Countdown to the Singularity, from http://www.transcend.ws/

Countdown to the Singularity, from http://www.transcend.ws/

A lot of people doubt the singularity is coming. They call it “the rapture of the nerds” and other such perjoratives. And to be honest, there’s a lot of supposition about the nature of the universe and assumptions made about how things will pan out before it can happen. But I’m pretty sure that, so long as our civilization does not collapse in upon itself, some form of singularity will happen relatively soon, and the reason for that is because of wholesale technological convergence.

Take smartphones, for example. Touchscreen phones had existed for a long time, mobile phones had existed for a long time, and display and graphics acceleration technology had been improving for a long, long time. But before the iphone, nobody had put together a touchscreen, mobile phone with fast, smooth, accelerated graphics, a screen that wasn’t awful and instead was high resolution and bright, and they hadn’t put it together in such a way as to make the internet-based features on it not only accessible and fully functional, but truly integral.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the iphone mark 1 was terrible. The CPU was barely fast enough for calls, let alone the operating system. The amount of memory it had was only just enough to fit the bare minimum of applications, it had no concept of background processes and multi-tasking, and the battery life was (and still is) shit. And that’s before we get into the lack of SMS, no MMS and a whole host of features deemed standard and essential. But it was a new way of doing thing, and the technology had matured enough to make the mark 1 feasible and affordable. From there, it has gone strength to strength. I still dislike it, because I intensely dislike how it goes about doing things, but I cannot deny it has many good functional points (it just makes a better computer than a phone, and it’s a pretty terrible computer). And I cannot deny the flexibility of truly touch-screen devices, especially the multi-touch that was so iconically utilized in the iphone (though crucially perhaps, not invented by it, thank goodness – I’ll talk about the retarded patent system another day).

It was no surprise to me at all that the iPad was a success. I’d seen ipad-like mockups for decades (the first was in Blake’s 7, back in the 1970’s, I believe). I knew what they would mean: bright screen, responsive interface, high-resolution graphics, network capabilities, storage… they would become an indispensable tool for every day use for a whole host of people for many, many reasons. It was predictably an overnight success (not least because of rabid apple fanboy hipsters) and once again spawned a whole new industry.

It was the first iteration of a maturation of technology brought together into a break-through device. It was also bested and bettered within a couple of very short years. You can now buy, from China, for less than $50, a tablet which is functionally identical to a device costing many times that. Sure, you buy the cheaper ones and it will suck, probably break and may even catch fire… but for a bit more cash, you’ll get something every bit as good. Scarily so.

Other, western-market-standards-capable devices now dominate the arena spawned by the ipad – Samsung in my opinion offers (for an unendorsed example) a superior device with a superior interface and superior features, but at the very least, even the rabidest of fanboys has to say it is comparable. Tablets, and phablets (the next iteration as the new ecosystem establishes itself), are here to stay.

More to the point, they exploded onto the scene, going global in well under a year and becoming de riguer instantly. Everyone has them, now. My kids have their own – cheap ones, sure, but they have them.

What made this happen? Above all, mobile chipsets underwent a quantum leap (in the popular sense, not the accurate sense of incredibly tiny) in capability, whilst undergoing a simultaneous dramatic reduce in the amount of wattage required to give us that bang per buck. LCD screens got bigger and cheaper, and better, and longer-lived. Mobile internet matured to the point where it is now cheap, fast and ubiquitous (the fact that America, which originally was the leader for mobile data, has now fallen way back down with far higher prices for far less speed and much less bandwidth is just a sad footnote in the chapter on what is fast becoming the end of the American century – yet another post for another day). Public WiFi has become, in some places, almost a utility. The internet quietly went truly global and mobile about three years ago, evolving to the point where it has become the data-net of science fiction and then some. I’m hard-pressed to find people who do not utilize the internet every single day – even my parents have smart televisions, tablets, laptops and DSL subscriber lines. My grandma uses skype to talk to me and the family (which reminds me, I need to skype her again soon).

See, there are a good deal of technologies required for the singularity to happen, and none of them seem technologically unfeasible. Sure, some of them are very out there, but none of them seem impossible. How easy they are is debatable, and a few of the ancillary ones may remain incredibly difficult for quite a while… but that’s what the singularity is about: runaway exponentials making the impossible common place as new ideas based on new technology give birth to new devices and new ways of doing things. And all of this in a timeframe which initially seems incredible, but after the fact seems, well… pretty much inevitable.

So, I’m going to be writing a few pieces on advancements which may either lead to or will form a part of a technological singularity, and hopefully they’ll be interesting to the handful of readers I have (hello! I love you all!), even if you just enjoy it as popular entertainment.

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2 responses »

  1. folkert says:

    Good topic, and a topic that requires attention. Looking forward to reading your blog and commenting where useful. I believe that a historical perspective is good for understanding technological progress. Some of the developments of the past show this exponential growth. We should look at explaining why this growth has been exponential and what factors can, or will, interrupt this growth. At least we know we are in for a fun ride in the years ahead!

    Folkert

    • dmayoss says:

      Thank you for your encouraging words! I’m no great scientist, I’m pretty much just an enthusiast and an armchair philosopher, but I am capable of seeing where we are, where we were, and taking that to where we may be.

      I don’t really want to be dwelling on why these amazing futures cannot come about, but you’re right. Historical context and the reasons these technologies might fail or be delayed is as important as why they might succeed. It’s usually not, though, “just because”. That’s the fun part. Nothing here is impossible, and a good deal of it isn’t even improbable. It’s usually just difficult.

      After all, fusion power is still twenty five years away…

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