The Digital Singularity is like an earthquake for someone living over a fault. It can feel silly thinking and preparing for it because, even though it can happen any day, it might not for years or decades. In both cases though, every day it doesn’t happen is one day closer to when it will. Building an earthquake kit is relatively easy (mine is just a garbage can stuffed with stuff), and probably a collection of the wrong things because there’s no way to predict what will be damaged. Building a singularity kit is supposedly impossible, but the event can fundamentally change every aspect of finance and economics, personal and global. The topic came up today, which emphasized that today’s as good a day as any to discuss it.
If you’ve never heard of the Digital Singularity, don’t be surprised. Even though it has the potential to completely redefine our world, few discuss it because the implications are incredible. It is one possible culmination of the Information Age.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people’s lives rarely changed throughout the Agricultural Revolution. Learn a trade when you’re fifteen and it will be the same when you’re fifty, if you lived that long. After the Industrial Revolution, people began to expect change, and expected it to be positive. Everything will be bigger, smaller, faster, cheaper, and replaceable. With the Atomic Age, we recognized that the future could be awesome in fascinating ways, but also in terrifying ways. We also expected greater leaps in technology; so, we began to rely more on industry than agriculture, and looked to space as an exciting and feasible venture. The Information Age sped up change because it relied less on improving things and more on improving data and the way we could handle it. Change is assumed, and we expect to be surprised with new advances. Even a phone is out of date within months (even though I continue to use my years-old flip phone.)
Each new age meant new economies and personal finances: from cash being less important than food, to cash giving way to credit, to currencies existing mostly as numbers. Careers went from being born to the family farm, to becoming an basic laborer in a factory, to becoming an office worker for life, to advancing a career by retraining and advancing. How much you grew became less important than how much you made (and spent.)
So, what’s the next Age? At the start of each it was hard to predict the beginning of the next, though there were always someone who through insight or luck guessed right. Some are guessing that the Information Age will create its own ending, which makes it unique; and unique is what describes the Digital Singularity.
The Digital Singularity is the point at which the changes around us have accelerated to the point that humans can no longer adapt quick enough to keep up with the changes. We take it for granted that computers continue to get faster and more powerful, that automation and programming take on more tasks. We accept the probability of cars that drive themselves, phones that suggest how to run your life, and devices that check your health. The Singularity goes beyond that.
When a computer can reprogram itself in less time that it takes a human to reprogram it, then computers can evolve faster than humans. Instead of waiting for us to evolve, or even think up inventions, a computer can evolve at the speed of a computer. Computers are already smarter than humans in specialized tasks. More general computers are being developed that can do many tasks, though not all as well as a series of human experts. If technological change continues, eventually the computers can handle multiple tasks just like a human. Wait a while longer and the development means at least some computers will be able to do everything any human can do, and do it better. (Debates about subjective talents may now ensue, but they are necessarily subjective and not reconcilable.) Soon after that, computers can outperform any human, or at least convince us that they can because one of the skills will probably be persuasion.
The first Ages and Revolutions took centuries. The recent Ages have taken decades. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the world is redefining itself within years. Just compare life now to life in 2000. The Digital Singularity is called a singularity because it happens at a single point, or at least appears to from our perception. The change within the Singularity is more dramatic than any change previous and may happen within a few minutes. Take a break from your desk, come back, and find the world changed. That is not hyperbole. Hyperbole would be expecting the change to happen within a second – and there are those that think that is possible.
Why worry about the next Age, even if it is going to happen so abruptly? A median estimate for when this might happen is 2040. That’s before the planned final payment on my mortgage. So much for that amortization. A child born today will only be 25. So much for that college degree. Maybe it will happen later, but 90% of the experts believe it will happen before 2100. The kicker is that it could also happen sooner. Half of those experts think it will happen before 2040. There is more information about the Singularity than a person can read (though a computer could get through all of it relatively rapidly); but I suggest starting with this post by Wait But Why? If you want the sensationalized and subtle primer that happens in the space of a movie, I suggest watching Ex Machina, though it has to slow down the action to make it understandable it does add the critical element of artificial emotion. It is easy to understand a computer becoming intelligent; but what happens if it can mimic or feel or manipulate or manage some combination of human emotions?
The Digital Singularity would create an unimaginable super-human intelligence, which is why it is impossible to outguess the consequences for any of us, except by luck. Most of the movies that describe various scenarios make a fundamentally incorrect assumption; they assume the intelligence surpasses us, and then decides to deal with us. An intelligence that surpassed us in minutes would then surpass itself again within seconds. The unimaginable super-intelligence would not be able to comprehend the super-super-intelligence. One hour past the Singularity the new entity might consider us a footnote in its development as significant as some evolutionary branching that enabled us to detect the difference between dark and light, as no more relevant to its future. That’s why movies like the Matrix and Terminator are fundamentally flawed. They assume the machines or consciousness or whatever will care. Why?
The consequence for economies and finances is that any plan made today can have little expectation of being applicable after the Singularity. A retirement plan that includes inflation projections is a minor embellishment considering the possibility of anachronistic currencies and corporations. I want to write a subsequent post about the role of cornucopia machines and our society’s problems, but I’ll save that for later.
For now, my Digital Singularity Preparedness Kit is to focus on the essentials. Just like with an earthquake kit, I think in terms of water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care, and communications. There’s a great overlap between the earthquake and Singularity kits, but the quake kit is only meant to handle a short aberration. The Singularity kit may have to last an age, and – at least for me – means community, frugality, and an appreciation for the basics of life. True value takes an old, new meaning.
By the way, two of the possible scenarios make all of the planning moot. One, the Singularity already happened, it birthed a digital intelligence and consciousness, and that it evolved so quickly that it already departed for more interesting environments. Wave bye bye. Two, the Singularity happened, learned how to hide, and is hanging out, playing with or stewarding its toys, us; and we can’t tell. Wave hello to the entity that makes the NSA look like a single celled organism.