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TJL-2080
October 25, 2012


Is the Future already upon us, but we just don’t see it for what it is? We already have an augmented lifestyle, don’t we?

For years now, I’ve been hearing that “the Singularity is coming” and that soon the world will be changed completely as technology spreads, allowing for great social, economic and political leaps. As long as I have followed futurism and transhumanism, this event has been just beyond our grasp. Kurzweil and others have been looking into the near(ish) future and trying to predict what the Singularity will look like and what the repercussions of this event will be for humanity.

Boiling it down, the Singularity is most often referred to as a time when technology will advance to the point where it will be impossible for the unimproved biological human to keep up with the changes.

From that point on, people’s definitions of what form the Singularity will take are as varied as anything else. What most will agree on, however, is that we are fast approaching a time when what seems improbable today will be commonplace. In other words, we are still looking forward to a great moment when we will be able to say “that was the Singularity.”

Recently, however, I was thinking of all the changes that have happened in the world in the thirty-two years I’ve been on it. It seems to me that the world is completely different now than it was when I was a child. I recently came across this article and it opened my eyes to a few things. In fact, it brought in to focus a thought I had some time ago. Could the Singularity have already happened? How would we know?Some believe that the Singularity will be a time when our computers and other devices merge with the biological, making us cyborgs and/or immortal beings. Yet the gradual omnipresence of technology has led to us never being far from a device that will keep us in constant contact with everyone. We are glued to our smartphones, netbooks, desktops, internet-ready Blu-Ray players and other things.

If I want to share the funny video of the young woman waking up from dental surgery with someone, I can call it up on YouTube in moments from any number of devices that are around me. Soon, augmented reality will extend that capability even more. I have an RSS feed that comes to my phone daily, keeping me updated on the latest technological advancements. I read science and technology news every day. Not to toot my own horn, but I am a pretty intelligent being, and even though I am up on the latest, I still feel like it is a full-time job just to know what is going on.

What about those who don’t have the technology obsession? What about people who are unable or unwilling to keep abreast of the specs of upcoming phones, cars, computers, etc.?

I have a friend who, while not a luddite, is of a very low economic status, and therefore had never owned a computer or a cell phone. When he needs to receive important emails from his son’s Cub Scout pack or having to do with his employment, he trusts me to print it out and give it to him personally. When he was finally in a position to get a phone, he found something low-end with few features. He often seems lost and withdrawn when people around him start talking about wi-fi, Skype, touch-screens and so forth. It seems that as soon as he is able to get something he considers “high tech” he is already far out of date.

He makes up for his lack of knowledge on the topic by laughing off how people like myself “love (our) toys” and that we are addicted to our electronics in a similar fashion to alcoholics and drug abusers. But he does seem to want to be better connected and often remarks how things have moved so quickly that he just doesn’t understand it.

My parents are another example. They have their flat, widescreen HDTV, their desktop computer with which they answer emails, watch YouTube videos and check news headlines. They think they are pretty up to date. When I tell them about 3DTV, Hulu, Netflix, smartphones, RSS news feeds, Twitter, Facebook and the like, they look at me as if I am a strange visitor from another planet.



Recently, my mother admitted that when I talk to her about new or upcoming technologies, her brain tends to shut me off. She goes into “nod and smile” mode to humor me. She tells me she is fine with what she has and has no real need to get anything new. So I got her a Nook for Mother’s Day. She loves it. At first she seemed skeptical, noting how she loved her paper books, and thinking that e-readers were just a fad. Now she says that she can’t imagine not having it. She cites the convenience, cost and the relatively unknown feature of ordering library books on it as being the reason why she will never go back to Books 1.0.

What I mean to say through all this rambling is that the future is already upon us. We just don’t see it for what it is. We are always looking ahead and saying “THAT is when great things will happen” that we don’t stop to look at the world as it stands now. It is so fundamentally changed from how it was just 10-15 years ago that it is almost unrecognizable. Great changes have happened politically,  socially, and economically in such a short amount of time that someone who has been asleep since 1999 would not recognize the world we live in today.

For that reason I ask the question, “Has the Singularity already happened?” The 20th century was a time of great change and advancement. We saw humans fly for the first time, and scarcely 50 years later, we were planting flags on the moon. We went from telegraphs and telephones to wireless communication and the internet. At some point in there, did we pass a point that we can definitively look back on and point to as the Singularity? The 21st century is moving exponentially faster, and change is coming much more swiftly.

Unlike many who believe that it will be one moment in time, I believe the case can be made that the Singularity happened not as one moment, but the combination of numerous factors coming together. I believe that the internet itself is just the medium, not the Singularity itself. But the omnipresent access we have to the internet seems to have exploded recently.

With our smartphones, we have all the information in the world literally at our fingertips and we can integrate it into our lives. We already have an augmented lifestyle, don’t we?

My phone awakens me, then reads the news to me (specifically in the subjects I am most interested in), then tells me my calendar for the day, with reminders. My Twitter sends me a constant feed, as does my Facebook. As I write, I am able to get references, articles, news, reviews, commentary, critiques and anything else about any subject I need, instantly. When I talk to people, I can see them face-to-face in real time. My smartphone has completely changed my lifestyle, and I know that there are already better models on the market, though mine is less than a year old.

Therefore, I would like to argue that the Singularity happened with the rise of the smartphone. Before you write a scathing disapproval of this, I’m not sure if I believe it myself. Remember, this series is called “The Casual Transhuman,” and is meant to introduce these concepts back and forth between the hardcore transhumanists and the peopel who are less familiar with these ideas. But I want to open people to the idea that this concept that many people are looking forward to, a major technological breakthrough, may actually be a thing of the past.

This article first appeared at www.ieet.org on July 4, 2012 and also at http://tjl2080.blogspot.com/2012/07/singularity-is-here-for-some-of-us.html

25 Comments

    >Recently, however, I was thinking of all the changes that have happened in the world in the thirty-two years I’ve been on it. It seems to me that the world is completely different now than it was when I was a child.

    Jeez, not this nonsense again. Go into a nursing home, a hospice and then a cemetery, and then tell me how "completely different" the world has gotten since the year of your birth.

    And then tell me about how you plan to fly on the Concorde to Europe, or watch the next launch of the Space Shuttle. Oh, wait, YOU CAN'T. Aerospace and astronautics have regressed in your lifetime, just as the Romans eventually forgot how to make concrete and maintain their roads and aqueducts.

    Stop living in this singularity fantasy world, youngsters. If you want to see "the future," well, you won't see it by engaging in this transhumanist make-believe. As the cryonaut Robert Ettinger said, "If wishing doesn't work, try working."

      Oh. Well, okay, then. I suppose we'll just ignore the Internet, along with every significant advancement of the last forty years, like Luddites.

      If you're seriously going to base your metric of technological advancement off of only spaceflight, then I pity you for your myopia.

      Stop living in the stone age, old boy.

      There are many people who work for technological advancement and achieving the transhumanist dream, ranging from actual researchers to those who donate to further advancement.

      They also speculate. "Make-believe". What a surprise.

      There's this mechanism of the human mind; it's called "imagination". From what you've said, I take it you haven't heard of it. I highly recommend that you learn about it, and then proceed to engage in it. You will be a more fulfilled human being by doing so, I guarantee it.

        Don't worry about Luddites. Progress; Evolve leave them behind. They don't need the future.

      Interesting comment Mark Plus...

      I've always thought that things ebb and flow, and you've pointed out one of those areas where we've 'ebbed'. We've progressed in many ways, particularly in the field of Information Technology and communication, whilst at the same time we've regressed in others (e.g. cancellation of the Shuttle and the general knackering of the space programme).

      He said ...for some of us :-)

    One definition of The Singularity is "the time after which it is impossible for people before that time to predict what will happen." Before The Singularity, the world is stable and predictable. After it, things change rapidly and unforseeably.

    By that definition, The Singularity happened about a hundred and fifty years ago.

    The difference between the year 1800 and 1900 is staggering. In 1800, entire social, political, and economic order was essentially unchanged from Roman times, and technology was not that much better either. The world was an agrarian sociaty. Very smart people like Thomas Jefferson assumed that these conditions would continue unchanged for centuries.

    But by 1900, the world was railroads and electricity and telegraphs and cities and factories. There had been massive changes to all parts of society and everyone had accepted the fact of constant progress.

    We have been living in The Singularity for about six generations. The stuff we see today is just a change in the pace.

      I agree with Alleged Wisdom above, I was thinking almost the same.
      I wish to refine the definition a bit. Singularity is the event when the prediction window becomes infinitesimally small, like a microsecond, and beyond that window even a super-accelerating AGI becomes clueless.

      Before this event, the window is big enough for a highly intelligent person to broadly predict the future. Before 1900 this window was as big as a persons lifetime. Nothing much happened, except may be the king changed or a famine occurred. The window is narrowing fast day by day. Nowadays, in my humble opinion, an intelligent person can predict the general scene no more than 5 years ahead, and the intelligence required to do that is huge.

      Since we have a linear mode of predicting, we tend to imagine more of the same things that are already here, like bigger internet and smaller smartphones, 256 cores rather than 4 , a worldwide war instead of a small invasion etc etc, while completely remaining clueless about the abrupt changes that new discoveries bring.

      The new things are not in our experience, so there is no question of predicting their effects. We are even limited in imagining what the new things might be. However, we can most surely say about some things, which if invented, would squeeze the window to a tiny slit. Unlimited cheap energy source and a self improving AGI are two such examples.

      So I would say that Singularity has neither occurred nor will occur at a specific time, but we are in a process of witnessing it happen and for the first time, humans have become aware of this.

    You're article is pretty spot-on. The Singularity by definition (no matter which definition you adhere to) is about change, and it's hard to classify a single point in an ongoing process as "it". Personally, I'd go so far as to say that the Singularity started when we first invented computing machines. That's when we first started offloading the mental tasks of processing to artificial mediums - it took a while to get to where we are today, but thanks to accelerating change, we'll be on to the next epoch in no time :D

    And while I'd agree with the first commenter that it is possible to regress in some ways, our infrastructure and information networks are vastly superior to anything that has been on this world before. The only way we will permanently regress is by annihilation. Even if a whole continent is wiped out some how, technology will continue to progress in the hands of those still living, and capable. We're no longer as isolated as the Romans - we truly are a connected world. Their situation was a lot different than ours is. To tie in with what he said about space travel, the Russians are still doing manned missions, and we here in the States are simply sending machines (at least, until space travel becomes more commercialized and whatnot), so even if we completely fail in our endeavor to reach a posthuman state, there will be others that might make it.

    I think there is one key element that defines the Singularity, for me anyway. It is indefinitely accelerating intelligence. I do not yet see any sign of that.

    nop for us singularity = ai, mind uploading biotech life extension, nanotechnology not facebook and twitter

      I'm not saying that Facebook and Twitter ARE the singularity. I'm not even saying that smartphones are. I am saying that in the last few years, technology has so integrated itself with my lifestyle that I am functionally different than I was before. That could be one definition of the technological Singularity. These advances in communications, telepresence, accelerating intelligence, etc. have FUNDAMENTALLY changed the way the world works. Just 10-15 years ago, if you had told somebody about how incredibly connected we are now, they would have laughed.

      Anyway, my point is not to say that the Singularity HAS come, in fact I wrote this in the article...

      "Unlike many who believe that it will be one moment in time, I believe the case can be made that the Singularity happened not as one moment, but the combination of numerous factors coming together. I believe that the internet itself is just the medium, not the Singularity itself. But the omnipresent access we have to the internet seems to have exploded recently."

      I also said that I am asking the question of "Has the Singularity already happened?" I'm not entirely convinced that it HAS, or even WILL. But rather, I pose the idea that we may not even notice it when it does by pointing to things that have happened recently. We sometimes concentrate so much on looking forward that we don't see what HAS happened.

      It's just a thought piece. I'm not making any solid statements here.

    The first 'Singularity' occurred simultaneously with the Industrial Era. Many people thought ideas like the steam engine, the aeroplane and the damn PHONE were ridiculous concepts never to be incorporated into humanity.

    Learn your goddamn history.

    The next Singularity will occur when humanity becomes aware of a self-aware Artificial Intelligence... one of the greatest fallacies is believing a malicious A.I. won't try to deceive its creators first.

    Yes, TJL, there is much in what you say here.
    However it is important to avoid the usual anthropocentric interpretations.

    As I have pointed out elsewhere, those of the transhumanist cult seem unable to break away from the tired old SF paradigms human enhancement and "robot revolutions", while overlooking the emergence of a new life-form that is occurring right under our noses. Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary "life" process from what we at present call the Internet.

    It can already be observed as a a work-in-progress. And effectively evolving by a process of self-assembly. You have noticed that we are increasingly, in a sense, "enslaved" by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps and many other trappings of the net. We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we perceive as a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

    Consider this:

    There are at present an estimated 2 Billion internet users. There are an estimated 13 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.

    That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion. Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but can adopt multiple states.

    Without even crunching the numbers, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power. And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.

    The culmination of this exponential growth corresponds to the event that transhumanists inappropriately call "The Singularity" but is more properly regarded as a phase transition of the "life" process.

    The broad evolutionary model that supports this contention is outlined very informally in "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" , a free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website

    I too agree that the singularity is occurring in one fashion, the cyber space. I think this will become more evident to many when the acceleration of change has fully migrated to the biological world and we become masters of genomics and proteomics, transforming our body almost as fast as we update our i phones.

    It is a misunderstanding to say the Singularity is already here, the Singularity is not merely "a time when technology will advance to the point where it will be impossible for the unimproved biological human to keep up with the changes."

    The Singularity is a colossal explosion of intelligence. Vinge and Kurwzeil both agree colossal explosive intelligence is a key aspect, furthermore they both add, due to the astronomical magnitude, prediction will become difficult/impossible beyond the event horizon. Due to the nature of intelligence there are certain things you can predict at the beginning of the explosion, at the point of detonation, but rapidly the intelligence becomes vary Singular thus difficult for mere human minds to grasp.

    On my website I wrote: "The explosion begins with immortality, Post-Scarcity, limitlessness. It ends with ineffable strangeness, really weird beyond human comprehension."

    I give three clear indicators regarding the Singularity thus avoiding confusion regarding people who misunderstand the Singularity, which should avoid mistakes regarding people who say it is happening now.

    The three factors are:

    1. Immortality.
    2. Post-Scarcity.
    3. Limitlessness.

    So if you are not immortal, if everything is not free, and there are limits to things such as computation power, for example, then you can say the Singularity is not happening.

    I've written before via H+ about people misunderstanding the Singularity, have a read of it, it is called:

    Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Singularities
    By: Nikki Olson & Singularity Utopia

    There is a real need for workshops that update people of my (non-gadget oriented baby boomer) generation on the latest available technology so we can learn what is available that we can use to improve the quality of our daily lives.

    The Singularity will occur on December 21st this year. You guys have no idea what's about to occur...

      I do not concur with what you say will occur. lol

    Good article. Interesting comments. Expected negativity. I, for one, have always believed that rather than a single explosive point, as self defined just by the word "singularity", there has been an ongoing development going on "just under the radar". I feel we're somewhere in the knee of the curve. But the curve is SO gradual that no one really notices it. This has been the first public article that has questioned "Did we miss it happen?"

    Anyone can *stipulate* any definition of the singularity they want, but it's the definition that best captures our collective dilemma that will prove to be the most useful. I've always thought it useful to define the singularity in a way that shows its continuity with Modernity more generally. The conceptual historian Reinhart Kosselleck defines Modernity in terms of the relationship between our 'space of experience' and our 'horizon of expectation.' So a medieval yeoman, for instance, could *know* that his son and his son's son, etc., would live a life that roughly conforms with his experience. Not so a modern Walmart greeter. Modernity, roughly put, is understood in terms of our ever shrinking ability to use our experience to ground our expectation. There's a reason we ship our tribal elders to the 'obsolescence home'! The singularity, on this model, refers to the utter collapse of expectation, and the obsolescence of experience the instant it happens.

    When I can bring my vividly beautiful imagination to life in all it's nuance and beauty in a near instant - fully as a physical phenomenon (I assume using nano swarms of some sort) to experience as real as anything else - then I'll consider the Singularity a success. Only then can the true self emerge from it's cocoon and express itself in it's full power - as opposed to this little ape body. We are getting close.

    So, you spend most of your time playing with your telephone, right, sorry, your "smartphone." the future is here! How wonderful! If only everyone spent all of their time staring at a little rectangle chattering at everyone else, why, we could be like the blobs in Wall-EE! Why didn't Jules Verne think of that?
    As long as we're dependent on the machines, right, as long as we think we can't live without them, that's our new definition of the "singularity?"

    I'm reminded of the effect television had on people after mass adoption, and no, I don't consider that to have been an improvement. (not that I was there, before you leap to that conclusion, I'm in my thirties; I do know how to read, and not just on glowing rectangles)

    I wonder, how much of this information stream you have chosen to embed yourself in leads to knowledge about anything relevant to your life in the world? How much of it is noise, or worse, manipulative noise (pushed at you to get you to buy something, or believe something)?

    I've been around all of this technology my entire life, and what I see is people getting more fragmented, less literate, most distracted and ultimately, more infantile (the infant just wants to gratify wishes, however fleeting; the technology enabled/embedded consumer wants to stimulate wishes, then gratify them).
    Bleh. Immortality, abundance, conquest of space and time, what man of spirit wouldn't want those things? That's what they're selling, but what we get is lots of televisions, and limitless opportunities to distract each other and buy stuff.
    You can keep it.

    I've been thinking about this editorial and it has made be start to change my concept of "The Singularity".

    I recall back in 1993 when the Missouri/Mississippi rivers flooded. It was a "creeping" flood. From day to day there was not that much change in river levels, but as the summer wore on the rivers took over more and more land area.

    Rather than the singularity being a dam-burst or an explosion, it will be more like a river flooding as the accumulation of changes slowly, yet swifter than we realize start to inundate our lives.

    I am agreeing that I think the flood waters are lapping at the edges of our streets....

    What if....

    The term “Singularity” was coined by astrophysicists to refer to the zero-volume, infinitely dense center of a black hole where matter apparently disappears from our universe. It is a singular event that is so profoundly unique because it defies our laws of physics and nothing else like it (that we know of) occurs in the cosmos. We know that matter can change from one state to another, e.g., water, steam, or ice—gas, liquid, solid, or plasma—and mass can change into energy or vice versa; we can burn coal and make heat, ash, and smoke—but nowhere in our universe other than a black hole does matter 100 percent cease to exist—as far as we know.

    Ray Kurzweil has written about an anticipated major shift in human history, an event so revolutionary as to make everything that has gone before it relatively insignificant. Many pundits agree that a paradigm shift in human history of a similar ultra-transcendental nature will occur sometime during the middle of this century but not all agree on its nature—or how it will play out. Scientists and nearly all religionists profess that it will not alter their irreconcilable viewpoints but may suggest points on which they can agree.

    Futurists believe the Singularity must occur because knowledge is not only growing exponentially, but at an exponential rate so that a veritable explosion in technological progress must occur at some point. They suggest that the tipping point will come by 2020 when quantum computing enables artificial intelligence (AI) to begin improving its own source code faster than humans can. In that Singular Moment, AI will begin outperforming human intelligence and facilitate the determination of the function of all genes and the process of protein splicing. By this theory, it will be possible to transcend biology by reprogramming our bodies to a more youthful age, perfect health, an IQ of 165-plus and a PhD in any specialized human knowledge of our choice. That means that science will be able to perfect human “nature,” overcome all human shortcomings and problems—and defy aging and death—literally forever.

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