The Coming “Singularity”
Today, the term “singularity” is bandied about by futurists who argue if and when human population needs and their satisfaction through technological advances will come together in a moment of break-through when global scarcity will end. Ray Kurzweil is very likely the guru in the forefront of this utopian vision. His positive belief in technology and innovation are unbounded and infectious. He is so confident that he predicts the “good” singularity event when technology overtakes human intelligence will occur around 2045. At that time, human physical needs will not be limited by biology or natural resources. The limits of our material bodies will be superceded forever. Some of his cohort even say that we will have reached the Omega Point of human consciousness defined by Pierre Tiellard de Chardin.
Now, I happen to like De Chardin, but reality requires us to counter Kurzweil’s seductive vision. We get a sobering reminder of our biological limits by Kurzweil’s nemesis, a physicist, Geoffrey West. While the world has enjoyed faster and more fantastic innovation on all fronts in the last century, Dr. West reminds us that we are, and always will be, limited by the laws of thermodynamics—the laws of scaling. Much as we would like to be free of our bodies and live in some imaginary sci-fi environment, we cannot for long deny our physicality, nor the materiality of our planet. Specifically Dr. West would remind us that we cannot get around the laws of scaling—the laws that dictate the flow of natural resources to and from our cities to sustain physical life and culture.
Cities appear to be able to grow exponentially, doubling every 15 years now. Jobs grow at the same rate, and so do wages—but so do crime and pollution. So on both ends of growth there are limits created by material flow restrictions. Kurzweil never even admits these limits or laws, let alone refute them. But they are real and apparently inviolable.
We experience the physical limits of material flow quite practically every day in the city. We sit in a traffic jam twice a day, restricted by the number of cars and the space they fill and the limits of the freeway to carry any more at the speed and density that the population needs. We have inadvertently had our dream schedule interrupted by the laws of scaling.
The laws of scaling, according to Geoffrey West, govern the entire ecosystem of the Serengeti, or the size of the tributaries to the Amazon or the delivery of food to the city you live in. Virtually every bit of moving matter follows these laws. Graphed, the laws look simple, elegant and universal. We are all familiar with the pattern that reveals these laws for we recognize it as the branching of a tree, the blood vessel distribution in our lungs or the neural networks of our brains. From space we see it in the erosion patterns of rivers flowing down a mountain and spreading out across a plain. Or we discern it in all the tiny rivulets that trickle downhill to spill into a mighty river. They all look exactly the same! This dendritic branching is the CORE model of life. Notice that each section is double the one above it and must be so for the last tiny threads to get their resources or move waste.
What West is telling us is that a city can only get so big because the delivery channels that supply its exponential growth of humans and pollution cannot exceed its orders of magnitude, or scaling laws. At a certain point, the physical capability of delivering material stuff to a city (cities don’t make food or water) will reach its limits and then that city or society will begin to decline—unable to sustain its growth on which its human improvements are based. That takes no account of the impossible demand at some point to remove the physical waste of such a society—which must follow the same scaling laws to dispose of billions of gallons of sewage, tons of garbage to say nothing of mega-tons of air pollution. For none of these finite impending conditions does Ray Kurzweil have a solution.
Globally, every single day, 1 million people now leave their rural land and move to some city hoping to cash in on the innovation, better pay and increasing comfort advertised there. The absolute poverty and destitution of the slums and favelas of the third world demonstrate for us all what happens when governments ignore the laws of scaling. They are the evidence for Dr. West’s concern. They are a warning of collapse for our cities unless we innovate faster and faster—even though the energy needed to do so is more and more expensive. We witness the fight to destroy land and dislocate the people it serves to run another pipeline by the oil industry. It’s the pipeline that will restrict how much oil we can get and what it costs. The amount of it in the ground hardly matters and should be no basis for optimism.
Nonetheless, we are told by Exxon-Mobile mouthpieces that the US has enough energy for centuries. Allowing that we would be so foolish as to burn it after it took billions of years to bury to let us breath, the fact of the matter is that getting it and distributing it has reached its limits—once again due to the laws of scaling. It costs more than a barrel of energy to recover a barrel of energy and more than that to deliver it, so the return on investment should lead us to stop investing in fossil fuels and let the market supply the capital the world needs for alternatives. How then can people still make a killing investing in fossil fuels? Simple. It is subsidized. Why is that so? Because we are not governed by the free market nor by the will of the people, but by an elite--the Corporatocracy. It was mere theatre, for example, that a Dick Cheney stood for election.
The oil men of the world run the world, and woe to Geoffrey West and his nay-sayers to suggest that, not only is oil and its pollution subject to scaling laws, the future is with a no-growth, steady-state economy—not based on fossil fuels! We can, according to West, do one of two things to avoid social chaos and economic collapse in our cities and the culture they support. Humanity must innovate faster and faster, like running on a treadmill that is speeding up. We’ve avoided a modern-day, Malthusian reckoning innovating at a quickening pace this past century. We cannot keep up this pace let alone pick up speed. In fact, America no longer leads the world in patents or technical innovation.
So, what’s the alternative? It is clear and straightforward. We can develop a no-growth, steady state economy such as Hermann Daley has advocated since his days at the World Bank. One way to express the difference we would feel is to think of the high growth as a cancerous growth metastasizing over the entire planet. A steady-state model would be a return to more normal metabolism and whole body health.
So, if we do not begin to do the second one and soon, Dr. West predicts another kind of singularity—a final bust (read collapse) following the current boom when the needed resources might still be available but just cannot be gotten to the seven billion who need them in time.