Can the Singularity Save Us From Ourselves?

May 22 2008 / by AlFin
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 13 Hot

Cross-posted from Al Fin’s blog.

The abstract concept of a Technological Singularity (TS) was made most famous in the recent past by inventor Ray Kurzweil. The concept has several overlapping meanings, but I like George Dvorsky’s definition best: The Singularity is a blindspot in our predictive thinking.

Humans are only evolved primates-monkeys and apes-with a limited conceptual vocabulary. We are easily impressed by our technological accomplishments. In networked opportunity societies, creative and inventive persons are able to feed off each others’ ideas so that during periods of economic surplus, the pace of innovation will take off. In dark ages, totalitarian societies where information is compartmentalized and otherwise restricted, innovation slows.

The Singularity is most often seen as a threshold into ever-accelerating change precipitated by the development of a machine intelligence with the ability to design its own cognitive enhancement -something of a runaway positive feedback cognitive entity. This development is often referred to as the “tipping point,” the point of no return.

The more sanguine examiners of the tech singularity concept are less likely to see The Singularity as inevitable. Many developments within society and government could short-circuit The Singularity, sending into terminal mode. Imagine a world government ruled by a Vladimir Putin, Josef Stalin, or Mao. Imagine world science, academia, media, and governance being taken over by dysfunctional post-modernist irrationality. Imagine the default human society-stratification by wealth, knowledge, power, and a profound inertial resistance to change. (cont.)

Persons who believe firmly in the inevitability of The Singularity might be surprised to learn that the default human society is the closed society, resistant to change. Most of them have never known anything but open societies, born of western civilization’s restless urge to expand intellectual horizons. They live in an exceptional time, in an exceptional society, yet somehow believe it to be the human default. That type of blindness comes from forgetting to study history.

The distinction is important, because a default society perpetuates itself, whereas an exceptional society must constantly fight against entropy. We are only a few hundred years beyond the European Renaissance, two hundred years beyond the early industrial revolution, a hundred years into the era of human flight, fifty years into the age of semiconductors. And already, the sub-structure of western civilization is showing signs of reversion to the default.

Without the networked opportunity society to sustain it, The Singularity does not stand a chance. TS has always only been one possibility among many. In order for The Singularity to succeed and turn out well, it is vital for its supporters to understand how easily it could be stopped.

Humans have the uncanny ability to overlook the most critical shortcomings of any scenario or plan. That is one reason why “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” It is also why “naysayers” and “deniers” are so easy to discount. Caught up in the enthusiasm of a grand idea, humans prefer to remain buoyed up in the “vital importance” and “inevitability” of their visions.

Politicians have been repeating the phrase “we are the ones we have been waiting for” for decades-probably much longer. It is true that humans seem to be waiting to wake up into some higher awareness, some more clear and potent existence. My variation on the theme begins “we are the ones we have been afraid of…” Perhaps fear has kept us from waking to our possibilities. The point is, it is humans that need to change and find their way to an even better networked opportunity society. Machines are not likely to be able to do that for us.

When we are ready to make a “conscious machine”, we will know how to make it “friendly” and at least quasi-wise. We are simply not ready-in fact in many ways we are reverting to the default, retreating from TS in terms of infrastructural societal needs. Even should something that we interpret as TS occur, things can still “go to hell”, and revert to default. We can always find ourselves back at the beginning, picking up the pieces. Unless we do the necessary preliminary work, and provide the foundation-the substrate-for a sustainable TS.

For many, TS has taken on many aspects of “God”, an omniscient and all-powerful entity that will guide the paths of the faithful. But like the gods of practical people, TS helps those who help themselves. TS cannot save us from our own laziness and inattention to important details in the design of our own societies. TS relies upon us in the most intimate way, since it is merely an outgrowth of what we ourselves can grow to become. If we think TS can relieve us of hard work and discipline, we are wrong. TS will not take care of itself.

Rather than a unified, worldwide singularity, expect a “fractured singularity.” Some will build the infrastructure and prepare the components in a sustainable way. Most will not. The long-term survivability of TS may depend upon early secrecy. TS may have many false starts, aborted revolutions. Perhaps we can learn from early mistakes in order to build a better singularity?

What do you think?

Is TS inevitable? Is TS necessary? Is TS sufficient? Is TS the end, or a means to the end? Can TS save us from ourselves?

According to Vernor Vinge, here are some of the ways The Singularity may not happen.

The last thing humans need now is yet another religion that feeds into apocalyptic visions. We have enough apocalyptic visions as it is without slipping that far into anti-rationality.

What kind of society can give birth to TS, and engage symbiotically and sustainably with TS into the long term? We don’t know, but we can give it our best guess. While working on the foundations of TS, we need to work toward creating that kind of society.

Can the Singularity save us from ourselves?

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