Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Singularity Is Here... For Some Of Us

This article first appeared at on July 4, 2012.

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.

Is the Future already upon us, but we just don’t see it for what it is? We already have an augmented lifestyle, don’t we?
For years now, I’ve been hearing that “the Singularity is coming” and that soon the world will be changed completely as technology spreads, allowing for great social, economic and political leaps. As long as I have followed futurism and transhumanism, this event has been just beyond our grasp. Kurzweil and others have been looking into the near(ish) future and trying to predict what the Singularity will look like and what the repercussions of this event will be for humanity.
Boiling it down, the Singularity is most often referred to as a time when technology will advance to the point where it will be impossible for the unimproved biological human to keep up with the changes.
From that point on, people’s definitions of what form the Singularity will take are as varied as anything else. What most will agree on, however, is that we are fast approaching a time when what seems improbable today will be commonplace. In other words, we are still looking forward to a great moment when we will be able to say “that was the Singularity.” 
Recently, however, I was thinking of all the changes that have happened in the world in the thirty-two years I’ve been on it. It seems to me that the world is completely different now than it was when I was a child. I recently came across this article and it opened my eyes to a few things. In fact, it brought in to focus a thought I had some time ago. Could the Singularity have already happened? How would we know?

Some believe that the Singularity will be a time when our computers and other devices merge with the biological, making us cyborgs and/or immortal beings. Yet the gradual omnipresence of technology has led to us never being far from a device that will keep us in constant contact with everyone. We are glued to our smartphones, netbooks, desktops, internet-ready Blu-Ray players and other things.
If I want to share the funny video of the young woman waking up from dental surgery with someone, I can call it up on YouTube in moments from any number of devices that are around me. Soon, augmented reality will extend that capability even more. I have an RSS feed that comes to my phone daily, keeping me updated on the latest technological advancements. I read science and technology news every day. Not to toot my own horn, but I am a pretty intelligent being, and even though I am up on the latest, I still feel like it is a full-time job just to know what is going on.

What about those who don’t have the technology obsession? What about people who are unable or unwilling to keep abreast of the specs of upcoming phones, cars, computers, etc.?
I have a friend who, while not a luddite, is of a very low economic status, and therefore had never owned a computer or a cell phone. When he needs to receive important emails from his son’s Cub Scout pack or having to do with his employment, he trusts me to print it out and give it to him personally. When he was finally in a position to get a phone, he found something low-end with few features. He often seems lost and withdrawn when people around him start talking about wi-fi, Skype, touch-screens and so forth. It seems that as
soon as he is able to get something he considers “high tech” he is already far out of date.
He makes up for his lack of knowledge on the topic by laughing off how people like myself “love (our) toys” and that we are addicted to our electronics in a similar fashion to alcoholics and drug abusers. But he does seem to want to be better connected and often remarks how things have moved so quickly that he just doesn’t understand it.
My parents are another example. They have their flat, widescreen HDTV, their desktop computer with which they answer emails, watch YouTube videos and check news headlines. They think they are pretty up to date. When I tell them about 3DTV, Hulu, Netflix, smartphones, RSS news feeds, Twitter, Facebook and the like, they look at me as if I am a strange visitor from another planet.
Recently, my mother admitted that when I talk to her about new or upcoming technologies, her brain tends to shut me off. She goes into “nod and smile” mode to humor me. She tells me she is fine with what she has and has no real need to get anything new. So I got her a Nook for Mother’s Day. She loves it. At first she seemed skeptical, noting how she loved her paper books, and thinking that e-readers were just a fad. Now she says that she can’t imagine not having it. She cites the convenience, cost and the relatively unknown feature of ordering library books on it as being the reason why she will never go back to Books 1.0.
What I mean to say through all this rambling is that the future is already upon us. We just don’t see it for what it is. We are always looking ahead and saying “THAT is when great things will happen” that we don’t stop to look at the world as it stands now. It is so fundamentally changed from how it was just 10-15 years ago that it is almost unrecognizable. Great changes have happened politically,  socially, andeconomically in such a short amount of time that someone who has been asleep since 1999 would not recognize the world we live in today.
For that reason I ask the question, “Has the Singularity already happened?” The 20th century was a time of great change and advancement. We saw humans fly for the first time, and scarcely 50 years later, we were planting flags on the moon. We went from telegraphs and telephones to wireless communication and the internet. At some point in there, did we pass a point that we can definitively look back on and point to as the Singularity? The 21st century is moving exponentially faster, and change is coming much more swiftly.
Unlike many who believe that it will be one moment in time, I believe the case can be made that the Singularity happened not as one moment, but the combination of numerous factors coming together. I believe that the internet itself is just the medium, not the Singularity itself. But the omnipresent access we have to the internet seems to have exploded recently.
With our smartphones, we have all the information in the world literally at our fingertips and we can integrate it into our lives. We already have an augmented lifestyle, don’t we?
My phone awakens me, then reads the news to me (specifically in the subjects I am most interested in), then tells me my calendar for the day, with reminders. My Twitter sends me a constant feed, as does my Facebook. As I write, I am able to get references, articles, news, reviews, commentary, critiques and anything else about any subject I need, instantly. When I talk to people, I can see them face-to-face in real time. My smartphone has completely changed my lifestyle, and I know that there are already better models on the market, though mine is less than a year old.
Therefore, I would like to argue that the Singularity happened with the rise of the smartphone. Before you write a scathing disapproval of this, I’m not sure if I believe it myself. Remember, this series is called “The Casual Transhuman,” and is meant to introduce these concepts back and forth between the hardcore transhumanists and the peopel who are less familiar with these ideas. But I want to open people to the idea that this concept that many people are looking forward to, a major technological breakthrough, may actually be a thing of the past.