Let’s be clear about what the Singularity is; we are talking about a colossal event that would radically transform life as we know it. The Singularity is enormously powerful – there is nothing tiny about it. Picture a truly astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions; this is what the Singularity is. But “the use and abuse of the term ‘Singularity’ is rapidly proliferating”i, and according to some pundits almost everything these days is a Singularity.
Quibbling about definitions can be boring, but clarification is essential to dispel widely divergent and obfuscating interpretations of the ‘technological Singularity’. Advocates of a ‘plurality of Singularities’ view regard past Singularities as more limited than the future Singularity, and as such tend to refer to them as ‘mini-Singularities’. At the extreme end there are those that allege that almost all disruptive events or processes are a Singularity. But regardless of whether or not one views the mini-Singularity as a high or low frequency type of event, the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim must be strongly refuted because it represents a fundamental misapprehension regarding the Singularity concept, muddies and dilutes the meaning, and most importantly, puts forth an unfalsifiable claim. Hopefully via reasserting the stupendous awesomeness of the Singularity, and illustrating the scientific errors committed by ‘multiple Singularity’ theorists, we can transcend the boring and irrational nature of these mediocre definitions.
As mentioned, the term ‘mini-Singularity’ varies in size and scope, ranging anywhere from popular gadgetry, to the advent of the Internet or radical cultural shifts such as the Industrial Revolution. Executive Director of Singularity University Salim Ismail argues: “The iPhone arriving was a Singularity, everything changed.”, and Singularity University Trustee Reese Jones suggested a computer beating a human at chess was an example of a Singularity. The economist Tyler Cowen suggests the Agricultural Revolution could be deemed a slow Singularity, and Cyborg Anthropologist ‘Case Organic’ utilized the diminutive term to describe the death of Steve Jobs. Case Organic refers to media saturation where we all share an identical moment in time: “We are all experiencing a micro-singularity in experiencing the death of Steve Jobs at the same moment worldwide.” Robin Hanson, an economist, states: “But whatever the Industrial Revolution was, clearly it was an event worthy of the name “singularity.” The underlying logic of the majority of ‘mini-Singularity’ claims is that such events share attributes of change, disruption, and unpredictability, thus there is a linkage with the Singularity albeit in a more limited or gradual way. These kinds of Singularity dilutions are exactly the type of conceptual inflation we object to.
The Singularity entails a monumentally gargantuan event, characterized by an exceptionally rapid explosion of intelligence, which encompasses the creation of supreme cognitive ability potentially billions of times more powerful than human brains. Unlike any event in history, the Singularity would entail a massive evolutionary leap forward. Ray Kurzweil, writing in his book The Singularity is Near, emphasizes the dissimilarity of the Singularity to any other kind of event: “To put the concept of the Singularity into further perspective, let’s explore the history of the word itself. “Singularity” is an English word meaning a unique event with, well, singular implications.” The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence emphasizes the magnitude of the event when they write: “The Singularity is beyond huge.” Eliezer Yudkowsky in particular speaks on how the Singularity is different from any other technological revolution when he says “If you tamper with intelligence, you are lifting up the technology tree by its roots.” Vernor Vinge, in a Singularity 1 on 1 interview, gives the example of moving very quickly from an existence as a grasshopper to that of a human, an analogy meant to illustrate the power of an intelligence explosion to alter one’s experience of, and ability to manipulate the world. Simply put; no matter which of the Three Major Schools one adheres to, there is nothing mundane or mediocre about the Singularity.
It is misleading then to state the Singularity can be mini, or that Singularities are already happening or have happened. The error is comparable to calling a gentle breeze a hurricane, typhoon, or tornado. There is a windy commonality but there is a great difference. If you told someone we’re experiencing a mini-hurricane during a barely noticeable breeze, they would probably be rather confused. It’s a logical fallacy to observe commonalities and then arrive at conclusions of close similarity regarding loosely shared attributes. Aeroplanes, for example, are fast and our planet’s rotation is fast (approximately 1,040 miles per hour) but aeroplanes are definitely not planets. There is a fast commonality but aeroplanes and planets are extremely dissimilar despite the speed similarity. A variety of past technologies have undoubtedly been disruptive and revolutionary, but they pale in comparison to the Singularity as defined by Vinge and others identified above. Mini-Singularities are so unlike the Singularity that they don’t even refer to the same category of events. To illustrate the conceptual absurdity of ‘mini-Singularities’, we consider them better referred to as Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Singularities.
But the main danger of these superfluous and flimsy senses of “Singularity” “isn’t of being wrong: it’s of being “not even wrong.””ii The phrase “not even wrong” applies to statements that cannot be falsified, or cannot be used to make predictions about the natural world, such as metaphysical claims which by their very nature cannot be disproved. For instance, no amount of empirical evidence can disprove the God hypothesis because it is not an empirically testable claim, thus one would say the claim is “not even wrong”. In the case of the mini-Singularity, the claim is “not even wrong” because it is general and vague, which makes it difficult to make a case for or against, thereby limiting its predictive value. For instance, if the iPhone was a mini-Singularity, then why wasn’t the iPad? And if the iPad was a mini-Singularity, then why not the Android OS? Is every popular invention a Singularity? There are no good answers to these questions within the ‘mini-Singularity’ framework because the measures of the mini-Singularity are ill defined and broadly applicable. By extension, if someone tells you that the next major Apple innovation will be a ‘mini-Singularity’, what does that allow you to anticipate? The answer is “nothing”, or at least “next to nothing”. Thus in the scientific realm, the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim is a fruitless claim.
The ‘mini-Singularity’ claim is also a futile claim because we gain nothing empirically by calling past events ‘mini-Singularities’. Put another way, calling the iPhone or the Agricultural Revolution a ‘mini-Singularity’ gives people no new information about the event or process that they didn’t already know. The application of the concept is therefore unavailing, which is hardly something that scientists and rationalists ought to tolerate.
In addition to being ‘not even wrong’, “Observations like “We’re now living through a Singularity” or “The Industrial Revolution amounted to a Singularity” empty the concept of any interest”iii. They serve to normalize the event and make it mundane. Via hijacking the word ‘Singularity’, mini-Singularities dilute and obscure the original Singularity concept therefore if they gain currency they threaten any well-defined empirical Singularity hypothesis. Eliezer Yudkowsky writes, “As the word “Singularity” gets looser and looser, the stuff you hear about it gets more and more irrational and less and less relevant.” Irrationality and irrelevance are not beneficial to discourse. Singularity dilution jeopardizes meaningful discussion of the Singularity amongst scientists, technologists, and average members of the public. The value of the Singularity hypothesis, like any empirical claim, is not increased by adjusting it to incorporate unscientific viewpoints. Precisely the opposite is true, therefore the utility of the word increases immensely if we avoid conflation of meanings. The key is that as is the case for each in the trichotomy, Singularity scenarios offer falsifiable claims with empirical content. To be clear, the concern here is not to do with what AGI actually entails, or what the future actually holds, it is with the misapplication of a concept.
Historically we see how science can be controversial. People generally possess a sociological craving for normality thus people didn’t react well to Darwin’s explanation of how we descended from apes. Galileo’s ideas about our solar system demonstrated how people resist change. Darwinism today continues to be controversial for some people. The radicalism of science can often be disconcerting. Science often requires that we think different. In the quantum world a recent controversy occurred regarding neutrinos allegedly traveling faster than light, which entailed one scientist stating he’d eat his shorts live on TV if the faster than light claim was true. Perhaps neutrinos cannot travel faster than light but the point is regarding how people react to radical changes; there is a tendency to normalize abnormal theories. But mainstream scientific extremism to date is insignificant compared to the utterly extreme nature of the Singularity. We must think big, very big, in order to properly conceptualize what is meant by the Singularity.
On these grounds we suggest the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim should be rejected.
Postscript: After we finished writing our refutation of itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny Singularities we noticed Victor Storiguard’s article “One Singularity…Or Many?” The plurality of Singularities hypothesized by Victor compels us to present this addendum. Our response to his assertion that there could be many future Singularities (some of those arguably from Victor’s position being ‘mini’) is the following:
The phenomenon of the Singularity doesn’t depend on everyone becoming uniformly super-intelligent, but Victor’s exposition “One Singularity…or Many” misunderstands this crucial point. Nor does the Singularity demand everyone must become superintelligent. The Singularity hypothesis is about the creation of super-intelligence in general. For example not everyone has experienced the Industrial Revolution. Some people today (remote tribes) live very primitive and isolated existences where they don’t interact with the mass of Humanity, but this doesn’t mean multiple Industrial Revolutions will occur. Once industry has bloomed, industrial proficiency will always be evident unless the human species is totally extinguished thereby leading to a new lifeform evolving to take our place. The Singularity will make a lasting and indelible mark on the universe, which will always be evident even to those who choose not to partake in technological advancement.
The Singularity happens regardless of who witnesses it, therefore Victor’s misapprehension is even more fundamental than the above elucidates. It is like the classic tree falling in the forest problem. Simply because no one notices the fallen tree this doesn’t mean the same tree can fall again. The creation of alacritous superintelligence defines a change in the universe, where at one moment the smartest being on planet earth was ‘x’, and the next the smartest being was ‘y’.
The event itself does not entail that anyone notices, it entails an event of a specific kind happens. The fundamental misapprehension is that humans can repeatedly become the second smartest species on the planet. Becoming the second smartest species on the planet is the kind of event that by its very definition can only happen once. This is why the Singularity, the creation of revolutionary superintelligence, is the kind of event that can only happen once. The point is that in order to repeat the Singularity one would have to start the universe over again.
Therefore we conclude the word Singularity cannot be borrowed and applied to different things as it is with itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny Singularities, nor does it name more than one event. It is utterly unique, singular.
Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation.
Singularity Utopia defines herself as a superlative mind-explosion expert, specializing in Post-Scarcity awareness via instantiations of Singularity activism, based on the Self-Fulfilling-Prophecy phenomenon.
*After fruitful discussions with David Pearce it was found that his views regarding the (un)likelihood of a Singularity of the nature we describe here could not be adequately represented within the scope of this piece. The authors thank David very much for his help in developing the ideas here.
i David Pearce, personal correspondence.
ii David Pearce, personal correspondence.
iii David Pearce, personal correspondence.