Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 1: For Ever Exponential)

In the opening chapter of Ray Kurzweil‘s “The Singularity Is Near” we are presented with the following parable:

A lake owner wants to stay at home to tend to the lake’s fish and make certain that the lake itself will not become covered with lily pads, which are said to double their number every few days. Month after month, he patiently waits, yet only tiny patches of lily pads can be discerned, and they don’t seem to be expanding in any noticeable way. With the lily pads covering less than 1 percent of the lake, the owner figures that it’s safe to take a vacation and leaves with his family. When he returns a few weeks later, he’s shocked to discover that the entire lake has become covered with the pads, and his fish have perished. By doubling their number every few days, the last seven doublings were sufficient to extend the pads’ coverage to the entire lake. (Seven doublings extended their reach 128-fold.) This is the nature of exponential growth.

While ‘the water lily and the lake’ appears a strange choice of metaphor since if nothing else it highlights the importance of boundaries to growth, what Kurzweil was trying to communicate was how technology has barely begun to transform our lives.

By contrast, consider the 1972 report to the Club of Rome published under the title “The Limits to Growth.” Much maligned and mostly misrepresented, The Limits to Growth (LTG) was nothing more than a mathematical analysis of linear and exponential growth rates and ultimate constraints. According to the authors, the tyranny of exponential growth rates would eventually lead population and industrial production to explode, setting off a negative feedback in terms of burgeoning pollution and the eventual exhaustion of food and resources. The report never provided specific dates for the depletion of individual materials, although nine our of ten commentaries on the report claim it did (for a post I did on this particular urban legend, see here). Nonetheless, what the report did do was suggest that the idea of inevitable constant human progress was a dangerous myth.

Ugo Bardi, in his excellent retrospective called “The Limits to Growth Revisited“, summarises the forecast actually made by the LTG authors:

Forrester and the LTG team had worked independently of each other, but had arrived at the same shocking conclusion that can be summarised as: The world’s economy tends to stop its growth and collapse as the result of a combination of reduced resource availability, overpopulation, and pollution. This conclusion was a “robust” feature of the simulations; that is, it changed little when varying the initial assumptions.

Neither Forrester’s calculations nor the LTG ones were meant to determine when exactly the collapse was to start but, using the best available data, both studies indicated that the start of the economic decline could be expected within the first decades of the twenty-first century, that is about 30 to 40 years into the future. In the LTG study, this scenario was referred to as the “Base case” or the “Standard Run”.

Fast forward just over 30 years back to Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity Is Near”. Interestingly, and ironically, at the centre of Kurzweil’s work is again a study of linear and exponential growth rates. But there is one major difference: the LTG authors saw in the exponential curve the power to destroy, while Kurzweil sees in such a curve the power to liberate. For Kurzweil, technology is the key, and once it passes what he calls ‘the knee of the curve’, that is the point where growth explodes upward, humankind will even have the power to transcend its own physical bodies. Ultimately, machine intelligence will beget further machine intelligence (or a human-machine amalgam of the two) in a recursive loop of self-improvement termed the singularity—a sort of universal big bang explosion of knowledge.

In a further irony (where ironies abound) Kurzweil now suggests that the singularity will take place around 2045 (see here), at which time the LTG report very roughly predicts that global population will be going over the edge of a cliff (a couple of decades or so after the wheels have come off the global economy).

While Kurzweil’s work is known particularly for its focus on information technology, he applies his law of accelerating returns to just about every aspect of science. As such, geopolitics and the business cycle become almost trivial issues in his eyes. The following quotes are taken from a PBS interview with Kurzweil in February 2011 (see here).

My main thesis, which I call the law of accelerating returns, is not affected by the kind of things you are referring to. The exponential growth of computation is measured in many different ways continued through the entire 20th century, completely unaffected by the little things like World War I and II or the Great Depression. It was not affected at all by the recent economic downturn. This exponential growth of solar energy has continued through thick and thin.

Accordingly, the energy constraint disolves:

Today, solar is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and in most situations it still needs subsidies or special circumstances, but the costs are coming down rapidly — we are only a few years away from parity. And then it’s going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don’t care at all about the environment, because of the economics.

So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been under way for 20 years.

People say we’re running out of energy. That’s only true if we stick with these old 19th century technologies. We are awash in energy from the sunlight.

And the material constraint crumbles:

However, the same technologies that are going to extend life and nudge up the biological population are also going to expand the resources. We just talked about energy, because we are running out of it, but actually we are awash in energy. We are awash in water — pun intended. Just most of it is dirty and polluted. And we know how to convert it, today, but it takes energy, which is why it’s expensive. Once energy is inexpensive, we can create water.

There is a whole set of new food technologies. We are going to go from this revolution that happened 10,000 years ago of horizontal agriculture to what’s called vertical agriculture, where we grow plants, fruits, vegetables and meat in computerized factories by artificial intelligence; hydroponic plants tended by intelligent robots to create fruits and vegetables, in-vitro cloned meats, basically just cloning the part of the animal that you want to eat, which is the muscled tissue. There is no reason to create a whole animal to get to the parts that we want to eat.

And climate change will become a non-issue:

Even if those timelines were correct, there will be quite a transformation within 10 years and certainly within 15 or 20 years. The bulk of our energy will be coming from these renewable sources. So, I think we have plenty of time. I think we can make it to the point where these renewables are taking over. And I think there are reasons besides climate change to move away from fossil fuels — that whole oil spill, remember that, that’s not climate change, that’s just pollution. But I don’t see a disaster happening before we can get there because it is pretty soon at hand.

While Kurzweil’s pronouncements appear somewhat extreme, a watered down version of the transformational ability of technology lies at the heart of the global consensus on economic growth. Here is Michael Spence, the Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, talking about the energy constraint on growth in his newly published book “The Next Convergence”:

If you add all this up, with known sources of energy and their costs, and with the likelihood of technological innovation in response to rising energy costs, energy will become more expensive but not to a level that will materially diminish the growth potential of the global economy.

Whether it is an external exogenous gift, so-called manna from heaven, or an internal endogenous function of investment, technological progress is viewed as one of the few inputs not subject to the law of diminishing returns. If the techno-optimists are correct, then the transition network movement will appear foolish in a decade or two—like a millennial cult bitterly disappointed that the peak oil and climate change ‘end of days’ never came. If, however, technology accelerates and then peaks following the path of a logistic curve (or S-curve) then our entire economic growth model could suddenly become redundant. The winner of this particular debate will in effect be shaping the lives of my two children, so I intend to come back to the critical issue of technology in future posts.


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