Superorganism and Singularity

There is an aspect to The Singularity which is not discussed much, an orthogonal dimension that is already taking shape, and which is perhaps more significant than what is implied by the “standard definition”:

The Singularity represents an “event horizon” in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future may cease to give reliable answers, following the creation of strong AI or the enhancement of human intelligence.  (Definition taken from The Singularity Summit website)

It may be hard to imagine anything more significant than humans and technology merging and the end of death as we know it.  But that’s just because we humans are myopic and anthropomorphic.  The definition above focuses on the individual agents at the current level of organization, namely humans and also their technological creations.

Much more significantly though, there is a new agent emerging.  A new level of organization of matter, energy and information above the level of humans and technology, but also comprised of humans and technology.  In fact, this new agent has been emerging for eons, and has been called many things, including Gaia and superorganism and the technium.  What is noteworthy about this new entity is twofold: (1) there is (and will) only be one of these on Earth,* and (2) the entity itself is becoming gradually more aware of itself, which is to say its agency is becoming stronger, its interest in (and capability for) self-preservation is increasing.

The “singular” in Singularity should refer to the single Earth system.  It is composed of the biosphere, of humans, technology (including AI) and hybrid systems thereof: multi-human organizations (like corporations, governments, cultures), crowdsourcing, markets, the scientific pursuit itself, and other socio-technical systems. As these coalesce, this singular global agency gets stronger and clearer.

The memes come in many forms: global awakening; cooperate or perish; collective intelligence; interconnectedness; and so on.  We see birth pains and fragility of the superorganism all around us.  We see the urgency.  And we also see the struggle of the lower level agents to keep their autonomy despite the  need of the superorganism to subjugate** the needs of its constituent agents to its own.

The reason that The Singularity involves an “event horizon” is not so much that we aren’t able to “see” into the future of humanity or technology due to exponential forces, though that may certainly be a limiting factor.  The true event horizon is the one that makes the higher level mostly incomprehensible to the lower.  The individual cells in your body understand your body only in the vaguest sense.

Will we be able to communicate with the superorganism?  Probably not.  Each level has its own language, irreducible to the languages of levels above and below.  Will the superorganism care for us and keep us alive and healthy, or are we talking about some Terminator scenario?  Here we can be certain, for our fates are linked: without us*** there is no superorganism.  Yet, we will have to change ideas of who we are and what we can and cannot do.  We are already seeing how certain ideals taken to an extreme — inalienable individual rights, unbridled market competition, zero obligation to the group — are cancerous to the superorganism, which is to say, our own survival.

Interesting times, indeed.

* This is in contrast to all other types of agents heretofore on Earth, namely all of the individual organisms we call living, all of our technological artifacts, cultural agents, memes, etc.  Each of these types of agents have existed in populations of thousands, millions, billions or more.

** See the “Upward Bolstering & Downward Constraint” section of this post.

*** The “us” here refers to the expanded definition of humanity that Kurzweil suggests, which includes our soon-to-be-merged technology.

  • “Comprising” or “composed of.”
    Never “comprised of.”

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  • Yeah, the ‘gaia’ meme reinvents itself under different names to suit the times… and slowly extends beyond its original strictly geological context… but ultimately ‘ole lovelock was right. Probably even righter than he knew.

    I like the way you put the ‘single’ into singularity. Great post!

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  • Rafe,

    You are right in the sense that this is a slightly overlooked topic within the study of Singularity. But mixing the concept of ‘singular’ into it I think is way off. The two observations you made are also false.

    Earth, its components, including humans and human technology supports a multitude of collective entities that already have, or potentially will gain consciousness in the future. The Lovelockian Gaia you are refferring to is one of them. But there’s also the Global Consciousness Project, or social media networks that more and more faithfully resemble the synaptic mechanisms within the human brain. There may be many more we don’t know about or that don’t even exist yet. The components of all those entities may come from the same pool of agents, but they’re different in many quantitative and qualitative properties.

    However I like the way you identified the importance of individual awareness and communication. If we were to possess or develop a framework in which these entities become measurable and comparable we could anticipate the threats they may pose to us as individuals. The seeds of one such framework is outlined in