The Singularity is Near — Again

28 Jan

(or, what in the world nanorobots have to do with 10,000 BC)

Sentient computers and chimerical cyborgs sound far-fetched, but if inventor Ray Kurzweil is right, the future’s going to be even weirder—and isn’t as far away as we imagine.

Kurzweil is an accomplished inventor, entrepreneur, and author, praised by Forbes magazine as “the ultimate thinking machine.”  A high compliment, really, considering what Kurzweil sees thinking machines becoming after the “Technological Singularity” he predicts.

The Singularity, according to Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near, is a transition stage in human history—it’s the point where we “transcend the limitations of our bodies and brains.”  More than that:

We will gain power over our fates.  Our mortality will be in our own hands.  We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).  We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend it’s reach.  By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.

(And this circa 2005.)

It’s practically a truism today that your new laptop’s practically outdated the day you buy it (hey, maybe we’ll all have iPads tomorrow); but however lightly we make those comments, the real truth is that the rate of change, the acceleration of technological advancements, is kind of frightening. This is the basis of the concept of the Singularity: observation of accelerating technology.

If we tried to plot technological advances on a chart, even just intuitively, we’d probably get a pretty steep incline.  The problem, Kurzweil sees, is that our line would likely be straight.  However steep it is, a straight line assumes a constant slope—in other words, technology keeps marching forward, but the rate of that change remains constant over time.  If the rate of change itself is increasing, we won’t get a straight line but an exponential curve, in which, at a certain point, this conceptual curve shoots up to be almost completely vertical.

Recall that this theoretical curve doesn’t show how advanced our technology is, but how fast it’s advancing, which is a rather more shocking thought.  And that, friends, is how we get to the Singularity.

Kurzweil discussed this much, much better in his 2001 essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns“:

When people think of a future period, they intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. However, careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress is not constant, but it is human nature to adapt to the changing pace, so the intuitive view is that the pace will continue at the current rate. Even for those of us who have been around long enough to experience how the pace increases over time, our unexamined intuition nonetheless provides the impression that progress changes at the rate that we have experienced recently. From the mathematician’s perspective, a primary reason for this is that an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration.

So maybe explanation of the mechanics of the Singularity needs a mathematician, but Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near also waxes a little poetic himself when describing what happens after we get past that “knee-bend” in the curve (which is the next few decades, quoth our futurist):

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but transcends our biological roots.  There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.  If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend it’s physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.

At least for me, this is thrilling, chilling, mind-boggling, and vaguely horrifying, all at once.  It’s a world I’m going to leave to Charles Stross and David Louis Edelman to describe for now, until it comes around outside the realm of science fiction.

Because I’m pretty convinced it is.

Now I’m not any sort of scientist, and math majors terrify me, but I do know a little bit about history, and I can say this much—this won’t be humanity’s first Technological Singularity.

We are the species that inherently seeks to extend it’s physical and mental reach, Kurzweil asserts, and he’s absolutely right—human beings need technology to survive, a fact that’s been true well into prehistory.  We don’t have deadly claws, warm pelts, or species-wide instincts to help us survive; we can’t photosynthesize when we’re hungry.  What we do have, and have always had, however, is a reasoning mind; and what we do do, and always have done, is use that to make the things we need but didn’t have the good fortune to be born with—stone choppers and spears, atlatls, the Amazon Kindle.

And in about 10,000 BCE, the sudden explosion of this early human innovation resulted in the birth of what we call “civilization”—agriculture, written language, cities.  And it happened, mysteriously, after roughly hundreds of thousands of years of seeming stasis.  Our brains—human hardware, so to speak—were anatomically modern, but for whatever reason, it appears that we spent over 100 millennia just hanging out on the savannah waiting for that “great leap forward.”  (And if anyone comments that it was the aliens or Atlanteans, so help me God I will start a flame war.)

Key words here: hundreds of thousands years of seeming stasis.

The metaphor I like best is that of a snowball.  You start small, with just a handful, which grows as it rolls along, perhaps down a hill.  As it rolls, it picks up more snow, but also more speed, so that before you know it there’s an avalanche running down the other kids at the bottom of the hill.

Remember that the early stages of even an exponential curve start slowly, an incremental increase that gradually builds until that knee-bend moment when the rate of change shoots up into the sky.  I think 10,000 BCE was that bend in the curve.

Human beings weren’t doing nothing out on the savannah all those millennia—they were building up the rudimentary foundations necessary for “civilization” to emerge.  Cities doesn’t just sprout up overnight.

– 2.5 million years ago, we began to use stone scrapers to butcher dead animals we scavenged.

– 1.6 million years ago saw the development of the first hand axes.

– 1.5 million years ago, homo erectus began to manipulate fire (we’re not even at anatomically modern humans yet)

And then, in 10,000 BCE, we came to the Neolithic Revolution, with the development of agriculture.  Only a few thousand years later (and that’s a very short period of time considering the millions between changes in stone tool technology) brought the earliest written languages.

In other words, 10,000 BCE began humanity’s First Singularity.

So it’s not cyborgs.  Still, Kurzweil defines the Singularity as the merge of human and artificial, of “biological thinking and existence with our technology.”

With the development of agriculture, people could generate surplus food and have some protection from the vicissitudes of hunting and gathering—but it also tied early humans to certain land, to certain methods of production, to a lifestyle in which they “existed with their technology” to an unprecedented extend.

The decline of hunting and gathering meant the settlement of large groups of people together—thousands—rather than small nomadic bands or family groups.  Permanent houses and community structures were erected, meaning that in these first cities, we literally lived in our technology.

With writing, how we interacted with each other (trade) and even how we thought (religious or political use) was shaped by it.

10,000 BCE is exactly what Kurzweil describes—“civilization,” as opposed to nature, after all, is the human constructs that humans live in.  It’s existence within our technology—a merge unprecedented in human (pre)history.

For that, I’m inclined to believe that Kurzweil’s right about a modern technological snowball leading to a radical paradigm shift.  It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.


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