“The singularity” is a term I’ve heard floating around for some time now, but even with all the science fiction I read, I still never quite understood what it meant. I think that’s the point, actually. But here’s a stab at it.
Singularity describes the point at which superhuman intelligence develops, usually as the result of one or more key technological breakthroughs. As a result, human civilization would change so radically that it would become unrecognizable to those who came before. This article describes the advent of the Industrial Age and the Information Age as singularities, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Pre-Industrial and pre-Information Age cultures exist in the world today, but a person from one of those cultures could understand us and even assimilate into our culture. I think it’s more analogous to when humans evolved from a previous species due primarily to an increase in brain capacity. Those pre-humans would look at us and see something entirely alien, just as the post-humans existing after the singularity would seem incomprehensible to us.
It is hard to talk about the singularity because by definition it is something we can’t understand. But everyone seems to agree that the singularity would occur after one or more key technological milestones are achieved.
Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized the term singularity, and he pegged it to the advent of artificial intelligence. Just as we can know nothing about an object when it is pulled into a black hole, we find it impossible to envision a future that includes smarter-than-human entities. Specifically, when artificial intelligence — think robots — can construct AIs that are in turn smarter than themselves, technology would advance at a faster and faster pace, and the singularity would be upon us. Look to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica for examples of this. In neither case was this good news for people.
Tied to the evolution of super-intelligence, at least in many conceptions of the singularity, is the extension of the human lifespan via mind transfer or upgraded bodies, resulting in functionally immortal people. Who knows how we might be altered psychologically or physiologically by such an achievement, not to mention the resulting population problems? Kim Stanley Robinson addresses the issues that might arise in his Mars series.
The singularity could come about as a result of completely unforeseen technologies. What if nanotechnology or fully immersible virtual reality are possible and achievable? What if we figure out how to teleport a la Star Trek, or we discover cold fusion or some other cheap, eternally renewable energy source? Or aliens might visit. Any of these might contribute significantly to a net gain in intelligence.
The common outcome of all these possibilities is a radical and sudden change resulting in a new paradigm. It is impossible to predict how such a world would operate and what our place in it, if any, would be.
The singularity is a nice theory for playing mind games on a Saturday afternoon, but it seems like something of a pipe dream to me, the equivalent of the Christian idea of the Rapture. Some technological marvel will appear and save us all from ourselves, or end the whole mess. I think we’d be better off learning to live with ourselves and trying to solve the problems we’ve already used our technological advancements to create instead.