SDSUWhat If the Singularity Does NOT Happen

to home page
Location info updated Sun Oct 21 US/Pacific 2018


What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen

Here are the "slides" for my talk at Seminars about Long-Term Thinking, 15 February 2007. At the moment, they can be found at:

Just for the record

Given the title of my talk, I should define and briefly discuss what I mean by the Technological Singularity:

It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future, create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Events beyond this event -- call it the Technological Singularity -- are as unimaginable to us as opera is to a flatworm.

The preceding sentence, almost by definition, makes long-term thinking an impractical thing in a Singularity future.

However, maybe the Singularity won't happen, in which case planning beyond the next fifty years could have great practical importance. In any case, a good science-fiction writer (or a good scenario planner) should always be considering alternative outcomes.

I should add that the alternatives I discuss tonight also assume that faster-than-light space travel is never invented!

Important note for those surfing this talk out of context :-) I still regard the Singularity as the most likely non-catastrophic outcome for our near future.

There are many plausible catastrophic scenarios (see Martin Rees's Our Final Hour), but tonight I'll try to look at non-singular futures that might still be survivable.


The Age of Failed Dreams

A plausible explanation for "Singularity failure" is that we never figure out how to "do the software" (or "find the soul in the hardware", if you're more mystically inclined). Here are some possible symptoms:

All together, the early years of this time come to be called the "Age of Failed Dreams".


Broader characteristics of the early years


Envisioning the resulting Long Now possibilities

Suppose humankind survives the 21st century. Coming out of the Age of Failed Dreams, what would be the prospects for a long human era? I'd like to illustrate some possibilities with diagrams that show all of the Long Now -- from tens of thousands of years before our time to tens of thousands of years after -- all at once and without explicit reference to the passage of time (which seems appropriate for thinking of the Human Era as a single long now!).

Instead of graphing a variable such as population as a function of time, I'll graph the relationship of an aspect of technology against population size. By way of example, here's our situation so far.

It doesn't look very exciting. In fact, the most impressive thing is that in the big picture, we humans seem a steady sort. Even the Black Death makes barely a nick in our tech/pop progress. Maybe this reflects how things really are -- or maybe we haven't seen the whole story. (Note that extreme excursions to the right (population) or upwards (related to destructive potential) would probably be disastrous for civilization on Earth.)

Without the Singularity, here are three possibilities (scenarios in their own right):


Scenario 1: A Return to MADness


Scenario 2: The Golden Age

(A scenario to balance the pessimism of A Return to MADness)


Scenario 3: The Wheel of Time

I fear this scenario is much more plausible than The Golden Age. The Wheel of Time is based on fact that Earth and Nature are dynamic and our own technology can cause terrible destruction. Sooner or later, even with the best planning, megadisasters happen, and civilization falls (or staggers). Hence, in this diagram we see cycles of disasters and recovery.

There has been a range of speculation about such questions (mostly about the first recovery):

In fact, we know almost nothing about such cycles -- except that the worst could probably kill everyone on Earth.


How to deal with the deadliest uncertainties

A frequent catchphrase in this talk has been "Who knows?". Often this mantra is applied to the most serious issues we face:

We do our best with scenario planning. But there is another tool, and it is wonderful if you have it: broad experience.

Alas, our range of experience is perilously narrow, since we have essentially one experiment to observe. In the Long Now, can we do better? The Golden Age scenario would allow serial experimentation with some of the less deadly imponderables: over a long period of time, there could be gentle experiments with population size and prolongevity. (In fact, some of that may be visible in the "wiggle" in my Golden Age diagram.)

But there's no way we can guarantee we're in The Golden Age scenario, or have any confidence that our experiments won't destroy civilization. (Personally, I find The Wheel of Time scenarios much more plausible than The Golden Age.)

Of course, there is a way to gain experience and at the same time improve the chances for humanity's survival:


Self-sufficient, off-Earth settlements as humanity's best hope for long-term survival

This message has been brought back to the attention of futurists, and by some very impressive people: Hawking, Dyson, and Rees in particular.

Some or all of these folks have been making this point for many decades. And of course, such settlements were at the heart of much of 20th century science-fiction. It is heartwarming to see the possibility that, in this century, the idea could move back to center stage.

(Important note for those surfing this talk out of context: I'm not suggesting space settlement as an alternative to, or evasion of, the Singularity. Space settlement would probably be important in Singularity scenarios, too, but embedded in inconceivabilities.)

Some objections and responses:


What's a real space program ... and what's not

I believe most people have great sympathy and enthusiasm for humans-in-space. They really "get" the big picture. Unfortunately, their sympathy and enthusiasm has been abused.

Humankind's presence in space is essential to long-term human survival.
That is why I urge that we reject any major humans-in-space initiative that does not have the prerequisite goal of much cheaper (at least by a factor of ten) access to space.


Institutional paths to achieve cheaper access to space