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The End of the Beginning: Help us Write a Book about Life, Society and Economy on the Brink of the Singularity

Suppose a technological Singularity is indeed coming, as some have forecast.

Speculating about the post-Singularity world is fascinating, as is understanding the technologies that may bring us there.

But it’s also important and interesting to ponder: How is the path there going to unfold, in the context of practical human life?

Feeling that not enough has been seriously written about this topic, my father — the sociologist Ted Goertzel — and I have decided to put together an edited book on the theme.  On the theme of: How society and technology will likely be changing/evolving as technology accelerates and the path to Singularity unfolds. Our title, The End of the Beginning: Life, Society and Economy on the Brink of the Singularity.

We don’t believe the Singularity will be the end of humanity, at least not if “humanity” is considered in an appropriately broad sense, as an ever-evolving quality.   But we do believe it will be the end of an era.  To borrow and morph a phrase used by Winston Churchill in less optimistic circumstances, it will be the end of the beginning of humanity.

We’re currently looking for high-quality, well-researched and well-thought-out chapters for the book.  See this page for details about submitting chapters.  If you’re a writer, researcher, technologist or individual otherwise qualified to contribute a chapter to the book, please think about submitting something.   If you don’t fit these criteria yourself but know someone else who does, please pass this article along to them!

On the Brink of the Singularity (More on the Theme of the Book)

Like Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge and many other contemporary futurist thinkers, I believe we are living on the brink of the Singularity — the brink of a time when machines will be more intelligent than humans and life will be dramatically different. But no one knows for sure when, or even if, we will cross the threshold from anticipating the Singularity to actually experiencing it. It seems likely that elements of human-level or superhuman artificial general intelligence will emerge gradually and unevenly over a period of years, rather than appearing full blown in one dramatic event.

For the next few decades we will live with the knowledge that a technological Singularity, while far from certain, is a viable possibility. We will live with the knowledge that we and our children may not die through aging and that, after the Singularity, human life may be extended to hundreds, thousands or millions of years. We will live with the possibility that humans may fuse with machines into various forms of cyborgs and that new forms of intelligence, experience and matter may be created. We will live with knowledge of the potential for abolishing scarcity via nanotechnology and femtotechnology, technologies to manipulate atoms and particles as freely as a child manipulates Lego blocks. And we must live with knowledge that the persistance of human life in anything like its current form is an open question.

Considered as potential aspects of a distant future, these possibilities are fascinating speculations, but as the Singularity gets closer, we will have to go from speculating about them to preparing for them and adapting to them. This book will examine socioeconomic life on the path to the singularity. What will happen to human societies and economies as computers get smarter and smarter, nanotechnology gets more and more flexible, brain-computer interfacing gets more and more pervasive? How can we shape these developments to minimize harm and maximize human welfare?

Our current sociological and economic theories were formulated by studying patterns in the past – but the future, if the Singularity hypothesis is even remotely close to correct, is going to be very different. So these theories cannot be considered reliable guides, though they may provide insight and inspiration.

Numerous major issues loom here. Will advanced technologies be reserved for the few, or will they be shared with the many? Will automation lead to mass unemployment? – and if so, who if anyone will support the unemployed? To what extent will increasingly advanced surveillance technology be deployed to create Big Brother scenarios? Or will we have a “sousveillance” scenario where everyone watches everyone; what David Brin has called a “transparent society?”

Will more carefully engineered drugs leave a large percentage of the population uselessly blissed out for most of their lives? What percentage of the population will take life extension pills once they’re available? Will religious belief dwindle as the power and insight of science become more and more evident and dominant in everyday life, or will it morph into something new yet still powerful? Will there be, as Hugo de Garis has foreseen, a violent struggle between those advocating and opposing the advent of intelligent robots and other advanced technologies?

Nobody can answer these questions in advance – but we can think about them creatively and carefully, in ways that may help us grapple with them as this amazing century unfolds.  Carefully examining these issues is essential even if the Singularity hypothesis itself proves false; because even in the absence of a Singularity, it’s very likely some of the radical technologies Singularitarians foresee will emerge, and wreak transformative impacts.

Aspects of the Socioeconomic Path to Singularity

We are intending our book on these themes to include chapters on a wide variety of topics; the following list is very partial and intended merely as evocative of the general way the book might turn out:

  • Socieconomic Implications of Life Extension
  • Economic Impact of Self-Driving Cars
  • Socioeconomic Implications of Advanced AI
  • The Advent of Surveillance and Sousveillance
  • Socioeconomic Implications of Molecular Manufacturing
  • Socioeconomic Implications of Brain-Computer Interfacing
  • Educational requirements and possibilities in a world of exponentially advancing
  • What can spirituality and religion contribute to living on the brink of the
  • Vulnerability to sabotage and terrorism in a society dependent on exponentially
    developing technology
  • Minimizing Risks in Developing Exponential Technologies

As this list hopefully makes clear: For the purposes of this book, we are not centrally interested in chapters focusing on the socioeconomic implications of extremely mature and powerful forms of various Singularity-relevant technologies. We are more interested in  exploring the possible gradual impacts on society and economy as these technologies unfold. For instance, to choose just a few illustrative examples:

  • What would it mean (socially and/or economically) if in 2020 the maximum human
    lifespan were extended by 10 years, then in 2030 it were extended by 20 years, etc.?
  • What would it mean (socially and/or economically) if, each year from 2020 onward, an additional 5% of “blue collar” jobs were eliminated by increasingly intelligent robots and other automated systems
  • What would it mean (socially and/or economically) if, each year, the government could observe a little more of our everyday lives, and actually had the intelligent data mining technology to analyze this data in an actionable way?

It is not currently possible to analyze such things in a precise way. but bringing together all the intellectual tools at our disposal, it should be possible to rationally flesh out some of the likelier social and economic trends and scenarios to result from a technological path leading toward some sort of Singularity.

In our view, it is this is the kind of practical extrapolation regarding the possible paths to Singularity and their socioeconomic implications that is needed to connect the perspectives of current techno-futurist visionaries, with the perspectives of the individuals setting and guiding social and economic policy today.