the creation of artificial superintelligence could lead to singularity. And, some suggest, this would mark the end of the human era.


The implications

A core component of the answer to the what is singularity question is that it’s hypothetical. This is because it’s a future event — something that could happen. The truth is, we don’t even know if the singularity will happen, let alone whether it’s a threat or a benefit. 

In other words, the implications of the singularity and the changes it brings are unknown to us. As such, another answer to the ‘what is singularity’ question is that it’s a topic of both debate and concern.

Some cited the singularity as the cause of immense concern. This included prominent minds like Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking. The reason for this stance is the argument that the singularity represents an existential threat. That it will bring the end of the human era as super-intelligent robots have no reason to be nice to us.

Conversely, the singularity could prove the next step in human evolution. It could unlock immortality, end poverty and improve life. Humans might combine with machines to become sub-human. The point is, we don’t know what the changes will be. So why assume that the singularity would prove disastrous?


Beyond our understanding

In all cases, whether in maths, science, or technology, singularity refers to unknowns and ongoing effects. It refers to things beyond human control or understanding.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t understand it.

So, what is singularity? It’s a potential future point where technological growth expands beyond our control. If the singularity were to happen, it would result in changes to life that we cannot yet fathom.


Useful links

Types of AI: distinguishing between weak, strong, and super AI

What is Moravec’s paradox and what does it mean for modern AI?

The awkward interplay of man vs machine