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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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Okay, so I’m a little late to the party in posting this. All the professional bloggers have already written about it, while I’ve been busy with my day job. Nonetheless, something that’s been on my mind since the beginning of the week, when it would have been timely:

I think Facebook has now hit its “cap”. People who don’t yet have Facebook accounts now seem to be saying, “I ain’t gettin’ one now!” Others who do have accounts are finally abandoning them. And I’m one of those abandoners.

I have a little bit of interest in the Disapora* Project, but I don’t think it will really take off. On the other hand, in a recent New York Times article about the project, both its staffers and backers have some things to say about just how quickly they managed to raise funding — and all of those things point to a very clear demand for an alternative to Facebook.

Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has lately been saying that privacy is no longer a social norm, but lots of people don’t accept this. In fact, many of us think that Zuckerberg is saying such things in the hope of making them come true, rather than as observations of something that’s already come to pass.

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

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I’ve written before about augmented reality, Sixth Sense, and so on. Here’s a question: Is this really augmentation? As augmented reality takes hold, we’ll have more and more people wandering around looking at their smartphones’ screens rather than what’s actually in front of them. The smartphone delivers some extra information, of course, but it imposes a cost, too: the information takes a while to arrive; it takes attention to process; focusing on the screen means sacrificing practically all your peripheral vision…

It’s a trade-off, and I’m probably missing some aspects of it. What I’m wondering about, simply, is whether the trade is a net gain or a net loss.

Another way to put this — in harshly evolutionary terms, in fact — is: If someone with augmented reality and someone without it were competing for some life-or-death resource, who would win?

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

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Recently, a bunch of the blogs and journals I read (including my friends, not just big, famous sources) have had some bones to pick with Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Newsweek opinion piece, “Why Web Won’t Be Nirvana”. Stoll said: “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

A lot of people have been, effectively, pointing and laughing at Stoll’s failed prediction. I’d rather consider it a cautionary tale: The man who was so totally wrong wasn’t just a random pundit who didn’t know what he was talking about. He was Clifford Stoll — author of The Cuckoo’s Egg, a man who had been online for 20 years at a time when most people were just beginning to hear that there was a such thing as the World-Wide Web, and the man who traced German cracker Markus Hess through umpteen layers of insecure computer systems and networks.

In short, the man knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t a Senator Ted Stevens. If he could be so wrong, how much faith can I place in my own predictions about where the Internet’s headed?

But wait, there’s more — how wrong was he?

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


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