Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Mother of all Negative Singularities: the Olduvai Theory

In my initial excitement at contemplating a Kurzweilian Singularity, with its promise of unlimited intelligence, wealth, freedom, etc., I, like many early converts to this quasi-religion, may have been overly optimistic about its prospects. Putting aside the technical challenges of artificial intelligence and transhumanism for a moment, the first thing to realize about a technological singularity is that it can only occur if the underlying environmental, economic and social substrates remain functional. With the global economy currently falling off a cliff to a degree not seen since the 1930’s (if ever), this assumption is looking more and more dubious. And when you combine economic instability with the looming problems caused by global warming, depletion of soil and sea life, mass extinctions, the decline of cheap energy production, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism, etc., it becomes increasingly clear that a perfect storm is brewing that threatens to sweep away any utopian ideas of infinite technological growth. In fact, carried to its logical conclusion, this pessimistic line of thinking leads to the mother of all negative singularities: The Olduvai Theory.

Briefly, the Olduvai theory models the lifespan of our industrial civilization as a transient pulse characterized by its per capita energy consumption. According to this model, per capita energy use peaked in 1979 and has been in slow decline ever since (though it did peak again in 2005). The model predicts a steeper drop-off beginning in the past few years (the “Olduvai slope”), followed by a rapid collapse after 2020 (“the Olduvai cliff”). This is projected to cause a cascading failure of our energy-dependent economic systems, followed by a massive “Dieoff” that could reduce the global population by as much as 99% before stabilizing. The theory gets its name from the Olduvai Gorge in east Africa, thought to be the ancient cradle of humanity and our metaphoric future home.

The Olduvai theory could be considered the mirror image of the Kurweilian positive Singularity. The time frames are similar and the changes are equally dramatic, but where Kurzweil’s curve grows exponentially upward to an unknowable future, the Olduvai’s decays exponentially back to our distant past. Humanity’s fate may hinge on the outcome of a race between these two curves: Moore’s Law growth vs. the trailing edge of the Olduvaian pulse wave. Of course these two trends are highly interdependent. A rapid fall off in energy supply quickly trumps the technological growth which energy abundance makes possible. Conversely, rapid technological advancements allow for greater efficiencies in energy production which can theoretically offset the inevitable exhaustion of non-renewable energy sources. If either theory is correct, we should know which trend will prevail within the next two decades.

To appreciate what may be at stake here, consider the words of the visionary astrophysicist Fred Hoyle:

"We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites [necessary for maintaining a high-level civilization] so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only." --Fred Hoyle, 1964

What I find so disturbing about the Olduvai theory is that it a) seems to fit the data fairly well, b) is consistent with the population/energy dynamics of many other species, such as algae and yeast, and c) suggests that a rapid drop off in our global living standards has already begun, and will steepen dramatically within the next 10 to 20 years. Given what is going on around us every day now, and the growing sense that some kind of ineluctable catastrophe is approaching, the Olduvai theory provides a nice story that puts current events into a larger context. Of course it’s easy to dismiss this theory as doom-and-gloom hysteria, in the same way that most dismiss the Singularity theory as pie-in-the-sky delusion. But I would suggest that if you seriously think the latter is a possibility, then you should also consider the (perhaps greater) possibility of the former.

On a more philosophical level, I'm not too worried about either scenario actually coming to pass. In one case, we achieve undreamed of advances in intelligence, lifespan and wealth, while in the other we go back to our primeval, natural way of life in the Olduvai. I consider either singularity preferable to a continuation of our present planet-destroying, greed-driven, "primates gone wild" so-called “civilization”.

Further Reading:

World Energy Production, Population Growth, And the Road to the Olduvai Gorge by Richard C. Duncan

Peak Oil, Total Collapse, and the Road to the Olduvai by Perry Arnett
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