The Singularity and Other Signs The World is Ending (in 2036)

What exactly is the "Singularity" that Elon Musk and Vernor Vinge have been talking about? It's a term that obviously relates to the future of humanity, and computing power, but it's difficult to define.

Is the Singularity the same thing as Artificial Intelligence or the Terminator? Or does it refer to that period of time when humans will become cyborgs, or somehow insert their minds into computers, or something else entirely? No matter your definition, one synonym for Singularity might be: the end of the world.

I had a hell of a time articulating a definition, so I went searching for the smartest person I could find (who would also write back to me). Nader Elhefnawy is well versed in this topic, and he blogs about the Singularity often. Nader has written a new book Tales From the Singularity. It is a finalist for a major small-press award, the 2018 Watty's, and he joins me today to answer some questions.

Here is his bio, and the link to his book (which is on sale this month):

Nader Elhefnawy has published extensively on technology, politics and literature in forums ranging from International Security to Foundation. His books include a study of the history of science fiction, Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry; the Watty longlist-nominated Tales From the Singularity; and the novel The Shadows of Olympus; and he can be found online at Raritania.


1. What exactly is the Singularity?

The simple answer is that it's a technologically-generated intelligence explosion. This could happen in many ways, like a biotech enhancement of human intelligence, but the usual scenario's our developing strong, general artificial intelligence capable of improvement beyond that level. Because of how such an intelligence could surpass us, there is no predicting what would result--hence the view of it as a "singularity" in the mathematical sense.

It should be noted that this development also tends to be associated with a whole host of other technologies that, it is thought, might in combination with a Singularity lead to a "posthuman" existence--"the idea that human beings will in the future acquire such command over nature that they can alter the most fundamental conditions of human existence (birth, death, the limits of space, time and economics as we know them, etc.)." (I quote here my article "Nikolai Fedorov and the Dawn of the Posthuman.") This would include the neuroscience, robotic, cybernetic and other technologies that might enable such possibilities as mind uploading and downloading, and perhaps see the entire human species become immortal super-beings by way of a "Great Upload."

2. If the Singularity, and life afterward, are "unimaginable," why do we even bother to speculate about it?

We may have no frame of reference for what the event would be like. But we have a basis for guessing about what might lead up to it, or we would not have thought of the possibility of a Singularity at all. And because of that, and how consequential it would be, we can hardly avoid thinking about some of the possibilities, which would not necessarily be wrong, or necessarily unhelpful. (One doesn't have to get it 100 percent right to benefit from the exercise.)

Finally, I would add that making the attempt to predict events is simply what humans do. As the philosopher Nicholas Rescher pointed out in his excellent Predicting the Future, our lives are very future-oriented--we go to work in anticipation of the paycheck at the end of the week, we pursue the paycheck because we know the bills will be there at the end of the month, and mostly with good reason, because contrary to popular belief, the world is substantially predictable. (We're mostly right about the job, the paycheck, and especially those bills.) As a result we can hardly break the habit, even where it might not help much.

3. In regard to the Singularity some people are very hopeful and others are very fearful. Where do you stand on that?

I would very much like to think that the Singularity would be a positive development. And certainly I'm undisturbed by the things that seem to scare most people. I really don't like "the Frankenstein complex" about robots rebelling against their hubristic creators (Isaac Asimov's term) that Hollywood panders to in endless bad movies, or the way hack journalists can't talk about "AI" without bringing up an Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie from 1984.

Still, technologies have side effects. What is of even more concern to me is the social, the political, questions the technology will raise. The whole idea is that the Singularity will be the biggest game-changer in the history of the species, but all the same, I don't think our record has been terribly encouraging, and I'm not sure we can set that aside.

4. Do you think a Singularity will actually happen? And if so, when do you think we might see it?

I don't think there are any theoretical obstacles in the way. The epistemological arguments, like John Searle's "Chinese Room," also don't convince me. (Anything we can say about an AI in this respect, we can say about other humans.) But the practical engineering has been tougher than a lot of people expected, and there is always a danger of hype. Right now we seem to be making pretty rapid progress--for a while last year it seemed like there was a new milestone every day, in neural nets and algorithms, in 3-D carbon nanotube chips, and so forth--but we've seen "AI spring" give way to "AI winter" a good many times before. In fact, people have thought that artificial intelligence of this kind was "just around the corner" for seventy years now.

But I think that if we realize the things we're looking at now as possibilities for the next five or ten years, like self-driving cars as standard, we'll be a lot closer to that possibility. Ask me again in 2025, 2030.

5. What works would you recommend for someone trying to learn more about the subject? (fiction and non-fiction)

The body of literature on the subject is vast, and one could easily come up with a bibliography as long as a book in itself, but I would say that the essentials of the concept were already well-established in nonfiction by the 1990s. Particularly significant are Vernor Vinge's 1993 paper, "The Coming Technological Singularity" which is freely available at NASA's web site, and Raymond Kurzweil's 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.

To a surprising degree, mostly what we've done since then is repeat their discussion, or elaborate parts of it, in light of new technical knowledge (like Kurzweil's own, 2005 The Singularity is Near). None of the works offering counterarguments stands out quite so much, but Kurzweil, certainly, devotes a lot of time to answering them, so that his books give at least an overview of that as well.

Fiction preceded this all to some extent, laying down the key ideas earlier. I would recommend as an early example Isaac Asimov's 1950 short story "The Evitable Conflict," which closes his collection I, Robot; and Arthur C. Clarke's remarkable 1956 classic The City and the Stars, which contains just about all the relevant technologies. (We have a whole society of people being uploaded and downloaded from computers into customizable bodies, robots, virtual reality--just about all of it.)

The mid-1980s saw another burst of such work. Vinge himself coined the term "Singularity" in his later classic Marooned in Realtime, while Greg Bear wrote the first great novel of "the Great Upload" with 1985's Blood Music. It's not fashionable to say so, but in the three decades since mostly we've elaborated, reworked, toyed with their ideas rather than coming up with anything comparably new.

See! I told you this guy was smart--> Nader Elhefnawy. Smart.

If you want another viewpoint on the singularity (from yours truly) you'll have to wait until the next post (October 15th). I tackle the same questions, but from an anthropological and humorous approach. In the meantime, pick up Nader's new book about near-future Singularity life here on Amazon, or if you want it for free, try it out on Wattpad.


All answers Copyright (c) 2018 Nader Elhefnawy. All other material on this page, Copyright (c) 2018 E.C. Stever


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