Mar 08, 2010

All Bets Are Off

Part of my job involves predicting the future of technology and, sometimes, the future of society as a result of that technology. One rule of predicting the future is clear yet almost always ignored: we tend to over-estimate change in the short term and under-estimate it in the long term. What this means to money and markets is that there are likely to be some technological effects coming along that will change almost everything we worry about today. For example, what would be the impact on Social Security, Medicare, and U. S. federal entitlements (and the national debt as a consequences) if we all lived essentially forever?

End of problem or just the beginning?

This is more than just an intellectual enterprise. I'm talking about The Singularity, which to proper geeks is that point in time when computers become smarter than humans and supposedly all bets are off as technological development races forward at Moore’s Law speed, which is exponentially faster than at any previous point in human existence. Change would come faster than we could follow or even comprehend, with you and me either left eating bonbons (that’s the Wall-e version) or put to death by computers no longer amused by serving us.

Life post-Singularity (if it happens) will, of course, be somewhere in between those two eventualities. Zits may be abolished but youth will still be anguished. Computers may be designing warp drives but I'll still be paying my mortgage. Rather than a technological Hell or Utopia, the Singularity is likely to leave us still in our sitcom just with different props.

What's fascinating about the Singularity to me is not so much guessing what life will be like then as looking at our very approach to the concept and some likely side effects we'll bump into along the way.

Some very smart people are getting really worked up about The Singularity. Artificial Intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil, who makes his living from explaining The Singularity, thinks it is generally good, that The Singularity will transform our culture in mostly positive ways and allow us to become effectively immortal. Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy has a darker view, seeing really smart machines as a threat that might enslave us and certainly expose us as a culture to unexpected risks.

To me The Singularity feels a lot like Y2K and the anticipation people had as the millennium approached, testing the capability of our computers to keep street lights running and not make airliners crash. In Y2K the people most upset about the concept -- those folks who sold their homes and moved to the mountains -- were also the ones most excited by it. As much as they were scared by the concept of Y2K, they really wanted it to happen in the same sense that members of an apocalyptic cult might find that very apocalypse to be reaffirming, even if it means we'll all be vaporized or shipped directly to Hell.

There are many unanswered questions about The Singularity. Will it take place? How will it take place? When will it take place? What will be the effects of it taking place? If the effects of The Singularity are negative is there anything we can do about them? Can we shape The Singularity to our advantage? But what I find most fascinating is wondering what will happen between now and The Singularity as we anticipate and prepare for what I am expecting to actually be an anticlimactic event.

While I don't want to dwell too much on Ray Kurzweil, I think he, too, is worried about what's between here and there. Ray believes The Singularity will bring immortality, so it has become very important to Ray to take care of himself in anticipation of that eventuality. Where some of us might think that a coming cure for obesity, for example, would be a great excuse for eating more chocolate, Ray is taking a much more pragmatic approach: He is trying very hard to live long enough to live forever.

This reminds me of an evening several years ago when I sat at a technology awards dinner next to a guy who happened to have a Nobel Prize in medicine. Just a little drunk, he explained to my wife and me that his work in genetics would allow our children to live forever.

"What about us?" I asked.

"You're screwed," he replied.

Someone always has to be the last person to die of a disease that is being conquered. And if you take a very positive view of The Singularity that means someone has to be the last person to die, period. Ray is just determined that person isn't going to be him, and I wish him all the best in that quest.

Pass me the chocolates, please.

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Robert X. Cringely is Adam Smith’s sidekick.  The 12th employee of Apple Computer, Cringely has been making or writing about high-tech history since 1977.  He was field editor at InfoWorld, a computer industry trade paper, from 1987-95.  His best-selling book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Can’t Get a Date was published in 18 languages.  His PBS documentaries, including Triumph of the Nerds and Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet, have been shown in more than 60 countries. A blogger since 1997, he has 300,000 weekly Internet readers and more than a million words in print. A former columnist for Worth and Inc magazines, Cringely has written for Forbes, NewsWeek, MIT Technology Review, the New York Times and many other publications.  The companies he has helped to start have a market cap in excess of $500 billion.

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