Summary: Amidst the gloom that blankets America, evidence grows that another discontinuity in history approaches – a singularity. If so, it will evaporate many of today’s problems and create new ones. Let’s prepare for what is coming.
- The singularity in our distant past.
- The singularity that just ended.
- A new singularity looms ahead.
- So what is a singularity?
- Prepare for a wild ride into the future.
- For More Information.
- Contrasting books about our future.
(1) The singularity in our distant past
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, such as these technological breakthroughs that 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). The industrial revolution was the most recent in this series.
(2) The singularity that 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.”
Industrial revolutions do not solve problems. They vaporize them, rendering them irrelevant. Such the great horse manure crisis of 1984 that put the survival of the world’s great cities at risk – solved not by better manure processing, but by the electric train and (later) the internal combustion engine.
The industrial revolution changed the world after 1700, slowed after the 19th century, and ended with WWI. This gave a boost to the growth of per capita GDP in the developed nations that lasted through the 1960s. But few noticed as it ended. Even in the 1960’s people believed in a future of rapid technological progress. But all we got was the manned space program (an expensive trip to nowhere) and the supersonic transport (a premature technology) – and radical changes in the narrow fields of communications and computing. Only a few predicted this slowdown. One of those was a warning in Lights waves and their uses (1902) by the great physicist Albert Abraham Michelson. This passage was 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.’”
Now the slowing is obvious. The productivity of research is decreasing, even as more resources are devoted to it (see this NBER paper). See this dismal graph from “Are ideas getting harder to find?“, a 2017 NBER paper by Nicholas Bloom et al. Growth in total factor productivity peaked in the 1940s, although the number of researchers has skyrocketed since then. We press the gas pedal ever harder, but the car does not accelerate.
Looking at the bottom line, US economic growth has been slowing since the 1970s, as has that of other developed nations. Many 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 by economist Tyler Cowen (2011), The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by journalist Richard Heinberg (2011), and The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by economist Robert J. Gordon (2016; see his articles about this here and here).
(3) A new singularity looms ahead
Each year makes it more likely that a singularity lies in our near future, with discontinuities ending our current tech stagnation.
- Space travel – Bringing a vast increase in resources, perhaps even planetary engineering making us independent of Earth.
- Genetic engineering – Liberating humanity from random evolution, bringing the freedom to shape ourselves.
- New energy sources, such as fusion. It has reached a new milestone, as private capital moves in.
- Artificial Intelligence – Semi-intelligent computers that supplement the mind as machines supplemented brawn, boosting productivity and hence economic growth. In the more distant future, perhaps ending our solitude and freeing us from limitations of biological intelligence.
- Extended vital lifespans – In George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, longer vital lifespans are the key to a better society. “Vital” is key, to avoid becoming Struldbruggs, the senile, decrepit immortals in Gulliver’s Travels.
These are only plausible innovations. Who knows what we might achieve in the future?
(4) So what is a singularity?
Since we we’re approaching a singularity that will change everything, we should understand what it is. There are many different concepts of a singularity, many contradictory. We can understand the process but not will follow, much as one cannot see through a singularity (e.g., a black hole) in the physical universe. its first mention was a remark by the great John von Neumann (1903-57), paraphrased by Stanislaw Ulam (BAMS, 1958).
“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.”
The public learned about it from Vernor Vinge’s 1986 book Marooned in Realtime, which described 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. He gave a more detailed explanation in his 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.”
There are many visions of what a singularity would mean. For an introduction, see “Three Major Singularity Schools” by AI researcher Eliezer S. Yudkowsky at the Singularity Institute blog. Here is an excerpt.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
(5) Prepare for a wild ride into 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. Do not fear the future. Have faith in America.
(6) For More Information
Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
For more about the coming singularity.
- Ray Kurzweil: his website; also see his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
- The Wikipedia entry about the singularity is excellent.
- 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.
- Comparing our stable lives to the previous period of rapid disruption.
- Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
- Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
- Will we enslave robots? If so, prepare for their inevitable revolt.
- Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
- Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
- The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.
(7) Contrasting books about our future
In one, the future holds accelerating growth leading to the unimaginable. In the other, the future holds economic and social turmoil, with the potential for a better future.
Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. One of my favorite science fiction novels. Brilliant and fun.