Reflections on the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil (RK). Kevin Kelly (KK). Jaron Lanier (JL). These are three voices that we must digest in order to get a better sense of the future we are exponentially moving towards. In many respects, I feel that all three have been powerfully misunderstood as eccentrics – if we properly engage with their written work, a clear path of understanding emerges.

If we actually read what RK wrote, it becomes evident that he’s not some mystical cult leader as critics will often proclaim. He’s someone who has labouriously tracked the trends in various technologies to arrive at a fundamental observation: the rate of exponential growth (in ICT) is itself growing exponentially. If we could summarize the logic behind most of what RK is saying, it can be summarized as “because of exponential growth.” It’s hard for us humans to wrestle with exponential growth since it looks a lot like linear growth for so long until, in an instant, it’s not – until that curve shoots up and all our linear logic can no longer help us. We may at first brush off his observations with the thought that “it’s just about information and communication technology and so we’re all safe and sound” – not so, my friends.  If a process can be automated – that is, broken down into steps and repeated – it can be digitized. If something can be digitized, it has entered the realm of ICT and is subject to the law of accelerating returns. Let that sink in for a little bit.

We have already felt these effects ourselves since the Great Recession. Total economic productivity has long been back to normal but the number of jobs never quite recovered – all the mid-tier jobs responsible for sustaining the middle class have progressively been automated. The strange logic of this is that it’s easier to automate jobs with some routine processes than those with a little or a lot of said processes. That results in the highest tier and lowest tier jobs remaining largely unaffected, while what we can call the middle class jobs being the first on the chopping block. Many of the social dilemmas we are facing, as a world – especially in 2017 – have their roots in the dying of the middle class and the struggles therein. If you want to read more about this, I recommend Race Against The Machine as a short primer.

If we can reduce the thrust of RK to the law of accelerating returns – this is reductionist, but it will suffice for now – we can reduce KK to the concept of what he calls the technium. Using the categorization of W. Brian Arthur, there are three different scopes for the use of the word technology: (1) technology-singular, (2) technology-plural, and (3) technology-collective. Technology-singular would be something like a hammer; technology-plural would be a family of technologies like back-end programming languages; technology-collective comprises all possible sets of technology-singulars and technology-collectives as an abstract whole. When KK uses the term the technium he is referring to the technology-collective. With these definitions out of the way, let’s explore what KK means when he says that the technium is an extension of life itself. (Note: if you are religious in a literalist and fundamentalist way, adhering to the letter of your preferred religious text(s), what KK says may appear blasphemous to you. All I can offer as a compromise is the thought that when one understands God to have created humankind, one can see that as the birth of consciousness, as the birth of spiritual awareness, without necessarily referring to bodily/material creation. If that thought does not appeal to you, feel free to pick up a copy of KK and throw it in a bonfire. To each one’s own.)

Taking evolution from its foundational origins, KK walks us through the progression of life from energy to matter and, finally, to information. In this progression, he sees humanity as the bridge between pure matter and pure information – this view makes sense when we see our DNA as repositories of evolutionary information. Moreover, this view is strengthened when we see our technology – essentially, knowledge – as the extension into a purist realm of information. Through KK’s lens, the technium becomes the “seventh kingdom” alongside the six animal kingdoms, where humankind is the collective parent from which it emerges. To be fair, KK is very cautious when he speaks about the accelerating future, especially with regards to AI (listen to his recent podcast with Sam Harris). However, his description of the technium as an extension of humanity only serves to amplify the law of accelerating returns laid out by RK. A simple interpretation is that we are on the cusp of entering a new era of humanity; we are exponentially approximating this new cusp and, while it is firmly rooted in humanity-at-present, it may become something beyond which we can comprehend (from our present vantage point).

Alas, now we are ready to talk about the Singularity. Ignoring the physics definition and focusing on the concept which RK has defined, the Singularity is a point in time that we can no longer conceive of using our present logic. KK points out to us that we have already undergone one Singularity – the invention of (spoken) language when we were hominids. Life after language cannot be conceived of through the concepts of life before language – it is a fundamental threshold of understanding. Likewise, we are entering a technological Singularity, ushered in through AI, which will create a world that we cannot conceive of with our present logic. One caveat to this is grounded in a quote by the esteemed SciFi writer, William Gibson: “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Thus it is possible for those working on the frontier of ICT and AI technology to not feel the upcoming technological Singularity the same way that, let’s say, someone working in a non-ICT field without ICT training will. In other words, a PhD in Computer Science working in Deep Learning will not feel the impacts of the Singularity as greatly as a car mechanic.

Where’s the ray of hope in all of this exponential exponentiality? Let’s bring in some JL insight. JL’s core point brings us back to the issue of the diminishing middle class we touched on earlier. If we understand AI to be the critical force in the upcoming technological Singularity and if we recognize the importance of data in the training of AI algorithms, we are ready for what JL has to say. In short, we are not giving enough credit and/or attribution to people that supply the data upon which the AI algorithms are being built and, as such, therein lies a potential key to saving the middle class. The embedded designs of the web and the platforms built upon the web mask the individual contributions of each user – it is a vast curtain that veils the millions upon millions of people who are slowly contributing to the consciousness of the web’s hive mind. Furthermore, all those contributions become centralized – and monetized – through only a few platforms. The critical point here is that the platforms need the users (for data) more than the users need the platforms – JL compares these platforms to banks, which is a very apt comparison (banks of data vs banks of money). The only critical difference in this comparison is that we own our money at the banks whereas we do not own our data with platforms; moreover, even if we did own our data, per se, the true value of the data is in its aggregate and analytic form, not necessarily in the individual profiles. Although there is no strong solution at this point, it is critical to see how users having an economic stake in their data could be a central turning point. Thus, JL’s importance among this trinity of thinkers is in conceiving of how to sustainably enter the new age. If we enter the technological Singularity without a middle class and/or mechanisms of wealth redistribution, there’s no doubt in my mind we are going to have a new feudal age – a data-driven feudalism rather than a sword-and-armour feudalism.

Reflecting on all three thinkers, I’m confident that the Singularity will happen faster than we currently expect, that it will be a genuine extension of humanity-at-present, and that it must be entered with economic provisions for the preservation of the middle class and/or some means of wealth redistribution. Beyond that, I encourage everyone to read up on the Singularity and to form their own opinions.

The Singularity is near.

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