Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"The notion of singularity ... is a religion"

This essay from Joi Ito makes a lot of points that will feel familiar to regular readers (mistaking S-curves for exponential when discussing technological progress, the rise of cult-like thinking -- what we've been calling magical heuristics). Lots of other good stuff as well, which is pretty much what you'd expect from the director of MIT’s Media Lab.

The notion of singularity – which includes the idea that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, making everything we humans have done and will do insignificant – is a religion created mostly by people who have designed and successfully deployed computation to solve problems previously considered impossibly complex for machines.

They have found a perfect partner in digital computation, a seemingly knowable, controllable, machine-based system of thinking and creating that is rapidly increasing in its ability to harness and process complexity and, in the process, bestowing wealth and power on those who have mastered it.

In Silicon Valley, the combination of groupthink and the financial success of this cult of technology has created a feedback loop, lacking in self-regulation (although #techwontbuild, #metoo and #timesup are forcing some reflection).

On an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. According to systems-dynamics people, however, an exponential curve shows a positive feedback curve without limits, self-reinforcing and dangerous.

In exponential curves, Singularitarians see super-intelligence and abundance. Most people outside the Singularity bubble believe that natural systems behave like S-curves, where systems respond and self-regulate. When a pandemic has run its course, for example, its spread slows and the world settles into a new equilibrium. The world may not be in the same state as before the pandemic or other runaway change, but the notion of singularity – especially as some sort of saviour or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence – is fundamentally a flawed one.


  1. Mark:

    Interesting, but I'd like to push back against the use of “religion” as a term of insult or synonym for irrational belief.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree about using "religion" as a pejorative. My concern is with the mislabeling. Just as it's bad when people falsely tell themselves they are acting out of religious beliefs, it's bad to lie to yourself about your religious beliefs.

    (My main is with atheists, by the way, is their denial of the role faith plays in distinguishing them from agnostics.)

    My bigger point (fleshed out in the magical heuristics thread) is that the tech narrative is now dominated by implicit assumptions and mental tools derived from or appropriate to religion and mysticism, which would be OK if they were recognized for what they are.