The reality and components of the *Spike*/*Singularity*/Crisis

There seems to be a general expectation among people who think about the future that we are heading into a critical period in human history. A significant number of factors seem to be heading away from what we might consider ‘norms’ we know how to manage and into areas we have trouble predicting and in some cases raising reasonable fears we may not be able to handle them. What seems to be lacking is a strong consensus on what the most important factors are.

The Club of Rome famously made dire predictions in the 70’s which largely failed to materialise so far. It turned out there were flaws in their modeling which have given a bad name to both modeling and prediction ever since, as well as much of the warnings that our way of life is not sustainable. Some of their main contentions still hold on longer time scales however. For example we have to acknowledge that anything we mine from the Earths crust forms over millions of years and so must eventually (on historical time scales) run out. No use that depends on mining on historical timescales can be considered *sustainable*. I use the literal meaning here as opposed to the watered down and self interested ones in vogue with mining and logging companies. Such low grade “sustainability” results from not even thinking on historical timescales, let alone the indefinite ones required for sustainability… what Brian Eno would call a “short now”. Eventually minerals deposits must run out and we will have only what we can reclaim from previous uses and what we can find new sources of. By definition ‘new’ here means not from Earth as opposed to deposits that are not currently economic.

In some cases such as energy, we can be quite sure this process will start soon if it has not already. There is still debate on whether world oil production has peaked but in terms of modeling the future this is beside the point. Per capita of world population it peaked decades ago, so we are currently only delaying the energy crisis by denying oil to the bulk of the world population & concentrating it in the first world. By force if need be it would seem.

So I would certainly still say energy is one of our critical issues not only availability but type since carbon cycle energy (fossil fuels in particular) are feeding other problems like climate and global political stability – just ask the Iraqis. Thus I would have to include;

  • energy availability,
  • energy cleanliness and
  • natural resource sustainability,

as major factors remaining from the Club of Rome agenda for at least the medium and long term.

Colin Mason points to a number of factors all likely to create critical problems for us around 2030 including;

  • energy,
  • population,
  • climate,
  • food,
  • water and
  • disease,

in his book ‘The 2030 Spike’. He makes a very good case for all of these, though some counter cases can be mounted. Population pressure in particular may be less of a problem than 70’s trend extrapolation indicated (See Hans Rosling) – but not if some predictions of human life extension are even part right.

Bjørn Lomborg, who earned the ire of the entire conservation movement by writing sceptically about green orthodoxy in general and debunking the Club of Rome predictions in particular, cites a number of critical problems with his Copenhagen Consensus group. His list, which represents a fairly mainstream view as you would expect from his economist contributors, includes;

  • climate change,
  • communicable diseases
  • conflicts and arms proliferation
  • access to education financial instability
  • governance and corruption
  • malnutrition and hunger
  • migration
  • sanitation and clean water
  • subsidies and trade barriers

Another major prophet I cannot exclude is Ray Kurzweil.

I do not mean to run others down by ex but these three raise most of the issues with the most widely admired arguments I can find.

Ray has an excellent track record of prediction and a strong claim to expertise as a technologist – where he makes his predictions. He is also very influential and has spawned a host of followers eagerly awaiting his technological ‘singularity’ in the next few decades. For example I had a fascinating exchange with a professional futurist writer who was quite convinced, in essence, despite being over 80 years old, that he would ‘live long enough to live forever’. Here is an excerpt:

I do not consider myself “transhuman” or “posthuman”. I am simply a human being open to positive improvements. I passionately believe that by maintaining my health today, and avoiding accidents, I will survive into the “biotech revolution”, 2010-2020, where stem cell therapies and genetic engineering will replace body parts as they wear out. This will be followed by the “nanotech revolution”, 2020-2035, with cell-repair machines whizzing through my body keeping each cell in perfect health, and nano-replicators providing material goods at little or no cost. And finally, as the “intelligence revolution” gets underway, 2035-2050, technology will enable my body to be copied with simulated programming of lifetime memories and intelligence, should disaster strike. At this time, I will enjoy immunity from accidents and all causes of unwanted death. My lifespan will be considered indefinite.
Good luck to you in your life pursuits, Dick.

Sadly when I asked what evidence he had for such confident assertions, Dick declined to answer. As a result I am still searching Ray Kurzweil’s work and anything else I can find for answers, without success thus far. I really want to be convinced by Ray but sadly I cannot yet be as confident as Dick about the reality of the coming of a technological utopia in the future. Even if it happens – and I hope it does – it is not a forgone conclusion that the results (including but not limited to immortality) would be shared with us regular citizens. Think about the world population spike that would be caused and the resulting temptation for the elite to find a way of not sharing the benefits. Interestingly Vernor Vinge who is credited with inventing the idea of the technological singularity – though a far darker vision than Kurzweils – also has a sceptical side to him. Bruce Sterling also makes a good case for skepticism in his talk to the Long Now Foundation.

This is not unrelated to David Brin’s arguments about whether surveillance technology is likely to be shared. With regret I cannot therefor include his technology in the mix of major factors below as a ‘real’ one yet. I do however include some as possible factors which I think we can hope for but not depend upon.

So here is my list of critical factors in our near (next few decades) future.

  • climate change
  • energy
    • energy availability
    • energy cleanliness
  • natural resource sustainability
    • population
    • climate
    • food
    • water
    • communicable diseases
    • malnutrition and hunger
    • sanitation and clean water
  • political/human (partly arising from resource sustainability issues)
    • conflicts and arms proliferation
    • access to education financial instability
    • governance and corruption
    • subsidies and trade barriers
    • migration
  • technological
    • bio-tech revolution
    • *nano-tech revolution
    • **artificial intelligence ‘singularity
    • *ubiquitous surveillance (ah la Brin)
    • *cheap access to space (my own addition – much underrated in its solution value)

From my reading I would consider all of these to be supported to the point of near inevitability, except those with a *=likely but not certain and **=possible but as-yet insufficiently supported. I think it is a pretty good list to work from in planning humanities next moves and current policies. Sadly all the critical problems seem to be pretty real while the solutions – at least the automatic singularitarian ones – seem conjectural. This leads me to conclude with something like Pascal’s gambit. Since according to those who believe in this singularity do not think one can meaningfully plan much to do with it we must consider whether we should give it our attention or not. Doing so seems unproductive if it does happen and a potentially harmful distraction if it does not. On the other hand ignoring it and concentrating on shaping our choices around optimal strategies to handle humanities major problems (above) is prudent. It is also the most robust strategy since if the technological sungularity does occur then we have lost nothing.

…in short – have fun with the idea if it appeals to you but don’t give it too much weight.

As for why this list does not seem to show directly where my contention that space is a crucial part of the solutions to these issues facing us… that will take a little longer.


~ by clauswitz on May 14, 2007.

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