Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Singularity

There is a concept called the Singularity.

It starts with the fact that the computing power available has doubled in power for the same price every two years. This is called Moore’s Law, and it has remained remarkably consistent. If you plotted computer power over time as a simple series, the resulting curve is asymptotic. Such a curve eventually becomes, to all intents and purposes, infinitely vertical. Technological advaces are not only greater and wider in scope than ever before, but the rate of advance is hypothetically infinite. This is the Singularity: the point at which any predictions we can make about the future will be wholly overwhelmed by a technological reality we simply can't imagine.

Time doesn’t stop occurring just because we’ve reached the vanishing point on a graph, however. So what lies beyond the Singularity? By definition, it’s almost impossible to predict. The technologies that will be in use will be astonishing. Their uses will be difficult, if not impossible, to predict accurately. Think about the predictions that were made in the 60s, 70s and 80s about what the “home of the future” would look like. Some of those predictions have been surpassed, others remain quite of reach (see Where's My Jetpack?).

Australian author Damien Broderick predicts in The Spike that the other side of the Singularity will be utterly unrecognizable to us. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s hypothesis that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and you begin to get an idea of where he’s coming from. The other side of the Singularity will be characterised by technology that we cannot now predict and could seem to the average person today to be almost magical.

Seems a bit much to get from computers alone, doesn’t it? Well, according to Ray Kurzweil, there are more technologies that are becoming information technology-based. Medical science is a good example of this, specifically the Human Genome Project. Ten years into the fifteen-year project, only two percent of the human genome had been mapped, and expectations that it would fail were widespread. Because the project was heavily geared on IT processing capacities, however, the remaining 98 per cent was mapped in the remaining five years.

Every area of technology and science that is currently limited by IT capabilities will be drawn along to some degree in the wake of Moore’s Law. We can’t expect the same exponential curve rate in every area, but the overall rate of advancement will significantly increase.

There are, however, a number of factors working to slow Moore’s Law and its effect in other technologies.

Firstly, Moore’s Law is based upon the number of transistors that can be built in to a chip. There are currently real physical barriers to building much smaller transistors, and hence increasing the number that be constructed on a given area, although much work is being done on new technologies capable of building at smaller levels. The most significant of these for the longer term is nanotechnology, but nanotech is in its infancy. While advances in nanotech are linked to those in information technology, the field is multidisciplinary, so the extent of the feedback loop between nanotech and the Moore’s Law asymptotic curve remains uncertain. However real work has already begun on quantum computing; that is, using phenomena on the quantum scale as processing power. The potential power in quantum computing is poorly understood due to the highly counter-intuitive nature of quantum physics, but for certain types of problems, quantum computing could represent an advance of many orders of magnitude. It was reported in 2006 that one early prototype of a quantum computer solved a problem before even being turned on. If that frightens you, even just a little bit, then welcome to my world.

Another factor is the ethical and moral implications of some advances in medical and biological fields. Consider just three recent examples: the debates on stem cell research, cloning, and genetically modified food.

The benefits of stem cell research are potentially enormous, but the most readily available source of stem cells – human embryos – properly threw the issue directly into the public arena. Thankfully a recent advance that makes it possible to create stem cells without harvesting them from embryos has made most of that debate redundant, and we can create a new jawbone for a man without destroying – or killing, if you prefer – many unborn embryos.

Cloning always was going to be controversial; creating human life in the laboratory has the distinct flavour of Frankenstein’s monster. But it never ceases to frustrate me that the media depictions of cloning invariably are of an identically-empowered evil army, when cloning is present in nature in identical twins, and it is apparent to even a casual observer that identical twins can be quite different in many distinct ways, and certainly don't share a communal hive mind.

I admit to paying less attention to the debate over GM food, but I can only ascribe the hoo-row over being able to buy food that is GM-free to simple fear of genetic manipulation, coupled with an understandable conservatism, and reinforced by science’s hallmark of not presuming to definitively answer questions that have not been fully studied.

My observation and prediction is that advances in medtech and biotech will always lag considerably behind the curve of Moore’s Law, because of the natural conservatism of humanity as a whole in playing with biology. This is no bad thing. Advances that directly affect the human body, or are morally ambiguous, should be publically debated.

In my previous post I commented that I expect the religious sector to be full participants in such debates, because they can be relied upon to be conservative in such areas, and also because they are fairly representative of the moral and ethical values of a large part of this country’s population. Conservative views are absolutely necessary in such debates, if no other reason than being the necessary voice of caution, but I believe the churches’ contribution is often unrecognized as going beyond that, into voicing ethical points that otherwise may escape attention and examination. (It’s worth noting in passing the irony that a recent survey of scientists found that the general population was less concerned about the potential negative effects of nanotechnology than scientists themselves.)

The Singularity will probably not look much like Broderick imagines it. Apart from the slower rate of advancement in biology, there are fields which benefit less directly from Moore’s Law, as well as other multidisciplinary crossbreeds such as nanotech.

Nonetheless, the fundamental questions that the Singularity poses remain fascinating. Science fiction has one consistent flaw, as noted by one of the greats, Robert A. Heinlein: it is too conservative. Take every notion you have about the future – every notion; 2001, Terminator, Back to the Future, Asimov, colonizing the stars – and throw it away. It’s too conservative. If an expected advancement fails to materialise, it's often due to a lack of political will, not failings in the technology; we could easily have bases throughout the solar system by now, if we'd been truly committed to following through properly on the Apollo project. We may not have a manned base on Mars within a decade, but when we do, it will be manned by persons wholly unlike those you can imagine, we will have reached it by technologies we haven’t yet realized, and the significance of it will have been fundamentally realigned because of redefinitions of our own humanity.

Broderick predicts that humanity, in the future, will consist of two essential classes: the privileged techno-elite, who not only have the material means to keep up with the constant flow of new technology, but what’s more, the ability to understand and use it at something approaching its full potential; and those that will not, and will be left permanently behind on the beach as the waves of the Singularity recede, permanently disenfranchised and disregarded - evolutionary refuse of the march of progress.

Before dismissing that narrative as fantasy, consider that there are elements of it that are present in the world today. Much of the world’s population can’t access a decent PC, let alone the internet. Thankfully there are people in the world who are doing what they can to prevent its passing, such as the One Laptop Per Child project. I believe that social projects of this nature will become increasingly common as Moore’s Law sweeps us ever further up that incredible asymptotic curve, and the point of social – if not technological – Singularity is reached. The cry of charities in the future will not simply be for an adequate water supply and a decent caloric intake for the populations of underdeveloped countries, but for net access, laptops, and basic nanotech implants.

So what is the future of the human race?

Imagine an egg. This is your granddaughter.

Submerse it in a self-aware global sphere of knowledge, information and communication; whip it lightly with genetic modification; sauté it in embedded nanotechnology; and give her perceptions that extend from tasting radio to feeling google.

This is the granddaughter of your future. What we can understand of her, anyway.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Bishop Tom Frame is, among other things, a past Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Forces, the author of twenty books, and an academic of no small repute. He recently delivered the annual Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom. The subject was “Does Secularism Provoke Religious Extremism?” The podcast can be downloaded from

During the lecture Dr Frame mentioned the Secular Party of Australia. The SPA has among its stated aims being against “all forms of religious coercion and theocracy”. They state on their website that “The Secular Party holds that religious beliefs impose and give rise to an increasing intrusion on civil liberties and provide an unwelcome source of social disharmony.” Simultaneously they state they are not anti-religious and endorse freedom of religion. (Well, thank you for that!) They call for, in essence, the complete removal of religious-based discourse in the public sphere.

It should be noted that in Australia we already enjoy full religious freedom. Tolerance for others’ beliefs is widespread and could be characterized as a basic Aussie value – a subset of the “fair go”.

The sorts of aims outlined above seem to be heavily informed by the well-documented positions of Richard Dawkins and other “New Athiests”. I’m not a particular fan of Dawkins et al. I agree with many of the arguments they have presented. I do not agree with the sarcasm, condescension, and general ridicule that pervades their work. It actively devalues the inherent "superior" position that is posited. If the argument is that good, why does it need to be coloured with such disdain? Yes, there are Christians who I could run intellectual rings around. So what? I’m quite sure there are atheists out there of whom I could say the same. There are strange elements in any movement you care to name. I have the distinct pleasure to know many Christians who are highly intelligent and whose critical faculties are nothing short of superb. (If, dear reader, you’re a member of the Lifestream congregation, or if your name is Laurel, then yes, I’m probably talking about you. Applause!)

Dr Frame makes a very cogent and reasonable argument that a truly secular society, as we have in Australia, should not abide religious intolerance of any stripe. Radical atheism does not improve the reputation of athiesm overall; by its very stridence it runs the risk of falling afoul of the same intolerance and intelluctual blindness that it ascribes to theism.

I regret to admit that I was halfway down this path of “radical atheism” (to borrow a term from Douglas Adams). I continue to firmly hold that my stance as an avowed atheist is correct and reasonable. I absolutely maintain that the theory of evolution is empirically correct. (You may believe that acceptance of evolution creates many issues for your particular brand of theism. With my tongue only halfway in my cheek – if you do have that problem, then it is your problem, and if it leads you to start questioning the literal truth of all of the Bible, then I’ll stand back and hold that door open for you.)

I do not endorse intolerance expressed in any creed, belief, or non-belief, system. To paraphrase Dr Frame, a secular society should respect the differing viewpoints of its citizenry and embrace them as contributing to the whole. Being a part of a democratic society gives us all the right to express our views, in politics, education and public discourse. Input from the religious sphere is completely valid and has the unique characteristic of providing a moral and ethical viewpoint that otherwise could be overlooked. Rabid intolerance in the name of atheism is, in my view, worse than the same behaviour from established religions. They have an excuse; they are instructed to evangelise and proselytise. Atheism, as a rationalistic viewpoint, should be more moderate.

As a science-fiction fan and aspiring author, I’ve observed with enormous interest the various debates about the moral application of scientific advances. Stem-cell research and cloning are two such highly controversial areas. This is a topic that probably deserves a post in its own right, but it’s becoming clear that the capabilities of the human race are fast outstripping our ability to deal properly with the consequences. We’re heading for a sharp clash between technical capability advances and ethical frameworks, as medical technology in particular becomes more and more of an information technology. Information technology doubles in terms of return of power on investment every twelve to eighteen months; this has been well-established since the 1950s and has remained absolutely consistent. As technologies become more based in IT, they get picked up by this curve and the advances they present come more quickly. On one hand, if computer technology had to pass a public dialogue regarding its ethics and morality, then we’d still have the technology of the 1970s (at best). However I’m increasingly of the view that it is vital to society’s best interests to have the open, public debate on the moral and ethical applications of advances in biotech, at the least. It’s my prediction that biotech and IT are going to converge radically in the near future, and if we think we have moral and ethical issues now, then whoa boy, we’re in for a ride. Anyone for a debate on the implications of allowing self-replicating nanotech into the human body to repair damage, enhance intelligence, and improve physical performance? We’re in for some fun then (and I use the word advisedly).

So who could be counted upon to be the voice of fundamental morality and conservatism in such debates? The religious sector, naturally. And that, to me, is entirely welcome.

Thank you, Dr Frame.

Saturday, March 1, 2008