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.
- About singularities.
- Looking at singularities past and future.
- Imagining past singularities.
- Why is this important?
- 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).
- The Singularity is in our past.
- Has America grown old, and can no longer grow? Or are wonders like the singularity in our future? — About the different kinds of singularities.