The future is approaching much faster than we realize.
The most spectacular manifestation of an accelerating trend is when its progression becomes exponential or more. An exponential progression is clearly unsustainable in the real world reaching very quickly a collapse point of the underlying process. In case of accelerating technological development, the collapse point is generally identified with the so called Singularity, caused by the rise of self-improving Artificial Intelligence.
The technological singularity corresponds to the time when ordinary humans will be overtaken by artificially intelligent machines and/or cognitively enhanced biological intelligence. It will be the advent of artificial general intelligence (also known as strong AI). Such a singularity in human history will have far-reaching consequences so much so that -our understanding of what it means to be human- to be an individual, to be alive, to be conscious, to be part of the social order – all this would be thrown into question, not by detached philosophical reflection, but through force of circumstances, real and present. Artificial intelligence (AI) is overtaking our human ability to absorb and process information. Robots are becoming increasingly dextrous, flexible, and safe to be around (except the military ones). The advent of super artificial intelligence (or artificial general intelligence), a real intelligence not just equal to but greater than our own. An intelligence that can act on massive volumes of data at a speed that no human can match. Nobody knows the consequences of this turning point – or when it will happen, if ever – but this is probably an issue for the next generation and outside the scope of today’s pressing issues. But you just never know.
This technological singularity is a game-changer, but what happens when there are more singularities?
Taking a wider look of what is going on with us and our planet we could say that there are various singularities that are lining up and coming our way. This is not good news and, besides the intrinsic risk represented by accelerating trends, the significance of what is about to happen is very profound.
Echoing the changes that the technological singularity will impose upon humans, an ecological singularity could be defined as period in time or the event, when our (growing) capacity to solve the totality of the anthropogenic problems is superseded by the volume of the (growing) totality of the anthropogenic problems. The precise date is of course difficult to forecast but it looks inevitable. Beside climate change, loss of primary tropical forests, resources consumption, etc. the loss of biodiversity is reaching an unstoppable and unbelievable rate showing that we are in the middle of a mass extinction. This mass extinction has been already named as the Permian extinction which will be the sixth global mass extinction in the history of our planet and one of the most severe. We are approaching a collapse point of the ecosystem beyond which we cannot predict what will happen. Many negative feedbacks will trigger self-feeding loops impossible to control. At that point we will hit the Ecological Singularity.
The old lengthy natural process of waiting for random changes to be tested by natural selection in order to become permanent features of living beings will be shortly replaced in human beings by technology through genetic modifications and technological augmentations of our bodies and minds. Changes will no longer be random, they will be planned to serve a purpose and the process will become proactive and not reactive, making it billion of times more efficient and faster. As technology accelerates dragging everything with it, we will have to also change in order to keep up. This process constitutes an accelerating feedback loop; the more technology improves, the more we improve our capabilities creating better technology which, in return, will be used to improve us even more. Technology is incompatible with the way we have been living until now and as it accelerates we will have to adapt faster and faster to the new environment. Failure will result in extinction. We are on the verge of an epochal transition; we are passing from an era driven by Natural Evolution to an era driven by Artificial Evolution and, at the transition point, we will encounter a Evolutionary Singularity.
The orthodox economic model at the foundation of the modern society is based on continuous indefinite growth and on an ever increasing supply of energy and resources. As a matter of fact the world economy has been growing at steady level of 3% per year on average. This constant 3% steady growth could appear not much but this impression is wrong; growing at this rate we will need about 5 planets to support our civilization by 2050. The classical economic model is clearly unsustainable and it will hit various hard constraints in the near future due to limited resources, increasingly impacting the planet and the collapsing ecosystems. As it is, the world is consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.
AI will drive unprecedented changes to the structure of employment — changes that will have lasting effects on every society. How smooth or disruptive this will be is up to us: industry, politics, research and education. Beside the hard limitations there are many other disruptive forces at work that risk to destabilize the entire economic model. One of the most relevant is the rising of a new economy based on zero marginal cost enabled by the new technologies and internet. Various industries have been revolutionized already with massive corporations being crippled because they couldn’t adapt to changes occurring too fast. From the music industry, to photography and telecommunications we have already seen a disruptive revolution with costs approaching near zero for the end consumer. The next step will be the sharing of goods, properties and assets, such as self-driving cars and the distributed generation of electricity. In parallel, virtual currencies are making their way to the global scene having the potential to replace conventional currencies revolutionizing the economy from within. Technological unemployment will be another powerful disruptor of our economic model considering the enormous possibilities of narrow AI and robotics. The continuous increase of life duration and the consequent number of aging people, combined with the technological unemployment, will bring the collapse of social welfare systems across the world. All of these elements influence each other and will occur simultaneously causing an accelerating rate of change of great complexity leading to a singularity, the Economic Singularity.
We are approaching a fundamental step in the evolution of our civilization, an evolutionary jump that probably only few civilizations in the universe managed to overcome. Should we be afraid? No, but we should be aware. We don’t know where this adventure will take us but, one thing is sure, with a business as usual approach we will go nowhere. We must instead acknowledge that we now exist in an ecosystem of disruptive singularities and we must evolve and update if we are going to be capable of navigating these transformative impacts. It should encourage us to imagine—even demand that we imagine—a different but possible future. It is incumbent that we do not sleepwalk into a crisis. But imagine if we manage to go through it ….