Singularities - The Shape of the Future
As we saw in the first chapter, accelerating change is a pattern that runs throughout the history of evolution. The Big Bang, or whatever it was, happened ten billion years ago (give or take a couple of billion years). The evolution of simple lifeforms began four billion years ago. Multicellular life appeared a billion or so years ago. The evolution of complex nervous systems, made possible by the emergence of vertebrates, began several hundred million years ago. Mammals appeared tens of millions of years ago. The genus Homo first stood on the planet a couple of million years ago. Homo sapiens, appeared several hundred thousand years ago. The shift to Homo sapiens sapiens that was triggered by the emergence of language and tool use, and which resulted in the Agricultural Revolution, began tens of thousands of years ago. Civilization -- the movement into towns and cities -- started several thousand years ago. The Industrial Revolution began a few centuries ago. And the Information Revolution is but a few decades old.
Each new development has occurred in a fraction the time of the previous one -- somewhere between a quarter and a tenth the time.
The stages of evolution that Ive chosen here are, of course, somewhat arbitrary. One could argue that other events marked equally significant leaps forward, or that some that have been included should be dropped. This would lead to different sets of times and to different ratios between them. But however one chooses the significant markers, the pattern is generally the same -- the intervals get shorter and shorter. If evolution continues to follow this pattern in the future -- and we have seen there are good reasons to suppose it will -- then future developments will happen in even shorter times. The intervals will drop from decades, to years, to months. We would be heading towards a moment when the intervals decreased to zero, and the rate of change became infinite. This is the possible singualarity I referred to earlier; a point where the equations break down and cease to have any meaning.
A simple mathematical example is the series 1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16+1/32 +1/64+1/128+ . . . (the three dots are a mathematician's way of indicating that the series goes on forever). You might think that if you keep on adding more terms to the series, each one half the size of the preceding term, you could make the final sum as large as you liked; but it turns out that however many terms you add, the sum will never quite reach 2. It will get closer and closer to 2, but never actually get there. The series is said to tend towards a limit (in this case the limit is 2). In a similar way, if major developments continue to occur in shorter and shorter times, there will be a corresponding time limit to our evolutionary progress. This does not mean there will be a limit to how much evolution we can experience. The opposite in fact. We would find ourselves evolving so fast that we experienced an unimaginable degree of evolution within a finite time. The time limit would be the date in the future when our rate of development became infinitely rapid.
When might this moment occur? People such as Vernor Vinge, who chart the acceleration of technological development, argue for a date somewhere around the year 2035. They believe the trigger for the singularity will be the development of the super-intelligent computer. Although current computers are very fast by human standards, they are still not nearly as complex as our own brains. In terms of sheer processing capacity, the human brain, with its tens of billions of neurons, is around a million times more powerful than a computer. That is why you and I can easily pick out a person from a background of trees and buildings, and recognize them as someone we know, all in a fraction of second, while a robot still has a hard time following the white line down the middle of the road.
However, if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, as it has done for the last twenty years, then sometime in the 2030s there will be computers that can equal the human brains abilities. From there it is only a small step to the computer that can surpass the human brain. There would then be little point in human beingsdesigning future computers; super-intelligent machines would be able to design better ones, and do so faster. Once super-intelligent machines, rather than human beings, drove the rate of progress, an exponential runaway effect would be created. Computer power would no longer be doubling once every eighteen months. A simple mathematical analysis shows that super-intelligent computers designing even more intelligent machines, which in turn could design yet more intelligent machines would cause the doubling time to drop from eighteen months to nine months, to four-and-a-half months, to nine weeks, to thirty days, to fifteen days . . . Another two weeks after that, computing power would have reached infinity. We would have arrived at a singularity -- the point at which the mathematical equations break down, and the old laws no longer apply.
Such a scenario is based on technological development alone. But, as I argued in the previous chapter, there is good reason to believe that before we arrive at some such technological singularity we will have already moved into the next phase of evolution, the development of human consciousness. Once it takes hold inner development is likely to progress even more rapidly than technological development. We could arrive at a spiritual singularity -- a moment of unimaginably rapid inner awakening -- before we reached any technological singularity.
Other analyses of historical trends also point to a possible singularity occuring sometime in the next half century. One approach is that made by the American philosopher of science, Terence McKenna. He has developed a fractal mathematical function that, he claims, charts the overall rate of ingression of novelty into the world. The curve that results is not a smooth curve, but one that has peaks and troughs corresponding to the peaks and troughs of human history.
The most significant characteristic of McKennas timewave is that the shape repeats itself, but over shorter and shorter intervals of time. The curve shows a surge in novelty between 15000 and 8000 b.c. corresponding to the approximate dates of the Neolithic Age and the emergence of agriculture. Exactly the same pattern is repeated, although sixty-four times faster, from a.d.1750 to 1825 -- the period known as the European Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial Era.
Another surge of novelty occurred around 500 b.c. This was the time when Lao Tsu, Plato, Zoroaster, Buddha, and others were having a major influence on the millennia to come. It saw the rise of Ancient Greece and the beginnings of European culture. This surge continued for several centuries, then slowed down in the fourth century a.d. with the Fall of Rome, and finally spluttered to an end with the onset of the Dark Ages. The repeating nature of McKennas timewave shows the same pattern recurring in the twentieth century, from 1967 through to the early 1990s -- again sixty-four times as fast as before. Later, around 2010, it repeats again, and sixty-four times faster still.
This repeating historical pattern corresponds to a series in which each additional term is one sixty-fourth the length of the previous one. The series has an infinite number of terms, but as with other series of this type its sum is finite. That is to say, it comes to a definite end -- a time when the cycles of change are compressed from years to months to weeks to days... McKenna calls this point Timewave Zero. Its date, according to his calculations, is December 21, 2012.
The year 2012 seems frighteningly close. Ones immediate response might be that rates of change could not become that fast in so short a time. Yet we should not forget that when estimating the pace of the future we tend to think in terms of todays pace, and our initial projections nearly always fall short. Many as yet unforeseen advances and revolutions could take the rate of change far beyond what we now imagine possible.
We should also remember that it would not be the material progress that would be going so fast, but our inner spiritual development.
An Evolutionary Asymptote?
Needless to say, McKennas formula is only one possible model of the curve of human history.
My own approach has been to try and fit various mathematical curves to our evolutionary progress and see where the curve is heading. Such attempts inevitably involve a number of assumptions. How, for example, do we measure progress? Should we count social and political innovations such as the welfare state along with scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs? And what values should be assigned to particular advances? Was the invention of photocopying as significant as that of the printing press?
Even having chosen a set of significant steps and plotted them as a graph, it is still not easy to see what type of function describes the curve. There certainly are mathematical techniques for deciding how well an equation fits a curve. But having found a best fit, the possibility always remains that some untried type of function might fit even better.
Over the years I have tried many different sets of data, and many different functions. The result is a variety of graphs each approximating the pattern of human evolution, but none exact or definitive. Even so, nearly all of them have one trend in common. Sooner or later they become asymptotic -- that is to say, the curve goes vertical, signifying an infinitely fast rate of change. Some have their asymptote in the near future, others have it a century or two ahead.
We are led to a startling and mind-boggling conclusion. If we survive our present challenges, and our rate of development keeps on accelerating, we are not going to continue evolving for eons into the future. We could see the whole of our future evolution -- as much development as we can conceive of, and more -- compressed into a century or so, or less. Within a few generations, perhaps within our own lifetimes, we could reach the end of our evolutionary journey.
Within a finite time we could taste infinity.
Coping with Compression
There are, of course, many reasons why we may not reach the final stages of compression. First we have to steer our way through our current set of crises. And even if we do survive these challenges, we may well discover further testing points ahead. If we fail to respond to them appropriately we might find ourselves set back to some earlier, and slower, phase of evolution.
There is also the question of whether our minds could tolerate ever-increasing change. We might, for example, be able to cope with a pace double that of today, and possibly a pace ten times as fast. But what about a hundred times, or a thousand times? Is there an ultimate limit to how fast the human mind can adapt?
From our current mode of consciousness it may be very hard to imagine ourselves coping with such astronomical rates of change. But who knows what might be possible once our minds are liberated from their attachment to material things. We may relate to change in a very different way; and our minds may then operate at a very different pace.
An example of this sometimes occurs at the point of death. Relieved of its ties to the senses, the mind seems to function at an altogether different speed. People who have brushed with death often report seeing the whole of their life flash before their eyes. In clock time the review may only last a second or so; but in that moment they can relive years of experience.
Finally, we should recall that future our evolutionary progress is likely to be less material in nature. If we do come through these troubled times and continue with our development, it will be our perceptions, our attitudes, our thinking, and our awareness that will be changing faster and faster, not necessarily the world around. We will be experiencing an ever-accelerating inner awakening. This may turn out to be far easier to handle than ever-accelerating material change. Indeed, we would probably welcome it.
Date created: 3-Oct-03