Prepare for the next singularity. It will change everything.

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.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
— Attributed to Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office 1898-1901. It is as false as the idea it expresses.

Singularity

Contents

  1. The singularity in our distant past.
  2. The singularity that just ended.
  3. A new singularity looms ahead.
  4. So what is a singularity?
  5. Prepare for a wild ride into the future.
  6. For More Information.
  7. 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.

Singularity Eye

(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.”

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

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.

Economic growth vs. the productivity of research

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).

Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.

(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?

Singularity

(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.

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.”

Road To The Future

(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.

  1. Ray Kurzweil: his website; also see his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
  2. The Wikipedia entry about the singularity is excellent.
  3. 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.

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. Comparing our stable lives to the previous period of rapid disruption.
  2. Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
  3. Three visions of our future after the robot revolution.
  4. Will we enslave robots? If so, prepare for their inevitable revolt.
  5. Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
  6. Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
  7. 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.

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford.

Marooned in Realtime
Available at Amazon.
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Available at Amazon.

24 thoughts on “Prepare for the next singularity. It will change everything.

  1. I suspect people seek out doom and gloom due to the same underlying factors as the hedonic treadmill. It is easier to have strong negative emotions, especially if they are induced by a story rather than a personal event. The problem is when the fiction and the non-fiction slop together.

  2. 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 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 communications and computing.

    I don’t think it did end. And surely its not right to say, of communications and computing, that it was ‘all we got’. Nothing much ended after WWI, and I don’t see that as being in any way a turning point for the industrial revolution.. On the contrary, with some business cycle accidents, taking a longer view, the industrial revolution continued on much the same tracks. We had increasing productivity in manufacturing and a very high rate of innovation in products, and both came out of increasing knowledge.

    There is continuity between the Jacquard Loom and modern automated pick and place manufacturing.

    Deep Blue is mentioned. I don’t see it as being particularly revolutionary. It is guided brute force, dependent on enormous computer power. In that respect, its no different from a sophisticated database program of the sixties. Yes, it does far more, yes it runs far faster. But its not a difference of kind.

    What really is a difference in kind, and an absolutely extraordinary one, is Alpha Zero. Never mind the chess. The fact that Alpha Zero could learn Go and then defeat a Go Master is extraordinary. Previous brute force programs never managed to defeat even moderately strong Go players.

    Its true that with Alpha Zero computing power is a necessary factor, but its not the critical thing, the critical thing is the self learning software.

    I agree with the piece that we are indeed coming up to similar turning points in other areas, and probably fuelled by AI. And yes, the kind of feedback the piece mentions is going to be, as it has been since the industrial revolution started, a very important factor. Yes, AI, its impact on biological science, impact on design of, among other things, energy production systems. Very plausible places to look for a dramatic change.

    How steep it will be, though? I would have thought its unknowable in advance. As it was in the past.

    1. Henrik,

      “I don’t think it did end.”

      Almost everybody who has studied the question disagrees with you. Rate of change in almost every area of human progress slowed during the 1918 – 1945 period, to a crawl compared to those in the previous century.

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      blockquote>

      Bat Masterson was born on a primitive farm in 1853 (dirt floors, bare sustenance level life). He lived through the wild west as a gunfighter, gambler, and lawman. He died in 1921 while working as a sportswriter for the Morning Telegraph — living in a New York City driven by telephones, automobiles, and electric power.

      Rapid change continued. By 1947 the world had assumed roughly the shape we see today. Then the progress of science slowed, so that June Cleaver could step from her 1957 home (in the first episode of “Leave it to Beaver”) into her 2017 equivalent and easily adapt. Her only surprise at the technology would be the lack of progress over the past 60 years (much slower than during the previous 60 years, 1897 to 1957).

      See more about this here.

      1. Henrik,

        Another perspective – real per capita personal income. See the interactive graphs at the Regional Economic Analysis Project (REAP). The data begins in 1958.

        • 1960-69: 3.5%
        • 1970-79: 2.3%
        • 1980-98: 2.2%
        • 1990-99: 2.0%
        • 2000-09: 1.2%
        • 2010-18: 1.9%

        Also, see the books I cited. Esp the ones by the two major economists. They marshall a vast body of evidence to show the slowing.

  3. Extending life isn’t useful, extending our useful life is. All of my grandparents sat in nursing homes and rotted away their last years.

    What if we had our health and minds until 80 and then slowed down. By that I mean push back the effects of aging by 10 to 20 years. That would be huge.

    Another way isn’t there a Greek myth about a human who gets immortality but without youth so he still ages until he so decrepit that the gods seal him in a cave?

  4. For the average American, the big shift came between 1850 and WWII. The percentage of people living and working on farms went from roughly 90%, where it had been for the previous umty-thousand years, to somewhere in the 10 to 20% range (now at well under 5%, depending on how you count.) I grew up on a small MacDonald’s farm and trust me — that’s a singularity!

    1. James,

      I wrote about that here.

      Bat Masterson was born on a primitive farm in 1853 (dirt floors, bare sustenance level life). He lived through the wild west as a gunfighter, gambler, and lawman. He died in 1921 while working as a sportswriter for the Morning Telegraph — living in a New York City driven by telephones, automobiles, and electric power.

      Rapid change continued. By 1947 the world had assumed roughly the shape we see today. Then the progress of science slowed, so that June Cleaver could step from her 1957 home (in the first episode of “Leave it to Beaver”) into her 2017 equivalent and easily adapt. Her only surprise at the technology would be the lack of progress over the past 60 years (much slower than during the previous 60 years, 1897 to 1957).

  5. In the fable TETHERS OF THE SAPIANTS it is surmised that most if not all true creativity originates when a mind, a physical brain that has been ensouled, receives revelations. Therefore, no mere machine which is not capable of being ensouled, by itself can be creative.

    1. Richard,

      The next 50 years or so might test that theory, if AI’s develop “creativity.”

      Nietzsche said that creative people were the true elite of humanity – and fantastically rare.

      “The world revolves around the creators of new ideas, revolves silently.”
      — Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

  6. There may be a singularity coming, visible to the elites, but for the average American worker, there has been no improvement in real income since Nixon and the social and economic framework is ever more frayed, so the future looks dark. That underscores the growing deficit in solidarity in our society.
    Absent social cohesion, a singularity will inevitably be chaotic, but chaos is quite incompatible with the mundane tasks of feeding, clothing and educating somewhere near 10 billion people.

    1. etudiant,

      “for the average American worker, there has been no improvement in real income since Nixon”

      Did you read this post? That’s what I said.

      “There may be a singularity coming, visible to the elites”

      There is nothing in this post visible only “to the elites.”

      “the social and economic framework is ever more frayed”

      There is little evidence that the economic framework is frayed (that’s a myth circulated since the 1970s by doomsters).

      “That underscores the growing deficit in solidarity in our society.”

      The subject of this post is the physical environment of humanity – esp the developed nations. The social problems of the US – and perhaps the West – are our own fault (see A new, dark picture of America’s future). If we cannot get our act together, the rest of the world will progress without us. For example, the people of Singapore won’t care.

      “Absent social cohesion, a singularity will inevitably be chaotic, but chaos is quite incompatible with the mundane tasks of feeding, clothing and educating somewhere near 10 billion people.”

      Doomster narratives are so entertaining, a fun distraction from running America! If America is doomed, then we can sit on our butts and whine.

  7. I have been interested in this since the 90s. I remember first reading about hypertext in “Extropy,.” an early periodical for Transhumanists, which was all about speculating on these ideas.

    Kurtzweil is a good representative of the “singularitian” mindset– much brilliant thinking mixed with half-baked ideas. “Fine food mixed very finely with excrement ” to paraphrase one critic. The biggest flaw that seems common in this group is assuming computer science provides us with a viewpoint that can be used to analyze every aspect of reality, without any other specialized knowledge. However, it has become quite clear that the human brain isn’t a digital computer, and many other problems don’t seem terribly tractible by this approach– i.e. : the “Less Wrong” crowd trying to build a business around optimizing medical care via data mining.

    Kudos for linking the singularity to an actual decrease in novel scientific knowledge. I wonder if clearing two roadblocks might reverse that trend: 1) achievement of a “deep understanding” of sentience , probably achieved by reverse engineering the human brain, leading to sentient AI ; 2) a successful “theory of everything” that unites the Standard Model with Special Relativity. Or, did we hit an unsurpassable point of diminishing returns in the 19th Century?

    Thanks for another in this series!

    P.S. If you ever change the title of site, how about “Awaiting the Singularity?”

    1. Christopher,

      Nicely said.

      In the past decade, the singularity has become unlinked from its original concept of broad tech progress – and become part of dreams about AI. Weird, blinding us to developments happening now.

      We could have a singularity with limited AI, as in semi-intelligent machines. Most jobs require only semi-intelligence. That’s why retail bank credit officers were one important bank executives – with their job now done by algos. This is likely to happen to many fields, as semi-intelligent machines do the routine work of many professionals – from journalists to radiologists (replacing many, but not those doing the higher skilled tasks).

      1. Christoper – follow-up –

        “If you ever change the title of site, how about “Awaiting the Singularity?”

        My point is the opposite: it appears to be starting now. No need to wait. Time to prepare.

  8. Read the Charles H. Duell wikipedia article that you linked to his quote. The article says the quote is false and likely partially taken from a comedy article (I am inferring a satire type article akin to MAD or The Onion).

  9. I am not an expert, but am interested.

    If the rate of growth of wages is declining, while unemployment rates are reduced by redefining the number of hours of work paid or voluntary that is counted as employed. Also at the same time hedonistic calculations are used to reduce the calculation of inflation. Then we further accept the top 1% are getting an increasing percentage of the wealth, relative living standards are declining fro the first 80% of earners.

    I just can’t work out why a lot of working class might feel negatively about the whole situation, or why the !% seeing their wealth increasing due to shifting taxation, lower wages for their employees and increasing prices/rents in their property portfolios would see any problem.

    1. Just a guy,

      You have been listening to right wingers and their faux economics.

      “unemployment rates are reduced by redefining the number of hours of work paid or voluntary that is counted as employed”

      Total nonsense. Unemployment rates, hours worked, and jobs all paint a consistent picture.

      “at the same time hedonistic calculations are used to reduce the calculation of inflation”

      Total nonsense. The various inflation indicators paint a consistent picture. For example, MIT’s Billion Price indicator closely tracks the CPI goods index.

      “I just can’t work out why a lot of working class might feel negatively about the whole situation,”

      Are you kidding?

  10. Larry,

    Have a read out this website: http://www.shadowstats.com/alternate_data/unemployment-chart

    “GOVERNMENT ECONOMIC REPORTS: THINGS YOU’VE SUSPECTED BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK!”
    A Series Authored by Walter J. “John” Williams
    “The Consumer Price Index” (Part Four in a Series of Five)
    October 1, 2006 Update. (September 22, 2004 Original)

    Foreword

    This installment has been updated from the original 2004 version to incorporate additional research on earlier changes to the CPI. The source for most of the information in this installment is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which generally has been very open about its methodologies and changes to same. The BLS Web site: http://www.bls.gov contains descriptions of the CPI and its related methodologies. Other sources include my own analyses of the CPI data and methodological changes over the last 30 years as well as interviews with individuals involved in inflation reporting.

    {Remainder deleted as copyrighted material.}

    1. Just a Guy,

      Walter J. Williams (aka John Williams) is a brilliant guy. With an BA in economics, he found a way to monetize conservatives’ belief in faux economcs. He manufactures stories, however bizarre, that say what they want to hear. His record of false analysis is awesome.

      Here is a post from 2013 about his nonsense.

      I am always impressed by Americans’ love of amateur nonsense and disinterest in the expert analysis so freely and easily available. So many Americans prefer falsehoods. It is one of the reasons the 1% believe themselves better fit to rule.

  11. Nick Bostrom on Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies

    Here is a interesting perspective on how two kinds of super intelligence could arise. One is pure software, the other is gained by, to put it bluntly, gene editing and selective breeding, and how they might bootstrap each other.
    Basically genetically superior super intelligent post humans build AI.

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