What is the singularity?

If you read any science fiction or futurism, you’ve probably heard people using the term “singularity” to describe the world of tomorrow. But what exactly does it mean, and where does the idea come from? We answer in today’s backgrounder.

What is the singularity?

The term singularity describes the moment when a civilisation changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. Think of it as a point-of-no-return in history.

Most thinkers believe the singularity will be jump-started by extremely rapid technological and scientific changes. These changes will be so fast, and so profound, that every aspect of our society will be transformed, from our bodies and families to our governments and economies.

A good way to understand the singularity is to imagine explaining the internet to somebody living in the year 1200. Your frames of reference would be so different that it would be almost impossible to convey how the internet works, let alone what it means to our society. You are on the other side of what seems like a singularity to our person from the Middle Ages. But from the perspective of a future singularity, we are the medieval ones. Advances in science and technology mean that singularities might happen over periods much shorter than 800 years. And nobody knows for sure what the hell they’ll bring.

Talking about the singularity is a paradox, because it is an attempt to imagine something that is by definition unimaginable to people in the present day. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of science fiction writers and futurists from doing it.

Where does the term “singularity” come from?

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularised the idea of the singularity in his 1993 essay “Technological Singularity.” There he described the singularity this way:

It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.

Specifically, Vinge pinned the Singularity to the emergence of artificial intelligence. “We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth,” he wrote. “The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.”

Author Ken MacLeod has a character describe the singularity as “the Rapture for nerds” in his novel The Cassini Division, and the turn of phrase stuck, becoming a popular way to describe the singularity. (Note: MacLeod didn’t actually coin this phrase – he says he got the phrase from a satirical essay in an early-1990s issue of Extropy.) Catherynne Valente argued recently for an expansion of the term to include what she calls “personal singularities,” moments where a person is altered so much that she becomes unrecognisable to her former self. This definition could include post-human experiences.



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