What's the technological singularity?

Ray Kurzweil, inventor and computer engineer, presents a talk on the Singularity at the RAS Conference 2007. See our collection of laptop pictures.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

It's a common theme in science fiction -- mankind struggles to survive in a dystopian futuristic society. Scientists discover too late that their machines are too powerful to control. Computers and robots force the human race into servitude. But this popular plot might not belong within the realm of fiction forever. Discussed by philosophers, computer scientists and women named Sarah Connor, this idea seems to gain more credence every year.

Could machines replace humans as the dominant force on the planet? Some might argue that we've already reached that point. After all, computers allow us to communicate with each other, keep track of complex systems like global markets and even control the world's most dangerous weapons. On top of that, robots have made automation a reality for jobs ranging from building automobiles to constructing computer chips.

But right now, these machines have to answer to humans. They lack the ability to make decisions outside of their programming or use intuition. Without self-awareness and the ability to extrapolate based on available information, machines remain tools.

­How long will this last? Are we headed for a future in which machines gain a form of consciousness? If they do, what happens to us? Will we enter a future in which computers and robots do all the work and we enjoy the fruits of their labor? Will we be converted into inefficient ­batteries a la "The Matrix?" Or will machines exterminate the human race from the face of the Earth?

To the average person, these questions may seem outlandish. But some people think we need to take questions like these into consideration now. One such person is Vernor Vinge, a former professor of mathematics at the San Diego State University. Vinge proposes that mankind is heading toward an irrevocable destiny in which we will evolve beyond our understanding through the use of technology. He calls it the singularity.

What is the singularity, and how might it come about?