What Singularity?

There’s an interesting piece up at the IEEE robotics blog, by Alfred Nordmann, with the subtitle “The story of the Singularity is sweeping, dramatic, simple–and wrong.” He argues that far from accelerating, technological progress is slowing down:

The trouble begins with the singularitarians’ assumption that technological advances have accelerated. I’d argue that I have seen less technological progress than my parents did, let alone my grandparents. Born in 1956, I can testify primarily to the development of the information age, fueled by the doubling of computing power every 18 to 24 months, as described by Moore’s Law. The birth-control pill and other reproductive technologies have had an equally profound impact, on the culture if not the economy, but they are not developing at an accelerating speed. Beyond that, I saw men walk on the moon, with little to come of it, and I am surrounded by bio- and nanotechnologies that so far haven’t affected my life at all. Medical research has developed treatments that make a difference in our lives, particularly at the end of them. But despite daily announcements of one breakthrough or another, morbidity and mortality from cancer and stroke continue practically unabated, even in developed countries.
Now consider the life of someone who was born in the 1880s and died in the 1960s—my grandmother, for instance. She witnessed the introduction of electric light and telephones, of auto­mobiles and airplanes, the atomic bomb and nuclear power, vacuum electronics and semi­conductor electronics, plastics and the computer, most vaccines and all anti­biotics. All of those things mattered greatly in human terms, as can be seen in a single statistic: child mortality in industrialized countries dropped by 80 percent in those years.

Nordmann then proceeds to diagnose the problem (of belief in accelerating progress when in fact it’s slowing down) as one of increasing specialization:

Plainly put, it is getting harder than ever to know whom to believe. Policy makers and members of the public have always had to put a degree of trust in experts. But now, when considering highly complex ­phenomena—in cellular processes, in chips containing billions of transistors, or in programs numbering hundreds of thousands of lines of code—even the experts must take a great deal on trust. That is because they have no choice but to study such ­phenomena using a cross-disciplinary approach.
These experts greet extraordinary claims made from within their own disciplines with skepticism and even indignation. But they can find it very hard to maintain such methodological vigilance in the hothouse atmosphere of a high-stakes collaboration in which ­researchers want desperately to believe that their own contributions can have wonderfully synergistic effects when combined with those of experts in other fields.

Now frankly, what he says about the effects of technology on the average person are quite true. The Leave It to Beaver family of the 50s had a life that was essentially as comfortable as ours is today. It seems clear that by that time, the middle classes of the developed nations had reached some kind of a “good enough” point in basic physical arrangements — that point at which concern shifted over to higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, perhaps.

Visions of what happens when all the basic needs are satisfied go back to H. G. Wells and The Time Machine, describing the Eloi:

‘It seemed to me that I had happened upon humanity upon the wane. The ruddy sunset set me thinking of the sunset of mankind. For the first time I began to realize an odd consequence of the social effort in which we are at present engaged. And yet, come to think, it is a logical consequence enough. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life–the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure–had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And the harvest was what I saw!

‘But with this change in condition comes inevitably adaptations to the change. What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision. And the institution of the family, and the emotions that arise therein, the fierce jealousy, the tenderness for offspring, parental self-devotion, all found their justification and support in the imminent dangers of the young.  Now, where are these imminent dangers? There is a sentiment arising, and it will grow, against connubial jealousy, against fierce maternity, against passion of all sorts; unnecessary things now, and things that make us uncomfortable, savage survivals, discords in a refined and pleasant life.

‘Under the new conditions of perfect comfort and security, that restless energy, that with us is strength, would become weakness. Even in our own time certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure. Physical courage and the love of battle, for instance, are no great help–may even be hindrances–to a civilized man. And in a state of physical balance and security, power, intellectual as well as physical, would be out of place. For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts, no wasting disease to require strength of constitution, no need of toil. For such a life, what we should call the weak are as well equipped as
the strong, are indeed no longer weak. Better equipped indeed they are, for the strong would be fretted by an energy for which there was no outlet. No doubt the exquisite beauty of the buildings I saw was the outcome of the last surgings of the now purposeless energy of mankind before it settled down into perfect harmony with the conditions under which it lived–the flourish of that triumph which began the last great peace. This has ever been the fate of energy in security; it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come languor and decay.

It could be argued that Wells foresaw not only the huge shift away from productive pursuits over the twentieth century, but the sexual revolution and the breakup of the family.  The only thing that would have boggled his mind is that it only took one century instead of the 8000 he imagined.

But if you ask the average person of the industrialized world, they won’t agree that they are the Eloi, living perfect lives of ease in a Utopian garden. They would tell you that they struggled to make ends meet, life was hard, they were doing necessary jobs, and so forth.

The next needs up the Maslow hierarchy after safety and comfort are belonging and esteem.  The basic human psyche is evolved for the pre-economic tribal environment where esteem came from fulfilling a useful role and being appreciated for it, by others but also by oneself.

It is the absolute genius of the post-industrial age that we have created a society in which a growing majority of people are doing useless, and in many cases counter-productive work (plus producing luxuries and entertainment), but where we all feel like we’re doing something necessary and important, and that we’re making a difference in the world.

Unlike a century ago, today for everyone who is working on technological progress, there is someone else who thinks that they are saving the planet by stopping them.  Has the pace of technological change slowed?  It certainly has for technologies that have to run the gauntlet all the way into consumers’ hands and make an obvious difference, because those are the easiest kinds to attack.  It has also slowed in areas where scare stories are easy to generate, like nuclear power.  In a world of delusional, self-important Eloi, it is much more advantageous to be a screaming coward than to be brave and productive.

At the back end of the process, however, science is still advancing (animal activists to the contrary notwithstanding).  The rate of technological advance in areas without opposition, such as computer technology, has been tremendous.  Over the period that Nordmann decries as having had little technological advance, basic science has done things like solve the molecular mechanisms of life itself, produced a workable quantum electrodynamics, and mapped the human brain.

Normally in history, technology has led science. Tinkerers find things that work, and scientists come along and explain them, in the process laying the groundwork for more thorough exploitation of the principles involved.  The steam engine preceded thermodynamics by a century.  What’s happened in the late twentieth century is that something of an overhang has been created by the opposition to visible applications. Should there be a cultural shift, or should there arise elsewhere (China?) a culture that has the same gung-ho spirit that we had just a century ago, huge apparent advances could happen almost overnight as experimentation regains the lead, using all the “pent-up knowledge” of the past half-century.  Real nanotechnology is the most obvious example, but there are many.

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