This the first essay in a series exploring if, when, and how the Singularity will happen, why (or why not) we should care, and what, if anything, we should do about it.

Part I: The Singularity and its Discontents

The concept of the Technological Singularity is so clearly part of the zeitgeist that it surely needs no introduction to this audience. There’s now even a recently-formed Singularity University which proposes to study it as its primary subject matter.

The formation of Singularity U. was greeted with yawns in some quarters, however. On Ars Technica, John Timmer writes “Is the world ready for a university that’s based on a concept that may not even exist?” While this sounds a bit disingenuous — after all, consider all the religious universities out there — it does seem that getting a good grasp of all the areas S.U. covers would be more likely to take nine years than nine weeks.

On his blog, Peter Glaskowsky writes

This all sounds wonderful: that is, I wonder if Kurzweil, Diamandis, and Page actually believe that the solutions to poverty, hunger, and pandemics will be found in technology.

It seems to me that it would be more useful to take these students and executives through some classes on philosophy, theology, politics, sociology, and history–fields they’re probably not sufficiently aware of and that are much more directly related to the causes of, and possible cures for, social problems.

He has a point: poverty, hunger, and pandemics are eminently curable with the technology of the 20th century; the reason that they exist at all in some parts of the world has much more to do with bad government preventing the known solutions from being used.

On the other hand, we’ve had philosophy, theology, politics, sociology, and history for, well, most of history — and they haven’t done such a great job solving these problems. In fact, the bottom line is that, historically, the problems that technology has addressed have gotten solved, and the ones that were dependent on politics and so forth have not.

On the technical side of things, there is a now classic paper by Robin Hanson which argues that explosive economic growth — a fair proxy for the Singularity for the moment — requires a rate of return for general investment not likely to be seen before a century hence.

The part of Hanson’s argument that seems most cogent is that the growth in some parts of the economy that have seen high rates — computers and the internet, for example — aren’t generally applicable enough to push the rest of the economy into the accelerated growth modes. For example, if your business uses computer-controlled lathes, the fact that the computer drops in cost by half each year doesn’t do you all that much good as long as the cost of the lathe, floor space, power, and so forth stay high.

In fact, there seems to be a sort of Amdahl’s Law at work. Amdahl’s Law, for those of you not involved with parallel algorithms, points out that a program that’s half parallelizable and half inherently sequential can’t be made more than twice as fast, no matter how many processors you try to run it on. If you apply this thinking to the economic impact of any given technology improvement, it simply says that the non-technological bottlenecks will dominate, even if the tech part is completely perfect and completely free.

In his book Nano (pp 131-133) , Ed Regis describes a phenomenon in the early nanotech study groups they called the “Miller point,” named after Mark Miller when he realized that nanotechnology would change everything. Absolutely everything.

The concept of Singularity as generally understood today borrows a lot from Drexler’s concept of Breakthrough , as well as from Isaac Asimov’s concept of the Intellectual Revolution (in the foreword to this book) It is not only nanotech as materials science and mechanical engineering that is transformative, but our understanding and control of biology, the brain, and the ultimate mechanization of intelligence itself.

Of course, if we simply say we’ll build machines smarter than ourselves and they’ll solve the problems we can’t, we’ve pretty much resigned ourselves to being on the outside of the event horizon of the Singularity — and not knowing whether it’s something to work for or to avoid. I think we can do far, far better than that: the coming technological revolution is not as opaque as it’s cracked up to be. In follow-on essays, I propose to treat the nature of the Singularity, its effects on the various things we currently see as problems, as well as other improvements we only see as opportunities now.

Stay tuned.