The "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of humanity

Philosopher Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of human societies.

The "singleton hypothesis" predicts the future of humanity
  • Nick Bostrom's "singleton hypothesis" says that intelligent life on Earth will eventually form a "singleton".
  • The "singleton" could be a single government or an artificial intelligence that runs everything.
  • Whether the singleton will be positive or negative depends on numerous factors and is not certain.


Does history have a goal? Is it possible that all the human societies that existed are ultimately a prelude to establishing a system where one entity will govern everything the world over? The Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom proposes the "singleton hypothesis," maintaining that intelligent life on Earth will at some point organize itself into a so-called "singleton" – one organization that will take the form of either a world government, a super-intelligent machine (an AI) or, regrettably, a dictatorship that would control all affairs.

Other forms of a singleton may exist, and, ultimately, Bostrom believes one of them will come into existence. The philosopher argues that historically there's been a trend for our societies to converge in "higher levels of social organization". We went from bands of hunter gatherers to chiefdoms, city-states, nation states and now multi-national corporations, the United Nations and so forth, all the way to globalization – one of President Donald Trump's favorite targets for attack. One view of that trend sees increased power going to multi-national businesses and world government bodies, making globalization somewhat of a punching bag concept, often seen not as a needed re-organization of societies around the world, leading to increased cooperation and a peaceful international order, but rather for its potential to bring about the loss of jobs and undermine the sovereignties of individual countries, making citizens beholden to faceless totalitarian bureaucrats from foreign lands.

But a singleton doesn't have to result in a bad outcome, argues Bostrom. In fact, he thinks it could also be a good thing or at least something that's neither obviously positive or negative – just neutral. One way to get to a singleton, according to the philosopher, is through technology. Improved surveillance and communication, mind-control tech, molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence could all bring about a singleton.

While some aspects of such technologies could certainly be unwanted and infringe upon individual freedoms, Bostrom thinks that there are situations in which there could be broad support for either a technological solution or a single government agency to take control of the society. As the world grows more complex, it's harder to achieve efficient coordination between countries and individuals within them. Tech solutions in conjunction with converging moral values and a democratic worldwide government could facilitate that.

Other scenarios, like catastrophic events, could also hasten the creation of singletons. The League of Nations, for example, came out of World War I, while the creation of the United Nations was a byproduct of World War 2.

Some may view the current political trends of rising nationalism, tariff wars and anti-immigration platforms to mean that globalization and an overall unification of people the world over is not coming any time soon. In fact, it feels like we are going backwards on such a path.

In an email exchange with Big Think, Bostrom cautioned us to not only look at what is happening over the course of a decade or maybe even a few decades. There are much larger, historic trends at work, which may see the current times as a blip rather than a change in the overall direction.

"I don't think there's much evidence in the year-to-year (or even decade-to-decade) political jitters for the question of the long-term fate of Earth-originating civilization," writes Bostrom, while adding "Still, it seems a bit sad whenever the world is moving in the direction of fragmentation and unilateralism."

He would rather see relationships between nations like the United States and China to be cordial rather than the "tussles and tensions" that we get now, with the added risk of a further breakdown in communication leading to even worse outcomes.

"I fear that people have forgotten how bad the Cold War was or have learned the wrong lesson - "well we survived it so it wasn't so bad," warns the philosopher. "But I think it's more like somebody played a round of Russian Roulette and survived and then they say "hey that wasn't so bad, let's play another round!" With the opening of the nuclear archives, we can see how close the world came to the brink on several different occasions. Allowing ourselves to slide into another situation even remotely like that of the Cold War would be a huge mistake."

Political tides certainly can come and go. It might be long until we can definitively tell which era we are living in now. Either advanced technology and a spreading democratic order will create a global techno-utopia of the future or we will be enslaved by corporate hegemony and international oligarchs. There are also options in between. It's important to remember that once created, a singleton could become the way of life for the foreseeable future as it will take measures to stay in existence and to keep away threats.

"Earth-originating intelligent life will (eventually) form a singleton," writes Bostrom.

Before you get set for your life to be dominated by a single agency, Bostrom's classic paper on the subject lays out some specific pros and cons of a singleton.

Four Advantages:

- avoiding dangerous arms races – these are costly and potentially disastrous. Without many competing world powers, arms races would be unnecessary.

- avoiding a space colonization race, again leading to potential war and extreme expenses.

- avoiding inequality - a singleton could distribute wealth.

- avoiding evolutionary outcomes we don't want - a singleton (especially an AI) could better keep track of dystopian scenarios, like epidemics, and work towards the survival of the population as a whole.

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Four Disadvantages:

- having one entity control everything could lead to less control over decision-making and things could go bad for us humans. "All the eggs are in one basket" under this scenario, points out Bostrom.

- world without competition between states could be more vulnerable to systemic breakdowns than a world that is less arranged, in which "there are some processes that limit the destructiveness of certain kinds of failures," writes the philosopher.

- some singletons could lead to terrible bureaucracy and inefficiency – it's not certain whether that would outweigh the gains from such a coordinated society. That would depend on the "severity" of the problems.

- some singletons could be created by force - think Ghenghis Khan, Napoleon, Nazis and whatever new dictator is waiting in the wings.

Check out Nick Bostrom's paper "What is a Singleton?" here.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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