Zeno’s Turtle Beats the Singularity

Zeno was an ancient Greek philosopher who argued that our senses deceive us and that we must trust our mind only in trying to understand the world. A true rationalist. Zeno sought to convince the world of this point with a number of paradoxes. The most famous is Achilles and the turtle. Achilles was a legendary warrior and famous for his speed (killed when an arrow hit his heel, the only place his magic protection did not cover). In Zeno’s example, Achilles runs a race against a turtle and for fairness gives the turtle a head start. Now our eyes will tell us that Achilles catches up with the turtle, overtakes it and beats it to the finish line. But our mind, Zeno argues, will tell us that is not possible because in order to catch up with the turtle, Achilles must first cover half the distance between himself and the turtle, then half of the remaining half, then half of that, and half of that and half of that ad infinitum. So logic tells us the turtle wins and reality is an illusion, quad era demonstrandum.

The singularity will come in 2045. It is that inevitable point where technological progress becomes so fast, everything happens at once. Consider the evolution of the telephone. The first telephones appeared in the late 19th century as a development of the existing telegraph technology. It took sixty or seventy years before they were in every home, office and street corner. The mobile phone was first developed in the 50’s and 60’s as an extension of the telephone combined with two-way radio technology. They made it into the consumer market as car phones in the 80s and then as pocket mobile phones in the 90s. The smartphone was developed around the Millennium and took only a few years after its commercial release before it sold billions. The uptake of the Ipad was even faster. Judging from this, every cycle is shorter, every new technology release is picked up more quickly, spreads wider and faster. So, by extending this curve, there will be a point when everything happens at once. Innovation will be immediate. All the information will be present at once. Computer power will be infinite. Everything will be digital and it will be abundant. We will live forever, through genetic engineering, cell-reparing nanobots in our blood stream, cybernetic upgrades and/or hard-drive backups of our brains (or will that be cloud-based?). By the best-informed estimates, this is going to happen in the year 2045.

Sure, plenty of non-believers will tell you that not all innovations follow this trajectory, that there is no telling what the future will be like just be extension of current trends (hello Black Swan!), that the blessings of the Singularity will be exclusive to a privileged elite at the expense of the masses, and that this whole thing is nothing but a Neo-Christian variation of Biblical themes like ascension, the Holy Ghost and Heaven. But don’t be surprised if it turns out the best critic of Singularity is a 400 BC Greek philosopher that reminds us that no matter how fast technology moves, it will never beat that turtle.