The Singularity: A Beginning
By Brenda Cooper, 2002
A brief description
Change is accelerating all around us. As a science fiction writer, a science buff, and a host here at Futurist.com, I think about that a lot. There is a concept called ‘the singularity’ that postulates a future world where humanity will change enough that we no longer recognize ourselves. And generally, when people talk about the singularity, they talk about it as a wall, if you will, where humans are one side of an event, or short series of events, and the other side is populated by trans-humanists or post-humans. The other side of the singularity is populated by something – or some ones – wholly different than we are now.
“There is a concept called ‘the singularity’ that postulates a future world where humanity will change enough that we no longer recognize ourselves.”
The idea was popularized by award-winning writer Vernor Vinge, and has taken on an active life since. I first heard the term as web use was increasing exponentially, around ten years ago. The internet has changed us greatly in many ways, but not in others. I can talk to people from around the world instantly, but I still forget to send my brothers a birthday card. Just last month, I was on a panel at the Potlatch 11 Science Fiction Convention talking about the difficulties writing about – and imagining – a world on the other side of the singularity. It’s a real challenge for science fiction writers.
Well, OK, what about causes? That’s the whole problem; by its very nature, the singularity is different enough that we can’t predict it. Some popular ideas for causes include machine intelligence, vast changes in human life-span, or a completely paradigm-busting change in our understanding of physics. Alien contact would do it, quantum computing might, and a certain asteroid seems to have acted like a singularity for the dinosaurs. Although I’m not sure there is any evidence that we are trans-dino’s, unless you count the unexplainable attraction some people have to Barney.
Positions I’ve heard people take around the idea of a singularity:
Let’s Just Stop Changing so Fast
I hate to say it, but a Luddite approach (I’d rather not believe the Earth is round, no matter what you say), has never worked for long in human history – it probably won’t work now either.
How About Government Control?
I don’t believe we’ve ever successfully legislated away a scientific advance, but we have added reins, and affected the speed of development (up or down) with laws and government funding levels. That might let us choose between, say, AI and nanotech. Government support could help embrace a target like Glen’s companion article from this month at Futurist.com, about the importance of an eco-economy. A significant change in the focus and goals of humanity would certainly change the landscape in a post-singularity world.
The Escapist Viewpoint
‘Get me out of here – I’m tired of being human and I’d rather be downloaded into a computer.’ Get over it – since when has running away from a problem fixed it? Besides, while the first human to live forever might have been born, chances are it isn’t me, or you.
The Transcendent Viewpoint
‘Post humans will be so very much better than humans.’ Often carries spiritual connotations with it – post humans will touch the face of god, or post-humans will be gods. Being better would be nice. I suggest we make this a goal, but that we be realistic about it.
AI’s (or something) will take over the world and we’ll be like dust in their way – they’ll sweep us into a convenient corner or incinerate us. Being dust would not be nice. Not a good goal. Definitely even a good thing to guard against.
Kidding aside, the pace of change is increasing in a number of key technologies. My prediction? Not a single singularity – but a series of advances in machine intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetics. Hopefully some changes in our goals. And post-humans that are driven by a lot of the same things we are; entertainment, love, health, wealth, war, territorial expansion, and competition. The gaming and sex industries are still pushing the internet space hard, biology and medicine are funded by a wealthy and aging first-world population and driven by some real problems in other areas (like AIDS), and the War on Terrorism is pushing many technologies. Space is still important, although it appears to be waiting for some breakthrough technology or a better business driver.
The idea of a completely different humanity is attractive – especially if we can get to one that won’t fly planes into towers or starve little kids or leave its old to die alone. I imagine we are more likely to end up with a different situation where many of the motives are about the same. After all, I think if I brought someone from 600 BC forward in time to now, they’d be completely overwhelmed by the way we live: Cell phones, computers, space ships, cars, even washing machines. But they’d understand most of our basic motivations: Love, desire, competition, procreation, and even war. I have studied this enough to figure out that a real technological singularity is possible and plausible, even if I think continued accelerated change on the same curves is more likely.
Regardless of what actually happens, the conversation is a good one to have. It’s a way to frame questions about what we want our world to be like, and to influence that world. So even if there never is a ‘singularity’ (remember, Armageddon has been due for centuries and isn’t a completely different concept), conversations about the future and about breakthrough technologies are likely make us better humans
Think about finding someone to sit down and talk to about the future this week.