The Singularity is Nonsense
It's come to my attention that some futurists are
still referring to future rapid developments in
technology as a "singularity" or a "technological singularity".
Use of the term "the singularity" in this context appears to
have originated with the science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge,
Vinge describes the singularity as follows:
It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a
new reality rules.
The problem with using the term "the singularity" is that
the phenomena in question doesn't look very singular.
We are certainly in the middle of a period of exponential
growth - and the rate of progress shows little sign of slowing
its rate of increase.
However, exponential curves simply don't have "singular"
points on them. Look at an exponential curve at any point,
and it appears self-similar - no part of it is much
different from any other point.
The idea of a singularity seems to suggest a sort of
This diagram - from Ray Kurzweil - illustrates the idea:
...or at least it would do - if it were not
purporting to measuring the "mass use of inventions" in
The suggestion seems to be that growth will get faster and
faster - asymptotically approaching infinity at some
particular future point in time.
If that was ever to happen, the term "singularity"
would be certainly be quite appropriate.
However, the idea is a ridiculous one. On closer examination,
practically no futurists actually support it.
Instead they typically claim that the term "singularity" has
In futures studies, a technological singularity represents a
hypothetical "event horizon" in the predictability of human
technological development. Past this event horizon,
following the creation of strong artificial intelligence or
the amplification of human intelligence, existing models of
the future cease to give reliable or accurate answers.
Vinge's singularity is commonly misunderstood to mean
technological progress will rise to infinity, as happens in
a mathematical singularity. Actually, the term was chosen as
a metaphor from physics rather than mathematics: as one
approaches the Singularity, models of the future become less
reliable, just as conventional models of physics break down
as one approaches a gravitational singularity.
[...] just as our model of physics breaks down when it tries
to model the singularity at the center of a black hole, our
model of the world breaks down when it tries to model a future
that contains entities smarter than human.
I note that these descriptions can't seem to make up
their mind whether they are talking about an event
horizon, that cannot be seen beyond, or a singularity
where things break down.
Unfortunately, Vinge never defined his terminology - resulting
in multiple interpretations.
Nick Bostrom has noted:
Using the term "singularity" looks to me like an appalling
mistake, however you look at it. The connotations of either
something becoming infinite, or only happening once - are
far too strong. The term immediately conjours
up an innacurate and misleading impression.
"The singularity" has been taken to mean different things by
different authors, and sometimes by the same author on
different occasions. There are at least three clearly distinct
theoretical entities that might be refered to by this term:
- A point in time at which the speed of technological development becomes extremely great. (Verticality)
- The creation of superhuman artificial intelligence. (Superintelligence)
- A point in time beyond which we can predict nothing, except maybe what we can deduce directly from physics. (Unpredictability, aka "prediction horizon")
- Nick Bostrom
As for the claims that the ability to predict the future is
limited - that is caused by a well-known phenomenon known as
chaos. Small uncertainties in initial conditions become magnified
as time passes into large uncertainties in the outcome.
The phenomenon applies on a large range of timescales:
some things are unpredictable over a few seconds -
others are highly predictable over billions of years.
The breakdown of prediction does not happen at a
particular point in the future - rather different
phenomena are predictable on different timescales.
Our ability to predict the future of human evolution in
much detail may well be limited - as predicted events
become increasingly uncertain the further into the future
projections are made.
However, that has always been the case - and no doubt
it will always be the case. There will always be
difficulties in looking very far into the future -
since some elements of what will happen are
contingent on chance events.
The shape of things to come
Exponential growth looks set to continue for some time
to come, maybe for a very long time - in which case the
future is likely to contain fantastic marvels - just as
many futurists claim.
There may well be noteworthy points along the path. The
origin of life was noteworthy. The invention of
photosynthesis is a similar landmark. There will come a
point when the dominant lifeform won't be able to interbreed
with 21st centuary human beings, or that future organisms
will appear incomprehensible to those alive today.
However, nobody is ever going to look back and say that the
technological singularity occurred on such-and-such a date.
The idea is a pretty ridiculous one.
It's very likely in the future that - as Kurzweil says -
"the pace of technological change will be so rapid [...]
that human life will be irreversibly transformed". However,
that's not much of a prediction: it's already happened.
Most likely, it's going to happen again, and is probably
going to keep happening for quite a while. That's not a
"singularity" - that's growth - and I don't see anything very
"singular" about it.
What about the idea that a point will be reached when machines
exceed human intelligence that causes technological
development to suddenly "take off" and accelerate rapidly -
as the smart machines design ever smarter machines, in
an iterative cycle?
There is no such thing as a single "human intelligence" -
humans have a wide range of scores on intelligence tests:
machines will consequently overtake humans gradually.
Furthermore, machine intelligence is not qualitatively the
same as human intelligence. Machines are good at different
sets of things from humans. They already greatly exceed human
capabilities in some areas - while greatly lagging behind
them in other ones. This effect further blurs the point where
machine intelligence surpasses that of humans.
Lastly, machines are already heavily involved in the
design of other machines.
This point does not seem to be widely understood -
so there's a whole separate essay about it,
The Intelligence Explosion Is Happening Now.
The serious doubt over the hypothesis that machine
intelligence will suddenly "take off" at some point
in the future suggests it may be better to find
another name for the coming events surrounding the
emergence of superintelligence, that is less
In Radical Evolution, Joel Garreau writes:
This is not true - but it gives some indicatation of the
extent to which lay people have been brainwashed by use of the
"singularity" terminiology. It is certainly true that
many people use this terminology unthinkingly, because,
well, that's what it's called, isn't it?
Today, all serious discussions regarding the social impact of
the coming decades of the Curve start with Vinge's notion of
Since this essay argues that the "singularity" terminiology
is an embarrassment, what should replace it?
I. J. Good's original terminology is far superior.
Good argued that machines surpassing human intellect
should be capable of recursively augmenting their own mental
abilities until they vastly exceed those of their creators in
1965. He referred to the phenomenon as an "intelligence
- I. J. Good, 1965.
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine
that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any
man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of
these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine
could design even better machines; there would then
unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the
intelligence of man would be left far behind [...]. Thus the
first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that
man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile
enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
However, as I argue in
my essay on the intelligence explosion
- this explosion is really just a small part of the existing ongoing
Explosions start suddenly and diminish over time.
Doesn't the current growth in intelligence
Actually, explosions start gradually with an
exponential growth process, and only after an
extended period do they gradually peter out. The
metaphor of an explosion looks pretty appropriate
Dawkins also uses the metaphor of an explosion for
the phenomenon - in the chapter of River out of
Eden entitled "The Replication Bomb",
saying that - while some stars may "go supernova" -
stars harbouring living systems might instead "go
- River Out Of Eden. Chapter 5 - The Replication Bomb (Dawkins - 1995)
We humans are an extremely important manifestation
of the replication bomb, because it is through us -
through our brains, our symbolic culture and our
technology - that the explosion may proceed to the
next stage and reverberate through deep space.
The "singularity" terminology is ambiguous. The impressions it
conveys most strongly are highly inaccurate. The terminology
makes the futurists that use it look incompetent. Its
widespread use gives futurism a bad name.
Saying that the technological singularity will occur in 20xx -
just because some unique technological events will happen then
- is about as silly as saying that the sociological
singularity occurred in the 1960s.
There's no such thing as "the technological singularity" - the
whole idea is ridiculous.
It would be best for everyone involved to ditch this
ill-conceived terminology as soon a possible.
Some of the views in this essay have subsequently been
echoed by Kevin Kelley - in his own essay:
[The Singularity Is Always Near]
The point about the inherently non-singular nature of
exponential functions has been made previously here:
[The Singularity by Lyle Burkhead - in the section "Exponential functions don't have singularities!"]
The Intelligence Explosion Is Happening Now - Tim Tyler