The Biological Singularity

If you’re a sci-fi reader, you are probably familiar with the idea of the “technological singularity“. For the uninitiated, the Singularity is the idea that computational power is increasing so rapidly that soon there will be genuine artificial intelligence that will far surpass humans. Essentially, once you have smarter-than-human computers, they will drive their own advancement and we will no longer be able to comprehend the technology.

We can debate whether the singularity will or will not happen, and what the consequences might be, for a long time, but that’s not the point of this post. This post was inspired by the final chapter in Denialism by Michael Specter. In that chapter, Specter talks about the rapid advancement in biotechnology. Specifically, he points to the rapid increase in computational power and the resulting rapid increase in the speed of genome processing.

I always sort of knew that both fields were advancing rapidly, but for some reason it clicked while I was reading that chapter. A lot of people talk about nanotechnology as some sort of miracle technology that is just around the corner: we will be able to create tiny machines that can do our bidding to build things at the molecular level. Traditionally these machines are seen as tiny robots, but as I read that chapter in Denialism, I realized that nanotech is both closer than I expected and not “robotic” at all!

Maybe custom-designed organisms will make nano-scale machines like this unnecessary.

Nanotechnology already exists: it’s called life. Think about it. Why construct little robots to do our bidding, when living cells fit the bill perfectly? With exponentially increasing computing power, we will be able to sequence genomes in seconds or less. Sooner or later, we will understand the genes well enough to start designing entirely new forms of life.

So if we’re using our super-intelligent computers to design new forms of life, what happens when the computers become smarter than us? The singularity might not end with a catastrophic “grey goo” but with an explosion of bio-diversity. Of course the line between biology and computers might become so blurred that there is no meaningful distinction between the two.

The post biological singularity world might be a very strange place indeed. On the one hand, it could be great. Imagine instead of factories, huge colonies of carefully tended micro-organisms. Need a new car? Just culture some bacteria that deposit steel the way corals deposit carbonate. Keep them fed with raw ore and tended, and they grow the car for you.Or perhaps we do away with the distinction between life and technology. Maybe our vehicles will be living, intelligent things along the lines of those in the novel Leviathan. Of course, post-singularity, there might not be humans anymore. The post-humans might take over and see humans as obsolete.

Another thought that occurs to me is that this level of biotechnology might open up the solar system in a way that previous technologies could not. Terraforming could become much easier if you can design micro-organisms that can survive and thrive on Venus or Mars under current conditions. But why stop there, why not just design your astronauts so that they can survive on the surface. Instead of terraforming a whole planet, Areo-form the individuals who will explore it!

I think this is a really cool but also sort of disturbing idea to think about. One of the difficulties with science fiction these days is that the pace of advancement is so fast that it’s difficult to say what the future will be like even ten years down the road. I think the only thing we can really say for sure is that it will surprise us.

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4 Comments on “The Biological Singularity”

  1. Nicole Says:

    Instead of terraforming a whole planet, Areo-form the individuals who will explore it!

    That reminds me of a little blurb in one of the short stories in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, in which humans end up creating vampire-like creatures that they send out into space to explore, but, because the humans also feared their creations, they erased all information about how to find earth again from the computers before they sent them.


  2. Thank you for this great article.

  3. Sylvan Says:

    Awesome Article. I was watching the generally hated film ‘Skyline’ and got thinking about the ‘Singularity’ but from a biological sense. How can our technology out grow us if we are gain the ability to expand our own intelligence – wouldn’t we then reach a point where we would reach the biological singularity.

    Awesome post – thanks

  4. Omar Haleem Says:

    I always thought that the discrepancy of human and technological evolution and the way in which technology seems to have outpaced us humans lay in our conditioning and our faith defining the boundaries of our evolution? When they talk about artificial intelligence i wonder if the flawed human perception and the way we perceive life on earth and our relationship to it will be taken into consideration?. What if we removed every form of bias and gave just a few guidelines for our evolution to first machines and made them show us what possible paths we could take if we had the opportunity to relive life from the very beginning and use that blueprint as our ( ten commandments) only in this humans would be just another life form which exists with other life forms and the planet we inhabit is a living breathing conscious being which is akin to a seed and our job is to make this seed grow and reach out to the universe around us. WOuldn’t that prove that if he had no flawed conditioning then we would have the ability to use our own biological selves and evolve into capable beings able to communicate and collaborate with other species on planet earth and then we could be fully capable of actually defining what our priorities in life would be. There was a cartoon movie “justice League’ I remembered batman towards the end speaks to lex about how we all have the ability to create reality and make it possible to impact our environment and how these would result in billions of different perspectives and lead to chaos. WHat if some results were achieved now by understanding and accepting the concept of flawed conditioning and how it has made us tread a path which we shouldn’t have ever trodden upon in the first place. How do we do damage control on planet earth ( which i consider to be a very conscious being) Why, is it that the things we create with our hands far outstrip us and we are still held back from developing the same capabilities as what we create. when mother earth has the ability to perceive individual symptoms and magnify them through the elements, why can’t we do the same. If the camera can have a zoom function why couldn’t our brains evolve naturally to provide that same function without changing anything, by ‘activating’ it as a conscious thought can we not change our selves and progress along with what we create. I know it’s possible for split second to get that close up of some object which you observe, but can that split second then not be through conscious conditioning be increased until we all have the ability to with just a thought get that instant zoom. and then through evolution pass it on to the next gene which will have it better and will increase it’s capability. We can start by teaching our children to take the steps that we took further and achieve milestones which are their own. That was a good post and i Thank you, i came here searching for biological singularity after i read about singularity as a technological term. I hope it will get somewhere when we can stop creating hindrances and work together for a better world.


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