What Is the Singularity?

Marty McFly had to explain lots of technological advances when he traveled back in time in "Back to the Future." (Photo: IMG Artists).

Picture yourself trying to explain the experience of streaming a movie to William Shakespeare.

First, you'd have to explain movies. Then you'd have to explain TVs (or computers, or tablets or mobile phones, or maybe even Google Glass). Then you'd probably have to explain the internet. And electricity. Maybe credit/debit cards and the modern banking system too. And at each stage of these explanations, there would be any number of tangents where our daily experience is so far removed from that of the Bard that you could talk on and on for hours without ever really conveying the original topic of conversation.

That, in essence, is at least one definition of a singularity: a moment in time where our technological and cultural realities have changed so drastically that our way of life would be incomprehensible to those who lived before that shift. The Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Agrarian Revolution — each of these could be defined as a singularity, based on the profound and lasting consequences they had on the very fabric of our societies.

Another, narrower definition of the singularity refers to the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and, specifically, the point in time when AI has advanced to such a level that it can design and replicate ever more sophisticated forms of AI that greatly outstrip the capabilities of the human mind. It's this version of the singularity, sometimes referred to as technological singularity, which many futurists, science fiction authors and technology theorists are focused on as they imagine the next paradigm shift in terms of human (and AI) experience.

Annalee Newitz has written a useful overview of thinking on the singularity over at io9, describing how any such development would rapidly and irreversibly gain a momentum of its own:

As we mentioned earlier, artificial intelligence is the technology that most people believe will usher in the singularity. Authors like Vinge and singulatarian Ray Kurzweil think AI will usher in the singularity for a twofold reason. First, creating a new form of intelligent life will completely change our understanding of ourselves as humans. Second, AI will allow us to develop new technologies so much faster than we could before that our civilization will transform rapidly. A corollary to AI is the development of robots who can work alongside - and beyond - humans.

Alongside AI and robotics, says Newitz, other areas of development to watch would be nanotechnology and the self-replicating molecular machine, and the field of genomics, where developments in medical technology and longevity research may radically transform not just how our children and grandchildren live, but how long they live too. (Some researchers have speculated that life spans of 150 years or more could be feasible in the not-too-distant future.)


One of the problems, of course, in discussing what the singularity may bring is that it is, by definition, inconceivable to us as we are products of a pre-singularity world. Similarly, the idea of tying down the singularity to any one specific moment in time becomes challenging because, despite the way we retell our historical narratives in terms of the Greatest Generation, or the Swinging Sixties, history does not divide itself neatly into generational units. A western millennial who has grown up around the internet and modern communication technology, for example, will have a very different grasp of coming technological shifts than her grandparents, who may still be figuring out how to submit a comment on Facebook. Similarly, a young farmer from rural Sudan may have an entirely different view of how we relate to technology than a Silicon Valley hipster.

Still, in terms of the larger narrative of human history, we can locate periods in our past where everything changed. By that, we don't just mean that the invention of the mechanical loom during the Industrial Revolution made weaving less labor intensive, but rather it transformed our very concept of how we manufacture goods. And that transformation, along with other similar technological developments, led to radical shifts in everything from politics to human settlement patterns to the distribution of capital and the make up of our basic family units.

What the next singularity will bring may indeed be almost impossible to predict. Whether one is coming, however, and coming soon, seems fairly uncontroversial at this point. Given the rapid advances in everything from computing to AI to renewable energy and biotechnology, our world is shifting at a rapid pace. I would be shocked if these changes do not result in radical shifts in how we live and organize ourselves that are every bit as revolutionary as the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, many of those changes may have already happened.

It'll just take us a while to recognize them.