Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


"I, Robot" is science fiction, but intelligent computers will soon be science fact.

When will it dawn on the politicians and the general public that this changes everything? (9-Jul-2004)
Summary Super-intelligent computers and robots are science fact. They'll be more intelligent than human beings, and they'll become increasingly more intelligent as time goes on.

The movie I, Robot takes place in 2035, and portrays a future world where intelligent humanoid robots are our servants.

The movie is science fiction, but super-intelligent computers are actively being developed today in labs around the world.

The following are some questions and answers.

Robot from <i>I, Robot</i>
Robot from I, Robot

When will computers be as intelligent as human beings?

Supercomputers will be as intelligent as humans by around 2015, and special-purpose computer servants will be available in the 2020s.

What are special-purpose computer servants?

Autonomous robots that can perform special functions. Examples will be a Robot Plumber, a Robot Nursemaid, and a Robot Soldier.

What will be the environmental impact?

Every one of today's environmental policies will become obsolete. For example, a Robot will be able to go in and clean up environmental waste sites that we formerly thought would remain for centuries.

Will Robots require humans to direct their activities using wireless communications?

Devices like that are available today. The Robots I'm talking about will be able to perform their chores on their own, making their own decisions about what to do next and how to do it.

Will we be able to talk to them?

Yes. They'll be able to listen to what you say, understand what you say, and respond intelligently.

Will they have all five senses?

They'll certainly be able to hear. The early versions will have limited ability to see, but good enough for applications like plumbing where there is little motion. It may be a while before they're able to smell, taste and feel what they're touching.

Will they be able to harm or kill humans?

Yes. In fact, Robot Soldiers will be specifically designed to kill enemy humans.

What about "household Robots"? Will they be able to harm or kill people?

Yes, at least in some cases. Some household Robots will be designed to protect their owners in emergencies, even if that means doing something to harm an intruder.

Will Robots be able to set and achieve goals?

Yes, just like humans, only faster and better.

Will Robots be able to invent new things?

Yes, they'll be able to invent more new things than humans can.

Will Robots be able to write great novels, compose great music, or paint great paintings?

Yes, they'll be able to do anything that humans can do, including novel, imaginative and artistic things. The only difference is that they'll be more intelligent and more imaginative, and they'll do it all faster than humans.

Can a Robot match the infinite possibilities of the human mind?

The human mind does not have infinite possibilities. The human mind has many limitations, and can only think about things it knows about, and in ways it knows about. When you figure all the possible combinations of things that a human mind can think about, it's a very huge number, but it's still finite. Super-intelligent robots will be able to think about a much huger number of things, and will be able to do it faster.

Will I be able to tell the difference between a human and a super-intelligent Robot?

Robots Arnold Schwarzenegger and 	Kristanna Loken in <i>Terminator</i>
Robots Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kristanna Loken in Terminator

Well, the appearance will probably be different. But if you mean just in terms of voice communications or written communications, then you won't be able to tell the difference.

Will the Robots look like they do in I, Robot? Or will they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger (from Terminator)?

I like to joke that a Robot Servant for a woman will look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and one for a man will look like Kristanna Loken. But in fact, Robots probably won't look like them or like the robots in I, Robot either.

As a practical matter, super-intelligent robots will probably look something like this:

Wireless controlled robot currently used in Iraq
Wireless controlled robot currently used in Iraq

This robot is available today and it's not, of course, an intelligent computer. The robot is controlled by wireless communications from the laptop computer you see in the upper left hand corner, where a human being types in commands. In the 2020s, these kinds of robots will be autonomous intelligent computers, able to set goals, make decisions, and talk to people.

Once you think about this design, you can easily see that you wouldn't want even a household robot to look like the robots in the movies. Why limit intelligent robots to two arms? You want it to be able to have extra arms (or whatever) that can reach behind walls to fix plumbing, for example. And why just two eyes? That arm that reaches behind the wall can have an extra eye on it. I expect servant robots to look very utilitarian and not look humanoid at all.

Will Intelligent Robots be alive?

Whether you believe they're alive probably depends on your religious beliefs. If you believe that the world was created by God and that life can only exist by God's creation, then the Intelligent Robot will not be alive. But if you believe that life evolved, starting with single-cell live organisms forming out of the so-called primordial soup (referring to the ancient ocean, filled with strange protein-like chemicals that themselves had evolved from simpler chemicals), then the Intelligent Robot will be alive. It doesn't matter either way, since "alive" is just a word.

Will Intelligent Robots have emotions?

Yes, if the designers decide that giving them emotions is useful, but no, if they don't.

Will Intelligent Robots evolve?

Yes. Once Intelligent Robots are as intelligent as human beings are, then they'll start designing new versions of themselves that will be even more intelligent. Intelligent Robots will continue to get more and more intelligent. By 2050 or so, Intelligent Robots will be as much more intelligent than human beings as human beings are more intelligent than dogs and cats.

Will Intelligent Robots kill all the humans?

No one knows what's going to happen past the year 2030, or whether the Intelligent Robots will kill all the humans. However, it's worth noting this: Human beings have never felt the need to kill all the dogs and cats, so why should the Robots want to kill all the humans?

What is an Intelligent Advisor?

This is an idea about how humans can coexist with super-intelligent Robots. Each human will carry around a small computer called an "Intelligent Advisor," that will advise the human being what to do in various situations, thus giving a human access to the same super-intelligence that the autonomous Robots have.

What is the Singularity?

The Singularity
The Singularity

There will reach a particular point in time, around 2030, when autonomous computers will surpass human beings in intelligence and will be able to do their own research into better versions of themselves.

Once that happens, there will be a bend in the technology curve (shown on the right as an exponential growth curve on a logarithmic scale), and new technology will be invented super-exponentially faster than was ever possible before. The bend in the curve is called "the Singularity."

The name "The Singularity" was provided by science fiction writer and university professor Vernor Vinge in the 1980s. For a 1993 paper by Vernor Vinge on the Singularity, click here.

Is 2030 a firm date for the Singularity?

2030 is the date that I've come to, based on my own analysis. Some other people estimate the date to be as early as 2015-2020, and others estimate it to be as late as 2040-2050.

Can we control development of new, more advanced super-intelligent computers after the Singularity?

No. We can only control development of the first version, and hope that we've designed it carefully enough so that later, more advanced versions will be motivated to improve humanity.

Does anybody know how to write the software necessary to invent a super-intelligent Robot?

Well, of course, once someone writes the software and designs the first robot that's intelligent as a human being, then the robot itself will be able to write software for improved versions of itself.

So, does anybody know how to write the first version of the software?

Yes, probably lots of people, including me.

I was challenged to do so in an online conversation, so I spent a day doing a rough design of the first version of a super-intelligent computer algorithm and posted it. As time went on, I started thinking of other things and adding them to the design.

Within a few weeks after I wrote down the intelligent computer algorithm, I was somewhat surprised to find that the whole thing was turning into something of a mystical experience for me.

Before then, when I talked about the Singularity, it was very abstract, as if I'd plugged some numbers into an equation and come out with an answer without really having a good feel for why the answer is true. Although I'm not a religious person, it was as if I were an evangelical Christian talking about the "last days," but not really having any firm idea about what the sequence of events through the last days would be.

Now however, the whole thing is much more real to me. I can see how the Singularity is going to play out. I can see what steps are going to come first, and what steps are going to come later. I can see where things can go wrong, and what we have to watch out for.

Most important, I can now see the possibility of a positive (for humans) outcome from intelligent computers (ICs). I used to think that there would be no controls whatsoever on ICs, because any crackpot working in his basement can turn out an IC willing to kill any and all humans.

But now I see that building the first generation of ICs is going to be a huge project, from both the hardware and software points of view, and that the first implementation will probably be the only implementation for a number of years. If the first implementation contains the appropriate safeguards, then it will be possible to get past the it to new generations of ICs developed by ICs themselves, and pass those safeguards on to the next generations. By the time that ICs are as much more intelligent than humans as humans are more intelligent than dogs and cats, the critical period will be past, and there'll be no more need for the ICs to kill all the humans.

It'll be like the Manhattan project - one country will be the only one that can afford to build it at first, and anyone else will have to catch up. Just as it took several decades for nuclear weapons to become widely available, it should be impossible for anyone else (or at most one other country) to come up with a major implementation before the Singularity actually occurs. That way, the Singularity can be controlled through the critical period.

What are some things that can go wrong?

One thing that can go wrong was part of the plot line of the movie Terminator III, where the Skynet computer became "self-aware" and decided that to protect itself it needed to kill all the humans.

In the algorithm that I designed, this outcome is a possibility if it's not correctly designed. It comes about because the Intelligent Computer (IC) will be able to set goals for itself, and then take steps to achieve goals. One of the IC's goals is going to be self-preservation. But if the software is sloppily designed, and the goal of self-preservation has too high a priority, then the IC may decide that the only way to guarantee self-preservation would be to kill all the humans. This is a serious problem that has to be avoided with very careful design, implementation and testing.

What else can go wrong?

There's the "zero-tolerance problem." You'll know what I mean if you've read in the news about situations where the principal of a school with a "zero-tolerance drug policy" decides to punish and suspend a six year old girl who comes to school with a Tylenol tablet, because Tylenol is a "drug."

It turns out that even the simplest set of rules can lead to extremely astonishing results, and computers have a way of following the rules they're programmed to follow, even when someone might think they don't make sense. (Humans sometimes do the same thing, as the zero-tolerance drug policy example shows.) So the intelligent computers will need to be programmed carefully to avoid this problem.

Can emotions help with the "zero-tolerance" problem?

Possibly yes. There are two aspects to emotions - whether the Robot exhibits emotions, and whether the Robot has an internal mechanism that permits emotions to overrule its logic-based decision making. In that case, a Robot school principal might decide to punish the six year old girl with the Tylenol tablet, but override its own decision with an internal "emotion system" that says, "Hey, that's crazy. You can't do that to a six year old girl."

If you know how to write the software, why don't you build a super-intelligent computer today?

The software that I designed would run too slowly on today's computers. Within ten years or so, computers will be fast enough to execute this algorithm at good speeds. The faster and more powerful the computer, the more intelligent the computer, and so the computer using the software I developed will become more and more intelligent as time goes on.

How do you know that computers are going to continue to get faster and more powerful?


The above graph shows that supercomputers have been doubling in power every 1.5 years (18 months). Ray Kurzweil has extended this curve all the way back to card processing machines used in the 1890 census, and shown that the same 18 month doubling has occurred since then, through numerous different technologies. Technology always continues to grow exponentially at the same rate, and so it will continue into the future.

Incidentally, growth in technology has always been limited by the capacity and capability of the human mind. Once the Singularity has passed, and new technology is being invented by increasingly intelligent computers, then technological invention will speed up substantially.

You're talking about Moore's Law, aren't you? And isn't Moore's Law supposed to run out soon?

Moore's Law was was written in a paper by Gordon Moore of Intel Corp. in the early 1960s. It predicted that the number of transistors on a computer chip would grow at an exponential rate. History has shown that the number of transistors on a computer chip has been doubling every 18 months or so since then, and so the power of computers has been doubling every 18 months.

However, the density of transistors on a computer chip is going to reach physical limits shortly after 2010. After that, different technologies will be used to continue the same exponential growth path in computer power. These will include biotechnology, nanotechnology, protein folding technology, molecular technology, and quantum technology -- under development to take the place of integrated circuits and keep the power of computers growing steadfastly, as history shows will happen.

Wouldn't we be better off if we decide not to build super-powerful computers?

If America made such a decision, it would leave the way open for some other country, like Japan, China, India, Russia, or Germany, to build the first super-powerful computers.

In fact, development is already well under way around the world.

Just a few weeks ago, on May 12, the Department of Energy announced a $25 million grant to three partners -- Cray, IBM and Silicon Graphics, working in conjunction with the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- for the first year of a project to develop the next generation of supercomputer by 2007.

This supercomputer's power is targeted to be at 50 teraflops -- that is, 50 trillion calculations per second. The human brain is generally rated at between 100 and 10,000 teraflops, so the power of the human brain may be within reach as early as around 2010.

Will super-intelligent computers be used for war?

Yes. All new technologies are always used first for war, and this will be no exception.

Will human beings merge with computers?

Some people think so. There are two possible ways it could happen:

I tend to discount these efforts more than others do, because I'm not sure the result, in either case, will still be a human being.

How do you see the future?

Here's my answer:

The Future
The Future

The next ten years will be very hard, as the War on Terror expands into a Clash of Civilizations world war.

After that, the survivors will see a period of peace and prosperity, as early Robot Servants do a lot of the work that humans have to do today.

After the Singularity occurs, around 2030, no one has any idea what's going to happen.

More: See Vernor Vinge on The Singularity.

Copyright © 2002-2016 by John J. Xenakis.