The Singularity

Published on Monday, August 16, 01999  •  17 years, 5 months ago
Written by Stewart Brand for The Long Now Foundation

The metaphor of the Singularity comes from astrophysics. What makes it so compelling to futurists and trend-watchers? Like any effective metaphor, it hides distracting elements (such as how good something is supposed to be for you) and reveals properties that are hidden but essential. The Singularity metaphor answers the question, "What happens if our technology just keeps accelerating?"

Above a certain critical mass, an expiring giant star collapses not just to a super-dense neutron star but to something whose mass and density is so great that its intense gravitation makes the escape velocity of anything from the object greater than the speed of light. It becomes what is called a black hole. The region where light and everything else disappears from our universe into the black hole is termed the "event horizon." The beyond-dense anomaly in the center of the black hole is called a singularity. "At this singularity," writes Cambridge mathematician Stephen Hawking, "the laws of science and our ability to predict the future would break down."

The man who applied the metaphor to human events is science fiction writer and mathematician Vernor Vinge. His 1991 novel Across Realtime joins three stories he wrote in 1984-86 around a central mystery. The mystery is, what happened to everybody? While the characters in the stories were temporarily isolated out of time in devices called "bobbles," civilization and the rest of humanity disappeared from Earth. Reconstructing events leading up to the disappearance, the characters realized that technology advance was radically self-accelerating at the time. Innovations that used to take years were being made in months and then days. Then the record stopped. Vinge's characters called the event the Singularity-"a place where extrapolation breaks down and new models must be applied. And those new models are beyond our intelligence."

In the metaphor, radical progress is not progress, but the end of the world as we know it. In a 1985 afterword to the stories, Vinge predicted that the Singularity would happen in reality, in the lifetime of his readers.

A good many people, including Clock designer Danny Hillis, have adopted Vinge's term as a shorthand way of referring to impending technology acceleration and convergence. They all note that the future becomes drastically unpredictable beyond the Singularity. Among some enthusiasts there is even a consensus date for what they call the "techno-rapture"-2035 CE, give or take a few years.

Opinions vary as to what would be the Singularity's leading mechanism. Proponents of nanotechnology (molecular engineering) are sure that the turning point will be "the assembler breakthrough"-when ultra-tiny, ultra-fast nanomachines capable of self-replication are devised. Others expect that it's the convergence of computer technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, each accelerating the other, that would fuse into a new order of life. Vinge himself sees the tipping point as the moment when machine intelligence, or machine-enhanced intelligence, surpasses normal human intelligence and takes over its own further progress. Another possibility is some emergent property of the all-embracing Internet, which Vinge proposes might "suddenly awaken."

Any such occurrence would indeed transform our world. Whether or not it will actually occur, the mere prospect of a technological Singularity changes behavior. People already refer to the near future in terms of months instead of years, and to the distant future in terms of years instead of decades or centuries. What may happen decades from now-beyond the imagined event horizon-is treated as not just unknown, but unknowable. Under such conditions, speed becomes glorified. Haste switches from a vice to a virtue; behavior that might once have been called reckless and irresponsible becomes "swift and decisive action."

One reason the metaphor resonates is that it offers insight about the distortion we all feel from the pace of events these years. As one falls into a black hole, the fierce gravitational field of the singularity pulls the traveler into a long thin shape, like taffy. The more the accelerating future pulls at us, the more parts of us resist. The result is a kind of dismemberment.

Society itself could be dismembered, as some people ride the breaking wave of every-newer technology over the event horizon into invisibility, while others lag behind, feeling the powerful gravitational force of still-accelerating technology, but no longer able to see it. Thus the world would be comprehensible only to those near the leading edges of technology.

The Singularity is a frightening prospect for humanity. I assume that we will somehow dodge it or finesse it in reality, and one way to do that is to warn about it early and begin to build in correctives.

Published in The Clock of the Long Now.