Sunday, September 05, 2004


Before all the Islamofascist-terrorist hubbub initiated by 9/11, the buzz about our uncertain future centered around the idea of the Singularity, which is defined thusly:
The Singularity was defined by Vernor Vinge as a point in our future when our self-guided evolutionary development accelerates enormously---powered by nanotechnology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence---so that nothing beyond that time can reliably be conceived. The Singularity is a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become ‘posthumanity’. Another definition is the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest.
The modern world presents many challenges, mostly wrought by the unintended consequences of technological advancement. Consider the usage of electricity in 1904; from that viewpoint, predicting how electricity would affect human evolution over the next hundred years would produce laughable prophesies. Too many major innovations spawned other major innovations to be able to predict anything beyond bigger light bulbs and hotter electric irons.

So then consider the technologies of 2004, now in their infancy. Extrapolating a future vision from our current viewpoint is even more laughable than 1904. We are higher up the tree of innovation, where there are many tree-sized branches---each capable of becoming whole forests of trees themselves. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History may have been disproved by the age of terrorism; but perhaps in its place lies The End of the Future.

Modern life is largely reactive. If older times were like baseball---with long periods of inactivity, punctuated by fast plays---the current era is like tennis. The ball is either coming at you or you are whacking it back, expecting its sudden return. People, governments, cultures and civilization itself is reactive, always responding to ‘threats’ and ‘changes’ in the fabric of existence. As technology innovates, possibilities proliferate, shortening our view ahead. The tennis game is played in fog, which steadily thickens. There’s more than one ball, more than one opponent, and you have many rackets to play with at once. Bonne chance.

The Singularity is simply the inability to see ahead for lack of a reliable imagination. And perhaps there is another competing imagination to our own, one that is emerging. Some other kind of sentience of our own making.

James Bell wrote Technotopia and the Death of Nature in 2002. Commenting on the emerging technology, he said:
The Warning

In a now-infamous cover story in Wired magazine, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," Bill Joy warned of the dangers posed by developments in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Joy's warning of the impacts of exponential technologic progress run amok gave new credence to the coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, "We could be the last generation of humans." Joy has warned that "knowledge alone will enable mass destruction" and termed this phenomenon "knowledge-enabled mass destruction" (KMD).

The technologies of the 20th century gave rise to nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) technologies that, while powerful, require access to vast amounts of raw (and often rare) materials, technical information and large-scale industries. The 21st century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) however, will require neither large facilities nor rare raw materials.

The threat posed by GNR technologies becomes further amplified by the fact that some of these new technologies have been designed to be able to "replicate" -- i.e., they can build new versions of themselves. If the new self-replicating GNR technologies are released into the environment, they could be nearly impossible to recall or control.

Globalization and Singularity

Mr. Joy understands that the greatest dangers we face ultimately stem from a world where global corporations dominate -- a future where much of the world has no voice in how the world is run. The 21st century GNR technologies, he writes, "are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures."

Joy believes that the system of global capitalism, combined with our current rate of progress, gives the human race a 30 to 50 percent chance of going extinct around the time the Singularity happens. It is very likely that scientists and global corporations will miss key developments (or, worse, actively avoid discussion of them).

The true cost of technologic progress and the Singularity will mean the unprecedented decline of the planet's inhabitants -- an ever-increasing rate of global extinction.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN), the International Botanical Congress and a majority of the world's biologists believe that a global "mass extinction" already is underway. As a direct result of human activity (resource extraction, industrial agriculture, the introduction of non-native animals and population growth), up to one-fifth of all living species -- mostly in the tropics -- are expected to disappear within 30 years.

At the same time that nature's ancient biological creation is on the decline, artificial laboratory-created bio-tech life forms -- genetically modified tomatoes, genetically engineered salmon, cloned sheep -- are on the rise. Already more than 60 percent of food in US grocery stores contain genetically engineered ingredients -- and that percentage is rising.
Much of the discussion of the Singularity is mere groping, with apocryphal overtones. We just don’t know the future, and never have. And we probably now see the future less than ever before. And yet, we try to forge a path. That’s what we do---that’s our distinguishing mark from the other beasts that roam the Earth---we project paths where none are present. The fog that is descending upon us might be the blindfold before execution.

This blog raises the Singlarity issue because in the past three years since 9/11, it has not gone away. Au contraire. We are living it everyday. Modern terrorism is part of the Singularian bargain, if we even made one. It comes with the territory of unexpected, unintended events. Perhaps we should look at our current geopolitical situation---where civilization is nipped at the heals by the mindless insects of rage without reason---and consider that terrorism is part of the inevitable fog that will thicken as we approach The Big Day. Bill Joy warned of unleashing forces from Pandora’s box; and so they are unleashed already. Part of the Singluarity’s fog will be history---in the form of bearded medieval goons with jihadi websites---coming back for one last tussle on the mat. If the prognosticators of post-humanity are correct, then civilization as we know it will be the first institution to slip beneath the waves. And in Ossetia, it’s women and children first.