The Singularity Needs You: Artificial Intelligence, Information Technology, and Virtual Reality Will Radically Change Human Existence in the Decades to Come. One Futurist Argues That the Future Is Too Important to Leave to the Technologists Alone

Article excerpt

Jonas Salk, creator of the world's first polio vaccine, famously said that our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors. This is a particularly relevant idea for those of us who take the future seriously. In our work, in our policies, in our choices, in the possibilities that we embrace and those we don't, our actions have consequences. It is incumbent upon us to ask if the consequences we're bringing about are desirable. So let's ask ourselves, are we being good ancestors?

It's not an easy question to answer, in part because the examination can be an uncomfortable one. But this issue of being a good ancestor becomes especially challenging when we recognize that even small choices matter. It's not just the multibillion-dollar projects and unmistakably world-altering ideas that will change the lives of our descendants. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, profound consequences can arise from the most prosaic of topics.

Video games, camera phones, Google Earth, and the myriad day-to-day technologies that, individually, may attract momentary notice, may also, in combination, offer us a new way of grappling with a future world that will be radically different from our own. Today, many scientists, researchers, computer programmers, culture watchers, and futurists believe that in the next four decades we will enter into a phase of sudden, rapid, and unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence.

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The Acceleration Studies Foundation refers to this future period as the Singularity. It will be exciting, dangerous, and absolutely unlike anything humanity has ever experienced before. How we shape some of the technologies that make up our daily lives could be critical to passing safely through the coming period of radical change.

Roadmap to the Singularity

The idea of a metaverse is a useful one for discussing future human-machine interaction. The word comes from novelist Neal Stephenson, who defined it as a virtual-reality setting where human avatars and software agents interacted side by side.

Earlier this year, I co-authored a "Metaverse Roadmap Overview," sketching out four scenarios that detailed how a combination of forces--driving the development of immersive, richly connected information technologies--may play out over the next decade. What has struck me more recently about the Roadmap scenarios is that the four worlds could also represent four pathways to a Singularity, not just in terms of the technologies, but--more importantly--in terms of the social and cultural choices we could make while building those technologies.

The four metaverse worlds emerged from a relatively common-place scenario structure. We arrayed two spectra of possibility against each other, thereby offering four outcomes. Specialists sometimes refer to this as the "four-box" method. It's a simple way of forcing yourself to think through different possibilities.

A scenario is not a prediction, of course. It's a provocation. Scenarios are ways of describing different future possibilities. The scenario writer seeks not to demonstrate what will happen, but to suggest what could happen. Scenarios offer a way to test strategies and assumptions--what would the world look like if we undertook a given action in these four futures?

To construct our scenario set, we selected two themes likely to shape the ways in which the metaverse might unfold. First, we looked at how new and future technologies re-shape our understanding of the world. These include "augmenting technologies," such as digital cameras, satellites, search engines, and information technology in general. Under the category of "simulation technology," we include present and future software breakthroughs that will make virtual worlds more rich, realistic, and adaptive by allowing them to incorporate more real-world data more quickly and purposefully. …