In Part I of this post I challenged the idea of Vernor Vinge’s Singularity. I also promised a response from Vinge himself. While he hasn’t yet responded to my email inquiry, he did write a brilliant follow-up essay, in 2008, entitled What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? The article includes dramatic section headings including The Age of Failed Dreams, A Return to MADness, and How to deal with the deadliest uncertainties? Recommended reading for anyone who likes to speculate about the future.
In Part I, I attacked Vinge’s premises from the original 1993 paper, all of which center on the inevitability and exponential acceleration of technological progress along various vectors (computer/brain interface, artificial intelligence, biological intelligence enhancement, and the possibility of “emergent” intelligence from very large networks such as the internet). I argued that improvements in the computer/brain interface will offer limited gains (because brains and computers actually aren’t that much alike). I pointed out that A.I. progress has stalled out, at least in terms of “general intelligence” (some specialized information processing applications are moving forward). I also floated the idea that the kind of “superintelligence” that futurists and science-fiction writers like to speculate about, mega-minds that operate on entirely different levels that our own puny minds can’t even conceive of; that kind of intelligence might be a fantasy. The cognitive space might be a closed space, like the periodic table of elements (we probably don’t know all of them, but we know most of them). Lastly, I presented the blasphemous postulate that raw intelligence might be overrated. Major upgrades in civilization are probably more a result of other human qualities, like persistence, ambition, stubbornness, fantastical imagination, and curiosity (though the last two are arguably subsets of intelligence).
But what if I’m wrong? In what shape would my wrongness most likely manifest?
I think there is a real possibility that The Singularity will happen, but it won’t radically change life for corporeal human beings. Instead, an additional layer of reality will operate “on top” of life-as-we-know-it. In order for this scenario to unfold, the following preconditions would need to exist:
- significant advances in quantum computing, and a continuation of Moore’s Law for at least another decade or two
- successful simulation/modeling/reverse engineering of the human brain (and entire nervous system) to the extent that human consciousness can exist/operate on an artificial substrate
- the creation of truly immersive virtual worlds (Star Trek holodeck level and beyond)
- migration technology; bioware systems that allow consciousness and identity to gradually shift from wetware systems (body-brains) to hardware systems (quantum computers)
Full virtualization of brains, bodies, and worlds — this is one facet of Kurzweil’s Singularity scenario. To me this scenario seems much more likely than the rise of superintelligent (and possibly malevolent) machines.
Imagine dozens (or hundreds, or millions) of fully immersive virtual worlds, each with their own flavor, physics, social norms, etc. Each would have numerous virtual denizens — real people who experience life just like we do. The worlds would also host a number of part-time characters, people living simultaneous corporeal and virtual lives. Imagine what kind of new experiences and possibilities could exist within this new layer of reality:
- extreme longevity/immortality
- travel via instant teleportation (effective FTL travel)
- mental manipulation of “matter”
- the option to share thoughts/perceptions/memories (mind-melding)
- freedom from disease, disability, and physical suffering
- full range of options for physical appearance (supermodel? winged unicorn? Godzilla?)
- a “variation explosion” for humanity (not unlike the Cambrian explosion); many new types of humans
The list goes on and on. Some of these you already see cropping up in existing virtual worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life, etc.) — what is obviously missing in these cases is virtualized consciousness — players are not really in these worlds — they’re still looking at them from the outside (though imagination goes a long way).
Another Big Dodge
At various times in the history of civilization, human beings have escaped population collapse via technological trickery. The invention of agriculture and dawn of the Neolithic age is one example (though it came at a great cost). The invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (via the Haber process) is another example.
The gradual migration of humanity into virtual worlds might be our next “big dodge.” There is a limit to the number of human beings our planet can comfortably support, and there is evidence that we are getting uncomfortably close to that limit. We have thinned the ozone layer, triggered a process of global warming, damaged the oceans, destroyed most of the world’s forests, polluted the air and waterways, and so on and so forth. We risk collapse of natural and food-producing systems. How are we going to solve this problem?
It’s possible that humanity will clean up its collective act, provide better stewardship of the planet’s natural resources, and avert disaster. It’s also possible that human population will naturally decline due to socio-cultural factors (education of women, increased literacy, reduction of world poverty, access to birth control, increased economic burden of child-raising, etc.). But what if population keeps growing and environmental stewardship doesn’t radically improve? We’ll have a big problem.
Will the Singularity be the next big dodge? Perhaps virtual population will increase into the hundred billions, or trillions, while corporeal population gradually declines to one or two billion, or perhaps stabilizes around six or seven. An ever-growing virtual population is one way we could continue economic growth (virtual people would still produce and consume “goods” and services) without negatively impacting the planet (digging up metals, cutting down trees, sucking up oil, etc.).
The Singularity Already Happened
There was a moment in human history, long ago, that irrevocably changed how human beings would experience the world. This change was momentous; it completely destroyed “life as we know it” for all of humanity.
The Singularity I’m referring to happened approximately 45,000 years ago. It is, of course, the birth of human technological culture. For tens of thousands of years, anatomically modern humans lived their lives with the same simple tools and the same traditions; culture was frozen. Something (perhaps trade amongst cultures, perhaps specialization of labor, perhaps a genetic mutation related to imagination) triggered what we now call progress, that disconcertingly rapid cascade of technological and cultural change that makes each generation appear somewhat alien to the next, in its habits and proclivities.
That’s what the birth of a new evolutionary layer looks like.
Reality is a layer cake. Each layer is dependent on the layer below, and operates within the rules of all lower layers, but also has its own unique set of rules. For example, biological interactions can be described in terms of chemistry, or even physics, but you won’t really understand what’s going on in the biological realm unless you understand Darwinian evolution.
My hypothesis is that the evolution of the universe can be described in term of multiple Singularities, with each resulting in the birth of a new evolutionary layer. The story so far might look something like this:
1st Singularity: Big Bang
Evolutionary layer created: Atomic (stars, gaseous clouds)
2nd Singularity: covalent bonds
Evolutionary layer created: Molecular (planets, solar systems)
3rd Singularity: self-replication of long nucleotide sequences, and/or cell membrane
Evolutionary layer created: Biological (prokaryotic lifeforms)
4th Singularity: development of cell nucleus, and/or cell/tissue specialization
Evolutionary layer created: Somatic (eukaryotic lifeforms, animals with bodies, Darwinian evolution)
5th Singularity: development of complex nervous system, emergence of interiority/emotions/motivation/intelligence
Evolutionary layer created: Social (tribes, families, mating rituals, early culture, primates/hominids, also cetaceans, dogs, etc.)
6th Singularity: tool trading and/or specialization of labor, emergence of technology/cultural progress
Evolutionary layer created: Cultural/technological (memetic evolution)
7th Singularity: virtualization of consciousness? fully immersive virtual worlds?
Evolutionary layer created: Synthetic intelligence, programmable reality
8th Singularity: ???
Note that each Singularity is local, it happens multiple times in multiple places (including the Big Bang, if you believe any of various theories of multiple universes).
What really interests me is this: are there any generalizations we can make about Singularities? What causes them? Can they be predicted? Can they be modeled/simulated? I’ll discuss my thoughts so far on that subject in a forthcoming post entitled The Game-Changing Algorithm Nobody Is Looking For (Part III — Mutant Nodes).