Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
May 2016

Popping the Singularity Bubble

I recently read an interview with Ray Kurzweil on Playboy's website, which—like this magazine—is now PG-13. I find that hilarious. (Interestingly, Playboy helped to make SF authors more respectable and gave them an audience of 7 million readers a month.) In the interview, Kurzweil complains that people think linearly about the future, when our technology is advancing exponentially. Moreover, said advances will continue smoothly upwards, accelerating all the while, until bang, we transcend the laws of biology and everybody lives forever. He figures we have about thirty years until his Singularity event happens.

Now, exponential growth is not uncommon in biology, but the curves always flatten out because, as Wikipedia puts it, “unbounded growth is not physically realistic.” In other words, nothing lasts forever.

There are whole lists of other criticisms of this idea, both in fiction and in non-fiction. I want to propose another one—catastrophe. I don't in this case mean the slow, grinding, inevitable collapses written about (and for the busy, spoken about) by Jared Diamond and explored in numerous ecological dystopias, and I don't mean the apocalyptic wars that have destroyed civilization over and over again throughout so much of SF. I am instead talking about large disruptive events like the fictional Lucifer's Hammer, or the very real asteroid Apophis, which probably won't hit us anytime soon. Or the Yellowstone mega-volcano, which is not really overdue for an eruption (as far as USGS can tell), but which might be really bad if it did pop. Such an event wouldn't need to kill everyone directly. Removing the superpower lynchpin of our current shakily stable political system (the USA) might free a whole lot of little tyrants to suddenly become big tyrants. Technological progress tends to go off the rails under a tyrant because, as I mentioned last month, science demands that we admit to being wrong, and dictators (even more than the rest of us) don't like being wrong.

The history of economics is full of these bubbles, which most of us never see coming because we, like Kurzweil, assume that past growth (whether linear or exponential) equals future growth. Despite the warnings of people like Nassim Taleb, up until 2008 otherwise intelligent people actually said ridiculous things like housing prices would go up forever, or that they could react fast enough to preserve their gains when the housing market did crash. So when I hear predictions about the year we will pass some technological milestone, I listen for the black swan's hissing laughter in the background.

Plus, we don't need to wait for transformational technologies. We already have transformational technologies. I have cheap solar power right now, in the form of a plexiglass box full of copper pipe on my roof that heats our water, almost for free (the small amount of electricity for the pump on the heat exchanger costs money). That glass-box technology has been available for centuries, but I have the only one in my neighborhood, and I've never seen it in an SF story. There are plenty of other examples, some of which will be the subjects of future columns. For today, I'll just mention one that Kurzweil and I both use, as did Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali. That technology is the hypnagogic nap, a state of awareness that combines aspects of waking and sleeping to enhance creativity and problem-solving, no brain nanobots required. More details next month.

The other thing to remember for today is that the word singularity implies more than a qualitative change in perception for an individual. For many people it also implies that human society as a whole will transition to a monolithic post-human society. Biology doesn't work that way. Yes, some prokaryotic bacteria joined up to become eukaryotic super-cells, but they didn't (and couldn't) drive bacteria to extinction, because under many conditions (not just catastrophe) there is value in being simple and cheap. Multicellular plants and animals have been pretty successful, but they haven't extinguished either simple bacteria or the medium-complicated single cells.

In fact, the vast majority of species are single-celled, and according to some estimates, they comprise at least half of the biomass on the planet. Complicated bodies like ours are fragile, prone to entirely new diseases like cancer, as well as competition from all the previously existing microbes, which are perfectly happy living on us and in us. In fact, we carry them around in our guts and spread them to places they couldn't otherwise reach. Richard Dawkins called us “vehicles” for our own genes, but the metaphor applies equally well to our microbes.

So sure, maybe—if we're lucky—some of us will have wireless nanobots crawling our brain capillaries, connecting us to the Cloud and making us geniuses. Personally, I might go for it, or I might not. I don't have a smartphone. I don't much want a smartphone (though a Dick Tracy wrist radio would be cool). My wife has a smartphone, which allows me some of the functionality without the costs: money, time, addiction, anxiety about losing the damn thing. Other people will make similar choices about any possible technology. The drive in biology is for greater diversity. Greater complexity is one possible component of greater diversity, but not a necessary component. You'd think eyes were a killer app, that no one and no thing would lose its eyes. Yet there are many species of eyeless cave fish.

Another, darker possibility is that we will not be given that choice. I don't mean everyone forced into some cookie-cutter idea of progress like those Neolution cultists on Orphan Black, who are more focused on biotech than IT. I mean the opposite. Even if we manage to preserve open societies up to the point of some technological singularity, that's no guarantee we could preserve them after such an event. Humans like inequality, as long as we're on the right side of it. We like looking down on other humans. We spend a lot of brainpower coming up with all kinds of complicated reasons why we deserve to look down on other humans. Having nano-biological Internet access and immortal bodies will probably not change this. Instead, it could worsen inequality. Roger Zelazny won a Hugo for Lord of Light, which described exactly this kind of society, where godlike elders ruled over their own descendants for no real reason, other than that they liked getting their way. Having other, younger gods around to compete with would have been . . . inconvenient.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of a “fractal economy,” with everything from hunter-gatherers to spacefaring spice traders. That would maximize diversity, which as a biologist I think is good. I just want people to be able to choose where they fit into such an economy for themselves, and I see a lot of ways that could go wrong. Unlike the end of a column, progress is not inevitable.

Randall Hayes is a neuroscientist and soon-to-be Certified Hypnotist (more on that next month, too). He also helps organize the Greensboro Science Cafe, a monthly public discussion series where we pester professional scientists with unprofessional questions.













Josephson's discussion is considerably more nuanced, mentioning examples where democracies can also go off the rails, scientifically, and allowing for patchy progress in research areas where cutting-edge thought supports, or at least does not threaten, the state's political power.








This is from a previous NSF-funded evolution blog and podcast that I did back when I had a real job as a biology professor.


Except for the introduction, which directly addresses the complexity debate, this dissertation is only tangentially related, and argues the opposite case, that there is a real drive towards more complexity, but it's so cool I had to include it. Simulation is a tool that more SF authors should take advantage of.



Season 4! With new and improved cloning action!




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