On the singularity, the real one (1)

The singularity, originally developed by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, is–forgive the pun–a singular concept.

[A] hypothetical event, [it occurs] when technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the future after the singularity qualitatively different and harder to predict. Many of the most recognized writers on the singularity, such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, define the concept in terms of the technological creation of superintelligence, and allege that a post-singularity world would be unpredictable to humans due to an inability of human beings to imagine the intentions or capabilities of superintelligent entities. Some writers use “the singularity” in a broader way to refer to any radical changes in our society brought about by new technologies such as molecular nanotechnology, although Vinge and other prominent writers specifically state that without superintelligence, such changes would not qualify as a true singularity. Many writers also tie the singularity to observations of exponential growth in various technologies (with Moore’s Law being the most prominent example), using such observations as a basis for predicting that the singularity is likely to happen sometime within the 21st century.

The idea of the singularity has been easily mocked as the “Rapture of the Nerds”, as a rephrasing of the Christian concept of the end-time and the transformative apocalypse rephrased for an audience of science fiction fans who quite like the idea that in the very near future their dreams will come true, that they can see before their eyes accelerating progress towards a glorious end-point. It’s the reverse, really, of the concept I mentioned earlier holding that we will have to suffer terribly before the glorious future comes. It’ll be a seamless transition. Leading singularity advocate Ray Kurzweil is on the record–in his 2005 The Singularity is Near, for instance–as suggesting that the singularity will actually allow human intelligence to escape the flesh, merging with machines to create a civilization of immortals expanding indefinitely into the universe. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

I don’t believe in the classical Vinge/Kurzweil singularity. Besides reeking of wish-fulfillment and using arbitrary markers of advancement, the idea is profoundly flawed with the standard assumption of the lazy futurist that hyperbolic growth curves in science and technology will continue indefinitely. I and commenters went into some detail about this over at A Bit More Detail, one commenter pointing out that the low-hanging fruits have been plucked; we can’t rediscover the laws of physics. The fact that we can imagine a future might even constitute proof against Vinge’s assertion that the future will be unimaginable, as undiscoverable as the space of a black hole inside its event horizon.

Is the singularity entirely irrelevant? Maybe surprisingly, I don’t believe that to be the case. On the 30th at Demography Matters I posted about the Roman Empire’s demographic situation. It was dire indeed: Rome’s peoples were trapped in first stage of the demographic transition, where very high fertility rates are counterbalanced by very high mortality rates. Consequently, the life expectancy of the statistically average Roman was in the area of the early to mid 20s, although people in favourable environments (non-malarial highlands, for example) could expect to live as long as forty. Vaclav Smil pointed out in last year’s Why America is Not a New Rome that the lived health experience alone of Romans was entirely foreign to the modern experience of the United States, indeed the entire world–even the poorest countries of central Africa, or the lands worst afflicted in southern Africa with HIV/AIDS, enjoys life expectancies substantially longer than what the average Roman could enjoy. To these demographic differences can be added profound economic, political, and technological differences: everyone exists in the context of a globalized world, where communications technologies (indigenously produced or imported) knit together a dense skein of ties (economic, cultural, et cetera) between diverse peoples and regions, very few of which are poorer than the average Roman territory at its peak, all in the context of expectations of a pluralistic society and polity the likes of which never existed even at the height of the Roman Republic.

Could an average Roman citizen imagine a society where every person enjoyed effortless access to roughly 50 times more useful energy (heat, motion, light) than was the Roman norms? Could a Roman citizen conceive living in a society where every person is attended [. . .] by an equivalent of 50 strong and continuiously hard-working slaves? How could an American grasp the real import of the fact that on average inanimate prime movers that power the machines that serve him have a 1,000 times larger capacity than the power of his muscles[? . . .]

Could an average American truly imagine a family life where one out of four newsborns would not live to see the first birthday and average life expectancy would be only 20-25 years? Could a young American family contemplate with equanimity the prospect of a life whose physical quality would be inferior to that in the most desperate countries of today’s sub-Saharan Africa? Could a young Roman woman, whose prospects of survival at age 20 were no better than to live to her late 40s, imagine a society where women lived on average past their eightieth birthday? And could an ordinary Roman family grasp the full reality of an economy whose annual average income would be 50, 80, or 100 times its own? [. . .] And how would today’s families cope with severe recurrent food shortages, with the prospect of regular annual spikes in malaria-caused mortality killing their children, or with an ever present possibility of famine? (161-162)

Rome’s plight was that of the ancient world, and of the overwhelming majority of all humans who ever lived. Humans have already experienced a singularity, that separating the traditional human plight from that of our world of plenty. The average 1st century Roman taken into any part of the 21st century world would experience as big a case of future shock as anyone.

And yet, intervening singularity aside, the continuities outweigh the differences. Shallow as it may have been, Romans did partake in a globally integrated economy and polity characterized by a diverse and disputation civil society encompassing many diverse peoples, all organized around cosmopolis Rome. Our 21st century world, in turn, still works substantially from the principles established by Rome (and other predecessor civilizations), with our philosophy, law, government, religions, languages and whatnot all derived directly from the norms and concepts of those predecessors. The 1st century Roman would experience future shock, sure, but the world found would still work on much the same principles as the world left. The new world certainly wouldn’t be indefinitely opaque and impenetrable!

Are we heading for another singularity? Possibly; the integration of the world system and the full transformation from the old and the new are far from complete, and much innovation will come from that. Judging by the past one, and on the prospects for future change–see tomorrow for that–it will be hardly as unimaginable or unpredictable as the Kurzweils might pretend.

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3 Responses to On the singularity, the real one (1)

  1. Would you consider the mid-19th-mid-20th centuries a period of singularity? Anyone born at the beginning and living a hundred years would experience the railroad, the plane, the automobile, antibiotics (perhaps the most important), etc. The development of computers and the internet produced a half-singularity as well, no?

    If anything, I’d suggest that we cannot have another singularity for the simple reason that nowadays people expect technological change, and they expect it to be *good*. That simple change in mindset from incredibly conservative and perhaps pessimistic to overridingly optimistic is pretty important too. But would that not preclude a true singularity? Or is my interpretation that it needs to be surprising wrong?

  2. Pingback: On the singularity, the real one (2) | History and Futility

  3. Brian K. Smith says:

    It is difficult to accept something as radical as the singularity in a timeframe as short as Ray Kurzweil has postulated.

    Admittedly, my knowledge of the science is woefully inadequate to provide any meaningful in site as to when if or how the principals of the singularly could be realized, even in the distant future.

    I am just a salesman. And as such, my abilities are limited to what motivates people to spend their money, and for what. Beyond that, I read the news, trade publications and walk around malls watching people.

    So, based on this fractured perspective, this is what I have found.

    1. Our culture is addicted to technology. We don’t want it, we must have it, at any cost. During a recent visit to my local Verizon Wireless store, I watched folks who didn’t have the preverbal pot to piss in, negotiating terms for their next “new in two” contract. After they left, I made the comment that it seems like some folks will go without damn near everything to keep their fancy phones. The sales associate replied, “dude, it’s way worse than that.”

    2. We want the easy way out of practically everything. Losing weight, staying young, getting ahead, you name it. The lowest common denominator solution is the law and way of the land, at least in North America. And as history has shown, our ideas tend to spread.

    3. The areas of the world that are truly hungry for radical advancement, have the highest academic performance, and they see technological advancement as more than key, it is for them the only way. India, China and others have vastly superior math and science talent pool than the US.

    4. Our military and medical budgets are still enormous, and “sourcing out” has become our new way of life. Add our trillions to the trillions they have, the resources available are so unimaginable as to reach parody with the possibility of a singularity within several decades.

    5 . Technology, and the mastery of it, are now seen as legitimate status symbols. You are bigger, better and more sexy with it. This is nothing short of a binary replacement for physical attributes.

    6. We had a big snowstorm this week in Upstate New York. Wisconsin Drive, traditionally the hub of all quality sleigh riding was barren. In fact, I didn’t see a single kid outside building a snowman, throwing snowballs, nothing.

    They were all inside, texting, streaming, or gaming.

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