Why the Ordinary Person Does Not Yet Believe in a Technological Singularity

Ordinary people, and even older and more educated ones, disbelieve in a technological Singularity for three major reasons. In looking at the following reasons, we should remember that, since youngsters, middle aged persons have been listening to different predictions about the future and nothing has happened around them.

In the 60s it was claimed that space travel and colonization would be a reality.

In the 70s it was claimed that robotics and automation would be a reality.

In the 80s it was claimed that genetics (gene therapy and stem cell therapy) would be a reality.

At the time, I became very tired of the naysayers, especially by 1991. There was a tiny reportage of extremely important events and an almost total lack of policy implications at any real level. There was especially a lack of notice at the governmental level, to which I can attest. I refer specifically to experiments on lifespan extension that were reported in the back pages of newspapers in three paragraphs. Or sometimes two.

In the 90s, computerization and the Internet did happen and have since extended themselves throughout everyone’s living environment. Therefore the fact that things are happening in this field, well this is certainly beginning to be believed by the doubters in all sectors of society in terms of leadership cores. That is, these leadership cores have a slight tendency to believe there is something to the idea of Artificial Intelligence and thus provide a small amount of capital towards research.

This emotional landscape of doubt has had direct impacts on funding and planning by politicians, particularly in a new political world where it was believed that private enterprise could achieve quick results and government intervention was inappropriate. Although private enterprises have had their successes, this has resulted in a temporarily delayed manifestation of big projects (ones facing huge technical barriers) such as the three first mentioned above. This has meant that our technological Singularity appears more conservative, but in fact as more profound changes accumulate anyway at their later stages without regard to earlier delay, it will eventually mean a less smooth transition emotionally for many of the population. By expanding our working hours rather than robotics our leaders have set up more of a culture shock when the post scarcity economy arrives.

Soon we shalll see a reverse countdown of the 60s, 70s and 80s. (Some will say I am wrong about the timing, but all these things will happen at some stage regardless.)

Firstly, genetics will soon be a reality, starting with youthful appearance by the middle of the decade, which is not too far away. For example through regrown teeth (animal models are already successful) and with skin and hair repair, and then moving into the general elimination of most major diseases, starting with for example diabetes. Anti-obesity treatments will be available.

Secondly, robots and automation will intrude into every area of life very soon after the genetic events, for example in automated trucks and automated drones/flyers (including ones with arms) on farms and robot toys for kids and robot butlers for the rich.

Thirdly, an intermediary transport system will be chosen to get into space cheaply in the absence of a full space elevator, possibly an inflatable or buoyant system in combination with a sea gun for materials.

By this stage it is nearing the end of the decade. People accept something is happening. In particular youthful appearance has sent shock waves through society.

At the end of the decade Narrow AI has accelerated humanity’s ability to implement quicker physical change. Also, in particular, the effects of robotics in the future have been underestimated by present day thinkers. Robots will increase our ability to speed up projects. Narrow AI will also be used to accelerate the development of computational nanotechnology, which provides a level of sophistication not possible with 3D printers and cutters and micro automation.

With programmable nanotechnology, everything, and particularly robots, becomes cheap and the lived, felt, emotional world becomes magically malleable. True expansion into space occurs at crazy speeds by our current standards and medicine throws away the many of the few remaining scalpels.

Then another seeming plateau is reached while the population struggles to absorb the notions of mild true space colonization, a post scarcity economy (presumably transitional in some places for political reasons) and the continual curing of remaining major diseases with some delays in some cases due to conservative testing regimes.

While using assemblers to make robots and space elevators and most products is easy, cell repair machines are slightly harder. Also, while medical stabilization is easy, modifications such as blue hair for example, or informational input into optic nerves, are slightly more difficult. (In this context, also bear in mind that some current research has already made extraordinary advances. For example: research regarding making very small holes in the skull for wiring, in Germany; research for utilizing HIFU – high intensity focused ultrasound waves; and optical tweezers for DNA manipulation.) Much programmable nanotechnology including advanced assemblers and bush robots and utility fogs and claytronics will be guarded at various levels by governments while nanophotonics and wellstone and cell repair machines and rod logic molecular computers will not be. There will be new areas of computational nanotechnology not fully envisaged yet relating to the plethora of nanomaterials and the new physics of the 2000s. Quantum entanglement will be a key technology. Narrow AI for engineering will be a key technology. Topological quantum computing will be achieved somewhat more easily than some have predicted.

The irony of the above scenario is that space travel will have had the longest delay despite being started first.

All delays are due to the structural limitations of their classes of knowledge and physical conditions within their relevant environments making it difficult to manipulate objects: for example, modelling quantum effects in protein folding; the complexity of robotic vision, grasping and walking; or designing a strong material like carbon nanotubes.

Sadly, much of the delay with nanotechnological assemblers or diamondoid mechanosynthesis or molecular assembly has been due to an almost complete lack of political support and funding for primary research and initial development, for example Congress’s 2003 rejection of funding, led by Senator John McCain and Newt Gingrich and the NanoBusiness Alliance (a consortium of materials nanotechnology business interests). Materials nanotechnology has received many billions of dollars every year from the US, EU, Japan and China, but creating even a basic asembler will require on the order of $US900 million (Frietas).

True physical immortaltiy and true AI including through femtotech and beyond are the very most complicated things and will come last, and after topological quantum computing.

Of course, strictly speaking, the entire edifice of the technological Singularity has been a long time coming for the pioneers of the 20s and 30s who envisaged robots, space travel and immortality almost on the spot. To them it has been a long wait. In the year 2015 there should be about just over 70,000 Americans who were 20 in 1935 so some who read Buck Rogers will get to see the dream come alive and walk.

My the end of this decade there will have been about twenty years of literary science fiction that will more smoothly fit the new technological world. We may find that the science fiction movie writing tradition moves more into line with the scientifically plausible field of sf literature. This lack of development in popular science fiction movies has been one of the key elements in the ongoing cultural denial of the technological Singularity.

Perhaps Neuromancer by William Gibson will be one of the first of these better movies when it is released. Pre-production is under way with a budget of $US60 million.

19 Responses

  1. Avatar Polymorph says:

    Some further news has arrived on mechanosynthesis et al.

    WORLDSHAKING NANOFACTORIES RESEARCH INCHES FORWARD DESPITE COMPLETE WORLDWIDE ABSENCE OF SIGNIFICANT FUNDING

    NOTE: ALL MINISCULE FUNDING SO FAR (OF $3 MILLION PLUS) HAS ACHIEVED RESULTS

    Somehow Prince Charles and the other 2000s fearmongers combined with conservative scientists have managed to simultaneously argue that it is too dangerous to attempt nanofactories or assemblers (the “grey goo” scenario) and impossible to achieve them (the “Smalley” argument) and therefore all research funding must be denied. Given the expensive equipment and computing power required even the most minimal funding needed for proof of concept would be an extemely cheap fifty million dollars. Nanofactories would provide autonomous humanoid robotics at an even cheaper price than 3D printing and could also produce cell repair machines. These two activities would fundamentally alter the human condition and the known world, freeing us all from routine manual labour. Yet our political and scientific leadership will not even allocate the money spent on a feeder route to a single major highway for a proof of engineering concept project.

    I urge you to write to your local head of government asking them to fund $50 million towards proof of concept for a nanofactory, Robert A. Freitas of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in Palo Alto, California has developed an overall plan for a $900 million nanofactory and would be the best person to direct or advise governments on an initial proof of concept stage.

    Although initial thinking has been about the production of laptops from nanofactories, I believe the idea of manufactuing an autonomous one metre robot similar to the Honda Asimo model would generate far more political support.

    > Avatar (as in virtual being) Polymorph <

    Yes, this name is on my passport

    The referece is: Artificial molecular motor controls molecular transformation
    30 December 2011
    "The molecular specificity of this initial proof-of-principle demonstration is only partial. The differences in catalytic activity and the differences in chiral ratios of the reaction products are only of the order of three- or four-fold. We can hope that continued work in this direction will lead to cleaner reaction specificities resulting from programmable control of artificial molecular machines. Eventually we hope to see arrays of programmable molecular catalysts executing complex reaction sequences, leading to productive nanosysems and atomically precise manufacturing."

    http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=4915
    http://stratingh.eldoc.ub.rug.nl/FILES/root/2011/ScienceWang/2011ScienceWang.pdf

    See also

    http://www.foresight.org/nanodot/?p=4910
    Arrays of artificial molecular machines could lead to atomically precise nanotechnology

  2. Ben Sima says:

    While I agree that scifi is a literary genre to be valued, you can’t cite past examples of predicting the future as proof that the Singularity will happen. How many times has scifi and futurists been wrong about the future? This is an obvious example of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

  3. Willa Cartwright says:

    Regarding the title -> “Why the Ordinary Person Does Not Yet Believe in a Technological Singularity”

    I’m afraid most “ordinary” don’t know anything about the singularity – nor do they understand even what it means or it’s consequences – so I think this is a little bit of a straw-man title.

    However, whilst the topic of the singularity is certainly a very, very interesting topic, I simultaneously do and don’t ‘believe’ in the singularity – because there are good arguments for it and against it.

    I suppose the aspect that attracted my attention to this article is the phrase “believe in the singularity” – I personally find it interesting that something like a technological singularity can be framed in terms of ‘belief’.

  4. HTiller says:

    I work in a shadow society, originally part of the human species. Back in the 1960s a breakthrough was discovered that quickly led to the singularity occurring in the late 1970s. From there a commission was established to use this breakthrough for military advancement, by the late 1980s the society that emerged was alien to the mainstream civilian culture. It was then taken off-world in the 1990s and broke away completely and it is now a separate, superior entity, possessing technology hundreds of years ahead of anything you could imagine.

    The Singularity is real, and it has happened, and the bulk of humanity has been left out. There is already an entire generation that has been born into this society, and knows no other. We are looked at with nostalgia, but we will never become a part of this new humanity, that has left for the stars without us.

  5. Jason says:

    I think the main reason ‘why the ordinary person does not yet believe in a Technological Singularity’ is because most ordinary people have probably never even heard of The Singularity.

    That said, as someone who’s been severely ill for a long time, I also find it very difficult (right now) to see the drug companies/the FDA ever working toward “cures” for anything. Where’s the money in that? And why cure something when you can give someone a drug that not only makes them feel a tad better but also gives them anal leakage and costs them $100.00 a month? If you can explain to me how this curing might eventually occur, that’d be cool, ’cause I’d like it to happen yesterday.

    Medical stuff aside, though, I can say I really hope for all of that other stuff, especially the space exploration. I don’t know if it’ll happen as fast as Ray thinks, but I’m sure it’ll happen.

  6. Brandon says:

    Let’s not forget that these technologies ARE being advanced… albeit behind closed doors.

    Military technology is usually about 20-30 years ahead of civilian technology, so even if we aren’t seeing a lot of progress, these technological advances are certainly being made.

  7. Nikk Olson says:

    These persons, who think the Singualrity is really really far because of some unfullfilled promises are making the same error in the opposite direction to the overly ambitious futurists who claimed. Failed overly optimistic predictions offer very little information on when the actual event will take place. If one wants to consider when the event might take place they are best to defer to the science itself. (I encountered this opinion in Less Wrong conversations)

  8. Seb says:

    To quote Ripley: I hope you’re right; I really do.

    It is not that I don’t believe that we are on an increasing gradient of technological development: the two things that worry me are its fragility due to short sighted political dogmatism and the gross inequality of access.

    I suspect that yes, “we” will have lots of the things in your article but who the “we” will be and who will be making that decision is the big issue for the first half of the 21st Century.

    To put it another way, if one person can replace their organs when they pack up while another is dying of diseases that have been curable for decades we really haven’t hit anything I would accept as a singularity.

    We don’t like the idea of technology that shapes our own attitudes and behaviour and that may be the make or break on our future as a species.

  9. Avatar Polymorph says:

    I should also say that there is some current funding for Mechanised Mechanosynthesis at the University of Nottingham, of 1.5 million pounds.

    See http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/ViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=EP/G007837/1

  10. Avatar Polymorph says:

    My above reference to an STM should more properly be an Atomic Force Microscope or the like. The reference in the article to (half millimetre) holes in the skull (along with a half millimetre hub) for neural implants (designed to resist humidity for 964 years or so) comes from a March 2011 lecture by Professor Dr Thomas Stieglitz Professor for Biomedical Microtechnology in the Institute for Microsystems Technology (IMTEK) at the University of Freiburg (Germany), when the information on experimental results was a week old, see http://ict4lifesciences.org.au/events.html?id=18&task=view

  11. Avatar Polymorph says:

    Dear Mark Plus: Robotics. I am aware of robotics and automation and the numbers of such. By robotics I meant the common definition of autonomous commandable entities capable of manipulating the environment around them at the same level as humans.

    The interesting thing is that when you tell the ordinary person that you have seen a robot (I saw a $10,000 one) they respond very positively whereas in the abstract they question the likelihood of them being around.

    When robot spiders clean up the street litter you will see political motivation happening.

    Space travel: I too am glad to know more about the Oort Cloud and the heliosphere and Eris and exoplanets (a distributed scope the diameter of the solar system could reveal planetary features on a nearby exoplanet) but the fact of the matter is that having an igloo orbiting Earth and sending lifeboats to the Moon is not space exploration. When over ten thousand persons are living in space a beginning will have been made. Cost to orbit is the question. Show ponies like a 4 wheel drive to Mars waste what little money governments offer.

    People and governments are stressed by the human condition and do not respond rationally usually unless under conditions of war. If we had spent the money allocated to the Iraq war on longevity we would have made massive advances already. Even a moderate allocation of money could eliminate worldwide malnutrition. These things have not occured – yet. Even the idea of universal software coding standards for robotics has been slow to develop.

    I equate Drexler with Darwin. Computational or programmable nanotechnology takes a while because the mechanics are extremely complex, as life is complex. In fact, such nanotechnology may be capable of more complexity than life. A thought experiment that is worth undertaking is assessing how many years it would take to make a small assembler with vast numbers of STM systems.

    Avatar Polymorph

  12. Star0 says:

    I think even just listing all the technology that now is in the lab, but not yet in commercial production, could make more people into singularity believers; most people dont follow the latest in tech.

    I write a small, informal newsletter for some friends of mine, explaining some of the technology that is soon (in the next decade or sooner) to go into production (e.g. the Google car, hand-held x-ray scanners, artificial organs, longevity research, the lastest in robotics, 3D printing) and I don’t they quite believe it; certainly they don’t have a context from which to understand what it all means. But I think I’m starting to wear them down, and they’re starting to see that the time we are living in right now is special; for, if all these technologies were to suddenly to go into commercial production, it would have a wide-ranging effect on society. Unleashing only just this currently-available tech might not qualify as a super-AI-type singularity, but it would shock and awe nonetheless.

  13. You mean . . . and robot butlers for the POOR.

    The rich will have HUMAN butlers. Biological forms will be a LUXURY. In fact the poor could access Cybernetic immortality while the rich would access biological/cloned versions. After a few hundred years, the poor would all have become rich, then evereyone with a soul would be in increasingly diverse forms to personality etc.. – Miniworlds based on preference form . . .

    Robot butlers will have their own maintenance bots as well – or robot butlers of the robot butlers.

    Think mouse sized mite-form maintenance bots that will in turn be replaced and recycled for materials when spoilt.

    I do not look forward to the year 7575 though. It will be insanely bland and hideously efficient. Sight, taste, smell, thought, emotion would be trite as memory improves(one could call up a file and ‘eat’) and everyone would be plugged in to some simulator designing entire holographic worlds around themselves.

    Others eventually end up seeking spirituality or the meaning of existence instead. Nihilism will set in very quickly for those who fail to figure this out, and for most of the world this would result in immense ‘boredom of being’.

    Still, no longer labouring physically or mentally or even emotionally at at work or whatever is a good thing before that boredom sets in.

    Meaning though will be something to work on. Form, feeling, etc.. are just another thing, friendships for self reflection etc.. It is like the Matrix only those who are smart enough end up BORED.

  14. Chris says:

    I really have a few problems with this article and I feel as if it misses the point entirely. I disagree with your premise that expectations were not met

    Firstly Space: After the moon came, Mars explores, Hubble telescopes and space telescopes discovering new planets that can possibly harbour life. And in other physics look no further than the CERN experiments.

    Robots: Are you kidding me? Every single industry on the planet uses robots at some point. Manufacturing, distribution, military and many more. Wars are now being entirely fought with robots (e.g. Drones) We rely on robotics more than you seem to know. How many products do you use, see or interact with are hand made?

    Genetics: Again really? We have unraveled the human genome, cloned sheep and other animals, we have gene therapy medication and are pretty much breaking boundaries with all sorts of genetics and stem sells.

    Maybe expectations were misguided but if anything in terms of technology I believe the expectations of the 60s 70′s and 80′s have been FAR exceeded if you actually think about it. my freaking ipod can hold 50,000 songs, my laptop can stream literally millions of songs. I can speak and interact fluidly with my phone asking it question (SIRI).

    • Karl says:

      It is the perception that is the issue.

      To be brutally honest, we have the flip-open Star Trek communicators.

      However, the ordinary person out there has no idea how vastly different things are with respect to computing, robotics, and genetics even compared to 25 years ago.

      If you told the average Joe or Jane that we are growing made to order organs they would not believe you.

      Just a day ago, it was reported that gene therapy for haemophilia was successful enough for some patients that 30% went off clotting factor infusions altogether.

      In Europe a real-time implanted “artifical pancreas” has been available for 3 years — yet not in the US. It monitors blood glucose in real time and manages insulin AUTOMATICALLY, no more shots. The next step is endogenous cells producing said insulin for the bioic implant to dispense.

      Most people have no idea about thse advances.

      • Carl LaFong says:

        Use of the term “singularity” here is imprecise at best, rubbish at worst.

        Artificial pancreas technologies have been in clinical trials in Europe for three years, not “available”.

        I’m so all y’all are arguing about the accuracy of the columnist’s historical observations about the public’s perceptions—which are not once, not twice, but THRICE removed from any efficacy as indicators of future success. First, the trajectory of the development of any given technology has zero to do with the potential for success of development of an unrelated technology. Second, people’s perceptions of technological progress have little to do with reality; and I think it’s inarguable that we have a criminally ill-informed public who are by and large satisfied with the state of the science as long as they keep improving the quality of video games. So why are we basing arguments on their perceptions again?

        Third, and most directly to the point: anyone (like this author) who makes claims that this technology or that will profoundly improve the quality of life for human beings (while arguing we’re going to keep them alive indefinitely!) is so mindbogglingly stupid as to warrant retroactive abortion.

  15. Jesse says:

    I agree that much of the scepticism has been caused by the political/economic delays that so many of us have experienced in our lifetimes…promises not kept. However, I think there is another element to this as well – most people can’t understand the acceleration that is happening. The rate of technological growth is more or less exponential, but we’re still on the bottom edge of that curve. As we move into the steeper curve over the next decade, the rate of change is going to be beyond most people’s imagination. It’s nearly impossible for the average person to accept that they very well may not have a job in a 20 years, but that that will be OK.

    • Mark Plus says:

      most people can’t understand the acceleration that is happening

      Except that some high-profile people now question that quasi-religious belief. Tyler Cowen caused a disturbance in the Force earlier this year with his ebook about the Great Stagnation, and Peter Thiel has voiced similar concerns, for example recently in an article about him in the Nov. 28th issue of The New Yorker magazine.

      And as I keep pointing out the obvious, we live in “the future of nanotechnology” Eric Drexler and his fans gushed about in the 1980′s. Drexler even had me sold on the idea at the time. I don’t see any nano-assemblers or desktop nano-factories coming online (and allegedly transforming the world) in the mysterious, far-future year 2012, do you?

      Just to give you perspective on how much time some people have wasted on this mirage, think about your grandparents and how long ago it seems when they had lived in their 20′s. Well, many of the people that age when Drexler published his popular book in 1986 have become the grandparents of the rug rats and school aged children you see at the mall.

      If you insist on treating nanotechnology as a multigenerational project like, say, Europe’s great cathedrals, or like Asimov’s Foundation for a science-fictional model, you still have to explain the lack of tangible progress. Europe’s stone masons built stuff you could see, every day they worked, and Hari Seldon’s followers produced the Encyclopedia Galactica steadily. By contrast Drexler’s notions have remained vaporware, and I suspect they will stay that way because he gets the physics wrong.

  16. Mark Plus says:

    Ordinary people, and even older and more educated ones, disbelieve in a technological Singularity for three major reasons. This is because young middle aged persons have been listening to different predictions and nothing has happened around them.

    In the 60s it was claimed that space travel and colonization would be a reality.

    In the 70s it was claimed that robotics and automation would be a reality.

    In the 80s it was claimed that genetics (gene therapy and stem cell therapy) would be a reality.

    I don’t understand your post. The predictions about robotics and automation have come true to a large extent in many of the world’s factories. Gene therapy and stem cell also exist, but they have a harder time making progress because of social taboos, regulatory hurdles and the fact that biological systems above the level of protokaryotes tend to resist straightforward re-engineering efforts.

    Manned space travel and colonization have turned into a bust, granted.

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