21 May 2008

Can the Singularity Save Us From Ourselves?

The abstract concept of a Technological Singularity (TS) was made most famous in the recent past by inventor Ray Kurzweil. The concept has several overlapping meanings, but I like George Dvorsky's definition best: The Singularity is a a blindspot in our predictive thinking.

Humans are only evolved primates--monkeys and apes--with a limited conceptual vocabulary. We are easily impressed by our technological accomplishments. In networked opportunity societies, creative and inventive persons are able to feed off each others' ideas so that during periods of economic surplus, the pace of innovation will take off. In dark age, totalitarian societies where information is compartmentalized and otherwise restricted, innovation slows.

The Singularity is most often seen as a threshold into ever-accelerating change precipitated by the development of a machine intelligence with the ability to design its own cognitive enhancement--something of a runaway positive feedback cognitive entity. This development is often referred to as the "tipping point," the point of no return.

The more sanguine examiners of the tech singularity concept are less likely to see The Singularity as inevitable. Many developments within society and government could short-circuit The Singularity, sending into terminal mode. Imagine a world government ruled by a Vladimir Putin, Josef Stalin, or Mao. Imagine world science, academia, media, and governance being taken over by dysfunctional post-modernist irrationality. Imagine the default human society--stratification by wealth, knowledge, power, and a profound inertial resistance to change.

Persons who believe firmly in the inevitability of The Singularity might be surprised to learn that the default human society is the closed society, resistant to change. Most of them have never known anything but open societies, born of western civilisation's restless urge to expand intellectual horizons. They live in an exceptional time, in an exceptional society, yet somehow believe it to be the human default. That type of blindness comes from forgetting to study history.

The distinction is important, because a default society perpetuates itself, whereas an exceptional society must constantly fight against entropy. We are only a few hundred years beyond the European Renaissance, two hundred years beyond the early industrial revolution, a hundred years into the era of human flight, fifty years into the age of semiconductors. And already, the sub-structure of western civilisation is showing signs of reversion to the default.

Without the networked opportunity society to sustain it, The Singularity does not stand a chance. TS has always only been one possibility among many. In order for The Singularity to succeed and turn out well, it is vital for its supporters to understand how easily it could be stopped.

Humans have the uncanny ability to overlook the most critical shortcomings of any scenario or plan. That is one reason why "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." It is also why "naysayers" and "deniers" are so easy to discount. Caught up in the enthusiasm of a grand idea, humans prefer to remain buoyed up in the "vital importance" and "inevitability" of their visions.

Politicians have been repeating the phrase "we are the ones we have been waiting for" for decades--probably much longer. It is true that humans seem to be waiting to wake up into some higher awareness, some more clear and potent existence. My variation on the theme begins "we are the ones we have been afraid of..." Perhaps fear has kept us from waking to our possibilities. The point is, it is humans that need to change and find their way to an even better networked opportunity society. Machines are not likely to be able to do that for us.

When we are ready to make a "conscious machine", we will know how to make it "friendly" and at least quasi-wise. We are simply not ready--in fact in many ways we are reverting to the default, retreating from TS in terms of infrastructural societal needs. Even should something that we interpret as TS occur, things can still "go to hell", and revert to default. We can always find ourselves back at the beginning, picking up the pieces. Unless we do the necessary preliminary work, and provide the foundation--the substrate--for a sustainable TS.

For many, TS has taken on many aspects of "God", an omniscient and all-powerful entity that will guide the paths of the faithful. But like the gods of practical people, TS helps those who help themselves. TS cannot save us from our own laziness and inattention to important details in the design of our own societies. TS relies upon us in the most intimate way, since it is merely an outgrowth of what we ourselves can grow to become. If we think TS can relieve us of hard work and discipline, we are wrong. TS will not take care of itself.


Rather than a unified, worldwide singularity, expect a "fractured singularity." Some will build the infrastructure and prepare the components in a sustainable way. Most will not. The long-term survivability of TS may depend upon early secrecy. TS may have many false starts, aborted revolutions. Perhaps we can learn from early mistakes in order to build a better singularity?

What do you think?

Is TS inevitable?
Is TS necessary?
Is TS sufficient?
Is TS the end, or a means to the end?
Can TS save us from ourselves?

According to Vernor Vinge, here are some of the ways The Singularity may not happen.

The last thing humans need now is yet another religion that feeds into apocalyptic visions. We have enough apocalyptic visions as it is without slipping that far into anti-rationality.

What kind of society can give birth to TS, and engage symbiotically and sustainably with TS into the long term? We don't know, but we can give it our best guess. While working on the foundations of TS, we need to work toward creating that kind of society.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

"What do you think?

Is TS inevitable?
Is TS necessary?
Is TS sufficient?
Is TS the end, or a means to the end?
Can TS save us from ourselves?"


Not inevitable but most likely by the definition given and - excluding unintentional derailment by massive natural disasters and such - it would probably take too much effort and cleverness for those opposed to keep it from happening.

Necessary - for me it is. I would love to see a world where intelligence is not the limiting factor for every aspect of our lives. I think that human civilization would get by without it but I, for one, would not be pleased by its perpetual absence.

Sufficient - I suppose it will do until something cooler comes along.

End or means - A little of both, maybe.

Save us from ourselves - I am just happy for it to save us from each other. I don't know about our nature. It might be flexible enough to be sufficiently improved should we be willing to try.

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008  
Blogger Snake Oil Baron said...

While you are right that state centric political structures have been the default, there has also been a slow, irregular, but over the long-term, continuous current of reform. The empires of the past were not examples of pure capitalism and democracy but they thrived by offering better conditions for economic development than the kings/warlords whom they replaced. While recent welfare states are a bit of a throw-back, as far as economic freedoms go, they are still an improvement over the absolute monarchies. The wealth which economic and political freedom enables makes going against this trend possible at regional scales and for periods of time but not globally. Technology hitches a ride on this trend. So as long as the need for productivity is there will be a need for intelligence.

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008  
Blogger The Neutralist said...

"Imagine a world government ruled by a Vladimir Putin, Josef Stalin, or Mao"

I'm not sure Putin belongs in that set. I'm just as afraid of a government ruled by Alfred E Neuman, Homer Simpson or George Bush.

Wednesday, 21 May, 2008  
Blogger Will Brown said...

Short answer: No.

For a somewhat more considered answer, see here.

Thursday, 22 May, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Nice commentary, Will. Thanks.

Baron, I would like to be as optimistic as yourself on the topic of societal progress. Unfortunately, I do not see it. The descent of Russia back into the quasi-total government quagmire under Putin seems like a reversion to the default.

Joe, as long as we are getting trite, I would think you would belong on the list from many of the things you write. ;-)

Thursday, 22 May, 2008  
Blogger Markku said...

You're overestimating the importance of political freedom for techonological and economic development in the modern world. China is doing just fine despite being a dictatorship. There is no reason why a market economy and lack of political freedom cannot go together.

Thursday, 22 May, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

The singularity is about networked super-intelligence, human, machine, and both. Too many singularitarians leave out the human component and expect the super-intelligent machines to carry the load. If that were possible, it would certainly be possible in a totalitarian society where the humans were walled off from each other.

Markku, China is doing well in some ways, because of outside investment, outside management and technology overseeing outside investment, and outside markets to sell to.

Have you seen the incredible scandals over government corruption in Chinese construction, finance, and state-owned businesses? It is not a pretty reality behind the curtains.

Thursday, 22 May, 2008  
Blogger The Neutralist said...

Al,

Now here I am, being the decent chap, not putting you in a set and this is how you repay me.

As Lear said, "Sharper than a serpent's tongue........

Friday, 23 May, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Joe, I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. Of course if you really live in a Mad Magazine world, I may have to re-evaluate your comment in a more serious light. That would be a tragedy. ;-)

Friday, 23 May, 2008  
Blogger The Neutralist said...

Take out the word magazine. It is the same world we all inhabit.

Friday, 23 May, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

The singularity is a bit of a Rorschach blot. Not only does everyone see in it what one wants to see, but it also seems to draw off-topic comment trolling as well.

The practical areas orbiting around the Singularity such as AI research, molecular nano-assembler research, longevity research (including rejuve/regeneration and cryonics), and brain implant/interface research, are all worth pursuing on their own merits.

I am particularly happy to see organisations such as the Lifeboat Foundation and Foresight Institute, which have formed in an attempt to foresee possible complications of the new research, and to devise means of mitigating potentially damaging--even catastrophic--side effects of singularity related research.

Ray Kurzweil expects serious breakthroughs as early as 2020. I expect the first truly significant breakthroughs in the above areas no earlier than 2030.

The exception may be if Craig Venter's synthetic biology group achieves significant breakthroughs in synthetic bio-energy, then takes the incredible wealth that would come from those patents and process licenses and uses it to pursue synthetic bio solutions to life extension, bio-nano assembly, and even intelligence augmentation.

Remember, Venter has a lot of systems biologists and world class geneticists on his team. Avant-garde biological engineering can go in several different directions.

Friday, 23 May, 2008  

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