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Mindbending The Singularity Is August 20, 2007

Posted by malthusio in Uncategorized.

When post-humanists, trans-humanists, accelerationists and singultarians talk about “the singularity”, they are referring to a possible event in human history where technological change proceeds so rapidly, the rate of change approaches instantaneous. The idea is that wherever you look in nature you can find trends of exponential growth. Populations expand exponentially, evolution (even though it’s slow) also seems to operate on an exponential scale. Technology progresses at an exponential rate.

With computer technology this became much easier to measure, since we know how much computing power a chip has. Moore’s Law estimates that computing power for the same cost roughly doubles every 18 months.  Interestingly, Bell’s law predicts the rate of emergence of new use classes of electronic technology based on More’s Law (and humorously, Wirth’s Law predicts that software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster, thus negating all benefits.).

As the rate of change accelerates, our ability to predict social, environmental, and technological consequences decreases as the inverse of the rate of acceleration. So the ability to see further and further ahead actually gets us less and less foreknowledge. An interesting thing happens with exponential growth functions. Fairly early on in their growth phase there is a sharp transition where the slope of the function approaches vertical rapidly. If we graph the function, with change on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis like so:


Image Taken from: http://www.pivot.net/~jpierce/singularity.htm

As should be apparent from the graph, there is a certain time (and for all time after) at which the rate of change is essentially a vertical line. It never actually is a vertical line, just really close. As the slope approaches vertical, we approach an infinite amount of change instantaneously; so the future approaches causal disconnection with the past. Looking at it from the other direction, if you are on the other side of the singularity, it is almost impossible to say what events produced your present, since there were (approaching) an infinite number of possible causes.

So when people say it will be hard to predict what life will be like after the singularity, they mean it will be damn near impossible, if not actually impossible. Since the rate of change is also subject to the laws of physics (at least it seems that way, but if the laws of physics are mutable… then all bets are off. This sounds far fetched, but it isn’t when you consider that the laws of physics didn’t always exist. They came into being in the first few fractions of a second at the birth of the universe. Or so the story goes), it seems as though there should also be a point at which human history is subjected to Einsteinian relativistic effects (Charles Stross mentions this in his book “Accelerando”).

So the question remains: what could it possibly be like to live in a world where past and future have causal disconnects, and your personality is affected by Einsteinian relativity? This is the whole point; the consensus so far is that we have no idea, and anyone who does is probably lying.

Singularity Counter Arguments

As Anonymouse has pointed out, technological singularity is hardly a rigorous scientific idea. So in the interest of fairness, here are some links to criticisms of Kurzweil’s work in this area, and the singularity in general.



1. Anonymouse - August 20, 2007

Kurzweil has been debunked.

2. malthusio - August 22, 2007

I’m surprised that anyone is actualy reading this blog…

Well, alright, I suppose this wasn’t the most ballanced portrayal, and I will admit that many posthumanists, transhumanists, etc. are guilty of portraying speculation as fact. I wasn’t meaning to do that here; I simply wanted to explore one or two of the implications of a technological singularity.

However, if you are going to say that “Kurzweil has been debunked”, I would apprecieate some elaboration on what exactly you mean by this (at least some links or something…). I’ve seen some arguments that claim to “debunk” Kurzweil and the idea of technological singularity, and many of them have definate room for improvement.

My personal stance on the idea of the singularity is that it’s an interesting idea, but by no means an inevitability, even if the human race does survive long enough.

But, in the interest of fairness, I post some counter arguments to Kurzweil’s ideas that I consider reasonable.

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