The Singularity: What It Is and Why It Matters More than Anything Else

There are various definitions of the Singularity, but they all roughly mean the time when computing power exceeds the capabilities of all human intelligence.  That date is now roughly expected to arrive as early as 2060.

John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians, computer scientist, and polymath of the twentieth century, is generally credited as the first to articulate the singularity as "accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."  After being popularized, notably by Ray Kurzweil and others, the Singularity today is a full-on intellectual industry, merging into artificial intelligence and quantum computing, with the focus squarely on its potential to devastate the human race.

The Singularity can fairly be said to have entered general public consciousness.  But in truth, its emergence will be dwarfed by the significance it will assume in the next twenty years.  It is no exaggeration to predict that the Singularity, more than any other single phenomenon, will shape our lives; commerce; interpersonal relationships; financial markets; governments; and, inevitably, our political parties and their ideologies.

As best as anyone can tell, the Singularity is right on schedule.  A graph recently appearing on the internet captures the advancement with clarity. 

Within the decade, computing power will exceed the capability of one human brain.  From there, the path we are on has computing power exceeding all human brains a mere thirty years thereafter.  The median age of the world population approximates 30 years old, which means that well more than half of all people alive today will in all likelihood personally experience the Singularity.

As the old ad for Total cereal put it, what's a mother to do?

For one, it settles an old literary debate.  The novel 1984 by George Orwell laid out a vision of totalitarian domination that relies on torture as the ultimate instrument of obedience.  At the novel's end, the resisting hero is sent to the Ministry of Love to be tortured and brainwashed.  He is ultimately broken when strapped into a cage of voracious rats.

While 1984 articulated the definitive word on Newspeak, today's political correctness, it loses out in the visionary thing to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Think gaming, augmented reality, fully experienced invented reality à la The Matrix.  We will end our days of humanity not in revolution, but in blissful, unknowing peace, the instantiation of the novel's happiness-inducing drug, Soma.

Apocalyptic despair aside, what are the more immediate impacts to anticipate?

The worst undoubtedly is the centralizing power of the Singularity, already evident in the de-platforming power of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and more ominously in the mass facial recognition and social control exercised by the Chinese communists, with plenty to come.

On the brighter side, as it were, the exponential leaps in computing power will open vast new applications and technologies.  For the fearful, it is well to remember that computing power can augment privacy just as easily as today's tech leaders monetize us.  Expect a new wave of leaders to offer convenience and privacy, ease and security, efficiency and autonomy.  Companies to invest in will package these advances, safely, into newly prized experience and convenience.  Companies on the wrong side of this divide will get crushed.

In the mundane world, how should it impact one's investments, if at all?  Relative to the Singularity, we are probably in the fourth inning of the world's second industrial revolution.  The issue that should concern investors is that tech valuation is tending already to the seventh inning.  That will lead to inevitable pain for those companies who come up short in a world characterized by ever more powerful and, most importantly from an economic standpoint, ever cheaper computing power.  At the same time, the select few who make all the right choices still have vast running room ahead. 

Surprisingly, the industry most at risk, at a scale of societal concern, is financial institutions.  A bank is defined by its loans, which are to yesterday's businesses, and complex instruments whose safety and value are based on historic relationships.  This is not a good place to be in a period of rapid, dramatic technology change.  Cyber-crime is just the visible tip of the attack.  Relentless disintermediation will continue.  The creative destruction equation will have its full measure of both.  New means of exchange, new services, new organizational paradigms, new economic relationship will characterize the winners.  Given that banking is based on fractional reserves, the margin of safety in no manner matches the coming margin of change.  This bodes exceedingly poorly for global financial stability.

It is the political experience in the West where the outcome is most uncertain.  The 2020 election has shown, if nothing else, that a realignment lies ahead.  As the Singularity begins to dominate public consciousness, it ultimately points to a very different set of defining separation, a party that embraces social control and the party that resists it.  As a society, we ought not go gentle into that good night.  Prayerfully, at least one party will start early enough to head off the mindless infiltration of the Singularity.  That in truth is the burden laid upon today's generation of Millennials and younger. 

William Levin, a graduate of Yale University, Yale School of Management and Yale Law School, manages a New York Investment banking firm.

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