Singularity Hints

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in June 2003.

A San Diego State University mathematician named Vernor Vinge gave a talk in 1993 in which he postulated the impending advent of superhuman intelligence and the consequential end of the human era. He called this event "The Singularity." More recently, technologist Ray Kurzweil has taken on Vinge's mantle. I had an opportunity to hear Kurzweil speak a year or so ago and I have to say it was fascinating. This is how Kurzweil describes the Singularity:

"The Singularity" is a phrase borrowed from the astrophysics of black holes. The phrase has varied meanings; as used by Vernor Vinge and Raymond Kurzweil, it refers to the idea that accelerating technology will lead to superhuman machine intelligence that will soon exceed human intelligence, probably by the year 2030. The results on the other side of the "event horizon," they say, are unpredictable. We'll try anyway.

Now, I've got a really big practical bone in me, so I tend not to worry about this kind of thing too much. Even so, I see trends that make me think that if we're not headed for this kind of singularity event, we're at least headed for an era of where people have access to information in ways that will greatly increase their productivity and effectiveness.

Already, I believe that people who write and read weblogs, use instant messaging, and even email are at a decided advantage over those who don't in terms of not only what they know, but how they think about the world. Maybe this is self-congratulatory or self-delusional, but I believe it nevertheless.

Things like OnStar and Grid Sensors are already creating a world where information is being collected in ways we never thought possible and Moore's Law will just make these data collection devices cheaper and hence more ubiquitous.

Improvements in business intelligence tools and ideas like content pipelines will provide even more of the right data to people at just the right time in ways that makes it useful rather than overwhelming. For example, there are many people working on the problem of creating smart information flows that will annotate everything you see on your computer with Google searches, current weather and flight information for cities mentioned, definitions of words you don't know and even related books and newspaper articles. The ability to catalog, filter, and process greater and greater amounts of information by just about anyone is becoming a reality.

Some of this information makes us nervous, like the people I recently read about who were surprised to find that people could track things they'd done online using Google. Enter your phone number into Google and see what comes back. You might be surprised how easy it is for someone to get a map to your front door just by knowing your phone number.

Will all these trends add up to a singularity? I don't know. I can't even bring myself to speculate. I do know, however, that they have significantly changed how I work, what I think, how I interact with people, and even the people I know in a very short time. When I talk to people who haven't made the jump, I feel like I did in 1993 when I was trying to explain the Web to people who didn't even understand the the Internet.

I recently had the honor of addressing a group of students as part of the Rollins eBusiness Center's Guest Lecture Series at Brigham Young University. As part of the talk, I gave them a list of keywords that I think describe much of what is exciting in the world of IT right now. The list included

  • Personalized
  • Peer-based
  • Decentralized
  • Collaborative
  • Connected
  • Converged
  • Presence-enabled

I used these words to tie together a discussion of a set of technologies that included Weblogs, instant messaging, digital identity, wireless networking, Web services, XML, and business intelligence. I find this all terribly interesting and most of the time I can hardly wait to wake up in the morning to see what cool new idea the day will bring. It is rare that I'm disappointed.

Phillip J. Windley is a technology consultant and writer. Windley writes a weblog on enterprise computing at Contact him at

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 21:35:03 UTC