What Is Decentralization & Why Does Cryptocurrency Matter?
The Social Singularity
By Max Borders
An Excerpt From "The Social Singularity"
EVERY INNOVATION is an act of subversion.
Just before Satoshi Nakamoto published his 2008 white paper on the rudiments of Bitcoin, it must have been a bit like holding a lit match over dry forest underbrush. Did he linger for a moment before hitting enter?
Maybe in that moment he closed his eyes and saw flashes from the future: of a thousand pimply geeks becoming millionaires overnight. Of Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road’s Dread Pirate Roberts, being led away in handcuffs. Of mutant strains, copycats, forks, and tokens competing in an entire ecosystem of cryptocurrencies as in a digital coral reef. Of booms and busts and troughs of disillusionment.
We don’t know. But we do know one thing about Satoshi Nakamoto: he hit enter.
A coder strings together lines of instruction. Once he publishes his code, there is a potential butterfly effect. Technological change, happening moment to moment around us, adds up quickly. Before you know it, people everywhere are taking rides with strangers. Bangladeshi women ply their produce trade on smartphones. Every wingbeat is a potential gale of creative destruction. A billion lines of code, created by millions of coders, represent innumerable wing beats. Some are amusements. Others are bold experiments in social transformation.
Innovators’ work reorients us by changing our incentives, which changes our behaviors. Or at least that’s what I’ll argue. And the work of subversive innovators changes the game. By the way, subversive innovation is not the same thing as disruptive innovation—though I doff my hat to Clayton Christensen. Where disruptive innovations in Christensen’s sense “make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a much larger population,”79 subversive innovations, whether or not they also qualify as disruptive in that sense, are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society.
These structures are the hierarchies we trust and accept as a given. They are now vulnerable. Banks. Universities. Government itself. In other words, subversive innovation has the power to eliminate middlemen. When we consider all the mediating structures in the contemporary world, the implications are staggering. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Singularity Is Somewhat Near
Here’s a striking number: 97,900,000. That’s how many results Google says the search term “artificial intelligence” returns as of this writing—and it will probably be higher by the time you read this. From chess-playing supercomputers to robot overlords, the idea of thinking machines has become something of a worldwide obsession. How long before we simply commune with AI in our heads as if consulting some benevolent oracle?
Among the 97,900,000 results, we’d surely find references to John von Neumann, the polymath and inventor. In 1950, von Neumann wrote: “The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”80 Maybe some sentient AI in the future will honor von Neumann as a kind of ur-creator, along with Babbage, Turing, and Wiener, if such honors can be coded.
But what is a singularity? Or, more specifically, what is the technological singularity? In the 1960s, I. J. Good offered a clue:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
Science fiction author Vernor Vinge ran with Good’s great idea. And in a now- famous 1993 essay, Vinge describes a not-so-distant future in which machine superintelligence has brought the human age to an end. “Large computer networks (and their associated users) may ‘wake up’ as a superhumanly intelligent entity,” Vinge writes.
What does it mean for machines to wake up, exactly?