Looking at technological singularities in our past & future

Summary:  It becomes increasingly clear that the rate of technological progress might accelerate in the coming years, taking us to an unknown world. Here we look at singularities past and future to help chart a course ahead, avoiding the dangers and seizing the benefits. This is a revised version of a post from 2007, one of the first on the FM website.



  1. About singularities.
  2. Looking at singularities past and future.
  3. Imagining past singularities.
  4. Why is this important?
  5. For More Information.

(1)  About singularities

History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.

This mathematical concept came to the public’s attention from Vernor Vinge’s book Marooned in Realtime, describing a wondrous future in which the rate of technological progress accelerates – eventually going vertical — after which the humanity leaves for a higher plane of existence (see links below for more on this).

Since then people have come to see that possible singularities abound in our future, in addition to this technological singularity. Those terrified by the approach of Peak Oil often describe it as a dystopian Singularity; those elated by Peak Oil describe it as a wonderful singularity — a forced purification as we enter a new age. I have described the end of the post-WWII regime as a singularity in a limited sense: we cannot see beyond it (and before worrying about what lies beyond, must first survive the passage through it).

(2)  Looking at singularities past and future

Singularities — and perhaps The Singularity — lie in our past and shaped human history. Consider the awesome accomplishments of our species, each of which radically changed our world. The discovery of fire — giving us power over the environment. The development of agriculture — vastly expanding our food sources. The invention of writing — the key to accumulating knowledge over generations.

Similar discontinuities might lie in our future (we might also experience bad singularities)…

  • Space travel — producing a vast increase in resources, plus allowing planetary-scale engineering and independence from Earth as our only nest.
  • Widespread use of genetic-engineering — accelerating our evolution and giving humanity the freedom to shape ourselves.
  • Construction of Artificial Intelligences — ending our solitude, liberating us from the limitations of biological intelligence.
  • Vastly extended our vital lifespans — “vital” is key, to avoid becoming Struldbruggs, the decrepit immortals described in Gulliver’s Travels.

Longer lives might prove the most important advantage. In “Back to Methuselah“, George Bernard Shaw temporarily abandoned his utopian dreams and suggested that only longer lifespans of 300 years could bring true wisdom and hence a better world. The horror show of violence and folly we call history results from the absence of adult supervision (adult meaning over 100 years old). That might change during the next few generations as we unlock the secrets of biology, as we did during the 19th and 20th centuries with chemistry and physics.

Of course, those are “plausible” innovations. There are imaginable inventions such as time travel, unlimited energy sources, and faster than light travel. Who knows what we might achieve in the future?

Given our past, why are so many people so gloomy about our future? Challenges lie ahead, as they always do, but we have survived ice ages (large and small), natural disasters (such as the eruption of Toba, which exterminated most of our species), and our own mistakes and follies. History gives us reason to look to the future with anticipation, not fear. We must remember this as our elites increasingly attempt to lead by exciting our fears.


(3)  Imagining past singularities

Cro-Magnon Communication” by Brad Delong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) …

The Twelve-Year-Old is on strike. She refuses to write more than one paragraph of a letter detailing her day to our pre-Neolithic Revolution ancestors. She says the idea is stupid because it cannot be done — the Singularity is not in our future but in our past. Nevertheless it is quite a good first paragraph:

“I was jigging to my iPod when my friend Noelle rode up in the front passenger seat of her family’s minivan. ‘Will your parents let you come see “The Wedding Crashers”?’ she asked.”

She has a point. “Jigging” can be gotten across. And the East African Plains Ape social dynamics can be gotten across — friends, marriage, excessive parental control of the activities of adolescent females, et cetera (although not all of them: the idea of a “wedding crasher” is a very complicated concept to get across to a hunter-gatherer who has lived in a group of 40 or so her whole life).

But the rest?  Maybe I should have reversed the assignment: What kinds of science fiction would hunter-gatherers have written?

Here is an example of science fiction from the Early Holocene (~9,000 years ago), written by Pat Mathews

Shaman:  I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
Chief:        You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Shaman:  It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
Chief:        You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.


(4)  Why is this important?

Events often move in cycles about which we know little as they begin — not their duration, magnitude, or scale. Perhaps this technological cycle will move humanity to a higher level. Perhaps it will break us. Hence the important of thinking ahead and preparing for obvious risks. A positive attitude helps, which requires seeing things in their proper context — neither delusionally enthusiastic nor paralyzed by fear.

No matter what happens, we can face the future with pride in our past and optimism for the future. Let us not let our critics and naysayers take these away from us.

(5)  For more information about singularities

To learn more about singularities see the Wikipedia entry on the technological singularity. Also read Vernor Vinge’s “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” (1993). Also see the work of Ray Kurzweil: his website and his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about history, especially these about singularities…

Sngularity sky

11 thoughts on “Looking at technological singularities in our past & future”

  1. I’d challenge the assumption that old equals wise. It’s the grey beards seeking WWIII and the next Cold War.

    1. Mike,

      “I’d challenge the assumption that old equals wise.”

      That’s a provocative thought, well worth pondering.

      “It’s the grey beards seeking WWIII and the next Cold War.”

      I disagree on both aspects of this. First, nobody other than the ever-present lunatic fringe “seeks WWIII”. They’d love another cold war; vast profits were made on the first (aptly described, like WWII, with so many by so few at the expense of the many (there is a famous quote to this effect, but I can’t find it).

      Second, WWIII is not a realistic danger today. Rather its just another of the horror flick scenarios that has seized the American imagination. Every year for decades brings a newly respectable apocalyptic scenario for us to thrill about — without acting upon, since we know it’s just a fantasy. AIDS, the hordes of hispanic children migrating like locusts from Latin America, Ebola, nuclear war, Jihadist sleeper cells in every town, ALAR poisoning our children’s apples, radioactivity pouring out of the cooling towers of nuclear reactors (actually just water vapor, but still terrifying), etc.

  2. Although I like your idea of encouraging people to be a bit more optimistic, doesn’t this contradict some earlier posts about slowing growth of science and technology? I think that unfortunately this is more realistic. Physics is still cleaning up the Standard Model (almost 40 yrs old). There is no “cure for cancer”. Did you imagine in 1972 that it would be at least FIFTY years before anyone went to the Moon again?
    As far as the danger of WWIII there is only limited data. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 62 and the Russian Glitch in 1984 seem the best data points. (In the latter a Soviet Lt Col refused to pass on the warning because of the background of improving relations. With today’s propaganda invective who knows?) Anyway maybe this could be a future topic of a Post.

    1. Social Bill,

      See the posts cited in the For More Info section which discuss this in detail. The slowdown of science is in the past. The possible acceleration lies in the future.

      As for WWIII, I have discussed this in some detail in the posts I cited. We have a great deal of evidence in the 50 years since the Cuban Missile crisis — in the absence of any close calls.

      The 1983 incident is usually described in silly terms. A Lt Colonel did not have the authority to launch nukes. The Soviet Union did not have a launch on warning policy (i.e., launching on radar and satellite data, rather than confirmation of explosions). It is a fun story he sold to the Atlantic. He made some money. The Atlantic sold some adverts. A U.S. news media win!

      I wonder how many comments I have given debunking American’s fears of DOOM? Peak oil , pollution, diseases, depression, EMP weapons, WWIII, climate change, cyber-collapse of civilization — it is a long list. This must be the most common class of comments, which says something about us (I wish I knew what). I suspect with a zero success rate.

  3. “The Soviet Union did not have a launch on warning policy (i.e., launching on radar and satellite data, rather than confirmation of explosions).”

    As far as I have read about nuclear strategy launch on warning is pretty much in the card, particularly for Russia which usually keeps the mobile nuclear forces largely in harbor/garage (cheaper and making a larger proportion of the force available for a surge in a crisis) , it does not mean however that they would necessarily let loose on the basis of dubious signals.
    But frankly I would not overestimate the danger, I get the impression the American decisionmakers believe they can crush Russia by subversion, economic measures and low scale proxy war using disposable pawns like Ukraine. No “all in” showdowns in the cards probably.

    1. Marcello,

      Citations, please. It’s a subject extensively researched for 70 years. I have not seen evidence of a launch on warning policy, although both sides have repeatedly threatened to do so.

      This subject, like almost everything in geopolitics, has a high proportion of just making stuff up — very useful to keep the fear (and funding) levels high. So please cite only things with evidence, not just another general blowing hot air.

      Note that before the introduction of FAILSAFE systems in the early 1960s the criteria for launch were more discretionary — hence the movie Dr. Strangelove.

    2. Marcello,

      I flipped thru my library and did a quick Google search, finding nothing showing that Russia ever had a launch on warning policy.

      There was lots of guessing as to their nuclear strategy, especially in the early days of the Cold War when military strategy in the US and perhaps the Soviet Union was in the hands of psychopaths.

      This is odd, as there was a period in which their archives were somewhat open to the West. I expected to see something from that about their launch rules. Perhaps more digging would reveal it.

  4. “Citations, please.”

    “Launch on warning owed its de facto adoption to the acute disadvantages of the alternatives. It represented a compromise between the extremes of preemption and retaliation after ride-out that skirted their political and technical drawbacks”

    The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War By Bruce G. Blair pg 170

    “Launch on Warning- that is disseminating firing orders after detecting an enemy nuclear missile strike but before the missiles reach their targets- was and still is a core element of Russian nuclear strategy”

    The Nuclear Challenge in Russia and the New States of Eurasia By George H. Quester pg 59

    “The main strategic option envisaged in Soviet military doctrine was the delivery of the counterstrike or launch-on warning strike”

    Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces By Oleg Bukharin, Pavel Leonardovich Podvig , Frank Von Hippel pg 60

    Now, it is difficult to prove something like a military doctrine and there are various analysis but frankly as far as I can tell the notion that the Russian would resort to launch on warning in some circumstances is hardly a fringe view among the watchers of such things.

    1. Marcello,

      I congratulate you on your use of Google, finding this phrase. But “Google knowledge” is not actual knowledge.

      I read the chapter about launch on warning in your first citation, by Brookings. The author copiously footnotes his facts — but I see not a single mention of evidence that the Soviet Union implemented launch on warning, let alone a footnote to a supporting document. Repeating the assertion does not make it fact.

      He also says that the U.S. had such a policy, but denied it. That would be quite a coup to prove such a thing. But he just asserts it, perhaps relying on the Force.

      Too bad the generals did not tell us this, since it undercut completely the justification for the massively expensive triad of nukes — launched by air, from ground silos, and from submarines, designed to give a second strike capability (I.e., launch after attack, the opposite of launch on warning).

      But then, that also applies to the Soviet Union — who could afford the triad less well than the U.S., with their far smaller economy.

      Also, I did not see an explanation why both sides built the expensive and dangerous “overkill” capability — designed to allow an adequate fraction of forces to survive a first strike and provide adequate retaliation — if they used launch on warning.

      By the way, if you bother to find quotes via Google, it would be nice to give the links.

  5. “I flipped thru my library and did a quick Google search, finding nothing showing that Russia ever had a launch on warning policy.”

    This is a fairly specialized field of research but Google books should turn up some references.
    Alternatively you could ask questions in places like this http://armscontrolwonk.com/
    While not everybody agrees that is a common view.

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