This isn’t the future they sold us. Thoughts on the Singularity

I’m all for the future, you know. I am confident it is vastly better than the past and I believe in the potential of science and technology to solve real problems. It is, therefore, with real anticipation that I prepare to attend the day-long Singularity University session organized by Intesa SanPaolo in Milan on May 3rd (Our future is now: Singularity University – How exponential technologies impact our lives). I like the people who’ll speak there and I love to see so much passion for the potential of technology to change the world. In short, I am a techno-optimist.

But I am also disappointed.

I’m disappointed, because science and technology haven’t kept the promises they made years ago. And I want to see them keep those promises before making new ones.

We still have solar panels so ridiculously inefficient that we need to subsidize them with massive surcharges on other power sources, or taxpayers’ money.

We still have batteries that pack so little power that your iPhone drains them in less than a day.

We still have planes so slow that it takes longer to fly today between New York and London than it took ten years ago, when you could at least book a seat on a Concorde.

We still have cars so dumb that they crash, transport systems so poorly designed that we sit in traffic jams, robots with so little artificial intelligence that a mouse outsmarts them, chemotherapy so brutal that it nearly kills you, sanitation so poor that millions succumb to cholera.

I know each of these problems is on the brink of being solved – isn’t it? But this isn’t the future that science fiction writers sold us.

Social sciences aren’t doing any better: we still have perversely ineffective political systems, massive intransparency, and gigantic corruption. We still have slavery, war rapes, and acid thrown on women’s faces if they don’t behave. Numbers tell us that poverty is declining, but it feels like we’ve just moved to a slightly better off dystopia.

Never before have there been so many minds focused on solving the world’s great problems. (Some of those same minds, I understand, are busy pursuing the transhumanist quest for immortality, a rather more crackpot strain of Singularitarianism that Carole Cadwalladr’s piece in yesterday’s Observer does not challenge enough). And never have there been so many people who can manipulate exponentially accelerating technologies in the attempt to “positively impact the lives of a billion people”. So, I remain an optimist. But I’m cautious about the new promises. Remember, we haven’t kept the old ones yet.

12 thoughts on “This isn’t the future they sold us. Thoughts on the Singularity

  1. I don’t understand your point Paola. Many of the outstanding problems you mention (solar panels, batteries, applications of AI) are still not fully solved, but it’s not for want of trying….

    Bear in mind the iPhone in your pocket is much more powerful than the computers which were used to put a man on the moon. So one could argue that a least some progress has been made…

    And here is a video of some robots doing something I’ve never seen mice do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CR5y8qZf0Y

    • David, of course a lot of progress has been made. The only thing I am pointing out is that the techno-optimists of the 1950s and ’60s wrote that by now we’d regenerate lost limbs, fly around in our cars (powered by endless renewable energies), and colonize the bottom of the oceans and the surface of other planets. In reality, we don’t even know how to deal with Alzheimer’s yet. We probably will – we have to – if we apply our collective brainpower to challenges that matter. There’s just a lot of stuff that optimism, per se, doesn’t solve.

    • I read that too. I thought it may have influenced this post considering its contradiction of one of the pillars of

      • the singularity. So, uh, what is your point? You’re mad because stuff didn’t turn out the way our parents imagined it? Join the club. I will say this much; your little attitude about immortality is also pointless. Immortality, like all these other problems, is not a given, it’s the product of an uncooperative society. So, get to work making us more cooperative.

      • I think the Paola’s vent is a bit more about frustration about having to re-conciliate dreams with what is being done… rather than a navel gazing exercise.
        There are many different challenges and promises that go unfulfilled, yet every once in a while there is a step change that allows us to rethink what is possible.

        I remember being told that the internet was going to transform the way we lived, and it has and in many ways for the best. However there are many downsides not least of which is the fraud that saps much of the positivity (to the tune $388 B/yr).

        After having a close call personally, I decided to take some affirmative and get back at some fraudsters. All I managed to do (even though I obtained a wealth of incriminating evidence) is a warning from the federal police that I could get into more trouble than it was worth. Stumped, frustrated, unsatisfied, yes.

        This episode of unrivaled frustration it led me to decide to “work on stuff that matters” and I left my safe and comfy job as a well paid international civil servant and launched into an adventure with a small company with the potential to shut the door on much of the fraud.

        I think that connecting venting and shouting out our expectations is part of converging. It takes a bit of folly and encouragement to make a substantive change in basically anything that is significant.

        So perhaps having a “pointless”, “little attitude” is also part of a bigger and more ambitious drive to get out there and see who has also felt that way and can add something. The difference is being in an AND mode rather than a BUT mode.

        Here is something that connects Hyman’s post and Max’ call for cooperation.

  2. Rather than the world of science fiction, if we take as a starting point the dreams of real scientists then I think the discussion may become more grounded – after all, H.G. Wells famously wrote about time machines over 100 years ago, but I still don’t think we’ll see them in my lifetime😉

    Richard Feynman was a physicist, and one of the smartest people of the last century. Even other Nobel physicists took care not to cross swords with him. Notwithstanding his remarkable analytical power, he also had a genuine gift for explaining complex ideas in terms which lay people could easily grasp.

    One of his most famous talks was titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” in which he discusses how small computers (amongst other things) could theoretically become. He anticipated the limitations to Moore’s Law by predicting that on really tiny scales, quantum interactions would dissipate so much heat as to represent a finite barrier to further miniaturization.

    But he then goes on to dream about what kinds of things would be possible if humans could operate directly at the atomic (rather than quantum) level. He considers such ideas as writing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on a pin head or creating tiny factories which would then produce even smaller factories (and so on) until the factories were directly manipulating single atoms.

    He first gave this talk in 1959 and was well aware that the technology of the day prevented his ideas from becoming realized. But he also emphasized that there was no fundamental theoretical reason which would impede them from happening some day.

    It’s only recently, with the birth of the nascent nanotechnology industry, that people have the tools – the underlying technology – to allow some of Feynman’s dreams to start to be realized.

    So this is my point: it takes time – and an enormous amount of hard work – for us to create an environment in which these ideas (whether from the imagination of a techno-optimist, or a hard-core physicist) can finally come true.

    It is, if you like, the gap between theory and practice.

  3. I agree with Paola, actually too many real and old problems have not been resolved .. and fifty years is a long time for important promises not yet resolved..

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