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Post singularity II

Yep, I got to agree to at least some extent with Nick, we have already hit, passed and survived one Singularity. I had thought about the discontinuity in the past, but had never before thought of it in those terms.

Right up to the eighteenth century a Roman engineer would, on sight, have had no trouble understanding nearly any device or mechanism produced, for any purpose, no explanation necessary. Then we hit the nineteenth -

We get what? Steam? any problem here? Said engineer could, with a bit of disassembly, have understood steam power, no explanation of principles needed. But even the first part of the nineteenth threw up some doozies – the battery, the arc lamp, photographs, electro magnet, electric dynamo, refrigerator, telegraph, fuel cell, nitroglycerine. How could our hypothetical Roman have understood any of these things without a few lectures in physics or chemistry? He would not have. He had entered a world where nothing he had ever seen or learnt would have been of assistance in understanding what was now being created.

Since then, what did we get? Just in the rest of the nineteenth? Still plenty of things he could have understood, but we also got the glider, rayon, plastic, telephone, internal combustion, electric light bulb, metal detector, photographic film, coca cola, AC motor,motion picture projection, and our Roman is visiting a world transformed.

By the nineteen twenties the whole world becomes incomprehensible to him. Nothing he looks at can be understood in terms he is familiar with and it took what? One hundred and twenty years, and he had crossed an horizon and encountered a singularity. Now? Eighty eight years later each and every one of us exercise powers he would have reserved to his gods. On this, Nick is right.

Whether this rate of change is continuing is a different matter. Until not long ago a tour of Europe was a once in a lifetime experience, and only for the rich. Today, a dirty weekend in Prague is a prosaic experience for all but the very poor, and that change has occurred over fifty years. Is it continuing? Well, how about this – I own somewhere between fifteen hundred and two thousand books, collected over a lifetime, and they cover all sorts of topics. History, philosophy, science, and all of them tending towards out of date before I even purchased them. Still, I love books, and I love having access to the knowledge in them. Even sixteen years ago, if I wanted to find some snippet of information, I might have to spend hours trying to find it at home, or visit the local library, or go to a university library and try to find it there. Or it could just be too damned hard and I would give up. Today? I have instant access to more information, learning and knowledge than even the richest man in the world in the world could have commanded just that sixteen years ago. And I have it on my desk at home and when I am out travelling. Is that not a staggering change? Today, we still try and repair human bodies by cutting them open and slicing chunks away; medicine is still about gross interference. However, we’re now learning to conduct surgery on a cellular level. We are learning how to re engineer organisms and construct them from scratch. We are taking atoms apart and scooping out the energy, we are learning how to construct devices by the placement of individual atoms and molecules. Soon, food from vats in factories, and within my lifetime we may see the elimination of physical scarcity by cheap energy and almost costless manufacturing. And if not? Well, programmable logic will still be as cheap as specks of dirt on your shoes, and about the same size. Intelligent fabrics, construction materials incorporating nanotubes and logic circuits, near infinite communication capacity, and these are just the known knowns. What the unknown unknowns will be, well, we just don’t know, do we?

We may have had a singularity already, but there is another still to come.


  1. Nick M says:

    That could still happen but there are two hurdles we have to cross. The first is that these are not the same sort of problems as before.

    We have solved the simple problems. It’s now the complex ones and I mean that technically. There is a hell of a difference between say inventing the transistor (simple but hard) and building an Intel Core 2 Duo (complex and hard). And it is not just developing the process it is actually designing the thing. Now we can do that but can we understand it? And if we can’t understand it then is it a scientific process?

    I can sit here and produce all sorts of programs that will work stuff out. Some of these will be remarkably simple but… The results aren’t. There is a philosophical difference I feel between computational solutions and pencil and paper. This isn’t luddism on my part but a very real worry that by producing results that no human will ever understand we lose an important part of scientific understanding. We are getting this with AGW. Let’s say a climate scientist runs his supremely complex model through the Cray and it come up 0.5C warmer by 2050. Now ask him “why?” He can’t honestly give you an answer beyond that’s what the model predicts.

    And here’s the rub. I think this will stifle innovation. Einstein could imagine he was in a lift in freefall but there are no thought experiments in climate science or fecking with genomes or designing extremely complex systems.

    Science emerged from magic and it’s heading back there.

    Which brings me to issue two. Public acceptance of stuff. This is beyond weird. It’s at times perverse. Try to put up a cell-phone mast near a primary school and the parents will go ape. Guess how they’ll organize their protest?

  2. “Public acceptance of stuff”. wrote Nick M. Quite agree. How about sex with robots? Or with Neanderthals? Woah!!! Lots to think about.

  3. [...] have to turn on the television to watch a broadcast from London. I just sit at the keyboard and all the knowledge humanity has accumulated throughout history is available at my [...]

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