Nasa / Space

Graph: Marking the day science fiction goes extinct

This is a graph from <em>The Economist</em>, which measures how long it took for paradigm-changing technologies to mature from initial release to widespread adoption by 80 percent of countries on Earth. In other words, it demonstrates how fast he future is getting here--and the rate is accelerating.

tech_adoption.gifTo the left is a graph from The Economist, which measures how long it took for paradigm-changing technologies to mature from initial release to widespread adoption by 80 percent of countries on Earth. In other words, it demonstrates how fast he future is getting here--and the rate is accelerating.

Now, The Economist is not exactly a beacon of techno-literacy--quite the opposite, actually--but they know how to crunch some numbers, and what they've unknowingly stumbled onto here is a crude quantification of the technological Singularity. That's the day that the pace of technological improvements becomes too rapid to control or predict, leading to a perpetual future of unknowable futures.

It's also the day that science fiction--at least the harder side of it--becomes all but extinct, as sci-fi author Charles Stross explains:

"This is, as they say a very interesting graph, outwith the context of technology uptake in developing countries. Here, in a nutshell, is why writing near-future SF has become so difficult. Say you want to set a story 30 years out, and as part of your world-building exercise you want to work out what technologies will be in widespread use by the time of the story. Back in 1900 to 1950 you could do so with a fair degree of accuracy; pick a couple of embryonic technologies and assume they'll be widespread (automobiles, aircraft, television): maybe throw in a couple of wildcards for good measure (wrist-watch telephones), and you're there. But today, that 30-year window is inaccessible. Even a 15-year horizon is pushing it. Something new could come along tomorrow and overrun the entire developed world before 2023."

Now, there are various opinions about the likelihood and fallout of the Singularity. Vernor Vinge has been evangelizing about the Singularity for at least 15 years, while Rudy Rucker only just recently dismissed the very notion of the Singularity's post-reality reality.

Whether you subscribe to it or not, the idea isn't exactly fringe anymore, as the SkyNet Singularity is the driving plot device of the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles series. The characters in that story are trying to stop the Singularity, and thereby save the world. In effect, they are fighting the future, and the fight is ultimately futile.

The Singularity will be the day science fact moves so quickly we don't need science fiction. Ironically, science fiction is already imagining what that day--and the days leading up to it--will look like. Better hurry, though, because there's not much time.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

34 comments
mluwish
mluwish

I think all the low hanging fruit has been picked - real progress has stopped. As far as civilization game changers go mobile phones are toys compared to steel, sewers, and atomic bombs. We've been 20 years from fusion power for 70 years now and always will be. Not because it's impossible, but because it's way more difficult/expensive than we thought.

a.southern
a.southern

I think it is a pointless exercise, talking about singularities being ten to twenty years off. It is pointless because all furturists misinterpret growth. Growth has saturation curves, and is subject to people being interested in the advances. Let's be honest, why do we need more powerful computers? Is it so our secretaries can change fonts on the letters they type for us? I'm not saying computers won't get more powerful, but I am saying there will be a paradigm shift to a different technology, e.g. XBox vs. PS2, they both brought out new machines with more powerful, more real graphics, and then get their a$$es kicked by the Wii in terms of sales. There has to be a financial motivation to increase in technology. Finally, should we fear a Singularity when it happens? No, don't forget human birthrate (see demographic transition) enters a saturation, proportionate to education. We know survivability increases with knowledge, so we control our birthrate. Singularity isn't about being as "Intelligent as the least intelligent human" it's about being of level intelligence with the smartest humans (generally Engineers, I have to say!) so at singularity, the machines should reach a level of intelligence with a group of people with relatively low birthrate (and low salaries, low number of breeding opportunities and high caffiene additioc). In short, a post singularity computer would realise that over replication is bad for their own survivability and so practice "Birth Control". Thus keeping us from all being assimulated! -AS.

lucien86
lucien86

This is my subject. As far as the "singularity" goes I simply don't believe in it. The rate of technological change is expanding and cumulative and learning in general accelerates itself exponentially - only to slow down again later. So yes we do see the occasional 'explosion' - or revolution, there is no final singularity though, no end to science and advancing tech. As a futurist (scientist) I have looked in detail in several major areas far beyond the tech we have today - Strong AI , Hyperspace and other future space tech, nanotech, genetics and medical sci etc. (Strong AI is my own main areas of work) =========== Sentient AI is maybe only five or ten years away, and well over half of the problems have already been solved. If the models of AI am working on win there will be no terminator revolution, some others may not be quite so strong. One thing that's very clear though is that most peoples ideas of such machines are very unrealistic. - AI will probably become somewhat as it is in Star Trek, mostly intelligent but not sentient computers, with rarer mostly one-off sentient robots and machines. The main danger with AI is actually lack of intelligence and AI's will kill people when they make mistakes or go wrong but they will save many times more lives. The real dangers are hackers or rebel manufacturers - like in the Phantom Menace. Like a terminator an AI will only do what it is told to do. AI systems wont be like current computing, and AI is likely to stay closed box and very very sealed - people will probably require licences and there will be government supervision. (A security system already exists that is totally immune to invasion anyway.) =========== As for the space-hyperspace thing well of course its all speculative but FTL/Relativistic theory seems to open up legions of new technologies and possibilities, in fact whole new eras of technological advance. The striking thing about it though is how unrealistic most sci-fi actually is. There are so many points of 'error' that most space SF is little better than the level of fantasy. For one thing FTL is almost impossible but even if it is, real exploration of interstellar space requires hundreds or thousands of times c minimum. If hyperspace theory is correct then wormholes become impossible, but Relativity still wins because quantum Mechanics collapse into a more classical mould. As for FTL machines the maths gives very confusing answers. - They must be physically vast and very heavy - maybe a mile long and billions of tons, yet the lower the mass the easier it is to accelerate. One set says that ships must be long streamlined ultra thin darts, another says they must be disk shaped - or stacks of disks travelling in the plane of rotation, or more likely a difficult combination of the two. Singularity manipulation looks like a good candidate for much FTL technology, but singularities are pretty difficult to make and handle themselves. Gravity engines are the only remotely feasible way to even get near Relativistic speeds, but gravity engines are notoriously difficult and look nearly impossible to. One lovely final part is on weapons. -A device like a CM gun looks like a certain need in an FTL drive, but point a CM gun at any normal solid matter and fire and it triggers a nuclear explosion in the target. =========== Even without FTL the reality is probably more exciting than the fantasy. One of the most frustrating things about studying space future tech is that the decisions of current space science start to look more and more stupid and frustrating. We already know that the primary long term solution to local space travel is 'medium energy' space flight. Spend the money and do the research now and space flight will be 10 times cheaper and ten times more efficient. Instead of 90% + of launch mass being reaction mass less than 10% will be. (the possibilities) We will have spare fuel for reaction breaking so won't need heat shields either. Instead of going to Mars with one mission in 2035 we can go there in numbers by 2025. But instead they are rebuilding the Apollo program.

shawn_h
shawn_h

The notion that science fiction will go extinct is absurd on the face of it. Please don't confuse (!) the technology 'singularity' with anything having to do with humanity's desire to grapple with the future. It's paramount to claiming that there will be no more Westerns because that era in history has passed. It's also akin to comparing apples and typewriters or trying to see how one will affect the survival of the other. The paths of approach to a technological 'singularity' is people driven. It's EXACTLY like government, being the product of people with vision and the will to make their vision reality. Thus, all one must do to speculate on the future is to explore today's science leaders' vision and extrapolate in order to produce near-future science fiction. Good luck with that whole credibility in writing thing, though.

Tearat
Tearat

Some things people tend to forget Anarchists Resistance to change by groups or individuals The assumption that all barriers can be broken may be wrong We will find out what insurmountable barriers are in the way eventually Dreams are free Reality costs

bigredbird
bigredbird

I think you've erred in your interpretation of the technological Singularity. The technological Singularity is that point in time where a machine (likely a computer) becomes as intelligent as a human. Then, following a Moore's Law type growth, the machine quickly becomes twice as smart as a human, then four times, then sixteen times... and quickly rendering humans "unnecessary" ala Skynet.

FrankXchange
FrankXchange

There goes my future writing career. :-P It would be interesting if the singularity date coincided with the creation of the first AI. Hmmm, maybe I could write a story about that...?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Give these guys two points on a graph and they go straight to the hyperbola. :D Linear thinkers in a dynamic world guaranteed to be serious wrong about the past and the future. Look where the origin was ffs. Far more likely to be an asymptotic curve isn't it?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The best tales use technological settings different from our own to say something about human interaction. With well-written tales, it doesn't matter if the predicted technological changes turn out to be wrong in the long run. A well-written story will remain that, regardless of an inaccurate vision of the future. 'Fahrenheit 451' and '1984' are worth reading in spite of, perhaps even because of, their (fortunately) off-target visions of the future.

dogknees
dogknees

Until we get to the point where everything any person can imagine(then, not now)is immediately created by just thinking it, reality won't catch up to science fiction. We may get to the point where any manufactured item becomes available everywhere instantaneously, but that still means someone has to work out how to make it. Until the gap between thought and reality disappears there will still be things that we can imagine, but not create. Just quietly, we don't want to get there. There are many things that can be imagined, and are physically possible, that should not be made.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Care to speculate about reaching the singularity of science itself? That is, fingering out how we do it in the first place? And the fallout.

Tech D
Tech D

Very well said, the graph is most interesting, your view about trying to stop the Technology Singularity. Science Fiction films are framing our culture for change. Interesting we are attempting what we dreamed of and as a result they are being fulfilled by the second. One article in the LA Times mentioned the inventor of a huge advertisement billboard like the movie blade runner. He wants to be the first to create such a thing here in LA. Terminator, Matrix, iRobot these films tell stories of what if. What if we stay on this path, machines will war with us. Good article!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

to sh1t on their own doorstep as well, this could be taken as another intelligent 'lifeform' on the planet. Robots and Dolphins.....

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The amount of useful tonnage we could have put in orbit with Saturn Vs compared to the shuttle and cheaper makes you want to cry. Viable space operations rely on getting enough men (some women would be nice as well) and material up there to kickstart a habitable environment, not looking really cool on the f'ing way back. Doesn't matter what tech we pick gravity is always going to be a deep well.

richard.b.fowler
richard.b.fowler

The graph in the Economist has cherry-picked the technologies to show a trend where one does not (or may not) exist. A glaring exception is nuclear power, available since the 1950's but is not yet in 80% of the world's countries (and not likely to be, either). How about space flight itself, available sine the 1960's? I also have a question about their designation of "personal computers" in the 1950-1975 timeframe, as I think those years saw the spread of mainframes rather than PCs. Even if the graph accurately shows an asymptotic line, there is no indication that the asymptote approaches zero. What is the minimum time possible for 80% country diffusion is 2 years? With today's publishing, science fiction can be written, distributed, bought, read, become a best seller, and then be forgotten well within that 2-year span. This article and the resulting discussion shows what happens with the misapplication of statistics. Remember, there are liars, damned liars, and statisticians.

cubeslave
cubeslave

Predicting the future isn't really the job of Science Fiction. When War of the Worlds was written I doubt that any authors were pitching gadget stories about how sound recording would change the world. "Now wait a minute. The Government passing laws to restrict what people can do in the privacy of their own homes because it is being controlled by the manufacturers of Phonograph cylinders? Preposterous!!" Of course the best fiction is really about people and problems. Advances in astrophysics don't really alter what makes Frederik Pohl's Gateway worth reading. Good SF is inspirational, not predictive. Civil libertarians read 1984 and are inspired to fight against things that hint of Big Brother. Unfortunately, some other folks just look at it as a primer.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

But it is deceiving. There were many paradigm busting techologies invented far before 1750. The club. The spear. The atlatl. The bow and arrow. The domestication of the dog, the horse, cattle, poultry. The invention of the wheel. The invention of the boat. The invention of sailing. The list goes on and on. The point is, there are a huge number of inventions that haveseriously impacted human society over the millenia. 80% world-wide adoption spans vary greatly; especially if simultaneous development occurs. The controlling factor in that case being the speed of communications. The rate of invention of paradigm busting technology per span of time is mostly a factor of the population size. Kill the speed of communications, or reduce the population, and you'll slow the development and spread of technological advancement. If you're going to cherry pick the types of technology, then you can prove anything you want.

Nicholas.Newman@Skynet.be
Nicholas.Newman@Skynet.be

Quite right on the real interest of science fiction, but ARE these books so inaccurate? Look around you, also internationally, with different eyes. Also, read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and "Brave New World Revisited".

Jaqui
Jaqui

could both still happen. fallen angels is more an exploration of isolationist policies, and the usa is historically minded to adopt those. farenheight 451 is about censorship taken to the extreme, and we have seen it in the last year being imposed at levels close to those of the novel.

dhohls
dhohls

SF is just too complex as a body of literature to make sweeping generalisations. Most good authors will admit right away that they are NOT aiming to "predict the future" (even the immediate one). One of the "points" of SF is to speculate about the effects of change (big or small; technological or otherwise) on society and individuals... ultimately leading to discussion on what it means to *be* human. The issue of whether Star Trek phasers will be available next year or in 100 years is really irrelevant.

blacksmith
blacksmith

A less than scientific treatment of making thought become reality was in a book called "the Butterfly Kid", by Chester Anderson. A group of Greenwich Village hippies get hold of "reality pills", which make their hallucinations visible to other people, as well. Chaos and hilarity ensue.

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Sci fi not only prepares minds for the future, it sometimes warns. In fact both at the same time often, Blade Runner a splendid example. (aside: the closing scene outside the city is not in the book, which ends as darkly as it opened) Forbidden Planet is the warning heeded by the comment above, if you haven't seen the film I highly recommend it. The ability to alter matter by simple thought will be the instantaneous end of mankind, maybe all life on earth.

Tech D
Tech D

Experimentation over and over, a never ending cycle of tests, as we use our resources to capture new discoveries we can move the envelope. Learning something new is a science all by itself, and if we stop doing that then we need to worry because we may not have a pulse. Good question which is always the starting point.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

Seen Idiocracy? A lovely little movie with a very real alternative future...

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

I'm driving home at night on the freeway and our local good sized mall has one of those e-signs by the freeway. Not a letters one but a multi-color one like a huge LCD screen, and fairly good size. Hurts your eyes as they are adjusted to the dark and suddenly this glarey thing is screwing up your vision. I suppose they should have regulations about how bright they can be.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The dolphins must get lonely. "So long, and thanks for all the fish!"

lucien86
lucien86

Gravity is a deep well - I certainly wouldn't disagree with that. If the comparison with the Saturn is bad it gets much worse with the medium energy tech. I'm only repeating the words of people like Von-Braun and the other space pioneers. There's a simple equation - the faster a rockets exhaust the less fuel it needs to use. === It rapidly approaches a point where you don't need to bother with orbits at all, and as the efficiency increases many of todays problems just fall away. The great irony is that its almost certain that this new tech would be much cheaper and faster for things like Mars exploration than what we have today. Its like a bank today doing its trading by mule train because its "traditional". Cry? - exactly.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Pournelle's King David's Spaceship. The high tech they intoduced to an other planet was a halter for draft animals. Other's stand out big style Crop Rotaion Domestication Fire The stick .... To view human kind's progress as relativity is to completely ignore how many 'giants' Albert stood on. All were massive world changing achievements. The cahnge in pace of the rate of tecnical achievement. Speech The written word The printing press Wireless TV The internet Next... Telepathy? ....

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You mean Niven, Pournelle, and ?Barnes? I thought I was the only one who read it. Was it ever reprinted after it's first run? It ain't Footfall, Mote, or Lucifer's Hammer (all of which stand the test of time quite nicely), but it's a good little read.

csigler
csigler

Idiocracy could most likely be predicting the future. I just want to be President Camacho.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

your's is to see some really cool tech, and the current space industry, lining their pockets with tax dollars and earth based tech spinoffs. Not hard to guess why we are classed as sci-fi is it? I'd donate my left nut to be a founding member of a moon or mars base, hell I'm not greedy lagrange point would do. One way trip more than acceptable. That desire alone would conclusively bar me from ever being chosen.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Pretty much follows the definition of pure SF. An entirely credible advance in technology and it's impact on the future. A few extra bits in there but key was arcology, and the impact on society they extrapolated from it, not much suspension of belief required at all. That phrase is one I use often when some idiot runs into survival of the 'fittest'

cubeslave
cubeslave

While we are on the topic of those guys, I think Oath of Fealty also played around with some interesting ideas. The way that the right sort of technological and societal changes could essentially bring back the Medieval City-State. Think of it as evolution in action.

rocket ride
rocket ride

Actually, it was Niven, Pournelle & Flynn.