The Singularity Q&A

Q: Why would anyone refer to the Singularity as "The Spike?"

A: As introduced in the question regarding different types of Singularities, human technological progress can best be described as exponentially accelerating -- which suggests that a time will come when change will occur with explosive rapidity.  This moment is also called a developmental Singularity, and as the chart at right demonstrates, shows up in graphs that "spike."

But before we can conclude with any confidence that progress will proceed to Singularity in accordance with the charts, we must first examine the causes for this type of growth in the first place -- the reasons why technological progress has not plodded along at a uniform pace since the beginning of humankind, but has seemingly burst on the scene in just the last few thousand years.

Progress builds on progress.  It always has.  Banging stones to produce new shapes may not seem like a major breakthrough, but a sharp edge can allow you to easily sharpen or tip a spear -- and another shape of rock can allow you to chip more and larger edges, and therefore more and better spears.  With spears, you can hunt game more successfully than with clubs, which gives you the time to work on other improvements to you life.  Warmer clothing, for example, will allow you to range to higher elevations and latitudes, where there may be less competition from other tribes, giving you time for still more new improvements. 

In skipping to the present day, it should be pointed out that the most important inventions have consistently been those which most directly facilitate the creation of other inventions.  The development of written language, for example, allowed people to pass on their knowledge directly to others separated by many miles or generations.   The printing press allowed duplication at greatly reduced cost, increasing the number of people who could share and take advantage of complex information.  Today, the internet adds instantaneity and word-wide access to this kind of knowledge, and computers, the backbone of the internet, also do the mathematical "grunt work" behind engineering tasks that include the design of better computers.

It takes a while for such a setup to gain momentum, but once there are literally millions of minor advances building on each other, the total effect is disorientingly fast and frenzied progress.  The effect is readily apparent in our time.  Someone living in the 11th century could have predicted that their great-great-grandchildren would live essentially the same life they did, and they would have probably been correct.  Advances occurred, but they were widely spaced and enjoyed by a scattered few.  I can say with complete confidence, however, that you are not living the same life your own great-great-grandparents did.  If nothing else, you have internet access, which is nothing to sneeze at; if you're anything like me, the net has totally changed your life, even though it only become a major public resource about seven or eight years ago.  That is rapid progress.

(Caution:  Read this paragraph completely before attempting this experiment.  Your computer's limitations may vary.)  Here's a simple demonstration you can try without leaving your chair.   Open your Windows "calculator" program (or other platform equivalent), and use the "view" menu to select the "scientific" display.  Enter the following number:   1.00000000001   (ten zeros).  Now, you're going to press the "X^2" button, which multiplies the number on your screen by the number on your screen, and replaces it with the result.  Pressing this repeatedly gives you a kind of accelerating exponential progression not unlike we have experienced in our history of technological progress.  For a while, pressing the button won't seem to do much, just as homo sapiens sapiens didn't seem to do much for their first 40,000 - 50,000 years.  In fact, the first 36 times you press this button, your result remains less than 2.  But on the 37th calculation, you've gone from less than 2 to nearly 4... and on the 38th, almost 16.  In these two turns you've gone from very boring to more than 15 times your original excitement.  You've reached what to your perspective is the "knuckle" of the curve, akin to recent centuries where things have really started changing.  By the 41st press of the button, your number will exceed 3.5 billion; by the 43rd, the numbers will be expressed as scientific notation.  When you've pressed it 50 times you may finally notice a time gap between the time you press the button and the time your computer can finish the calculation, a gap which will grow much longer with each subsequent press.  Before you can press "x^2" 56 times you will have almost surely crashed your calculator -- maybe your whole computer -- and perhaps sent an automated error report off to Microsoft (XP users), just to be irritating. 

Your own mental ability to meaningfully comprehend the size of the number probably called it quits sometime between the 40th and 43th calculations -- your personal numerical singularity, so to speak.  The computer/calculator essentially reached its mathematical singularity at the point it crashed.  In any event, you should have caught a glimpse of how inventions and discoveries feed off of each other, and of how quickly the result can go from sluggish to unfathomable. (You may also have noticed how limited your own number sense is.)

We cannot precisely enumerate the whole of civilization's progress, so futurists instead use more narrow benchmarks to "plot the curves" and see what these might reveal about where we are and where we're headed.  A couple of these benchmarks are worthy of specific mention, both because they are in areas key to continued progress and because they so nicely fit the graphs.  One of these is miniaturization, discussed in later questions on nanotechnology, and another (which, not surprisingly, is closely related) is computer performance, given special consideration in the next questions regarding Moore's Law.

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