"Singularity" in New York Times

Mitchell Porter (mitch@thehub.com.au)
Fri, 22 Nov 1996 10:58:48 +1000 (EST)

I'm not sure that this is very significant - a New York Times article
which mentions the Singularity, only to go off on a tangent about digital
alienation - and maybe I ought to be passing on some real news, like
the Yahoo/Reuters article "Aspirin Protects Brain Cells"
their Health Headlines section carries something of interest most days),
or just about anything from the AIP Physics News Update

This came via the novelty@levity.com mailing list.


>Date: Wed, 20 Nov 1996 18:35:02 -0500
>From: Dan Levy <danlevy@LEVITY.COM>
>Subject: Verner Vinge's Singularity

This article on Verner Vinge's ideas about singularity was published on the
New York Times' web site today:

November 20, 1996


In Vinge's 'Singularity,' An Oracle of Digital Doom

In mathematics, singularity is a term used to describe a unique point of
radical transition. It is typically explained with the simple function,
y=1/x. As x grows smaller, y increases until at the point x=0, the function
goes to infinity and ceases to have meaning.

It was on this theme that Vernor Vinge, professor of mathematics at San
Diego State University and Hugo Award-winning author of A Fire Upon the
Deep, presented a paper in March 1993 on what he argued was an impending
point of radical transition.

At the VISION-21 Symposium, sponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and
the Ohio Aerospace institute, Vinge proposed that humanity was approaching
a technological singularity beyond which all previous human history would
have no meaning.

It was a point of transition that would be as shattering as the emergence
of human consciousness -- the phenomena that separated mankind from animals
so many millenia ago.

The spark of the singularity was the increasing capabilities of computers,
which, he argued, could soon eclipse the abilities of humans. Vinge
proposed that if computers could achieve a level of intelligence equal to
humans, it was certain they would also achieve level of super-intelligence
and consciousness, possibly in a matter of hours. At that moment of
awakening, human history would end. The entities of singularity would be to
us, as we are to insects. He predicted that humanity would reach the
singularity sometime between 2005 and 2030.

Vinge's vision of doom is, of course, only one of countless visions that
have appeared through the millennia -- the deluge, the purifying fire, the
simple sputtering of the universe at some blank end point of space and
time. Even within our lifetimes, there have been several compelling visions
of the end that have gradually become embedded in our existence, most
notably nuclear holocaust and ecological disaster.

I leave the truth of these visions for others to debate. In many ways, when
and how we will be extinguished is not the point. What is important about
them is that they reflect the fears of their times. They are encoded
markers of transition, movement and imbalance.

The most obvious fear reflected in Vinge's singularity is over the
acceleration of technological development. Even now in the pre-singularity
era, whole industries have been wiped out by automation. Jobs that once
took skill now require only endurance and drugs.

But while the fear is justified, there is something else in Vinge's vision
of the singularity that has made it a manifesto of future despair and, for
some, transcendent salvation.

To control the moment of the singularity, Vinge proposed the development of
a field he called Intelligence Amplification - that is, the bonding of
humans, devices and networks into an organic whole. The basic idea is: If
you can't beat them, join them -- literally.

Whether that can actually be accomplished is not the issue. There is
something in this science fiction vision of the future that makes it
resonate now.

A group of futurists have embraced the idea of Intelligence Amplification
because of its promise of greatly enhancing human abilities, which are weak
in exactly the characteristics in which computers excel -- precision,
persistence and speed.

But Vinge recognized that the possibilities with Intelligence Amplification
were at least as grim as they were hopeful.

"The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of
humankind from center stage but that it contradicts our most deeply held
notions of being," Vinge wrote in his paper.

"What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of
a self awareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under

It is this issue of ego that makes the Borg vision of doom such a resonant
image in the present. It reflects an anxiety over the dismemberment of
identity now, whether or not we actually get implanted brain chips in the
future. The most unsettling option of the singularity is not the end of
existence per se. After all, who cares, if we are all dead? Instead, it is
the end of identity that is disturbing. As with most visions of doom, there
must be consciousness for punishment to make sense.

Unless you live in a closet, it is not hard to sense the fragmentation and
dissolution of our times. It is a world where individual emotion has been
mixed and diluted into an ambiguous stew with televised emotions.
Experience is what you see on the tube. Identity is what some credit
database says you are.

Marshall McLuhan was one of the first to ponder dysfunction in the
electronicized age. He believed that the core of modern despair lay with
the distention of senses brought about by technological advances. The
invention of writing was the original source of pain, separating humans
from the close-knit oral culture and thrusting them into a more distant and
cool world of visual culture. McLuhan believed that global media, like
television and radio, had the ability to heal this separation by creating a
new collective culture. separation by creating a new collective culture.

McLuhan was writing in an era when computers were owned by only the Defense
Department and large corporations. I doubt he would be so optimistic if he
were alive today.

The computer, especially as a node on the global network, has opened a new
realm of possibilities by granting the power of broadcast and reception to
the everyone -- companies, individuals and governments. This has led to an
even greater degree of detachment and illusion as people have rushed to
create their virtual identities.

The Internet is awash in people posing as others because it is so easy to
do. But I would argue that creating these illusions of identity is not a
matter of choice but rather a requirement of the device.

Life is analog, and thousands of years of human evolution have bred a set
of senses attuned to a finely shaded world of eye contact, whispers,
touches, body language and shared experience. The computer, however,
accepts only a shadowy rendition because of its requirement for precision,
abstraction, categorization and quantification. We obey.

In some areas, abstracted identity is already more powerful than real
identity -- for example, credit and justice. Legislation like three-strikes
laws is just another way of saying that analog life is not that important.
In a digital world, it is simply easier dealing with digital people.

The result of all of this is not an extension of our senses, as McLuhan had
proposed, but a numbing of them. The richness of sight has been reduced to
tube dimensions; the cloud of experience and wisdom, boiled down to
hypertext links and CD-ROM encyclopedias. We may able to view and access
more, but that is not the same as seeing and knowing.

What is most haunting about this construction of abstracted life is that
there is no turning back. It is a point of such fundamental change -- like
consciousness, sight or language -- that once you have passed it, you can
never retrace your steps.

It may be that we have already passed the singularity and don't realize it
because everything around us has changed as well. It is not the same
singularity that Vinge envisioned, but it is just as radical and disruptive.

Perhaps we are flying now beyond infinity. There are no clear markers here.
We are blind and ignorant as we search for a new function, a new meaning
for y to describe our path.

Ashley Dunn at asdunn@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

----- End of forwarded message from Mitchell Porter -----