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Singularity history


A Brief History of Intellectual Discussion of Accelerating Change
John Smart 2005.

In 1966, the great historian Alfred Toynbee, wrote a chapter, "Acceleration in Human History," in Change and Habit (1966) which, like Henry Adams, charts a series of rapidly accelerating phases of biological and, with the emergence of humans "1Mya," technological acceleration in Earth's history.  

Leading the popularization of futures scanning, scenario, and trend analysis in this fertile time was Edward Cornish's World Future Society, and the bi-monthly publication of The Futurist magazine, beginning in 1967, as well as Olaf Helmer's Institute for the Future, a research-oriented think tank started in 1968.

In the 1970's, the idea of accelerating change as a permanent feature of modern life entered broadly into the public consciousness with Alvin Toffler and his revolutionary Future Shock, 1970.

Gerard Piel;The Acceleration of History, 1972.

The roboticist Hans Moravec also emerged on the public scene in the 1970's. Moravec is arguably the most important single pioneer and advocate of deep thinking on accelerating computational change in the 20th century. In Feb 1979, after two years of editorial delay, Moravec's ideas finally reached the general public through Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, in an essay titled "Today's Computers, Intelligent Machines, and Our Future." ...  a direct descendant of our culture, but not our genes, inherits the universe."

John Platt ("The Acceleration of Evolution," The Futurist, 1981) and others chipped in with their take on the central acceleration.

In January 1983, revisiting and extending Von Neumann's insights, an up-and-coming science fiction writer by the name of Vernor Vinge, writing in the First Word column of Omni Magazine, introduced the idea that the ever-accelerating evolution of computer intelligence itself might soon produce a kind of technological singularity, 

By the mid 80's, consideration of accelerating change from a systems perspective finally became broadly accessible to the general public, through groundbreaking popular works by such authors as Marvin Minsky (Society of Mind, 1985), Erik Drexler (Engines of Creation, 1986), and Hans Moravec (Mind Children, 1988). These three books respectively represented a theory of mind as an emergent collective computational system.

In the 1990's, a flood of publications that were implicitly singularity-aware, and a bold few that were explicitly singularity-aware, such as those by John Brockman (ed., The Third Culture, 1995), Damien Broderick (The Spike, 1997) and Richard Coren (The Evolutionary Trajectory, 1998). 

Also of note in the 1990's, the transhumanist philosopher Max More, the artist Natasha Vita-More (, the economist Robin Hansen, the transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom (, again Hans Moravec (homepage) and most centrally, mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge, in his seminal "The Coming Technological Singularity," 1993, brought many of these ideas to serious critical attention. 
But perhaps most visibly, and most importantly for the public consideration of these ideas, inventor and artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil published two seminal books in this decade, Age of Intelligent Machines, in 1990, and Age of Spiritual Machines, in 1999.

In this same decade, Eliezer Yudkowsky also developed prolific writings in the technological singularity, a community of A.I. investigators and "singularity advocates", and a nonprofit A.I. venture with transhumanists Brian and Sabine Atkins. Finally, in 1999 I (John Smart) started Acceleration as a generalist website to educate lay thinkers on issues of accelerating computational and technological change. 

In 2001, complex systems scholar Didier Sornette and physicist Anders Johansen published a paper, "Significance of log-periodic precursors to financial crashes." They noted that hierarchical emergence to new regimes often involve an accelerating approach to a finite-time singularity, followed by a phase transition, which may or may not be locally "catastrophic," as in a financial crash. They started to believe that this pattern could be used to predict some stock market crashes months before they actually happen. This led Sornette to publish a fascinating work, Why Stock Markets Crash, 2003. This book gives a tour of the theory of critical phenomena, and then applys a log-periodic model to historical economic crashes. Sornette and Johansen's model predicts a critical time for global phase change at 2050 ± 10 years (2040-2060), and they offer three scenarios for the meaning of this change: 1) economic collapse, 2) a transition to economic sustainability, or most interestingly, 3) superhumanity.

It is periodically confronted by networking think tanks such as the nanotechnology and future scenario leader Foresight Institute and has been increasingly explored by great journalists, inventor visionaries, and social theorists such as Ed Regis, (Mambo Chicken, 1990; Nano, 1995), Douglas Rushkoff (Cyberia, 1994), Danny Hillis, "Close to the Singularity" 1995, Peter Russell (Waking up in Time, 1998), James Glieck (Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, 1999), and again, Hans Moravec (Mind Children, 1988; Robot, 1999). The French historian Pierre Nora is also writing eloquently about the "acceleration of history," echoing his colleague Francois Meyer's work a half-century earlier.


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