The Singularity is an Overly Simplistic Idea

As we learn about things more deeply and more deeply, we will discover that in fact, there’s all kinds of peripheral work to be done that we couldn’t have even imagined looking forward. 

Ray Kurzweil has argued that we’re on our way to a singularity, that is that if you look at the change and the interaction of scientific fields over the course of the last century or so and you project it forward, what you see is not a linear progression, but an exponential progression. That means that as things change they’re going to change more rapidly so that the curve will mean that over a very short period of time we will make giant leaps in scientific sophistication.  


What he’s argued is that that is going to reach kind of critical mass, which will mean that at some point we are going to be able to so manipulate human form and function, so change the nature of life that it’s impossible on this side of that moment that he calls a singularity, to predict what life will be like on the other side of that singularity.  

I happen to think he’s wrong.  I think that things will change.  I think things will change dramatically, but I don’t think that moment is going to come anything like in the way that he thinks it’s going to come.  Society is too complex for that.

One of the things that we have found out over and over and over again when we talk about biology and biotechnology is that things are much more complex than we think they are.  First, we were going to decode the human genome and that was going to open up everything we needed to know about the nature of life.  And then we said, "oh no, we just finished the human genome, but we don’t really understand the proteins that these genes code for, so we have to map the proteome and then we have to get all of these proteins together."  And then people said, "oh no, that’s not going to be enough because now we’ve kind of discovered epigenetics and we realized that the genome is mediated by all kinds of cellular mechanisms that decide what gets expressed and how it gets expressed."  And that’s how things go.  

The same things happen in the brain sciences where a lot of our assumptions about the way the brain worked and synaptic relationships and midlevel brain organization turned out to be much more simplistic than we thought it was.  And we still don’t really understand how the brain works.  

I think what we’re going to find over time is that rather than convergence leading us to some sort of unified idea is that there will constantly be this kind of complexity fallout.  As we learn about things more deeply and more deeply, we will discover that in fact, there’s all kinds of peripheral work to be done that we couldn’t have even imagined looking forward.  And what that means is you’re not going to have a convergence towards a singularity, but you’re going to have a very complex set of moments where things will change in a lot of different ways. 

And I think the singularity is actually a very simplistic idea and it misunderstands the complex nature of biological life and physical life.  And physics also thought it was going to find its grand unified theory a long time ago.  And now we’re just beginning to discover that maybe the universe isn’t exactly organized the way we thought it was with dark matter and String Theory and all of that, which we still don’t really understand the nature of it and we can’t agree about it.  

So, I’m not a big singularity fan.  I think that Ray Kurzweil’s basic insight that science is increasing in a very rapid rate, more rapidly than people recognize and that there is a convergence of fields.  The classic 19th century fields of biology and chemistry, they don’t make any sense anymore.  Everything is interdisciplinary.  Universities have to change their structure now because we’re still – I spent my life in universities and we’re still functioning on a 19th century model of what a university should be with these departments that have somehow gotten so petrified in their place that we are petrified of changing them.  

But I also think that part of the nature of understanding that move towards complexity is recognizing that even as we get more and more sophisticated about it, part of that sophistication will be discovering new complex phenomenon that right now we can’t even imagine exists.  And that suggesting that it’s all going to be tied up in a moment where we’re just going to understand everything well enough to transform the world is, I think, a fairly naive and simplistic view of how things are going to change. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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