What is the Singularity

It has been claimed that humanity is experiencing a Singularity. This is generally thought of in terms of a curve:

This curve is a singularity because the value of Y/X is undefined at higher values of x. This curve is also described as mathematically “not well-behaved”, or “goes to infinity”.

Ray Kurzweil is a well known author espousing the claim of a singularity in human affairs.

The best reference I found for this term, and meme, is an essay given at a NASA symposium by Vernor Vinge, 1993, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. Vinge notes that Stan Ulam first used the term singularity in a 1958 Mathematical Bulletin tribute to John von Neumann.

The timeline implies the 1990’s brought an epiphany of information, leading to movies like the Terminator and the Matrix, which promoted this meme to the global stage. Vinge was most concerned in his treatment of this topic with the advance of artificial intelligence. Many of us who consider this Vinge Singularity real, believe that while it particularly applies to technology, it encompasses all aspects of human knowledge. We can label the axes of the curve:

Many of us who consider this Vinge Singularity real, believe that while it particularly applies to technology, it encompasses all aspects of human knowledge. We can label the axes of the curve:

Engineering the Singularity

Chapter 1:Technology:SMASIS

The image above, which I’m using to illustrate this article, is from a patent for the use of a smart material to change the shape of an airfoil (airplane wing). The principal is that when the smart material(a shape memory alloy represented by the blue line in the diagram) is heated, it will change to one shape. and when cooled it reverts back to the previous shape. Thus, the design can be used to control the shape and performance of the wing without the use of additional mechanical methods. In this case, the leading edge of the airfoil provides a new method which allows the plane to actually change the shape of the wing while in flight. It may even be possible to eventually create and train a smart material to activate at operating temperatures, so that a shape change is automatic.

Technology is one of five themes for Steamwonk knowledge sharing. Technology is a wide-ranging description. However, our editorial focus for this theme is narrowly, though not exclusively, SMASIS. This acronym stands for Smart Materials, Activated Structures, and Intelligent Systems. The term was coined by ASME International (American Society for Mechanical Engineers, www.asme.org) and they sponsor a yearly SMASIS conference gathering researchers in these areas which some of our editors, including myself, have attended for the past few years. For those unfamiliar with these technologies, shape memory alloys and adaptive structures can act (among other things) as actuators in and of themselves, without mechanical assemblies. They can therefore act as motors, and change shape(Transformers!)due to temperature or electrical inputs.

SMASIS is a range of scientific disciplines and experimentation which are leading the way fore merging technologies. Though it sounds like a James Bond Villain, the acronym SMASIS actually stands for three classifications of study which attempt to encompass key engineering elements of the Singularity. These are Smart Materials, a group of metals, fluids, polymers, and other materials which change physical properties under environmental stimulus; Adaptive Structures, also called activated or smart structures, which change shape and capabilities due to environmental stimulus; and Intelligent Systems, which encompass system designs for these materials and structures.

Recent conferences used focused sessions featuring primarily front running academic researchers of new materials and a few big industry participants and presenters. For example, Boeing and General Motors research folks have spoken and participated. Groups like NASA, and Universities such as Texas A&M(TAMU),Colorado School of Mines, University of North Texas, Purdue, Clemson, and Ohio State attend and present. The topics range from smart materials (polymers, fluids, metals)with fundamental research and standards for the engineering, and modular AI applications to run the systems. The environmental stimulus which induces property changes in these smart materials and activated structures is change in temperature, pressure, electrical charge, magnetic susceptibility, gravity, and even nuclear force. The materials and structures uptake the energy supplied to drive property changes in characteristics such as mechanical strength, electrical resistance, crystal alignment, size, shape, and color.

The CASMART team (Consortium for the Advancement of Shape Memory Alloy Research andTechnology,http://casmart.tamu.edu/),has created and consolidated standards and tools for manufacture, forming, processing, and developing shape memory materials that promise to transform our world as extensively and completely as has the internet. Progress in Adaptive Structures and Intelligent Systems will also benefit greatly from newly developed standards and approaches to understanding complex material science. New physics will aid new engineering.

Whether it is new material processing, origami structures, or multifunctional composites, the scope and breadth of these new technologies is fascinating. We see ourselves as an emergent SMASIS community. Launching in the pandemic was not our intention for this first chapter of Steamwonk, but it does serve to highlight the nature and value of the New Renaissance in unique ways. This introduction and first chapter describe the Singularity, expresses our mission and goals for this website, and illustrates an approach to inventing new systems such as a Personal Protection System (PPS). Not all elements of such systems are emerging technology. Some are older technology we want to synergize with new tech to accomplish useful work.

These new materials and structures are modern magic. In fact, the introduction of this kind of emerging technology is often the source of amazing, apparently magical, objects. For example, Uri Geller, an illusionist and magician, was “bending” a metal spoon with his mind in the 90’s and people are still amazed by this stunt today! The spoon was made of a Smart Material, Nickel Titanium, patented for public use by NASA in the 70’s and which when heated by Uri’s finger rubbing action (his mental concentration trick) reconfigured the spoon into a bent shape. A smart material acting as an activated structure. Engineering the precise effect through metal composition and training was the key but it was, and generally still is, poorly understood. This could work to your advantage far beyond amazing your friends or winning a bar bet!

We can use this technology to design incredible systems. The future is now.

Innovate, create, enjoy!!!

The Intimate and the Remote

The Intimate and the Remote: How the Singularity is Fusing These TwoApproaches to Education – J.C. Steele

The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.

Sydney J. Harris

The recent thinking that we have entered into a new “Viral Age” is a bit of a misnomer. We have always been in a viral age. The difference today is that the viruses travel all over the globe and there has never been a time in history where “vaccines” would not need widespread distribution, speedy delivery and constant updating to keep pace with the morphing tendencies of the viruses. These needs must not be allowed to distract us from a critical fact. The youngest among us will be the most affected and for the longest period of time. How we model crisis behavior for our children, and how we educate them and treat them in this emergency, will establish the world’s course for the next few generations. One needs only to look at the children of the Great Depression to see the reality we’re creating.

The direct impact of the pandemic on education has highlighted new, yet old, ways COVID-19isreshaping how education will be delivered under pandemic restrictions. There is nothing new about shutting down public places, quarantines, or sequestering because of a plague. But with a global economy tied so closely together, it magnifies the impact of loss on current business and future education and development. We find ourselves at an inflection point: education practices will change, whether we wish it or not.

Students will be dependent more than ever upon online databases, videos, and instructional tools. It is crucial to develop even remote areas with high level internet service. With the future that is coming, we’ll need everyone to cope with synchronous and asynchronous learning without the added advantages of in-person delivery. It will also put to shame the “pay-to-play” plan of internet providers who slow access for those unable to pay for more than basic service.

Instructors need to make large shifts in their familiar pedagogy in order to effectively deliver course content. With compulsory education currently required for primary and secondary schools, this means creating a hybrid of “in person” and online teaching. Like it or not, the old way of structuring a class period is changing for good. In order to prepare students for success, teachers must train them not only with information about different subjects, but in how to access and utilize metadata to find the information they need. Changes in the way people interface with information will drive fundamental changes in our perception of the reality around us.

Augmented reality (AR) will be a driving force in the exchange of data and information. Local governments which mandate compulsory education will be forced to provide adequate resources or see local populations “voting with their feet” by going where the quality of information exchange is higher, and the information density greater.

In higher education, the problem is even more pronounced. Not only does the college student population already vote-with-their-feet but there is an enormous cost associated with attending higher education institutions. The question becomes, more significantly than in the past, why should I spend so much money to receive instruction that I can find at low or no cost online? When universities and colleges figure this out, there will be a noticeable change in campus life. There has to be a change in order to counteract the emerging notion that universities and colleges are not much more than endowments and trust funds that use “Education” as a tax dodge.

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

Frank Zappa

What we will see in the marriage of the “intimate” and the “remote” is a new formula for education at all levels. Getting this synthesis right will determine the relative success of every culture that hopes to have successive generations improve up on the status quo, rather than enter into a regressive period where the children are not smarter than their parents. We need learning that embraces the advantages of the online “Academe,” as well as the face-to-face learning and tutoring of Plato and Aristotle. We cannot afford either/or. What recent events have taught us is that no country can really afford an “on-again-off-again” system of content delivery in the classroom. When there are future pandemics and shutdowns our education systems need to be able to pivot quickly from the intimate to the remote, with minimal loss of momentum and content.

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.”

Albert Einstein

We should also remember that as we scramble to make our teaching successful, we must consider the experience from the end user’s perspective—the students. It has already been demonstrated that students on remote access easily become bored, distracted and occasionally mischievous in their attendance to lessons. Reports of students on ZOOM running videos of themselves paying attention to the screen while they are off in the kitchen or elsewhere have already surfaced, along with the tried-and-true technique of posting an engaging profile picture while the camera and sound are off.

How do teachers and presenters hope to overcome this casual attitude towards class or seminars? By constantly making them fun and interactive, of course. It may not be how many teachers prefer to emphasize the solemnity of their topics, but at risk of total failure to connect, we should all be aware that a sense of fun should be a primary element of instruction. We’re all up against the frustrations and aggravations of a home life that constantly wants to interweave with our work life. We must finally come to grips with the conundrum of “working” from home, when we want to “play” at home. We need to find how to bring these concepts together, so that work and fun are synonymous. At least if the presenters make it fun, there’s a greater chance that we will all get something out of the experience and improve the quality of our lives.

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”


J.C. Steele is Professor of Theatre and Multidisciplinary Studies at Principia College outside of St. Louis. By circumstance, not necessarily by choice, he has become a ZOOM Meeting expert.

Art 4 Art’s sake

Art for Art’s Sake; Money for God’s Sake!


Geoff Callaway

“Art for Art’s Sake! Money, for God’s Sake!” this seems to be the perennial lament of the arts scene in the United States. A new millennium dawns and the refrain is the same. A pandemic sweeps the world, and the situation becomes dramatically worse. Art and theater incomes are disappearing along with the loss of public venues and gatherings.

Can Art survive? Indubitably!!

It will survive because Art is fundamental to the human condition. Even in the midst of survival, it feeds our minds and souls. It entertains and enlightens us. It tells stories that help us place world shattering events like the Pandemic and the Singularity in context, and then adds meaning and purpose to our lives by encouraging us to respond, to ACT.

One current example of how a theatre company might make this pivot is Bankside Repertory Theatre Company in Alton, IL. Situated in the St. Louis entertainment market, Bankside is an Actor’s Equity contract small professional theatre. As such, it is very vulnerable to closures by the state and most of the COVID restrictions imposed on public gatherings. However, the Bankside board decided to embrace the opportunity for online streaming their live events—just like many other entertainment companies have done. Not only has it allowed Bankside to carryon with their offerings, there is potential to reach a much wider audience and overcome the obstacle of their patrons remaining at home. Additionally, there is also an opportunity to increase their revenue stream as more people will now be able to see the productions and buy merchandise at a reduced cost. More “seats” are now available, so the company can drop the ticket price and still maintain a slight profit for each production—which can then be reinvested in their infrastructure.

It remains to be seen exactly how the pandemic will turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse for live theater, but one thing is almost certain–live theaters, once they’ve embraced live streaming their performances, will continue to offer that option. Highlighting that Art for Art’s sake will continue for its own sake, and money will be found for everyone’s sake.

This is an example of the kind of thinking and innovation that must be accomplished for ART to thrive again–ACT. Act in concert, act with conviction and purpose, act with design, and find new ways to touch our audience. This is how we will recover. This is how we will live long and prosper. Join us in acting–by making–by DOING! Carpe Diem!

Geoff Callaway is a contributing editor to SteamWonk. In other iterations, he is a playwright, professional pedant and comedian. The fact that the general public has probably never heard of him is a cause both for joy and sorrow.

The S’xy Curves of Technology Models

By Tad Calkins

The ‘S’ curve is a simple and compelling representation of a system’s growth under inherent limitations. First developed to explain Thomas Malthus’ demographic data, of Malthusian Catastrophe fame, it has been used to model everything from new technology adoption to COVID-19 spread — ‘think flatten the curve’.

One of the most common representations of evolution in a complex system is the ‘S’ curve, also known as the logistic function.  It is a visually compelling symbol of cumulative growth with inherent limitation. It is usually shown as a plot of system status versus time, for example population numbers, complexity, market capture, or revenues. The S curve describes a system changing slowly at first, followed by rapid increase, and finally leveling off and changing slowing again.  The logistics curve has been found to be broadly applicable to many fields including technology forecasting, epidemiology, population demographics, and others, helping to describe and predict changes in complex systems. 

At the heart of a logistics curve’s ability to predict a system’s future state is whatever limitations are incorporated in the system.  Since built-in limitations are a feature of many natural world systems, this helps explain the model’s broad applicability. 

The origin of the logistic function is in the population growth modeling by Belgian mathematician Pierre-Francois Verhulst (1804-1849).  He based his model on the work of the English demographer and economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).  This equation described the self-limiting growth of a population.  Later generalization of Verhulst’s work led to the Volterra-Lotka model of predator-prey interaction, which has been extremely successful in modeling the evolutionary dynamics of systems with competition in biology, ecology, technology, and business.  In more recent times the logistic curve has been used extensively to elegantly capture complex system behavior.  This has led to many different names for the curve in literature: Logistics curve, Verhulst-Pearl equation, Pearl curve, Richard’s curve (Generalized Logistic), Growth curve, Gompertz curve, S-curve, S-shaped pattern, Saturation curve, Sigmoidal curve, Foster’s curve, Bass model, among others. 

The limitations may be explained more rigorously by saying the rate of growth is proportional to both the amount of growth already completed and the amount of growth remaining.  Mathematically, this is the time-based rate dependence of the system parameter, N (dN/dt). We want to relate this time dependence to the limitation (limiting value), M, which is also known as the carrying capacity. We relate these through k, the intrinsic growth rate. 

dN/dt = kN(1-N/M)

The magnitude of N depends on M, while the dynamics and stability depend on k. The last term (1-N/M) can be thought of as a regulatory mechanism which causes disturbances to monotonically, gradually, fade away.  In fact, N approaches the carrying capacity M at a rate dependent on k.  At large t (longer time), the globally stable equilibrium is N asymptotically approaching M.  

A solution to the equation can be found through separation of variables to get

N=M/[1+Be(-kt)] where B = (M-No)/No

Additional understanding of the logistics equation can be found by plotting equation 2 as shown in this Figure:

Example application?

Perhaps the Singularity is not an exponential curve, but a sigmoidal one. Tim O’Reilly thinks so in “It’s not exponential, it’s sigmoidal” Tim opines that this discrepancy between curve types is why Ray Kurtzweil is wrong in this book, The Singularity. We don’t think that it will matter much over the next three decades, which are what concern us. Over these coming decades, we expect the curve to look vertical.

The Singularity is a New Renaissance

“The Singularity started in the 80’s and is now streaming live to your neighborhood!  Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride!” – Steamwonk

We’ve entered a New Renaissance–Why believe we’ve entered a New Renaissance at this time? What led to the Medieval Renaissance? Other than technology itself, there is little to distinguish us from our Medieval brethren as they faced their new age. The Crusades brought diverse concepts and cultures in direct conflict with one another. Access to the far east was bringing new goods, technology, and ideas. It must have been hard for individuals to adapt and absorb all the new information. Fear and resistance to the changing ideas was assuredly common. Any threat to the status quo was a threat to those with power, position, and money. Those human characteristics have not changed.

Those same forces will, and are now, attempting to slow the pace of innovation. But too late, Schrödinger’s cat is out of the box–and he’s feelin’ frisky!

Our Technological Renaissance, our Singularity, which is sometimes called the Vinge Singularity, is the result of three factors which we share with our medieval brethren:

  1. A pool of educated scientists and scholars(data density). Then it was wealthy nobles patronizing artists and alchemists whose communications with colleagues were painfully slow. Now it’s a huge, world-wide, educated populace with rapid access to data, and the analyses and communication tools to take advantage of that access.
  2. Increased speed of communication(data velocity). In those times it was the printing press. In the mid 1980’s we created the internet.
  3. Spreading of new ideas (data acceleration). In medieval times it was soldiers returning to Europe from the Crusades with new ideas. Today we have social media and open sources for data and information. In 2004, Facebook and Open Knowledge (okfn.org) were launched, in2006, LinkedIn. Open data, open knowledge, open research, and online publications from all scientific fields are an internet connection away. Today free data, free software, free training, and low-cost internet are widely accessible.[Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote a nice piece a couple of years ago in the Verge discussing the provenance of open access research and copyright issues(offsite link):

Data density and flow rates have exploded over the past three decades. Just as the printing press and new knowledge from the East fueled the Medieval Renaissance, internet and social connectivity tools are doing the same for this New Renaissance, and at a much faster pace. We have seen computing and data transform our civilizations, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The hidden behemoths of change are physics and material science. Where we saw the internet and smartphones pave the way, with computer programming blossoming in their wake–now we will see physics and material science use 3D printing and distributed design and manufacturing to fuel explosive growth. And sooner than we might have imagined.

It’s easy to see the link between the printing press and the internet in creating a new renaissance. The ability to access significantly new and more detailed information rapidly, easily and cheaply is incredibly favorable for rapid technical advance. But whereas the printing press came into gradual use over more than one generation, the internet sprang onto the stage in less than a generation, connecting almost everyone on the planet. Where the first renaissance brought people some new ideas and what seemed to them rapid change, this time the information is a flood and the change will be over the span of two generations, not 100’s of years.

Faced with change this rapid can we adapt? If so, how do we adapt? For most of us, getting on with our lives is about making a living and raising our children by having a job. But we’re told at every turn that the old jobs are going away, and many of us have already had to cope with that first hand, watching jobs move overseas or disappearing as technology we’ve known and relied on becomes obsolete. Do we fight the factory moves–telling our politicians to bring back the obsolescent manufacturing jobs? Do we just accept what some futurists tell us? That the new jobs will be in service, food, IT and health?

We don’t believe it! Science and engineering are our future, and our future is now. Get your surfboards!

A renaissance is a time of rapid change and disruption, and thus a time of fear and discord–but also a time of incredible opportunity! Technology, sociology, physics, medicine–all the disciplines experience an explosion of new concepts. As a result, manufacturing changes, education changes, business models change, governments change. In fact–EVERYTHING changes

The Chinese curse, “May your children live in interesting times”, is now true for us all. It can be a blessing, and the future may find the technological advances of the Singularity even more “interesting” than the battles and wars of the past.

But we will not escape such conflicts, and the edge will go, as it always has, to the most technologically advanced. By preparing ourselves, we prepare our country. In this New Renaissance, an artisan-driven age of creation and manufacturing is upon us. Niche and distributed manufacturing and independent foundries will cover the world. Supported by 3D printing and computer aided drafting, individual entrepreneurs will be able to dominate a new world of design, creation, manufacturing and distribution. New materials will support new functionality. Smart materials like Shape Memory Alloys(SMAs) will replace the complex motors and actuators we use today. Printed products will allow dentistry, medicine, construction and all the other traditional jobs to blossom and expand in ways that empower individuals and small businesses. Modular AI will support individualized agendas for research and development. Cloud sourcing and cooperation will permit high level research by individuals and small groups. In our lifetimes, the path from concept to prototype will have evolved from a long and tortuous trial and error methodology (ex. Thomas Edison and the light bulb), to a mind boggling few days.

Our new world can be focused on the individual and family. Individual consumers buying unique products, created and manufactured by other individuals and families. A world centered on individuals : security, artificial intelligence, drones, medical science. A guy on your street (maybe you) will be able to manufacture anything wanted with the 3d printers and newest tools in his garage. You can create, design and manufacture products in your home and ship them anywhere in the world to customers you find online, from your home office.

The Singularity Meme

“Things will never be slower than they are right now.” Beth Comstock

The Singularity is a meme, or deep concept, describing the exponential rate of change in our knowledge base wrought by new scientific and technological discoveries.

Vernor Vinge’s 1993 predictions (Vernor Vinge, 1993, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era) were frightening, as were von Neumann’s in the 1950’s. In the 80’s and 90’s these ideas were catapulted to global awareness with movies like the Terminator and the Matrix. While Vinge’s concerns focused on artificial intelligence (AI), the truth is that we have entered the rapidly changing portion of the curve above for technology and science as a whole. It doesn’t matter whether you are speaking of physics, material science, engineering, biomedicine, or any field of human knowledge. All are growing exponentially. The great unknown awaits.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. H. P. Lovecraft

Today’s rapid changes invoke fear, but fear is just a way for our psyches to say PAY ATTENTION. Information density and flow rates have exploded over the past three decades. Keeping up, even in a specific technical area, can feel like a lost cause. A few years ago, a colleague coming back to my industry said that even with only five years away from our profession, it felt like he was trying to drink from a firehose. Our young must develop strong filters to learn things in depth, and separating the real from fake news will be a paramount skill.

Take a deep dive and learn more about this meme and curve, and see the timeline annotated in this quarter’s Wonk (Expert) article. Discover a philosophy of happiness and success, and avoid one of despair. Innovate and Create. Find the optimism by joining us in this exciting adventure into the unknown. Let’s make magic!!!

E1Sref1 1993 Vernor Vinge

Vernon Vinge, 1993. The Coming Technological Singularity:

How to Survive in the Post-Human Er

Vernor Vinge

Department of Mathematical Sciences

San Diego State University

 (c) 1993 by Vernor Vinge

(Verbatim copying/translation and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.)

This article was for the VISION-21 Symposium
sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center
and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993.
It is also retrievable from the NASA technical reports
server as part of NASA CP-10129.
A slightly changed version appeared in the
Winter 1993 issue of _Whole Earth Review_.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological
means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after,
the human era will be ended.
Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can
events be guided so that we may survive? These questions
are investigated. Some possible answers (and some further
dangers) are presented.

_What is The Singularity?_

 The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur): 

  • The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, most controversy in the area of AI relates to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is “yes, we can”, then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.
  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  • Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

The first three possibilities depend in large part on improvements in computer hardware. Progress in computer hardware has followed an amazingly steady curve in the last few decades [16]. Based largely on this trend, I believe that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. (Charles Platt [19] has pointed out the AI enthusiasts have been making claims like this for the last thirty years. Just so I’m not guilty of a relative-time ambiguity, let me more specific: I’ll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.)

What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale. The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work — the world acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals.

From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. (In [4], Greg Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours.) I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In the 1950s there were very few who saw it: Stan Ulam [27] paraphrased John von Neumann as saying:

One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he is still thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed.

In the 1960s there was recognition of some of the implications of superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any 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.


It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make.

 Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but does not pursue its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the sort he describes would not be humankind’s “tool” — any more than humans are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees. 

Through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, recognition of the cataclysm spread. Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact.  After all, the “hard” science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us.  More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future [23].  Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable … soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.

What about the ’90s and the ’00s and the ’10s, as we slide toward the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine sapience will have good press. After all, till we have hardware as powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we’ll be able to create human equivalent (or greater) intelligence. (There is the far-fetched possibility that we could make a human equivalent out of less powerful hardware, if were willing to give up speed, if we were willing to settle for an artificial being who was literally slow. But it’s much more likely that devising the software will be a tricky process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If so, then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen till after the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than humans’ natural equipment.)

But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt by science fiction writers will be perceived in other creative endeavors.  (I have heard thoughtful comic book writers worry about how to have spectacular effects when everything visible can be produced by the technically commonplace.) We will see automation replacing higher and higher level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Or put another way: The work that is truly productive is the domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of _true_ technological unemployment finally come true.

Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace.  When I began writing, it seemed very easy to come up with ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.

And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be  said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far.  The precipitating event will likely be unexpected — perhaps even to the researchers involved. (“But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters….”) If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.

And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I  have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism, sometimes I think I’d be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years remove … instead of twenty.

 _Can the Singularity be Avoided?_

Well, maybe it won’t happen at all: Sometimes I try to imagine the symptoms that we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to develop.  There are the widely respected arguments of Penrose and Searle  against the practicality of machine sapience.  In August of 1992, Thinking Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate the question “How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks” [Thearling]. As you might guess from the workshop’s title, the participants were not especially supportive of the arguments against machine intelligence. In fact, there was general agreement that minds can exist on nonbiological substrates and that algorithms are of central importance to the existence of minds.  However, there was much debate about the raw hardware power that is present in organic brains. A minority felt that the largest 1992 computers were within three orders of magnitude of the power of the human brain.  The majority of the participants agreed with Moravec’s estimate [16] that we are ten to forty years away from hardware parity. And yet there was another minority who pointed to [6] [20], and conjectured that the computational competence of single neurons may be far higher than generally believed. If so, our present computer hardware might be as much as _ten_ orders of magnitude short of the equipment we carry around in our heads. If this is true (or for that matter, if the Penrose or Searle critique is valid), we might never see a Singularity. Instead, in the early ’00s we would find our hardware performance curves begin to level off — this caused by our inability to automate the complexity of the design work necessary to support the hardware trend curves. We’d end up with some _very_ powerful hardware, but without the ability to push it further.  Commercial digital signal processing might be awesome, giving an analog appearance even to digital operations, but nothing would ever “wake up” and there would never be the intellectual runaway which is the essence of the Singularity. It would likely be seen as a golden age … and it would also be an end of progress. This is very like the future predicted by Gunther Stent.  In fact, Stent explicitly cites the development of transhuman intelligence as a sufficient condition to break his projections.

But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even  if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue. In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the construction of “a machine in the form of the mind of man” [12].  In fact, the competitive advantage — economic, military, even artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.

Eric Drexler [7] has provided spectacular insight about how far technical improvement may go. He agrees that superhuman intelligences will be available in the near future — and that such entities pose a threat to the human status quo. But Drexler argues that we can embed such transhuman devices in rules or physical confinement such that their results can be examined and used safely.  This is I. J. Good’s ultraintelligent machine, with a dose of caution. I argue that confinement is intrinsically impractical. For the case of physical confinement: Imagine yourself confined to your house with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with “helpful advice” that would incidentally set you free. (I call this “fast thinking” form of superintelligence “weak superhumanity”. Such a “weakly superhuman” entity would probably burn out in a few weeks of outside time. “Strong superhumanity” would be more than cranking up the clock speed on a human-equivalent mind.  It’s hard to say precisely what “strong superhumanity” would be like, but the difference appears to be profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight? (Now if the dog mind were cleverly rewired and _then_ run at high speed, we might see something different….) Most speculations about superintelligence seem to be based on the weakly superhuman model. I believe that our best guesses about the post-Singularity world can be obtained by thinking on the nature of strong superhumanity. I will return to this point later in the paper.)

The other approach to Drexlerian confinement is to build _rules_ into the mind of the created superhuman entity (Asimov’s Laws). I think that performance rules strict enough to be safe would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (and so human competition would favor the development of the those more dangerous models).  Still, the Asimov dream is a wonderful one: Imagine a willing slave, who has 1000 times your capabilities in every way. Imagine a creature who could satisfy your every safe wish (whatever that means) and still have 99.9% of its time free for other activities. There would be a new universe we never really understood, but filled with benevolent gods (though one of _my_ wishes might be to become one of them).

If the Singularity can not be prevented or confined, just how bad could the Post-Human era be? Well … pretty bad. The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility. (Or as Eric Drexler put it of nanotechnology: Given all that such technology can do, perhaps governments would simply decide that they no longer need citizens!). Yet physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility.  Again, analogies: Think of the different ways we relate to animals. Some of the crude physical abuses are implausible, yet…. In a Post-Human world there would still be plenty of niches where human equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. (A strongly superhuman intelligence would likely be a Society of Mind [15] with some very competent components.) Some of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital signal processing. They would be more like whales than humans. Others might be very human-like, yet with a one-sidedness, a _dedication_ that would put them in a mental hospital in our era.  Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new enviroment to what we call human now. (I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good [11] proposed a “Meta-Golden Rule”, which might be paraphrased as “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”  It’s a wonderful, paradoxical idea (and most of my friends don’t believe it) since the game-theoretic payoff is so hard to articulate. Yet if we were able to follow it, in some sense that might say something about the plausibility of such kindness in this universe.)

I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology.  And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is: 

_Other Paths to the Singularity: Intelligence Amplification_

When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings,  they are usually imagining an AI project. But as I noted at the beginning of this paper, there are other paths to superhumanity. Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than AI, and yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is something that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the team of a PhD human and good computer workstation (even an off-net workstation!) could probably max any written intelligence test in existence.

And it’s very likely that IA is a much easier road to the achievement of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest development problems have already been solved. Building up from within ourselves ought to be easier than figuring out first what we really are and then building machines that are all of that. And there is at least conjectural precedent for this approach.  Cairns-Smith [5] has speculated that biological life may have begun as an adjunct to still more primitive life based on crystalline growth.  Lynn Margulis [14] has made strong arguments for the view that mutualism is the great driving force in evolution.

Note that I am not proposing that AI research be ignored or less funded. What goes on with AI will often have applications in IA, and vice versa.  I am suggesting that we recognize that in network and interface research there is something as profound (and potential wild) as Artificial Intelligence. With that insight, we may see projects that are not as directly applicable as conventional interface and network design work, but which serve to advance us toward the Singularity along the IA path.

Here are some possible projects that take on special significance, given the IA point of view:

  • Human/computer team automation: Take problems that are normally considered for purely machine solution (like hill-climbing problems), and design programs and interfaces that take a advantage of humans’ intuition and available computer hardware. Considering all the bizarreness of higher dimensional hill-climbing problems (and the neat algorithms that have been devised for their solution), there could be some very interesting displays and control tools provided to the human team member.
  • Develop human/computer symbiosis in art: Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans. Of course, there has been an enormous amount of research in designing computer aids for artists, as labor saving tools.  I’m suggesting that we explicitly aim for a greater merging of competence, that we explicitly recognize the cooperative approach that is possible. Karl Sims [22] has done wonderful work in this direction.
  • Allow human/computer teams at chess tournaments. We already have programs that can play better than almost all humans. But how much work has been done on how this power could be used by a human, to get something even better? If such teams were allowed in at least some chess tournaments, it could have the positive effect on IA research that allowing computers in tournaments had for the corresponding niche in AI.
  • Develop interfaces that allow computer and network access without requiring the human to be tied to one spot, sitting in front of a computer. (This is an aspect of IA that fits so well with known economic advantages that lots of effort is already being spent on it.)
  • Develop more symmetrical decision support systems. A popular research/product area in recent years has been decision support systems. This is a form of IA, but may be too focussed on systems that are oracular. As much as the program giving the user information, there must be the idea of the user giving the program guidance.
  • Use local area nets to make human teams that really work (ie, are more effective than their component members). This is generally the area of “groupware”, already a very popular commercial pursuit. The change in viewpoint here would be to regard the group activity as a combination organism. In one sense, this suggestion might be regarded as the goal of inventing a “Rules of Order” for such combination operations. For instance, group focus might be more easily maintained than in classical meetings. Expertise of individual human members could be isolated from ego issues such that the contribution of different members is focussed on the team project. And of course shared data bases could be used much more conveniently than in conventional committee operations. (Note that this suggestion is aimed at team operations rather than political meetings. In a political setting, the automation described above would simply enforce the power of the persons making the rules!)
  • Exploit the worldwide Internet as a combination human/machine tool. Of all the items on the list, progress in this is proceeding the fastest and may run us into the Singularity before anything else. The power and influence of even the present-day Internet is vastly underestimated. For instance, I think our contemporary computer systems would break under the weight of their own complexity if it weren’t for the edge that the USENET “group mind” gives the system administration and support people!) The very anarchy of the worldwide net development is evidence of its potential. As connectivity and bandwidth and archive size and computer speed all increase, we are seeing something like Lynn Margulis’ [14] vision of the biosphere as data processor recapitulated, but at a million times greater speed and with millions of humanly intelligent agents (ourselves).

 The above examples illustrate research that can be done within  the context of contemporary computer science departments. There are other paradigms. For example, much of the work in Artificial Intelligence and neural nets would benefit from a closer connection with biological life. Instead of simply trying to model and understand biological life with computers, research could be directed toward the creation of composite systems that rely on biological life for  guidance or for the providing features we don’t understand well enough yet to implement in hardware. A long-time dream of science-fiction has been direct brain to computer interfaces [2] [28]. In fact, there is concrete work that can be done (and has been done) in this area:

  • Limb prosthetics is a topic of direct commercial applicability. Nerve to silicon transducers can be made [13].  This is an exciting, near-term step toward direct communcation.
  • Similar direct links into brains may be feasible, if the bit rate is low: given human learning flexibility, the actual brain neuron targets might not have to be precisely selected. Even 100 bits per second would be of great use to stroke victims who would otherwise be confined to menu-driven interfaces.
  •  Plugging in to the optic trunk has the potential for bandwidths of 1 Mbit/second or so. But for this, we need to know the fine-scale architecture of vision, and we need to place an enormous web of electrodes with exquisite precision.  If we want our high bandwidth connection to be _in addition_ to what paths are already present in the brain, the problem becomes vastly more intractable. Just sticking a grid of high-bandwidth receivers into a brain certainly won’t do it.  But suppose that the high-bandwidth grid were present while the brain structure was actually setting up, as the embryo develops.  That suggests:
  • Animal embryo experiments. I wouldn’t expect any IA success in the first years of such research, but giving developing brains access to complex simulated neural structures might be very interesting to the people who study how the embryonic brain develops.  In the long run, such experiments might produce animals with additional sense paths and interesting intellectual abilities.

Originally, I had hoped that this discussion of IA would yield some clearly safer approaches to the Singularity. (After all, IA allows our participation in a kind of transcendance.) Alas, looking back over these IA proposals, about all I am sure of is that they should be considered, that they may give us more options. But as for safety …  well, some of the suggestions are a little scarey on their face. One of my informal reviewers pointed out that IA for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite. We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light. Much of that deadliness may not be necessary in today’s world, one where losers take on the winners’ tricks and are coopted into the winners’ enterprises. A creature that was built _de novo_ might possibly be a much more benign entity than one with a kernel based on fang and talon. And even the egalitarian view of an Internet that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a nightmare.

The problem is not that the Singularity represents simply the  passing of humankind from center stange, but that it contradicts some of our most deeply held notions of being. I think a closer look at the notion of strong superhumanity can show why that is.

  _Strong Superhumanity and the Best We Can Ask for_

 Suppose we could tailor the Singularity. Suppose we could attain our most extravagant hopes. What then would we ask for:

 That humans themselves would become their own successors, that whatever injustice occurs would be tempered by our knowledge of our roots. For those who remained unaltered, the goal would be benign treatment (perhaps even giving the stay-behinds the appearance of being masters of godlike slaves).  It could be a golden age that also involved progress (overleaping Stent’s barrier). Immortality (or at least a lifetime as long as we can make the universe survive would be achievable.  But in this brightest and kindest world, the philosophical problems themelves become intimidating. A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person.  (The most chilling picture I have seen of this is in [17].)  To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally?  Certainly the later being would be everything the original was, but so much vastly more. And so even for the individual, the Cairns-Smith (or Lynn Margulis) notion of new life growing incrementally out of the old must still be valid.

This “problem” about immortality comes up in much more direct ways.  The notion of ego and self-awareness has been the bedrock of the hardheaded rationalism of the last few centuries. Yet now the notion of self-awareness is under attack from the Artificial Intelligence people (“self-awareness and other delusions”).

Intelligence Amplification undercuts the importance of ego from another direction.  The post-Singularity world will involve extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages.

What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of a selfawareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration?  These are essential features of strong superhumanity and the Singularity. Thinking about them, one begins to feel how essentially strange and different the Post-Human era will be

_no matter how cleverly and benignly it is brought to be_.

From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams: a place unending, where we can truly know one another and understand the deepest mysteries.  From another angle, it’s a lot like the worst case scenario I imagined earlier in this paper. Which is the valid viewpoint? In fact, I think the new era is simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil. That frame is based on the idea of isolated, immutable minds connected by tenuous, low-bandwith links. But the post-Singularity world _does_ fit with the larger tradition of change and cooperation that started long ago (perhaps even before the rise of biological life). I think there _are_ notions of ethics that would apply in such an era. Research into IA and high-bandwidth communications should improve this understanding.  I see just the glimmerings of this now, in Good’s Meta-Golden Rule, perhaps in rules for distinguishing self from others on the basis of bandwidth of connection. And while mind and self will be vastly more labile than in the past, much of what we value (knowledge, memory, thought) need never be lost. I think Freeman Dyson has it right when he says [8]: “God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.”

E1Sref2 2007 Riley Exp vs sigmoidal curves

It's not exponential, it's sigmoidal

Over Thanksgiving dinner, Saul Griffith was complaining about the lack of mathematical literacy among people who should know better. “Take all that talk about the exponential growth of various web sites. Don’t people realize that those curves are actually sigmoidal?”

Exponential vs. linear or quadratic curves.

A sigmoidal curve.

And of course, he’s right. These curves look exponential but eventually they do flatten out. In fact, one of the most important sigmoidal functions is the logistic function, originally developed to model the growth of populations. Wikipedia notes: “The initial stage of growth is approximately exponential; then, as saturation begins, the growth slows, and at maturity, growth stops.” In fact, most of these curves aren’t even sigmoidal, they are sinusoidal. (This is, incidentally, why Ray Kurzweil is most likely wrong about the singularity.)