Good news: the singularity approaches!

Support: Amidst the gloom that envelopes both Left and Right, evidence grows that another discontinuity in history approaches — a singularity. If so, it will evaporate many of today’s problems and create new ones. Only aware eyes and open minds can prepare for what is coming. This is another in this week’s posts about good news.

Singularity

Contents

  1. The singularity in our distant past.
  2. The singularity that just ended.
  3. About singularities.
  4. We see the singularity that lies ahead.
  5. Works about the singularity.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  The singularity in our distant past

The great singularities lie in our past. For a fun illustration of this see some “Early Holocene Sci-fi” 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.

There have been several singularities in our past. Consider these awesome accomplishments of our species, each of which radically changed our world: discovery of fire (giving us power over the environment), agriculture (giving us control over our food supply), and writing (allowing accumulation of knowledge over time).

Singularity Eye

(2)  The singularity that just ended

“The Singularity has happened; we call it “the industrial revolution” or “the long nineteenth century”. It was over by the close of 1918. Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses) Check. Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check. Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.”

— “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone” by Cosma Shalizi (Associate Professor of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon).

The industrial revolution ended sometime between 1918 and 1945, but nobody noticed for decades. Even in the 1960’s people believed the revolution continued. Now it’s obvious. Scores of books describe this, such as The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. But a few saw it as it happened, such as this warning by the great physicist Albert Abraham Michelson in 1903. This passage has been laughed at, but he was more right than wrong…

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. … Many instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that “our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”  {From Lights waves and their uses}

Largely as a result of this slowing of scientific progress, US economic growth has been slowing since the 1970s. After decades of observation and research, economists have gained some understanding of what’s happening. The most recent book (well-worth reading) is Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (2016).

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
— Charles H. Duell, Director of U.S. Patent Office, 1899. It’s a famous fake quote, as false as the idea it expresses.

Singularity

(3)  About singularities

The “singularity” is an amalgam of ideas, some contradictory, about a future of accelerating technological evolution leading to a new world. We cannot understand what will come, much as one cannot see through a singularity in the physical universe. The origin of the concept lies in the mid-19th century (perhaps earlier). The public learned about it 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.

For an introduction to the various visions see “Three Major Singularity Schools” by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky at the Singularity Institute blog, September 2007. Here’s the opening.

“Singularity discussions seem to be splitting up into three major schools of thought: Accelerating Change, the Event Horizon, and the Intelligence Explosion. The thing about these three logically distinct schools of Singularity thought is that, while all three core claims support each other, all three strong claims tend to contradict each other.

Accelerating Change.

Core claim: Our intuitions about change are linear; we expect roughly as much change as has occurred in the past over our own lifetimes. But technological change feeds on itself, and therefore accelerates. Change today is faster than it was 500 years ago, which in turn is faster than it was 5000 years ago. Our recent past is not a reliable guide to how much change we should expect in the future.

Strong claim: Technological change follows smooth curves, typically exponential. Therefore we can predict with fair precision when new technologies will arrive, and when they will cross key thresholds, like the creation of Artificial Intelligence.

Advocates: Ray Kurzweil, Alvin Toffler (?), John Smart.

Event Horizon.

Core claim: For the last hundred thousand years, humans have been the smartest intelligences on the planet. All our social and technological progress was produced by human brains. Shortly, technology will advance to the point of improving on human intelligence (brain-computer interfaces, Artificial Intelligence). This will create a future that is weirder by far than most science fiction, a difference-in-kind that goes beyond amazing shiny gadgets.

Strong claim: To know what a superhuman intelligence would do, you would have to be at least that smart yourself. To know where Deep Blue would play in a chess game, you must play at Deep Blue’s level. Thus the future after the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence is absolutely unpredictable.

Advocates: Vernor Vinge.

Intelligence Explosion.

Core claim: Intelligence has always been the source of technology. If technology can significantly improve on human intelligence – create minds smarter than the smartest existing humans – then this closes the loop and creates a positive feedback cycle. What would humans with brain-computer interfaces do with their augmented intelligence? One good bet is that they’d design the next generation of brain-computer interfaces. Intelligence enhancement is a classic tipping point; the smarter you get, the more intelligence you can apply to making yourself even smarter.

Strong claim: This positive feedback cycle goes FOOM, like a chain of nuclear fissions gone critical – each intelligence improvement triggering an average of>1.000 further improvements of similar magnitude – though not necessarily on a smooth exponential pathway. Technological progress drops into the characteristic timescale of transistors (or super-transistors) rather than human neurons. The ascent rapidly surges upward and creates superintelligence (minds orders of magnitude more powerful than human) before it hits physical limits.

Advocates: I. J. Good, Eliezer Yudkowsky.”

Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.

(4)  We begin to see the singularity that lies ahead

Possible singularities abound in our future in addition to the 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 small singularity. Similar discontinuities might lie in our future…

  • Space travel — bringing a vast increase in resources, planetary engineering giving independence from Earth as our only nest.
  • Widespread genetic engineering — liberating humanity from random evolution, bringing the freedom to shape ourselves.
  • Artificial Intelligences — an end to our solitude, bringing independence from limitations of biological intelligence.
  • Extended vital lifespans — George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah says that longer lifespans are the key to a better society. “Vital” is key, to avoid becoming Struldbruggs, the immortals described in Gulliver’s Travels as old and decrepit.

Of course, those are only the innovations in the “plausible” realm. Who knows what we might achieve in the future? Given our past, why are so many people so gloomy about our future? We have survived ice ages, natural disasters (such as the eruption of Toba, which exterminated most of humanity), 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 arousing fears.

Works about the singularity

  1. The Coming Technological Singularity:  How to Survive in the Post-Human Era“, Vernor Vinge, 1993.
  2. Ray Kurzweil: his website; also see his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
  3. The Wikipedia entry about the singularity is excellent.
  4. These two Wikipedia entries provide a good introduction to the theories underlying these two visions of the future: endogenous growth models and exogenous growth models.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about forecasts, about the new industrial revolution, about good news for America, and especially these…

  1. Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
  2. Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
  3. Robots are the solution to our problems, if we enslave them — The different economies of Star Trek and Jupiter Ascending.
  4. Will we enslave robots? If so, prepare for their inevitable revolt.
  5. Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
  6. Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.

Contrasting books about our future.

In one, the future holds accelerating growth leading to the unimaginable. In the other, the future holds economic stagnation as far as we can see.

Marooned in Realtime
Available at Amazon..
The Rise and Fall of American Growth
Available at Amazon.
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21 thoughts on “Good news: the singularity approaches!

    1. Camilla,

      (1) This post is about what’s happening now. See the posts in the For More Information section, esp about the new industrial revolution — pointing out the events in the news and how they show the future.

      (2) That’s phrase of Keynes is often taken out of context. He’s discussing much the same as I am — the need to see what’s happening now and react to it. Keynes said…

      “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the strom is long past the ocean is flat again.”

      Compare that with the summary to this post…

      “Amidst the gloom that envelopes both Left and Right, evidence grows that another discontinuity in history approaches — a singularity. If so, it will evaporate many of today’s problems and create new ones. Only aware eyes and open minds can prepare for what is coming.”

      Like

    1. Sflicht,

      An example — one of the best articles for the general pubic (i.e., in terms of useful insights provided, not size of guesses) is “The Mind at AI: Horseless Carriage to Clock“, William C. Hill, AI Magazine, Summer 1989 — Abstract:

      “Commentators on AI converge on two goals they believe define the field:

      1. to better understand the mind by specifying computational models and
      2. to construct computer systems that perform actions traditionally regarded as mental.

      “We should recognize that AI has a third, hidden, more basic aim; that the first two goals are special cases of the third; and that the actual technical substance of AI concerns only this more basic aim. This third aim is to establish new computation-based representational media, media in which human intellect can come to express itself with different clarity and force. This article articulates this proposal by showing how the intellectual activity we label AI can be likened in revealing ways to each of five familiar technologies.”

      Like

  1. “What I hope I’ve done today is shown you the dangers of being too smart. Hopefully you’ll leave this talk a little dumber than you started it, and be more immune to the seductions of AI that seem to bedevil smarter people.”

    Now, best be a bit gloomy about the state of things and find something to do for all the people being put out of work today, right now.
    ….by AI.

    Breton

    Like

  2. This is an interesting post. I’m a little confused why you characterize the first two advances, or eras of human experience, as previous singularities. I’ve only heard the term singularity used in conjunction with artificial intelligence (in this context of advancement rather than as a math term). Wikipedia’s disambiguation page lists it as “a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence”.

    Like

    1. gbutera,

      (1) “heard the term singularity used in conjunction with artificial intelligence”

      First, looking at the future. That’s too narrow a vision (that’s the problem with using Wikipedia for information, rather than a source of links). The singularity is about breakthrough technologies. AI is one. Genetic engineering is another. But there are others. Communications, such as direct mind-to-mind links or direct mind-to-computer links. Power technology and nanomachines are others.

      That was John von Neumann’s early insight:

      “One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

      — “Tribute to John von Neumann” by Stanislaw Ulam in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, May 1958.

      See the essay in section 3 for more about the varied (and somewhat contradictory) definitions of a “singularity.”

      Second, look backwards. Most of the definitions of “singularity” apply as well to events in our past. That’s the point of the essay cited in section 2, and the “early Holocene sci-fi” in section 1 (see other fun examples of this here).

      Like

  3. Western civilization is cabined, cribbed, confined to this rock which should be three to four times its size to support its current human population. Space travel is no remedy for – given the constraint that we cannot speed faster than light – we are limited to our own and – at most – a few neighboring solar systems. And even if other planets were habitable, they would contain microbes that would solve our over-population problems very nicely.

    So shall we turn inwards. Some form of neo-Buddhist, Jungian, Pythagorean, Hinduism? Perhaps.

    But if we are to expand, we must rely on quantum mechanics, not some contravention of Einstein. In particular, to hop from one parallel universe to another. Sort of like the Narnia books, Dr. Who, or the game of Chutes and Ladders ( which was a Hindu game, bTW.)

    So now I hop off to another universe in order to evade FM’s devastating rebuttal to my post.

    Like

    1. dckinder,

      “Western civilization is cabined, cribbed, confined to this rock”

      Your feelings are your own. How did your ancestors in 1500 AD or 1000 AD see their world? How would they feel about our world, after getting over the transition shock? My guess is that they would consider it to be like Heaven.

      “should be three to four times its size to support its current human population.”

      This is just a phase we have to live through, not destroying ourselves or the world. By the late 21st century our descendants probably will be worrying about the on-going massive population crash. Fertility rates of 1.2 – 2.0 will thin out the current hordes in a few generations. Their tech will allow them to make this world into a garden. We just need to get there.

      Like

    1. Thomas,

      That’s a great call! Here it is —

      “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. We cross what in an earlier book (The New Realities, 1989) I called a ‘divide’. Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself – its world view; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even
      imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born.

      “We are currently living in such a transformation. It is creating the Post-capitalist society. This is the subject of this book.”

      Like

    1. marcelloi,

      Can you explain? Especially what region you’re referring to — western Roman Empire, Eastern Rome, India, China, etc?

      The western roman empire is often said to have undergone transformation in late antiquity — centered on the 5thC AD: shrinking population, loss of technology, declining standards of living, political fragmentation, and the spread of Christianity. These dynamics are the opposite of the West’s during the past generation, broadly speaking (i.e., some nations have done well, some poorly).

      Like

  4. I can only make some guesses about USA and even less about China. But about western Europe I cannot see the existing trajectory producing anything but an unpleasant outcome, possibly 5th century like in scope, that will be very difficult to recover from in the short term (the sort of relatively rapid recovery that followed WW2).
    Taking the listed parameters in account I would note the following.
    – Native european population has a fertility rate already way below replacement (not necessarily a catastrophe by itself in a high tech society but still problematic). France is at replacement level, Italy in a nosedive, some others in between.
    – Declining standards of living. A bit more complicated but how many in the West in general are or can expect to be better off than twenty years ago? Because economic deterioration in much of southern Europe has been a fact of life for nearly a decade (and here the slowing down was apparent even in the previous one) with no end in sight but even in the countries that better weathered the crisis like the USA or Germany there are signals of dissatisfaction.
    – Political fragmentation. The EU may well be an election cycle or two away from some sort of endgame. How well countries with defined regional identities like Spain, UK etc can hold together is not something I would be confident about.
    – Technology is a complicated issue. I suspect that a backlash against science may well be in the cards but in regards to technology proper the next likely innovation, widespread automation, might well turn out to be extremely difficult to accommodate. As far as I can the only major idea around is basically bread & circus 2.0 (basic income and electronic entertainment). Even that would be problematic from a budgetary point of view.

    Broadly speaking I expect the combination of economic, political and social deterioration coupled with mass immigration of hard to assimilate and economically redundant people to produce a fairly nasty outcome in large areas of western Europe. As in nasty ethnic based civil wars with drawn out aftermaths, inability to provide even basic services and the likes.

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  5. The real Singularity in our near future is the Great Endarkenment. The rate at which basic knowledge is being lost and elementary intelligence is eroding is so rapid that within the next generation I expect homo sapiens to lose the ability to make fire, forget how to use the wheel, and go back to medicine men prancing around shaking ceremonial rattles to get rid of “evil ju-hu” whenever we encounter problems like a financial collapse, global warming, etc.

    Examples of the basic knowledge that has been lost over the last few decades is the basic understanding given to us Fisher and Keynes that reducing government spending to balance budgets after a major recession is self-destructive and damages the economy and actually increases deficits and lowers GDP growth. (Yet the Euro zone has doubled down on this failed policy, debunked back in 1936.)

    Other basic knowledge that has been forgotten is the awareness that abandoning the rule of law (viz., extrajudicial murders by the president of the U.S., “extraordinary rendition,” suspending the posse comitatus act as the 2012 NDAA does) is fatal to a democracy and destroys society by ripping up the basic foundations of a civil society. Of course the Republicans are now eagerly tripling down on this insanity.

    Like

    1. Brian,

      You appear to have an idiosyncratic definition of “forgotten”. None of those things have been forgotten, or anything like that.

      I suggest reading some history. You’ll find that policy mistakes, even ones that appear in retrospect to be foolish, are as common as dirt. recommend Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly.

      “Other basic knowledge that has been forgotten is the awareness that abandoning the rule of law ”

      You’re kidding us, right? Since the invention of “law” powerful people have understood the concept but believed that they are better fit to rule than some rules set by sheep. Sometimes they’re right. Usually they are wrong. Considering that to be “forgetting” is seriously mistaken.

      Like

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