Singularity Failure


I recently read an article by computer scientist Vernor Vinge titled “What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen.”  I have become so accustomed to thinking about the future in the context of the technological singularity that this article took me by surprise.  The technological singularity is such a logical progression for complexity in the universe, that I actually think a “singularity failure” would be a stranger future than a future with a singularity.

How Could This Happen?

I think that a singularity failure would be most likely to occur if we failed to “find the soul in the hardware” (i.e., computation is not the right metaphor for what the brain does).  In this case, we may be able to continue creating increasingly complex and smaller computers, but there would be some limit to achieving ‘true’ artificial intelligence.  Furthermore, it is possible that we won’t be able to merge with technology.  Or perhaps we will encounter some physical barriers to improving computational power, and we experience project failures so deep that the only option is to quit.  To be honest, I feel like all of these scenarios are extremely unlikely.  I think the evidence indicates that a technological singularity is a near inevitability.  However, thinking about a “Long Now” without a technological singularity proved to be an interesting thought experiment.  For me, it would mean walking around in an old age home in 2050 thinking to myself “… where’s the singularity?”  But what does it mean for our species long-term?

After the “Age of Failed Dreams”

I am of the mind set that if the technological singularity doesn’t happen we will not be going to space.  By “going to space” I mean leaving our solar system.  Space is too big, and we are just not adapted (or able to adapt without merger with technology) to space.  So in my mind, if biology is where it ends, we are forced to stay on Earth.  We could potentially develop technologies that could travel to other solar systems, but for all intents and purposes our aspirations for civilization expansion would be limited to the solar system.

So if we are limited to Earth for the rest of our existence, what happens to our newly emerged global civilization?  Obviously, there is no real way to know.  But if we do not become extinct (which I think would be unlikely in the short-term) we would be spending at least a few million years here.  What type of cycles would occur for an intelligent global civilization on that time scale?  What does an intelligent civilization restricted to one planet do during a “Long Now”?  Vinge believes that if that happens we could encounter what is known as “The Wheel of Time”.

The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time scenario posits that even the best organized intelligent civilizations restricted to one planet for hundreds of thousands of years or millions of years will encounter several unavoidable megadisasters.  An intelligent species is extremely fragile on one planet, over millions of years it would be inevitable that even a global civilization would encounter something that would cause it to fall (or stagger).  In this Long Now, our species, or some future human-like species may experience several cycles of disasters and recovery.  Some of these cycles may produce more affluent or successful civilizations than others.  Some cycles may develop civilizations that experience golden ages that last tens of thousands of years.  Likewise, some cycles may develop civilizations that experience destructive cycles that last only a thousand or a couple hundred years.  The cycle may have no pattern, or the cycles may occur in a similar way to the natural history of life on Earth.  However, irrespective of the cycle, we would be restricted to whatever intelligence is possible with biology alone.

If we enter the 22nd century and the technological singularity does not happen, we have to seriously consider the possibility of The Wheel of Time.  To me, this is a difficult reality to be confronted with.  We would have to devise ways to understand how dangerous mutually assured destruction (MAD) really is, how much of a threat environmental change is, how fast humanity could recover from major catastrophes, and which disasters are the most difficult to recover from.  It would also be beneficial to have well protected information facilities designed to be useful for civilizations in future cycles.

Personally, if The Wheel of Time is the pattern for intelligent civilizations in this universe, my understanding of reality and complexity would be completely destabilized.  It wouldn’t just challenge what I have come to understand about progress and development, but it would also challenge my understanding of evolution and the structure of the universe.  However, as physicist Richard Feynman has said, “we have to let reality reveal itself”.  The technological singularity is a hypothesized epoch of the universe, an inevitable consequence of evolutionary selection pressures.  This may be true.  But as unlikely as I believe it to be, it may also turn out to be a failed hypothesis.


About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email:

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