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Cybernetics, the Social Web, and the (Coming?) Singularity


Image Credit: Sekko Da Vinci (see link below)

Over the past year or so, I have been doing a lot of thinking, reading, and ruminating about several topics: the outdated thinking of Web-2.0 startups, the need for a revolution in the microblogging space , what identity in the Social Web is really all about, and the meaning of a truly user-centric Social Web. As I’ve been furiously writing about these topics, in the back of my mind, I’ve been wondering where all of these advancements may eventually lead.

Whereas you will find my insights and thoughts about the Social Semantic Web strewn throughout my website, this article is an attempt to extrapolate a few of those ideas in a more provocative and profound–if not frightening–way. So, you have be forewarned. Any resemblance to reality may be greatly over exaggerated!

Pioneering the Philosophical Study of Cybernetics

First a little background about how I got interested in computers, science, and the natural world. My Father (Kenneth M. Sayre), a well-known expert in ancient Greek philosophy, is also a recognized thought leader in the Philosophy of Mind and Artificial Intelligence (AI). He is one of the pioneers of the philosophical study of cybernetics and AI.

While completing his PhD at Harvard, my Father worked at M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory, joining a team of several AI pioneers—Marvin Minsky, Oliver Selfridge, and Edward Fredkin. My Father shared an office with Fredkin, the two of them spending many hours playing Go.

After leaving M.I.T in the late 1950s he went to the University of Notre Dame (ND), joining the philosophy department. Over his more than 50 years at ND, he has written eighteen academic books, six that deal with cybernetics, AI, and Philosophy of Mind.

  • Belief and Knowledge: Mapping the Cognitive Landscape (1997)
  • Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind (1976)
  • Consciousness: A Philosophic Study of Artificial Intelligence (1969)
  • Philosophy and Cybernetics (1967)
  • Recognition: A Study in the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence (1965)
  • The Modeling of Mind: Computers and Intelligence (1963)

In the past several decades, his work has focused more on ancient Greek philosophy and environmental ethics. His latest book, Unearthed: The Economic Roots of our Environmental Crisis, looks at the relationship between the laws of thermodynamics, ecology, and our current state of economic unrest—topics that are all important with the subject matter presented in this article.

So I guess it is no surprise that as a kid growing up, I was fascinated not only by computers and technology, but also by science and nature, especially ecology—although that was more of my Mother’s influence.

With my Father’s work in AI, he had access to Notre Dame’s mainframe. As a freshman in high school, I learned how to program on the University’s very big computer. Once the first personal computers came out, I was hooked on computer technology. Even though computers fascinated me, there were not many career options in programming when I went to college, so I pursued undergraduate degrees in molecular microbiology and ecology.

As I look back at the people with whom my Father rubbed elbows and I consider his early career, I think it’s quite fitting that I find myself thinking about the forefront of technology and how humankind is possibly racing toward it’s cybernetic destiny.

Cybernetics and the Social Web

Although there are many different definitions of cybernetics, in general, cybernetics covers a range of topics from how systems describe themselves, to how they control themselves, and even to how they organize themselves. On page 18 of his book, Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind, my Father defines cybernetics as the “study of communication and control functions of living organisms, particularly human beings, in view of their possible simulation in mechanical systems.”

A lot has changed in humanity’s intraspecies-communication abilities since my Father’s book came out (almost 35 years ago). The biggest change, in my view, is the emergence of the Web-based Internet. With advances in chip architecture, the promise of chip-based photonics, the emergence of quantum computing, and the revolution in manufacturing thanks to nanotechnology, a lot is about to change with regards to humankind’s ability to control biological systems using mechanical (albeit nanosized) systems.

I argue that if the technological realities of the next several decades mimic my conjectures below, then cybernetics will not be about the “simulation [of humanity’s communications and control functions] in mechanical systems”, as my Father states. Instead, it will be about humanity’s assimilation with its electromechanical creations. In other words, it will be about the merging of man and machine (women as well).

So how exactly are cybernetics and the Social Web tied to together?

Before we take a closer look at how the Social Web plays a part in humanity’s cybernetic destiny, let’s set the stage by talking a little bit about technology’s exponential growth and the coming singularity.

In the Beginning… or Let There Be Technology

Taking a page out of the creation myth, once the Universe came into existence thanks to the Big Bang, the stage was set for the rise of humanity, its technology, and its eventual cybernetic destiny.

In his intriguing book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, prolific inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil makes an interesting statement. To summarize his statement in a prophetic manner, physics begets chemistry begets biology begets technology. From the moment that our Universe came into existence, the Laws of Physics quickly became set in stone, paving the way for the eventual rise (albeit very far into the future) of the technological transformations I’ll present below in the section Cybernetic Phases of Humankind.

Life Appears Linear Even When Living on a Curve

One of the foundational threads that play an integral role in much of Ray Kurzweil’s writings, is the notion of the exponential growth in computational power. In the early 1900s, way before silicon-based chips and Moore’s Law, basic mechanical computational devices existed. Going all the way back to these devices, Kurzweil has plotted on a graph the growth of computational power as measured by calculations per second per unit cost of computation. The graph shows an eerily steady exponential growth in computational power over the past 100 years.

Assuming that there is no reason this trend will not continue into the foreseeable future, it can be extrapolated that by the year 2020, a $1,000 computer will have the computational capacity of a human brain. But, and this is an important point, artificial computers are significantly faster at calculations than are our brains as they are electron based and not biochemically based.

By the year 2030, that same $1,000 will purchase a computer that is 1000 times more powerful than the one you purchased it 2020. That means one little computer will be able to perform as many calculations per second as 1000 human brains sitting in a big corporate think tank.

How little will these massively-parallel computers be? Try the size of a sugar cube. Remember that sugar cube as it is the sweet connection that comes into play later.

If you look at where we currently are on the graph of computational power, you’ll notice something interesting. It appears that the current state of the growth in computational power is on an asymptote. This is another important point. At this point in the curve, the doubling in processing power begins to accelerate. As Kurzweil points out, the exponential growth of computing power may actually be growing exponentially.

The interesting thing about living on a curve–especially an asymptotic one–is that it is often difficult or impossible to comprehend that accelerated exponential growth is occurring. In fact, exponential growth is often only observed from a historical perspective.

How is the exponential growth of computation related to cybernetics? Why is it important to understand?

At some point in our current asymptotic ascension on the computational power scale, we may reach a singularity, more accurately termed the technological singularity. The term singularity is taken from physics, from the theory of black holes. The singularity is the spacetime point at the “bottom” of a black hole’s event horizon. It is where all matter and energy that fall into a black hole eventually end up.

It’s interesting to note that according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the Universe started as a singularity. This makes it easier to understand the technological singularity. An observer on the other end of the Big Bang’s singularity, for instance in another universe, would have no idea of what is happening in the new universe.

Therefore the technological singularity is a point where the rate at which new technological advances are being made is so great that it is impossible for today’s current humans to comprehend. The implications of a technological singularity extend well beyond the continued exponential increases in computational power.

Instead of new advances and innovations happening in a few years or months or days, once the singularity occurs, the mind-boggling computational powers at our disposal will lead to innovations happening in hours, minutes, or seconds. Only those entities that are integrated into the new technological landscape will be able to comprehend this quickly evolving existence.

For a general, high-level view regarding humankind’s cybernetic destiny, see my article, The HyperWeb: it’s All About Connections.

Cybernetic Phases of Humankind

Now we arrive at the synthesis of all of these seemingly disparate topics. What is the relationship between the Social Web, cybernetics, and the singularity?

Although I have not read about the classification that I’m about to propose, it is possible that someone may have already written about this using these or similar terms.

I will spend less time on the early phases as it is the later phases that have the most intrigue. When reading about the below phases, keep in mind that at the juncture between one phase and the next, there are overlaps that make it difficult to clearly determine the proper phase to best classify a given era.

As humanity progresses through each of the phases below, we separate ourselves further and further from the rest of nature, from the natural world, from the original Web of Life. We become more reliant on our technology and less on the services of the global ecosystem.

Phase 1: The Natural Web

This phase is also called the Web of Life. It encompasses all geochemical and biological activity before humankind and goes right up to the emergence of the Web-based Internet. Humanity is still very dependent on nature and as a result remains relatively outward looking.

Phase 2 The Anthropocentric Web

This phase is also called the Web of Documents and the realm of social networks. It encompasses what is best known as Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Here the focus shifts inwards, focusing on innovating more efficient and novel ways in which humans communicate.

I believe humanity is on the cusp of its next cybernetic phase. We are at the Web 2.5 stage ready to break through into Web 3.0.

Phase 3: The Social Semantic Web

This phase is also called the Web of Data, the Semantic Web, or the Social Web—the latter term being what I’ve been heavily promulgating. Human data on a global scale is encoded into machine-understandable data. This enables the linking of data and allows for the serendipitous discovery of new connections with other datasets. Data now becomes the unit of exchange on the Web, not documents. Instead of Hyperlinks being the engine of exchange, it is Hyperdata.

Imagine being able to automatically discover people with whom you share similar skill sets, interests, and ideas. Imagine being able to ditch the social networking silos and instead operate and control your own communications channel that can link up with, share, and communicate with anyone else on the Web in real time. Linked data and new communication protocols will make that possible. The Web will finally become social.

This phase is best known as Web 3.0. It has also be refereed to as the Giant Global Graph.

Phase 4: The Artificial Synaptic Web

This phase is also called the Web of Information which is enhanced by the Web of Sensors. This will be the Web 4.0 era.

Remember those sugar-cubed sized, massively-parallel computers? The Artificial Synaptic Web is where artificial neural networks interface with organic, biologic neural networks. In other words, human brains.

Some humans will opt to augment their bodies by having one of these sugar-cubed sized computers implanted into their brainstems. It will of course be an Internet-enabled device. It will provide new avenues for data exploration and communication.

Data from the Giant Global Graph will now be populated with sensor data from the millions (maybe billions) of ubiquitous micro and nano scale devices — some of which are interfaced with cell clusters within our bodies. We will be able to communicate directly with one another, from one brain to the next.

At this stage in the Web’s evolution, the inputs and outputs are not via the Web browser–an archaic interface that differentiated the Web from the rest of the Internet during its first three or four decades.

Whereas we can still think in terms of a Web-based Internet in Web 4.0, that phrase will not mean what it means today. The new Web will not require Web browsers to process client data. The Web will instead be analogous to the Web of Life, to an ecological Web but with fewer connected participants, with fewer dependent species, and objects.

The major difference will be that instead of humanity accessing the Social Web via a browser on a disparate device, our brains will be the Web browsers. For those of us who opt to have a neural network interface implanted into our brainstems, we will no longer need a separate piece of physical hardware like a smartphone, tablet or notebook computer.

Phase 5: The Global Brain

This phase is what I call the Web of Cyborgs, Web of Machines, or Web of One. In essence, this is the new version of humanity as superorganism, as the collective. It is where connective intelligence merges with collective intelligence. It is where the familiar is thrown out the window. What we currently consider normal reality morphs into a surreal, science-fictionesque world.

This will be the Web 5.0 and Web 6.0 era—although I’m not truly clear on what Web 6.0 will encompass.

The biologic and artificial become one with our basic organic infrastructure improved by synthetic biology and enhanced by nanotechnology. Molecular machines combined with exceptionally-powerful computational devices, turn us into human-2.0 types.

This phase occurs around the time of the singularity—which is predicted by Kurzweil to happen in 2045. The singularity will allow human-2.0 types to continually innovate new technologies and do so at increasingly faster rates.

At this stage, cloud computing does not occur between Internet-connected server clusters. Instead, the cloud is the Global Brain—the networked neocortices of all brain-stem augmented humans. The cloud will be grey matter and nanobot powered. Instead of silicon chips crunching calculations, it will be living tissue and graphene-based machines computing in a symbiotic relationship.

Those who do not participate in the Global Brain–either by choice or more than likely due to lack of economic means–will be left out. By the time Phase 5 comes along, version-1.0 humans will be considered inferior models and changes will occur so rapidly that it will be impossible for any human-1.0 types that are still alive to comprehend what is going on.

The End of Humanity, the End of Nature

The final phase of humanity’s cybernetic destiny will be the beginning of the end of our species. By that, I do not mean we die off—at least not in a traditional manner. I mean that we speciate for the final time, we evolve into a new form of life—part organic, part inorganic, augmented by our technology. It is the beginning of a new chapter in humanity’s evolution. It is a period where we will transcend our ties to natural-selection based evolution. It could very well be the end of nature, the end of the natural world as we know it.

By the time our cybernetically-hybrid species passes into this final phase of humanity’s cybernetic destiny, global resources will be utilized at a frenetic rate. All accessible matter on earth–organic and inorganic–that has not already been bended to meet our needs will be repurposed to feed our growing hunger for increased computational power. The Earth’s ecosystems will quickly be used up and our organo-machine brethren will head out into the solar system, looking for ever more resources to consume.

If our species artificially evolves to this point, it is clearly debatable whether the term humanity can be applied to it any longer. My guess is that our humanity will have long been subverted by our need to consume resources, build more organo-mechanic drones, and spread our way of existence throughout the solar system, the Milky Way, and eventually on to other galaxies.

In the most extreme version of this vision, you have to look no further than popular science fiction programming to get a possible glimpse at the Web of Cyborgs. Think Star Trek’s Borgs, Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons, Star Gate’s Human-form Replicators, maybe even the world of the Matrix, and possibly even Doctor Who’s Cybermen. Although the first three are more true to this vision than the last two. Also, the Matrix is an alternate vision where the machines take over and control humanity rather than humanity and machine becoming one.

Our Star Shall Shine No More

Will this fantastical vision of humanity’s cybernetic future come about? Who knows. It is just one possible, logical extrapolation of my idea about cybernetics and the Social Web. Is this a good thing?

There is a very real, practical reason for humankind to strive toward creating technologies that will allow for efficient space travel. The Sun, the star that powers our planet, will eventually go boom. Yes, that is estimated to be roughly 5 billion years from now and there are a vast number of more pressing issues that humanity faces, but it is the ultimate determinate of a timeline for life as we currently know it.

Some even speculate that the time for us to leave Earth is fast approaching as the carrying capacity for our species is reaching a tipping point and environmental degradation is accelerating. Whatever the reality and for whatever reasons, if we as a species are to continue in some form and fashion, we will at some point–albeit in a heck of a lot sooner time than 5 billion years–need to leave our planet and seek out a new home.

But this vision transcends the pastoral view of humankind eventually launching into an idyllic star trek across our galaxy. At its foundation, this vision assumes that we will become overly engaged and dependent on our technologies, that we will figure out our own genetic code, that we will fully understand how our brains work and develop molecular machines that can be integrated into our very bodies. Advances in computer chip architecture and molecular machining combined with discoveries in synthetic biology will allow us to accelerate our evolution, blurring the line of what is human and what is machine.

It may be that humanity’s real version of Star Trek may not be dominated by a species that even resembles homo sapiens 1.0. We may be more like the Borg after all.

Humanity 2.0 Will Need Some Rules

Personally, as someone who is extremely fascinated by nature, especially ecology, the thought of Earth’s currently-dominant species running amuck with the assimilation of all Earth’s natural resources is a terrifying prospect. Although I am fascinated with nanotechnology, and believe that it has the potential to bring some great advances in material science and medicine, I hope that humanity figures out when to stop. I hope that our species can figure out a way to benefit from the coming singularity without the need or urge to convert, to bend all matter to our purposes.

At the point where the Global Brain has awakened, I suggest we use our collective and connective intelligence to figure out a less drastic way to launch ourselves into space. The Universe is a vast place. Let’s utilize resources on asteroids, moons, and planets where life does not exist. Let’s capture the energy of suns in solar systems without life. Let’s push forward with all our great new technology but maintain some semblance of our original Earth-bound humanity and preserve (or simply pass by) naturally-evolved life wherever we find it.

And to think that all of this was innocently triggered from reading a few blogs, thinking about social media, and writing about the emergence of the Social Semantic Web. Perhaps a little less caffeine and more sleep are in order. Ah, heck, resistance is futile!


There are a number of respected technologists, physicists, and neurobiologists who believe the singularity is much father away than Kurzweil’s predictions. There are others who simply believe it will never occur. I’m not here to take a stance on this particular issue one way or the other. I’m just postulating what could occur if the notion of a technological singularity is correct. The timing is truly immaterial to this thought experiment.

For an alternate view and timetable of humanity’s future challenges and changes, see this website. I believe that if the singularity occurs within our lifetimes (say within the next 30 to 50 years), then this alternate vision is too conservative by a few magnitudes. As Ray Kurzweil states, technological revolutions have not occurred in nice, orderly, linear fashions.

The asymptotic growth of technological acceleration–when your view is from within the curve–often appears linear. To most viewers, it is not apparent that in fact the curve is approaching infinity, that growth is accelerating at an accelerating rate. Thus the assumption of a significantly drawn-out time scale as evidenced in the Future Timeline website may be overly conservative.

And for a very far-out look at where some people believe we may be heading, I recommend this fascinating short video from the Director of District 9 presented at a TEDxVancouver event.

Finally, I have discussed a few of these ideas with my Father in the past. But I have never shared this full version with him as I know that he would not be happy with this vision of humanity’s trajectory.

Whatever may transpire, it is clear that the next 50 years will be a remarkable time. May the force be with you, live long and prosper, nanu nanu, never give up and never surrender.

Additional Resources

A new documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his ideas about the singularity was recently released. If you are interested to learn more about the singularity, I recommend watching Transcendent Man.


July 20, 2011: Don’t think that human-brain machine-neural interfaces will ever exist? Literally right after posting this article, I came across this: First Artificial Neural Network Created out of DNA: Molecular Soup Exhibits Brainlike Behavior. When you combine that with research presented in Soft Memory Device Opens Door to New Biocompatible Electronics, you begin to see that bridging the brain with computers via some sort of small, implantable device may not (someday) be that far fetched an idea.

August 17, 2011: IBM announces first working chips modeled on the human brain. These cognitive computing chips are a major step toward large-scale, brain-like computing. IBM’s goal is to produce a fully-integrated brain-like computer that is 10 times more powerful than the human brain but takes up the same volume of a brain. Remember that sugar-cubed-sized neural implant that was 100-times more powerful than a human brain? This is a step toward that realization.

Image Credit: Publicly available graphic by Sekko Da Vinci

Article Comments

  1. One description I’ve heard and read about this arc is about the evolution of information. Basically, information – the construction, replication, modification, selection/amplification etc. of patterns of matter/energy in entropic flows, has passed through three or four epochs already. The first epoch was physical – the breaking of key symmetries in the universe, the limited cosmic numbers and quantum values that precipitated out of that, and the limited possibilities for combining those parts, overcoming molecular and nuclear binding energies to build new elements etc., this was all an epoch when the vector for information was physical only.

    Organic chemistry in aqueous substrates can be considered a new epoch, and the ability for basic information processes to occur (replication of pattern, modification of pattern, destruction of pattern) sped up considerably.

    Then came nucleic acids – wonderful long thin molecules – thin enough that the hard limitations of core chemistry gave each codon in the string some fixity, yet the string itself extended on a scale that placed it in the ebbs and flows of the organosphere. We could get fidelity and context-reponsive change. This cracked open a new door. The biosphere opened up, and with it came an explosive uptick in the speed of change and system learning (evolution).

    The next epoch evolved on top of the signalling systems of living organisms. (You could do a hormonal/phermonal/neuronal/sensory story for steps between RNA/DNA and advanced signalling). Through signalling and communications animals could represent to each other many things about their environment. A mother bird’s cry can make her hatchlings hide deep in the nest. This is way more context-sensitive, flexible, powerful and adaptable than biological evolution.

    From hard-wired behavioural repertoires, perhaps experientially tuned, comes culture. One can imagine pre-linguistic cultural learning, then the emergence of language and learning. Rate of change accelerates. Then, literacy – bang! Another huge jump, then industrial printing, bang! Telecommunications, bang! Now you have computer programs that can create physical objects on 3D printers – including one day soon, printing other computer-operated 3D printers, perhaps.

    While more primordial information layers do not disappear, change churns them more and more as new faster control layers mount on to the stack. The obvious implication, on this story, is that the infosphere is moving from a time where all info was physical/biological as the main substrate for evolution, to a time when the cultural vector (knowledge, wisdom) becomes the primary channel for the flow of the codons, mutations and selection that shape biological and physical components of the ecology. The nervous system for the enculturation of evolution is the web as it will be, in the future you portray.

    I think that in that future, the thought that people once debated whether or not Darwinian processes were enough to describe biological evolution will become literally incomprehensible. Darwinian sculpting of experience will unfold in real time all around us in very narrow timeframes. To understand what you are in the evening, compared to the morning, will be impossible without understanding how your nodal ecosystem is evolving. Evolutionary dynamics will play themselves out with the speed of rain in a downpour.

    And a lot of what emerges will not be useful or nice, but hopefully selection will be efficient – even wise.

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Interesting thoughts. I keep coming back to the notion that once humanity divorces itself from the services it currently requires via the ecosphere, that all bets are off.

      Biological (Darwinian) evolution has been the norm since life first formed–at least on our planet. Prior to that chemical evolution was dictated by the inherent Laws of Physics. If the singularity occurs, and humankind speciates for the last time, will our new ancestors find ways to bend what we once considered the Laws of Physics?

      Have you heard of the Kardashev Scale? Taken to its extreme, the ultimate drive of a singularity-powered civilization will be the domination, the utilization, of all matter in the Universe.

      This idea makes me wonder if there is another Law of Thermodynamics—all matter seeks to coalesce.

  2. JoukoSalonen says:

    Thank you Jeff. A good summary. After reading Dawkins in my youth I as many others (as your article implisitly tells us) have been looking for this kind of escalation of hidden logic or metanarrative in the culture around us. As a practitioner I can tell that building the Giant Graph is very frustrating work, the Meat World resists heavily. Lord willing, we have enough time to see phases 3 and 4 before the Ecophagy when the Engines of Creation take over.

  3. Wonderful piece, Jeff. I just finished reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. I’ve also read “The Age of Spiritual Machines” several years ago and found it somehow more optimistic and inspiring than this latest piece.

    I think it’s wonderful that someone with your background is thinking about this stuff. I would love to know what your father thinks about this too. As you and I have exchanged notes on this up on Google+, I think the biggest question for me is whether the fullest sense of our humanity can actually be ported to another substrate, whatever that may ultimately end up being. Baked into this question is whether there is some additional ingredient, beyond our intelligence, beyond our personality structure and even beyond our consciousness – call it a soul if you like – and whether that will make it with us in the transition. I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, but I do believe it is the most important question we can possibly ask.

    Thanks for sharing these very thought-provoking ideas.

    • Jeff Sayre says:

      Thanks, Gideon!

      I agree that Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is not as optimistic as some of his earlier works. I wonder why?

      I’m pretty sure that my father would be frightened by this scenario. It does not fit too well with his world views. As far as how much of our humanity can be ported into an artificial substrate, that is an interesting question. As you know, Kurzweil talks about the ability to scan our brains and fully upload — or transfer — our essence into another container. If that time ever comes, we may finally determine if there is another aspect of ourselves — our soul, as you put it — that is not possible to transfer. Or, perhaps, the technological shortcomings of the brain-transfer procedure will need to be expanded beyond the brain to capture that what might be called soul. After all, our neural net extends beyond the confines of our cranium, reaching out to every part of our body.

      As I like to say, the brain is in our head, but the mind is our body.

  4. Ralph says:

    I just watched an interesting sci-fi film called CYBORNETICS, it deals with the coming singularity much like this article, in the film it appears that scientists were successful with utilizing an external computing device in conjunction with a human brain to produce a working cyborg, this cyborg eventually malfunctions, escapes and starts to construct a device of it’s own, which in turns then takes what it needs from the human and then becomes an independent being, outside of the cyborg, which I think will be relative to a singularity experience.To sum it up, I think the premise was trying to say, once we are successful with building a working cyborg, that day in itself will start the end of humanity, which I think is relative to Darwins theory of evolution, which suggests that we broke ties with our ape ancestors long ago and eventually evolved into homosapiens, which means that these cyborg beings will eventually break ties with our human ancestors and generally all humans in the near future will be considered apes.

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