Friday, March 26, 2010

The Singular Future

There's a useful summary of Ray Kurzweil's predictions on Wikipedia. If you haven't heard of him, there's a TED talk where he presents his ideas. Kurzweil is a little over hyped (There's a movie - The Transcendant Man, and a University, in collaboration with Google and NASA), and widely criticised, but that doesn't make him wrong.
Kurzweil's basic idea is that technological change, in some key areas, is exponential, not linear. Moores law, that processing power per dollar doubles every 18 months is an example of this kind of technological rule of thumb that has held good for many years. Exponential processes, in their late stages, tend to get a little strange, and Kurzweils predictions, inferred from that, rapidly get wierd. That's trouble with exponential change. Humans can't intuitively grasp it. Our minds, evolved for counting bananas and holding grudges, tend to be unable to get a grip on it. The pond might be a quarter full of weed that doubles every day, but we still expect to be able to leave clearing it to next week.
Where Kurweil breaks from many other futurists is the prediction that computers will reach a point where they are smart enough to improve their own design. At this point, their development and intelligence will rapidly accelerate and exceed ours, and the chart of scientific development goes off the scale. Anything is possible at that point, and the machines will send us an eMail to tell us about it, if they have remembered to feed us. According to this picture, few, if any, of the institutions we know of would remain relevant, let along Universities.
Right or wrong in the long term, Kurzweil's predications in the nearer term are a useful cribsheet for the kinds of technological changes Universities must weather in the next century. True immersive virtual worlds and Artificial Intelligances smarter than us are not outrageous predictions for the 21st century, and will have serious implications for Universities as we know them. If you are a young academic, by the time you have fought your way up to a professorship, you'll be at the sharp end in dealing with these things in teaching. Just when you thought you were clever for mastering powerpoint animations and signing up to Twitter, it's going to get a whole lot harder and meaner.
The impact of technology on the structure of the University is a huge topic, and I'll return to it in coming posts where I'll be looking at the implications of specific potential technologies for the University in detail.

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