Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Future: What is the Singularity? A look at the Law of Accelerating Returns

I was thinking about the future of my profession, and thought 'accelerating returns' was a great descriptor for the power of the Business Analyst; one Google later I found kurzweilAI - a fascinating colletion of thought provoking articles. I haven't had time to dig into the whole site, but this article is a nice starting point for considering the ramifications of our exponential development.

The short answer to my title query is:

1. Pick a point on the calendar of human history.

Any time from the beginings of homo sapiens to today will do. You may want to pick a milestone instead - my off-the-top-of-the-head list includes:
  • fire,
  • tame fire,
  • language,
  • flint,
  • writing,
  • copper,
  • numbers,
  • iron,
  • better numbers,
  • steel,
  • complex maths,
  • complex tools,
  • medicine,
  • scientific methods,
  • machines,
  • printing press,
  • complex machines,
  • complex materials,
  • scientific medicine,
  • computers,
  • augmented humans,
  • networked computers,
  • intelligent machines (Okay, that one hasn't happened just yet, but I think you'll agree it's around the corner one way or another.)
2. From the perspective of that time or milestone, the pace of technological development was increasing.
I know we've had many setbacks, collapsed civilizations, etc; think of this from a global, long term perspective. In general, the time to go from each development to the next is less than the time it took to get there. I suggest that it's about half the time, every time, but the exact multiplier is not critical.

3. From the perspective of that time or milestone, there was some point in the future that was unimaginable.
I don't mean that people were stupid in the past; I mean that there is no way to extrapolate more than a few advances ahead. For example, someone in the iron age might be able to imagine a substance even stronger than iron, and the things that could be done with it - but I doubt that they would envision the the Trans-Canada highway, or the Apollo missions.

4. The point at which imagination fails: this is the Singularity.

Beyond this event horizon, we can barely speculate about what it means to be human. This is a standard attribute of human existance; we don't know what we don't know about the future. For example:
  • Pasteur could not have imagined genetically engineered chimera-pigs grown to supply heart valves to humans.
  • da Vinci was arguably the most inventive person ever, but he could not conceive of Google.

5. The event horizon of the Singularity gets closer all the time.

Because our of change is accelerating, our horizon gets closer every day. We now live in a time where every person alive is likely to feel the effects of progress in their lifetime.
  • Ten years ago, we couldn't conceive of Google.
  • Five years ago, MySpace and Facebook were inconceivable.
  • Three years ago, it was podcasts.
6. What is just beyond the horizon today?
We don't - we can't - know. As our tools become more powerful, we can penetrate the mists a little. Writers like Vernor Vinge have used papers and stories to explore what might come.

7. Enjoy the future.
It's coming, we don't know what it is, and we don't know what we will make ourselves into.

See you tomorrow.
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