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Transhumanism, Technoprogressivism and Singularitarianism: What are the Differences?
J. Hughes   Jul 28, 2013   Ethical Technology  

In the recent IEET survey we asked about your support or opposition to a variety of movements including transhumanism and singularitarianism.  Your answers allow us to tease apart some of the differences between these two movements.

Almost half of the respondents said they supported both transhumanism and singularitarianism to some extent, while a quarter of the respondents supported transhumanism but not singularitarianism, and a third supported neither.

Support for transhumanism was strongly related to a series of statements in the survey, most of which were part of the set of “Are you a transhumanist?” questions we developed at the WTA back in 2006 – support cognitive enhancement, radical longevity, genomic choice and uploading.

Singularitarianism on the other hand is a bit more obscure, since it implies belief in a future millennial event but doesn’t necessarily imply when or what that event might be. The statement most closely tied to support for singularitarianism was “Emerging technologies will cause an abrupt, cataclysmic, worldwide social change by 2050,” but only 52% of those who supported singularitarianism agreed with that statement (compared to 31% of non-Singularitarians). So its not clear exactly what supporters of singularitarianism have in mind when they talk about the Singularity.

It is also not clear that supporting singularitarianism means that you think the Singularity is a good thing, since there are apocalyptic Singularitarians who are sure that all Singularities other than their preferred one would be disastrous. 

Those who believe that greater-than-human intelligence will suddenly in the near future solve all of mankind’s problems – and this may be a minority of singularitarians – sometimes argue that all human projects, including human enhancement, are pointless next to the project of bringing a quick and positive Singularity. Many transhumanists, on the other hand, dismiss singularitarianism as a religious belief in a TechnoRapture that bears little relationship to the actual developmental trajectory, risks or benefits of artificial intelligence.  Among the survey’s respondents a third of the transhumanists were hostile or indifferent to singularitarianism.

Left-wingers are also leery of singularitarianism since it has an elective affinity for libertarians like Peter Thiel and Peter Diamandis who dismiss inequality, global warming and all other policy issues as irrelevant since the Singularity will solve all problems.  Like millennialist religious believers, what is the point of making sacrifices now to redistribute wealth or curtail carbon emissions if we will soon be in the Kingdom of Heaven?  Among our respondents all of the non-transhumanist leftists, and 40% of the technoprogressives, were indifferent or opposed to singularitarianism.

Here at the IEET we are trying to craft a technoprogressive stance that takes seriously the dramatic impacts that unpredictable, but accelerating, technological innovation will have.  So, unlike most public policy thinkers, we accept the plausibility of singularitarianism’s central proposition, that there will be rapid advances in cognitive science, nano-neural robotics, uploading, and artificial intelligence, and that we must begin anticipating their risks and benefits. Where we technoprogressives tend to differ from singularitarians is in the insistence that collective action and public policy have an essential role in ensuring that the outcomes of rapid technological innovation are safe and their benefits equitably shared.  We also tend to think that “hard take-off” scenarios are over-estimated because of the millennialist belief system around the Singularity, and that an accumulation of social impacts is far more likely and therefore more amenable to democratic control.

Instead of hand-waving about how a friendly godlike AI is the only possible way to protect humanity from hostile godlike AIs, the technoprogressives are engaged with the actual existing struggles over cyber-freedom, cyber-warfare, cyber-crime and the regulation of technological risks, all of which are laying the groundwork for whether and how we might be prepared to control dangerous artificial life (which doesn’t have to be intelligent to be dangerous) in the future.  Instead of arguing that magic self-replicating nano-boxes, free of intellectual property or maintenance costs, will provide everything for everyone after the economy is destroyed by the Singularity, technoprogressives ask how we are going to ensure that everyone has an adequate and equitable standard of living when most of the jobs have been eliminated. Will ensuring that everyone has a basic income really be a painless result of magical technology, or will it perhaps require engaging today in the debates over “welfare dependency,” “entitlements,” austerity and taxation?

Marx said atheism was the first step towards socialism.  Belief that rapid and radical technological changes are coming in the 21st century is clearly the starting point for technoprogressivism, transhumanism and singularitarianism. But eschewing religious, millennialist beliefs about the nature of those changes, and asserting the inescapable need for political struggle to ensure a safe, equitable and democratically controlled future is what leads to technoprogressivism. Clearly many technoprogressives are also attracted to singularitarianism, perhaps since the idea of a sudden rupture that leads to a different social order has a long resonance on the revolutionary Left (58% of the radical leftists in our survey supported singularitarianism compared to only 45% of everybody else). That suggests how important this ongoing discussion about the nature and causes of change are for defining technoprogressivism.

The socialist movement had a theory that manufacturing would create the preconditions for working class solidarity and eventually the collectivization of corporate property.  Capitalist manufacturers were essential unwitting dupes in an historical process that would crush them.  What is the technoprogressive theory of a democratic Singularity? Is it adding a political flavor to the friendly AI – like the Trotskyist AI in Ken MacLeod’s The Star Fraction or the anarchist AI in Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress - or does it focus on ramping e-democracy up into some kind of egalitarian and pluralistic Global Brain with AI subordinated to facilitating collective action and decision-making, like the mind-melding proposed by Ramez Naam’s Nexus?  Are Thiel, Kurzweil and Diamandis unwittingly working for the downfall of capitalism and the birth a post-scarcity, post-capitalist society, or is libertopian singularitarianism more likely to lead to catastrophe and neo-feudal disparities?

The survey showed that all of the constituencies of our audience want us to give the mitigation of global catastrophic risks higher priority and focus, and that leads naturally to how we address the issues around singularitarianism.  Are we prepared to advocate for the transnational police actions to control unsafe AI that have been attempted for other weapons of mass destruction, and which led to the invasion of Iraq and the tensions with Iran?  What about the creation of off-switches and circuit breakers on the Internet that might allow humans to control an outbreak of dangerous AI, but which also give governments like China their repressive control over the Net?

Let’s start figuring out what we as a technoprogressive political tendency think about some of these things.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


The single biggest problem of the 21st century is that our culture and therefore our values are rooted in our industrial past, rather than the emerging digital future.  Our concepts of ownership, privacy, rights, privileges, and regulation, are all formed over time in a substantially different world.  Either we adapt to the new emerging world, or we will die, because individuals have the ability to destroy the group in high technology societies.  That truth won’t be demonstrated, and therefore proven until it is too late, but instead must be imagined, and reacted to as if it were already proven.  My suspicion is that we are unable to do that - there is too much cultural baggage for us to be nimble enough to escape catastrophe.  Too bad, so sad.

Dobermanmac, I am slightly more hopeful for the future, but the problems you have identified are absolutely right. We cannot just wait for technology to come along and solve all of our problems. Technology has, in many cases, given some liberties and taken away others, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. All the while, techno-libertarians would have us stick our heads in the sand waiting for the next pinnacle of human civilization.

I accept that a new transhuman age would be much different from the world as we see it now. However, I am growing more convinced that if nothing is done the wealth of billions will end up in the hands of a few hundred thousand. The IEET needs to dramatically ramp up its actions in order to ensure a truly technoprogressive, as opposed to techno-libertarian, future.

The next frontier is space, so concentration of wealth isn’t going to always be a problem.  Furthermore, predictably the future will be one of abundance, not scarcity (unlike now where people are competing over scarce resources), so everyone will be valuable.  Finally, longevity technology ought to soon allow us to live as long as we want, so peace and justice will naturally follow since there is no need to cut corners.

In other words, if we can just get over this hump of cultural baggage, the way will be clear for exponential growth.  Frankly, I was amazed to learn that many people don’t care that their policy prescriptions don’t work - they only care that they meet their ideological litmus test.  That is the kind of thinking that will get us all killed.

@ dobermanmac

I don’t believe that the politics of the 21st century will transcend the debates over ownership, privacy, rights, privileges, and regulation that we’ve been having for two hundred years. Our concepts about those things will change, but there will still be basic issues of whether public goods should be financed through taxation (yes), what the levels of taxation should be and whether they should be taxes on income, wealth, consumption etc. We will still have struggles over the appropriate balance between personal privacy and public safety and security. The struggles we are currently enmeshed in over WMDs in Iran, NSA spying, “entitlement” programs etc. lay the groundwork for how we are going to confront those future struggles, even if the WMDs are AIs, the spying is by ubiquitous nanobots, and the “entitlement” programs are a basic income guarantee for all the displaced human labor.

As to the promise of space and post-scarcity, I don’t buy that either. Unless you are proposing interstellar libertarianism, there will have to be political agreements, military force and economic laws to govern how we colonize the solar system. It is very unlikely that a colony on the moon or Mars would be able to establish autonomy from Earth-based governments, or want to. And post-scarcity is a chimera. From the POV of our ancestors many of the poor of today are wealthy. Obesity is a bigger problem in India than hunger. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have huge and growing disparities in wealth and power that limit the potential of the poor, and impoverish us all. No matter how many magic nano-boxes people have there will still be better and worse ones, more and less expensive designs that people can afford, and more and less maker-stuff to put in the magic boxes. Even if you think that the designers and owners of product designs will willingly surrender their property rights, there is still the cost of the boxes, their maintenance and their maker-stuff. There will still be property rights struggles, inequality and relative poverty and wealth.

@J re “I don’t believe that the politics of the 21st century will transcend the debates over ownership, privacy, rights, privileges, and regulation that we’ve been having for two hundred years.”

Totally agree.

re “post-scarcity”

I am afraid there will never be such a thing as post-scarcity. If all the things that we want today were available to everyone at no cost, somebody would invent new scarce things and persuade others that they absolutely and desperately need the new scarce things.

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