The singularity is never coming, but it’s already here

When I heard Ray Kurzweil present the concept of the singularity to a small group at TED, the idea that computing power advances would ultimately allow thinking machines to advance beyond humans’ ability to advance them, and eventually allow us to “upload” our own consciousness into an eternal ether, I was so smitten I committed to living long enough to live forever.

I even practiced caloric restriction for several years.

Although many things can improve life expectancy, caloric restriction is the only one to have been proven to extend life span — and every life-extending drug experiment attempts to duplicate its effects.

Over time, I came to realize that while the parts of Kurzweil’s concept will likely happen for machines, it won’t happen for me. Even if we can map the electrical signals of my brain (if one were to assume that the brain is the totality of my being, which I do not), the ultimate eternal life that that process would create would not be mine, but rather a replica of me — or a digital variant of that replica.

I was originally thinking of living in a Sony Aibo dog for a bit to see how that went. The me, the me typing these keys and thinking these thoughts, would still rot and die like everyone that came before me, and every non-digital one that comes after.

Venture has been excited about machine learning and big data for some time.

I cannot predict whether I would treat that other digital me as a son I wanted to see prosper after I was gone, or as a competitor for my life’s experiences and values I might conveniently find a way to delete out of jealousy or spite. But the fact that my own biological life would still travel an improving but ultimately finite path convinced me the singularity was not for me.

But for non-organic entities, aka companies, the singularity has already begun. It has begun through the combination of the unlimited data plume the digital age has created, and the enhanced computing power of layered neural networks: aka big data and machine learning.

Big data + machine learning = AI … AI = the singularity for non-organic entities

We are just beginning to see companies create systems that will ultimately outsmart the people and companies that created them, and create nearly unpredictable and unprecedented value in doing so. The singularity of the computing company is upon us.

Here are two recent glimpses of what I’ve seen that convinced me.

One of my portfolio companies has a business model of working with Fortune 500 companies to marry their internal data silos to public data stores to unearth learnings and value.

Recently, a major insurance player expanding its property insurance business to include commercial buildings wanted to refine its underwriting procedures. In mapping the company’s records to public records against individual properties, it unearthed an interesting insight. A surprise predictor of claims for commercial buildings turned out to be, wait for it… boiler maintenance, records for which are public.

I asked the founder who pointed us to boiler record data; was that something we thought of or something the insurance company suggested? The answer was neither; the machines figured it out. I later talked to the largest re-insurer in Europe who had a long history in property insurance who confirmed this was something they had learned over time, yet our systems learned it in an instant.

I visited another company recently that uses machine learning to map images to diagnose disease states. The company inputs medical images and lets the machine learn the patterns. For their first disease state they outperformed an expert panel three to one, and with dramatic reductions in false positives. Dammit Jim, that’s impressive.

The opportunity for machines, over time, to diagnose with high accuracy and de minimis risk of error the illnesses from which we suffer, is both a staggeringly huge financial opportunity and an exceptional human good.

Venture has been excited about machine learning and big data for some time, but the companies we have seen so far are, regardless of size, at best the Version 1s of early day efforts. Consulting businesses and analytics enhancers that advance a past paradigm are interesting, but the opportunities of the future are insane.

The singularity of the company is starting, driven by the computing power and data harnessed and focused by talented entrepreneurs with missions to achieve — missions, which with the singularity, may be greater than any we have embarked on before.