The technological singularity is the theoretical emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted.
Proponents of the singularity typically state that an "intelligence explosion", where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent's cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.
The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. The specific term "singularity" as a description for a phenomenon of technological acceleration causing an eventual unpredictable outcome in society was coined by mathematician John von Neumann, who in the mid 1950s spoke of "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." The concept has also been popularized by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, who cited von Neumann's use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann's classic "The Computer and the Brain."
Some analysts expect the singularity to occur some time in the 21st century, although their estimates vary.
Many of the most recognized writers on the singularity, such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, define the concept in terms of the technological creation of superintelligence, and argue that it is difficult or impossible for present-day humans to predict what a post-singularity would be like, due to the difficulty of imagining the intentions and capabilities of superintelligent entities. The term "technological singularity" was originally coined by Vinge, who made an analogy between the breakdown in our ability to predict what would happen after the development of superintelligence and the breakdown of the predictive ability of modern physics at the space-time singularity beyond the event horizon of a black hole.
Some writers use "the singularity" in a broader way to refer to any radical changes in our society brought about by new technologies such as molecular nanotechnology, although Vinge and other prominent writers specifically state that without superintelligence, such changes would not qualify as a true singularity. Many writers also tie the singularity to observations of exponential growth in various technologies (with Moore's Law being the most prominent example), using such observations as a basis for predicting that the singularity is likely to happen sometime within the 21st century.
A technological singularity includes the concept of an intelligence explosion, a term coined in 1965 by I. J. Good. Although technological progress has been accelerating, it has been limited by the basic intelligence of the human brain, which has not, according to Paul R. Ehrlich, changed significantly for millennia. However, with the increasing power of computers and other technologies, it might eventually be possible to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity. If superhuman intelligences were invented, either through the amplification of human intelligence or artificial intelligence, it would bring to bear greater problem-solving and inventive skills than humans, then it could design a yet more capable machine, or re-write its source code to become more intelligent. This more capable machine could then go on to design a machine of even greater capability. These iterations could accelerate, leading to recursive self-improvement, potentially allowing enormous qualitative change before any upper limits imposed by the laws of physics or theoretical computation set in.
The exponential growth in computing technology suggested by Moore's Law is commonly cited as a reason to expect a singularity in the relatively near future, and a number of authors have proposed generalizations of Moore's Law. Computer scientist and futurist Hans Moravec proposed in a 1998 book that the exponential growth curve could be extended back through earlier computing technologies prior to the integrated circuit. Futurist Ray Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating returns in which the speed of technological change (and more generally, all evolutionary processes) increases exponentially, generalizing Moore's Law in the same manner as Moravec's proposal, and also including material technology (especially as applied to nanotechnology), medical technology and others. Like other authors, though, he reserves the term "singularity" for a rapid increase in intelligence (as opposed to other technologies), writing for example that "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains ... There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine". He also defines his predicted date of the singularity (2045) in terms of when he expects computer-based intelligences to significantly exceed the sum total of human brainpower, writing that advances in computing before that date "will not represent the Singularity" because they do "not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence."
The term "technological singularity" reflects the idea that such change may happen suddenly, and that it is difficult to predict how such a new world would operate. It is unclear whether an intelligence explosion of this kind would be beneficial or harmful, or even an existential threat, as the issue has not been dealt with by most artificial general intelligence researchers, although the topic of friendly artificial intelligence is investigated by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity Institute.
Many prominent technologists and academics dispute the plausibility of a technological singularity, including Jeff Hawkins, John Holland, Jaron Lanier, and Gordon Moore, whose Moore's Law is often cited in support of the concept.