- The point in time when current trends may go wildly off
the charts--known as the "Singularity"--is now getting serious
attention. What it suggests is that technological change will soon become
so rapid that we cannot possibly envision its results.
- Technological change isn't just happening fast. It's
happening at an exponential rate. Contrary to the commonsense, intuitive,
linear view, we won't just experience 100 years of progress in the twenty-first
century-it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.
- The near-future results of exponential technological
growth will be staggering: the merging of biological and nonbiological
entities in bio-robotics, plants and animals engineered to grow pharmaceutical
drugs, software-based "life," smart robots, and atom-sized machines
that self-replicate like living matter. Some individuals are even warning
that we could lose control of this expanding techno-cornucopia and cause
the total extinction of life as we know it. Others are researching how
this permanent technological overdrive will affect us. They're trying to
understand what this new world of ours will look like and how accelerating
technology already impacts us.
- A number of scientists believe machine intelligence will
surpass human intelligence within a few decades, leading to what's come
to be called the Singularity. Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil defines
this phenomenon as "technological change so rapid and profound it
could create a rupture in the very fabric of human history."
- Singularity is technically a mathematical term, perhaps
best described as akin to what happens on world maps in a standard atlas.
Everything appears correct until we look at regions very close to the poles.
In the standard Mercator projection, the poles appear not as points but
as a straight line. Each line is a singularity: Everywhere along the top
line contains the exact point of the North Pole, and the bottom line is
the entire South Pole.
- The singularity on the edge of the map is nothing compared
to the singularity at the center of a black hole. Here one finds the astrophysicist's
singularity, a rift in the continuum of space and time where Einstein's
rules no longer function. The approaching technological Singularity, like
the singularities of black holes, marks a point of departure from reality.
Explorers once wrote "Beyond here be dragons" on the edges of
old maps of the known world, and the image of life as we approach these
edges of change are proving to be just as mysterious, dangerous, and controversial.
- There is no concise definition for the Singularity. Kurzweil
and many transhumanists define it as "a future time when societal,
scientific, and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what
will happen from our present perspective." A range of dates is given
for the advent of the Singularity. "I'd be surprised if it happened
before 2004 or after 2030," writes author and computer science professor
Vernor Vinge. A distinctive feature will be that machine intelligence will
have exceeded and even merged with human intelligence. Another definition
is used by extropians, who say it denotes "the singular time when
technological development will be at its fastest." From an environmental
perspective, the Singularity can be thought of as the point at which technology
and nature become one. Whatever perspective one takes, at this juncture
the world as we have known it will become extinct, and new definitions
of life, nature, and human will take hold.
- Many leading technology industries have been aware of
the possibility of a Singularity for some time. There are concerns that,
if the public understood its ramifications, they might panic over accepting
new and untested technologies that bring us closer to Singularity. For
now, the debate about the consequences of the Singularity has stayed within
the halls of business and technology; the kinks are being worked out, avoiding
"doomsday" hysteria. At this time, it appears to matter little
if the Singularity ever truly comes to pass.
- What Will Singularity Look Like?
- Kurzweil explains that central to the workings of the
Singularity are a number of "laws," one of which is Moore's law.
Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore noted that the number of transistors that
could fit on a single computer chip had doubled every year for six years
from the beginnings of integrated circuits in 1959. Moore predicted that
the trend would continue, and it has-although the doubling rate was later
adjusted to an 18-month cycle.
- Today, the smallest transistors in chips span only thousands
of atoms (hundreds of nanometers). Chipmakers build such components using
a process in which they apply semiconducting, metallic, and insulating
layers to a semiconductor wafer to create microscopic circuitry. They accomplish
the procedure using light for imprinting patterns onto the wafer. In order
to keep Moore's law moving right along, researchers today have built circuits
out of transistors, wires, and other components as tiny as a few atoms
across that can carry out simple computations.
- Kurzweil and Sun Microsystems' chief scientist Bill Joy
agree that, circa 2030, the technology of the 1999 film The Matrix (which
visualized a three-dimensional interface between humans and computers,
calling conventional reality into question) will be within our grasp and
that humanity will be teetering on the edge of the Singularity. (See their
essays in Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The
Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth, 2003.) Kurzweil explains that this will
become possible because Moore's law will be replaced by another computing
paradigm over the next few decades. "Moore's law was not the first
but the fifth paradigm to provide exponential growth of computing power,"
Kurzweil says. The first paradigm of computer technology was the data processing
machinery used in the 1890 American census. This electromechanical computing
technology was followed by the paradigms of relay-based technology, vacuum
tubes, transistors, and eventually integrated circuits. "Every time
a paradigm ran out of steam," states Kurzweil, "another paradigm
came along and picked up where that paradigm left off." The sixth
paradigm, the one that will enable technology á la The Matrix, will
be here in 20 to 30 years. "It's obvious what the sixth paradigm will
be-computing in three dimensions," says Kurzweil. "We will effectively
merge with our technology."
- Stewart Brand in his book The Clock of the Long Now discusses
the Singularity and another related law, Monsanto's law, which states that
the ability to identify and use genetic information doubles every 12 to
24 months. This exponential growth in biological knowledge is transforming
agriculture, nutrition, and health care in the emerging life-sciences industry.
- A field of research building on the exponential growth
rate of biotechnology is nanotechnology-the science of building machines
out of atoms. A nanometer is atomic in scale, a distance that's 0.001%
of the width of human hair. One goal of this science is to change the atomic
fabric of matter-to engineer machine-like atomic structures that reproduce
like living matter. In this respect, it is similar to biotechnology, except
that nanotechnology needs to literally create something like an inorganic
version of DNA to drive the building of its tiny machines. "We're
working out the rules of biology in a realm where nature hasn't had the
opportunity to work," states University of Texas biochemistry professor
Angela Belcher. "What would take millions of years to evolve on its
own takes about three weeks on the bench top."
- Machine progress is knocking down the barriers between
all the sciences. Chemists, biologists, engineers, and physicists are now
finding themselves collaborating on more and more experimental research.
This collaboration is best illustrated by the opening of Cornell University's
Nanobiotechnology Center and other such facilities around the world. These
scientists predict breakthroughs soon that will open the way to molecular-size
computing and the quantum computer, creating new scientific paradigms where
exponential technological progress will leap off the map. Those who have
done the exponential math quickly realize the possibilities in numerous
industries and scientific fields-and then they notice the anomaly of the
Singularity happening within this century.
- In 2005, IBM plans to introduce Blue Gene, a supercomputer
that can perform at about 5% of the power of the human brain. This computer
could transmit the entire contents of the Library of Congress in less than
two seconds. Blue Gene/L, specifically developed to advance and serve the
growing life-sciences -industry, is expected to operate at about 200 teraflops
(200 trillion floating -point operations per second), larger than the total
computing power of the top 500 supercomputers in the world. It will be
able to run extremely complex simulations, including breakthroughs in computers
and information technology, creating new frontiers in biology, says IBM's
Paul M. Horn. According to Moore's law, computer hardware will surpass
human brainpower in the first decade of this century. Software that emulates
the human mind-artificial intelligence-may take another decade to evolve.
- Nanotech Advances Promote Singularity
- Physicists, mathematicians, and scientists like Vinge
and Kurzweil have identified through their research the likely boundaries
of the Singularity and have predicted with confidence various paths leading
up to it over the next couple of decades. These scientists are currently
debating what discovery could set off a chain reaction of Earth-altering
technological events. They suggest that advancements in the fields of nanotechnology
or the discovery of artificial intelligence could usher in the Singularity.
- The majority of people closest to these theories and
laws-the tech sector-can hardly wait for these technologies to arrive.
The true believers call themselves extropians, posthumans, and transhumanists,
and are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but
to counter the technophobes and neo-Luddites who believe that unchecked
technological progress will exceed our ability to reverse any destructive
process that might un-intentionally be set in motion.
- The antithesis to neo-Luddite activists is the extropians.
For example, the Progress Action Coalition, formed in 2001 by bio-artist,
author, and extropian activist Natasha Vita-More, fantasizes about "the
dream of true artificial intelligence . . . adding a new richness to the
human landscape never before known." Pro-Act, AgBioworld, Biotechnology
Progress, Foresight Institute, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and
other industry groups acknowledge, however, that the greatest threat to
technological progress comes not just from environmental groups, but from
a small faction of the scientific community.
- Knowledge-Enabled Mass Destruction
- In April 2000, a wrench was thrown into the arrival of
the Singularity by an unlikely source: Sun Micro-systems chief scientist
Bill Joy. He is a neo-Luddite without being a Luddite, a technologist warning
the world about technology. Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems, helped create
the Unix computer operating system, and developed the Java and Jini software
systems-systems that helped give the Internet "life."
- In a now-infamous cover story in Wired magazine, "Why
the Future Doesn't Need Us," Joy warned of the dangers posed by developments
in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Joy's warning of the impacts
of exponential technological progress run amok gave new credence to the
coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, "We could
be the last generation of humans." Joy warned that "knowledge
alone will enable mass destruction" and termed this phenomenon "knowledge-enabled
- The twentieth century gave rise to nuclear, biological,
and chemical (NBC) technologies that, while powerful, require access to
vast amounts of raw (and often rare) materials, technical information,
and large-scale industries. The twenty-first-century technologies of genetics,
nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR), however, will require neither large
facilities nor rare raw materials.
- The threat posed by GNR technologies becomes further
amplified by the fact that some of these new technologies have been designed
to be able to replicate-i.e., they can build new versions of themselves.
Nuclear bombs did not sprout more bombs, and toxic spills did not grow
more spills. If the new self-replicating GNR technologies are released
into the environment, they could be nearly impossible to recall or control.
- Joy understands that the greatest dangers we face ultimately
stem from a world where global corporations dominate-a future where much
of the world has no voice in how the world is run. Twenty-first-century
GNR technologies, he writes, "are being developed almost exclusively
by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of
these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global capitalism
and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures."
- Joy believes that the system of global capitalism, combined
with our current rate of progress, gives the human race a 30% to 50% chance
of going extinct around the time the Singularity is expected to happen,
around 2030. "Not only are these estimates not encouraging,"
he adds, "but they do not include the probability of many horrid outcomes
that lie short of extinction."
- It is very likely that scientists and global corporations
will miss key developments-or, worse, actively avoid discussion of them.
A whole generation of biologists has left the field for the biotech and
nanotech labs. Biologist Craig Holdredge, who has followed biotech since
its beginnings in the 1970s, warns, "Biology is losing its connection
- When Machines Make War
- Cloning, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics
are blurring the lines between nature and machine. In his 1972 speech "The
Android and the Human," science-fiction visionary Philip K. Dick told
his audience, "Machines are becoming more human. Our environment,
and I mean our man-made world of machines, is becoming alive in ways specifically
and fundamentally analogous to ourselves." In the near future, Dick
prophesied, a human might shoot a robot only to see it bleed from its wound.
When the robot shoots back, it may be surprised to find the human gush
smoke. "It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them,"
- In November 2001, Advanced Cell Technology of Massachusetts
jarred the nation's focus away from recession and terrorism when it announced
that it had succeeded in cloning early-stage human embryos. Debate on the
topic stayed equally divided between those who support therapeutic cloning
and those, like the American Medical Association, who want an outright
- Karel Capek coined the word robot (Czech for "forced
labor") in the 1920 play R.U.R., in which machines assume the drudgery
of factory production, then develop feelings and proceed to wipe out humanity
in a violent revolution. While the robots in R.U.R. could represent the
"nightmare vision of the proletariat seen through middle-class eyes,"
as science-fiction author Thomas Disch has suggested, they also are testament
to the persistent fears of man-made technology run amok.
- Similar themes have manifested themselves in popular
culture and folklore since at least medieval times. While some might dismiss
these stories simply as popular paranoia, robots are already being deployed
beyond Hollywood and are poised to take over the deadlier duties of the
modern soldier. The Pentagon is replacing soldiers with sensors, vehicles,
aircraft, and weapons that can be operated by remote control or are autonomous.
Pilot less aircraft played an important role in the bombings of Afghanistan,
and a model called the Gnat conducted surveillance flights in the Philippines
- Leading the Pentagon's remote-control warfare effort
is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Best known for
creating the infrastructure that became the World Wide Web, DARPA is working
with Boeing to develop the X-45 unmanned combat air vehicle. The 30-foot-long
windowless planes will carry up to 12 bombs, each weighing 250 pounds.
According to military analysts, the X-45 will be used to attack radar and
antiaircraft installations as early as 2007. By 2010, it will be programmed
to distinguish friends from foes without consulting humans and independently
attack targets in designated areas. By 2020, robotic planes and vehicles
will direct remote-controlled bombers toward targets, robotic helicopters
will coordinate driverless convoys, and unmanned submarines will clear
mines and launch cruise missiles.
- Rising to the challenge of mixing man and machine, MIT's
Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (backed by a five-year, $50-million
U.S. Army grant) is busy innovating materials and designs to create military
uniforms that rival the best science fiction. Human soldiers themselves
are being transformed into modern cyborgs through robotic devices and nanotechnology.
- The Biorobotic Arms Race
- The 2002 International Conference on Robotics and Automation,
hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, kicked
off its technical session with a discussion on biorobots, the melding of
living and artificial structures into a cybernetic organism or cyborg.
- "In the past few years, the biosciences and robotics
have been getting closer and closer," says Paolo Dario, founder of
Italy's Advanced Robotics Technology and Systems Lab. "More and more,
biological models are used for the design of biometric robots [and] robots
are increasingly used by neuroscientists as clinical platforms for validating
biological models." Artificial constructs are beginning to approach
the scale and complexity of living systems.
- Some of the scientific breakthroughs expected in the
next few years promise to make cloning and robotics seem rather benign.
The merging of technology and nature has already yielded some shocking
progeny. Consider these examples:
- · Researchers at the State University
of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn have turned a living rat
into a radio-controlled automaton using three electrodes placed in the
animal's brain. The animal can be remotely steered through an obstacle
course, making it twist, turn, and jump on demand.
- · In May 2002, eight elderly Florida
residents were injected with microscopic silicon identification chips encoded
with medical information. The Los Angeles Times reported that this made
them "scannable just like a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket
checkout line." Applied Digital Solutions Inc., the maker of the chip,
will soon have a prototype of an implantable device able to receive GPS
satellite signals and transmit a person's location.
- · Human embryos have been successfully
implanted and grown in artificial wombs. The experiments were halted after
a few days to avoid violating in vitro fertilization regulations.
- · Researchers in Israel have fashioned
a "bio-computer" out of DNA that can handle a billion operations
per second with 99.8% accuracy. Reuters reports that these bio-computers
are so minute that "a trillion of them could fit inside a test tube."
- · In England, University of Reading
Professor Kevin Warwick has implanted microchips in his body to remotely
monitor and control his physical motions. During Warwick's Project Cyborg
experiments, computers were able to remotely monitor his movements and
open doors at his approach.
- · Engineers at the U.S. Sandia National
Labs have built a remote-controlled spy robot equipped with a scanner,
microphone, and chemical microsensor. The robot weighs one ounce and is
smaller than a dime. Lab scientists predict that the microbot could prove
invaluable in protecting U.S. military and economic interests.
- The next arms race is not based on replicating and perfecting
a single deadly technology, like the nuclear bombs of the past or some
space-based weapon of the future. This new arms race is about accelerating
the development and integration of advanced autonomous, biotechnological,
and human-robotic systems into the military apparatus. A mishap or a massive
war using these new technologies could be more catastrophic than any nuclear
- Where the Map Exceeds the Territory
- The rate at which GNR technologies are being adopted
by our society-without regard to long-term safety testing or researching
the political, cultural, and economic ramifications-mirrors the development
and proliferation of nuclear power and weapons. The human loss caused by
experimentation, production, and development is still being felt from the
era of NBC technologies.
- The discussion of the environmental impacts of GNR technologies,
at least in the United States, has been relegated to the margins. Voices
of concern and opposition have likewise been missing in discussions of
the technological Singularity. The true cost of this technological progress
and any coming Singularity will mean the unprecedented decline of the planet's
inhabitants at an ever-increasing rate of global extinction.
- The World Conservation Union, the International Botanical
Congress, and a majority of the world's biologists believe that a global
mass extinction already is under way. As a direct result of human activity
(resource extraction, industrial agriculture, the introduction of non-native
animals, and population growth), up to one-fifth of all living species
are expected to disappear within 30 years. A 1998 Harris Poll of the 5,000
members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences found that 70%
believed that what has been termed "The Sixth Extinction" is
now under way. A simultaneous Harris Poll found that 60% of the public
were totally unaware of the impending biological collapse.
- At the same time that nature's ancient biological creation
is on the decline, laboratory-created biotech life-forms-genetically modified
soybeans, genetically engineered salmon, cloned sheep, drug-crops, biorobots-are
on the rise.
- Nature and technology are not just evolving; they are
competing and combining with one another. Ultimately they will become one.
We hear reports daily about these new technologies and new creations, while
shreds of the ongoing biological collapse surface here and there. Past
the edges of change, beyond the wall across the future, anything becomes
possible. Beware the dragons.
- Originally published in The Futurist June 1, 2003.