The Singularity Is Here

A provocative thought, from Cosma Shalizi via Brad Delong.  The Singularity is when the pace of technological change becomes so rapid that it becomes essentially impossible to make clear predictions about the future; when phrased that way as opposed to formulations more focused on artificial intelligence, it seems clear it’s been here for a while.  Shalizi calls it as the first Industrial Revolution, but I would personally disagree.  The steam engine is pretty simple conceptually as a mere channel for physical forces that everyone understands – fire and water.  For me, the clear Singularity event would have to be World War II and two technologies, the atomic bomb and the computer.  Each are the embodiment of abstraction – for computers it is the ability to embody any expressible logical structure.  And the Bomb is the harnessing of forces that can only be understood through total abstraction.

Either are so completely incomprehensible to pre-technological man that they are effectively magic on a much deeper level than a steam engine.  There are no words to explain the Bomb, or a computer, to someone who has not grown up in a technological environment.  I work in software and know basically what is going on inside a computer – how tiny flashes of electrical signal ultimately translate into what I see on a screen.  But it’s still mostly magic to me, and I know it is effectively magic to 99.9% of the American population.  As Shalizi puts it, we can all confidently predict exponential growth in technology – yet it is “basically unpredictable…rendering long-term extrapolation impossible”.  Just witness the way that everyone, from policymakers to writers to just regular people, are trying to grapple with the slow collapse of privacy as the offline and online merge.

Anyone who confidently predicts how Google Glasses technology will affect everyday life is talking out his ass.  At least if he gives an answer more specific than “a lot”.

The real leap into incomprehensibility and rapidity has to be marked as beginning in 1945.  Especially as the fruits of all three Industrial Revolutions began diffusing to the Third World at the same time, things have started to get weird.  Like Facebook being used to organize a peaceful revolution in Egypt.  Or cast-off First World video game consoles being used to operate a homemade tank against a Third World army originally stood up as a Second World proxy.  3D-printed guns are being distributed over the internet. Foxconn exists.  Before the war, the path of technology was clear – our Dumb Matter constructions like guns and planes and jeeps would get bigger, stronger, and faster.  Instead…things got weird.

Results of the Singularity have been mixed so far but on the whole quite positive.

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