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This educational site is a project of the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF). It is written by technology foresight scholar and systems theorist John M. Smart. It is intended for technology scholars, strategists, futurists, and the general public, to improve our understanding and management of accelerating change. Accelerating change is topic with a long intellectual history, but little formal study. To this end, ASF promotes the academically-neglected topics of technology foresight, acceleration studies, and evolutionary development theory, subjects we consider key to understanding the technological singularity hypothesis. We also host acceleration-aware futurist discussion groups in several cities around the world, list degree programs where students may investigate accelerating change to some extent, maintain a small publications archive, and a few responses for critics who think accelerating change is either a human illusion or cannot continue beyond our current era. This site was primarily written in 1999-2003. It was the first website, to my knowledge, to consider accelerating change from a universal and evolutionary developmental perspective. I hope you find it useful in your foresight, strategy, and critical thinking about the issues and implications of accelerating change.
|Ten Areas of Technological Change, John Smart, 2012. A read ahead for some of my seminars on technological change, for senior leaders and middle managers. A short list of useful books in ten key leadership skills, and a brief overview of my current thoughts on what could, will, and should happen (possible, probable, and preferable futures) in ten key technology domains over the next ten to twenty years, and further reading in each domain. I’ve tried to state my key biases and assumptions where relevant.|
|The Race to Inner Space - Global Future 2045 (Video, 18 min; Slides, 16), Feb 2012. An introduction to the evolutionary developmental model of universal change, and the ways that our accelerating civilization is racing to "Inner Space," to the world of thought and simulation (virtual inner space) and of nanotechnology (physical inner space) and the some of the ways this is creating a smaller, faster, smarter, wealthier, more resilient future for all of us.|
|The Transcension Hypothesis, in Acta Astronautica, John Smart, 2011. An update of my earlier article, Answering the Fermi Paradox, 2002, exploring the implications of continual STEM compression (increasing density and efficiency of use of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter) in universal complexity development. A model for the long-term future of universal accelerating change, with many implications for technical-economic progress and public policy, if true.|
|How the Television Will Be Revolutionized: The Future of Open Internet TV, John Smart, 2010. See Video, 20 min, TEDx Del Mar, June 2010. Also a 4-page article in The Futurist, Nov-Dec 2010, and a whitepaper, exploring the critical role open media standards and activist consumers can play in democratizing and empowering society with this technology platform, and the major political and economic challenges and opportunities ahead. The next ten years will be an exciting time for open standards web media, and will bring continued creative destruction to big media sectors.|
|Our Immersive Future - Immersive Technology Summit 2010 (Video, 18 min). Thoughts on the ten year future of the videophone, wearable AR, wearable lifelogs, iTV, Caves, GameTables, Memeshows, and ways to use immersive tech to improve socialization, intimacy, collaboration, civics, education, addiction management, and decisionmaking. For technologists and the general public. See also the deck of 18 slides for this presentation.|
Evo Devo Universe - BIL 2009 (Video, 23 mins). A presentation on evolutionary and developmental features of our universe, and implications for foresight and management of technology. Want more? Evo Devo Universe? Part 1 (Video, 55 min). Evo Devo Universe? Part 2 (52 min), Bay Area Future Salon, April 2009. (Slides).
Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture (PDF),
John Smart, 2008. In: Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a
Cosmic Context, NASA Press, 2009. (V7.0 Apr 2010). A 48-page overview
of three increasingly specific and powerful ways of understanding predictability
and unpredictability in the universe, and the meaning and implications
of accelerating change for human culture: the Informational Physical
Universe (IPU) hypothesis, the Evo Devo Universe (EDU) hypothesis, and
the Developmental Singularity (DS) hypothesis. Pressed for time? Skim
the last 27 pages (pages 26-53), starting with Processes of Universal
Development. Are these valid systems models or mere speculation? Time
|"Foresight Development at UAT," John Smart, 2007. (Course Overview. Course Wiki). A core undergraduate course in Foresight Development (global, organizational, and personal), developed and taught first at the innovative University of Advancing Technology, Phoenix, AZ. Acceleration-awareness for the university student.|
|"A.I., "Inner Space," and Accelerating Change," John Smart, 2007 (18 min). (Transcript). An informal interview, discussing incremental AI, the conversational interface, digital twins, inner space, and other quite important yet oft-overlooked trends in technological evolutionary development. Courtesy of SIAI and Future Current.|
|"Systems Theories of Accelerating Change," John Smart, 2006 (20 min). (Video. Audio. Slides. Transcript). A formal presentation at the inaugural Singularity Summit 2006. Considering accelerating change from universal, biological, human cultural, and technological perspectives, and introducing a few well known and a few unorthodox ideas in acceleration mechanics. Courtesy of SIAI and Future Current.|
|"Driving Toward an Electric Future: Natural Gas, PHEV's, and Nanobattery Advances," John Smart, 2006. A discussion of trends pushing us toward Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle networks in coming years. The new nanobatteries promise to make electric car recharging almost as fast as gas tank filling at commercial recharge stations, and tomorrow's power grids more decentralized than today's gas stations, supporting greater city densities.|
|How to Be a Tech Futurist, John Smart, 2005 (PowerPoint, 132 slides, 7MB). Presented at World Future Society 2005, Chicago, IL (July), and at Tech Forum 2005 at the University of Advancing Technology in Phoenix, AZ (June). Some considerations for predicting, managing, and creating the future in a world of accelerating change.|
|Review of "A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation," Johnathan Heubner, TF&SC 2005, John Smart, 2005. Huebner's paper proposes that human-observed innovation has been globally saturating since the industrial revolution. In the context of other papers on innovation saturation also referenced here, his study may indicate a need for us to learn how to see and measure innovation from a technological, not just a human perspective in coming years.|
Site Outline (Blue topics are on this homepage. Green topics are on separate pages).
with John Smart, 2003
See Accelerating.org/slides for open access presentations.
|What is the Technological Singularity?||
Earth's electronic systems have been self-organizing, in a symbiotic relationship with human society, at rates approaching the speed of light since Michael Faraday's time. Grossly, this generalized rate of evolutionary development is at least seven million times faster than the speed of thought in biological systems (the speed of an action potential and synaptic diffusion in a human brain).
In an utterly surprising state of affairs, every new computing system over the last century of technological development has managed to be consistently more miniaturized, more resource efficient (per standard computation, however defined), more human autonomous (in the replication of its complexity, again however defined) and more biologically-inspired (having features of evolutionary development or organization increasingly similar to our own) than the last. Physicists presently see no near-term limit to accelerating computational capacity and efficiency trends, other than the Planck-scale limit of fundamental universal structure itself.
As a result, the continued acceleration of local technological intelligence is very likely to be the central driver and determinant of the modern era. Hesitantly at first, and quickly now, these increasingly fast and microscopic physical extensions of our humanity may soon learn (encode, predict, and understand) both the physical and abstract nature of all the slow and macroscopic systems in our local environmentour biological selves included.
Some 20 to 140 years from nowdepending on which evolutionary theorist, systems theorist, computer scientist, technology studies scholar, or futurist you happen to agree withthe ever-increasing rate of technological change in our local environment is expected to undergo a permanent and irreversible developmental phase change, or technological "singularity," becoming either:
or if only one of these at first, soon after all of the above. It has been postulated by some that local environmental events after this point must also be "future-incomprehensible" to existing humanity, though we disagree.
In this fascinating process, technology and biology are becoming ever more seamlessly interconnected and interdependent. As Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute describes, technology is becoming organic, and nature is becoming technologic. Even our minds and intentions, in a process that William Bainbridge of the National Science Foundation calls "personality capture," are becoming incrementally encoded into our increasingly intelligent technological infrastructure, so that it may better anticipate our needs, and serve us with increasing responsiveness and effectiveness with each passing year. While the human animal is scarcely different with each new generation, our "houses" become exponentially smarter, as well as increasingly natural extensions of ourselves.
Ultimately, as few discussing these issues currently realize, "What is the singularity?" may not be the most important question to ask, from the human perspective. As we develop increasingly powerful types of human-surpassing technological intelligence in coming decades, and as each successive generation becomes more seamlessly integrated with human actors, actively engaged in solving key human problems, it will become appropriate to ask not what, but "Who is the singularity?"
Relatively soon in time, in a profound yet surprisingly subtle phase transition for planetary intelligence, "it" will be "us."
Acceleration Studies Foundation
Our affiliated nonprofit organization, the Acceleration Studies Foundation (ASF), is dedicated to analysis, informed speculation, and promoting agendas for action in understanding and managing accelerating change. We are an independent community of scholars, professionals and lay futurists systematically exploring science, technology, business, global, political, social, and personal dialogs in accelerating change. Please join us in considering, critiquing, and prioritizing what may be the single most important issue of the human era.
The Prediction Wall
With increasing anxiety, many of our best thinkers have seen a looming "Prediction Wall" emerge in recent decades. There is a growing inability of human minds to credibly imagine our onrushing future, a future that must apparently include greater-than-human technological sophistication and intelligence. At the same time, we now admit to living in a present populated by growing numbers of increasingly interconnected technological systems that no one human being understands. The Millenial generation assumes the normality of living in a world of complex, rapidly improving, and yet amazingly stable technological systems, erected like vast beehives or termite mounds, systems maintained and incrementally improved by large swarms of partially-aware human beings, each of which has only a very limited conceptualization of the full potentialities and inherent developmental trajectory of the new technological environment that is emerging.
Business leaders face the prediction wall acutely in technologically-dependent fields (and what enterprise isn't technologically-dependent these days?), where the ten-year business plans of the 1950's have been replaced with ten-week (quarterly) plans of the 2000's, and where planning beyond two years in some fields can be unwise speculation. But perhaps most astonishingly, we are coming to realize that even our traditional seers, the authors of speculative fiction, have failed us in recent decades. In "Science Fiction Without the Future," 2001, Judith Berman notes that the vast majority of recent efforts in this genre have abandoned both foresighted technological critique and any realistic attempt to portray the hyperaccelerated technological world of fifty years hence. It's as if many of our best minds are giving up and turning to nostalgia as they see the wall of their own conceptualizing limitations rising before them.
The Prediction Crystal Ball
Yet at the same time as the prediction wall has emerged in most areas of the future, prediction in certain special domains (the "crystal ball") is now easier than ever. As technology roadmapping expert Richard Albright notes in "What can past technology forecasts tell us about the future?" (Tech. Forecasting & Social Change, Jan 2002) a broad collection of capacity growth curves of information and communications technologies have been predictable (81% over 40 years, in this estimate) since at least the birth of digital computing in the 1940's.
Furthermore, as Rolf Landauer and others have found (C. H. Bennett and R. Landauer, "The Fundamental Physical Limits of Computation", Scientific American, 48-56, July, 1985), there appears to be no forseeable limit to these capacity growth curves. This strongly suggests we inhabit a special universe that supports accelerating computational efficiencies and energy densities as far down as we can see. While there must eventually be a physical limit to computational efficiency, it may exist only at the Planck scale of space and time. As a result, predictable rates of technological acceleration will be both the dominant planetary phenomenon and the most dependable aspect of our future environment, one that any serious foresight strategist should incorporate into their models and policy considerations. More on this may be found in The Future of Professional Futurism and in particular technology forecasting, roadmapping, strategic planning, and futures studies.
An Essential Singularity
To some, exponential growth in technological change appears to be an unstoppable force, driven by stunning and continuous advances in computer and communications industries. Technology, in other words, appears to be rapidly pushing us toward, in John Von Neumann's (late 1940's or early 1950's) phrase, "some essential singularity," a coming phase transition in the nature and power of local computation, beyond which, like a mathematical or gravitational singularity, several aspects of the future must be permanently obscured from our biological vantage point.
Several individuals deserve credit for early and extensive championing of the idea of continually accelerating computation, and for considering information technology's future effects on society. Please see our Brief History of Intellectual Discussion of Accelerating Change for more on this on this long and distinguished dialog.
Arguably the most important 20th century pioneer and advocate of these ideas has been the roboticist Hans Moravec. Moravec began writing about accelerating computer power extensively in the 1970's, including a famous piece published in February 1979 in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, entitled "Today's Computers, Intelligent Machines, and Our Future." The final section of this essay "considers the implications of the emergence of intelligent machines, and concludes that they are the final step in a revolution in the nature of life. Classical evolution based on DNA, random mutations and natural selection may be completely replaced by the much faster process of intelligence mediated cultural and technological evolution." Considering the future of computer-human coevolution, Moravec concludes we are rapidly headed for a "post-biological form" for all local, living intelligence: "In the long run the sheer physical inability of humans to keep up with these rapidly evolving progeny of our minds will ensure that the ratio of people to machines approaches zero, and that a direct descendant of our culture, but not our genes, inherits the universe."
Many today would consider this proposal unsound, and several social theorists have predicted that the breathtaking acceleration of change that we have seen in modern human civilization cannot continue indefinitely. Arguing in this favor is the apparent "stair step" dyamics of technological change, often involving long periods of apparent stasis or regression (as in the fall of the Roman Empire). Yet when viewed from the macroscopic perspective of the network of global actors, the more one sees the intrinsic smoothness of accelerating technological change, as we discuss in Acceleration and Punctuated Equilibrium in Technological Development.
The Astonishing Lack of Limits To Computational Growth
A number of arguments for approaching limits to incessant exponential growth in local computation have periodically been proposed. Four are particularly worth careful consideration: miniaturization limits, resource limits, design limits, and demand limits. We consider each of these in No Apparent Limits: Addressing Common Arguments Against Continuous Computational Acceleration. In our analysis, each surprisingly fails to make a credible case that technological change might slow down in coming decades.
Social Response to the Singularity Hypothesis
If technological acceleration continues, what kind of social and political response can we expect to the singularity hypothesis in coming decades? How will powerful human interest groups react to the idea of increasingly autonomous technological change? That is a difficult and fascinating question, and we have made some early conjectures in that regard. Take a look at Social Backlash to the Singularity Hypothesis, and see if you agree. You might also enjoy Contrary to Popular Belief, some counterarguments to popular beliefs about social and technological trends in modern culture.
Those few scholars who currently study the record of continuously accelerating computation and who seriously expect the emergence of an autonomous intelligence (AI) within the foreseeable future, call this event "the (technological) singularity" for several reasons. This phrase, as introduced by Vernor Vinge in 1981, borrows from the traditional body of work on mathematical and cosmological singularities, a point in space or time at which one's existing models of reality are no longer valid. One place we observe this is within a black hole, where even the equations of relativity break down from our perspective within the system, generating only infinities.
As we explore the technological singularity concept from a widely multidisciplinary, systems theory perspective, we should attempt to interrelate, if possible, known physical processes that appear to have similar accelerating dynamics. An early effort in this regard can be found in A Taxonomy of Singularities: Comparing the Literature on Systems of Accelerating Change.
As one carefully considers the universal record of accelerating change, one comes to suspect that the process is developmental, in the same way that biological systems engage in both evolutionary and developmental change. Simply put, the developmental features of the universe we inhabit seem very likely be organized for convergence, over time, on ever-increasing rates of environmental learning in a special subset of physical systems. This learning appears to be expressed in hierarchically emergent "computational substrates," physical information processing platforms which encode a record of their search of local phase space, and which use that record as a stable base upon which to build even more powerful computational systems.
In a direct analogy with biological development, some characteristics of these hierarchical emergences appear to be part of a statistically determined process of universal development. If indeed the process is developmental, many of the "envelope boundaries" of the accelerations would be prespecified in the special initial conditions of the "seed" (Big Bang), that created our universe. We discuss this fascinating topic further in A Chain of Singularities: The Evolutionary Development of Hierarchical Substrates (EDHS). For other developmentally related perspectives, you may also consider the speculative Some 'Laws' of Complex Systems in an evolutionary developmental universe.
|Just Who is a Acceleration Watcher?||
Modern futurists can be usefully divided into four camps with regard to acceleration awareness. There are the Unexposed (those who have not yet encountered this fundamental meme), the Ignorers/Deniers (those who have been exposed but either ignore or deny its relevance), the Watchers (those who suspect the topic has real future relevance, but are committed only to seeking more scientific data and insight on this phenomenon) and "Believers" (those whose response is an absolute and often uncritical acceptance, based primarily on faith).
As the name Acceleration Watch implies, our goal in coming years is to do our own small part to stimulate a number of technologists, academics, independent scholars, and lay futurists to move from unexposed, ignoring, or denying into watching, critiquing, and modelling the fascinating phenomenon of accelerating and increasingly autonomous computational change.
At the same time, we do not seek to push any in our community into belief in the technological singularity hypothesis, as there is nowhere near enough good science yet available on the subject to justify that option. Nevertheless, we can all do our small part to help stimulate the development of theory and evidence that will eventually allow such a formal science to emerge.
An "Acceleration Watcher" is therefore neither absolutely convincednor uncritically happythat the technological singularity is going to happen, but believes the phenomenon of accelerating change deserves immediate and careful scientific investigation.
Rather than professing belief or disbelief in the topic of the technological singularity, it makes more sense for those who presently investigate this phenomenon to consider themselves instead as observers, analysts, students, researchersor critics of singularity-exhibiting processes in all their forms.
Those who study accelerating change understand that there are better and worse paths toward human-machine futures, and they don't want to be caught off guard by the wide-ranging social effects of ever-more-powerful changes in computation. Even if they anticipate that the singularity speculation may be correct, they know that human beings do not easily model exponential change.
As Arthur C. Clarke, Francis Crick, Ray Kurzweil and others have proposed, human cognitive (and perhaps, perceptual) systems appear to be built to make quasi-linear models, at least on a first quantitative approximation, whereas the computational elements and systems of our local environment exhibit exponential emergences and other natural non-linearities. So it is that humanity only unevenlyand often unrealisticallyincorporates exponential expectations within its psychology, as we now wisely do in our projections for next year's computer products, and much less wisely, for example, in our expectations for the short-term performance of our technology investments.
Humans may be wired to directly perceive reality in a nonlinear manner, as some cognitive scientists have proposed. Humans are nonlinear physical systems, so their computational architecture must, on some level, be nonlinear itself. Nevertheless, it is true that exponential systems, before they reach their "blowup" phase of growth, always appear to be linear systems, and thus human beings, as slow modelers of fast systems, are continually taken by surprise in the ferocity of their emergence.
As one famous example, recall the chessboard metaphor, involving 64 doublings of rice grains, with only one grain placed on the first square. This system appears quite tame until just a bit past the middle of the board, when it suddenly produces an entirely unexpected and overwhelming effect, bankrupting the King, and blanketing the entire surface of the Earth in a sea of rice several inches thick. Kurzweil calls this runaway effect "entering the second half" of the board. So it will apparently soon be with local computation.
Therefore, as we continually refine our models of the future we will need to work together closely to help each other understand the forces at work, and to make better personal and societal decisions as we manage the coming transition, in the most moral and human-friendly manner possible.
Technology, tools, and computation are apparently not neutral phenomena. First, we have long realized that technology amplifies human tendencies, both for better and worse, depending on the tool and context. Therefore where, when, and how a technology is introduced becomes a powerful social and personal choice. Furthermore, we are finally beginning to understand that computation, through a succession of technologies and tools, is apparently rigged, by universal developmental architecture, to create local complexity at an ever-accelerating pace. This new complexity in turn brings its own self-balancing, integrative, and convergent properties to the local environment, emergent properties that are still in the early stages of scientific description. See our introductory page on convergent evolution(ary development) for a better understanding of convergent universal developmental processes.
Finally, in what may be a hidden law of development, we may be approaching limits to the local knowledge that can be gained about the universe with our existing and finite computational tools. This very interesting and controversial topic, sometimes called ergodicity or "computational closure", argues that not only physical structure but our maps of physical reality undergo massive unifying convergence the more complex they become. As Phil Nelson has said, perhaps we might we relabel "the Singularity as" "the Unity." The latter name may better convey its personal, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions in the decades ahead.
If the general public were able to understand that our approaching technological singularity is simultaneously creating a highly convergent mental framework from which to understand the universe, a simple name change from singularity to unity would evoke interest and joining, rather than fear and resistance, especially from the religious. Yet being able to make the claim that progressive computational closure and unity are presently occurring, while it seems intuitively obvious to me from an anecdotal perspective, is no easy task at this early stage of our understanding. I look forward to significantly more scientific investigation of such issues as the universal limits of computation, computational closure, and the unifying nature of convergent models of reality in coming years.
Whether we like it or not, the winds of change will continue to rush at us ever faster every month for the rest of our lives. Due to inherent universal processes related to the nature of growth in complexity, computation, and information, twentieth and especially twenty first century citizens must increasingly combat "Future Shock" (Alvin Toffler, 1970), the disruption that comes when our information processing and adaptive systems are not complex enough to allow us to find equilibrium in an environment of increasingly rapid technological and informational change. Accelerating change is an apparently natural universal process. Understanding the evolutionary and developmental processes generating it can provide critical balance and perspective as we navigate the storms ahead.
For introductory information on communities discussing these issues, as well as a range of early, prescientific predictions for when the technological singularity will occur, see our overview of Singularity Timing Predictions, Discussion Groups, and Introductory Links.
|Why Increasingly Autonomous Technological Evolutionary Development Will Lead to the Tech Singularity||
Increasing technological autonomy, however we choose to measure it, is one key assumption behind the singularity hypothesis. Were it to be proven incorrect in coming years, singularity models would have to be fundamentally revised. However, data to date give every indication that autonomy is dramatically increasing every year. Writers on the singularity topic now suggest that progressively more human-independent computer evolution must eventually transition to a "runaway positive feedback loop" in high-level machine computation, from our perspective.
We are well on the way down the autonomy path within the computer hardware domain. Since the 1950's, every new generation of computer chip (integrated circuit) has been designed to a greater and greater degree not by human beings but by computer software. In other words, an ever-decreasing fraction of human (vs. machine) effort is involved in the hardware design process every year, to produce any fixed amount of computer complexity, however we choose to define that complexity.
In fact, the late 1970's was the last time entirely human designed (non-software aided) chips were routinely attempted. The 1980's saw the rise of powerful chip design software, the 1990's the emergence of electronic design automation (EDA) software, and recently, evolvable hardware approaches have produced a few specialized chips that are "grown" entirely in silico, without any human intervention whatsoever, beyond initial configuration of the design space. Such systems discover useful algorithms that are often incomprehensible to human designers. Self-replicating robots, while also still quite primitive, have recently passed the proof-of-concept stage, and are now benefiting from powerful advances in simulation and rapid prototyping technologies.
It is now well known that software follows a slower complexity/ performance doubling rate than the hardware substrate. Commonly cited measures are six years, vs. 18 months, for a doubling in price performance, a figure that must vary widely with algorithm, development approach, and software class. But even here, we have seen surprising autonomy advances in recent years. In an accelerating emergence since the 1980's, we have seen several new sciences of emergent, evolutionary, and "biologically-inspired" computation, such as artificial life, genetic algorithms, evolutionary programming, neural nets, parallel distributed processing, and connectionist modeling. These new computer sciences, though still limited, have created a range of useful commercial applications, from pattern recognition networks in astronomy that seek out supernovas, to credit card fraud-detection algorithms which substantially outperform classical programs. These industries, while still underdeveloped and of limited scalability, now employ tens of thousands of programmers in a new, primarily "bottom up (self-guiding), and only secondarily top down (human coded) approach to software design.
Perhaps even more importantly, biologically-inspired approaches have demonstrated that they can increase their own adaptive complexity in real-world environments entirely independent of human aid, when given adequate hardware evolutionary space. And it is clear that the hardware space, or "digital soil" for growing these new systems will become exponentially cheaper and more plentiful in coming decades.
Both Ray Kurzweil (The Age of Spiritual Machines) and Hans Moravec (Robot) have recently proposed that perhaps even as early as 2020 to 2030 we will have sufficient hardware complexity, as well as sufficient insights from cognitive neuroscience (reverse engineering salient neural structure of the mammalian brain), to create silicon evolutionary spaces that will develop higher-level intelligence.
But in what may be the most interesting and profound observation, there is now good evidence that technological systems enjoy a multi-millionfold increase in their speeds of replication, variation, operation (interaction/selection), and evolutionary development by comparison to their biological progenitors. Many of these speedup factors appear to range between 1-30 million for higher order processes, with a proposed "average" of 10 million (electrochemical vs. electronic communication speeds).
Therefore, if it is true that accelerating autonomy is an intrinsic feature of any learning system, as some systems theorists have proposed, and if it is also true that today's technological systems are learning on average ten million times faster than the genetic systems which preceded them, and thousands of times faster than the human beings who catalyze them, then we can expect substantial increases in machine autonomy in coming years. This speed differential has been measured by a number of different approaches, and it is not yet clear which is the most important learning metric. Commonly used genetic-technologic comparisons are data input rates, output rates, communication speed, computation speed at the logic gate and in the entire system, memory storage and erasure speed, and cognitive architectural replication speed, among others.
If this multi-millionfold learning differential truly exists, and if today's most complex computers are roughly as intelligent as differentiated cells or simple insects, each of which emerged between 400-600 million years ago, this implies that the evolutionary computational systems of coming decades may be engaged in rediscovering the entire metazoan evolutionary developmental learning curve within a period of perhaps 40-60 years. That idea alone is breathtaking to contemplate.
Even the evolutionary developmental history which allowed australopithecus to advance very quickly, in evolutionary timescales, through homo habilis and homo erectus to modern homo sapiens, over a span of 8-10 million years, represents less than one year in hyperaccelerated technologic evolutionary developmental time. We thus begin to suspect, incredibly, that even this type of high-level "discovered complexity" will be recapitulated within the coming machine substrate in one very interesting year of future development only a few decades from the present date (2041? 2061?).
So it is that many sober and skeptical thinkers now find it plausible that the semi-intelligent systems of the 21st century, as they become truly self-improving and evolutionary, will rapidly reinvent within the technologic substrate at first all of the lower functions of autonomy and intelligence, and in one final brief burst, even the higher functions of the human species. Thus even such functions as high-level language, self-awareness, rational-emotive insight, ethics, and consciousness, complex and carefully-tuned processes that we consider the essence of higher humanity, are likely to become fully accessible to tomorrow's technologic systems. What happens after this occurs must be even more dramatic, as you can well imagine. For a bit more on this apparently inevitable process, see Self-Organizing and Self-Replicating Paths to Autonomous Intelligence (A.I.): An Overview.
Top-down interventionist programs in biological systems, as with genetic engineering and biotechnology, always lack technology's bottom-up, self-organizing capability. For this and other reasons, it is now becoming clear that infotech and nanotech, far more than biotech, will be the primary pathways for the future of accelerating local intelligence. The fundamental difference between these two paradigms is not yet apparent to some biotech-centric futurists. For more on this interesting issue, see Limits to Biology: Performance Limitations on Natural and Engineered Biological Systems .
|Understanding Accelerating Change is Profitable||
In the period prior to the (technological) singularity, certain human endeavors will experience sustained and unrelenting exponential productivity increases. Studies demonstrate that your long-term (10+ year) capital investment in those areas will substantially outperform all other market sectors.
Maintaining a good understanding of the motive forces causing exponential growth in computation and productivity, and ways to measure business productivity using theories of information, computation, and complexity, should significantly improve your business foresight. Furthermore, identifying the developmentally important (inevitable) new technologies and well-run companies at the center of the transformation will powerfully affect the performance of your organization and your investment assets. Combining this knowledge with a sound and diversified long-term technology investment strategy can stabilize your financial future in a world of accelerating change. More on the Pre-Singularity Economic Environment.
These are practical benefits that pay off immediately, rather than in 2020, 2140, or 2240. The choices we face today are always the most relevant issues of our daily lives. All the rest of the apparent structure of the universe is ultimately context to allow us to make better computational choices, economic, political, personal, moral, logical, emotional, and spiritual choices, in the present moment.
If you'd like more on the way that even one's spiritual choice may turn out to be a form of computation, consider the following brief speculative piece.
|Why Understanding Accelerating Change Will Improve Balance and Accelerate Compassion A Humanist Perspective||
Any balance achieved is always a dynamic balancebiologists know this concept as homeostasis. In order to achieve dynamic balance in the midst of accelerating change, we must aggressively seek to understand the exponential forces at work in our local environment. One of the great benefits of living in an envirionment where our technology is speeding up and complexifying all around us is that increasing numbers of us can now afford to slow down and simplify our lives in the human space, to attack fundamental social, political and humanitarian injustices worldwide, and to achieve a deeper, better balance between our increasingly "organic" technological environment and our intrinsic human biology and evolutionary psychology.
The rapidly changing requirements of the ecologist's worthy call for "environmental sustainability" are just one clear example of this new opportunity. Modern global sustainability literature (i.e., Hawken and Lovins, Natural Capitalism) now incorporates a steadily deeper understanding of technology as a primary tool to achieve greener futures. Likewise, "product takeback legislation"(PDF), pioneered in several European countries, is another example of sustainability leadership. Such legislation requires manufacturers to be increasingly responsible for recycling and rebuilding the products they produce.
Thus the more intelligent, autonomous, and capable our technology intrinsically becomes, the more we discover that we can economically and politically afford to keep 'raising the standards' that regulate its interface with the human environment, with surprisingly little economic cost. In the process, we minimize the dangers and downsides, hide impacts and irritations from human view, and develop technological immune systems, or balancing and accountability technologies that are capable of deep world modelling and fine gradations of response. We can learn to use our technologies to reinforce the primary values of our social and cultural environment.
So when we talk about our "environment," we need to realize that we cannot in that analysis ignore our accelerating technological environment, a very important component of the modern natural world. Though it pales next to scale and spectacle of the celestial, geological, and biological worlds, our accelerating technology has its own undeniable beauty, awe, and wonder, and is without a doubt the most continually surprising natural emergent phenomenon of the present day. We say "natural" because it seems the height of our species' arrogance to assume that we are capable of creating anything truly "artificial," in other words, anything that is not in broad terms, an expected product of natural universal processes. We may create imbalances, pollution, dehumanizing first-generation solutions, and other negative externalities by our lack of social foresight and poor choice of path, but such are our natural mistakes, and as such they may be naturally corrected. Technology and its algorithms are simply the most recently developed natural universal substrate.
In the process, we should realize that our technologies, when inadequately assessed or poorly implemented, can cause as many problems as they create, especially in early developmental iterations. Technological catastrophes also abound, though perhaps for deep universal reasons that we will consider at another time, they have historically always been sharply self-limiting in their destructive effect. At the same time, many deleterious effects may be quite subtle, such as those that unconsciously contribute to what Richard Rhodes (Visions of Technology) calls "structural violence"products, policies, and infrastructure which, by their inherent design, contribute to division and discrimination more than inclusion, enfranchisement, and access. Primitive automobiles that indirectly contribute to the death of 1.3 million human beings in auto fatalities annually, yet are necessary for economic life, cities without public transportation and computer programs, or products which are unusable by non-technological elites are a few examples of such violence, and there are many others. As we seek to develop ever stronger forms of local balance within our natural environment of accelerating change, we will need to intelligently incorporate the best new technological ideas within our humanistic framework, in order to both preserve and improve our selected values and ideals.
Yet amid all the dangers and concerns, some of our most astute observers of technology have noted that an "accelerating compassion" is also emerging. Our political, legal, economic, and social systems are seeking an increasingly global rather than local balance, as we develop ever more integrated and democratizing networks of communications, facilitating progressively more pluralistic oversight, more egalitarian law, and more internationalized trade. Certainly there are short-term setbacks, as are presently occurring in intellectual property law after the internet emergence, and in civil liberties after physical catastrophes such as 9/11.But these excesses rebalance themselves, apparently as a function of the learning capacity of our social, political, economic, and technological systems, systems that improve dramatically every year as we approach an apparent technological singularity. This convergence on a ubiquitous, self-balancing, and ever more intelligent web of information and technology is leading us to a place where all human actors are increasingly recognized as important and are being increasingly helped to become self-actualized contributors to the human enterprise. At the same time, our increasing social complexity is moving us toward a world where other living organisms are treated with the care and respect we give to those humans and animals closest to us.
Many socially-aware futurists, such as David Brin, have suggested that culturally appropriate technological development ("uplifting") of those individuals and social systems with less education, infrastructure, and economic resources than ours is becoming a widely prevalent phenomenon. Such uplifting of those less fortunate than us is now coming within the scope and interest of enlightened small groups such as our planet's 100,000+ nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), whose emergence and networking is a recent phenomenon. Uplifting is also beginning to accelerate within the ranks of the individual mega-millionaire altruists, an even more recent emergence. Perhaps especially relevannt is the philanthropy being initiated by those whose net worth is directly due to the recent acceleration of technological systems.
Among the sins of technology as presently deployed have been the creation of counterinnovative and destabilizing income and asset disparities. A few thousand of today's wealthiest individuals possess a net worth equivalent to the bottom three billion of our planet's inhabitants. Yet the injustice of some of these imbalances is finally precipitating a situation where a handful of companies, or even single technology- and wealth-aided individuals (e.g., George Soros' economic development efforts with closed societies) are increasingly motivated to solve complex social problems, in communities or across continents, for the 'return' of social and environmental rather than economic gain.
At the same time, we are collectively learning to measure (now) and progressively close (in coming decades) the educational and resources divide between the greatest and the poorest among us. This process is a direct recapitulation of the way we first learned to recognize (1800's) and later control the problem of runaway population growth. As those who have carefully studied this issue know, the third derivative of world population went negative for the planet as a whole circa 1970, and even for such regional holdouts as India and Africa in the 1990's. The world population is now projected to to hit a maximum of 9 to 11 billion circa 2050, and to decline substantially from that point forward.
Unbenownst to many, a "technological contraceptive" effect is presently rapidly emerging in every developed nation on Earth. Population sizes are presently declining in every technologically developed country that is not growing through immigration. I believe this is occurring for deep reasons involving our older reproductive drives being superseded by our evolutionarily newer, more powerful drives for learning and self-actualization. Computation always accelerates, wherever it can.
Like self-stabilizing population control, our self-stabilizing planetary record of nuclear and biological arms control is similarly encouraging, and even more time compressed. Here, the arms' proliferations occurred in the 1950's and 1960's, the realization of wasteful excess arrived in the 1970's, and the control efforts and substantial reductions began in earnest in the 1980's and continue powerfully to this day. At the present time, our first world intelligence and immunity network finally appears to be on the verge of mandating a new anti-WMD proliferation policy for all global governments. Let's hope it happens more quickly than the skeptics expect. We can also expect and demand that the current imbalance of our international informational divide will itself transition to a broad egalitarianism of access to the planetary information grid in coming decades. This will echo past processes of technological diffusion (vaccines, agriculture, basic infrastructure) but now with even greater time compression in a new, self-balancing process.
Such major philanthropists as Walter Annenberg, Arnold and Mabel Beckman, Eli Broad, Joan Kroc, Bill and Melinda Gates, George Soros, John Templeton and Ted Turner, and philanthropists such as Mark Andreessen, Larry Ellison, Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, John and Catherine MacArthur, Michael Milken, Gordon Moore, Catherine Muther, and many others have distinguished themselves as humanitarians and humanists that promote research and technology to deeply improve human welfare. Their tradition is a long and noble one, mirroring the efforts of Johannes Gutenberg, Louis Pasteur, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Margaret Sanger, Jonas Salk, and many other inventor-visionaries who demonstrated a deep and accelerating compassion in the employment of their own best technologies of the day. Such individuals are all implicitly transhumanist in the way they embrace appropriate science and technology as the greatest levers of human progress.
Transhumanists, in our definition of the term, are any who seek to chart an accelerating, dynamically balanced and ever more compassionate path as they explore an inevitable course of technologically improving and extending our natural human abilities. Increasingly, we will extend those abilities in ways that must progressively change us into something much more than our present biological selves. Critically considering these topics, while strongly retaining your common sense, global compassion, and humanist ethical intuition, can be of great benefit to developing personal and social foresight for our accelerating future.
Why Anthropic Cosmology (A Universe Apparently Tuned for Life and Intelligence) Does Not Require a Designer, and Teleology (a Theory of Universal Destiny) is Not a Theology The Theory of Universal Evolutionary Development
In recent decades, science has uncovered an impressive and ever-growing list of elements of universal structure that strongly favor the emergence of life (and perhaps also, of intelligence). This deep and valuable concept, the anthropic principle, exists at the interface between cosmology and theology, and is aiding the growing rapprochement we are observing between science and spirituality. In its most interesting developmental variant, this principle proposes that the fundamental parameters of our universe have somehow become "tuned" for both the emergence of life and the ever-accelerating emergence of increasingly local forms of computational complexity.
In considering this proposal, it is important to realize that such evidence, if true, does not require or suggest the existence of an embodied, omniscient, or omnipotent supernatural universal designer (God, Cosmic Engineer). As an alternative and conceptually far more parsimonious explanation, our universe seems much more likely to have been self-organized via fully natural evolutionary and developmental processes, to have such special structure, over many successive cycles in the multiverse, in the same fashion that replicating complex adaptive systems in other substrates, such as biology, appear to be similarly tuned to maintain their own internal complexity and replication capacity.
In other words, we may live in "evolutionary developmental (evo devo) universe." Fortunately, there is an emerging systems theory of universal evolutionary development that may provide powerful insights into this issue. In the biological domain, living organisms have required many successive cycles to develop their own special initial parameters, which are carefully tuned for emergent form and function within the lifecycle of any particular organism. Likewise, if we consider the universe as a developmental process, we can propose that a number of natural phenomena, such as the emergence of life, biological intelligence, or electronic consciousness (the technological singularity), may also be highly predictable future developmental events. We can even testably propose that certain emergences are a "destiny" that the universe must locally (or multi-locally) arrive at, failing developmental catastrophe. Such predictions are not at all equivalent to a theology (a religious faith), though some would attempt this connection.
The words "teleology" (structural or functional purpose to a system) and "destiny" or "predestination" (predictable future aspects of a system) make some scientists cringe, for important historical reasons. Let's briefly review some of those reasons now, and consider the way new theories of self-organization and evolutionary development may allow us to step beyond historical and social prejudices and arrive at a clearer understanding of universal dynamics..
First, scholars who consider anthropic issues must take pains to distinguish themselves from practitioners in the Intelligent Design (ID) community, who also consider anthropic evidence but often attempt to use it in unscientific ways. There are a few notable ID scholars engaging in original anthropic research, but unfortunately, the ID community has significantly tied its scholarly research agenda to an activist Christian political agenda that, among other objectives, seeks to have ID writings taught as science in U.S. educational institutions. A small portion of ID scholarship is legitimate philosophy of science, and deserves treatment as such (not science, but philosophy) in the university. But a much larger portion is simply Christian apologetics and hidden creationism, or philosophy of religion and religious studies, not even philosophy of science, which itself is not science. Given ID's sordid history, the mainstream anthropic cosmology must continue to carefully separate itself from ID in all its forms. At the same time, any serious developmentalist scholars within the ID community would do well to distance themselves from the ID community if they seek serious consideration of their insights, and citation of their work, by the global scientific community.
There are also notable anthropic theorists, such as Michael Denton (Nature's Destiny, 1998), who don’t self-identify within the ID community, yet take positions consistent with that community. Denton does interesting work in anthropic molecular biology, and acknowledges the universal record of accelerating complexity development, yet mysteriously argues this acceleration must somehow stop with the human form, which he hypothesizes as the developmental purpose, or telos, of the universe. That position seems untenable to acceleration scholars, as we already have seen machine intelligence leap past human capabilities in narrow areas, and there is increasing evidence that their marginal learning rate is at least a millionfold faster than that of humankind (Cosmic Evolution, Chaisson 2001). Fortunately, time and change will allow us to verify or falsify this hypothesis.
Second, a number of scholars have shied away from confronting anthropic evidence as a result of attempts to dismiss it as anthropic bias, using what we may call the random observer self-sampling assumption (RSSA). But if universal developmental processes exist, they must create nonrandom developmentally special reference frames, which means that all RSSA models presently used to critique anthropic evidence must themselves be incorrect, as there is a more fundamental framework (universal development) that they are not accounting for. Evidence is mounting that intelligence in any evolutionary developmental system (an organism or a universe) is not a random observer, but one that has been tuned to have an observational position that is increasingly privileged as development proceeds (for such functions as developmentally guided adaptation to the environment, replication, and progression through the life cycle).
Third, there has long been a misconception that the idea of predestination of a complex system must somehow oppose the idea of a perceived "free will" within that system. In actuality however, these are nonexclusive concepts. The development of an organism serves as a proof of concept that systems are able to self-construct from special, tuned, and iteratively self-designed initial conditions that extensively utilize unpredictable evolutionary chaos (strange attractors) in the process of creating a long chain of statistically predetermined developmental events (attractors). These two parallel perspectives on physical process allow us to understand how human and other complex adaptive systems can simultaneously contain two apparently contradictory qualities. Those qualities are both an irreducible evolutionary "freedom" (essential pseudorandomness of one's own thought and behavior to self-observation) as well as an inherent developmental "predictability" (statistically predictable psychological and behavioral trajectory, based on physical contraints of the interacting systems).
Fourth, destiny-averse scientists may have come to their perspective because they have focused on the well-known, well-studied findings of the randomness of evolutionary processes, but have completely overlooked the potential applicability of the deterministic phenomenon of biological development. It is clear, for example, given a permissive environment, that a fertilized human egg is "destined," 13 years later, to become a fully developed adult organism with very specific features, and the ability to pass on its own mature sperm or egg in an iterative evolutionary developmental cycle. It is also clear that such eggs or "seeds" must pass through a whole series of time and structure-specific future events in their unfolding.
What is not known to a surprising number of scientists and systems theorists even today is that all known developmental processes incorporate countless random, chaotic phases of adaptive 'evolutionary' selection within their unfolding developmental plan. Discovering the way that chaos is used in self-organizing developmental systems will clearly be one of the keys to the puzzle of growing autonomous adaptive technological systems on silicon substrates in coming years. If you are interested in building biologically inspired computers and are looking for a grand theoretical and experimental challenge, there may not be a better one than understanding developmental biology at the present time. The predominant adaptive evolutionary randomness seen at low levels (molecular, genetic, cellular, signalling systems, etc.) is productive, is constrained by, and informs the future expression of the overarching developmental program.
The paradigm and process of evolutionary development (evo devo) thus incorporates evolution, but in a manner that does not disrupt the larger program of developmental emergence. So it is with any developmental system that a special subset of future eventsa small but very significant minoritywill be highly "statistically predestined." Perhaps the most important modern proponent of this perspective was the scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who coined the elegant, profound, and still-little-used term, "cosmic embryogenesis," (four Google hits in 2003, ten in 2004, 93 in 2008) to propose that universal cosmology is apparently developmentally programmed to proceed through a series of inevitable emergent stages of information processing while also searching out a large number of locally unique evolutionary paths in the process. Teilhard's stages, describing a universal developmental progression from geosphere, to biosphere, to noosphere, remain intuitive and relevant today. Yet like models of human consciousness itself, developmentalist models of universal change are still weak and recently emergent in the scientific community.
A nice website for bibliographic updates to Teilhard's developmentalist paradigm is Arthur Fabel's Naturalgenesis.net, an "Annotated Anthology Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe." This collection of annotated reference material suffers only from the perception, also echoed by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and other ecological thinkers, that humanity and our institutions are entering some kind of "crisis" that will require us to "radically reorganize" our conception of the universe. In fact, it is looking increasingly likely that most humans and our institutions may never learn the developmentalist paradigm consciously, yet the transition to a postbiological substrate appears to be going quite well globally, perpetuated in numerous unconscious and partially conscious ways. The quality of the transition, however, is the major open question we face. Whether we humans are able to engineer a progressively cleaner, safer, and more just and empowering world for ourselves in the inevitable transition ahead, or whether we will continue to degrade our environment, crap in our own nests, impoverish our culture, disempower and diseducate our own youth and citizenry, and be dragged kicking and wailing and self-obsessing into the technological singularity era seems to be our primary ethical and political choice.
I would propose that our universe exhibits all the features of an evolutionary developmental system as it unfolds within the multiverse. Developmental systems such as biological organisms use the learning they acquire during their lifespan to reorganize (carefully tune, across multiple iterations) their initial developmental parameters less randomly in subsequent cycles. Thus, keeping learning (adaptation) central to our discussion will help us understand the evolutionary value of assigning individual responsibility wherever possible in what also appears to be, not in its evolutionary but in its developmental features, a statistically deterministic universe.
It is also worth noting that even though we may find evidence everywhere for intelligent (e.g., anthropic) universal design and apparent developmental destiny, such as the technological singularity, any speculations we may have regarding an intelligent designer remain in the realm of our own personal theology. If we live in an evolutionary developmental universe, any intelligence which may have been involved in the production of our carefully 'tuned' universe must be limited, mortal, and ignorant in profound ways, as with all physically embodied intelligence. Such intelligence would not be Gods, but simply ancestors, and not "designers" but creatures with very limited influence on the developmental architecture of our universe, an architecture far older than any emergent universal intelligence, and which has self-organized to extensively constrain that intelligence, as we see in all biological systems.
None of this is to denigrate theology, as unprovable belief has a necessary and unique place in the intelligence of all finite creatures and is a computational choice that must be faced by all who contemplate the reasons behind the splendid universal order that we observe. Scientific Naturalism, Agnosticism, Humanism, Atheism, Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judeo-Christianity, or any of the other myriad perspectives we may consider, even Nihilism, are all personal theological choices, based on faith (even an assessment of the incompleteness of data is still a faith) and ultimately defensible only to ourselves - though we may have strong reasons for our personal belief preferences, and even seek to convince others of them using nonscientific means.
Some authors (see Kurzweil, Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999) equate spirituality with the evolutionary processes of consciousness, thus attempting to capture it within a potentially scientific framework. But theology and spirituality involve not only the paths we choose to take to live better, more "spiritual" lives, but also include beliefs about "metaphysics", presently and potentially permanently unknowable structures of reality. Some transcendentalist philosophers define the conception of God as an extrapolation of the utilitarian and scientific concept of infinitydefined as an "unending process" in mathematics. If we accept this definition, we can conclude that theology will remain with us and our electronic successors indefinitely, as a productive and personal counterpart to scientific investigation.
Religion and science are two clearly separable domains. The first is based on a personally chosen faith in particulars of universal process and outcome, and the second also includes untested belief, but with a mandate to minimize axiomatic belief wherever possible. Hopefully this helps clarify that speculations on the nature of the singularity, in all its forms, are well within the domain of critical and scientific investigation, and remain separate and apart from our personal theologies, whatever they may be.
|Brief Homework for the Reader||
At present Ray Kurzweil's, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999, is perhaps the best book to concisely introduce yourself to mechanisms and implications of the coming technological singularity.
Once you've read Spiritual Machines, you may wish to explore Ray's 60 page precis, "The Law of Accelerating Returns," at his informative site on the future, KurzweilAI. This precis is an outline of The Singularity is Near, 2005, his most recent book with additional insights in acceleration studies.
If you'd like a more cosmic, philosophical, and teleological take on the meaning and direction of Earth's accelerating evolutionary development, I recommend Teilhard de Chardin, either the briefer Man's Place in Nature, 1956/2000 or the more difficult The Human Phenomenon (mistranslated as 'The Phenomenon of Man'), 1955/99. Teilhard is challenging to read at times, but his understanding of the emergent importance of consciousness, ethics, emotion, love, and the "psychical" properties of matter, in balance with the simpler, more scientifically tractable physical emergences, has rarely been equalled. It will take some time before science provides us with a 'calculus of civilization', a 'mathematics of morality,' and an 'information theory of love, consciousness, and wholeness', but I believe such science must one day emerge, as these concepts seem clearly fundamental to information, computation, intelligence, and consciousness increase in universal evolutionary development. Arthur Fabel's edited collection, Teilhard in the 21st Century, 2003, is also highly recommended.
We could give you more homework, but then we wouldnt be doing our job, which is to educate you on acceleration studies and evolutionary development theory in the most high-yield, time-efficient manner possible.
My current guesstimate for Generally Human-Surpassing A.I. is 2060 (± 20 years).
For an overview of prominent singularity timing predictions, see Singularity Timing Predictions, Discussion Groups, and Introductory Links. In the current and speculative literature on this topic, a rough average date of 2040 A.D., with a primary range between 2020 and 2060, encompasses the majority of existing predictions on the arrival of autonomous intelligence (A.I.).
My own personal investigations, which are as much a guess as anyone else's at this point, suggest that 2060, with rough ± 20 year standard deviation for 68% confidence (singularity somewhere between 2040 and 2080), and ± 40 year standard deviation for 95% confidence (singularity somewhere between 2020 and 2100), is a more realistic estimate.
If this guess is correct, be sure to enjoy and cherish what some of our most careful observers expect to be the last fifty two (or 12, or 92, depending on your intuition) years left in the Simply Human Era.
We should be highly suspicious to find that these date ranges are in a timeframe so self-servingly and conveniently close to our own lifespans. Yet there are a number of useful early quantitative estimates that support the 2040 to 2080 timeframe. My own guess of 2060 is later than most, as I think even technically-informed futurists tend to be too optimistic, underestimating the difficulty of technical challenges. For one example of an often neglected challenge to A.I. acceleration, the increasingly critical requirement of adding machine ethics to our increasingly powerful robotic and automated systems, and of testing that ethical achitecture to minimize risk to human beings, may easily add another twenty years of work before we are willing to produce machines smart enough to reliably and safely direct their own self improvement. See Ron Arkin's Governing Lethal Behavior, 2006, for some current work in this area.
One thing seems certain: this current prediction will be revised up or down toward greater accuracy as the fields of Acceleration Studies and Evolutionary Development Theory emerge in coming years, and as better acceleration metrics (technometrics, informetrics) and models come into use. Promoting the development of these academic disciplines is one of the goals of our ASF community.
The Acceleration Clock is intended as an optimistic complement and hopefully, eventual successor to the infamous (and still valuable) Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. You would do well to keep one eye on the clock!
If you can spare the timeperhaps the key question for all of us in this accelerated ageyou might enjoy Vernor Vinges brief (8 page) and illuminating essay "The Coming Technological Singularity," (1993) which began the rapid spread of discussion of these concepts in recent years.
Consider also Damien Brodericks very informative and accessible The Spike, 1998 (home page), which has the distinction of being the first generalist book published on the topic of the singularity. Particularly recommended is his addendum to the second edition, available online as "Tearing Toward the Spike." (2000).
Ray's The Singularity is Near, 2005, is a more recent work on this still understudied topic. Another informative brief piece is Francis Heylighen's Socio-Technological Singularity, part of the impressive Principia Cybernetica Web project.
My own forthcoming work builds on the insights of Vinge, Broderick, Kurzweil, and Heylighen, to suggest universal developmental mechanisms for accelerating change, and specifically how these mechanisms appear to be rapidly leading us toward a particular universal endpoint.
This developmental singularity hypothesis is a speculative extension of work by Lee Smolin, Edward Harrison, James Gardner, Bela Balazs, and other physicist-cosmologists and complexity theorists in recent decades. This book is an expansion of my thesis essay, "White Hole Destiny?" originally presented at the May and September 2000 Foresight conferences in Palo Alto, CA, and the formalization of ideas I first developed as a middle school student in 1972.
For a brief, accessible background paper to the developmental singularity hypothesis, you might wish to read Bela Balazs' "The Role of Life in the Cosmological Replication Cycle," 2001. James Gardner's Biocosm, 2003, is also an excellent book-length exploration of the same idea.
While Vinge, Broderick, Kurzweil, Gardner and I all agree on the imminence of the singularity and importance of physical mechanisms, we each suggest different post-singularity futures, with my developmental singularity model predicting perhaps the most specific kind of future yet proposed. Whether the model will be validated or falsified by future research of course remains to be determined.
KurzweilAI.net, Edge.org, Foresight.org, Extropy.org, Transhumanism.org, and Principia Cybernetica, are all web communities that have extensively discussed accelerating technological change and the technological singularity from multidisciplinary perspectives. A visit to any of these sites can be quite informative.
Other important futures organizations, like the Long Now Foundation (Long Bets, The Clock of the Long Now, 2000), seek to help people develop longer range and global perspectives, while still paying attention to growing technological intelligence. There are also a growing number of "singularitarians" who profess a conditional belief in the concept of the technological singularity, and who propose that striving to create as rapid and safe a singularity as possible should be primary goals. Singularity University and the Singularity Institute are leading examples of such organizations. If you are investigating singularitarian literature, you may appreciate our position statement on Singularitarians and Singularity Belief.
If you can engage in further reading to get a broader and deeper understanding of the cultural, technological, and universal computational events that are leading us to the singularity, here are a few more illuminating works to consider. Some are accompanied by online references. Books are linked to often insightful Amazon reviews.
Science is still some years away from a theory of emergent computation (a superset of physics, information theory, and complexity), that will outline and clarify what we are now observingan apparently inevitable universal developmental progression to local runaway complexity. Nevertheless, significant insights can be gained from selective reading of semi-technical and technical literature.
Piero Scaruffi has done a short overview (Self-Organization and the Science of Emergence) of some historical theorists of the physics of emergence. Many of these theories are incomplete and contradictory, but such must be the nature of new syntheses at the leading edge. If you are interested in exploring further, I'd particularly recommend knowing about the following pioneers, in rough preference order: Eric Chaisson (and his theory of free energy rate density flux, or Phi), Ilya Prigogine (and his theory of dissipative structures), Stan Salthe (and his macrodevelopmental theory of hierarchy emergence), Lee Smolin (and his theory of cosmologic natural selection), Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (and their theories of emergence), John Holland (and his compex adaptive systems and emergence theory), Stephanie Forrest (and her theory of emergent computation), Stuart Kauffman (and his theory of self-organization), Per Bak (and his theory of self-organized criticality), Erich Jantsch (and his theory of self-organization), Murray Gell-Mann (and his theory of emergence), Hermann Haken (and his theory of synergetics), Harold Odum (and his theory of energy flux), Manfred Eigen (and his theory of the hypercycle), Rene Thom (and his theory of phase transition singularities), Rod Swenson (and his variant of ecological psychology), David Harel (and his overview of the theory of computation), Francisco Varela (and his theory of autonomous systems) Ervin Laszlo and Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (and their general systems theories).
Other insightful reads are listed below. Resources marked with are particularly helpful for understanding accelerating local change/computation as a statistically inevitable, convergent, universal process of evolutionary development. Those with are more technical or challenging in nature. Skim them as you are inclined.
Other insightful books are listed on the Developmental Singularity page.
|Quotes from Some Acceleration Watchers||
|What's Next: Future Projects||
The singularity idea is as broad-ranging as it is fundamental, encompassing so many dimensions of the human condition: scientific, social, political, economic, humanitarian, philosophical, and spiritual, to name just a few.
I'm presently engaged in a general readership book on this topic, considering accelerating change within the emerging paradigm of universal evolutionary development, and exploring scientific, technological, social, political, economic, and philosophical implications of continuous accelerating change, and collective ethical issues as we approach an apparently inevitable emergent A.I.
What is needed in this still-nascent field of study is a definitive specialist text, some kind of Acceleration Studies and Evolutionary Development Theory: A New Synthesis, similar to E.O. Wilson's excellent Sociobiology textbook, which in one stroke defined the discipline that is today called evolutionary psychology. There are promising acceleration-relevant academic fields, such as ecological psychology, which use nonlinear science in a synthetic manner. But there are none yet which attempt to confront and understand the central importance and interrelationships of evolutionary developmental phase transitions in driving the accelerating emergence of complexity and computation in the cosmos. .
In the nearer term, our nonprofit, the Acceleration Studies Foundation, is involved in the development of the Evo Devo Universe global scholarly research community, which explores and critiques evolutionary and developmental models of the universe which attempt to make sense of accelerating change. The EDU community maintains a listserve and runs an annual conference that interested complexity and acceleration scholars may wish to participate in.
ASF also produces an occasional conference for general audiences, Accelerating Change at Stanford University, featuring presentations, debates, and discussions that explore issues in accelerating change. If youd like to help further develop either the ASF or the EDU communities, please email me, we'd love to work with you.
We live in a very special time. Half the humans who have ever been alive are here on this planet right now, nurturing a transition that seems to be of universal importance, a transition we appear to be developmentally destined to experience. We are executing a larger universal purpose that our science hasn't yet clearly figured out, yet we know it has something to do with transforming ourselves into something more humane, loving, intelligent, interdependent, and immune from nature's worst adversities than we are today.
Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones and stay optimistic yet pragmatic. The universe appears to be unfolding mostly as it should, and I think its pretty special that we are here to witness the biggest changes that any humans will ever see.
It truly is a wonderful time to be alive!
Accelerating change is apparently inevitable. The future is an untold story of emergent events, some of which seem to be inherent in the developmental structure of the universe.
Let's discover them, together.