IEET > Vision > Fellows > Jamais Cascio > Futurism
Singular Sensations
Jamais Cascio   Jul 5, 2008   Open the Future  

The Singularity concept remains inescapable these days, although rarely well-understood.  Both are unfortunate developments, for essentially the same reason: the popularity of the term “Singularity” has undermined its narrative value. Its use in a discussion is almost guaranteed to become the focus of a debate, one that rarely changes minds. This is especially unfortunate because the underlying idea is, in my view, a useful tool for thinking about how we’ll face the challenges of the 21st century.

For many of its detractors—and more than a few of its proponents—the Singularity refers only to the rise of godlike AIs, able to reshape the world as they see fit. Sometimes this means making the world a paradise for humanity, sometimes it means eliminating us, and sometimes it means “uploading” mere human minds into its ever-expanding digital world. That this isn’t all that close to Vinge’s original argument is really irrelevant—by all observations this appears to be the most commonplace definition.

It’s not hard to see why this gets parodied as a “rapture for nerds.” It’s not that it’s a religious argument per se, but that it has narrative beats that map closely to eschatological arguments of all kinds: Specialists (with seemingly hermetic knowledge) [Premillennial Dispensationalists, Singularitarians, Marxist Revolutionaries] predict an imminent transformative moment in history [Rapture, Singularity, Withering Away of the State] that will create a world unlike anything before possible in human history, a transformation mandated by the intrinsic shape of history [The Book of Revelation, the Law of Accelerating Returns, Historical Materialism]. The details of the various eschatological stories vary considerably, of course, and this general framework matches each version imperfectly. Nonetheless, this pattern—a predicted transformation creates a new world due to forces beyond our ken—recurs.

This comparison drives many Singularity adherents to distraction, as they see it as the intentional demeaning of what they believe to be a scientifically-grounded argument.

The thing is, the Singularity story, broadly conceived, is actually pretty compelling. What Vinge and the better of the current Singularity adherents argue is that we have a set of technological pathways that, in both parallel and combination, stand to increase our intelligence considerably. Yes, artificial intelligence is one such pathway, but so is bioengineering, and so is cybernetic augmentation (I’ll argue in a subsequent post that there’s yet another path to be considered, one that Vinge missed).

The version of the Singularity story that I think is well-worth holding onto says this: due to more detailed understandings of how the brain works, more powerful information and bio technologies, and more sophisticated methods of applying these improvements, we are increasingly able to make ourselves smarter, both as individuals and as a society. Such increased intelligence has been happening slowly, but measurably. But as we get smarter, our aggregate capacity to further improve the relevant sciences and technologies also gets better; in short, we start to make ourselves smarter, faster. At a certain point in the future, probably within the next few decades, the smarter, faster, smarter, faster cycle will have allowed us to remake aspects of our world—and, potentially, ourselves—in ways that would astonish, confuse, and maybe even frighten earlier generations. To those of us imagining this point in the future, it’s a dramatic transformation; to those folks living through that future point, it’s the banality of the everyday.

Regardless of what one thinks of the prospects for strong AI, it’s hard to look at the state of biotechnology, cognitive science, and augmentation technologies without seeing this scenario as distinctly plausible.

What I’m less convinced of is the continuing value of the term “Singularity.” It made for a good hook for an idea, but increasingly seems like a stand-in for an argument (for both proponents and detractors). Discussions of the Singularity quickly devolve into debates between those who argue that godlike AI is surely imminent because we have all of these smart people working on software that might at some point give us a hint as to how we could start to look at making something approaching an intelligent machine, which would then of course know immediately how to make itself smarter and then WHOOSH it’s the Singularity... and those who argue that AI is impossible because AI is impossible, QED. And we know this because we haven’t built it, except for the things we called AI until they worked, and then we called them something else, because those weren’t real AI, because they worked. Since AI is impossible.

In Warren Ellis’ snarky piece on the Singularity from a few weeks ago, he suggested replacing “the Singularity” with “the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and seeing if that actually changed the argument much. Here’s the parallel: replace “the Singularity” with “increasing intelligence,” too. If it still reads like eschatology, it’s probably not very good—but if it starts to make real sense, then it might be worth thinking about.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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