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The Singularity: Rupture or Rapture?


There is an old proverb often used as an analogy for technological growth, about an ancient emperor of China and the inventor of chess.  According to the story, once the emperor became aware of the game of chess, he sent a message throughout the kingdom seeking to reward its inventor, offering anything within his power to give for such an exceptional game.  Upon meeting the emperor, the inventor, a poor peasant farmer, thanked the emperor for his generosity, and proceeded to place a single grain of rice in the first square of a chessboard.  He then placed two grains in the second square, four in the third, eight in the fourth, etc., doubling the number of grains for each of the chessboard’s 64 squares.

At first the emperor was fairly amused by the farmer’s request—after all, these were mere grains of rice we were talking about, how much could he possibly lose?  So he allowed the farmer to continue.  It wasn’t until they got about halfway through the chessboard that the emperor began to notice that something didn’t quite smell right in Shanghai.  After 32 squares—32 successive doublings of a single grain of rice—the farmer was up to about four billion grains of rice, the equivalent of a few acres of rice fields.  If they were to continue all the way to the end of the board, the farmer would be owed about 18 quintillion grains of rice, which would require a rice field twice the size of the surface of the planet to produce, oceans included.

From a single grain of rice to a quantity that more than quadruples the total biomass of the Earth, in just 64 steps—this is the nature of exponential growth.  Because we are largely linear thinkers living in an exponential world, this sort of growth can be very difficult to comprehend—or to even perceive—at least until we are plunged headlong into the second half of the chessboard.  Visually graphing this sort of exponential curve [y=2^(x-1), for the mathematically inclined] gives us some insight as to why this acceleration can be so easy to take for granted—for the first half of the curve, progress seems to move almost parallel to the horizontal x-axis, and the frequency of change can seem fairly negligible: from a few grains, to a few bushels, to a few acres, not amounting to much at all.  But once we begin moving into the “elbow” of the curve—about 32 squares, in the case of our increasingly anxious emperor—we begin to see progress truly taking off, eventually becoming more closely parallel with the vertical y-axis.

So what does this anachronistically agrarian metaphor of grains of rice, Chinese emperors, and peasant farmers have to do with today’s digital scurry?

According to Moore’s Law, computational power is doubling every 18 months.  Which means that the year 2000 marked 32 consecutive doublings since the invention of the transistor, while 2006 marked 32 doublings since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958.  We are now living on the second half of the chessboard—and from here on out, things get really crazy.  Turing-approved artificial intelligence, cyborg brain/computer interfaces, nanotechnology, even the possibility of uploading consciousness to digital substrate—all of this “post-human” technology is now becoming increasingly feasible, and there is a very good chance we could see this (and more) achieved within most of our lifetimes.

This rate of acceleration currently shows no signs of slowing anytime soon—if anything, the rate of acceleration itself seems to be accelerating.  (Some critics of Moore’s Law believe that there must be a hard limit at the upper-end of this growth, as defined by the number of transistors you can physically fit upon a single slice of silicon, but others argue that our current technology will eventually be subsumed by a new computational paradigm, such as quantum computing, which will break through this “silicon ceiling.”)  Within the next 30 years we will be able to manufacture $1000 computers that are capable of as many calculations per second as the human brain.  Following this trend as far as we can, we are taken to the limits of imagination itself.  The sheer magnitude of our imminent technological progress is almost impossible to grasp, the implications and possibilities are too far beyond our experience to make any meaningful sense of, at least from our current coordinates in history.

This is what is meant by the “technological Singularity”—like a black hole in time, it represents a point in our not-too-distant future beyond which we simply cannot imagine.  There is no going back, and there is no slowing down—there is only tomorrow’s unfolding, a future pressing into the present through this thin veil of time, a world well beyond the visions of the world’s most inspired mystics, prophets, and science fiction writers.  But while some may rhapsodize about the approaching technological Singularity as some sort of mythic rapture, a kind of digital utopia in which the struggles that have long been at the core of the human condition find instantaneous resolve, there are many others who aren’t so quick to think that we will all “go up in light” with the simple flip of a switch.  And while we could make the argument that technology is the single most influential arbiter of human development, technology does not actually determine human development.  The internet, for example, while representing the legacy of some of the most cognitively advanced minds the world has ever seen, can be used by anybody—in fact, it has become a megaphone for everybody, including Nazis, religious fundamentalists, left-wing alarmists, and Ron Paul supporters.  The same can be said for splitting the atom—anyone smart enough to actually build a nuclear bomb would be the least willing to detonate it, assuming their values are on somewhat equal footing with their cognitive intelligence.  At every moment our world bears witness to the cruelties that occur when the inventions from higher altitudes are used by people at lower altitudes, whether that invention is a computer, an AK-47, or a democracy.

If anything, the Singularity promises to bring as much rupture as it does rapture.  As technological evolution continues to accelerate, our identities, ideals, and values struggle to keep pace, increasing the gap between the hardware of technology and the software of consciousness and culture.  Make no mistake: if it is to truly become the denouement of human evolution, a jumping-off point for an entirely new conception of human existence, the technological Singularity must be accompanied by a cultural Singularity and a conscious Singularity—a Singularity of “I”, a Singularity of “we”, and a Singularity of “it”.  Otherwise it will not be a Singularity at all, but a world-devouring monster at the end of history, threatening to send evolution in this tiny corner of the galaxy back thousands, if not millions of years.

Fortunately, we do see an analog to the technological Singularity occurring within consciousness and culture.  Just as Moore’s Law predicts that each successive technological innovation will take less and less time to emerge, we can actually see the same happening with cultural worldviews.  For example, we can estimate a couple hundred thousand years of tribal cultures, ten thousand years of warlord cultures, a few thousand years of mythic traditional cultures, five hundred years of rational industrial cultures, and just over 50 years of pluralistic informational cultures, each new stage taking only a fraction of the time to emerge as the previous stage.  We are now seeing a new stage of culture and consciousness beginning to emerge—a markedly Integral stage, capable of viewing the world through a meta-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival lens, holding all the world’s knowledge, wisdom, and insight as a single living jewel.  And as more and more Integral individuals come together, a powerful cultural force begins to sweep across the planet—one that is inherently more whole, more balanced, and more capable than anything the world has ever seen.

And to the extent that you are even vaguely interested in conversations like these, you are actually enacting and participating with the Singularity, at least in its conscious dimension. Today’s Integral pioneers are the living ancestors of tomorrow’s post-humans, standing in the convergence of all that is Beautiful, Good, and True.  You are the Singularity, every breath rippling out to the edge of our shared future, echoing back as tomorrow’s possibilities.

Originally published on Integral Life – The Singularity: Rupture or Rapture? (w/ Moses Silbiger and Ken Wilber)

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  1. July 31, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Thank you for your clear and engaging writing, Corey. The singularity is a strange and important perspective.

    There are of course other possibilities as well beyond rapture and rupture. There is an existing critique of technology as a program of control of that which cannot be controlled, doomed to failure. See Charles Eisenstein’s magnum opus The Ascent of Humanity for a good portrayal of this view: http://ascentofhumanity.com

    (From the integral lens, you will almost certainly see Eisenstein’s perspective as “green” and reject it, but even so, it forms a strong antithesis to the conventional integral view that also posits an upcoming new age–not the “integral” age but the Age of “Reunion.” Similar terminology, but very different conclusions, I think.)

    This argument is not that the dangers of technology are that it can be used by the less moral (which of course it can), but that even when used as intended by the intelligent and ethical, technology has enormous ecological, social, cultural, and economic side-effects. The argument is that these side-effects are currently converging in a set of crises that threaten to destroy all of civilization…or perhaps give birth to a new one, if you’re an optimist like Eisenstein. The idea being that if technology is causing the problem, more of the same technology won’t solve it (but perhaps radically different and ecological technology can be very useful, depending on who is positing this perspective).

    I find it integrally important to give full voice to the possibility that perhaps the desire to predict and control our world is itself the problem.

    I’d also like to add that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have a strong critique against the view that minds are like computers in their book Philosophy in the Flesh, which argues that cognition is fundamentally embodied. Per their argument I’ve concluded that perhaps computers could have a different non-human kind of cognition, but that unfortunately makes downloading our brains into a computer highly unlikely.

  2. Devon
    July 31, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    I feel like their will be some sort of upper level ceiling. Just like in the story, at the end of the chessboard, you would need a field twice the size of the earth. In ideal mathematical land it works, but in reality their is always a limit. Its the same mental acrobatics that has convinced the population that money increases exponentially forever.

  3. July 31, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    very cool summary of the singularity with a riff on integral.

    while i’m generally optimistic about the concept of singularity i have reservations about Kurweil’s utopian vision. there are just so many factors involved (e.g. socio-cultural, economic, political, and unknown unknowns). however, i do think that the technological acceleration is inevitable so we have to inform ourselves on what the future might look like to be better prepared for it and be more embracing of the surprises that will come our way.

    that said, there are other awesome scenarios that might happen along the way. some of them sound very much like the stuff of science fictions. check out “The Coming Artilect War” (are you a cosmist, a terran, or a cyborgist?)

    as for consciousness downloading in a machine, i’m agnostic about it. but i was surprised to discover that even the Dalai Lama is open to the possibility.

    exciting times, my friend. exciting times….

    ~C

  4. August 2, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I think instead of:

    y=2^x + 1

    you meant:

    y= 2^(x-1)

    • August 2, 2009 at 6:03 pm

      Mumon, you are absolutely right, thanks for checking my math. It’s been fixed.

  5. August 4, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I can’t read enough about the potential for a tech singularity. Nice post. Here’s a cute short video cartoon about law and technology that mentions the singularity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwYicJedEE4. If you like it, please vote for it: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=JiaOvy05ZUDkeRD0ECOz_2bQ_3d_3d. Yes, I’m vote grubbing, but I also hope folks here might like it. 🙂

  1. July 31, 2009 at 11:54 am
  2. July 31, 2009 at 12:03 pm
  3. July 31, 2009 at 9:01 pm

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