Amazing work is currently under way in a wide variety of scientific fields. This is not a strategically organized effort, however. By that I mean researchers in the area of cloning, for example, are not necessarily interested in the results of research conducted in quantum mechanics. No one is sitting around directing the research and development efforts of a given nation or the world.
Today the leading edge of physics teaches us that what we think of as "outer space" is not empty. Even the vast regions of the universe between innumerable galaxy clusters have substance. Though it is a vacuum, this vacuum nevertheless contains "fluctuations" called "zero-point energy" (ZPE), basically the ripple effect of the Big Bang.
Robert Forward, in research conducted for Phillips Laboratories in 1996 wrote: "Many researchers see the vacuum as a central ingredient of 21st-Century physics. Some even believe the vacuum may be harnessed to provide a limitless supply of energy."
Whether or not Forward is correct, the point is that ZPE research is going on alongside the ability to clone genes, tissues, organs, and - indeed - entire animals. These two areas are not directly related but they are connected by us…by society, to the extent that our society will make use of the results of these unrelated fields of research. Such are the workings of human dynamics.
All these "nerdy" scientists can go off to the pristine lifeworlds of their respective laboratories and come up with whatever they come up with. It is you and I that put it all together, as persons of marketing and commerce. When you put the harnessing of limitless energy from space along with the ability to clone your own replacement parts (much as you can specifically give blood today for specifically your own future use instead of for the public at large), along with new alloys, super-human intelligent entities, improved cryogenic storage capabilities, room temperature superconductors, instantaneous personal communications from anywhere to anywhere in the world and so forth what you get in return is a very different world filled with very different possibilities.
The reason for the difference is the way human beings dynamically interact with these unrelated discoveries. New industries emerge, new applications for human experience present themselves, and, as we mentioned before, the pace of change accelerates exponentially.
It is not out of the question or unreasonable to assume that each of the above mentioned "breakthroughs" will occur during most of our lifetimes. They're all part of the Singularity we were talking about before. There is a good chance all of it (and much more) will occur in the next 50 years. So, the Singularity is really about how discoveries are applied within the context of human dynamics.
This is both promising and threatening. First, the bad news. Human beings have demonstrated a special aptitude for using technology to manipulate, exploit and do violence to one another throughout history. There is no immediate reason to think that this particular aspect of human experience is going to change as fast as technology itself. In fact, it seems more likely that human social, economic, political, and religious institutions will be unable to fully cope with the degree of change forthcoming. So, the Singularity will doubtlessly create all manner of chaos in the lives of many.
The real danger here is not that the telecommunications revolution, for example, will enhance covert actions of every manner around the world nor is it that the prosperity gap between cultures will widen because only the most technologically advanced societies will benefit from ZPE. Though both of these situations are likely, fundamentally, because we shall perceive the Singularity as a single, connected, and somewhat unified phenomenon, there is the danger that our social institutions will reject it as a whole. That's the basic peril.
Experience has equally shown, however, that once "the genie is out of the bottle", so to speak, somebody somewhere will use their three wishes. In other words, once a technology presents itself, a global ban on its development is unlikely (unless it is a weapon of mass destruction, which none of this stuff is in and of itself). So, what confronts us I think is the inevitable situation of societal chaos in the face of a collection of revolutionary technologies that might be limited somewhat here and there, but not globally.
Another good example of what I am talking about is the issue of cloning. A lamb gets cloned in Europe and, months later, the U.S. Government begins a half-hearted debate on the extent cloning technology should be used on humans. Too late guys. The technology is out there. The governmental debate is reactive rather than proactive and will serve no purpose. You can bet your bottom dollar that human cloning will occur, if not in America, then in Europe, if not there then in China, and if not there then clandestinely. The genie is out of the bottle.
But, we have weathered such revolutions before. They were known as the Agricultural Revolution, and the Bronze Age, and the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. The time span between these "revolutions" becomes exponentially shorter with each new era, but we know what to expect. Social unrest in one form or another. Traditional institutions challenged, defended, and either mutated or cast aside. This is nothing new. It's just the workings of human dynamics.
So, I don't want to belittle the fact that there's a down side to the Singularity, but I also think we need to place it in a historical context. There will be some resistance to its coming about, to some issues more than others, but that's no reason to abandon its potential.
And what potential! The Singularity is potentially the source of a bold, new sense of wonder for humanity. Human beings choose to live their lives in many ways, just as dynamics would dictate. Diversity, you see, has a high survival rating in the evolutionary scheme of things. There are people of faith, people of function, people of art, people of science, or any combination of these. Regardless, this orientation is driven by (and in turn perpetuates) a sense of wonder about life. Before the Singularity, the primary resource for human wonder has been "mystery." But, in the future a relevant basis for wonder will depend more upon "possibility." This is the true source of the social unrest the Singularity will cause. It will call for a change in the basis for human wonder itself. This will be a historically unprecedented event.
Unparalleled economic growth, matchless opportunity for human freedom, a renewal in space exploration, unequalled open accessibility to human knowledge, complete personal communication capability, a redefinition of labor based upon (among other things) richly competent artificially intelligent computers, cloning of our own replacement parts for heart, kidney, and liver transplants, all this and so much more shall be no threat to those who see the "possibility" of life rather than the "mystery" of life as the key guiding principal in their daily existence. Not everyone will go along with this. But, my hope is that those who will not and (more importantly) the institutions that represent the will not's do not close the horizon of these possibilities out of ignorance or fear or simply the drive to protect the human hunger for "mystery."
These are profound philosophical issues that need to be thought through today. A public discourse on these matters could prevent the Singularity from becoming the witch-hunt that sometimes emerges from such circumstances. Is human cloning going to become the abortion issue of the future? How "public" should your communication address be in a world where there are no global communication boundaries? The answers lie within the workings of human dynamics.
And those answers are related by the dynamics of being human to how we as a people will respond to the promises of nanotechnology as well.
Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
[Back to KeithStuff HomePage]