Sunday, February 03, 2013

Predicting a Singularity

I think a lot about the future, and because of that I've gained somewhat of a reputation for making good predictions. This is a characteristic I share with prophets, messiahs and other ne'er-do-wells. I'm not entirely sure what to think about that.

However one of the problems with making predictions about the future, the main problem, is that it's actually not that hard to predict what'll happen next year. Although for some reason this doesn't really seem to help many of the major analysts whose job it is to make such forecasts. Conversely it's also not that hard to make a prediction for the far future, as "…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."1 Why is this a problem? Well if it's easy to make those predictions, making predictions in the sweet spot, both far enough ahead to be ahead to get you ahead of your competition, and close enough that you'll still be around to do something about it is actually almost impossible.

But how far in the future is the sweet spot? The strange thing is that this actually changes, a century ago it was twenty years, or even thirty, but twenty or thirty years ago it was just ten years. Today it's probably five, or less. The rate of technological progress is accelerating, and with it the amount of change we'll experience during our lives is also changing. The time it takes for new technologies to emerge, become mainstream, become dated and then obsolete is falling almost exponentially.

For someone like me, whose career more or less relies on being on, and being seen to be on, the bleeding edge, this is painfully evident. If I'm asked "Have you heard about…?" and I have to answer "No?" you'll generally see a look of pain cross my face, something sort of like constipation, don't worry, it's just my career flashing before my eyes...

At this point having angered both business analysts and science fiction writers I'm going to make a small admission, both professions have the right of it because "...the future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."2

While the pace of change has accelerated, it's hard to see how that can be sustained as the size of the install base of existing legacy technology widens. So far we seem to have sustained that pace of change by trickle down economics, the older technology spreads out, and newer technology is dropped in, eagerly seized by early adopters like myself willing to pay the premium, and experience the inevitable problems that come with all new technology, at least until the bugs are shaken out.

Despite that I'm forced to point out that if you extrapolate the current rate of technological progress the view that some sort of technological singularity must almost be inevitable is hard to argue against. Unless of course there is some sort of major catastrophe, something to set us back.

Major catastrophes that could knock us back aren't hard to spot: a global pandemic, climate change, ecological disaster, super volcanoes, mega-tsunami, overpopulation, asteroid impact, a nearby supernovae and of course worldwide thermonuclear war are all favourites. The threat of some of these seems to be fading, but some seem more likely today than ever. There are others, many others, too numerous and depressing to list here.

They're also wildcards, because sometimes the things that should set us back push us forward. It's certainly arguable that two major world wars, so close together, were a major causal factor in the acceleration of the pace of change that is part of our lives today.

Depending on the current news cycle I can swing violently; between a horribly over optimistic view of the future and the inevitability of the rise of trans-humanism, and a view bleak in pessimism, in the inevitability of the abandonment of technology and a slow slide towards narrowing horizons and the eventual extinction of the human race. Doomed as a species that turned its back on space and by having its world view limited to just that, a single world with all the disasters and catastrophes that can result.

Despite this, I'll continue to try and make predictions in the sweet spot, it's fun to be proved right, and sometimes even more fun to be proved wrong.

1 Arthur C. Clarke
2 William Gibson