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Singularity is near indeed, but which is it?

For some, one of the more optimistic scenarios for the future of humanity is what author and inventor Ray Kurzweil has labeled the “singularity”.  Kurzweil looks at the exponential character of some aspects of technology development (Moore’s law, memory capacity increases, decreasing cost and size, etc.) and generalizes this to all technology, and to human understanding of the earth and of ourselves.  He stresses the implications of exponential change by numerous analogies and examples, and says that much of our thinking about the world is constrained by not taking that exponential character into account.  A particular example is that of the human genome project which, after 1 year, had only sequenced 0.01 % of the target, leading many observers to estimate that it would take a century or longer to complete the project, an estimate proven to be woefully conservative by the rapid development of sequencing technology.  The sequencing project was, in fact, completed ahead of schedule in less than 15 years.

Kurzweil paints a future for humanity in which we transition from a biological to a non-biological species, with the transition point only 20 to 50 years into the future.  He forsees us escaping our biological limitations through pervasive use of nano-technology and a deep understanding, even a reverse engineering, of the workings of the human brain.

While the pace of technological development has indeed been breathtaking, one should also be aware that there are other changes in the world that may eclipse our release from our biological bodies.  In addition, the nature of technological growth, while it has been very rapid, may also be subject to constraints similar to the biological systems that appear in many of Kurzweil’s analogies.

Let us start with the issue of other changes in the world that may push the Kurzweil singularity into the distant future.  The most obvious such issue is climate change; however, this might be considered a symptom as much as a cause, and other problems such as overpopulation, habitat destruction, pollution, shrinking biodiversity, and overcrowding might also be examined.  The issue of species extinction is a case in point.

Many biologists believe that we are on the edge of another of the great extinction events in the history of living things on planet earth, comparable to the event that brought an end to the dinosaurs some 65 milion years ago.  There is huge body of information on this subject, and it is clear that species are indeed disappearing at an alarming rate – an exponential rate even.  The graph developed by Edmund Wilson et al illustrates this.

Species Extinction Rate chart

Exponential change is not constrained to technological change.  If we look at the composition of these extinctions we see that they are largely composed of microscopic organisms many of whose function is unknown or only partially known.  At the other end of the scale are the large mammals. 90% of the Lion population in Africa was estimated to have disappeared in the twenty years leading up to 2003.  The situation has not improved in the past decade, with some predicting the complete disappearance of lions from countries such as Kenya in only 10-20 years.

Much of the problems for other species has been the gains in affluence and the growth in the human population, resulting in rapid rises in energy production.  In fact, many claim that there is a fairly direct correlation between our gains in affluence, and consequent rise in energy consumption, and the disappearance of the creatures around us.

One particular analogy that Kurzweil uses to explain the idea of exponential growth is, perhaps tellingly, the spread of pond scum on the surface of a pond.  The area of the pond covered by the scum doubles each day.  At some point, the pond is 30% covered.  The observer , not understanding the pace of exponential growth, thinks there is a good deal of time before the pond is completely covered, and is alarmed to discover that it is completely covered only two days later.

To Kurzweil this analogy simply illustrates that most people do not appreciate the implications of exponential growth which, for him, is the essence of technological change. Equally, however, we might think in terms of ecological decline!  There are not so many years before we discover which is the reality.  The Singularity, one way or the other, is near indeed.