Why Aren’t we all Singularitarians?

That’s the question being asked over at hnet. Why does belief in the singularity, the imminent exponential acceleration of the development of technology resulting in a post-scarcity age of limitless possibility, remain confined to dedicated enthusiasts?

The answer provided is that the public remain uninterested, unaware and/or sceptical of such notions because 1) the benefits promised by new waves of technology (such as the technology for space travel) proved to be a mirage 2) political, regulatory and cultural factors are inhibiting the development of many promising avenues towards Singularity City.

Call me a know-nothing sceptic, but the fact that space travel, robotics, genetics and – yes – even computers failed to live up to their promise should make us all a bit wary of the idea of an accelerating upward curve of technological development. As brilliantly expressed in Gibson’s short story The Gernsback Continuum, we already live in a world filled with echoes of the shiny utopian visions of yesterday. It’s somewhat ironic that the article expresses a hope that a film of Neuromancer might help shift cultural attitudes, as cyberpunk was an expression of total incredulity towards the optimism invested in the Jetsons-esque imagined futures of the ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism.

2011 did not look much like this

One reason why many of those who have engaged with singularitarian ideas remain sceptical might be that over the past few decades there have been few technologically induced improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people in the advanced industrialised world. Much heralded discoveries, such as the human genome project, represent major scientific milestones but have produced fewer tangible benefits than expected (in the case of the HGP partially due to the unanticipated complexity of the epigenetic systems that control the expression of genes). 2011 was once envisaged as a time in which the promise of the early developments in cybernetics and biotech would be realised (just as the early C21st was envisaged as an era of space colonisation in the imaginary of the previous era), yet it still looks very much like the past.

This fact is made clear by the lacklustre rate of economic growth experienced in the industrialised world over the last thirty years. Computers and communications technology represent a partial exception. But this wave of technologies have not resulted in the generalised productivity growth associated with electrification or steam-power. They haven’t made transport easier or more rapid, they haven’t yet solved the problem of Baumol’s cost disease (teachers can still only teach effectively approximately the same number of students as they could in the C19th). Of course, robotics, space travel (through communications satellites) and computers are all now essential parts of the way the world economy operates. But all were oversold and none have had the dramatic, positive effects that previous technological shifts had. Indeed, through processes such as outsourcing, many of these technologies have been implicated in shifts which have left those in the industrialised world more insecure and precariously located than they once were.

I’m not actually a complete sceptic when it comes to specific singularitarian ideas. Cybernetics, narrow AI, advanced materials, gene-therapy and gerontological medicine (life extension) are probably going to arrive eventually . These technologies will likely reshape human societies, although in periods measured by ‘historical time’ rather than ‘event time’. But at present, there is as much evidence to suggest that we live in an era of technological stagnation (even whilst we witness dramatic leaps in scientific knowledge) as we do the pre-takeoff phase of a singularity. 

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Posted on December 19, 2011, in development, futurism, science fiction, singularity. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Lots of possible reasons spring to mind. For one thing Moore’s law applies to processor speeds and storage capacities, not the value of what they produce. Likewise the grand claims based on the rate of growth of the scientific literature are based on the numbers of papers published, not some estimate of the value of is knowledge. For another, as you say, the is unevenly distributed – I’m typing this on a device that could scarcely have been imagined twenty years ago, but houses, cars and guns (to pick just a few examples) haven’t changed so rapidly, nor has human nature. Third, there’s no guarantee that current trends such as Moore’s law, the fall in cost of genetic sequencing or increases in human life span will continue indefinitely. We may reach a point in the future from where all of these things look less like continual trends and more like a phase change or step function.

  2. Hey there, thanks for the comment.
    Moore’s law: yes the problem of ‘Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away’. Have the productivity enhancing features of desktop computing increased over the past 10 years I wonder? For the average office worker, Word is still Word, Excel is still Excel.
    On your third point, I agree that it is much more likely to be a phase change than an indefinite exponential. Some social scientists have hypothesized that technological change can be graphed as a logistic curve: lag phase, rapid expansion and then slower expansion on approach to the new equilibrium. The phase leading up to rapid expansion might give the illusion of exponential growth.
    It also struck me that possibilities are visible from a great distance, but technical challenges can only be seen from close up. This might explain the cycle of raised hopes when a new field emerges, giving way to disappointment when difficulties in bringing a technology onstream arise. Fusion is always 50 years away.

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