Earlier this week I watched a videoed talk of Kaila Colbin, talking to chief executives of New Zealand cultural agencies (those organisations funded through Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage). Her talk, Riding the Exponential Wave of Change, was about the technology changes hitting society today (and yesterday, tomorrow, etc.).

Colbin is the New Zealand representative of the Singularity University. As the name suggests it’s founded on an explicit belief and trust in the idea of technology leading us to the great technological singularity where machines out-learn humans in how to be human, and from there exceed us. I don’t know enough about the singularity, and I’m not sure I want to know much more, but figure we’ll all need to grapple with it whether we like it or not (and whether it’s true and real or not).

Colbin’s talk didn’t offer many solutions to the creative sector, nor focus specifically on what the singularity means for it or the existence of artists, reverting instead to the bigger question of what does it mean to be human in a world in which we might (‘will’ in Colbin’s view) be out-humaned by machines?

She had plenty of useful, even positive examples: machines diagnosing cancer more accurately than trained medical specialists and lawyer bots being ‘employed’ by US law firms; and some more worryingly examples: machines composing music that according to people in the know is actually quite good. (Disclosure: I’m unnerved by this. What next, novels written by bots? Paintings by bots? Are they real? Do they have real ‘feelings’ and empathy built in if not created by real people? But this is by the by…)

What really unnerves me is a number of assumptions in the singularity:

  • Abundance – machines will be able to make everything for us. That great utopia of endless leisure time is just around the corner and machines will make it all possible.
  • Equal distribution – we’re all going to benefit. There’ll be no haves and have-nots, no inequality, no poverty, hunger, or conflict.
  • Passive consumption – there’ll be no need for human agency in any of this. Machines will be so good at providing what we need that there’ll be very little for humans to do but sit back and consume – I mean enjoy – the fruits of our – or their – success.

The first two assumptions sound too good to be true; the latter too dispiriting. Perhaps the biggest assumption lies in the belief that technology will be inherently good: by default it will determine what’s needed and how to provide it evenly in a personalised way for each and every one of us.

Here lies the contradiction. Part of the basis of the singularity is that technology is nothing new, nor is the exponential pace of technological change. The printing press brought a huge change; steam power brought a larger change; the information age – and each development within it – brings an even greater exponential change.

Technology is inherent in humanity, conversely humanity (and its biases) is inherent in technology. When we think about technology creating evenly distributed abundance, the singularity doesn’t acknowledge that technology has so far failed to solve humanity’s inability to evenly distribute wealth. It’s simple technological determinism – call it techie trickle-down theory. Under such a theory, at what point does technology learn to think enough for itself that it can override the implicit bias built into every human-made building block on which it was created?

This is where the creative sector steps back into the picture. If technology fails to overcome bias and fails to create abundance for all (my assumption), then artists remain a critical part of society: critiquing the technology as in so many sci-fi films and literature, celebrating the humanity, and reminding us all of the society that both belong to and how it can be better. Doing what many artists have always done, in a world that’s unlikely to change in any meaningful way for most of us. With artists along for the ride I think we’ll survive the singularity.


Small update to add a couple of relevant links: