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Ever Upwards


Jeromy Henry

TIME ran an article on a sci-fi subject not too long ago: the idea of the Singularity.

If you haven't heard of it, I'll summarize. The idea is that technological progress and computing power improve exponentially rather than in a slow, gradual way. So, in the near future-- mere decades-- technology will shatter the world as we know it and cast it into a new mold.

According to Singularity theorists, nanotechnology will enable us to remake our bodies and minds in any way we see fit. Computers will think. We will back up our brains onto computers too. Humanity will evolve into something our puny ape-brains cannot now imagine. Disease and death will vanish. Progress will speed up in a dizzying, ever-upwards climb towards infinity. That's the broad idea. There's more to it, of course. If you want to read the fine print and understand the argument completely, google it.

A certain similarity between these predictions and the naive prognostication of Golden Age sci-fi struck me; not in substance per se, but in the general tone and in the timeline of progress. Back then, everyone expected atomic rocketships to travel to other planets within a few decades. Nuclear power would provide unlimited founts of motive energy to households and industry. We'd colonize the Solar System. Robots would gain human intelligence and do all our work for us. Psychology would unlock every dark mystery of the human mind and we would know ourselves as man had never known himself before. And hey, I'm using "man" and "himself" deliberately to make a point, so don't jump all over me about it. Think about the role of women in those stories.

We all know how that vision turned out. NASA will retire the shuttles soon. The disaster in Japan illustrates one of the pitfalls of using nuclear power. The long-running battles over where to store nuclear waste provides another. We have not unlocked the secrets of fusion. Computers have made amazing advances, but they do not possess self-awareness and do not walk the earth. We understand more about the human mind, but have hardly plumbed all its mysteries.

I'm no Luddite. Scientific advances will make the world better in the long run. But the 20th century did not bring what the Golden Age gurus promised, and we should all keep that fact firmly in mind. Science did not magically solve all of our problems.

So let's get back to the Singularity. Will it happen?

My thought is that, just as past predictions of Golden Age writers turned out to be too optimistic, so will current predictions turn out to overestimate progress. And while trying to climb ever upwards, what happens if we fall?

Think of the threat of nuclear war. Imagine what would happen if worldwide climate shifts wreck economies and cause starving billions to riot and tear civilization apart. Consider the idea of a giant asteroid striking the earth and throwing us back into another Ice Age. We could enter a period of stagnation and decline and despair. Pick your favorite Dystopia. You've read plenty of sci-fi stories about grim futures, both here at QM and elsewhere.

If nothing else, the deep indebtedness of advanced societies could slow down scientific research and development in the near future, even if we don't experience some kind of world-ending disaster.

I don't know what we'll face decades down the road. Perhaps we will all become near-immortal gods as the Singularity theorists predict. Or perhaps, more chillingly, a small elite will use science to take on that role, and rule over the rest of us peasants with "magic". Plenty of sci-fi stories explore that future, too. The only thing I can say for sure is that no one in the past predicted the future very well. We find ourselves in a future less glamorous than their dreams, and more hopeful than their nightmares. Reality is like that. It's not pure comedy or tragedy, Utopia or Dystopia. It falls somewhere in between.

No model or theory can truly tell us where we will end up. I'll wait to see what wickedness comes.

2011-04-22 06:22:06
jimcollins - Interesting article - I think that the advance will be faily slow so that tomorrow will seem like today and only when you're talking with your grandchildren will they gasp in wonder that you never had a telly when you were small. My Dad never had electric light when he was little!

2011-04-05 16:22:24
True, predictions do not seem to match reality, ever. One thing however remains true--stating goals and challenges as predictions is ever-popular, because hope never dims in the human heart or mind no matter how badly things go. And clearly, everywhere you look things are going badly. Best case scenarios are pretty much going to sell better than worst case..and often it is worst-case that happens. Yet there are always little pockets where that bad thing does not happen as expected, and good things occur when no one expected them to. I think the key lies somewhere in what the majority of humans will into being by their small yet collective everyday actions. Not much of a "topia" perhaps, just a slow meandering stumble into the future. Like you, I have the wait and see attitude, hopeful that most of us have enough gumption to roll with the punches and enough intelligence and experience to survive the unexpected. For everyone who died in Haiti or in Japan, there are numerous tales of miraculous survival. It is bits of hope like these that keep the prognosticators in business. That means the rest of us have to hope at least some of it is accurate and what isn't accurate won't be too disasterous to be born.

2011-04-02 07:12:46
I'm waiting for the aliens to land, and throw us into a direction we've never imagined. ;)

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