Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Economics of the Singularity from IEEE Spectrum

As I mentioned, the article that I found most fascinating in the IEEE Spectrum issue on the Singularity was the “Economics of the Singularity” by Robin Hanson, in part because I was unfamiliar with this take on the singularity issues.

He argues that we can “…view past history as a series of abrupt, seemingly unheralded transitions from one economic era to another, transitions marked by the sudden and drastic increase in the rate of economic growth.” In some sense there have already been multiple singularities on the earth. The rise of human society, the industrial revolution, the current technological revolution we are in the middle of are examples Hanson gives. Perhaps it is better to change our terminology and call these “the great transitions” or perhaps “the phase transitions” rather than the singularity. Nevertheless, we are still talking about changes as profound as the singularity.

Robin Hanson points out that when humans were basically at the hunter gather stage of social development, we were doubling in population about every 250,000 years. When the agricultural revolution happened roughly 10,000 years ago, human society started doubling every 900 years. With the advent of the industrial revolution, our overall human economy started growing even faster eventually approaching the current 15 year doubling rate. If there is another major “transition” as the result of the technological revolution reaching a suitably advanced stage, extrapolating from the past suggest that the world economic output would start doubling in somewhere from a week to a month.

Obviously doubling the world’s economic output every month seems absurd on multiple levels. After two years it would have increase by a factor of 16 million. We are currently consuming many of our renewable and non-renewable resources at rates that are not sustainable. We could not increase their consumptions by 2x or 4x, let alone 16 million times. Obviously the economic output would be completely dominated by activity that did not require substantial physical resources – such as the development of software, information, music, education, art, etc. If people are exceeding wealthy compared to today, they still could not buy all the oil or beachfront property they want. If the access to limited natural resources is controlled by market forces, then in such a wealthy economy the relative cost of any limited natural resources would climb to astronomical heights. And of course it is exceedingly hard to imagine how human society could possibly adjust to the rate of change implied by a one month doubling period.

But my point is not that predicting a major change in the economic growth rate is nonsensical. Rather it is that such a change has consequences so profound that it is hard to imagine the implications. And a truly profound transition does not require a new extreme growth rate of doubling each month. I suspect that a world economy that starts doubling in anything under 5 years very quickly leads us into a world that is profoundly different from what you could envision just by extrapolating current trends. Such a transition seems entirely plausible in the next few decades given the exponential growth rate in computer and biological technologies.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

IEEE Spectrum issue on the Singularity

I finally spent some time reading through the IEEE Spectrum special issue on the Singularity. I won’t attempt to define the Singularity and the many different versions of it, Wikipedia has some good background if you’re interested. Here are some initial thoughts about the articles in the IEEE special issue.

My first impression was that there was a great deal of skepticism and criticism about the concept of the Singularity among many of the authors. But they tended to focus their scorn on the issues of immortality, uploading your mind to a computer, and uncontrollable runaway artificial intelligence. I’ve concluded that these topics are just emotional distractions of some of the real key issues.

I prefer to define the singularity as “that future period beyond which you cannot make any accurate predictions about what society will be like because the technological and social changes will have become so profound”. Looking at the explosive rate in computer and biological technology, and the profound changes that peak oil/water/resources will usher in, it is indeed impractical to make any predictions about what society will be like beyond about 2050. This fits in well with Ray Kurzwiel’s 2045 date for the Singularity.

Although I consider the IPCC reports on climate change to be some of the most significant and well researched scientific documents of our time, I sometimes wonder if their climate predictions for 2100 are essentially meaningless. Yes, they state that these are predictions of what will happen if nothing changes (or if change follows certain scenarios). And yes, it’s important that they try to make the case for the importance of the long term impact of climate change. However, there will be such profound technological and social changes in the next 2 to 4 decades that trying to project what will really happen beyond about 2050 has so much uncertainty as to be almost meaningless. I suspect that many of the scientist involved had the same concerns, but couldn’t think of any alternative approach that still illustrated the long term dangers of climate change.

The article that I found most fascinating was the “Economics of the Singularity” by Robin Hanson, in part because I was unfamiliar with this take on the singularity issues. More on that one later…

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Singularity on IEEE and Andrew Sullivan

The singularity, to oversimplify it somewhat, is the concept that science and technology are achieving such rapid exponential growth that there will come a time in the next few decades where this growth achieves such runaway speed that very little about what society is like beyond that point can be predicted. I discuss this and related topics in a little more detail in my presentation Sustainability or Apocalypse. Ray Kurzweil is one of the more famous authors to write about this. His most recent book is The Singularity is Near – by which he means around 2045.

The subject of the singularity has long been an esoteric topic of the futurist community, but lately it has been achieving some great public exposure. The IEEE Spectrum magazine, which is well respected for its covering of technology issues, has devoted the entire June 2008 issue to the Singularity. It is available online here. I started reading it recently and will comment on it in the coming days. There are now plans to make Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near into a movie. And the most recent appearance of the singularity in the popular press has been on Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish, which is one of the most read political blogs on the web.

I have set up “Google Alerts” for both Singularity and Raymond Kurzweil, and there has been a definite increase in the frequency of references to these two topic across the web. By the way, “Google Alerts” are a great way to watch for new developments in any topic of interest. I highly recommend them.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The TED talks and Al Gore

I'd like to recommend to everyone that they check out the collection of inspiring talks at TED, which stands for Technology, Environment, and Design. TED is an annual conference started in 1984. The best talks are now available online here.

As an example, here are some quotes I copied down from Al Gore's talk on optimism and climate change

Those of us who are alive today, especially those of us in the United States, have to understand that History has presented us with a choice... we have to find a way to create a sense of generational mission... we are the generation, about which 1000 years from now, poets and singers will celebrate by saying "they were the one that found it within themselves to solve this crisis and lay the basis for a bright and optimistic human future".

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Science is a way of life

I have a degree in science as do some of my friends, and I've noticed when talking to non-scientist that we seem to "think differently" then they do at times. It's not a situation where we simply know more background facts than the other person and so come to different conclusions. It sometimes seems to be a more fundamentally different way we approach problems, evaluate evidence and reach conclusions. And I believe that it's due to the training we have in science (and math) that we integrated into our lives.

Part of this is employing a healthy dose of skepticism, part is knowing that there can be a big difference between what we want to be true and what really is true, and part of this is knowing that the facts can sometimes point to one true answer (or at least firmly eliminate some options) and that everything is not just "a matter of opinion".

It is interesting to note that at no time do I consciously decide to "look at something from a scientific perspective". It's something that is so integrated into my way of thinking that it applies to almost everything I do. Believe me, the way I evaluate which clothes to buy in a store can drive my artistic wife up the wall :-)

With that in mind, I read an interesting Op-Ed by Brian Greene in the NY Times today (He is the author of “The Elegant Universe”). In the article he comments that:
It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances.

He further explains:
But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

It's disappointing, and a failure of science education that this feeling is not more widely shared. The full op-ed is available here.