Definition

Singularity (the)

What is the singularity?

In technology, the singularity describes a hypothetical future where technology growth is out of control and irreversible. These intelligent and powerful technologies will radically and unpredictably transform our reality.

The word "singularity" has many different meanings, however. It all depends on the context. For example, in natural sciences, singularity describes dynamical systems and social systems where a small change may have an enormous impact.

What is the singularity in technology?

Most notably, the singularity would involve computer programs becoming so advanced that artificial intelligence (AI) transcends human intelligence, potentially erasing the boundary between humanity and computers. Nanotechnology is perceived as one of the key technologies that will make singularity a reality.

This intelligence explosion will significantly impact human civilization. These computer programs and AI will turn into superintelligent machines with cognitive capacity beyond human capabilities.

types of AI
AI transcending human intelligence could lead to the singularity.

To provide a bit of background, John von Neumann -- a Hungarian American mathematician, computer scientist, engineer, physicist and polymath -- first discussed the concept of technological singularity early in the 20th century. Since then, many authors have either echoed this viewpoint or adapted it in their writing.

These stories were often apocalyptic and described a future where superintelligence upgrades itself and accelerates development at an incomprehensible rate. This is because machines take over their own development from their human creators, who lack their cognitive capabilities. According to singularity theory, superintelligence is developed and achieved by self-directed computers. This will occur and increase exponentially, not incrementally.

Entrepreneurs and public figures like Elon Musk have expressed concerns over advances in AI leading to human extinction. Significant innovations in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will lay the foundation for singularity during the first half of the 21st century.

While the term technical singularity often comes up in AI discussions, there is a lot of disagreement and confusion when it comes to its meaning. However, most philosophers and scientists agree that there will be a turning point when we witness the emergence of superintelligence. They also agree on crucial aspects of singularity like time and speed. This means they agree that smart systems will self-improve at an increasing rate.

There are also discussions about adding superintelligence capabilities to humans. These include brain-computer interfaces, biological alteration of the brain, brain implants and genetic engineering.

Ultimately, a post-singularity world will be unrecognizable. For example, humans could potentially scan their consciousness and store it in a computer. This approach will help humans live eternally as sentient robots or in a virtual world.

What is singularity in robotics?

In robotics, singularity is a configuration where the robot end effector becomes blocked in some directions. For example, a serial robot or any six-axis robot arm will have singularities. According to the American National Standards Institute, robot singularities result from the collinear alignment of two or more robot axes.

Whenever this happens, the result is unpredictable robot motion and velocities. For example, singularity will occur when a misconfigured robot arm causes the robot to get stuck and stop working.

an end effector called a gripper
A robotic singularity occurs when the end-effector becomes blocked in some directions.

What is singularity in physics?

In physics, there is gravitational singularity or space-time singularity that describes a location in space-time. According to Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, space-time is a place where the gravitational field and density of a celestial body become infinite without depending on a coordinated system.

This means that it reaches a point where all known physical laws are indistinguishable, and space and time are no longer interrelated realities. They both merge indistinguishably and stop having any independent meaning.

There are several different types of singularities. Each singularity has a distinct physical feature with its own characteristics. These characteristics directly relate to the original theories from which they emerged. The two most important types of singularity are conical singularity and curved singularity.

Conical singularity

A point where the limit of every general covariance quantity is finite is conical singularity. In this scenario, space-time takes the form of a cone built around this point.

Singularity is found at the tip of the cone. An excellent example of conical singularity is cosmic strings. Experts believe that this one-dimensional hypothetical point formed during the early days of the universe.

Curvature singularity

A black hole best describes curvature singularity.

When it comes to black holes, singularity is at the center of them. A black hole is a highly dense one-dimensional point where all matter compresses to an infinitely small point. Here, all concepts of space and time break down completely.

Event Horizon Telescope black hole image
The first published image of a black hole by the Event Horizon Telescope team.

Black holes collapse to the point of singularity. This is a geometric point in space where the compression of mass is infinite density and zero volume. Space-time curves infinitely, gravity is infinite, and the laws of physics cease to function.

There is also what is known as naked singularity. Researchers discovered naked singularity using computer simulations. This type of singularity cannot be hidden from the event horizon (the surface boundary of a black hole where the velocity required to escape is greater than the speed of light).

In this case, the point of singularity is visible in a black hole. Theoretically, this type of singularity would have existed long before the Big Bang.

This was last updated in July 2021

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