The Singularity has no Clothes
8 February 2009
Contemporary cosmology, like many a rapidly growing science, has its share of controversial issues. It is the nature of the cutting-edge science that it will be pushing the envelope, and as a result there will be theoretical disagreements among its most advanced practitioners. Whether or not black holes emit Hawking radiation is one such point of disagreement. Another area of controversy is that of the possibility of naked singularities. Naked singularities — singularities with “no clothes” if you will, like embarrassed emperors — are essentially black holes without an event horizon, so that you can see right into the heart of the thing itself.
The study of singularities is among the most theoretical of all theoretical astrophysics not least because we have so little data to go on. Supernova SN 1987A (which occurred, not surprisingly, in 1987) was one of those rare events that allowed contemporary instrumentation to be brought to bear on a great cosmological event. For example, neutrino detectors showed several bursts of neutrinos before the supernova flared in the visible spectrum, and this was in line with predictions for the core collapse that triggers a supernova, however the progenitor star was not in line with projections for this particular type of supernova (type II-P, to be specific), as a blue supergiant was not considered a likely progenitor star for a type II-P supernova. It is by such empirical surprises that scientific theories stand or fall, and science on the whole advances. We must be capable of being wrong if we are ever to get things right.
It would be problematic to identify theoretical work not ultimately tied to observation and experimentation “scientific”, although the most avant garde aspects of science are always exploring the far edge of such possibilities. I would not want to deprive such efforts of the title “scientific”, but we must exercise a certain caution the farther we depart from empirical evidence. Moreover, I have no problem with purely theoretical inquiry, but this is about calling a spade a spade. Because contemporary philosophy is considered so completely inapplicable to the real world, no one wants to be called a “mere philosopher”, and those working on the most theoretical aspects of cosmology, astrophysics, particle physics, and the like would certainly prefer to be called scientists rather than philosophers.
There comes a point, however, at which we must recognize that a theory is not only not testable under current conditions, but is not testable at all. Because of the ill-repute into which philosophy has fallen, we are beginning to lose sight of this distinction, and the title “science” is coming to be used as an honorific rather than a descriptive title. Today, there is a significant amount of philosophy being conducted in the guise of science and is being pursued as though it were science, when it manifestly is not. As a result, some scientists find themselves recapitulating old errors that philosophy worked through in its two and half thousand year history, in a needless duplication of labor. There is a sense in which this constitutes a threat to the continued progress of science, but this is not the question I wish to examine today.
Not everyone who writes a work of speculative science gets their own university to promote their idea. Indeed, this must be rare in the extreme, but last week it was widely reported that a Singularity University was being established. I saw it first on the front page of the Financial Times, which gives an idea of how prominent this undertaking is. Moveover, it is financed and backed by some heavy-hitters in the scientific establishment. But this is not an institution to study gravitational singularities, but rather what has come to be called the “technological singularity”, and this latter is not science but speculation.
When I first ran across this announcement I had a lot of obvious questions. Who will be the professors, and what kind of degrees will be offered? If you get a degree in Singularity Studies, what are your job prospects? Will the government offer financial aid for those who wish to devote their careers to Singularity Studies? And at this early stage of the game in Singularity Studies, without an established regime of testing and credentials, who will judge the expertise of those engaged in Singularity Studies?
The Singularity University, of course, already has its own website. A quick check of the curriculum revealed that there will be three- and ten-day programs for “executives” as well as a slightly longer nine-week program of “graduate studies.” This clarifies things a bit. It would seem that this will be in the manner of another executive retreat (and we all know how much money the seminar industry gets from lavish executive retreats). This goes a little way toward explaining the business model of the Singularity University, although it still doesn’t tell us much about its programs or the justification for its existence as an academic entity.
The Singularity University will presumably be devoted to the study of the “technological singularity” proclaimed by Ray Kurzweil, who will be the Chancellor & Trustee of the new institution.
What is the technological singularity? The question itself is deceptive. We should ask, rather, “What will the technological singularity be, if and when it occurs?” For, as best as I can grasp its meaning, the technological singularity is a threshold in the evolution of technology which would be passed when intelligent machines are able to improve themselves. This development would result in an “intelligence explosion” in which the rate of technological change would greatly increase. In short, nothing would be the same again, and the technological singularity would mark the end of the world as we know it.
It is a fun idea. At least, for me it’s a real hoot. Many of us who grew up reading science fiction and watching every science fiction television series and film, and who were always much more interested in the future and its possibilities than the mundane present before our noses, are very impatient for the future to begin. It is a real source of irritation to be stuck on the earth when we want to be zipping around in spaceships and exploring exciting new worlds, like everyone in the stories that have so shaped our lives.
The technological singularity is a vision of the near future that has been re-shaped by the rapid advance in information technologies. Previous visions of the future did not contain this element, or, if they did, they did not emphasize it. The famous series of articles in Colliers magazine starting in 1952, sometimes called the “Colliers Space Program”, presented a vision of the future replete with rockets, spacesuits, and space stations. A couple of decades later, the books of Gerard K. O’Neill and T. A. Heppenheimer offered an even more elaborate vision of a spacefaring society in the near future.
The idea of a near future dramatically changed by high technology is pretty exciting for some people, whether the source of the change is space travel or artificial intelligence. Yet the grand vision of O’Neill (indebted, as it is, to Tsiolkovsky and von Braun, inter alia), or the more familiar vision today of a manned mission to Mars, are crucially different from Kurzweil’s technological singularity. The ambitious manned space flight programs that have been imagined pose significant technological challenges, and we could even say that their fulfillment would require certain engineering breakthroughs, but it is important to point out that these projects, visionary though they may be, require no unpredictable changes in history. There is no particular threshold that must be crossed. There is no principled break in history that must occur, that will separate all that came before from all that will come after.
With space exploration schemes, we know the principles involved. They are familiar principles of physics, mechanics, chemistry, biology, and the sciences generally. At present, it is only our want of execution (which in some cases may be a mere lack of funding) in these fields that prevents us from carrying through a massive manned space program of the kind that excites visionaries. What is needed for Kurzweil’s vision is something of an entirely different order. While it is true that we know the principles of technology well enough, and these are not seriously in dispute, Kurzweil’s technological singularity requires more than the sophisticated execution of high technology.
While Kurzweil’s theory is cast in quasi-scientific terms, as though it were a mere engineering issue to be able to produce artificial intelligence so that machines become “smarter” than human beings, we are not here on the firm ground of familiar principles. There is no accepted theoretical framework, for example, for a scientific treatment of history. History remains a humanistic discipline. Furthermore, while science has made strides in understanding consciousness, there is still no consensus for a theoretical framework for consciousness. Exactly what consciousness is, is still a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it is a question riven by deep philosophical disagreement.
Inc. magazine called Kurzweil the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” This he may be, but before Edison there must come the theoretical pioneers of a discipline, like Gilbert, Faraday, and Maxwell. Where fundamental science has laid down principles with the kind of detail and precision that we have in Maxwell’s equations describing electro-magnetism, engineering can follow Edison’s familiar program of “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Without the theoretical foundation, however, all that perspiration may be for naught.
It is important to point out that Kurzweil’s vision has an eschatological dimension. Kurzweil’s predictions put most of us alive today right on the cusp of living just long enough that accelerating technological progress will effectively make it possible to live forever. However, this comes with the caveat that unforeseen events may slow things down by a few decades (and Murphy’s Law teaches us that, if something can go wrong, it will), which means that most of us will die just before the millennium dawns. A damn shame. On this score, Kurzweil the prophet is only slightly more reassuring than an astrologer and slightly more rational than, for example, Tipler’s Omega Point theory. It would be too kind to say that the Omega Point theory has an eschatological dimension; it would be more correct to say that it is simply a technological rip-off of Christian theology. And this is the company in which we must place the technological singularity.
The real question for the theorists of the technological singularity is not so much whether it will happen in 30 years or in another decade or two beyond, but whether these is any falsifiable content whatsoever in it, so that it can qualify, however tenuously, as a scientific theory. And if it is in no sense falsifiable, but consists exclusively in millenarian expectation of a technological utopia, it can no more be called philosophy than it can be called science. In spirit, the technological singularity would seem to be closest to theology, albeit of a peculiarly modern sort.
I will note in passing that Kurzweil’s vision of technology is in some respect the antithesis of what I recently suggested in Lessons from a Snowstorm, though when I wrote that I was not thinking in the slightest of the technological singularity. There I wrote:
“…for the foreseeable future, when people and goods need to be transported in inclement weather, vehicles in climates and terrains such as Oregon will need to be chained to get where they are going. Even when there are flying cars, it will be much longer before there are flying trucks. Trucks and highways and chains will be a fact of life for some time to come. I see no reason why any of this will change in the next five hundred years.”
Now, it is entirely possible that technological change could accelerate so rapidly that tire chains in inclement weather become utterly obsolete, but I don’t think that the answer to this question will be coming out of the Graduate Studies program at the Singularity University, from which we are only to expect the sort of scholasticism that comes from an institution devoted to contemporary Kurzweilian theology.
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I have written more on some of the above themes in my The Law of Stalled Technologies.
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