Singularity

After surviving the Mayan apocalypse, 2013 became the first year that wasn't bound to millennialism

2013 is the first year of the 2000s that feels like a departure from a turn-of-the-millennium mindset. It even seems like the first real year of the decade.

Part of this has to do with the fact that nobody could ever settle on an appropriate way to call the first decade of 2000 (are they the "aughts"?). Another reason is 9/11, which made it so that the late aughts could never escape the echoes of 9/11 (thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.) And just as Obama got elected, which was supposed to be a palate-cleanser, the Great Recession happened, which anchored the next four years to the aughts as well.

But 2013, unlike 2012, feels like a break-away from the early 2000 years. It's the first real year of the new tens. Any talk of apocalypse seems ridiculous now. When 2012 came and went without a Mayan apocalypse, it hammered the final nail in the coffin for millennial Armageddon scenarios. Even predictions about an impending Singularity, which reached a zenith of attention in 1999, no longer seem "ten years away," but rather something that maybe will happen in 2065 or 2089. (Or will it even happen?)

A hundred years from now, despite the Singularity or Moore's Law, 25% of restaurant tables will still wobble

In Minority Report, despite Maglev cars and floating user interfaces, people still catch colds. Similarly, a hundred years from now, around 25% of restaurant tables will still wobble. Never mind the Singularity or Moore's Law reaching its zenith, this fact about tables will remain. This philosophy is called "The Banality of Futurism," and by delving deeper into the wobbly table issue it's clear some problems weren't meant to be solved.

The current solution to wobbly tables, besides using folded sugar packets, is to sell tables with adjustable screws. Many restaurants already have these tables, but because of how inconvenient it is to find someone to lift the table while you bend over and get your hands dirty, the solution is not utilized. This leads to Principle #1 of the Banality of Futurism: The future may already be here, but we don't use it.

This assumes restaurant owners even bought tables with adjustable screws. While wobbly tables are a collective nuisance, the owners are individuals who have to look at a catalog of restaurant tables and each come to the same conclusion: "I should pay for the premium tables, so that my customers don't have wobbly tables." But because of the cost-saving motivation combined with some rationalizations such as "My floors in the new restaurant should be flat" or "We can just stick small wood chips underneath them," we have the situation we end up in today. Principle #2: The future may already be here, but the problem isn't annoying enough to solve at scale.

Continuing on to the immediate future, wobbly tables are still problematic. Let's say Apple designs "the perfect table," one that adjusts easily. Perhaps they're electrically adjustable with the push of a button. Or maybe the screws are designed such that you can easily adjust them with your toe. Again, by the same principle above, restaurant tables won't get the Apple treatment. Part of the problem is that it's a commodity item, like printers, so there's no incentive for one player to make the table and own the market. Principle #3: The future may already be here, but nobody wants to build it.

Further out, in the exotic future, if there were some cheap solution that involved fancy material science, we would have already found it. Imagine some hard, rubbery substance that expands or contracts based on continuous pressure—or lack of—over multiple days. The date of this material's discovery would be random and not linked to exponential increases in computing power or intelligence. Given how far we've already gone into material science, the discovery would have to be by luck, or barring that, by intense force. Furthermore, the difficulty in its discovery would likely imply a difficulty in manufacturing it as well, and so again, it won't be cheap.

There are many things like the wobbly table. For example, all of these will still be problems in 2116:

  • Pizza boxes that won't stay completely shut
  • Stray corners of paper towels left behind upon ripping
  • Old refrigerators that make weird noises
  • Stubbing our toes on the sharp edges of furniture

Perhaps the silver lining in the Banality of Futurism is that the room for growth won't be in fixing life's inconveniences, but rather in the human condition. If poverty is eliminated or if war becomes taboo, then maybe eating an apple pie on a wobbly table while blowing our noses won't be so bad.

As long as sentience exists, so will competition. As long as competition exists, so will suffering

Sadly, we will never reach the goal of eliminating suffering from the universe. Whether it's in aliens, animals, A.I. replacements for humans, or even humans that don't make the transition through the Singularity, there will always be suffering.

We can start by defining these sufferers in the abstract as conscious, semi-intelligent "nodes." Each of these nodes had to evolve. Even if we create sentient, intelligent beings, they will just be an extension of the evolution of us. All nodes are subject to the rules of persistence which require resources to maintain their existence, even if it's just the burning of coal to power data centers.

The second principle is the scarcity of resources. There is no unlimited source of anything in the universe. Every node has a non-zero amount of physical material, and that material is ultimately limited. So some games between nodes—games that these nodes have trained themselves on through evolution—will be zero-sum games. As a result, the increase in value for one node (anything that helps perpetuate its persistence) will often require the decrease in value for other nodes. In other words, competition is inevitable.

Then, for nodes to be competitive for survival, they have to respond in-kind to threats. They have to feel pain. Pain is essentially an alarm that provides bursts of data that dominate all other data on the buffer. So a computer that is meant to emulate pain like humans would encounter situations where it stops processing ambient data, and instead focuses all of its energy on the alarm: i.e. the pain. It would gird itself up, creating an exceptional "emergency" circumstance whereby it would drain energy from other modules temporarily to deal with the thing causing the pain. The result would look like an approximation of the human experience of pain.

As a result, nodes will harm other nodes in a competition for resources, and as a result, they will suffer at the hands of each other.

Earth had a Singularity-like uptick a century ago when the percentage of those free from violence and poverty jumped from 1% to 2%

Utopia has existed for the upper-class since the dawn of history. If we define utopia by the general concepts of harmony and accord, then 1% of humans have shielded themselves from war, violence, hunger, and poverty for many millennia. Today, this circle includes perhaps 500 million out of the 7 billion living who have obtained freedom from those same global afflictions. 1 in 14 live in a utopia today, whereas 100 years ago, this was about 1 in 30. Whenever this circle expanded from 1% to 2% was the beginning of the knee bend in the graph of utopian progress, which ends when more than 90% of humans live free from war, violence, hunger, and poverty. The timespan of this noticeable acceleration, relative to the history of hominids, is nearly instant, and so by at least one definition of the Singularity, it is already here.

Futurism is steeped in the present, which means the singularity probably won't result in mind-uploading, but rather something beyond our imagination

Futurism often consists of extrapolation, not imagination. The futurists of the early twentieth century lived through urban transformations brought on by advances in transportation, and thus their visions involved megalopolises with flying cars. Early twenty-first century futurists lived through the advent of the Internet, which was a revolution in connectedness, and so by extrapolating super-connectedness, they've envisioned mind uploading as the logical conclusion. To extrapolate from the disappointment of past futurists, then, most likely the singularity will be something other than mind uploading and flying cars, something we haven't even thought of yet.

If Singularity stories often include infinite sexual fulfillment, don't Fleshlights and 3D porn mean it's already sort of here?

Weaved into The Age of Spiritual Machines are some of the benefits of the Singularity, one of which is the fulfillment of infinite sexual fantasies. Upon reading those bits, the imagination goes to a holodeck or some other completely immersive virtual reality with tactile feedback.

But if we use a symptom-based measurement of the Singularity, can we consider that we might already be there? The access to high-resolution porn at our fingertips today is very high. If you use a Fleshlight in conjunction with a large-screen monitor and HD-quality porn, typing specific fantasies you want into free video search engines, then it's pretty close to a holodeck. If you add in a 3D TV, you're even closer. If you acquire a remotely operated Fleshlight and connect a webcam that triggers certain contractions based on what happens on screen, at what point is this checkbox of the Singularity finally complete?

If the lower-class of today can eat better than Charlemagne, then the lower-class of tomorrow will somehow live better than Bill Gates

Trickle-down economics is working in the sense that each rung on the ladder of prosperity is gaining better and better simulations of what the upper rungs used to have exclusively. It's no doubt that a high proletarian American can eat better every day than Charlemagne occasionally did. And the once-unique perks of Google, with signature chefs, back rubs, and on-site dentistry, is spreading to many unknown start-ups with significantly less significance than Google.

Perhaps the Singularity won't be this punctuated heavenly moment, but a rising golden tower of continued social stratification, with each strata fulfilling the once wildest dreams of the others.

Law of Hierarchal Returns

Technological progress is more often hierarchal than incremental. The older the technology, the more foundational it is. For example, DNA laid the groundwork for multicellular organisms, which laid the groundwork for sexual reproduction, which paved the way for the Cambrian Explosion. There has been tremendous biological innovation since then, with only minor changes to the fundamental technology of DNA.

The invention of the Internet nests within the invention of computers, which nests within the harnessing of electricity. Facebook, Wikipedia, and Google nests within the invention of World Wide Web which nests within the invention of the Internet. It's more likely that future technologies will derive from previous technologies, and not be whole new classes of technology.

The accelerating march towards the Singularity may, therefore, manifest itself less like a rocket taking off, and more like matryoshka dolls, with smaller and smaller changes having a greater and greater impact.

Perhaps a social Singularity will occur when everybody becomes a nerd, fascinated only by their own personal, esoteric interests

If we define the singularity as a singular moment in history whereby all the old rules and patterns no longer exist, perhaps we're already passing through singularities in individual fields of academia. Many advances in academic fields are no longer relevant except to members of their community. The papers are so esoteric, now, that peer-review has been reduced to a light skimming for procedural standards, since the readers are no longer knowledgeable in those subjects.

Perhaps in the future, all interesting conversation and work will be purely reflexive, i.e. serving no utility outside of itself. People will build machines just so they can have something to write software for, which they can have conversations about, even though they will have mostly forgotten the original purpose of those machines. In other words, everybody will be nerds, whereby we define "nerd" as someone who uses a telephone to talk about telephones.

Silicon Valley's real innovation is to promise workers they can get filthy rich without selling their souls

Silicon Valley pushes the work-life harmony angle, persuading workers that they can "have it all." In every other industry, there is a tacit understanding that you are ultimately trading your time for money so you can buy the other things in life that are important. In some sectors, like Wall Street or Oil and Gas, there's an open acknowledgment that you are selling your soul for the sake of being a Master of the Universe. For the technocrats of California, there is no trade-off. One can be a Master of the Universe while creatively expressing oneself at work while affecting people's lives. Valley corporations have the three Ps covered: passion, purpose, and pay. Do what you love, help others, and profit handsomely.

Because of this, there is a palpable lack of cynicism while walking through the gourmet cafeterias of Zynga or Facebook. For a swath of workers, concentrated in one geographic region, utopia is already here.

The Industrial Revolution, farming, the Ice ages: We've been preparing for the Singularity for 50,000 years

The Singularity is a recent addition to mankind's list of End Times scenarios, which includes ideas such as the Rapture or Armageddon. These type of scenarios are usually considered psychological defense mechanisms to help us cope with death. And while they do help alleviate the fear of death, they compensate for a more ever-present death: the death of one's surroundings. When your whole world changes and everything you were once attached to is no longer valid, then that is a death of sorts. Change is death, and our way of coping with massive life change is to imagine a fantastical change even greater than it so that by contrast our life's turmoil seems insignificant.

So in a way, we've been preparing for the Singularity ever since our species first experienced future shock. While the pace of technological change has accelerated in ways that our ancestors could not have been prepared for, we have been preparing for our world turning upside-down ever since surviving our first Ice Age. Massive weather changes did not kill our ancestors. We just improvised and moved to a different biome. We changed our clothes, modified our hunting techniques, and reorganized our societies. Such is our brain's capacity for adaptation. And once settled, even if there would be stability for many generations, we would still be imprinted by enough survived disruptions to pepper our minds with visions of the greatest change of all.

The Singularity will be economic

Money is like Ethernet, binding everybody through the 0s and 1s of stored value. The speed of the network has been rising because of new technologies, new players, and new kinds of money. Technologies include e-commerce, credit card networks, and digital currencies. Players include humans and non-humans. Human players have grown because of growing population size and because of the widening circle of moneyed players in Third World economies. Non-human players include automated trading robots. New kinds of money include forms of debt and novel investment vehicles. Together, these factors indicate that the velocity of money is growing exponentially, in a Moore's Law-like curve.

If so, then perhaps the Singularity will be economic. Riches will cascade suddenly to the corners of civilization, with the overnight emergence of a global Leisure Class, wandering around like philosophers and artists in a School of Athens, just without the necessary slave economy to support it.

The financial sector is the fat and repository of excess economic activity

The financial sector isn't really cancer. Rather it's the fat and repository of excess economic activity. It's part of a larger trend of work being more and more removed from material things. While there will always be an inflexible demand for essential services, like waiters and policemen, all the growth is happening in inessential or abstract services, like entertainment and high-technology. The mid-1950s are when the delivery of basic human needs (like food and safety) plateaued. Now innovation is in fun stuff like iPods and faster bandwidth. But even that will plateau because people are getting delirious with the fast-changing pace of technology.

The majority of American workers filter their income through simulations of human value. Farmers in America keep making corn that the government subsidies and throws away, just so we can preserve a diorama of bucolic Americana. Financial workers are playing an even more purely abstract game.

This is the essence of our post-modern existence. Our concept of real value is so warped and elevated now. The reason people can't come to grips with the financial sector is because they don't have have a concept of the absurd.

Economic swings will be larger and more frequent, and the financial industry will keep getting bigger. In 50 years, 80% of the wealth in the US will be in the financial sector. This is how the Singularity looks: people playing min-max games with monopoly money.

The odds that an advanced AI will be developed by something other than a Defense Department are only getting better

If an advanced AI, one smart enough to rule humans, had been developed in 1964, it would most likely have come from the defense department of a large superpower. This AI would have been weaponized or otherwise martial in nature, and therefore likely to be unfriendly to humans. But if an advanced AI were developed today it would most likely come from a high-tech consumer company like Google or Apple, and thus it would be initially developed to fulfill human desire.

Thus, it's important when the Singularity happens. Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature suggests an exponential increase in human peacefulness over time, which implies that the longer we wait for advanced AI, the more likely it will arise under the pretext of friendliness.

The ultimate goal of the Singularity is infinite happiness, not unlimited holodecks

Before Kurzweil popularized the term Singularity in The Age of Spiritual Machines, it referred to a concept in physics. A singularity is said to have occurred when gravitational forces cause matter to have infinite density and zero volume. Kurzweil then applied this imagery to accelerating computing power, describing an asymptotic curve that leads to a day when processing power increases as much in an hour as it once did in a hundred years.

Whether it was his intention or not, the Singularity has become a stand-in for utopia. Reading The Age of Spiritual Machines leads the interested nerd to believe the following:

  • Accelerating computing power will fulfill our unlimited human potential
  • This utopia is near
  • It is inevitable
  • And it will arrive in a flash

For some, the Singularity is the opportunity to leave death behind forever. For others, it's the dream of a holodeck that fulfills their every desire, including sexual ones.

So the Singularity has been redefined even further away from its physics origins, which makes it difficult to answer the question: "How will we know the Singularity is here?". Is it simply when the graph of processing power has a hockey-stick-shaped curve? Or is it only when the fruits of such processing power have arrived. If computers are really fast, but life is much the same as it is today, wouldn't it be a hollow Singularity? A better definition is as follows:

The Singularity is the point when we achieve longstanding, collective human dreams.

For example, if we find a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's and old age, then we've achieved a Singularity of sorts. If we achieve World Peace or if hunger and poverty are eradicated, then perhaps we've reached a Singularity. If GDP is so abundant that it is trivial for anybody to live a ludic life, one completely dominated by play instead of work, then the Singularity is indeed here.

Therefore, the Singularity is less about some specific point in time, and more about an experience when we feel that historically negative aspects of human existence have become obsolete.

We will know therefore know it's near through the following symptoms:

  • Unemployment is no longer a barrier to fulfillment
  • Most military stand-offs end in standing down
  • Children no longer fear disease because they know cures are around the corner
  • News becomes obsolete because not enough bad, notable things happen
  • Boredom is a bigger concern than survival

Utopia is a spectrum, with the elimination of violence and poverty at one end, the Garden of Eden at the other

There are three kinds of utopia. There's utopia proper, which relates to the literary definition, where humankind lives in perfect harmony with each other and nature. We are not in that condition now. There's effective utopia, which is less than ideal but involves the achievement of collective human desires, including the elimination of war, violence, hunger, and poverty. Arguments can be made that such a utopia is in the process of arriving within a few generations, or that it already exists for a rapidly expanding circle, whereas before, it only included a small elite. Even more ideal than the utopia proper, though, is the heavenly utopia, one either depicted in the Garden of Eden or the technological singularity. In the heavenly utopia, human suffering has been eliminated, and happiness is infinitely obtainable. Whether or not a heavenly utopia, or "Heaven on Earth," will arrive is still a matter of faith. Whether or not a utopia proper will arrive is still a matter of socio-economic debate. And whether or not an effective utopia is arriving is plainly visible to anybody willing to look at the data.