The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis

David Chalmers is a leading philosopher of mind, and the first to publish a major philosophy journal article on the singularity:

Chalmers, D. (2010). “The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 17:7-65.

Chalmers’ article is a “survey” article in that it doesn’t cover any arguments in depth, but quickly surveys a large number of positions and arguments in order to give the reader a “lay of the land.” Because of this, Chalmers’ paper is a remarkably broad and clear introduction to the singularity.

Singularitarian authors will also be pleased that they can now cite a peer-reviewed article by a leading philosopher of mind who takes the singularity seriously.

Below is a CliffsNotes of the paper for those who don’t have time to read all 58 pages of it.

The Singularity: Is It Likely?

Chalmers focuses on the “intelligence explosion” kind of singularity, and his first project is to formalise and defend I.J. Good’s 1965 argument. Defining AI as being “of human level intelligence,” AI+ as AI “of greater than human level” and AI++ as “AI of far greater than human level” (super intelligence), Chalmers updates Good’s argument to the following:

  1. There will be AI (before long, absent defeaters).
  2. If there is AI, there will be AI+ (soon after, absent defeaters).
  3. If there is AI+, there will be AI++ (soon after, absent defeaters).
  4. Therefore, there will be AI++ (before too long, absent defeaters).

By “defeaters,” Chalmers means global catastrophes like nuclear war or a major asteroid impact. One way to satisfy premise (1) is to achieve AI through brain emulation (Sandberg & Bostrom, 2008). Against this suggestion, Lucas (1961), Dreyfus (1972), and Penrose (1994) argue that human cognition is not the sort of thing that could be emulated. Chalmers (1995; 1996, chapter 9) has responded to these criticisms at length. Briefly, Chalmers notes that even if the brain is not a rule-following algorithmic symbol system, we can still emulate it if it is mechanical. (Some say the brain is not mechanical, but Chalmers dismisses this as being discordant with the evidence.)
Searle (1980) and Block (1981) argue instead that even if we can emulate the human brain, it doesn’t follow that the emulation is intelligent or has a mind. Chalmers says we can set these concerns aside by stipulating that when discussing the singularity, AI need only be measured in terms of behavior. The conclusion that there will be AI++ at least in this sense would still be massively important.

Another consideration in favor of premise (1) is that evolution produced human-level intelligence, so we should be able to build it, too. Perhaps we will even achieve human-level AI by evolving a population of dumber AIs through variation and selection in virtual worlds. We might also achieve human-level AI by direct programming or, more likely, systems of machine learning.

Premise (2) is plausible because AI will probably be produced by an extendible method, and so extending that method will yield AI+. Brain emulation might turn out not to be extendible, but the other methods are. Even if human-level AI is first created by a non-extendible method, this method itself would soon lead to an extendible method, and in turn enable AI+. AI+ could also be achieved by direct brain enhancement.

Premise (3) is the amplification argument from Good: an AI+ would be better than we are at designing intelligent machines, and could thus improve its own intelligence. Having done that, it would be even better at improving its intelligence. And so on, in a rapid explosion of intelligence.

In section 3 of his paper, Chalmers argues that there could be an intelligence explosion without there being such a thing as “general intelligence” that could be measured, but I won’t cover that here.

In section 4, Chalmers lists several possible obstacles to the singularity.

Constraining AI

Next, Chalmers considers how we might design an AI+ that helps to create a desirable future and not a horrifying one. If we achieve AI+ by extending the method of human brain emulation, the AI+ will at least begin with something like our values. Directly programming friendly values into an AI+ (Yudkowsky, 2004) might also be feasible, though an AI+ arrived at by evolutionary algorithms is worrying.

Most of this assumes that values are independent of intelligence, as Hume argued. But if Hume was wrong and Kant was right, then we will be less able to constrain the values of a superintelligent machine, but the more rational the machine is, the better values it will have.

Another way to constrain an AI is not internal but external. For example, we could lock it in a virtual world from which it could not escape, and in this way create a leakproof singularity. But there is a problem. For the AI to be of use to us, some information must leak out of the virtual world for us to observe it. But then, the singularity is not leakproof. And if the AI can communicate us, it could reverse-engineer human psychology from within its virtual world and persuade us to let it out of its box – into the internet, for example.

Our Place in a Post-Singularity World

Chalmers says there are four options for us in a post-singularity world: extinction, isolation, inferiority, and integration.

The first option is undesirable. The second option would keep us isolated from the AI, a kind of technological isolationism in which one world is blind to progress in the other. The third option may be infeasible because an AI++ would operate so much faster than us that inferiority is only a blink of time on the way to extinction.

For the fourth option to work, we would need to become superintelligent machines ourselves. One path to this mind bemind uploading, which comes in several varieties and has implications for our notions of consciousness and personal identity that Chalmers discusses but I will not. (Short story: Chalmers prefers gradual uploading, and considers it a form of survival.)


Chalmers concludes:

Will there be a singularity? I think that it is certainly not out of the question, and that the main obstacles are likely to be obstacles of motivation rather than obstacles of capacity.

How should we negotiate the singularity? Very carefully, by building appropriate values into machines, and by building the first AI and AI+ systems in virtual worlds.

How can we integrate into a post-singularity world? By gradual uploading followed by enhancement if we are still around then, and by reconstructive uploading followed by enhancement if we are not.


Block (1981). “Psychologism and behaviorism.” Philosophical Review 90:5-43.

Chalmers (1995). “Minds, machines, and mathematics.” Psyche 2:11-20.

Chalmers (1996). The Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press.

Dreyfus (1972). What Computers Can’t Do. Harper & Row.

Lucas (1961). “Minds, machines, and Godel.” Philosophy 36:112-27.

Penrose (1994). Shadows of the Mind. Oxford University Press.

Sandberg & Bostrom (2008). “Whole brain emulation: A roadmap.” Technical report 2008-3, Future for Humanity Institute, Oxford University.

Searle (1980). “Minds, brains, and programs.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3:417-57.

Yudkowsky (2004). “Coherent Extrapolated Volition.”