What is the Singularity and Will We Live to See It?

Annalee Newitz wrote a brilliantly simple explanation of The Singularity on the io9 blog.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

If you’ve read any science fiction or futurism, you’ve probably heard people using the term “singularity” to describe the world of tomorrow. But what exactly does it mean, and where does the idea come from? We answer in today’s backgrounder.

What is the singularity?

The term singularity describes the moment when a civilization changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. Think of it as a point-of-no-return in history.

Most thinkers believe the singularity will be jump-started by extremely rapid technological and scientific changes. These changes will be so fast, and so profound, that every aspect of our society will be transformed, from our bodies and families to our governments and economies.

A good way to understand the singularity is to imagine explaining the internet to somebody living in the year 1200. Your frames of reference would be so different that it would be almost impossible to convey how the internet works, let alone what it means to our society. You are on the other side of what seems like a singularity to our person from the Middle Ages. But from the perspective of a future singularity, we are the medieval ones. Advances in science and technology mean that singularities might happen over periods much shorter than 800 years. And nobody knows for sure what the hell they’ll bring.

Talking about the singularity is a paradox, because it is an attempt to imagine something that is by definition unimaginable to people in the present day. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of science fiction writers and futurists from doing it.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

Where does the term “singularity” come from?

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized the idea of the singularity in his 1993 essay “Technological Singularity.” There he described the singularity this way:

It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

Specifically, Vinge pinned the Singularity to the emergence of artificial intelligence. “We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth,” he wrote. “The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.”

Author Ken MacLeod has a character describe the singularity as “the Rapture for nerds” in his novel The Cassini Division, and the turn of phrase stuck, becoming a popular way to describe the singularity. (Note: MacLeod didn’t actually coin this phrase – he says he got the phrase from a satirical essay in an early-1990s issue of Extropy.) Catherynne Valente argued recently for an expansion of the term to include what she calls “personal singularities,” moments where a person is altered so much that she becomes unrecognizable to her former self. This definition could include posthuman experiences.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

What technologies are likely to cause the next singularity?

As we mentioned earlier, artificial intelligence is the technology that most people believe will usher in the singularity. Authors like Vinge and singulatarian Ray Kurzweilthink AI will usher in the singularity for a twofold reason. First, creating a new form of intelligent life will completely change our understanding of ourselves as humans. Second, AI will allow us to develop new technologies so much faster than we could before that our civilization will transform rapidly. A corollary to AI is the development of robots who can work alongside – and beyond – humans.

Another singularity technology is the self-replicating molecular machine, also called autonomous nanobots, “gray goo,” and a host of other things. Basically the idea is that if we can build machines that manipulate matter at the atomic level, we can control our world in the most granular way imaginable. And if these machines can work on their own? Who knows what will happen. For a dark vision of this singularity, see Greg Bear‘s novel Blood Music or Bill Joy’s essay “The Future Doesn’t Need Us”; for a more optimistic vision, Rudy Rucker‘s Postsingular.

And finally, a lot of singulatarian thought is devoted to the idea that synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and other life sciences will eventually give us control of the human genome. Two world-altering events would come out of that. One, we could engineer new forms of life and change the course of human evolution in one generation. Two, it’s likely that control over our genomes will allow us to tinker with the mechanisms that make us age, thus dramatically increasing our lifespans. Many futurists, from Kurzweil and Steward Brand, to scientists like Aubrey De Gray, have suggested that extreme human longevity (in the hundreds of years) is a crucial part of the singularity.

Have we had a singularity before?

The singularity is usually anticipated as a future transformation, but it can also be used to describe past transformations like the one in our example earlier with the person from 1200. The industrial revolution could be said to represent a singularity, as could the information age.

What Is The Singularity And Will You Live To See It?

When will the singularity happen?

In 1992, Vinge predicted that “in 30 years” we would have artificial intelligence. We’ve still got 12 years to go – it could happen! In his groundbreaking 2000 essay for Wired, “The Future Doesn’t Need Us,”technologist Joy opined:

The enabling breakthrough to assemblers seems quite likely within the next 20 years. Molecular electronics – the new subfield of nanotechnology where individual molecules are circuit elements – should mature quickly and become enormously lucrative within this decade, causing a large incremental investment in all nanotechnologies.

And in the 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil says the singularity will come “within several decades.”

Longevity scientist De Gray says that our biotech is advanced enough that a child born in 2010 might live to be 150, or 500 years old. MIT AI researcher Rodney Brooks writes in his excellent book Flesh and Machines that it’s “unlikely that we will be able to simply download our brains into a computer anytime soon.” Though Brooks does add:

The lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be as unrecognizable to us as our use of information technology in all its forms would be incomprehensible to someone form the dawn of the twentieth century.

So when will the singularity really happen? It depends on your perspective. But it always seem like it’s just a few decades off.

Image of gray goo by Giacomo Costa.


Mistaken Prediction #8

When we try to predict the future, we often allow our assumptions to argue for our own limitations, sometimes at our peril. In this series of Mistaken Predictions, we deride predictions that close our minds to the future and celebrate our collective visions that allowed us to imagine alternative scenarios. Equipped with tools that open us to near limitless options, we cheer the fact that the future is inherently unpredictable.


“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
–Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

It may sound ridiculous now, but the prediction was actually true for about ten years after it was made. And many forecasters would settle for a ten year limit on the testing of their forecasts. Of course, by the 1980s and the advent of the PC, such a statement looked plain daft.

7 Ways to Spot Tomorrow’s Trends Today

“Wisdom sails with wind and time”
Image by Martin-Neuhof via Flickr
In its latest Special Report, the World Future Society outlines 7 ways to hone your foresight.
Scan the Media to Identify Trends-Futurists often conduct an ongoing and systematic surveys of news media and research institutes. These surveys help spot significant trends and technology breakthroughs. Futurists call this environmental scanning.
Analyze and Extrapolate Trends-After the trends are identified, the next step is to plot the trends to show their direction and development into the future. Trend analysis and extrapolation can show the nature, causes, speed, and potential impacts of trends.
Develop Scenarios-Futurists often describe the future development of a trend, a strategy, or a wild-card event in story form. These scenarios can paint a vivid picture that can help you visualize possible future developments and show how you can prepare effectively for future risks and opportunities. Scenarios help you to blend what you know about the future with imagination about the uncertain. Scenarios help you move from dreaming to planning and then to accomplishment. See How We Can Help
Ask Groups of Experts-Futurists also conduct “Delphi Polls” which are carefully structured surveys of experts. Polling a wide range of experts in a given field can yield accurate forecasts and suggestions for action. At the Virtual ThinkNet, we gather a “Brain Trust” of experts from diverse sectors on the topic which we are exploring.
Use Computer Modeling-Futurists often use computer models to simulate the behavior of a complex system under a variety of conditions. For example, a model of the U.S. economy might show the effects of a 10 percent increase in taxes.
Explore Possibilities with Simulations-Futurists create simulations of a real-world situations by means of humans playing different roles. For example, in war games, generals test out tactics they may later use on the battlefield, or corporate executives can explore the possible results of competitive strategies.
Create the Vision-Futurists help organizations and individuals systematically develop visions of a desirable future. Visioning creates the big picture of the possibilities and prepares the way for goal setting and planning.
This final step is where the process yields its fruit: how will you create your future while navigating the existing winds?
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Fire to be kindled

Plutarch – “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

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Future Fashion

A baby wearing many items of winter clothing: ...
Image via Wikipedia

A global industry generating $1.3 trillion in annual revenue, fashion faces the same issues affecting most other industries, including aging populations, shifting values, and accelerating technological change.

A new report by Levi Strauss and the Forum for the Future outlines four scenarios for a sustainable fashion industry by 2025:

1. Slow Is Beautiful: In a risk-averse marketplace, consumers demand durable, organic fabrics, and transparency on garments’ socioeconomic and ecological footprints.

2. Community Couture: Fabrics may be new and expensive or “pre-loved” and cheap. Clothes are made at home or in community-run recycling centers. Clothing “libraries” rent garments for special occasions.

3. Techno Chic: A healthy, wealthy, high-tech world esteems smart textiles that facilitate low-ecological-impact lifestyles, such as nanotech coatings that reduce need for washing.

4. Patchwork Planet: Nationalism or regionalism dominates consumer choices, which gravitate toward personalization. Shorter supply chains mean clothing reaches customers faster, and resource shortages drive technological innovation.

SOURCE: “Fashion Futures,” Forum for the Future

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Mistaken Prediction #7

When we try to predict the future, we often allow our assumptions to argue for our own limitations, sometimes at our peril. In this series of Mistaken Predictions, we deride predictions that close our minds to the future and celebrate our collective visions that allowed us to imagine alternative scenarios. Equipped with tools that open us to near limitless options, we cheer the fact that the future is inherently unpredictable.


“Ours has been the first [expedition], and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality.”
~ Lt. Joseph Ives, after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861.

Ives couldn’t have fathomed that more than a century later, five million people annually visit this “profitless locality,” by car, foot, air, and on the Colorado River itself.

John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran set off on a bold and pioneering expedition to fully map the Colorado as it wended its way through the Grand Canyon. The journey was a death-defying undertaking in the fragile wooden dories of the days. Less than a hundred miles into the trip, one of the expedition’s boats had already been smashed, taking with it much of their food supply. Yet, Powell and his team persevered for 99 days, putting the Grand Canyon on the map of the US for the first time.

Soon, Powell was being celebrated as a national hero. When President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1903, he made the famous remark: “The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children and all who come after you.” In 1919, it would become a national Park.

Although John Wesley Powell started a cascade of interest in the the Grand Canyon, he himself was wary of development around it. He prophesied that water shortages would be a major issue if the population of the American West soared too high. Powell would soon turn out to be right. By the turn of the 20th Century, some of the world’s most colossal engineering projects were in motion to dam and divert the Colorado River to help quench the water needs of rapidly expanding Western cities.

The result is that today some 10 dams and 80 diversions have turned the Colordao into a vast plumbing works, the natural flow that John Wesley Powell witnessed now completely regulated to the point that the river’s mouth – once a vibrant wetlands at the Sea of Cortez – has run bone dry.

Before the huge Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963, the river carried 5000, 000 tons of silt and sediment in a single day. now, 95% of those nutrient filled sediments are trapped by the dam. The river runs clear and cold, which makes it less friendly to life.  River otters, muskrats, native birds, lizards and frogs are rabidly disappearing.

Source: River at Risk

Organizations of interest:

Waterkeeper Alliance

Glen Canyon Institute – dedicated to restoring a healthy Colorado River

Mistaken Prediction #6

“The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.”

John Lennon’s aunt Mimi was skeptical about his career plans.

John Winston Ono Lennon, (9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980) was an English rock musician, singer-songwriter, author, and peace activist who gained worldwide fame as one of the founding members of The Beatles. With Paul McCartney, Lennon formed one of the most influential and successful songwriting partnerships of the 20th century and “wrote some of the most popular music in rock and roll history”. He is ranked the second most successful songwriter in UK singles chart history after McCartney.

Lennon was an often controversial peace activist and visual artist. After The Beatles, Lennon enjoyed a successful solo career with such acclaimed albums as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine and iconic songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine“. After a self-imposed “retirement” to raise his son Sean, Lennon reemerged with a comeback album, Double Fantasy, but was murdered less than one month after its release. The album would go on to win the 1981 Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

In 2002, respondents to a BBC poll on the 100 Greatest Britons voted Lennon eighth. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Lennon number 38 on its list of “The Immortals: The Fifty Greatest Artists of All Time” (The Beatles being number one). He was also ranked fifth greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone in 2008. He was posthumously inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

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