Singularity: Rupture or Rapture?
There is an old analogy about an ancient emperor of China and the inventor of chess that is often used to help understand the speed of technological growth. According to the story, once the emperor became aware of the game of chess, he sent a message throughout the kingdom seeking to reward its inventor, offering anything within his power to give for such an exceptional game. Upon meeting him, the inventor, who was a poor peasant farmer, thanked the emperor for his generosity, and proceeded to place a single grain of rice in the first square of a chessboard. He then placed two grains in the second square, four in the third, eight in the fourth, etc., doubling the number of grains for each of the chessboard’s 64 squares.
At first the emperor was fairly amused by the farmer’s request—after all, these were mere grains of rice, how much could he possibly lose? So he allowed the farmer to continue. It wasn’t until they got about halfway through the chessboard that the emperor began to notice what was really going on. After 32 squares—32 successive doublings of a single grain of rice—the farmer was up to about four billion grains of rice, the equivalent of a few acres of rice fields. If they were to continue all the way to the end of the board, the farmer would be owed about 18 quintillion grains of rice, which would require a rice field twice the size of the surface of the planet to produce, oceans included.
From a single grain of rice to a quantity that more than quadruples the total biomass of the Earth, in just 64 steps—this is the nature of exponential growth. Because we are largely linear thinkers living in an exponential world, this sort of growth can be very difficult to comprehend, or to even perceive—at least until we are plunged headlong into the second half of the chessboard. Visually graphing this sort of exponential curve [y=2^(x-1) for the mathematically inclined] gives us some insight as to why this acceleration can be so easy to take for granted. For the first half of the curve, progress seems to move almost parallel to the horizontal x-axis, and the frequency of change can seem fairly negligible: from a few grains to a few bushels to a few acres, not amounting to much at all. But once we begin moving into the “elbow” of the curve—about 32 squares, in the case of our increasingly anxious emperor—we begin to see progress truly taking off, eventually becoming more closely parallel with the vertical y-axis.
So what does this anachronistically agrarian metaphor of rice, Chinese emperors, and peasant farmers have to do with today’s digital scurry?
According to Moore’s Law, computational power is doubling every 18 months. Which means that the year 2000 marked 32 consecutive doublings since the invention of the transistor, while 2006 marked 32 doublings since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. We are now living on the second half of the chessboard—and from here on out, things get really crazy. Turing-approved artificial intelligence, cyborg brain/computer interfaces, nanotechnology, even the possibility of uploading consciousness to digital substrate—all of this “post-human” technology is now becoming increasingly feasible, and there is a very good chance we could see this (and more) achieved within most of our lifetimes.
This rate of acceleration currently shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. If anything, the rate of acceleration itself seems to be accelerating. Some critics of Moore’s Law believe that there must be a hard limit at the upper-end of this growth, as defined by the number of transistors you can physically fit upon a single slice of silicon, but others argue that our current technology will eventually be subsumed by a new computational paradigm, such as quantum computing, which will break through this “silicon ceiling.” Within the next 30 years we will be able to manufacture $1000 computers that are capable of as many calculations per second as the human brain. Following this trend as far as we can, we are taken to the limits of imagination itself. The sheer magnitude of our imminent technological progress is almost impossible to grasp, the implications and possibilities are too far beyond our experience to make any meaningful sense of, at least from our current coordinates in history.
Like a black hole in time, the technological singularity represents a point in our not-too-distant future beyond which we simply cannot imagine. And there is no going back, there is no slowing down—there is only tomorrow’s unfolding, a future pressing into the present through this thin veil of time, a world well beyond the visions of the world’s most inspired mystics, prophets, and science fiction writers. But while some may rhapsodize about the approaching technological Singularity as some sort of mythic rapture, a kind of digital utopia in which the struggles that have long been at the core of the human condition find instantaneous resolve, there are many others who aren’t so quick to think that we will all “go up in light” with the simple flip of a switch.
And while we could make the argument that technology is the single most influential arbiter of human development, technology does not actually determine human development. The internet, for example, while representing the legacy of some of the most cognitively advanced minds the world has ever seen, can be used by anybody—in fact, it has become a megaphone for everybody . The same can be said for splitting the atom: anyone smart enough to actually build a nuclear bomb would be the least willing to detonate it, assuming their values are on somewhat equal footing with their cognitive intelligence. At every moment our world bears witness to the cruelties that occur when the inventions from higher altitudes are used by people at lower altitudes, whether that invention is a computer, an AK-47, or a democracy.
Although it is impossible to predict what exactly will emerge from all this (emergence, by its very nature, is unpredictable, which is precisely why it can be so disruptive to the status quo), but it helps us to see the general shape of things to come.
It seems clear is that we are seeing a general pattern of accelerated returns in at least four irreducible dimensions of our lives—a singularity in all four quadrants mentioned below .
- Post-Humanism (The Future of the Body)
- Post-Scarcity (The Future of Technology)
- Post-Irony (The Future of Culture)
- Post-Metaphysics (The Future of Consciousness)
Let’s take a brief look at each of these dimensions in next posts .