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After Hours

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.

About

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...

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