Ten essential observations
The Singularity Principles arise from a number of general observations. These observations make it essential that we improve our collective abilities to anticipate and manage disruptive changes, before an acceleration and intensification of such changes undermine the conditions for human flourishing.
Tech breakthroughs are unpredictable (both timing and impact)
History teaches us that breakthroughs in technological capability may be dramatic and unexpected. That’s both in terms of timing (such as an explosive breakthrough following a long period of disappointingly slow progress) and in terms of impact (with some breakthroughs being more widely applicable than was previously anticipated).
Some critics assert that, on the contrary, we can be sure that technological capability is reaching a plateau. They claim that all the low-hanging fruit have been picked.
To counter this counter, observe that:
- There is no fixed scientific barrier that would prevent further improvements in, for example, nanotech, biotech, infotech, or cognotech. As Nobel Physics laureate Richard Feynman once said, “There is plenty of room at the bottom”
- More engineers and entrepreneurs than ever before have been trained in a rich variety of methods to develop new technologies, including methods both for incremental improvement and for the creation of disruptive new platforms
- The tools and resources available to help develop new technology have unprecedented capability.
Potential complex interactions make prediction even harder
Surprise interactions between multiple developments in different fields can make outcomes even harder to predict.
These parallel changes include apparently unrelated technological transitions, disruptive breakthroughs as well as incremental progress, and changes in tooling, in prevailing open standards, and the quality of training data.
These overlapping changes also include updates in legal systems, popular culture, and general philosophical zeitgeist. That takes us to the next observation.
Changes in human attributes complicate tech changes
In anticipating future scenarios, it’s a mistake to treat human institutions, human attitudes, and human intentions as fixed and unchangeable. Changes in all these aspects of the human outlook can be part of a complex network of responses to technological risks and opportunities.
It is as renowned management consultant Peter Drucker observed, “the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions”.
For example, education and training can smooth the path of swift transition and safe adoption. Carefully targeted government subsidies can play a role too. The storylines in popular Netflix dramas can trigger positive changes in attitude in the general public toward products featuring helpful new capabilities. And so on.
On the other hand, changes in human institutions, attitudes, and intentions can also make matters worse. Unhelpful new trade barriers can hinder the adoption of safer technologies. Clumsy changes in regulations can lead to the faster spread of dangerous technologies. Public sentiment can be transformed by fast-spreading misinformation. And there can be an escalating copycat response to publicity stunts from media stars that irresponsibly endorse – or oppose – specific new products.
Accordingly, forecasts of the impacts of technologies – whether beneficial or destructive – will likely be misleading unless they consider the two-way interactions between human
Greater tech power enables more devastating results
The more powerful technology becomes, the more devastating are the results it can produce – including devastatingly good results and devastatingly bad results.
- Small fireworks with errant trajectories can, in some cases, ignite a conflagration that causes widespread damage. But larger explosives, such as nuclear bombs, can destroy an entire city in the blink of an eye.
- Documents individually hand-copied by scribes spread ideas gradually for centuries, but Gutenberg’s printing presses placed books and pamphlets into many more hands, accelerating the Renaissance and the Reformation, and triggering decades of turmoil all over Europe.
- The flow of disinformation has caused problems throughout human history, but with modern online social networks spanning billions of users, disinformation nowadays travels at the speed of light, and has sparked near genocide.
Different perspectives assess “good” vs. “bad” differently
Results that are evaluated as “good” from one perspective, such as an increase in profits or in market share, or breaking records for speed or performance, can also be evaluated as “bad” from other perspectives – for example when externalities are included in calculations, or when a broader view of human flourishing is considered.
Competition can be hazardous as well as beneficial
Although a competitive marketplace can often accelerate positive progress, with companies racing to discover and apply useful new innovations, such competition can also result in dangerous corner-cutting or other reckless risk-taking. Hostile arms races are particularly hazardous.
Indeed, a strong competitive environment makes forecasting the future all the more difficult:
- If two or more competitors perceive that a decisive gain will be attained by the first group to develop some new technology, they will work harder to win that race
- If two or more competitors perceive that other groups are striving hard to gain a key advantage, they will be inclined to redouble their own efforts
- In a fiercely competitive environment, groups will be inclined to keep some of their interim progress a secret, and also to spread FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) to distract observers from a clear understanding of what is actually happening.
Some tech failures would be too drastic to allow recovery
Although there are many technological failures from which it’s possible to recover, with people (hopefully) growing wiser as a result, some technological failures may have such a vast scale that subsequent recovery would be extremely hard or even impossible. In these cases, there’s no hope for “failing forward” or “failing smart”. The only option in such cases is to avoid failures in the first place.
The more powerful the underlying technology, the more attention needs to be paid to such possibilities.
A history of good results is no guarantee of future success
The mere fact that a piece of technology has delivered a string of good results in the past does not guarantee, by itself, that the technology in question will deliver good results in altered circumstances in the future. Previous methods may fail, for unexpected reasons, when parts of the overall system are different from in the past.
The management of technological change therefore needs to rely on more than what philosophers call “induction”, that is, the assumption (implicit or explicit) that the future will continue to resemble the past.
It’s insufficient to rely on good intentions
Something else that it’s insufficient to rely on is the perceived good intentions of individuals or companies – intentions that these individuals or companies will avoid any very bad outcomes. Alas, when good intentions are coupled with a mistaken or incomplete understanding of an issue, they can result in the very sort of bad outcomes they were seeking to avoid. Moreover, these good intentions can sometimes lose their strength, being submerged under other forces that are more powerful.
Wishful thinking predisposes blindness to problems
Due to wishful thinking, providers of potential new technological solutions are often inclined to turn a blind eye to problematic features that may arise. If they hear reports of adverse side-effects or possible unintended consequences, they are motivated to disbelieve these reports, or to distort them or throw doubt on them.
They won’t just seek to deceive the general public. They’ll even seek to deceive themselves, in order to sound and appear more convincing when they issue their denials.
American writer Upton Sinclair said it well in 1935: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
That’s another reason why greater vigilance is needed, and why openness and transparency should be rewarded.
Taken together, the above ten observations underscore the need to go beyond mere wishful thinking.
Next, let’s explore more concretely the set of risks and benefits that may arise from fast-changing technologies.
Note: The following video from the Vital Syllabus contains a visual illustration of these ten essential observations. (The description of these observations has evolved since the video was originally recorded.)