by John Smart
Some 20 to 140 years from now--depending
on which evolutionary or systems theorist, computer scientist, or
futurist you happen to agree with--the rate of self-catalyzing,
self-organizing technological change in our local environment will
undergo a "singularity," becoming effectively instantaneous from the
perspective of current biological humanity.
It has been proposed that events after this point must also be
"future-incomprehensible" to existing humanity, though we disagree.
Some social theorists have proposed that the currently breathtaking
rate of change or "information processing growth" in 21st century
human civilization cannot continue to accelerate indefinitely.
Apparent support for this position comes from the "sigmoidal nature"
("S curves") of biological growth, where resource limits lead to
periodic "crash phases" in population size.
Also, physical limits affect information processing within any
specific technology, such as the widely cited miniaturization limit
in integrated circuits ("Moore's Law"), which will be reached circa
But such arguments are astonishingly irrelevant to the growth of
information processing as an entity, because information arises out
of and controls the continuous reorganization of matter-energy
systems. In the known history of the Universe, information
processing systems have always discovered ever-more-clever ways to
rearrange themselves using less space, less energy, and less
material resources during evolution, thus making them
"matter-independent," or free of the limits to growth which affect
any particular material substrate.
Consider our planet's history of accelerating creation of first
pre-biological (atomic and molecular-based), then genetic (DNA and
cell-based), then neurologic (neuron-based), then memetic (mental
pattern-based), and finally, technologic (extra-cerebral-pattern
based) evolutionary epochs, each requiring less space, matter,
energy, and time to represent or perform any salient "computation"
(i.e., forming an encoded internal representation of the laws or
information of the external environment).
The brief history of digital computers (which have themselves moved
through five substrates over the last century: mechanical,
electromechanical, vacuum tube, transistor, and IC) makes this
process of "accelerating rearrangement" even clearer. The Universal
evolution of information involves the continuous movement to new
substrates, with emergent forms always exponentially increasing
their information processing pace over time.
We are on a wild ride to an interesting destination, a local rate of
computational change so fast and powerful that it must have a
profound and as-yet-unclarified Universal effect. As a side effect
of this hypergrowth, biological human beings will not be able to
meaningfully understand the computer-driven world of the near future
unless they make some kind of transition to "transhumanity."
Those futurists who study this accelerating progression and its
current and anticipated effect on humanity call it "the
Singularity" for several reasons. The oldest reason, as
introduced by Vernor Vinge in 1982, stems from the idea of
a mathematical Singularity, a point in space or time at which
one's existing models of reality are no longer valid.
One place we observe this is within a
black hole, where the equations of
relativity no longer hold, generating only infinities. As I will
describe in my forthcoming book, several other insightful ways of
understanding the coming Singularity may also be usefully employed.
History of Intellectual Discussion of the Singularity
Many groups have helped build our present understanding of
accelerating change, and I will also be presenting a "Longer
History" later in 2001. We'll begin our Brief History with the
computer scientists of WWII. An important and dramatic, if not
entirely accurate place to start. For an excellent read, I suggest
Alan Turing: The Enigma, Hodges and Hofstadter, 2000.
It appears that the first computer scientists to consider the issue
of accelerating change, in casual conversation, were its modern
visionaries and founders, including both Alan Turing (1940's) and
John Von Neumann (1950's). Von Neumann may have been the first to
use the term "singularity" to describe this accelerating progression
(see Vinge's "The Technological Singularity").
Ongoing informal discussions in this community eventually led to
works by Richard Feynman ("There's Plenty of Room at the
Bottom" 1959), a revolutionary article that implicitly assumes
accelerating change in a very important new domain, miniaturization,
and I.J. Good ("Speculations Concerning the First
Ultra-intelligent Machine," 1965), perhaps the first clear published
conceptualization of the coming computational Singularity.
A year earlier, in 1964, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, had made
his now famous prediction regarding circuit density doubling (every
18 to 24 months) in the new medium of metal oxide semiconductor
(MOS) integrated circuits.
At first, Moore's Law simply defined the economic and engineering
environment specific to computer hardware development, and gradually
an entire industry of scientists and engineers came to not only
intellectually appreciate, but to tangibly experience the local
effects of continuous accelerating change.
Throughout the 1960's and 1970's a growing number of insightful
analysts, engineers, systems theorists and cyberneticians developed
models of reality which began to incorporate trend curves of
accelerating computational change in various industry and generalizt
publications (most prominently, Scientific American).
At the close of the 1960's. no one in computer science really knew
how long the curves might last (excepting a very limited number of
visionaries, as mentioned), or how relevant they might be to the
larger world of human affairs. But the gate was open, and the
concept of the Singularity was afoot.
Serious investigation of futurist scenarios received a major upgrade
around this time, including a few that recognized the concept of
accelerating change, thanks to the excellent work of Edward Cornish
and the World Future Society, and the bimonthly publication of
Futurist Magazine since 1967.
The idea of accelerating change finally entered the public
consciousness through Alvin Toffler and his revolutionary Future
Shock, 1970. Throughout the 1970's, the implications of Moore's Law
as a signifier of general computationally-driven scientific and
social change were progressively being explored.
At the same time, there were a few groundbreaking attempts to
characterize and popularize the observed trajectory of ever more
integrative and self-balancing local systems, most publically by F.M.
Esfandiary (later, FM-2030) (Optimism One, 1970, Tele-Spheres, 1977
and Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto, 1973.) These three luminous
books were published in paperback in 1977 and 1978, and eventually
became known as the "Transhumanist Trilogy," setting the stage for
the Extropian and transhumanist movements of the 1980's.
The mid to late 1980's were a modern version of the "Cambrian
Explosion" in our scientific understanding of accelerating
computational change within various specialties, with simultaneous
breakthroughs in the study of complexity, artificial life, neural
networks, connectionist and parallel computation, and several other
fields best left for my forthcoming "Longer History."
At the same time, consideration of accelerating change from a
systems perspective finally became broadly accessible to the general
public, through groundbreaking popular works, by such authors as
Marvin Minsky (Society of Mind, 1985), Erik Drexler
(Engines of Creation, 1986), and Hans Moravec (Mind Children,
These three books respectively represented a theory of mind as an
emergent collective computational system, a framework for applying
computation and embodied environmental interaction on
as-yet-undreamed scales of miniaturization, and the first coherent
projection of the meaning of the new computer and cognitive sciences
for the future of mind in the Universe. These early authors risked
professional reputation in their own fields to advance their unique
ideas, and each deserves special recognition for their courage,
conviction, and clarity of vision.
In the 1990's, a flood of generalizt publications that are
implicitly Singularity-aware, and a bold few that are explicitly
Singularity-aware, such as those by John Brockman (ed., The Third
Culture, 1995), Damien Broderick (The Spike, 1997) and Richard Coren
(The Evolutionary Trajectory, 1998) became available.
Meanwhile, in the mass medium of the new millennium (the Web), Max
and Natasha Vita-More (Extropy.org), Robin Hansen, Nick Bostrom (Transhuman.org),
again Hans Moravec and most centrally, Vernor Vinge brought these
ideas to digital life in the 1990s with their careful analysis of
the Singularity meme and its variants. Eliezer Yudkowsky also has
prolific writings in this area, along with a community of AI
investigators and "Singularity advocates" and a nonprofit AI venture
with transhumanists Brian and Sabine Atkins.
At present, in 2001, only a few tens of thousands of individuals
have been exposed to the Singularity meme, mostly through the web.
But soon, the general concept of the Singularity will become even
more mainstream, as it is confronted by networking think tanks such
as the nanotechnology and future scenario leader Foresight
In addition, the background systems and forces involved will be
explicated by great journalists, inventor visionaries, and social
Ed Regis, (Mambo Chicken, 1990,
Douglas Rushkoff (Cyberia, 1994)
Danny Hillis, "Close to the
Singularity" 1995, Peter Russell (Waking up in Time, 1998)
James Glieck (Faster: The
Acceleration of Just About Everything, 1999)
Hans Moravec (Robot, 1999)
Ray Kurzweil (Age of Spiritual
as well as others...