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Echoes of the future Singularity

The "Technological singularity" is many things to many people. Strictly defined, it's a point in (future) history where the technological …

The "Technological singularity" is many things to many people. Strictly defined, it's a point in (future) history where the technological progress would happen so fast that it's literally impossible for human minds to grasp. It's usually assumed that the creation of a true, general Artificial Intelligence would trigger something like that, because the AI would think much faster than us, and would be free to create new generations of even better AIs without any limitations. For some, this is the Holy Grail of the human condition: when we finally succeed in the creation of an Artificial Intelligence which would do all the work for us, we could be free and happy and spend our time pursuing ... well, I don't know what we would pursue that an AI wouldn't have already accomplished. For others, it's the literal end of civilisation, either because the AI, especially if it learns from us, would be hostile as well as more capable of enacting this hostility, or that the AI would enable us to collectively "ascent", in a way, similar to what's going on in the Matrix movies, to something not necessarily human-formed. One of my favourite books, Accelerando is basically a collection of ideas about what could happen.


In any case, I'm probably not the only one to notice that things are rapidly changing in the world. It is as if the components, the pieces of something as big as Singularity are being created and we're all just waiting for something, a trigger which would start the big thing. This article is necessarily full of speculation because by definition, we have no idea what would happen if the Singularity scenario materialised. This is a collection of thoughts and reflections on what is going on in the world - as much a way of making sense of the world by putting things in writing as anything else.

Basically, the easier a thing is to virtualise, and the stronger our desire for the thing, the faster it will be to virtualise.

The virtualisation of communication

This sort of happened first, to much rejoicing of practically everyone involved. From the slowness and the limited reach of physical eye-to-eye communication, to still slow, but immensely more distance-covering written communication (letters, then telegraphs), to the invention of the telephone, the e-mail, teleconferences and the multitude of social networks of chats, every single step was readily accepted because it increased the ways of satisfying our internal craving for contact with other people. And such things are like chocolate: the more we have it, the more we want it.

Communication is not only an extension of thinking, but we tend to attach a communicated meaning to every single action other members of our species do - as long as we're there to witness it. As such, nearly any activity can be interpreted as communication, and that means communication is one of the easiest things to virtualise.

By "virtualise" I mean "detach from reality" but that requires at least some definition of what reality is, especially when the phenomenon of communication is concerned. The words you are reading here might hurt you or might make your day great, and it's completely irrelevant that they are just a bunch of electrons and photons bouncing around, and that whatever effect you get from this writing, it will happen without us ever meeting in person. That's helluva virtualised.

Sure, letters and books have already been doing this for millennia, but it was never, ever this easy both to establish communication (be it one-sided or not), and to manipulate it, both on a massive scale. If Facebook or Google decide to show you this article in between two other articles which paint a scary, Terminator-like future of the post-Singularity world, you'll be influenced to consider this article in such a mood. If it happens that you encounter it in between articles about massive improvements in medicine, food production and the global reduction in poverty, with a smattering of photos of distant planets, you may get to read this while wishing the Singularity happened sooner.

At the same time, many of us have a subtle feeling that something's wrong. That the sea-of-communication we have found ourselves in is lacking something. This might very well be because we've evolved to pay attention to a limited number of really important stuff, like where's the next water-well or where the tigers are, and the constant barrage of unimportant information, topics and demands for attention drains us in a way which is difficult to explain.

Communication has no doubt been disrupted. It's hard to imagine a pre-iPhone world even if you've lived in it, and it's extremely difficult to say what will happen next even in the short term future of a couple of years. If I'm feeling fanciful, I might call this feeling the echo of a future Singularity.

The virtualisation of money

The next item which is already so virtualised it was easy to push it off the edge is money. For decades now, the concept of money world-wide is about as tangible as "a belief in a certain nation's prosperity". If you believe some nation is prosperous and stable (so it will continue to be so), you value its currency higher. It's not the only way of convincing people a national currency is valuable: for example, spending an ungodly effort in maintaining a huge army will also do it even if the economy is only so-so. Either way, since money in itself is not as edible as a potato which can be bought with it, it's also something which is arbitrary enough to be readily supplanted with something else (because you don't care what's drawn on a piece of paper with which you buy your food, but you care about food).

I'm writing this in the incredibly tumulous time of a "battle" between Bitcoin and Bitcoin cash. The first large-scale virtual battle between the two groups of people who advocate one piece of software over the other, in which tens of billions of dollars were made and lost, lasted an eternity: almost an entire day. I remember a scene from Star Trek where the robot, Data, admits he has harboured ideas of defecting to the enemy, for as much as 0.68 seconds, and adds "it was an eternity for an android."

The financial "industry" with its already rampant disconnect from reality, with its "products" and modes of operations which make sense only on paper, and that's only when peered through a certain lens, was ripe for a total disruption for the last couple of decades. And once a bunch of engineers got into their heads how virtual money already is, the cryptocurrency boom was inevitable. Now, everyone can be a millionaire, yes, even you can do it this afternoon: go sign up to a crypto exchange, deposit a few hundred dollars and you can readily buy millions of Dogecoins and put them in your wallet. Those coins are valid exactly as much as you can convince others they are worth: the same is with Bitcoin, the same is with USD.

Smart contracts are viewed by some to have the possibility of replacing even more of the "financial industry" with software, and they may be right. However, the same constrains and social interactions which gave rise to the concept of all-powerful banks have already given rise to exactly the same entities in the cryptocurrency world, only with new, more fanciful names like "whales" or "miners." As the concept of what money actually is changes, it's difficult to tell what will happen in the near future: will the fact that there are thousands of cryptocurrencies lead to the relativisation of what the concept of value of money is, maybe to the point that each neighbourhood will have its local coin, or maybe will it lead to a new form of social interaction which, because of such relativisation will not believe in the concept of money? It doesn't seem probable that the current state of affairs will continue, with just a new group of people having more money, because there already is a struggle between the two groups, and new groups pop up daily.

The fact that each and every person on the planet can now start its own cryptocurrency and have all the infrastructure ready for it, and of the exact same high quality as other cryptocurrencies, will likely lead to modes of economy which are difficult to envision currently. If money isn't backed by economy and by armies, does it matter? And if it doesn't matter, what does? What's going on now will lead to huge changes in the near future, in another echo of the Singularity.

What next?

Stay tuned...

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