The Study and the Singularity

Do Long Term Projects Still Have a Place in Our World of Break-Neck Change?


Published: November 20, 2008

These are ambitious times. Some weeks ago, researchers at the National Institutes of Health, along with other federal science agencies, announced the start of the $2.7 billion National Children’s Study, a research project that will follow over 100,000 children and mothers from birth to age 21, releasing huge quantities of data along the way. The project will look at genetics, nutrition, exercise, attitude and environmental factors like pollution. The sheer magnitude of this study is astounding, as is the weight of their goal: find out the causes behind the ever-rising rates of childhood cancer, autism, obesity, alergies, AD/HD and endocrine problems before our civilization suffers a childhood health cataclysm.

The pharmaceutical industry may seem like an economic and cultural edifice, but in reality, it is changing very fast. (Shirley Hon/The Observer)

Considering what a low priority science has been for our government in this decade and how little funding this sort of research has received, the existence of this project should encourage us. With the world under threat from the global food, climate and energy crises, as well as hundreds of other slow or sudden disasters, we need bold solutions, and this study is certainly bold. We also need to take a long look and think about the consequences that our actions have far into the future.

But the world is moving so fast. And not just moving—accelerating. Given how much our society and planet have changed in the last 21 years, and given the monumental developments predicted for the next 21, how can we possibly predict those consequences? And can we be sure that such a long term study will be relevant when it is finally complete?

I have one friend who scoffs at the National Children’s Study.

“Nothing like that will matter,” he says with unnerving confidence. “In 20 years, the singularity will have hit, and we will all be uploads. Health won’t be a problem. It is all a waste of time.”

The “singularity” is a theoretical event which supposes that technology and the rate of change are accelerating so quickly that eventually there will be a point in the future—a mathematically asymptotal point—after which we can no longer make meaningful predictions about what will happen. Futurists often tie this idea to the development of powerful artificial intelligences, or to human genetic engineering, or to the creation of devices or pharmaceuticals that will enhance our brains, but the point is the same: the future is likely to be more different than we can possibly imagine. There is no high ground from which to survey the years ahead and understand the consequences of our actions. Taking a long look is impossible.

Not being able to see where we are going raises questions about just how we should go about ‘progress.’ If the smart money is on a singularity, how can we be sure that the state of affairs this study was designed to help, or even that human beings as we now understand them will still exist when the study is complete? When we are all immortal uploaded consciousnesses in some grand computer emulation, as my friend supposes, we won’t need medicine or nutrition, and that $2.7 billion will have been for nothing. Should we then not waste the time or money on anything too long term? Should we just nudge science and society along bit by bit, so we can make adjustments as necessary? Should we save our efforts for the singularity, whatever it turns out to be?

For a semi-scientific theory, the singularity has a vaguely religious element to it. It is something that you either believe in or you don’t, like the Rapture. And once you believe in it, everything before it seems a little unimportant.

In the end, though, I think my friend is wrong. The National Children’s Study isn’t a waste of time. It isn’t a waste of time to check your smoke detectors even if you think you are going to move soon. We never know what will matter or be useful in the future. That is the whole point of the singularity theory: we can’t predict. Fifty years ago, people thought we would have flying cars by now. Fifteen years ago, few realized just how important clean energy technology would be. We have no way of knowing what will be useful and what won’t, what will come to pass and what won’t. What we can’t deny is that big projects like this do matter, despite the time it takes for them to come to fruition. From particle accelerators to the Human Genome Project, science has grown significantly through such efforts. We shouldn’t let faith in a strange nerd rapture slow us down. So, whatever comes, let’s be ambitious.