The Singularity


Every time I think of a landmark event in the development of man or human culture, it turns out to have occurred in the very last part of the period since the previous landmark event. Such as: Homo Sapiens has been around for a quarter of a million years, but it was only about 10,000 years ago that we changed from hunter-gatherers to tillers of the field, an event which signaled our escape from the animal world.
     I made a list of these milestones, to see how general this phenomenon is. Here's the list:

  • Creation of the Universe – about 12.5 billion years ago. The universe is expanding. If we extrapolate backwards, we get to a point in time where everything in the known universe was at the same place at the same time – the “big bang.” Definitely a major milestone.
  • Formation of Planet Earth – about 4.6 billion years ago. This occurred shortly after our sun, a second-generation star, was created.
  • The First Life on Earth apparently developed shortly after the oceans were formed, about 3.5 billion years ago. Bacteria and blue-green algae followed soon after.
  • The Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago, started with a dramatic increase in the Diversity and Complexity of Life.
  • Mammals appeared on earth about 200 million years ago.
  • The species Homo Sapiens seems to have been born about 250,000 years ago.
  • Man discovered Agriculture and Herding about 10,000 years ago. This allowed him to escape from the ecological “large predator” niche that he'd previously occupied as a hunter-gatherer, and which dramatically limited his numbers.
  • Writing was invented about 5000 years ago, giving rise to civilization.
  • The Industrial Revolution allowed man to build machines to do his work on a large scale, and fostered the development of larger and more integrated cultures. I've dated the industrial revolution from the first public railroad in Britain, in 1825.
  • The Information Age is doing the same for man's thinking that the industrial revolution did for his physical powers. I've dated the information age from the first electronic computer, developed in 1940.

There's an exponential speedup here: our planet came into being in the last third of the life (so far) of the universe. Complex life developed during the last ninth of the life of the planet. The race of men In the last twentieth of a percent of the period of complex life. And we've had writing and civilization for only the last four percent of our time on earth.
      If we extrapolate this exponential series, we find critical events getting closer and closer together, until they happen ten minutes apart, then one minute apart, then six seconds apart, and so on. This point where an infinite number of major events happen at essentially the same time has been called the singularity by a number of writers, and it should be happening around now, give or take a few decades. What is its significance? Raymond Kurzweil, in his article on the singularity, sees it as the speeding up of technical innovation and acquisition of knowledge to the point where human beings can no longer understand what's going on.
      Another possibility is total cataclysm; we have the technical means to destroy higher life on earth and it's clear that some of our leaders wouldn't hesitate to risk this to obtain the temporary advantage of one group over another. Such a cataclysm would be proof of a design flaw in the mind of Homo Sapiens, proving him to be the wrong building block for an advanced society. We might conceivably kill all the humans in a nuclear war, or by developing some horrible super-virus, but I doubt we could kill all the mammals; evolution wouldn't be set back more than a hundred million years, just a moment in earth's overall time scale. Maybe higher life capable of serving as the basis for civilized society will evolve repeatedly, ending catastrophically each time until a stable design develops. We should take comfort that we're the first iteration, according to the fossil records. It would be depressing to be the hundreth because that would make cataclysm a near certainty.
      The singularity might mean we've reached or are about to reach a major turning point in the development of mankind, where this entire series of events ends and another one begins, on a different level or in another dimension. I don't mean that the focus will shift from the biological evolution of humans and other animals to the cultural evolution of societies; this happened already thousands of years ago as part of the developmental history listed above; the development of a single cell capable of serving as a building block for larger, more complicated organisms is also part of this history. I can't envision this new level on which development might occur, or what form it might take, but I'm convinced that, because of the recent or imminent ending of man's series of milestones, the next century of human history will be tremendously important.


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.