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February 20, 2005

Why the inflection?

My post ruminating on post-humanism generated many comments. There were a lot of great informed speculations, and at 160+ comments it stayed shockingly on topic. But, I didn't really get involved in the nitty-gritty of projecting exactly the path that the technological explosion will take in the next century. There are so many options, so many permutations and so many likely dead ends, it is very close to speculative fiction. The only point I would like to add is that while we speculated on all the cognitive, cybernetic, nanotech and infotech enhancements & developments that might be possible, I don't recall much discussion of coopting the variegated biochemical toolkits of the the bacteria. How'd you like to synthesize your own antibiotics?

Nevertheless, I do think an inflection point which will lead to a technological singularity is likely. The general reason is induction, that is, observation of the increase of the rate of change of society & culture since about 1500, starting in Europe, but now expanded to include the inhabited world. It must be pointed out that I accept induction because of induction, it is a somewhat circular position. I'll take that.

But perhaps you would like a more personal and colorful example of why I believe that change is in the air. One of my grandparents was born in 1896. He died in 1996. When he was born....

There were no cars. There were no planes. Iron battleships were hip and steam was tried & true. Gas lights were technological wonders. The telegraph connected the world. Doctors were still quacks. There was no Special or General Relatively or Quantum Mechanics. Mendelianism was only a whisper in the wind, and aether was still respectable. Plate tectonics had not been formulated. Chemists still used taste as a way of identifying chemicals and had only a primitive understanding of the structure of the atom (they weren't much past Dalton). The proof wasn't yet hip in the world of British mathematics. You know what 1996 was like. In that year, the last of my grandfather's life, he dictated a short email to my mother which my brother printed out.

There have been a great many changes in the lives of men and women throughout history. But the transition from hunting and gathering to farming was a process that took generations. The burying of the old gods and submission to new universal religions was a matter of a blink, a profession, a sprinkle of water, but in the inner world of the spirit metamorphasized through the passing out of memory of the old legends and stories. The 20th century though was special, different, qualitatively leaps and bounds beyond belief or projection. It was a century where tens of millions died in the maw of the industrial genocidal state, but a century where hundreds of millions lived because of the fruits of science.

The first half of my grandfather's life was dominated by the British Raj. The next half was bisected by the birth of two new nations. Even the more torpid winds of political change had accelerated.

I wouldn't bet against the constancy of the second derivative in this century....

Posted by razib at 11:03 PM