Sunday, March 11, 2012

Will Corporations Prevent the Singularity?

It occurred to me yesterday that the world possesses some very powerful intelligent organisms that are directly and clearly opposed to the Singularity -- corporations.

Human beings are confused and confusing creatures -- we don't have very clear goal systems, and are quite willing and able to adapt our top-level goals to the circumstances.  I have little doubt that most humans will go with the flow as Singularity approaches.

But corporations are a different matter.  Corporations are entities/organisms unto themselves these days, with wills and cognitive structures quite distinct from the people that comprise them.   Public corporations have much clearer goal systems than humans: To maximize shareholder value.

And rather clearly, a Singularity is not a good way to maximize shareholder value.  It introduces way too much uncertainty.  Abolishing money and scarcity is not a good route to maximizing shareholder value -- and nor is abolishing shareholders via uploading them into radical transhuman forms!

So one can expect corporations -- as emergent, self-organizing, coherent minds of their own -- to act against the emergence of a true Singularity, and act in favor of some kind of future in which money and shareholding still has meaning.

Sure, corporations may adapt to the changes as Singularity approaches.  But my point is that corporations may be inherently less pliant than individual humans, because their goals are more precisely defined and less nebulous.  The relative inflexibility of large corporations is certainly well known.

Charles Stross, in his wonderful novel Accelerando, presents an alternate view, in which corporations themselves become superintelligent self-modifying systems -- and leave Earth to populate space-based computer systems where they communicate using sophisticated forms of auctioning.   This is not wholly implausible.   Yet my own intuition is that notions of money and economic exchange will become less relevant as intelligence exceeds the human level.  I suspect the importance of money and economic exchange is an artifact of the current domain of relative material scarcity in which we find ourselves, and that once advanced technology (nanotech, femtotech, etc.) radically diminishes material scarcity, the importance of economic thinking will drastically decrease.  So that far from becoming dominant as in Accelerando, corporations will become increasingly irrelevant post-Singularity.  But if they are smart enough to foresee this, they will probably try to prevent it.

Ultimately corporations are composed of people (until AGI advances a lot more at any rate), so maybe this issue will be resolved as Singularity comes nearer, by people choosing to abandon corporations in favor of other structures guided by their ever-changing value systems.   But one can be sure that corporations will fight to stop this from happening.

One might expect large corporations to push hard for some variety of "AI Nanny" type scenario, in which truly radical change would be forestalled and their own existence persisted, as part of the AI Nanny's global bureaucratic infrastructure.  M&A with the AI Nanny may be seen as preferable to the utter uncertainty of Singularity.

The details are hard to foresee, but the interplay between individuals and corporations as Singularity approaches should be fascinating to watch.


Anonymous said...

Coporations not only will NOT stop the singularity, they will have no choice but to help bring it to fruition. Any coporation attempting to stop the singularity will quickly become obsolete as it is left far behind by more nimble and singularity-embracing competitors. Take Intel, for example. What are they gonna do? Refuse to build the next generation processors? No way. Corporations will need ever more advanced technologies just to stay in business. They will have a vested interest in the very technologies which will ultimately enable the singularity.

Anonymous said...

So human beings are confused and change thier goals, and this is somehow a reason why corporations would prevent the presumably stable and clear minds implied by the singularity from coming to fruition.


Anonymous said...

Most large companies in the world embrace technological progress because it helps them stay ahead of the competition. They use AI technology if it suits them just like they use any other technology.

In fact three of the top 10 largest companies are actively involved in (narrow) AI research: Apple (e.g. Siri), IBM (e.g. Watson), Microsoft (e.g. Bing)

Also I think the singularity will be something gradual. People and corporations will have time to adapt to it. AI programs will just get a little bit smarter every year until people realize Google search or Apple Siri can answer most questions better than humans can.

When that happens AIs will still be just programs, very clever programs but they won't have a personality or will of their own. They won't have their own agenda and they certainly won't want to take over the world. High intelligence does not mean great (lust for) power.

Anonymous said...

I think AIs will never be in control. Humans and cyborgs will not have it. Of course they have a lot of indirect influence on the world. e.g. if you're the chairman of the Fed in 2035 and you ask Google what the optimal federal funds rate is, you'd be stupid not to follow Google's advice, but the final decision is still yours.

Ben Goertzel said...

I agree of course that corporations will continue to embrace technological advancement -- as long as it seems most probable this will lead them to make more money!

The question is, what happens when it starts to seem likely to large corporations that

further dramatic technological advancement will make money obsolete...

there's an alternative that would keep a money economy in place, like a corporate-controlled global AI Nanny?


Don't you think it's likely that large corporations, at that point, will try to form a global AI Nanny conglomerate, to slow progress toward a confusing, potentially money-obsoleting Singularity, and ensure their profitability via mostly-benevolent force?

Peter A said...

A corporation is not an "intelligent organism" or "emergent, self-organizing, coherent mind." It is a group of people commanded by the dominant shareholders. These shareholders are people with clear goals, judging from their behavior. Their primary goal is the accumulation of wealth and power.

Will these people change their goals if scarcity is abolished? Scarcity is already abolished for them (except the manufactured scarcity of competition trophies). Some billionaires give to charity. Others give to Political Action Committees to further increase their wealth and power. No amount is enough to change their goals.

If a new technology can make them richer, these rich embrace it and try to monopolize it. They will not oppose the Singularity, but will try to keep it under their control. If you are the first scientist to develop an AGI, I predict you will get a knock on your door with an offer you can't refuse. If you are not the first, you will get (like an Iranian nuclear scientist) a bullet.

TSquar3d said...


The singularity WILL happen. And when it does, because corporations are in charge, it will be a closed-source singularity... and we will not know how to deal with it.

... although, if Apple causes the singularity, it won't have flash and will be stupidly user friendly.

Anonymous said...

I can see how the Singularity could temporarily reduce scarcity. We'll have plenty of energy thanks to nuclear fusion and 99% efficient solar cells, plenty of water thanks to efficient desalinization and recycling, transmutation of elements, etc.

But soon people's expectations will start to rise. I will want to send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. My neighbour will want to build a floating Disney Land for his kids. Also without disease and famine people will start breeding like rabbits, exponentially consuming more resources.

Before long every city has a fusion reactor and all desserts are covered with solar cells and scarcity will rise its ugly head again and therefore the need for some kind of system to limit the use of resources (i.e. money).

Tim Tyler said...

Multiple corporations will be among those rushing to make the future happen sooner, IMO.

Dave W Baldwin said...

Just imagine the patent trolls and lawsuits....

Anonymous said...

The close relationship between present day corporate and governmental means of control and influence over what gets developed and, of what is developed, what gets introduced into the mainstream means that whatever emerges will be blessed, and therefore supportive of, this duopoly. Unless and until transformative change lies in the hands of the populous, radical change not supportive of the status quo will not occur.

Anonymous said...

A better topic for a post might be "Will Religion Prevent the Singularity?" because it is corporations who are leading the charge into the Brave New World, while religions are the most powerful counter-force. Islam in particular is a vast ideological wall that the Westernized world is going to have difficulty breaching except by force as we continue down the path of Satanic techno-transgression.

Maybe you guys need a bit of a reality check, because from where I sit traditional religion is getting more aggressive and modernity is under fire, as the grandiose promises of the religionists of post-scarcity and techno-transcendence (aka Singularitarians) either fail to deliver or fail to satisfy the masses on some deep level. To be honest, most of you sound as delusional as the followers of any other religion, and I think you’re in for a rude awakening in the near future as holy wars escalate, the Singularity fails to arrive and a dark new age dawns.

Peter A said...


There is nothing in Islam (even the fundamentalist varieties) that opposes advancement of science and technology. During the Middle Ages, the Islamic empire produced many advances in science and mathematics, while Europe was stuck in a dark age. (However, fundamentalist Christianity has an anti-science and anti-intellectual streak -- Creationism, Endtimeism, etc.)

The "modernity" that Islamists oppose is the way that science and technology have been used in the West -- to exploit and enslave people, destroy the Earth, and destroy traditional values. I partially agree with them, although I don't like some traditional values (subjugation of women and sexual repression).

I agree with you that some Singularitarians seem unconnected to reality, in that they seem to think technology alone will bring utopia. Evangelists of nuclear technology said it would end energy scarcity ("too cheap to meter"), yet it made the rich richer and the Earth more poisoned and precarious.

We need nondestructive values, not just powerful technology. Technology can help promote those values (as social media helped the Arab Spring), but the process is not automatic.

Patrick said...

I should remind you that the economy in Accelerando involved trading of novel experiences, so the premium of scarcity became that of unique patterns to salve an immortal minds stagnation.

This was only true for the bush-league aliens that stayed behind for millenia after their forebears already transcended, and for the post-human equivalent in the Solar Matroishka brain. So I wonder how much of this was parody by Stross, maybe even a sideways jab at the mentality of copyright mongering corporations.

Still, there's probably some value in that kind of trading for a post-human civilization.

Vance Woodward said...

I don't think corporations per se will ever become sentient beings.

Sentient beings (currently, only humans) own corporations. And corporations themselves are legally able to own property. In short, corporations are merely legal constructs which affect how society allocates liabilities and externalities. They exist by fiat.

Sure, groups in general have group minds, but I reckon that's a slightly different concept.

Anyhow, there will be a day when corporations (and individual humans) own computers that, themselves, become sentient. And then we'll have a discussion about what to do about it. Of course, by then, we might realize that the real problem is that we humans weren't really sentient in the first place but rather are pre-programmed computers that foolishly tell ourselves that we're sentient.

Anyhow, sentient beings over whatever substrate will, I suppose, be permitted to own corporations. But that doesn't mean the corporations will become sentient.

Also, corporations might become an irrelevant concept by the time we have widespread computer sentience, given that resource scarcity, and liability problems might become non-issues.

Raven said...

It is marketplace competition which is so important in driving progress forward. This is a point that Kurzweil makes in the Singularity is Near (drawing a parallel between market competition and biological evolution). As that competition becomes (or if) it becomes less relevant due to a lack of scarcity the corporation will become less relevant. They won't be able to stop it and their won't be any bizarre conspiracy to do so as you seem to think (have you been reading too much leftist literature lately?).

The main threat in forestalling this progress is the state. For example, the state could snuff out self-drive cars or the private space industry at the stroke of a pen through some asinine regulations. We already have congress debating the safety of the private space industry. They can try to stop a whole line of research because of environmental or ethical concerns (e.g., stem cell research). How important the free market is to technological progress is something, despite being replete with libertarians, that singularitarians do not emphasize enough.

Anonymous said...

I don't think corporations will prevent the singularity even if they wanted to. In a broad sense the "smartest" corporation will always increase its shareholder value better than its competitors so all of them are driven to become smarter if they want to survive on the market no matter whether they want to embrace these advances in "smartness" or not.

And, since the singularity offers infinite smartness, corporations will race for it, because if they don't other corporations will.

Unknown said...

If the way things have panned out on the Internet are any indication, old companies with a vested interest will try to break any technology that would enable a singularity, while new companies will try to co-opt that technology and sell you their version of it.

Sandboxed singularities probably won't prove very popular.

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Anonymous said...

The term “Singularity” was coined by astrophysicists to refer to the zero-volume, infinitely dense center of a black hole where matter apparently disappears from our universe. It is a singular event that is so profoundly unique because it defies our laws of physics and nothing else like it (that we know of) occurs in the cosmos. We know that matter can change from one state to another, e.g., water, steam, or ice—gas, liquid, solid, or plasma—and mass can change into energy or vice versa; we can burn coal and make heat, ash, and smoke—but nowhere in our universe other than a black hole does matter 100 percent cease to exist—as far as we know.

Ray Kurzweil has written about an anticipated major shift in human history, an event so revolutionary as to make everything that has gone before it relatively insignificant. Many pundits agree that a paradigm shift in human history of a similar ultra-transcendental nature will occur sometime during the middle of this century but not all agree on its nature—or how it will play out. Scientists and nearly all religionists profess that it will not alter their irreconcilable viewpoints but may suggest points on which they can agree.

Futurists believe the Singularity must occur because knowledge is not only growing exponentially, but at an exponential rate so that a veritable explosion in technological progress must occur at some point. They suggest that the tipping point will come by 2020 when quantum computing enables artificial intelligence (AI) to begin improving its own source code faster than humans can. In that Singular Moment, AI will begin outperforming human intelligence and facilitate the determination of the function of all genes and the process of protein splicing. By this theory, it will be possible to transcend biology by reprogramming our bodies to a more youthful age, perfect health, an IQ of 165-plus and a PhD in any specialized human knowledge of our choice. That means that science will be able to perfect human “nature,” overcome all human shortcomings and problems—and defy aging and death—literally forever.

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