The Singularity is dull

I’ve known a surprising number of otherwise smart people who were snowed by Ray Kurzweil’s ridiculous Singularity book. The idea that apocalyptic change can be expected any day now is obviously an attractive one for whatever reason, regardless of your doctrinal background. The fact that the Singularity is an ostensibly scientific argument is probably part of the appeal, although what a synthesizer pioneer and crazy old C coder actually know about neurobiology and cognitive modeling is unclear at best. Still, the idea’s been gaining currency, if not asymptotically, and I guess it’s now mainstream enough that IEEE Spectrum opted to take the time to demolish it:

Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.

This has all gone on too long. The emperor isn’t wearing anything, for heaven’s sake.

The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

Which is, of course, correct. The idea that we cannot imagine the shape of human society one hundred years hence is, when you get right down to it, utterly banal. The pace of technological change is increasing, is always increasing. The problem is that everybody has a different baseline. To be able to say “technology is changing faster in my lifetime than ever before” you’d have to understand the technological change of previous eras as it was experienced in those eras, an impossible feat. Human society, and our ability to share knowledge, and build upon the intuitions of others — what Michael Tomasello calls the ratchet effect — means that the pace of advancement in the course of a single lifetime will almost always be greater than a single mind can effectively process. We will always be a part of something larger that ourselves, and always on the brink of something beyond our comprehension. It is always already the end of the world. The whole special section in IEEE Spectrum looks good, with equal time given to daffy futurists and actual researchers, but for my money the best effort at pegging a specific time in human history when one might expect the most dramatic, incomprehensibly rapid change comes from one of Brad DeLong’s commenters:

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal: The Dawn of Humanity: What astonishes me is the speed. They’ve got the origin date at -56,000, and the oldest modern human remains in Australia are -40,000. The route from East Africa across Asia to Northern Australia is 10K+ miles, which means humans were expanding at close to a mile a year. That’s just unbelievably fast.

We have all sorts of branches of homo surviving stably for a million plus years all over africa, asia, and europe, and this new branch comes out of Africa and by the end of the Great Migration, only a little over ten thousand years later, they are building boats to sail to Australia. And wiping out or out-competing every one of our homo sibling species on the way.

The Singularity is truly in our past.

True enough. And to tie things back in, the linked post, discussing new genetic research into the Great Migration, ponders a cognitive change as root cause of the human explosion, a theory with much currency among Cog Sci people like Michael Tomasello. (Who I’m not sure really makes his case, but anyhow he’s less of a tool than Pinker. No magic language widgets! Down with Chomksy!)


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