“The Singularity Is Near.”
These are the famous words of Ray Kurzweil, who predicted a coming moment when technology would become so advanced that society would experience irreversible change. He predicted that by 2029, an Artificial Intelligence will pass a Turing test and achieve human levels of intelligence. Propelled by Moore’s Law, he thinks the “singularity” will arrive in 2045 when computers are one billion times smarter than humans.
The Oxford Dictionary defines the Singularity as “A hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.” But if you remove artificial intelligence from the definition and focus on “dramatic and irreversible change,” the singularity is already here.
It began during the Industrial Revolution, when mass-production kicked into high gear and initiated the largest wealth creation boom in human history. According to economist Brad DeLong, “World GDP per capita hovered around 90-200 from ancient times up through 1800, then jumped to 300 by 1850, 679 by 1900, and up to 6,539 by 2000.” The increases in GDP were paralleled by rising life expectancy, falling poverty rates, increased energy efficiency, war-making capacity, and the rise of democratic regimes.
The Beginning of the Industrial Revolution
Singularities begin at the flip of a switch. One moment you’re outside of it, the next you’re swimming with the tide of its all-encompassing vortex. Once a Singularity picks up enough momentum, it becomes a black hole and absorbs everything around it. The Singularity we inhabit began at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Here’s my thesis: The Singularity is already here, and it began in Western Europe at the end of the 16th century. Technologies like literacy and commercial law laid the foundations for the Singularity, but the early industrialization process began with an order of magnitude improvement in land transportation costs. Until then, moving goods and people over land was expensive. The Dutch East India Company may have sailed from Holland to India and discovered Manhattan in 1609, but before the improvements in transportation around the time of the Industrial Revolution, those distances were impossible to make on foot. Economic growth was nearly impossible because markets were so narrow and human action was so local. Even in the early parts of the 20th century, Chinese villages which were only five miles apart spoke in radically different dialects. Without efficient transportation, people were trapped in poverty and unable to benefit from trade.
In an excellent series of essays (including this essay and this other one as well), Nick Szabo shows that small decreases in transportation costs led to large economic improvements. Specifically, Szabo credits horses, steam engines, and steam-powered railroads for the series of wealth-creating inflection points. I’ll take each in turn.
Work horses increased labor productivity and expanded the amount of land farmers could cultivate, thereby initiating another productivity-improving enhancement of agricultural specialization. The replacement of oxen with horses further improved transportation speeds, which doubled the speed of transporting a wagon of goods. With steam engines, industrial machinery no longer ran on horse gins or watermills. Finally, steam-powered railroads enabled bulk transportation and connected mines and factories with major cities. With all these improvements, humans relied on animals and machines instead of their own backs and biceps.
Why do transportation costs matter so much?
Szabo explains: “The potential value of a land transportation network is the inverse fourth power of the cost of that transportation. A reduction in transportation costs in a trade network by a factor of two increases the potential value of that network by a factor of sixteen. While a power of exactly 4.0 will usually be too high, due to redundancies, this does show how the cost of transportation can have a radical nonlinear impact on the value of the trade networks it enables.”
Transportation costs are the primary constraint on the size of the market. As they fall, trade flows increase and enable the wealth-creating division of labor system first outlined by Adam Smith. Recent empirical data confirms Smith’s hypothesis. This study of the American highway system found that a 1% reduction in the travel distance between two trading partners increases trade between them by 1.4%.
True to the singularity thesis, dramatic improvements in transportation efficiency brings compounding benefits. Specifically, falling transportation costs lead to increased innovation, and increased innovation leads to falling transportation costs, thereby initiating a virtuous cycle of increased trade and globalization.
The Technological Singularity Is Already Here
The Industrial Age touched every aspect of the Western world. The forward process in quantifiable living standard kickstarted a Singularity, the evidence for which we see in the evolution of global markets, systems of governance, and the dizzying speed of technological advancement. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll focus on technology.
We used to build technology to solve well-defined problems in service of a well-defined future. But today, we tend to build technology aimlessly without a plan for the future.¹ Some define progress as “more technology,” so we develop new technologies before we think about how they will impact us. For an example, look no further than Facebook. In less than 15 years, the company that began as a rating system for hot girls at Harvard unexpectedly became the epicenter of global communication as society became more globalized.
Moreover, you can’t opt out of technology even if you try. Marshall McLuhan once said: “First we shape our tools. Then our tools shape us.” Say you want to avoid using a car. On Sunday mornings, you used to walk to church to see their friends after the service, shop at the local farmer’s market together, and walk home with food for the next 48 hours. But with the invention of the car, small local churches become mega-churches next to a highway and local farmers markets that used to be within walking distance become a strip mall Walmart that only a car can get you to.
As technology wraps its fingers around society, you either have to farm all your own food or cave to the demands of the technological singularity. Additionally, the World Health Organization reports that almost 1.35 million people die in road crashes every year. And yet, we let the car dominate American life without questioning its side effects. When an accident happens, we blame drugs, sleepiness, alcohol, the weather, or faulty car designs instead of the use of the car itself. But in parallel with the logic of a singularity, people like Nick Land and Peter Thiel argue that accelerating the pace of technological progress is the only peaceful path forward.
Will the Singularity Continue?
We have already achieved a singularity. Those early transportation-inspired improvements at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution initiated the gradual dominance of markets, democracy, and technology. Of the three, I have the most faith that markets and technology will continue to dominate, but I’m less confident about the future dominance of democracy.
Regardless, we can’t go back to the future. We have already met the singularity state of irreversible momentum — where technologies such as cars, computers, and nuclear weapons govern us more than we govern them.
Kurzweil predicted that the Singularity was near. But it turns out, the Singularity is already here.
¹ Here is the wrinkle in my Singularity thesis: The Industrial Singularity followed an S-Curve, not an infinite exponential curve. Economists like Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen argue that economic growth began to slow in the 1970s. If the singularity is going to end, we already see evidence in the pace of technological development in the physical world. In New York, for example, we haven’t built a new bridge since 1964 and three new stations on the Second Avenue Subway line took 17 years to build.