Re: HISTORY: Historical Singularities?

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Mon Mar 12 2001 - 23:12:38 MST

Ben Houston wrote:
> Sometimes I think that half the world experienced a singularity-
> like event a few centuries ago and has been trying to catch up
> ever since. I guess I am referring to radical cultural innovations
> of the past such as those that created the science & technology
> focused Western civilization.

I suppose you could think of the last 600 years of human
history as the leading edge of the Singularity, if you
wanted, though that's not how this term is usually used
by Vinge, Yudkowsky, Broderick, and others who have written
about the event, which they anticipate will occur sometime
during the first half of the 21st century (barring disaster).
As envisioned by these writers, the Singularity will be
such a radical transformation of sentient existence that
there isn't much that a contemporary human can imagine
or predict about life beyond that point, even for
humans who happen to live through it, let alone for the
nonhuman, or transhuman, intelligences which may become
possible in the relatively near future, and whose advent
may precipitate a runaway, inflationary growth of
technology beyond the "ordinary" exponential growth
seen today in trends such as Moore's Law.

Ray Kurzweil (see )
claims that **all** evolutionary processes (beginning
with the first appearance of life on Earth, though perhaps the
trend could even be extrapolated all the way back to the Big Bang
[or earlier -- but that's getting into very speculative cosmology!]) are
characterized by a growth curve of complexity (the precise
definition of which remains elusive) with respect to time
whose order is at least exponential, and perhaps even
greater than exponential.

To speak of the advancing complexity of life on Earth
is not to imply that this effect is homogeneous -- that
would be obviously incorrect. In terms of sheer biomass,
the bacterium is still the most successful form of
life on this planet, just as it was a billion years ago.
It's only the outer envelope, the high-water mark of
information-processing capacity, that has followed
Kurzweil's exponential curve.

Similarly, in the domain of human cultural evolution,
which has outrun the limits of change imposed by biological
evolution and has thus kept the curve accelerating
(according to Kurzweil and others), it is the outer
envelope of technological advance, as carried on
by the inheritors of the European commercial, scientific,
and industrial revolution that began 600 years ago, which
is being tracked by the same exponential curve (according to
Kurzweil). In his recent book _Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny_
( )
Robert Wright argues that while the detail of which particular
linguistic, political, or geographical region happens to hold sway
at the leading edge of complexity is subject to the vagaries of
historical accident, the practical intellectual
capital accumulated by a faltering civilization or empire has
always been passed on to a successor which takes its place at the
forefront of cultural evolution. A single emperor's xenophobia
and paranoia may thus have been responsible for the eclipse
by European culture of the initially more advanced Chinese
civilization during the past half millennium.

> During colonization of the 1800's don't you think the inhabitants of many of
> the exploited territories felt like they missed some singularity-like event?

Just as there are biological species that have remained
unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, there have
(until recently, anyway) been some human societies that remained
static and culturally similar to ancestral human groups of
tens of thousands of years ago, and others whose development
did not keep pace with those at the far edge of the global
envelope. And yes, those unfortunates have suffered terribly
at the hands of their more technologically-developed
conspecifics when the bubbles of geographical isolation
protecting them have been pierced. For the people in the
regions of the world that underwent colonization by European
powers, the initial contact with technologically-superior
conquerors must have been a confrontation with beings beyond
the horizon of their imaginations, a visitation by cruel gods.

The _Economist_ article that you cite, at
"Innovation shows increasing returns to scale, meaning
that regions with advanced technologies are best placed to
innovate further. New ideas are typically produced from a
recombination of existing ideas (in the phrase coined by Martin
Weitzman), so environments rich in ideas produce chain reactions
of innovation."
Kurzweil calls this the "Law of Accelerating Returns":
"Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable
methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used
to create the next stage. As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary
process increases exponentially over time. Over time, the "order" of the
information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of
how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival)
increases... Technological evolution is another such evolutionary process."
Or to paraphrase Luke: them as has, gets.

The increasing rate of technological change at the edge of the
envelope also magnifies the gradient between the leading edge and the
static or more sluggishly changing regions, and to the extent that the
latter are aware of the disparity, certainly adds to the perception that
"from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him."
This is clearly a dire source of political unrest, and unfortunately,
it is likely to remain so, even if the increasing wealth of the
industrialized and information-rich parts of the world makes them
less stingy with foreign aid, as urged by the article in _The

I caught the last half of an interesting documentary on the CNBC
cable channel the other day entitled _Money & Power: The History of
Business_ (for which a companion book was recently published, see: )
Progressing from the invention of the steam locomotive (which is
where I switched on) through the transcontinental railroad,
Standard Oil, Coca-Cola, the Model T, and the movie business
to Bill Gates and the AOL/Time-Warner merger, the film ended on
a feel-good note by describing the marvellous results of an
economic development project in Laos which provided a silk weaver
there with a Web site through which she can sell her goods
on the world market (sorry, I don't have the URL), the suggestion
being that what used to be called the Third World is about
to be sucked into the global economic vortex by the World-Wide
Web, and that everybody will get rich and live happily ever after.
Well, maybe. While one hears stories about how, in remote
villages in China, the first things people manage to get
hold of once they have access to electricity, and ahead of
what might be considered more important amenities, are
televisions and VCRs, creating the infrastructure to get
these people on the Web might take a while (longer than
some folks on this list think it will take to get to the
Singularity here in the U.S.!). Even in this country, it's
uncertain when cheap, fast, wireless Internet access is going
to be available to folks on the road, or living outside the
range of telephone service (see the article at )

In any case, barring catastrophe, the technological leading edge seems
likely to remain with European and European-derived cultures (though
it wasn't so long ago that lots of people expected the torch
to be passed to the Pacific Rim economies -- SF author
William Gibson certainly wrote _Neuromancer_ and its sequels
with that expectation back in the mid-80's, and the 1982 film
_Blade Runner_ took that line, too). I did read a
rather strange SF novel a couple of years ago, _The Fortunate
Fall_ by Raphael Carter
( )
which imagines that the Northern Hemisphere has suffered
setbacks which permit Africa to take the lead and achieve
Singularity (the story is set in a recovering Eurasia, North
America is a shambles, and Africa is cordoned off and populated
by mysterious transhuman entities). That almost seems like
mockery, given the sorry state of that continent today
(by First World standards). An irreverent, politically
incorrect (and potentially offensive, depending on your
politics) economic tour of various places around the globe
(including Tanzania, and Hong Kong -- which definitely
sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel) is provided
by P. J. O'Rourke's _Eat the Rich_
( )

If the Singularity turns out to be benign (from a human perspective),
and permits human beings who so desire to merge with the stuff of
nonbiological intelligence, as Ray Kurzweil describes in _The Age of Spiritual
Machines_, and as also imagined by SF author Greg Egan in _Diaspora_
( )
then it may be that the only people who are left behind will
be the ones who stay behind voluntarily (like Egan's "fleshers")
or who voluntarily limit the degree of their transformation (like
the "gleisners"). Nevertheless, both in Kurzweil's more recent
scenarios (in which reverse-engineered human brains are reinstantiated
in physical hardware that is both enormously faster and not limited
in complexity to what will fit inside a human skull), and in Egan's scenario
in _Diaspora_, in which the polis-dwellers are living at a subjective
rate 1000 times faster than the fleshers, the first entities to
inhabit this new realm of speed and complexity will race far beyond
those still trapped in biological bodies, creating a cultural
rift greater than anything yet seen in human history. The
initial choices of who goes and who stays behind may be
irrevocable for that reason. It's hard to imagine how an
unenhanced human could catch up to a transcendent culture a
year or 10 years after the Singularity, without having to undergo
such a radical transformation in so short a period of time that
it would constitute a de facto form of death. On the other
hand, maybe there won't be just one Singularity, but several,
like concentric shells of expanding gas being ejected by an
exploding star, as successive waves of human populations
transcend. But the earlier shells may remain forever out
of reach of the later.

Jim F.

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