The ecological singularity
The technological singularity, chronological scale by Ray Kurzweil
The technological singularity is a concept which came into being in the mid-20th century. Before considering what the technological singularity implies, let us take a look at what a ‘singularity’ is. According to Murray Shanahan, « In physics, a singularity is a point in space or time, such as the center of a black hole or the instant of the Big Bang, where mathematics breaks down and our capacity for comprehension along with it. » (1) A 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. » (2). Transhumanists who believe humans can transcend their biological limitations through the use of technology are optimistic about a future with artificial intelligence while others see the advent of the technological singularity as a degrading life form and enslavement.
When the advent of the singularity occurs is still the subject of much speculation (as is the concept of singularity itself). Based on Moore’s law and the law of accelerating returns, some people like Ray Kurzweil think it might occur around 2045. However, what seems more scientifically probable and accepted is the idea that the technological singularity will coincide with the decline of humanity due to depleting resources, pollution and the global destruction of the ecosystem.
For the time being we shall focus on how the timescale for the technological singularity somehow overlaps the scenarios put forth by the Club of Rome concerning the future of humanity. The idea that technology might bring about dramatic changes in the way we adapt to the world shares common ground with another reality.
Limits to Growth, The 30 Year Update – Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers
Echoing the dramatic changes that the technological singularity will impose upon humans, the ecological singularity could be defined as period in time that will see an end to the global development of humanity and the beginning of declining living and health conditions. The precise date is of course difficult to forecast but it will be inevitable and globally accepted by the political and economic leaders.
Profound, yet progressive, transformations will ensue and affect all aspects of human life: cultures, ways of thinking, scientific methods, religious beliefs and spirituality. It is of course impossible to anticipate how these transformations will occur. The new adaptation schemes will be faced with the constraints of human life resulting in an overall decline with political, economic, social and demographic consequences on our world.
In contrast to a very ambitious but hardly feasible technological singularity – too costly, thus benefiting only a small group of people and dependent on limited resources – the ecological singularity is actually happening now. We like to imagine things are one way concerning the future while ignoring what is happening before our very eyes.
We should not expect it to happen everywhere at the same time and in the same way. Some places might not be impacted by such an event and carry on living ‘business as usual’ for quite a while without taking into account the inevitable decline. They will sustain hope in an effort to remain in denial.
To quote Willi Schroll who gives a good definition of a similar concept. (However, we do not necessarily agree with the solutions that he offers. In our view, the ecological singularity is first and foremost a question concerning the future):
« Eco-singularity is 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. » (3)
Which singularity ?
Let us take into consideration: technology, energy resources, the environmental impact of humans, their societal forms and the content of their scientific models. Ecology, defined as « the study of living things considered in relation to their environment » is the common denominator of the aforementioned.
The ecological singularity is only concerned with that which is related to the environment but in all of its forms and the way it allows each human or each group of humans to identify themselves; be it someone who has a smartphone, grows a field of wheat or believes in some form of universal spirituality.
The profit – investment ratio underlies the global notion of ecology. If we examine this ratio, we will see a loss in investment that will mark the beginning of the ecological singularity. When we buy a smartphone, cultivate a wheat field or launch satellites to observe stars, we look at how much money and energy are invested in relation to the potential gain we get out of them. Following the advent of the ecological singularity, neither technology, nor agriculture, nor astrophysical research will meet our expectations.
In today’s world, it is still possible for a company to set up a plant to manufacture a new product so that the company can either keep the business afloat or reap a profit in the best of cases. Likewise, it is possible for a town to build a new stadium for its football team, to improve the performance of the team and in view of promoting the area. A country may invest in nationwide projects like building airports, hydro-electric dams, manufacturing armaments that will contribute to its prestige as an industrialized nation, and stimulate its economy. Or, this country could compensate for the decrease in agricultural output (caused by climate change) with subsidized agricultural inputs produced by the oil and chemical companies.
A time will come when the end of natural resources, the destruction of our environmental equilibrium and large-scale pollution put so many constraints on our lives that the only worthwhile investment would be to maintain existing infrastructures. In a context of worldwide decline with fewer possible courses of action each day, investment will no longer guarantee profit.
Our experience-based relationship to reality has an influence on our way of thinking and on how we conceptualize this reality. The day when we dramatically change our plan of action in this world, there will be a radical change in the way our brain perceives world. Everything will be impacted by this change: our technical knowledge and skills, our scientific and philosophical patterns as well as our religious beliefs. A great rift between existing factions will be expected in the future: steadfast rationalism on one side (although less common) and spirituality (verging on mysticism) on another side. Either way, the underlying objective remains the same: seeking a detached attitude to reality in order to better act on it and bear it.
In any case, people won’t adapt progressively to a global decline until the ecological singularity occurs. The idea that a better future is no longer possible has first to be acknowledged. In the meantime, we prefer making false promises and believing in ‘solutions’ instead of accepting the inevitability of the decline. Regardless of our good will, it is beyond our ken to change.
Conditions for an ecological singularity
We do not want the ecological singularity to happen (why would we?). We try our best to avoid it until we are forced to face it as harsh reality, or until we gain nothing from any investment made. The realization that our future as humans is at a dead end will only be possible through a repeated and powerful confrontation with reality with no positive outcome. At that time, our ways of thinking will go against our desires.
There will be a latency period during which the singularity gradually imposes its constraints. Not everyone will be concerned at first. Then, there will be global acceptance that things will get worse and that there is no turning back. Those who have an influential position regarding our destiny as humans will need to change their way of seeing the world.
We could actually say that we are now in the middle of that latency period full of unrealistic, irrational and naïve hopes. Even the most realistic hopes (reducing CO2 emissions, permaculture and renewable energies) are inadequately related to data: conservation of nature hasn’t reversed the trends thus testifying to the anthropic impact.
If the ecological singularity had occurred ‘prematurely’ i.e. prior to the highly disturbed ecological equilibrium endangering our existence, the course of our evolution could have been modified. An inconceivable option now if we consider how powerful our existential interests, denials, even our mindset are. So far, these have prevented and will carrying on preventing a ‘voluntary’ ecological singularity.
The future is unpredictable; fiction as well as mythology have never portrayed the world in the process of decline. There is no viable narrative to help us anticipate the decline. (Some authors like Cormac Mc Carthy in The Road focus on the very end but we don’t know what came before). We can’t possibly conjure up a mental picture of “negative dynamics” applied to our world, (i.e. like a runner who runs faster to win the race but also needs to slow down to save his strength) (4). Similarly, there aren’t many references to help us make future plans or forecast the future. What’s more, what we might anticipate may not work in the long run (like relying on social isolation, autonomy and withdrawal from society).
Our perspective on life is marred by a blind spot. The situation is similar to the period preceding any brutal historical change, like a war or a revolution: before any of these changes, no-one was able to predict what was about to unfold.
Anticipating what is going to happen next and giving the ecological singularity some serious thought; only the most motivated, ambitious, rational people will be up to the task. One thing is sure: in a decline, some people are going to have a really difficult time. The upcoming future is not for the faint-hearted even though the post-singularity period may witness some counter-intuitive perspectives in a context of war and conflicts. Whether people simply suffer from depression or starve on a large scale, a decline is always painful.
We should forge ahead no matter what. Apprehending the ecological singularity is a highly ambitious intellectual endeavour and is not incompatible with self-improvement and the search for a new spirituality.
Translation : Frédérique Monin, Holly Walters
3 – Future facts blog : Eco-Singularity is near. Definition (II)
4 – Similar to a catch 22