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Through the needle's eye

The seven distinct stages of a Vinge singularity

The Anti-singularity, part two

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This page originally posted 3-22-05; last updated on or about 11-26-08
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BACK to the Anti-singularity part one

"Jesus had it backwards (at least where a technological singularity is concerned). For the very richest will have the best chance of all passing through that particular needle's eye-- at least up to and until the final threshold. At that point they may realize leaving everyone else behind was not the best survival strategy after all."

-- J.R. Mooneyham, 2005


Please see part one for background information relating to Vernor Vinge and his technological singularity concept.

Alvin Toffler has speculated that advances in technology (and their related effects) are striking us in successive waves. I see no reason to expect that a technological singularity (should it occur at all) would be any different in that particular respect.

In other words, I would expect us to undergo such a singularity in something approximating discrete stages. With Vinge's own described singularity based on wondrous (or terrible) artificial intelligences representing the last of all.

Although I don't recall Vinge himself using the terms, his descriptions of a possible singularity sound much like the bifurcation points of dissipative structures. In that the experience could go either way (bad or good).

In my Rise and fall of star faring civilizations in our own galaxy I propose that there exists a 600 or so year long gauntlet for races like ours, wherein we typically destroy ourselves or at least so damage our civilization that we never end up making much of an impression on the rest of the galaxy. And that this would explain the silence in the heavens experienced so far.

In this page I will outline what I believe may represent some significant milestones in any rolling technological singularity. And how these may relate to the challenges of the gauntlet. Just as in Rise and fall, I expect these major elements to often blend into one another, and perhaps at times occur simultaneously (at least in some ways). But in general I expect the developments to come about in a chronological order somewhat like that presented below.

However, it's also true that some of the stages listed below may never happen at all-- for they depend on the path chosen by society in the previous technological wave. For instance, the dreadful Powers minority described below might never emerge, or else be long delayed, depending upon the decisions of society in the preceding stages.

The social singularity

If permitted to become fully realized worldwide the potent mix of the internet, personal computers, mobile phones, and other related devices could well produce radical changes in the nature of the state, work, and warfare in only a few generations.

But full realization may not be allowed by the powers that be, as they realize related changes could massively reduce their stature and influence. The progress of the human race could be delayed by decades or even centuries as existing governments and multi-national corporations squelch certain developments they feel to be threatening to their own aims. As of 2005 it's impossible to predict the outcome of this struggle between what is and what wants to be.

The security singularity

This phenomenon looks to be taking place almost simultaneously with the social singularity-- tending to lag in effect only a bit as of 2005.

This approximate simultaneity of the two stages makes the security singularity doubly dangerous for humanity, as the very entities most threatened by social change may also see security excesses as key to their survival. And the social singularity itself will be producing new temptations in technologies for realizing such excesses on almost a daily basis.

The world may be further endangered by the reaction of the masses to the social singularity. For they may basically wish to slow down the pace of change for the simple reason that mounting stress, confusion, and uncertainty is wreaking havoc with their lives. Thus, they might be easily persuaded by leaders in government and business to go along with new excesses in security measures.

A new and potent terrorist strategy will be prone to making governments, business, and individuals go overboard on security and surveillance measures-- and these measures will only strengthen this particular type of terror, leading to a downward spiral overall for civilization unless it can pull itself back from the brink and accept that a certain level of risk is essential for a free and advancing society.

The terror strategy referred to above will be supremely simple and self-reinforcing. No top-down strategy by a state or business will be able to defeat it. The more secrecy and surveillance used against it, the stronger it will become.

However, some interests may see this steady empowerment and escalation of terrorism in general by ever-greater tightening of state and business security measures as a good thing. For ultimately it will result in national and/or corporate leaders exerting total control over everyone else in a global fascist state (with perhaps some elements of a theocracy included).

This ultimate fascist state would by no means extinguish old-fashioned terrorism by small groups or individuals. But such traditional scale terrorist acts will be considered of negligible consequence compared to those perpetrated by the state itself upon its population, in this scenario.

The evolving model singularity

As of 2005 the concepts of artificial evolution and modeling have not yet been fully integrated. Instead, they exist as separate efforts to adequately simulate chunks of the real world in virtual space, and getting physical devices or software to improve in quality and performance at an accelerated pace via evolutionary strategies and tactics. Eventually these efforts will come together and feed off one another, to vastly increase the speed of potential innovation across the board.

In this stage will be possible major leaps forward in hardware, software, and bioengineering projects of all kinds.

Again, there will be formidable opponents to certain aspects of this process. People and organizations who will strive to stymie or warp or skew such advances in various distasteful-- even psychotic-- ways, rather than allowing them to blossom across all industries and endeavors simultaneously.

Partly this opposition will come from established businesses which don't want the increased competition implied, and partly from the state and various elite who don't wish to concede power and influence to a more self-sufficient and self-realized public.

The micromachine singularity

Although early precursors to true nanotech exist even today (2005), it appears likely there'll be a micromachine revolution sooner than a nanotech version. We're simply better and more comfortable with the micromachine scale than true nanotech at the moment, and likely will remain that way for a while, as nanotech involves much fiddling in regions sufficiently alien to Newtonian perspectives as to practically be quantum in nature.

By contrast, much micromachine technology may be created using tried and true techniques established long ago in computer chip manufacturing.

There are substantial economic and technological gains to be made by replacing clunkier larger technologies with micromachines. Therefore there's much encouragement of the field from industries as diverse as medical, aerospace, and defense.

The nanotechnology singularity

This phase will basically extend the previous acceleration in innovation deeper into the foundation infrastructure of human civilization.

Such gains may be realized here that many governments decide they no longer require taxes (or votes) from citizens, and many corporations decide they no longer require customers or investors.

At the very beginning many citizens might be thrilled to hear they'll never have to pay taxes again. Later they might not be too concerned that they're losing the right to vote, too. Down the road however they'd get much worse news. For the approach of this stage will look like imminent nirvana to would-be dictators worldwide. A mad scramble for power is likely to ensue at the top and middle of governments and large corporations everywhere-- with very unpleasant results for humanity-at-large.

Almost everyone could lose their jobs and various government and employment-related benefits over the span of a single generation. Only the earliest years of this would resemble the Great Depression of the 20th century: later decades would be much worse.

As governments no longer need the people for taxes or votes, top leaders do what they want, much as the oil-rich sheiks of the 20th century in similar circumstances did. Only in the future case the leaders will enjoy a much improved security system against any sort of rebellion or resistance from the lower classes, and so perceive practically no pressures whatsoever to attend to issues affecting the masses.

The Powers (or high social/elites) singularity

Here a relatively small number of the social elite will gain such immense advantages over everyone else that some individuals and small groups or families among them will seek extreme domination over us all-- and possibly succeed.

Here may lie a crucial bifurcation point for the race as a whole: for humanity could sink once again into the same morass it endured for the vast majority of history and pre-history, where a tiny group of 'royals' or priests at the top lived in splendor as most everyone else lived as peasants: with virtually no middle-class whatsoever.

Backsliding to such a state by the late 21st or early 22nd century would likely save humanity from ever spontaneously extinguishing itself via something like global nuclear war, plus reduce global terrorism perpetrated by non-state entities to a level similar to that experienced by the North Korea of 2000. But also like the 20th century's North Korea, life for most would be brutal and impoverished, with all the most important aspects of their lives dictated by those few at the top. Free will would be virtually non-existent. So the reason the qualification above is italicized is that from that point on there'd be more terrorism than ever going on-- but overwhelmingly practiced by the state rather than small groups or individuals. Much like Joseph Stalin's USSR, or the state described in George Orwell's book 1984.

As of 2005 current trends indicate humanity could easily revert back to a high-tech version of a Medieval society. America is attempting to lead the world that way as I write this.

The artificial intelligence singularity

This represents the final stage of a Vinge singularity. Here AI develops to virtually human or super-human levels, making the general population of living human beings more expendable than ever before.

The state of computer technology will mean that-- for all practical purposes-- a nearly infinite number of artificial intelligences will be available for creation. Once such AIs reach human or near-human level they'll easily outstrip real human intellectual achievement by sheer numbers alone. Add ever advancing robotics to these for physical interaction and you rapidly exhaust many reasons for a tiny human elite to want nine billion human beings cluttering up their planet.

But once the world's human population has been winnowed down to only some ten thousand or so, how long might it be before all those hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of AIs then in existence decide to finish the job? Or at least begin ignoring what's left of humanity to the extent that the people (including the elite rulers) begin dying of purposeful neglect?

It can't be known from this vantage point if humanity will have any say at all in its own fate by that time. But it would seem logical that we'd have a better chance at such influence if there were billions of us masterfully and independently wielding the latest in technological means, knowledge, and power when that milestone was reached, than only some thousands of an isolated and spoiled aristocracy, serviced by millions or billions of de facto slaves of one sort or another.

Which version of humanity do you think would have a better chance of at least holding their own with the machine intelligences, if those proved adverse to our continued survival?

Consider that for a moment, and then read this.

While it's somewhat possible those of middle-age today may see many of the events described above within their own lifetime, our children and grand-children almost certainly will.

As is true in most potential calamities, prevention is far easier and cheaper to affect than recovery after the fact. So we adults living today may possess far more power and influence for preventing this particular form of human extinction than any generation following.

The longer we allow certain ill-advised trends to continue in our political and economic theaters, the more difficult it will be to change subsequent events for the better.

Basically it boils down to this: Do we love our children?

RELATED LINK: The way ahead

All text above except for obvious quotes copyright © 1993-2008 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.