Doesn’t it seem that the latest iphone is coming out sooner and sooner? That just a few years ago we had first mainstream digital assistant in Apple’s Siri (2010) and now the market is flooded not only with dedicated devices such as Amazon’s Echo Dot (2015) and Google Home mini (2016), but a range of similar creations from competitors. And that’s just a simple example of the advances of computational technology. What about other technologies?
In biochemistry, the techniques of site-directed mutagenesis, where a scientist can introduce a single mutation into almost any gene and study the resulting protein were invented in the 1970s. A decade later, a graduate student could get a Ph.D. for successfully creating a single point mutation and studying it’s effects. By the time I finished my degree in 2000, it was quite standard for a degree to require the creation of a half-dozen such mutations, the successful culturing and purification of each resultant protein, and the chemical and structural characterization of each to create a coherent story of their role in the given protein’s function. Now, almost twenty years later, most of that can be done by a single technician working with a room of computerized equipment in a fraction of the time. Before you consider what wonders the merger of biochemistry and computational technologies bring, consider how many other technologies are maturing at an equivalent rate, and what this might mean for our future.
In the 1990’s a few scientists and futurists (notably Carl Sagan and Ray Kurtzweil) mapped out the progress of human technological advancement from estimated times of the earliest inventions to the modern day. They discovered that technology is advancing at a double exponential rate. To put this in perspective, we often interpret change as being linear such that each advance seems to take the same amount of time as the previous one – even though we actually know this not to be true. Our population, for example, increases at a single exponential rate (in the U.S. this is 1.5% per year).
The truth, however, is that technological change happens even faster than we guess — at a double exponential rate. That is, technology increases even faster than the exponential growth rate of our population (the difference is difficult to visualize on graphs because both have very steep right-hand sides — the bottom scale of the two graphs, above and below, are significantly different).
For our purposes, this difference isn’t significant, other than realizing that each new advancement comes much sooner than we’d naturally expect. So, what does this mean for the future and just what does it have to do with the Technological Singularity?
A single technological advance can change our world, sometimes in small ways like a rapid drop in world record times for the 100m sprint, sometimes in large ways like enabling instant communication across countries and continents. Advancements in two synergistic technologies (like social media + mobile phones) can bring the world together, or tear it apart. Imagine what our world might be like when we have the simultaneous maturation of five to ten technologies within a few years of each other.
None of us can. That’s what the Technological Singularity is — a convergence in the development of all technologies such that they form kind of a black hole in the future timeline, which we can’t see past. A point of change so significant and with so many possibilities that we simply can’t understand what might lay on the other side of the veil. So, why should we worry about something so vague? Why is this important for you?
Well, you’ll probably be less stressed if you don’t, but if you find the unrest of the modern world at all disturbing, if you were one of those people who were surprised by the election of Donald Trump, if you have children, and if you have any concerns over the future direction of humanity, then you will want to be aware of the development of new technologies and the kind of changes they may enable. That’s what I’ll be discussing in this blog.
Does this mean:
- General artificial intelligence?
- Household or military robotics?
- Designer babies?
- A cure for cancer?
- A cure for aging?
- Advanced Biohacking?
- Basement biotech?
- Virtual or neural-immersive environments for social media?
- Greater longevity?
- Virtual vacations?
- The end of human creativity?
- Greater human creativity?
- Extraterrestrial colonization?
- Extrasolar exploration?
- The end of war? The war to end everything?
Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. I don’t know any more than anyone else, but the one thing it will mean is change, and lots of it. Gone are the days when you could live most of your life and the only thing that changed was a new model car and a better television. We’re now in the era where everything is change, including the very nature of what it means to be human.
As a scientist I’ve always had an interest in technology, science, and the future. As a science fiction writer, I have the ability to create stories to explore the world of what might be. And as a father, I have a desire to explore what the next generation might be facing and help prepare them for it. In this blog I will bring together all these interests to explore the undiscovered country (by which I mean the future, not death, from Hamlet, nor peace, from Star Trek VI).