Are We Already Living The Singularity?
There is much press these days about “The Singularity” and when and how it might happen. There’s a good case that we are living the early phases The Singularity now — we just haven’t realized it. The definition of the Singularity was advanced in 1958 by John Von Neumann the mathematician who created the architecture of 99% of computers including the one you’re reading this on. It posited that computing technology progress will accelerate ever faster (square function thank you Moore’s Law) leading to artificial intelligence (AI) that ultimately exceeds that of humans “beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
Crikey, right? Yet a billion of us are already in the midst of a hybrid computer / internet / human Singularity. This Singularity is enabled by smart-phones made polymorphic by the ever-expanding range of apps, fast ubiquitous wireless connectivity and cheap & infinitely scalable “cloud computing”. As a result, humans can do far more with far less than just a decade ago.
This Singularity is closer to William Gibson’s epochal 1984 sci-fi novel Neuromancer (the first winner of all of SciFi’s triple crown of awards) which coined the terms cyberspace, wetware (virtualized human intelligence), and “jacking in” to the “matrix” we now know as the Internet. We have already subsumed many signs of a Gibsonian Singularity without noticing and one thing is already better: we are always wirelessly “jacked in.”
The computerized crowdsourcing of human intelligence (what the CIA calls “humint”) plays a significant role in this Singularity. Google has infinitely augmented our memories and knowledge along with Wikipedia, the first crowdsourced reference service.
We interact in cyberspace with most of our friends, family and colleagues far more than in person. Our virtualized selves inhabit virtual worlds like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We play games against virtual opponents in virtual worlds on the internet. And our avatar selves are always there for our avatar friends 24 x 7 even as we sleep.
We have also started to augment orientation and thinking with crowdsourced cyberintelligence. One example is the Waze (owned by Google) mapping direction service like that uses a computer AI fed by data crowdsourced from our collective smartphones that routes us past traffic slowdowns better than any human. Similarly, crowdsourced Uber and Lyft cars transport us via the optimal computer-selected car at the push of an app-phone button to wherever we want to be.
The change this Singularity has already wrought is massive. Politics is almost unrecognizable from 10 years ago. Cyber-revolutions harnessed the crowdsourced social sentiment of millions via Twitter and Facebook and overturned or rocked governments across the Middle East, Europe and Asia. In democracies, local issues and national races are now won or lost with personalized multi-way cyberdialogs on a scale unimaginable even ten years ago. President Obama (who has 60M Twitter followers — almost half the registered voters in the U.S.) is the first President elected because his AI personalized cybercapaign’s collective intelligence outstripped his opponent.
Investment is equally changed with algorithmic trading used in over over 2/3s of all trades. This has produced new regulation and new kinds of market failures such as the “flash crash.” However, algorithmic trading may reduce market failures from rogue traders such as Jerome Kerviel who bankrupted French bank Soc. Gen. and honest human errors such as LTCM which the Fed. bailed out to avoid a global market meltdown. A more autonomous evolution is “Cyborg finance” is emerging which is causing concerns about feedback loops where computers create, consume and analyze information in a feedback loop that could go awry.
In the commerce sector, the humint of crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter enable technologies like CAD and 3D printing to bring the best ideas to reality in a way that lets individuals and small companies compete against corporations thousands of times larger. These range from Pebble, the first smart app-watch in 2012 to a remarkable bee hive — both of which raised over $10M in crowdfunding and are now reality.
This Gibsonian Singularity remains subject to commercial and political pressures because it is costly, profitable and powerful. Governments that understand that a crowdsourced Singularity can turn the table on oligarchic power (Trump and Sanders could be considered in this breath) and seek to pre-empt that. China, (and more recently Russia) has, for this reason, replaced uncensored social media like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and WhatsApp with state censored equivalents in a “1984” version of the Singularity : Weibo, Renren, Youku, and WeChat allow China’s government to spy on its population and manipulate popular opinion to ensure support of the state.
Yet humans have used technology to work around this manipulation via wifi-based peer-to-peer messaging apps like Firechat and that cannot be easily blocked or tracked by governments. Firechat powered the Iraqi, Turkish and Hong Kong uprisings when cellular networks and social media were shut down by governments. BitTorrent’s (internet based) peer-to-peer Bleep messaging app. may pass WeChat in general use.
These are all indications the messy real-world Singularity is accelerating as Von Neumann predicted. The next wave will incorporate ubiquitous computing including wearables and massive amounts of new data from billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices connected by IoT-optimized wireless networks like our portfolio company Iotera.
The average first world resident has become blithely used to a future that was hardly imaginable just eight years ago when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. His prescient view of the future now encompasses 1B people who are living The Singularity. Two billion more people are likely to join The Singularity within 10 years.
Reality rarely turns out to be as pure as theory, and William Gibson’s messy vision of a connected humint + computer future may well be how the Singularity plays out vs. a “bright light” moment where computing, by itself, suddenly outstrips humans. That may turn out to happen in the future, however humans have already become bionically enabled by technology and that will continue with more and more powerful digital tools expanding our own capabilities.
The actors on the stage of history rarely realize the significance of events until they have passed. If this is so, we are probably already living The Singularity.