George Lucas famously made his fortune not as a film director, but as the owner of the merchandising rights to Star Wars. It turns out, even the huge profits of box office films can’t compare to the money you can make from the sale of action figures, t-shirts, shot glasses, posters, etc. This lesson isn’t unique to the film industry. Find a cultural phenomenon and you’ll find a George Lucas equivalent raking in the profits from clever merchandising or marketing gimmicks. Case in point: the recent crowd of sales people and marketers clamoring after their little slice of the singularity.
The singularity literally promises to unlock trillions of dollars of economic activity and even deliver world domination to some lucky AI company or nation state. But that moment could be a long way off, or it could never happen at all. Most optimistically, to take Ray Kurzweil’s recent estimate, the singularity could happen by 2045. Less ambitious estimates extend out into the 500-year-to-never range. And yet, that hasn’t stopped anyone — Kurzweil included — from profiting off the singularity today.
In this respect, the singularity is less like the Star Wars franchise and more like Christianity — less nostalgic fan club, more forward-looking belief system. Jaron Lanier pointed this out back in 2011, noting that the singularity is a religion “just for digital geeks.” Nothing drives sales and marketing schemes more effectively than religion. According to a 2016 study by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, religion annually contributes $1.2 trillion to the US economy. This figure isn’t just bigger than Star Wars, it’s bigger than the global annual revenues of America’s six largest oil and gas companies.
If the singularity is analogous to religion, that’s a genuine problem to the extent that religions tend to pedal false hopes. Would you like to see your loved ones when you die? The Catholics can help you out. Want seventy-two virgins in paradise? Talk to the Muslims about that. Want your own planet? You’ll have to sign up with the Mormons.
Alternatively, do you want to see AI one day become smarter than humans, potentially bringing about a tech-based, post-human utopia? All you have to do is buy this book, watch this movie, read this online publication, follow this Twitter account, listen to this podcast, hire “singularity contingent workers” to grow your business, and buy stock in this foreign company investing billions to prepare for the singularity.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to wear this t-shirt, fill your closet with these hats and these hoodies, and ask your local tattoo artist about getting the perfect tattoo to show off your new religion.
When a social or cultural movement stimulates so much economic activity, there is a real concern that general consumers may become infected with slacktivism. When religious elements are involved, consumers should also be concerned about falling prey to charlatans and opportunists. Both of these concerns, I believe, apply to those who overenthusiastically throw money at a product or company simply because the word “singularity” is attached to it.
As the author of the novella “The Singularity Survival Guide,” I’m guilty of opportunism myself. So, I’m certainly not in a position to call anyone out. But I’ve become increasingly skeptical of companies that use the term “singularity” as a core part of their brand identity. I believe this is a healthy skepticism to have as we move into the age of the coming robot takeover — which may or may not ever actually happen.