Precursors to The Technological Singularity

Henry Adams
Author and historian, Henry Adams

For centuries philosophers have often cast the arch of history as bending consistently and strongly towards progress, both social and technological. These philosophers have been both religious and secular in nature. Secular philosophers have have often focused on political and technological progress as their metric.

Some philosophers have argued that the rate of progress, however defined, remains constant, while others posit that the rate of progress itself is increasing – accelerating change. The singularity, technological or otherwise, is often the point in these philosophies where further progress is beyond our human ability to predict with any degree of accuracy. In other philosophies the journey of progress reaches an omega point, a vertical asymptote of infinite acceleration.

While the theory of the technological singularity may appear to be new, it actually comes from a long philosophical history. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, may be the first singularitarian philosophy, which he finished around 1806 surrounded by Napoleon’s army. While not technological in nature, Hegel argues that humanity may progress to a point of absolute knowledge about the universe.

In 1863 the English author Samuel Butler inspired by Charles Dawin’s then recent work wrote an article titled, “Darwin among the Machines”, in which he argued that the same forces that Darwin argued shaped biological evolution also applied to technological evolution. Butler feared that if this technological evolution were allowed to continue unabated it would lead to the creation of what he referred to as “mechanical life” and that this “mechanical life” would eventually supplant humanity to become the superior race. Butler believed strongly that humanity should resist such developments by destroying “every machine of every sort” and that humanity should permanently return to the “primeval condition of the race.”

In the 1890s the American mathematician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce wrote about his theory of evolutionary cosmology, which he called “Tychism.” In it he describes the universe as evolving from its initial period of chaos into a final singularity of unlimited consciousness. Peirce also believed the pace of this cosmic evolution was accelerating.

The grandson of the sixth US President John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, was likely the first person to explicitly describe what we would recognize to day as a technological singularity. In Adam’s 1909 paper titled, “Rule of Phase Applied to History” he argues that history advances through ever-accelerating phases – including the Mechanical, Electrical, and Ethereal Phases. The paper outlines what is likely the first depiction of history as a self-accelerating technological process. He even wrote about what he called The Law of the Acceleration of Thought which is strikingly similar to Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns from a hundred years later.

Then we come to the French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard de Chardin is perhaps the most famous of what could be called the early singularitarian thinkers. He was one of the first philosophers to seriously explore the future of human evolution. He advocated for enhancing humans in a transhumanist fashion through both biotechnological and non-biological means. He predicted the emergence of a worldwide communication network and the development of a truly global culture and society. He believed that technology would accelerate towards the technological singularity, which he referred to as the “Omega Point.”

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