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The Transcension Hypothesis

January 29, 2013

Over the new years break I began reading the collected works of the singularity theorist and science fiction author Vernor Vinge at the suggestion of my friends and colleagues from Collabforge.

It’s quite an intimate experience reading someone’s life works (especially for some reason when read in chronological order) that span several decades.

Vinge is one of the chief exponents, of the technological singularity. I’d known about Raymond Kurzweil‘s work for over a decade but have come back to consider it again in light of the integral project. A well known concept in futures work is the notion of Moore’s Law (that computational processing power doubles every eighteen months to two years). The exponential rate of this pattern begins to approach infinity at some point. When infinity arises in mathematical physics it’s generally seen as a point of absurdity, a point where the theoretical model breaks down and has no predictive or explanatory power. The big bang and black holes are occasions where Einstein’s General Relativity equations create absurd answers. For this reason they’re seen as event horizons beyond which current theory can’t explain. For all our apparent scientific wizardry, we fundamentally have no idea how the universe works in these contexts (furthermore any observational data seems impossible to collect).

In practical terms the technological singularity is usually posited as the moment when machine-computer intelligence surpasses human. The term singularity is used because we really have no way of being able to predict what that will look like or the consequences for human beings, although it’s often posited as the dawn of the transhuman era.

Vinge wrote his own thoughts on the matter in a 1993 essay called The technological singularity: how to survive in the posthuman era, however most of his writing are novels that consider various scenarios involving versions of the singularity – at least the awakening of meta-biological sentience. In True Names he plays on the old idea from fables that knowing one’s true name gives power over another. Vinge wrote this in 1979 and successfully captured a world that a Julian Assange might inhabit today in terms of power and politics. A group of elite anarchist-hackers that call themselves ‘the warlocks’ meet in cyberspace (the aesthetic of which appears strangely reminiscent of a world of warcraft). One of them turns out to be an AI that two of the protagonists team up to contain. Vinge’s depiction helped kick of the public imagination of cyberspace as an alternative dimension picked up by William Gibson and others.

The trilogy Across real time considers the singularity in light of the Fermi paradox. Put simply, the Fermi paradox follows from the astronomer Frank Drake’s equation– when we do the maths on the numbers of galaxies, stars and habitable planets in the known universe it still comes out at huge numbers of planets that should be able to support life (Drake estimated between 1000 to 100,000,000 technological civilisations in the galaxy). As Carl Sagan said, on probability (unless Earth is particularly unique in some way we don’t understand) the universe should be teeming with life and many of these other planets could be billions of years older than Earth (about 4.5 billion years old in 13.7 billion year old universe). So the Fermi Paradox is – if the galaxy should be full of life that had a head start of millions to billions of years then why is it that we see no evidence of intelligent civilisations? Put simply, where are all the aliens?

Now there are many possible answers to the question (it wouldn’t be a paradox otherwise right?), everything from the UFOs are already here to Michio Kaku’s point that us looking for evidence of a civilisation a billion years more advanced than us would be like ants next to a four lane superhighway looking around for evidence of more advanced life than themselves.

Many renditions of the singularity posit that technology and biology merge in an exponential dance, a fundamental transformation of form takes place, an omega point of obliterating seduction. Its hard to ignore the mythos that’s haunted our culture of such ideas. The technology realised rapture. Nirvana for the nerds. As one of the main characters in Marooned Across Real time says, it was ‘graduation night for humanity’, and we missed it (the premise of the third novel is that a few hundred human beings overshoot the singularity due to technology that allows one way travel into the future and are left stranded and wondering why human civilisation disappeared.) Naturally, many versions of the technological singularity are darkly foreboding for human beings. The dominance of Homo Sapiens as a species didn’t go so well for Neanderthal or Cro-magnon man, and cultural artefacts like Skynet and the Matrix have found their way into common imagination and vocabulary.

One of the more recent ideas that integrates the singularity and the Fermi Paradox is called the transcension hypthosesis. The idea is that contra to our classical science fiction images of intergalactic space operas the direction of civilisation’s evolution is not expansion to outer space but contraction to inner space. In to the world of femto-atto space (it’s actually consistent with Moore’s law as for computational speeds to continue to increase spatial distance needs to become smaller, denser etc). In John Smart‘s version, the destiny of advanced civilisations results in this point of infinite density that we would observe as a black hole.

Part of what I find fascinating about the singularity in general, and the transcension hypthothesis in particular is the whole question of consciousness, intelligence, development and the relationship to moral reasoning?

For a non-technologically driven perspective, I’ve seen developmental psychologist Terri O’Fallon‘s recent research into very late (and rare) stages of adult ego development. She postulates a species jump at the end of the Aurobindo derived stages of her own developmental model. It seems very possible to me that this would be a meta-biological jump, as different from what we now know as the physio-bio-noo-sphere distinctions with which we are currently familiar.

Here’s two videos where John Smart outlines his theory of the transcension hypothesis. 

Part 1

Part 2

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