What is the Singularity?

February 27, 2001 by John Smart

This introduction to the Singularity includes a brief history of the idea and links to key Web resources.

Originally published February 27, 2001 at Singularity Watch.
Published on KurzweilAI.net February 27, 2001.

Some 20 to 140 years from now–depending on which evolutionary or systems theorist, computer scientist, or futurist you happen to agree with–the rate of self-catalyzing, self-organizing technological change in our local environment will undergo a “singularity,” becoming effectively instantaneous from the perspective of current biological humanity.

It has been proposed that events after this point must also be “future-incomprehensible” to existing humanity, though we disagree.

Some social theorists have proposed that the currently breathtaking rate of change or “information processing growth” in 21st century human civilization cannot continue to accelerate indefinitely. Apparent support for this position comes from the “sigmoidal nature” (“S curves”) of biological growth, where resource limits lead to periodic “crash phases” in population size.

Also, physical limits affect information processing within any specific technology, such as the widely cited miniaturization limit in integrated circuits (“Moore’s Law”), which will be reached circa 2010.

But such arguments are astonishingly irrelevant to the growth of information processing as an entity, because information arises out of and controls the continuous reorganization of matter-energy systems. In the known history of the Universe, information processing systems have always discovered ever-more-clever ways to rearrange themselves using less space, less energy, and less material resources during evolution, thus making them “matter-independent,” or free of the limits to growth which affect any particular material substrate.

Consider our planet’s history of accelerating creation of first pre-biological (atomic and molecular-based), then genetic (DNA and cell-based), then neurologic (neuron-based), then memetic (mental pattern-based), and finally, technologic (extra-cerebral-pattern based) evolutionary epochs, each requiring less space, matter, energy, and time to represent or perform any salient “computation” (i.e., forming an encoded internal representation of the laws or information of the external environment).

The brief history of digital computers (which have themselves moved through five substrates over the last century: mechanical, electromechanical, vacuum tube, transistor, and IC) makes this process of “accelerating rearrangement” even clearer. The Universal evolution of information involves the continuous movement to new substrates, with emergent forms always exponentially increasing their information processing pace over time.

We are on a wild ride to an interesting destination, a local rate of computational change so fast and powerful that it must have a profound and as-yet-unclarified Universal effect. As a side effect of this hypergrowth, biological human beings will not be able to meaningfully understand the computer-driven world of the near future unless they make some kind of transition to “transhumanity.”

Those futurists who study this accelerating progression and its current and anticipated effect on humanity call it “the Singularity” for several reasons. The oldest reason, as introduced by Vernor Vinge in 1982, stems from the idea of a mathematical Singularity, 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 the equations of relativity no longer hold, generating only infinities. As I will describe in my forthcoming book, several other insightful ways of understanding the coming Singularity may also be usefully employed.

A Brief History of Intellectual Discussion of the Singularity

Many groups have helped build our present understanding of accelerating change, and I will also be presenting a “Longer History” later in 2001. We’ll begin our Brief History with the computer scientists of WWII. An important and dramatic, if not entirely accurate place to start. For an excellent read, I suggest Alan Turing: The Enigma, Hodges and Hofstadter, 2000.

It appears that the first computer scientists to consider the issue of accelerating change, in casual conversation, were its modern visionaries and founders, including both Alan Turing (1940′s) and John Von Neumann (1950′s). Von Neumann may have been the first to use the term “singularity” to describe this accelerating progression (see Vinge’s “The Technological Singularity”).

Ongoing informal discussions in this community eventually led to works by Richard Feynman (“ There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” 1959), a revolutionary article that implicitly assumes accelerating change in a very important new domain, miniaturization, and I.J. Good (“Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine,” 1965), perhaps the first clear published conceptualization of the coming computational Singularity.

A year earlier, in 1964, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, had made his now famous prediction regarding circuit density doubling (every 18 to 24 months) in the new medium of metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) integrated circuits.

At first, Moore’s Law simply defined the economic and engineering environment specific to computer hardware development, and gradually an entire industry of scientists and engineers came to not only intellectually appreciate, but to tangibly experience the local effects of continuous accelerating change.

Throughout the 1960′s and 1970′s a growing number of insightful analysts, engineers, systems theorists and cyberneticians developed models of reality which began to incorporate trend curves of accelerating computational change in various industry and generalizt publications (most prominently, Scientific American).

At the close of the 1960′s. no one in computer science really knew how long the curves might last (excepting a very limited number of visionaries, as mentioned), or how relevant they might be to the larger world of human affairs. But the gate was open, and the concept of the Singularity was afoot.

Serious investigation of futurist scenarios received a major upgrade around this time, including a few that recognized the concept of accelerating change, thanks to the excellent work of Edward Cornish and the World Future Society, and the bimonthly publication of The Futurist Magazine since 1967.

The idea of accelerating change finally entered the public consciousness through Alvin Toffler and his revolutionary Future Shock, 1970. Throughout the 1970′s, the implications of Moore’s Law as a signifier of general computationally-driven scientific and social change were progressively being explored.

At the same time, there were a few groundbreaking attempts to characterize and popularize the observed trajectory of ever more integrative and self-balancing local systems, most publically by F.M. Esfandiary (later, FM-2030) (Optimism One, 1970, Tele-Spheres, 1977 and Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto, 1973.) These three luminous books were published in paperback in 1977 and 1978, and eventually became known as the “Transhumanist Trilogy,” setting the stage for the Extropian and transhumanist movements of the 1980′s.

The mid to late 1980′s were a modern version of the “Cambrian Explosion” in our scientific understanding of accelerating computational change within various specialties, with simultaneous breakthroughs in the study of complexity, artificial life, neural networks, connectionist and parallel computation, and several other fields best left for my forthcoming “Longer History.”

At the same time, consideration of accelerating change from a systems perspective finally became broadly accessible to the general public, through groundbreaking popular works, by such authors as Marvin Minsky (Society of Mind, 1985), Erik Drexler (Engines of Creation, 1986), and Hans Moravec (Mind Children, 1988).

These three books respectively represented a theory of mind as an emergent collective computational system, a framework for applying computation and embodied environmental interaction on as-yet-undreamed scales of miniaturization, and the first coherent projection of the meaning of the new computer and cognitive sciences for the future of mind in the Universe. These early authors risked professional reputation in their own fields to advance their unique ideas, and each deserves special recognition for their courage, conviction, and clarity of vision.

In the 1990′s, a flood of generalizt publications that are implicitly Singularity-aware, and a bold few that are explicitly Singularity-aware, such as those by John Brockman (ed., The Third Culture, 1995), Damien Broderick (The Spike, 1997) and Richard Coren (The Evolutionary Trajectory, 1998) became available.

Meanwhile, in the mass medium of the new millennium (the Web), Max and Natasha Vita-More (Extropy.org), Robin Hansen, Nick Bostrom (Transhuman.org), again Hans Moravec and most centrally, Vernor Vinge brought these ideas to digital life in the 1990s with their careful analysis of the Singularity meme and its variants. Eliezer Yudkowsky also has prolific writings in this area, along with a community of AI investigators and “Singularity advocates” and a nonprofit AI venture with transhumanists Brian and Sabine Atkins.

At present, in 2001, only a few tens of thousands of individuals have been exposed to the Singularity meme, mostly through the web. But soon, the general concept of the Singularity will become even more mainstream, as it is confronted by networking think tanks such as the nanotechnology and future scenario leader Foresight Institute.

In addition, the background systems and forces involved will be explicated by great journalists, inventor visionaries, and social theorists. These include Ed Regis, (Mambo Chicken, 1990, Nano, 1995), Douglas Rushkoff (Cyberia, 1994), Danny Hillis, “Close to the Singularity” 1995, Peter Russell (Waking up in Time, 1998), James Glieck (Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, 1999), Hans Moravec (Robot, 1999) and perhaps most notably, Ray Kurzweil (Age of Spiritual Machines, 1999) as well as others listed in both the “Longer History” and my forthcoming Singularity Studies Bibliography (later in 2001).

Exploring the Singularity

Foresight.org

See Chris Peterson, Erik Drexler, and the Foresight Group’s Spring 2000 Conference, “Confronting Singularity.”

Extropy.org

See Robin Hansen’s “A Critical Discussion of Vinge’s Singularity Concept.”

See Natasha Vita-More’s “Vinge’s View of the Singularity”. This article contains one of the few accounts, by Vinge himself, of attempts to imagine scenarios in which the Singularity does not occur. Such efforts are difficult and rare indeed among those who understand the recent history of computer hardware and evolutionary computation.

Transhumanist.org

See Nick Bostrom’s “What is the Singularity?;” and “How Long Before Superintelligence?

Edge.org

See Danny Hillis, “Close to the Singularity.”

Principia Cybernetica Web

See Francis Heylighen’s “The Socio-Technological Singularity”

SingIst.org

See Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Staring into the Singularity and Plan to Singularity”.

Other notable articles and web pages

Marvin Minsky Sci. American 1994, , “Will Robots Inherit the Earth?”

Charles Platt interviews Hans Moravec on the Future of Computers and Humanity, HotWired, 1995

Anders Sandberg, “The Singularity

Steve Edwards, “Surviving the Singularity”

Dan Clemmensen, “Paths to the Singularity”

Alan Kazlev, “The Singularity

AtomJack’s unique artistic-analytic “Singularity”

Singularity-Related Mailing Lists