Less than a year ago when I first started writing this blog, I threw a couple posts out there (Part 1 and Part 2) that talked about the history of our existence. Not the existence of mere humans, but of the existence of reality as we have come to know it so far. The basic premise is that when the Universe was created, the state that it was in was that of the most simple form of energy you could find: A white-hot plasma. As time passed (in the scale of billions of years), the plasma began to cool, take shape, form matter, eventually solar systems and planets, later the building blocks of biological life, and then complex forms of life began to emerge out of that and so on. It’s been snowballing down the proverbial mountain ever since the beginning of time, gaining speed, momentum and novelty along the way.
My use of the word “novelty” (as well as a lot of the inspiration for these posts) comes from the late Terence McKenna. Terence described and quantified novelty as newness, density of complexification and dynamic change as opposed to static habituation. Others, most notably Ray Kurzweil, have echoed and expanded upon this idea a great deal (albeit on more of a scientific/mathematical basis instead of McKenna’s cosmological perspective). There is plenty to be said about this steady and predictable trend of technological advancements in particular, which is where Kurzweil roots a majority of his observations and predictions (while McKenna takes on a more broad perspective). Here’s a video of Ray Kurzweil talking about some of his predictions for the future of technology at a TED conference to help set the mood:
In a more broad sense, everything from the telescopic complexification of plasma into different forms of matter, to the birth and rapid acceleration of computer technology, are examples of an accelerating increase in novelty throughout history. So is the birth of the Internet and the explosion of information it continues to deliver to us and make increasingly easier to access. As is our ever increasing and eventual co-dependence upon it the Internet as we move closer to creating a mental symbiosis with it. That is to say that we will eventually come to depend upon the Internet just as much as it currently depends on us for its existence and relevancy, and that our dependence on it is accelerating.
So what is “The Great Singularity”? McKenna had a few different theories, the most interesting to me being the possible invention of a time travel, which would effectively cause the future collapse into the present and we would be immersed into a timeless “hyperspace”. Kurzweil takes on a more technical prediction of things to come with no consideration for such a radical leap, basing his predictions mostly on math in a similar fashion to the way Gordon E. Moore estimated the anticipated speed and cost of computer processors in the future.
Personally, I feel the underestimated wild card in this deck is Artificial Intelligence. I say underestimated because I feel that it will arrive a little sooner than Kurzweil anticipates and the impact it will have will probably represent something greater than your soon-to-be-daily paradigm shifting technological breakthrough. We make small breakthroughs of increasing significance all the time it seems, taking them for granted. But A.I. really won’t be worth much to us until it’s smart enough to improve itself without aid. There’s a lot of groundwork to yet be laid, and the foundation is the Internet itself. A quote from McKenna that simplifies it all is, “The future is mental.” And if you give some slack to his notion of time travel, it could just as well be some other form of paradigm shifting technology that would stand to be as equally jaw dropping. Imagine how predictions about the future might be if one day such a thing as a sentient, self-advancing computer-based supraintelligence actually existed.
The Internet is like an embryo in a state of gestation, developing at our own hands until it ultimately births Artificial Intelligence. But it’s not completely artificial because its source of information, its genetic construction if you will, is a product of our own human minds and experiences. So in a very real sense, the Internet and our mental selves are gradually becoming one and the same.
I came across a TED video yesterday that got me back into mood of writing about this kind of stuff. It was a talk given by Kevin Kelly, who is the executive editor of Wired Magazine. In it, he points out that the capabilities of Internet technology as it exists today were once thought to be totally unfeasible just 5000 days ago. And that in truth, we have seen it grow into something truly impressive in a very short span of time, achieving some of our wildest dreams (yet we are not impressed). There is no reason to believe this process of development is anywhere close to being finished.
Sunday, August 10th, 2008