The pace of life is forever speeding up. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds. In almost every area of life, change is occurring faster and faster.
Yet, this acceleration is not confined to modern times. Medieval architecture and agriculture, for instance, varied very little over the period of a century. But even then change occurred much faster than it did in prehistoric times. Stone Age tools remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Nor is this quickening confined to humanity; it is a pattern that stretches back to the dawn of life on Earth. The first simple lifeforms evolved nearly four billion years ago. Multicellular life appeared a billion or so years ago. Vertebrates with central nervous systems, several hundred million years ago. Mammals appeared tens of millions of years ago.
The first hominids stood on the planet a couple of million years ago; homo sapiens, a few hundred thousand years ago. Language and tool-use emerged tens of thousands of years ago. Civilization, the movement into towns and cities, started a few thousand years ago. The Industrial Revolution began three centuries ago. Finally, the Information Revolution is but a few decades old.
Why Does Evolution Accelerate?
The reason for this acceleration is that each new development is, so to speak, standing on the shoulders of what has come before. A good example is the advent of sexual reproduction some 1.5 billion years ago. Until that time cells, reproduced by splitting into two, each of the new “sisters” being exact clones of the original. With sexual reproduction, two cells came together, shared genetic information and produced offspring containing a combination of their genes. it no longer took many generations for one genetic difference to arise. Differences now occurred in every generation, speeding evolution a thousandfold.
A more recent example is the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. When it came to manufacturing computers, we did not need to reinvent factories or global distribution systems; that expertise had already been gained. We had simply to apply it to the production of computers. Thus the Information Revolution established itself much faster.
This pattern is set to continue in the future—each new phase requiring a fraction of the time required in the previous phase. In the future, we might expect the same amount of change we’ve seen in the last twenty years take place in years rather than decades.
It is difficult, therefore, to predict what the world will be like in ten or twenty years. Two hundred years ago no one predicted we would have telephones or movies, let alone cell phones or the Internet. Just twenty years ago, very few of us had any notion of the WorldWide Web, or of how dramatically it would change our lives. Similarly, who knows what new breakthroughs or developments will be transforming our lives ten years from now?
Approaching a Singularity
So where is all this leading? Some people think we are headed toward what is called a “singularity.” This is the term that mathematicians give to a point when an equations breaks down and ceases to have any useful meaning. The rules change. Something completely different happens.
A simple example of a singularity occurs if you try to divide a number by zero. If you divide by smaller and smaller numbers, the results will be larger and larger numbers. But if you divide something by zero you get infinity, which is not a number in the everyday sense. The equation has broken down.
The idea that there might be a singularity in human development was first suggested by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, and subsequently by others, most notably Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity Is Near. They argue that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, as it has done for the last fifty years, then sometime in the 2020s there will be computers that can equal the performance of the human brain. From there, it is only a small step to a computer that can surpass the human brain. There would then be little point in our designing future computers; ultra-intelligent machines would be able to design better ones, and do so faster.
What happens then is a big question. Some propose that humans would become obsolete; machines would become the vanguard of evolution. Others think there would be a merging of human and machine intelligence—downloading our minds into computers, perhaps. The only thing we can confidently predict is that this would be a complete break from the patterns of the past. Evolution would have moved into a radically new realm.
But this transition, as major as it would be, would not yet be true singularity in the mathematical sense. Evolution—whether human, machine, or a synthesis of the two—would continue at an ever-increasing pace. Development timescales would continue to shorten, from decades to years, to months, to days. Before long, they would approach zero. The rate of change would then become infinite. We would have reached a true mathematical singularity.
Timewave Zero and 2012
The idea that humanity is heading towards a point of infinitely rapid change was explored by Terence McKenna in his book The Invisible Landscape. He developed a mathematical fractal function, which he called the “timewave”, that appeared to match the overall rate of ingression of novelty in the world. (“Ingression of novelty” is a term coined by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to denote new forms or developments coming into existence). This timewave is not a smooth curve, but one that has peaks and troughs corresponding to the peaks and troughs of the rate of ingression of novelty across human history.
The most significant characteristic of McKenna’s timewave is that its shape repeats itself, but over shorter and shorter intervals of time. The curve shows a surge in novelty around 500 BC, when Lao Tsu, Plato, Zoroaster, Buddha, and others were exerting a major influence on the millennia to come. The repeating nature of McKenna’s timewave shows the same pattern occurring in the late 1960s, where it happened sixty-four times faster. In 2010, the pattern repeats again, sixty-four times faster still. And then, in 2012, sixty-four times faster still. The timescale is compressed from months to weeks, to days, tending very rapidly toward zero: a point McKenna called “Timewave Zero.”
But when precisely is this date? McKenna experimented with sliding his curve up and down history to look for a best fit. Eventually, he chose December 22, 2012. At the time, he did not know that the Mayan Calendar also ended its 5,124 year cycle one day earlier. McKenna himself was not overly attached to the date; he confided that he would be intrigued, come 2012, to see whether his conjectures about infinite novelty would indeed prove correct. Sadly, he passed away in 2000.
Personally, I am not so concerned with what actually will or will not happen on that precise date of December 21, 2012. Indeed, almost every prediction ever made that related to a specific date failed to materialize. I am more interested in where this accelerating pattern may be taking us, and its mind-boggling implications—whether they occur in 2012, or some other time.
Limits to Change?
As explored in my 1992 book The White Hole in Time (revised as Waking Up in Time), if the ever-accelerating pace of change continues, we are not going to be evolving for eons into the future. We could see the whole of our future evolution—as much development as we can conceive of, and more—compressed into a very short time. Within a few generations, perhaps within our own lifetimes, we could reach the end of our evolutionary journey.
It is often argued that this will never happen because there are limits to the rate of change. Any growth will eventually reach a plateau, resulting not in an ever-steeper curve, but one that bends over into an S-shape.
Population growth is a good example. For thousands of years the human population has been growing, and growing faster and faster. A thousand years ago, the world’s population numbered around 310 million. This number had doubled by 1600. In 1800, it was approaching one billion, and the doubling time was down to 150 years. By 1960, it had reached four billion, with a doubling time of only thirty years. Since then, however, population growth has slowed; the curve has begun to bend over. If current trends continue the human population will probably stabilize between 10 and 12 billion.
Similar S-curves can be found in just about every area of development. For example, the production of steam locomotives increased rapidly during the first century of the Industrial Revolution, then tapered off in the mid-twentieth century as diesel and electric power became more dominant. Or, consider the growth of high-speed Internet connections in the USA. The rate of new connections grew rapidly in the first years of this century, and by 2005 over half of all homes had a high-speed connection. Now, as the saturation point approaches, the rate of growth of new connections has slowed.
However, when we talk about a speeding up of the overall rate of change, we are not talking of any particular S-curve, but the rate at which successive S-curves stack up. It took population growth thousands of years to reach its turning point. The Industrial Revolution took two hundred years. High-speed Internet connections—less than a decade. So the question is not whether any particular growth keeps increasing forever, but whether there is a limit to the rate of ingression of novelty—whatever its medium at any particular time.
One recurring pattern that underlies evolution is an increasing complexity in the processing of information. DNA code is an information database, built up over eons. Sexual reproduction was an evolutionary breakthrough in information processing. So was the development of senses, and later, the central nervous system. The advent of human beings brought another major development in information processing—symbolic language—allowing us to share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Over the years, human breakthroughs in information technology—writing, printing, telephony, radio, television, computing, and the Internet—have consistently increased our ability to gather, process, organize and utilize information.
Organization and utilization of information is the essence of intelligence. We usually think of intelligence primarily in human terms, and occasionally in other animals. But intelligence in its broadest sense has been evolving for billions of years. What is happening today with our own Information Revolution is but the latest phase of a process that has been going on since the birth of the universe.
So the question of whether there is a limit to the speed of evolution does not concern the limits of any particular phase of evolution; it is whether there is a limit to the rate of evolution of intelligence—whatever form it may take. As far as I can see, there is none.
Beyond the Information Age
The growth of human information technologies is taking us rapidly toward a time when all human knowledge will be instantly available to anyone on the planet, in any medium. This will be a fully functional global brain in which the information technologies of television, telephone, and WorldWide Web will be seamlessly integrated. The world’s audio and video archives will be as easily accessible as text and images are today. Search engines will learn from their interactions with people, becoming increasingly sophisticated in their responses. We will be linked into an emerging global mind.
At this point, the growth rate of human knowledge will be reaching its own maximum. It too will begin to turn into an S-curve. But knowledge is not the end-point of the evolution of intelligence. Many have pointed to a hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Information can be defined as the patterns extracted from raw data. Knowledge is the generalization of information, applying findings to other situations. Wisdom determines how that knowledge is used. It involves discernment and evaluation: Is this decision for the better or worse? Will it help or hinder our future well-being?
At present, humanity has vast amounts of knowledge, but still very little wisdom. Without developing wisdom, it is most unlikely we will avoid catastrophe. As the inventor-philosopher, Buckminster Fuller repeatedly emphasized, we are facing our final evolutionary exam. Is the human species fit to survive? Can we wake up sufficiently so that we can use our prodigious powers for the good of all, and for that of many generations to come?
It will look like this: A Singularity in Time – Part I