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The Technology Singularity

A man controlling electronics with an iPad, approaching singularity

My grandmother was born in 1894 and she passed away in 1992 at the age of 98. I remember being at the funeral with friends and relatives and the first thing we talked about was all the change she had seen in her lifetime. Her father had homesteaded some land in Nebraska, so when her life started the norm was no electricity, no running water, no telephone, no automobile, certainly no airplanes, and almost no mechanization of any kind. At the time of her death we had sent a man to the moon, the personal computer was in full use, and the modern Internet was born. I remember thinking about the personal, emotional, and psychological changes she must have gone through. Each decade that passed in her life was almost like a completely different world.

At the time it never occurred to me that eventually people of my generation and younger may have to think about our lives in the same way as my grandmother. Since we more or less grew up in a technological world, my generation generally assumes that we are mentally prepared to adjust to whatever change comes along. We are dismissive of this as a problem at all and are even more confident about younger generations. It seems like everyone has heard a story about how a three-year-old child picked up his parent’s iPad one day and started using it right away. Surely that generation won’t have any problems at all with technological change, right?

Instant Obsolescence

As the IT Director for the College of Liberal Studies, I’m often asked about what the next big things in technology will be. This is one of the most difficult parts of my job because it is getting harder and harder to predict the future when it comes to technology. As I visit with other IT administrators within and without OU, I keep hearing a term more and more: “instant obsolescence.” This is somewhat self-explanatory and when you read it just now you probably can think of a personal example. How many of us have bought a cell phone, a tablet, or a computer of some kind, only to find out that just a few months or even weeks later a new model or version is in the works or already being sold. The rate and pace of change is happening faster and faster, which brings us to the topic of the Technology Singularity.

The Technology Singularity is the specific point in time when the rate and pace of change happens so fast that we can’t even keep track of it and “instant obsolescence” is the norm in all aspects of our life.

The Technology Singularity is the specific point in time when the rate and pace of change happens so fast that we can’t even keep track of it and “instant obsolescence” is the norm in all aspects of our life. Right now we are at a point in time where technology breakthroughs and innovation don’t just happen in Silicon Valley but happen all over the world. India, China, Africa, and Europe are now also places where technology innovation and change take place.

Which brings me back to my grandmother and those conversations I had with friends and relatives about how difficult it must have been for her to see all the technological change in her lifetime. When I put it in the context of the Technology Singularity, maybe what she went through wasn’t nearly as difficult as what we will go through and what future generations are about to experience. My grandmother was born at a time when change happened incrementally and in most cases very slowly over time. Things like automobiles, radio, television, and airplanes had periods of introduction, and then time for them to be gradually integrated into the culture.

The Technology Singularity does not allow for that. Imagine as much technological change and advancement happening in one day that occurred in my grandmother’s entire lifetime but also imagine this advancement emerging in truly unexpected ways. Instant advancements in things like robotics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence are technologies that have the potential to really surprise us. And think about this: how does the invention of the automobile compare to the invention of brain-computer interfaces? Would it be harder for us to adjust to those kinds of things than for my grandmother to adjust to the automobile?

A Different Future

Here is another aspect to think about. There might be evidence that technology has already changed us. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was asked to write a book report on George Orwell’s 1984. Most of us are familiar with the story. Orwell writes about a futuristic world where the government keeps track of all citizens through video surveillance. The novel was published in 1949 and there are a couple of things worth noting.

What Orwell could never have predicted is how people today voluntarily give up their privacy as they interface with changes in technology.

First, the technology that we have today far surpasses the surveillance capabilities of anything Orwell could have imagined. He writes mainly about video surveillance. Today, we have surveillance by video, phone, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, search engines, etc. It’s interesting how this technological capability just came upon us without us being that aware of it.

Second, and what I think is most intriguing, is how we’ve responded to the technology. People are much different today than they were in 1949 when Orwell published his book. The people Orwell depicts feel horribly oppressed that they have no privacy. What Orwell could never have predicted is how people today voluntarily give up their privacy as they interface with changes in technology. But it goes even further than that. On Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, people will post the most embarrassing and compromising pictures of themselves that they possibly can. It’s almost as though the little voice of reason inside our heads that would say, “No, I had better not post this picture of myself being really drunk” has been turned off. People intentionally create these posts and don’t think a thing about it. I’m not sure when this change occurred, but it’s an example of how technology can fundamentally alter and permeate us without our being aware of it.

A Brave New World

Like all changes in technology, it’s increasingly difficult to predict exactly when the Technology Singularity will happen. At the 2012 Singularity Summit (yes, they have a worldwide summit on this issue) the average timeframe was the year 2040, and more than likely, we’ll just wake up one morning and the Singularity will operatively be upon us, probably sooner rather than later.

In the near future it’s going to be important to keep our heads up looking forward and to remember the world never stops changing. When the next phone I purchase is called a “communicator” and I’m “beamed” over to the next great technology conference, I hope to have as much poise as my grandmother did and also remember it sure beats walking.

Robert J. Dougherty
Robert J. Dougherty is the Director of Information Technology for the College of Liberal Studies. He has 30 years of experience in the higher education IT field and is actively involved in University IT initiatives including learning management systems and database applications.

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