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!!!