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The Singularity: Dawning of a New Techno Era

As a planner, I guess I’m kind of used to making my way through the world of futurists and prognosticators; it’s basically a part of the job description.  After awhile you start to develop a fairly discerning eye.  And, yet, the heady stuff I was hearing at this morning’s SXSW interactive session on THE SINGULARITY: Humanity’s Huge Techo Challenge, really surprised me for its depth and clarity of thinking.

If you’re like me and were apparently sleeping under a rock when the recent TIME Magazine article came out, The Singularity refers to a time when the rate of technological change becomes so fast that it becomes hard to tell what the implications will be for everyday life, family, medicine, and so on.  It simply gets to a point where it’s beyond our ability to predict.  The term has also been broadly used to refer to a time when humans and technologies get closer and closer together.  Some of the Google folks are apparently way into this, as are several of the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley.  I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet, but in terms of the conceptual stuff it’s absolutely mind-blowing.

Anyway, if it all sounds a bit freaky, well, it’s already happening.  From the technology side, think about IBM’s Watson and various forms of artificial intelligence (AI), which every day are evolving from being glorified search engines toward having a more contextually-based ability to “think” more like us humans (though they are not necessary ‘intelligent’, per se).  And then, from the other side, think about how people are now wearing technology-enabled clothing and, in some cases, having technologies implanted in their bodies, either as an aid to physical deficiencies or to enhance our human abilities. It all seems to be coming together.

As the presenters indicated during the session, one way we have to think about this is in terms of the opportunities The Singularity — and AI in particular — presents for us, as a human race.  It can potentially help us think through solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges:  how to eradicate poverty, how to end disease & extend life, how to end war, and so on.   Man + machine working together in new ways — extending each others’ reach while perhaps making up for each others’ deficiencies.   Better together, like peanut butter and chocolate.  Well, that’s the idea anyway.

So, what to do with all this?  For starters, we all need to be relentlessly aware of this human-tech phenomenon as we move through the current, temporarily clunky period of time (til 2030-ish?), before we eventually go through the inevitable waves of humans + technologies REALLY start to connect.  More than ever, I think we also need to stay attuned to the qualities that make us truly human, distinct from the technological tools and enabling devices we use.  For some people, maybe that means they’ll choose to unplug now & then.  For others, maybe it means experimenting with lots of different technologies and just checking out how each feels.  In each case, maybe ask:  where do I end and where does the technology begin?  After all, as time goes on, it may get more difficult to tell.

Hang on to your smartphones, boys and girls!  Seems like it’s going to be quite a ride!

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