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New FC: The Singularity and Society

My Fast Company essay this week is a long one, offering up an overview of the Singularity concept for people who haven't following it closely -- as well as some thoughts about what might be missing.

Despite the presence of the Singularity concept within various (largely online) sub-cultures, it remains on the edges of common discussion. That's hardly a surprise; the Singularity concept doesn't sit well with most people's visions of what tomorrow will hold (it's the classic "the future is weirder than I expect" scenario). Moreover, many of the loudest voices discussing the topic do so in a manner that's uncomfortably messianic. Assertions of certainty, claims of inevitability, and the dismissal of the notion that humankind has any choice in the matter--all for something that cannot be proven, and is built upon a nest of assumption--do tend to drive away people who might otherwise find the idea intriguing.

And that's a problem, as the core of the Singularity argument is actually pretty interesting, and worth thinking about. Increasing functional intelligence--whether through smarter machines or smarter people--will almost certainly disrupt how we live in pretty substantial ways, for better and for worse. And there have been periods in our history where the combination of technological change and social change has resulted in quite radical shifts in how we live our lives--so radical that the expectations, norms, and behaviors of pre-transformation societies soon become out of place in the post-transformation world.

The essay ends with an invitation to join me for the Singularity Salon in New York this Saturday. Cross-marketing, people!


I think that an ideology of extreme individualism is present in the reasoning behind the "Singularity - strict definition". The notion of "greater than Human intelligence" is focused at the level of an individual when language, and knowledge are generated through social interaction. By focusing on individuals and saying your brain isn't getting any bigger or faster therefor human intelligence is limited, they are focused on the wrong unit of action. Human knowledge and understanding grows because of the coordinated actions of many people -social systems are the actors that generate and transmit knowledge not individuals. And because we have the ability to change how we coordinate our actions (and our actions) human knowledge and understanding are not nearly so limited.

Do you think that the strict singularity view is purposely a politically disempowering viewpoint?

I'll be sad to miss this talk especially, given that you're one of the few folks I know that talk about the Singularity while steering well clear of the whole "Rapture for the Nerds" taint.

Will a transcript be available after do you think, Jammie?

Just want to say what a great comment Jim Moore just made.

I always thought that the "singularity" was a pretty dumb idea.

It assumes that IQ == power (which is patently nonsense; as most of the leading decision makers in the world - in government and business - are demonstrably stupider (in IQ terms) than many academics or engineers who have far less influence).

It ignores the fact that computers are outperforming humans all the time in various tasks such as maths, pattern matching, remembering large quantities of data.

It ignores the fact that plenty of humans are already disempowered and left incapable by technologies they don't understand. And have been for hundreds of years.

Undoubtedly, there are many dramatic transitions and step-changes coming to society over the next 100 years or so, as new technologies are invented and new communities become connected. But it's ludicrous to imagine that we'll ever find one single moment which corresponds to "computers becoming more intelligent than humans".

Strip the singularity of that idea and it's no different from "progress as usual" ... just wrapped in overblown hype.

I have to admit, I was taken in by the Singularity Virus for a good year. I can't say it was completely a bad time though. It lead me to a greater understanding of the realities of the human universe and the limitations of a Reductionist-minded philosophy.

"The Singularity" is one of those annoying terms that is useful precisely because it aggregates a bunch of loosely-related ideas together in a way that's not entirely supportable.

As such I think discussing the individual ideas involved in it and the way that they interact is much more interesting than opining on the thing as a whole.

What shape the final thing takes as a whole will depend a great deal on what the specific components wind up looking like, just like the way the specific characteristics of cars have determined the way the "personal transportation singularity" has turned out. If flying cars were more practical, if there was a plausible alternative fuel source, if a different form factor for cars had dominated, if the urban freeway movement had never happened, etc etc, everything would be different.

I think all efforts at AI and the singularity founder on one basic principle - What's in it for me. What benefit will the developers get, what will society get and what is in it for the construct. I suspect if this construct is truly super intelligent it would easily program out any controls on its behaviour.

Interesting, enjoyable talk tonight. Thanks to you, Jamais, and to the NYC Futures Salon.

My main thought or take-away from the talk is that the singularity is useful as a scenario, in the future studies meaning of the word, even if it is not useful as a prediction or a goal.

My favorite quote: "R2D2 will give you lip."

Here is my (long!) response to this article:


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