In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that humans would soon run out of food to eat. He thought that the limits on the world’s arable land meant that food supply would simply not rise as quickly as population would. Even in 1798, Malthus felt that the population was at the point of growing faster than food supply, so he did not see this as a problem that would show up millennia later; instead, he saw it as an imminent development. Of course, we are still here, more than 200 years later, and the plenty available for sale in supermarkets throughout the developed world shows that humanity has certainly been able to meet the challenge of feeding itself. Many people attribute this success to the fact that the Industrial Revolution changed agriculture forever. The ability to make farming a matter of mass production rather than individual organization made the production of crops much more efficient, and the end result is that fossil fuels and improved technology would change things dramatically. What Malthus did not anticipate was the arrival of the mass use of fossil fuel. With coal, it was possible to make metal products in greater quantity and quality. Products like barbed wire fences, trains and metal plows allowed farmers to get more out of each hour of labor. These are just some of the inventions that allowed farmers to increase per capita food production while decreasing the number of farmers at work in the system. The resulting efficiencies led to the relative stability in terms of food production that we face today. Thomas Malthus put a considerable amount of research into his findings, but he was ultimately wrong about what would happen with the world’s food supply. Ray Kurzweil puts a lot of research and logic into his support of the concept of singularity, but the simple fact is that while growth may indeed be exponential, predicting the direction of that curve and controlling all of the factors that go into that growth is almost impossible.
The most important part of Kurzweil’s argument is the differentiation between exponential and linear growth. He points out that the assumption of linear growth is “the most important failure that prognosticators make in considering future trends” (Kurzweil, p. 10). If you look at human history, of course, Kurzweil’s point is correct. Consider the fact that, in 1900, electrical power was still not yet widely available. Consider the fact, that, until the invention of the steam engine (and it’s applicability to the train), the fastest mode of transportation was the horse. That was less than 200 years ago. Looking at all of the changes in technology that have taken place since then, as Kurzweil does, shows that the process of change takes place at an exponential rather than a linear rate. However, there are also predictions about transportation that turn out to be wrong. For example, those who predicted that we would easily be able to shuttle people back and forth to the moon by now are clearly not right. While we possess the technology to go to the moon, we do not possess the technology to colonize it or to move large numbers of people back and forth efficiently.
One aspect of Kurzweil’s analysis with which I would take issue is his graph marking the “countdown to singularity” which appears on page 14. Some of the achievements on this list include art, the formation of early cities, agriculture, writing, printing, the telephone, the computer and the personal computer. On the graph, it is clear that the pace of progress has been exponential in nature. However, Kurzweil fails to take into account any elements of progress that are not technological in nature. For example, the development of humanism was important in ancient Greece and was important again during the Renaissance. However, in between those time periods, humanism largely vanished from the intellectual palate of society. In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, technology took off at a rapid pace; the systems that the Romans put in place to carry water were extremely innovative in nature. The developments in art and construction that led to realistic representations in sculpture as well as the idea of the dome and the arch were foundational in the overall story of human progress. However, growth did not continue to be exponential; after the collapse of the Roman Empire, this progress stopped and, in many ways, went through reversals. Clearly, there is an additional element to existence which must be in place for this growth to continue, and this element has to do with providing enough security as a society for growth to take place. The gradual complacency that took over the Roman Empire led to an erosion of the general security that people felt, and when the empire collapsed, people did not have the leisure to pursue their ideas as freely anymore, and life returned to more of a subsistence pattern. There are those who suggest that a similar trend is taking place in American and Western culture at present. The growing complacency in those cultures could ultimately slow the pace of growth. If geopolitical events caused there to be a drop in the collective security that people feel, this could slow growth down as well. This is a phenomenon that Kurzweil does not address.
One area that seems to have reached a point of singularity is warfare. If you turn back the clock to 1900, there were still people fighting on mounted cavalry. Indeed, without his Rough Riders piloting horses up San Juan Hill in Cuba, an enthusiastic militia leader named Theodore Roosevelt might never have become the Secretary of the Navy, let alone President of the United States. Just twenty years later, mounted cavalrymen had been replaced by tanks and biological weapons such as mustard gas. This represents the sort of acceleration in technology that Kurzweil is discussing in his prologue and opening chapter. Just twenty-five years after this Great War had been resolved, though, all of Europe would get sucked into another war. Trench warfare and hand grenades had haunted soldiers in that Great War. When the Second World War rolled around, the Germans had found a much more sophisticated way to kill people, rounding up Jews by the million and killing them in a way that was much horrific than anything that mustard gas could have done, at least in the way it was used during World War I. The acceleration of technology surrounding weaponry continued, and so by the time World War II was nearing a point in which an end was possible, the United States had a weapon so powerful that it could destroy most of an entire city – and when it did (in Hiroshima and then again in Nagasaki), the whole calculus of conflict had changed. What had been a largely civil affair as late as the nineteenth century, in which opposing armies would negotiate breaks for things like Christmas. Given the hell-bent attitude of the Japanese Army, though, it is unlikely that this civility was likely to continue in the worst way possible. But after World War II, something changed. Both the United States and the Soviet Union continued to develop weaponry, but the quest for an ultimate “peacemaker” simply is beyond achievement. And so with almost seventy years having passed between the end of World War II, warfare has not changed in a pattern that has remained exponential. It is true that drone warfare is a newer phenomenon, removing soldiers from the line of fire. However, given the scale and scope of the atomic bomb, one might easily expect the development of weapons that address a number of different things when they hit the ground, but progress has slowed.
The factor that Kurzweil, and others who believe in the principle of singularity, overlook is the notion of entropy. This can be defined as a quantity within thermodynamics showing that some part of the thermal energy within a system is not available to convert into work, but a more general definition is a general dearth of predictability or order, marked by an overall decline over a period of time. There are four principles that researchers have identified with a link to entropy. First, the universe’s entropy always goes up during times of spontaneous change. So as change accelerates, as it is likely to do, entropy will as well. This increases the unpredictability associated with the change, as well as the chances that unwanted developments will arise along with the positive changes. A second principle that is important for the purposes of this discussion is that spontaneous changes are never reversible. And so what happens in terms of change remains that way; to pretend otherwise is like pretending that you can pick up water that you spill from a jar and put it all back into the jar using your hands. It also means that those changes that would undo all of the progress that has been predicted cannot be reversed, which is a sign that singularity cannot take place within this physical universe.
Another clear sign that singularity may well be an endangered notion is the cycles in which history goes. There have been incredible periods of flowering in terms of the arts, thought, the law and accomplishments by individuals. The rise of the Egyptians, the genius of ancient Greece and Rome and the burst of thought during the Renaissance all come to mind. The ancient Romans probably never would have foreseen that the empire would collapse under the wave of invasions from the Germanic tribes and that Europe would subsequently enter a period of little, if any, development. The Dark Ages was certainly a time of reversal, but one could also argue that the time since 1970 has been too. While the West has, in large part, maintained social order in the years since 1970, there may be a human element that is necessary for growth that is still missing. While technology has certainly been racing at breakneck speed, the necessary changes in human nature for that technology to truly take off are still coming. With the advent of the smartphone, for example, it is now possible to carry around the entire body of human knowledge on a device that is not much larger than a credit card. However, rather than start collaborating to find solutions to the world’s worst problems, too many people simply use these phones to look at pictures of cats or to read the spam that floats into their inbox or to play a game that requires a little bit of repetitive skill. If you head out to a public place and look at people, many of them are interacting with their smartphones rather than with one another. The implication is that as long as people can be distracted or if there is a possibility for chaos to enter a situation, it will do so. The end result is a system that cannot stop tripping over itself; this tendency brought such titanic empires as Persia, Babylon and Rome crashing down, and according to some dystopian views, it will not be long until modern society follows suit. After all, would Leonardo da Vinci think that pulling out such a device and spending hours playing “Flappy Birds” was really a representation of how far our species had come? Would he turn his nose up at it, or would he keep trying until he was able to get to 100 pipes? We will never know.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Course reading.