Friday, July 07, 2006

The Event Horizon of Time

Emery drew my attention to this Wiki article about (the) Technological Singularity--an imagined point in the (relatively near) future where the technology of man starts to advance so far, so fast, that all current prognostications of the future beyond it are utterly useless. Since we've lately been talking about paradigm shifts (a concept closely linked) and humanity's certain doom that lies just around the next corner (okay, not the next corner...but definitely the corner after that....), I thought it merited a paragraph or seven of rumination.

The Technological Singularity purports to be the point at which the first posthumans appear, at which point human progress takes off so incredibly rapidly that our current paradigms of being and progress become worthless, such that we can't "see" beyond it. In this sense it's like a black hole singularity, so dense that no information of any kind can escape (well, except for tiny little bit of radiation from the edge of event horizon that's able to escape by using the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Thank you, Stephen Hawking)--only instead of space from whence no information can escape, it's time.

Okay, fine, we're all already cyborgs; it's the freaking future, of course no information is escaping it; we've already seen this sort of thing in Terminator 2: Judgment Day--not that these aren't interesting critiques, but you don't read OaO to get critiques you can read elsewhere (you read OaO because you went to college with me, are one of my parents, are married to me, don't own an iPod, or because you're lost. Doy). I, too, think the AI future is relatively near at hand (no, really this time), if only because in the last ten years or so we've discovered that conscious intelligence acts lot less like a computer program (platform + set of instructions) and more like an anthill (a collection of individually "mindless" actors working in concert). It does seem, however, like the Technological Singularity is remarkably Humanity-Right-Now-Centric. If one acknowledges that the folks of the 19th century couldn't possibly imagine what was going to happen once we got computers, and the pre-writing tribes of man couldn't envision a life post-printing-press, one has gotta recognize that Technological Singularities are happening all the freaking time.

The metaphor of the black hole is another possible explanation of why the future holding certain doom for humanity seems to be such a pervasive meme. The idea that it too is an incredibly dense singularity from which no information can emerge goes a long way towards explaining why we as a population might happen to feel such visceral dread about our prospects in it.

What's also interesting in the Wiki article is the charting of the general acceleration of Man, His major advances, and His technology. The evolutionary leaps are happening fast and furious now; the things that took years today will take nanoseconds in the future, at least if this graph is any indication. My favorite koan on this topic goes like this: imagine the technology of, say, the Athenians versus the Romans a thousand years later. Unless you're an historian, you probably think of them as pretty similar in their technology. The Romans were, in fact, much more advanced--they had plumbing, aqueducts, and a radically advanced military, but compared to nuclear power and several million transistors on a chip less than an inch square, there's not that much technological difference between the two civilizations in the mind of the average person of today. Now think of the person two thousand years hence (or only two hundred?) whose technology is so advanced that he or she very roughly equates the technology of the present day with the technology of 1000 A.D. Can't imagine that? Me neither.

Next: That was only five paragraphs!
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