When people discuss the Singularity they tend to gravitate towards either of the extremes: from “it’s not going to happen!” to “how can it not happen?“. This puts the focus on the quantitative aspects of the overall question (which can be interesting), and draws us away from the multitude of even more interesting qualitative discussions. Regardless of the true slope and curvature of the evolution of technology, and if it will reach (or not) some kind of vertical asymptote, there are so many things that have happened, are happening, and that we will see happen in our lifetimes, and their impacts on the human experience (and human identity).
With the gradual birth of organized science and education, and the migration of that new knowledge and methods into practical technology, science and technology started leveraging themselves into a much faster pace. The invention of written language, the creation of mathematics, the Gutenberg press, and countless others. These events were the true beginnings of what the discussion about the Singularity is all about: what we create affecting its own creation. Creating tools that allow us to create things that were impossible before.
And the pace has increased a lot. One of the most amazing characteristics of humankind is our blindness to the dichotomy between what we perceive as stable and evolving. Let’s use 60 years as a measure. Today, 2009, someone who is 60 years old was born in 1949. Some of those 60-year olds might be reading this article via the internet, on their laptop computers, while flying on an airplane, and not finding it strange. Yet, when that person was starting to learn about the world, household computers were pulp science-fiction, commercial aviation was the domain of the very rich, television was a relatively new technology, medical imaging was limited to x-rays, and nuclear fission was a brand new weapons technology.
Using the same measure, in 1949, someone 60 years old was born in 1889. Those people were born in a world where they probably didn’t have electricity at home, used animal powered vehicles for their local transportation, going to the moon was science-fiction, and medical diagnostics were almost based on external observations only, and nuclear fission was not even a theoretical possibility.
If we kept going back, 60 years at a time, it would be even more evident that the pace of technological evolution is becoming faster and faster, and that at some point in the past, the speed of technological change was so gradual that people lived in the assumption that when their lives ended, things in general wouldn’t be much different from when they were born. Apart from the cyclical turmoils of civilization, the way people did things improved (or sometimes regressed) very slowly.
This is the quantitative discussion I mentioned at the beginning, that while being essential, is simply the mise-en-scène for the even more interesting qualitative discussions – not trying to simply guess what is happening and why, but the impact it had, is having, and will have on the human experience, in all its facets.
A few of the themes to discuss, in no special order:
- the evolution of the economic systems into post-scarcity – we’ve evolved from mere survival, where almost everyone in a society had to contribute work to achieve enough to stay alive, to a point where those essentials are guaranteed by a very small percentage of society, and the rest either work on things that aren’t essential, or are unemployed. And the trend is not stopping – is the economy evolving to the point where the only scarce goods will be space, energy, and raw materials? Are mega-corporations meant to disappear in favor of smaller and more agile economic entities?
- education – with the increase of the availability of free knowledge, will it affect how people learn? Will it mean that people have a smaller core of formal education where they learn how to learn by themselves? Where effective skills will mean more than having attended a certain formal course in getting a job? What new parts will teachers play in this evolution?
- sociology – we’re witnessing a fast evolution of society’s mores – such as the question of homosexual marriages, the part parents have in their children’s education, the equality of opportunities for men and women. Is this a separate phenomenon from the evolution of technology and science, or are they connected?
- philosophy/religion – the dispute between the scientific and religious worldviews (for those who can’t conceive a common ground) is becoming more intense, witness the evolution vs. creationism debate in the USA.
- psychology – if the pace of change is increasing, what will be the impact on individuals? People have been living more competitive and faster lives since the early 20th century, will this trend continue or will more people sidestep it by living less “formal” lives (less income, more free time, etc)?
- law – with all these changes, the legal systems are ever more out of sync with reality, e.g. – copyright law vs. ease of reproducing media; child/parent relations vs. new paradigms such as sex changes, homosexual marriages, etc. Will legal systems evolve faster or become irrelevant?
So, as you see, the “why” and “how” are as important as the “when” and “how fast”. That’s why, together with kindred spirits, I created http://wiki.oneoverzero.org – which serves as a place to think out loud about these issues and create new discussions. We also have a very informal evening every month in Lisbon for a few hours of open discussion. Please join the discussion, either offline or online, all points of view are welcome!