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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 . . .
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
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!
Read more by Randall Hayes