Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How Much Time Do We Have Left?

Now, it is Saturday, and I am going to indulge some flights of fancy. I hope you don't mind. I'm going to share with you my theory concerning how much time we (homo sapiens) have left to exist. I do not want to be numbered among those egocentric individuals who believe that their generation will be the one unlucky enough to see the end of the world. Or cause it. Every generation has had their share of such alarmists, many of whom perform literary gymnastics with biblical texts to buttress their claims. Not me. I have no idea when the end will come, or even if it will come. Let me be clear about that.

I do have a rather interesting theory, however. It goes like this: Let's suppose that the invention of time travel is inevitable. (I know, I know, but it's just a thought experiment, come on.) At some point in mankind's journey, we figure out a way to go back. (Going forward is easy…all we need to do is invent a working form of suspended animation. You go to sleep and wake up (moments later, from your point of view) in the future.) If this supposition is true, then it stands to reason that people would use the technology. They would travel back in time. But we haven't met any time travelers, have we? (Perhaps they find a way to do it without being discovered. Or maybe all those so-called alien abductions are our evolved selves coming back for whatever evolved reasons.) But it may be that we haven't met any time travelers from our future because…humanity is destroyed before time travel is invented. That's my theory. Do you like it? Do you think you should avoid this blog from now on? If you decide to stick with me, give me a bit more rope, so to speak, I will try not to hang myself with it. To give some weight to my theory, let us consider the rate of technological advancement and what it might mean for our survival.

On an intuitive level, we are prone to assume that the current rate of advance will continue into the future. But there are many who say that our rate of progress is not linear, but rather exponential. If we look at evolution, from the initial appearance of life forms until now, we see a continually accelerating rate of progress. The first formation of primitive life took billions of years. Humanoid life developed over millions of years. Homo Sapiens took only hundreds of thousands of years to develop. Since Homo Sapiens is a technology creating species, the development of technology has outpaced the ability of evolution to keep up, so we now look at the rate of technological advance. The first developments (sharp tools, fire, the wheel) took tens of thousands of years. I quote now from

"For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few years ago; it didn't exist at all a decade ago.

"The paradigm shift rate (i.e., the overall rate of technical progress) is currently doubling (approximately) every decade; that is, paradigm shift times are halving every decade (and the rate of acceleration is itself growing exponentially). So, the technological progress in the twenty-first century will be equivalent to what would require (in the linear view) on the order of 200 centuries. In contrast, the twentieth century saw only about 25 years of progress (again at today's rate of progress) since we have been speeding up to current rates. So the twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor."

Where does this astonishing acceleration take us? According to Ray Kurzweil, bestselling author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines, When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence," and winner of several prestigious awards for his innovations, including the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology, bestowed on him by President Clinton in a White House ceremony, we are headed for the Singularity, which is "technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." Describing this event, he goes on to say:

"As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century, it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of our control. The illusion that we have our hand 'on the plug,' will be dispelled."

Kurzweil differs from many in his optimism about humanity's future. He envisions "instantiated" persons, meaning non-biological entities into whom the mind of human persons have been transferred. In this way he sees the continuation of humanity in a different form, rather than its subjugation or annihilation.

But then where are the time travelers? If Kurzweil turns out to be right, they are already here. We simply cannot perceive them. Or they decided that living in the past just wasn't interesting.

(If you'd like to read Ray's excellent article on the coming Singularity, you can go here.)

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