Signs of the Singularity

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Philip Dhingra in a post at Philosophistry defends the idea that the Singularity could be nearly upon us, suggesting three signs of its approach which are on the horizon. In particular, they are: (1) Holodecks, (2) Everybody has all knowledge, (3) Everybody is happy.

Now, whether or not these are accurate signs, I can't say. I can see where he's going, but it seems rather limited. For example, we could find a pill that represses all bad feelings - a "happiness pill" - but would that really bring us closer to the Singularity (assuming there is some coherent idea of what "the Singularity" is)? Not necessarily, since our world could still remain otherwise the same, just with ubiquitous use of valium2. Still, like I said, I see where he's going with this.

Phil suggests that these three signs of the Singularity may be closer than we think. For the first, he argues that with the popularity and study of lucid dreaming, we are well on our way to creating our own holodecks in our mind. He suggests that Google is the beginnings of universal omniscience (limited to combined human knowledge, of course), and that it might just take a speed up of the process to near-instantaneous computation for each of us to have all human knowledge. For the third sign of the Singularity's approach, everyone is happy, he combines psychological research into happiness (and its causes) and what you might call positive thinking with the possibility of enlightenment or bliss through psychotropic drugs.

I'll address each of these in turn:

  • Holodeck: I'm intrigued by his approach to this one via lucid dreaming. I'm just starting to investigate that subject myself (with combined skepticism and excitement), and while I love the picture he paints, I have trouble imagining it would provide us with the same sort of experience an idealized Star Trek-style holodeck does. Granted, I'm a neophyte in the area and haven't experienced full lucid dreaming myself, but I have had dreams where I become aware I'm dreaming, and yet even with control the dreamscape seems a fundamentally different kind of ontological space. Being able to simulate or emulate different environments and stimuli in waking life is not the same as experiencing isomorphic situations in a dream, however lucid.

    In addition, a neuroscientist acquaintance, who is a sleep researcher, informs me that with all our knowledge of how the brain works, we still have almost no knowledge at all about the process of sleep and dreaming. We don't even know why animals sleep, how it helps them. I'm assured by this researcher that the mystery isn't likely to be solved in the coming decades. So on that front I'm a bit skeptical about how soon we will gain the control over the brain that Dhingra suggests could be near.

    Personally, I think there are two technologies available and improving today which hold much closer to my vision of a holodeck and what it represents. Those are video game technology - everything from realistic graphics to true surround sound to vibration feedback to higher processing power for more detail and "AI" - and sensory deprivation tanks. The former is obvious, since virtual reality has been talked about for years. With recent research planting electrodes into a monkey's brain and allowing it to power a computer screen cursor with its mind, I wouldn't be surprised if all of these technologies can be implanted into our heads about the time they are becoming powerful enough to simulate a rich enough world to appear (be?) real. As for sensory deprivation (or artificial gravity), I'm thinking something along those lines might be required to get the full effect, though perhaps by then we'll have enough control over nerves and other sensory apparati to fool the body into ignoring the real pull of gravity while still on a planet.

  • Limited Omniscience: This one I have the biggest objection to. Google is an amazingly useful tool, which I don't know what I'd do without, but I think occasionally we need to be reminded not to attribute more power to internet technologies than is deserved. The fact is, Google has severe inherent limitations that I don't think can be reconciled just by adding in some of the information it's currently missing (connection to academic journal databases and all the other material one still needs a traditional library for). Let's face it, how many people really use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google? Not many these days, because likely as not, you'll run into a commercial site spamming you with advertising. To get where you really want to go, you have to search through a lot of listings, and often there's just so many that you may end up settling for an imperfect site because you can't find the perfect one.

    "Maybe the algorithms can be improved", someone might counter. I don't doubt they can get better, but can they ever really work well enough to dig up information with the accuracy and efficiency of the brain? That's a damn hard task to match, these days at least, and I'm not sure it's going to happen short of computers powerful enough to already be approaching human intelligence. In which case, I'd say this is definitely a good sign of the Singularity; but I just don't see Google as the predecessor to such a technology. It's not a matter of processing speed or improving some relatively simple algorithms. To really turn a massive amount of data like the internet or a collection of libraries into real knowledge would require some way of digging into the raw data intelligently, and Google is far from that in type rather than degree, I'd say.

    In addition, I should add my latent worry that while a truly intelligent uber-Google could give us access to vast amounts of information, I'm not sure it would really give us knowledge. In some sense, knowledge comes from a deeper experience than the facts and figures found in even the best database. Can one really know the wonders of quantum physics or advanced mathematics just because a program can recall the answers to us? There's something to be said for understanding, and I'm not sure I could accept an account of knowledge as complete which stops at information and fails to encompass understanding (or perhaps even some sort of first-hand experience: see What Mary Didn't Know).

  • Universal Bliss: This one sort of worries me. Huxley's Brave New World painted a picture of a future world in which everyone takes a pill (soma - named after the hallucinatory beverage-drug of ancient times) that makes them happy. Just about everyone who reads that book reads it as painting a dystopian picture, and not just because of the class structure (the book would still be creepy if it were set in an egalitarian society), but actually because everyone is happy. As the author himself probes through his characters, I think on some level we humans really want unhappiness. We want all the Shakespearean emotions - even grief and regret and torment - because if we give those up, we cease to exist in the way we did before. It feels like we've lost something more than the annoyance of a dentist drill causing pain. We've lost the ability to explore the depth of our existence, the depth of our experience.

    Can we get a happiness pill? Sure, I don't doubt it. Already we prescribe a version of a happiness pill (or as in the movie Equilibrium, a calming pill that suppresses all emotions) to kids [over?]diagnosed with attention deficient disorder. Already people take anti-depressants and tranquilizers and mood enhancers. Pain killers of varying strength are found everywhere from hospitals to home medicine cabinets. Surely a happiness pill of some reasonable effectiveness isn't far off. But whether this sort of invention would be a good thing or a bad thing is another question; whether it would truly transform humanity is in doubt. I can see the possibilities, and I'm intrigued by that, but I'm also frightened, especially since such technologies will be coming about in modern industrialized countries bent on consumerism and consumption at all costs (another hint at Brave New World). These pills may be signs of an incredible future to come (insofar as they show increased control over our neurophysiological processes), but that future likely won't be of the bright sort Singularity-watchers might envision. At the very least, I would associate this effect much less with the Singularity than I would the other two examples mentioned.

  • Still, I think there are better signs out there to watch for:

    First I would point to nanotechnology. I need only bring up Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age to evoke a brilliant, complex and very real picture of what a plausible future could look like with nanotech. It certainly is a much bigger and more fundamental change of life than holodecks - including a much deeper molding of the environment than we have with our simple surface-scratching processes today - and the possibilities encompassed by nanotech all evoke in me associations with the Singularity.

    Another area I would point to would be computer research, both in software and hardware aspects, from all different angles. I wouldn't be surprised if, taking our queue from nature, we find that "artificially"-evolved hardware/software brings about genuine intelligence much faster than any attempts at simply finding better algorithms (top-down design) or creating expert systems or imitating human conversation. At any rate, when I start seeing technology that blurs the lines between computer qua tool and computer qua sentient life-form, I will truly see the Singularity coming.

    Finally, the third major area I look to as a predictor of the Singularity is biotech. This might be related to nanotech and even computer research, but it deserves a mention of its own. As we gain more control over our genes (that is, manipulating them to 'fix' genes that are 'broken' rather than merely aborting fetuses in which we detect undesired traits), we in turn gain control over our own biological destiny, and reshape our perspective on evolution and what it means to be a living thing. Like existentialists, we become able to shape ourselves (at first, perhaps simply shape each other, e.g. our offspring, and later gaining more control), and "human nature" becomes a thing of the past. This blurs all sorts of lines that most people today see in clear black and white, and I can only begin to imagine the changes in the way we experience our existence when we start to tinker with what evolution built for us.

    These three things to me are better signposts for the coming Singularity (again, assuming there is some consistent, coherent answer to "what is the Singularity?") than the three examples provided over at Philosophistry (though those were interesting and in the first case quite creative examples). Unfortunately, as with any time my transhumanistic idealism sets in, the realist in me has to set off a bunch of warning bells.

    Let's face it, short of a drastic change in the way society functions (something technology can't really control, though it certainly impacts it), we face a future that will be shaped not by the good-natured ideals of the transhumanists and futurists that muse over the Singularity, but a future shaped by greedy corporations who produce this technology with something entirely different in mind: the bottom line. Profits. And in our consumerist culture, even the most promisingly free and inventive technology can be stolen and corrupted and debased and turned into a simple tool of slightly more power than the ones before.

    As an example, look at the internet. Let's face it, it hasn't yet lived up to the dreams we all originally had for it. Instead, corporations and capitalism have rotted it almost to the core, so that today we can barely keep track of the companies that control the technology and choose its protocols (take as an example Verisign's surprise change of fundamental internet routing for commercial purposes in September, 2003).

    Then look at biotech stocks, and how rich the CEOs of biotech firms are becoming today. Look at DARPA's attempts to take any promising technology - like, say, nanotech - and harness it into a tool of the military and the police state. Look around at the structural processes built into the system in which we live today, and tell me the future looks bright. I don't care what technology we come up with, I have a hard time believing the future will be drastically different in form rather than degree unless we find a way to alter society from the ground up first.

    Originally Written: 09-22-03
    Last Updated: 12-11-03