Speedily, Speedily, In Our Days, Soon

Predicting significant social or technological changes would be hard enough even for a rational actor.  After all, any individual has limited (and inaccurate) information about the current state of affairs, many of the systems involved appear chaotic, and the time-scales involved can be very short indeed.  For humans, it’s even harder.

So when a Reddit post on this comic led me to this article, I was intrigued.

The relevant bit of the article:

Pattie Maes, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab noticed something odd about her colleagues. A subset of them were very interested in downloading their brains into silicon machines. Should they be able to do this, they believed, they would achieve a kind of existential immortality. […]

[…] her colleagues really, seriously expected this bridge to immortality to appear soon. How soon? Well, curiously, the dates they predicted for the Singularity seem to cluster right before the years they were expected to die.  […]

Joel Garreau, a journalist who reported on the cultural and almost religious beliefs surrounding the Singularity in his book Radical Evolution, noticed the same hope that Maes did. But Garreau widen the reach of this desire to other technologies. He suggested that when people start to imagine technologies which seem plausibly achievable, they tend to place them in the near future – within reach of their own lifespan.

The author of the article, Kevin Kelly, refers to this observation as the “Maes-Garreau Law”.

The most obvious explanation for that observation is probably wishful thinking, especially (but not always), if the change in question seems positive.  Or perhaps the desire for personal significance that comes with messianic or apocalyptic thinking.  Kelly comes up with a slightly different explanation, though:

Singularity or not, it has become very hard to imagine what life will be like after we are dead.  The rate of change appears to accelerate, and so the next lifetime promises to be unlike our time, maybe even unimaginable. Naturally, then, when we forecast the future, we will picture something we can personally imagine, and that will thus tend to cast it within range of our own lives.

If I had to guess, I would say that this is not bound by observations about the rate of change.  Rather, since consciousness is centered around narrative, we expect our lives to have narrative continuity.  Thus, predictions about the future that seem hopelessly alien are more likely placed after the imaginer is dead, and predictions about the future that seem like they could fit into the stories of our lives seem like they could also plausibly happen within our lifetimes.

An interesting logical inference:  If the above is true, than one would expect predictions of the timing of the singularity to differ wildly depending on which side of the singularity one is trying to imagine, and how good a job one does of imagining the alien-ness of a post-singularity world.

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