Printed: 2020-07-15

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Transhumanism, Technoprogressivism and Singularitarianism: What are the Differences?

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

July 28, 2013

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)


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837