If you 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.
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 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 Kurzweil think 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.
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.