Asocial Singularitarianism - Breeding an Incomplete View of Convergent Accelerating Change

February 05 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: 2009   Rating: 1

The now-publicized curriculum of Ray Kurzweil's newly launched Singularity University (SU), a very necessary institution that aims to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity's grand challenges", yet again reveals what I have come to call the Transhumanist Ego Bias (TEB), which results in the Hard-Tech Attribution Error (HTAE) that Jamais Cascio so eloquently describes in his Flunking Out SU critique.

Transhumanist Ego Bias: The TEB is a tendency among transhumanists to force their objective vision of the future to fit with their subjective expectation of the future.  Many of the futurists and outright transhumanists that I have come to know and respect over the years suffer from this.  (I too came down with it for a spell when I first encountered the awesome power of Moore's Law and other hard-tech diffusion curves.)  It's as if they 1) expect the future to create a magical utopia into which they project their unchanged present-day personalities, 2) can't or don't want to credit the dumb masses (their detractors) with the ability to perform amazing operations (social computation) critical to acceleration, and/or 3) are so focused on the post-human age / life-extending digitization that they fail to adequately consider what it will take to get there.

Hard-Tech Attribution Error: It's no accident that brainiac, hardware-focused, early-adopter types who formulated their core outlook prior to the explosion of social media structures like Facebook, Wikipedia and Digg tend to focus on the "hard" sciences in lieu of recently blooming areas such as group intelligence, emotional intelligence, coordination, and communication.  The social side of the equation is not as obvious to those that haven't studied it closely, lived it or worked in fields that rely on social networks to make a living.  The result is that the social component of acceleration (despite a few courtesy nods to Intelligence Amplification [IA] over the years) is seriously undervalued as a driver.

Four examples from thinkers I respect:

1) Kurzweil's work notoriously relegates social intelligence and the power of abstractions to a back seat role, though he increasingly mentions IA as a wild-card force and even wrote the following about system simulation:

[T]he more complex any system becomes, the better it models the universe that engendered it, and the better it seems to understand its own history and environment, including the physical chain of singularities that created it." "..there is something about the construction of the universe itself, something about the nature and universal function of local computation that permits, and may even mandate, continuously accelerating computational development in local environments.

2) Vernor Vinge's book Rainbows End rocks as a technology forecast but only provides a cursory stab at the corresponding cultural changes,

3) Brian Wang's comments on Cascio's SU critique reveal a total underestimation of the growing power of social technologies as as a driver of acceleration and value.

4) Dick Pelletier's positive future writing regularly (and even upon prompting) fails to address critiques about the unexpected social consequences of advancing hard technology.

Don't get me wrong.  All four writers (and countless others) are brilliant in their own right and have important memes to convey to the world.  I have learned a great deal from each of them.  But they are each more-or-less emblematic of the HTAE that pervades futurist circles in that they appear to spend a small % of their futuring resources contemplating possible social effects (ie super-massive / super-granular social networks, the necessity of social buy-in for diffusion (which Dean Kamen is now actively discussing), the barriers to diffusion, the potential for natural "soft" memetic brain upgrades, etc). 

Consequences: By taking the emphasis off of social acceleration, dynamics and punctuated change, the HTAE increases the tendency for inaccurate and/or incomplete forecasting.  Sure, it's still very important to spread the word about accelerating technological change, but I think we've now been provided with enough data (massively valuable social networks, rise of the prosumer, the impact of abstractions on intelligence, Reed's Law, etc) to recognize the importance of social intelligence and dynamics in the equation.  By not giving these threads their due, we fail to develop the most comprehensive view of what is going on (which hurts our collective intelligence, behavior and economics).

If the goal of SU is to focus on "the exponential growth of information technology and how it can solve the major problems of the world", as Kurzweil summarizes in the promotional video at top, then the curriculum as currently presented will 1) fail to bring in minds from explosive social fields, 2) attract non-critical tech-Singularity devotees, and ultimately 3) fail to provide a comprehensive picture of acceleration.

Accordingly, I concur with the crux of Cascio's critique:

A useful Singularity University (or whatever it would be called) would be one that dove deeply into the nature of disruption, how society and technology co-evolve, and how we deal with unintended and unanticipated results of our choices. As sorry as I am to say it -- there are some very good people, folks I admire and respect, who are on the faculty & advisor list -- this institution isn't what we need in an era of uncertainty, crisis, and potential transformation.

But I do refrain from going so far as to label such a curriculum useless.  It's still very, very important that we get the word out about acceleration in general, even if that's done in a less-than-perfect manner.  Yes, such blatant Singularitarianism laced with HTAE will result in inaccuracies, encourage sycophants and prompt a backlash, but it will also inspire many to open their minds to the accelerating change that they are presently non-cognizant of.

That said, I am optimistic that the newborn SU will gradually shift over toward the social components of acceleration, especially with so many smart brains on board and a whole new generation of geniuses coming of age symbiotically with social media and new abstractions.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. I agree with you Alvis and I think I fall into the category of Hard-Tech Attribution Error.

    I just watched a TED presentation by Barry Schular about how we are on the cusp of re-writing our genomes and literally eliminating all disease and aging in one fell swoop in 20 to 30 years.

    This stuff needs to be discussed—now. The social impacts will be imeasurable.

    Posted by: Covus   February 06, 2009
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  2. Nice to see someone admit to a bias! I think we’ll all need to (or be forced to) come to terms with our biases as we adopt new abstractions / systems views that we develop over the coming years – at a crazy fast pace as you point out. (Unlearning as Jack Uldrich puts it.) This is partially why I tend to be so rigorous about distinctions and definitions related to intelligecne and accelerating change, etc.

    At the same time, the masses still need to make fundamental paradigm leaps toward basics like accelerating change, collective intelligence, even math, science, physics, nanotech.

    We’ll all be deleting and rewriting abstractions furiously, by necessity.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   February 06, 2009
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