Summary: Amidst the gloom that blankets America, there is evidence that a discontinuity in history approaches – a technological singularity. It could blow away many of today’s problems. Let this help dispel our fears and give us cause to celebrate. In the New Year, we can begin to prepare for what is coming.
Wonders might await us that we cannot even imagine, just as the people of 1850 could not imagine the world of 1950. The rate of economic growth will accelerate, bringing more security and prosperity to the world. Pollution as we know it will be almost gone by 2100. The world will become a garden again as the population crashes. In the 22nd century we can repair the damage done in the 21st as the world’s population grew to 10 or 12 billion. Our next big challenge will be managing the political and social disruptions created by the coming new technologies.
Humanity rose by creating singularities
History, from the Serengeti Plains to the Apollo moon landings, is a series of singularities. Fire gave us power over the environment. Agriculture gave us control over our food supply. Writing allowed better accumulation of knowledge across generations. The industrial revolutionn broke us free from the Malthusian limits on our population and wealth.
Each singularity took us into an unknowable future. For a fun illustration of this see “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.
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.”
Industrial revolutions do not just solve problems. They make them irrelevant – to be replaced by the problems of a more stable and prosperous world. Each is a leap forward followed by a period of consolidation.
An industrial revolution began in 1700 (to pick an arbitrary date) and ended with WWII. Here is a brief description of how it changed the world on a scale we no longer remember. Its momentum boosted per capita GDP in the developed nations through the 1960s. Few noticed it ending. Even in the 1960’s people expected 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 but narrow changes in communication and computers.
“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 – the engine of progress – is slowing as ever 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. More evidence: growth in total factor productivity peaked in the 1940s, despite the skyrocketing number of researchers. We press the gas pedal ever harder, but the car does not accelerate. Click to enlarge the graph.
Looking at the bottom line, US economic growth has been slowing since the 1970s, as has that of the other developed nations. Many books describe this, such as these.
- 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).
- 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.
A new singularity looms ahead
Each year gives more evidence that a singularity lies in our near future, a discontinuity in history that ends our current tech stagnation. We can only guess at what it might bring.
Space travel can bring a vast increase in resources. In the distant future, planetary engineering might make us independent of Earth’s vicissitudes.
Genetic engineering can liberate humanity from random evolution, bringing the freedom to shape ourselves.
New energy sources, such as fusion can provide ample clean power for a growing world. It has reached a new milestone, as private capital moves in.
New industrial methods are coming. Such as learning the mysteries of catalytic chemistry. Our bodies do near-miraculous chemical processes at room temperature. This will also transform agriculture into a more eco-friendly cornucopia.
Semi-intelligent computers (aka “artificial Intelligence”) can supplement our minds, just as machines supplemented brawn – boosting productivity and hence economic growth. In the more distant future, perhaps they will end our solitude and free us from limitations of biological intelligence.
A longer vital lifespan can change humanity in ways we cannot imagine. In George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, longer vital lifespans are the key to a better society (people of the future see the past as a wreck because everything was run by “children”). Vital life 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?
What is a singularity?
There are many different concepts of a singularity, some contradictory. A key aspect is that we cannot see through a singularity in the physical universe (e.g., a black hole). Its first mention was 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.”
“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.
“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.”
Prepare for the future
Why are so many so gloomy about our future? We have survived ice ages, pandemics, natural disasters (e.g., the eruption of Toba, which exterminated most of humanity), and our own mistakes. Our history gives us good reason to look to the future with anticipation, not fear. Remember that as our elites attempt to lead us by arousing fears. Do not fear the future. Have faith in America.
For More Information
To learn more about the coming singularity.
- 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.
- The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?
- Do we face secular stagnation or a new industrial revolution?
- Economists show the perils and potential of the coming robot revolution.
- Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
- The coming Great Extinction – of jobs.
- Comparing our stable lives to the previous period of rapid disruption.
- The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.
- A Timeline for the Extinction of Jobs by Machines.
Visions of our future
Our future might see accelerating growth leading to the unimaginable. These two books sketch out what might lie ahead.
Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. One of my favorite science fiction novels. Brilliant and fun.
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil. Also, see his website.