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If you think about technology, and where it may be taking us, it’s impossible to ignore the idea of the Singularity. But if you’re going to talk about it at all, it’s best to start off by defining just what it is you mean. Different people are using the term for a few different concepts these days. (Though at least the memetic mutation isn’t nearly so scattered as the ridiculous array of meanings and outright hot air clustered around “Web 2.0″.)

The Original Singularity: Mathematicians, Represent!

The original concept was the mathematical singularity: A point at which a given mathematical function’s output is not defined. For example, the asymptotic point in the graph of y = 1/x (the classic hyperbolic curve); when x = 0, y is completely undefined — a literal “divide by zero” error.

This gave rise to the gravitational singularity: A point in space-time where the manifold’s curvature (and hence the gravitational field, and the density of any objects) is either unmeasurable or infinite.

Vernor Vinge’s seminal paper, The Coming Technological Singularity, maintains this idea of “change that becomes too fast to measure”, of graph-lines going asymptotic. Vinge writes: When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale…. Developments that before were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. (In [Blood Music], Greg Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours.)

Marc Stiegler’s 1989 short story “The Gentle Seduction” also uses the term in a rate-of-change sense, with one character introducing the idea as “a time in the future. It’ll occur when the rate of change of technology is very great — so great that the effort to keep up with the change will overwhelm us.”

Variations Abound

But others are using the term in slightly different ways. Wikipedia’s article on the technological singularity describes it as an event where the rate of change is so great that “the future after the singularity becomes qualitatively different and harder to predict.” This isn’t quite the same idea. Instead of saying that the Singularity itself will be too difficult to comprehend, it’s saying that the time after the Singularity will be too different for us to understand. It’s something like the distinction between a singularity and an event horizon (a boundary beyond which we cannot see). Yes, one causes the other, but they’re not the same thing.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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In two months, the third international Ada Lovelace Day will take place, on March 24th. Bloggers around the world will devote posts to writing about the achievements of women in technology and science. This is wonderful, and I highly support it, but…

What about the other 364 days of the year?

Setting aside one day per year to write, “Hey, there are women in technology, too!” is not enough. In fact, I’d call it a bare minimum. If you only post in your blog once a week, you’re putting out 50+ posts per year. If only one of those has to do with women, you’re ignoring half the human race 98% of the time.

Technology is not just for men. It doesn’t solely affect men. Men aren’t the only ones to drive it, or develop it. And I’m sick and tired of the culture of machismo, sexism, and outright misogyny that’s been turning high-tech — and particularly the open-source and startup arenas — into a little boys’ club that drives women away.

Blogging about the accomplishments of women for Ada Lovelace Day is not enough. But it’s a start, at the very least. We can’t say, “I wrote about Grace Hopper on March 24th; there, I’ve done my duty. Can I have my Nice Guy badge now?” We can’t write one article and then rest on our asses the rest of the year.

Instead, I see Ada Lovelace Day as a springboard — a starting point.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Let’s organize a 10K footrace. At the end of the footrace — for, say, the last kilometer — we’re going to do whatever we can to encourage the people who are wearing blue jerseys and t-shirts and athletic clothing. There will be people standing by the sidelines to hand out bottles of refreshing sports drinks, and others jumping up and down and shouting slogans like “Dressed in blue! We love you!” whenever they see a blue-garbed contestant.

Why all the commotion over the people in blue? Well, that’s an attempt to offset what we’re going to do to them for the first nine-tenths of the race. You see, they’re going to be dealing with some seriously unfair shit: Instead of cheerleaders, the blue-wearing racers will have to deal with people jeering at them, shouting insults and telling them they don’t belong in this race. Some will be armed with Nerf guns or water balloons, which they’ll be hurling at the racers in blue in an attempt to slow them down or make them drop out of the race altogether.

And it’s not just the spectators; before the race begins, we’ll distribute secret notes to the racers wearing other colors, encouraging them to jostle their blue-garbed peers and even try to trip them up. Of course, many of our runners will abide by a sense of fair play regardless, but there will undoubtedly be those who take advantage of the biased environment we’re creating.

If a huge percentage of the racers in blue drop out before they ever reach the last kilometer… would you say that “not enough people in blue want to win races”?

Obviously, this footrace is a parallel for something else.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Just under a month ago, an iPhone developer from Australia — one who’s previously defended Apple’s approval process — had his own app suddenly dis-approved by Apple. According to his blog post about the sudden revocation of approval, “I had convinced my company to take a gamble and make some apps for Apple’s Store. Tennis Stats had been a great success and we wanted to get on the iPad train with My Frame. Things were going well, new features were being planned money, real money was being invested. Then Apple pulled the pin”.

I could say all sorts of things about schadenfreude, or how the developer — who goes by the nom de plume “Shifty Jelly” — should have seen this coming. But the guy’s already having a bad enough month, and there are broader issues to examine. Among them the thought raised by commenter Erik K. Veland:

Remember when Apple cracked down on Podcast downloaders? It was because they themselves were introducing this very feature in iTunes.

[I] would surmise [that] Apple is now bringing “widgets” to their dashboard in the near future, and that they are pre-empting any apps conflicting with the “duplicate functionality” clause. [historical links, added by Kai]

Once you’ve considered Apple’s penchant for banning apps that compete with features that are built in to the OS, you’ve got to consider how this compares against other companies’ competitive practices.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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