But most of us know from our intuition and experience that history is incredibly important to those entrusted with keeping the world turning. Somehow or another, we need to carve out the time to learn the lessons of the past. I would argue that knowing a thing or two about the future is equally important. No, we cannot predict events; strategist Colin Gray frequently and rightfully clobbers those who believe there is such a thing as the “foreseeable future.” But by diligently thinking forwards, we can stretch our imaginations to envision a set of possible futures. Such an exercise can only help us to be better thinkers and better planners; in fact, Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Garretson (who I cited last week) has even written article titled What our civilization needs is a billion-year plan. For this kind of forward thinking there is no better resource than good science fiction.
Accelerando is one of the most ambitious forward-thinking novels I have ever read; it is a tale of humankind’s passage through “the singularity”, and spans the entire universe. If you aren’t acquainted with written science fiction, you might not be familiar with the notion of the the singularity, which can be defined as follows: “a hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood.” The singularity is typically associated with the emergence of artificial intelligence or the technological augmentation of human intelligence; one possible future is the complete digitization of the human mind, which would allow human beings to be uploaded into software environments where almost anything becomes possible.
The singularity was popularized by futurist Ray Kurweil, who maintains a daily technology update that you can subscribe to for free at this link. It was brought to life by science fiction author Vernor Vinge, and further explored by authors like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross; their recent collaboration about the singularity is called Rapture of the Nerds.
It’s important to understand one thing about the singularity: according to technology optimists, it’s coming faster than most of us can possibly imagine. All of us are familiar with the exponential acceleration of computer and mobile technology, so it’s not inconceivable that this trend line could carry over into computer intelligence or biological/technological interfaces. I’m not sure I share Kurzweil’s optimism that the singularity will arrive by 2045, but I do fully expect that my children will grow up in a world where teenagers “wear” the Internet in contact lenses or even some kind of implant, and where people interact with a world that is a fusion of real and virtual. Google Goggles are just a clunky beginning. I do think the futurists are right about one thing: if we ever do gain the ability to create genuine artificial intelligence or digitize the human mind, it will be the most disruptive event in our species’ history.
Accelerando is one imaginative journey into a post-singularity future. It follows three generations of a dysfunctional entrepreneurial family through various stages of the great technological unfolding, beginning with augmented human intelligence and culminating in an interstellar journey to the very edge of the universe. It is concerned with the life cycle and trajectory of intelligent species, the fate of our solar system, and the emergence of post-human and artificial intelligence. The scale is such that entire star systems are dismantled to serve the projects of superintelligent agents. It is a thrilling journey, and exceedingly well-written. Most important for me, and unlike much science fiction, it is still a very human story about complex human beings working out their relationships in a runaway future. If you’re not acquainted with science fiction, be forewarned: the book moves as fast as the future it envisions, and is laden with concepts and jargon that many of us can scarcely understand. That is part of the ride, but I’ll admit that some of the time I had no idea what the hell was going on. That’s part of the thrill, I guess.
Why the book matters to Building Peace: if disruptive technological change is really coming as fast as the futurists say, it will have epic ramifications for every dimension of human society. A novel like this can help us anticipate what some of those changes and ramifications might be.