Last week, I was very privileged to attend the Executive Development Program at Singularity University in Mountain View. This is basically a briefing by the world’s top experts on disruptive and exponential growing technologies like medicine, energy, biotech, nanotech, Artificial Intelligence and 3D printing.
The Singularity has long been an interest of mine and you can read some more here on a previous post that I wrote, so it was brilliant to be able to hear from leading thinkers what advances were happening in their specialist area. If you get a chance to go, I highly recommend it and as an Alumni, the benefits keep on flowing into the future. You also meet some really interesting people (both students and faculty) who I’m sure will prove to be valuable for many years to come.
It’s also worth noting that while the subjects are cutting edge science, the faculty have a gift of explaining things in a way that even I could understand. So don’t be put off.
One of the central planks to understanding the future is exponential growth and it’s worth taking a little time to think through the implications. Our brains are hardwired to think lineally, not exponentially so examples are counter-intuitive. But here’s a great illustration taken from the website Coexist
Imagine a magic pipette. It is magic because every drop of water that comes out of it will double in size every minute. So the first minute there is one drop, the second minute there are two drops, the third minute four drops, the fourth minute eight drops and so on… This is an example of exponential growth. Now, imagine a normal sized football stadium. In this stadium you are sitting on the seat at the very top of the stadium, with the best overview of the whole stadium. To make things more interesting, imagine the stadium is completely water-tight and that you cannot move from your seat. The first drop from the magic pipette is dropped right in the middle of the field, at 12pm. Here’s the question: Remembering that this drop grows exponentially by doubling in size every minute, how much time do you have to free yourself from the seat and leave the stadium before the water reaches your seat at the very top? Think about it for a moment. Is it hours, days, weeks, months?
The answer: You have exactly until 12:49pm. It takes this tiny magic drop less than 50 minutes to fill a whole football stadium with water. This is impressive! But it gets better: At what time do you think the football stadium is still 93% empty? Take a guess.
The answer: At 12:45pm. So, you sit and watch the drop growing, and after 45 minutes all you see is the playing field covered with water. And then, within four more minutes, the water fills the whole stadium. This means that you think you are safe because it seems that you have plenty of time left, whereas due to the exponential growth you really have to take immediate action if you want to have any chance of getting out of this situation.
So the message is that technology advancements can seem slow, especially in the beginning. But this hides massive growth. If we extrapolate that into computing technology singularity – when the machines take over from man – even the year before it happens, it will still seem a long way off, or even an impossibility, as the final 50% improvement comes in the last 12 months.
After the course, I put together a reading list that you might find interesting. It’s mainly in the form of novels and short stories, rather the technical papers or briefing documents, as that’s the way I find learning works best for me.
The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams http://www.kuro5hin.org/prime-intellect/ WARNING – contains quite graphic sex in parts, but also a very interesting scenario of how computer singularity might come about.
Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge. Also mentioned by Brad. Vinge actually came up with the name “singularity” and this is a fascinating look at the near-future and pre-singularity. The primary interface with post-PCs in via contact lens and haptics.
Fast Times at Fairmount High, Vernor Vinge. This is a short story and the prequel to Rainbows End. An extract is here http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/eBook4380.htm
Daemon – Daniel Suarez. Brilliant look at how our whole society could be disrupted using tech available today, by terrorist or alternative underground movements. Complete with autonomous cars as weapons, biofuels and many other themes we’ve been learning about.
Freedom TM – Daniel Suarez. The sequel to Daemon.
Slow Tuesday Night – R.A. Lafferty, first published in Galaxy, April 1965. How commerce might work in the future http://web.archive.org/web/20060719184509/www.scifi.com/scifiction/classics/classics_archive/
The Machine Stops – EM Forster. A brilliant look at a post-singularity world, written as far back as 1909! Available free online http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html
Huxley, Orwell and Television – a short essay comparing the two giants’ different distopian visions of the world. Both equally chilling in their own rights. http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/Archives/Huxley,%20Orwell%20&%20Television.htm
Hugo de Garis. Worth a look at his Wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugo_de_Garis. De Garis believes that there will be a gigawar (ie billions will die) before Singularity as the anti-forces get their act together and try and prevent it.
No Illusions – Cameron Reilly. Cam runs this podcast and has featured many leading thinkers in the Singularity movement over the years, including an interview with Ray Kurtsweil. http://gdayworld.thepodcastnetwork.com/category/science/singularity/
Buckmaster Fuller. Was mentioned a few times on the course and was certainly a fascinating and amazing man and thinker. A good intro via Cam’s podcast here http://gdayworld.thepodcastnetwork.com/2007/03/26/gday-world-218-cj-fearnley-on-buckminster-fuller/ But would be interested to know if anyone else has a recommendation around that.
KurzweilAI.net – Newsletter/blog about all the sciences taught at SU, supervised by the legendary Ray Kurtzweil, co-founder of the University and probably best described as the father of this movement. If you haven’t seen it, check out this TED talk.
Singularityhub.com – Another excellent blog ( thanks, Peter!).
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson. Lots of interesting stuff in here and still worth a read, despite being written in 1992.
Finally, excuse the indulgence, but a while back I re-wrote the first chapter of Orwell’s 1984. My purpose was to show how far past the tech we already are as envisaged by Orwell and what powers Big Brother would actually have today. http://mobhappy.com/blog1/2009/04/10/1984-updated/