ESSAY: Memetic Explosion Theory

From: Mitch Howe (
Date: Sun Jan 27 2002 - 00:18:11 MST

by Mitch Howe

The SL4 list has now seen a number of threads concerning how, when or if Singularity memes should be spread. While I absolutely do not seek to belittle the importance a few words now might have on developments in the years ahead, I would like to propose a secondary viewpoint regarding the circumstances under which most people are likely to take the Singularity seriously. I am sure sociologists or historians have already devised similar theories, but I reinvent this concept here and present it to you as the Memetic Explosion concept:


The most unorthodox and uncomfortable ideas are given serious consideration by a critical mass of individuals only when these ideas are key to events that are: 1) Immediate and global in scope and/or 2) Experienced first-hand through expressive media.


--A successful rebellion among American colonies gets you numbering the days of monarchs.

--A luxury airship bursting into flames on a newsreel makes you reluctant to travel under seven million cubic feet of flamable gas (even though hydrogen was later shown to be of little consequence in the Hindenburg disaster.)

--Tuning into the radio as one man flies solo, non-stop across the Atlantic causes you to visualize the way air travel can shrink the globe.

--Newsreels depicting the carnage of Nazi concentration camps calls for the creation of new words to describe previously unimaginable barbarity: Holocaust and genocide.

--A Cuban Missile Crisis makes you think atomic armageddon is not just possible, but likely.

--Naked refugees and impromptu death on the evening news adds a sharp bite to the bark of anti-Vietnam War activists.

--A Space shuttle exploding on television puts a damper on the idea that trips to orbit will soon be an everyday experience.

--A cloned sheep named Dolly pushes an uncomfortable scientific possibility onto your morning newspaper.

--Watching hijacked airliners crash into office buildings makes you feel the global reach of terrorism.

--The televised possibility of Anthrax in your mail plants a spore of biological horror in your mind.


I am not saying that Memetic Explosions are the only way big ideas catch on with the masses, but they seem to me to be the primary means of propagation for concepts that are relatively difficult to grasp, enormously unsettling, or totally orthogonal to conventional wisdom. I think that the Singularity can easily fit all three of these categories.

So I argue that the recently written books on the Singularity are of themselves no more likely to cause widespread discussion around the water coolers of the world than Engines of Creation did for nanotechnology (and despite the quality of this book and the enormous progress nanotechnology memes has made since its release I would still argue that nanotechnology's memetic mass is far from critical; I have generally been a world-watching, tech-savvy individual all of my life and didn't stumble onto the book or take the idea very seriously until about 18 months ago.) The public will not internalize the concept of Singularity when it is sandwiched between Oprah episodes on near-death experiences and chronic fatigue syndrome. It will be probably catch on only when mandated by some huge televised news event, or by some tangible product that finds its way into everybody's daily experience.

What might be the spark for the concept of the Singularity? Though impossible to guess, it should be noticed that most of the examples I gave for perception events that cause memes to explode with irresistible energy are, for the most part, negative. Nevertheless, the likelihood of Singularity's big debut in the spotlight working in favor of its development might be increased by positive, useful products based on AI research that are every bit as tangible as a cloned sheep. Ben Goertzel's current goal (if I have it right), the creation of revolutionary software for biomedical applications, is a start. But software grinding away in the laboratories of secretive pharmaceutical companies is probably too abstract to qualify as the spark for a Memetic Explosion unless it produces something as marvelous as a pill that cures AIDS or cancer--and unless the public is made acutely aware that AI was directly responsible for the discovery. And what researcher would choose to emphasize that it was her that computer came up with the biggest breakthroughs?

What would the ultimate Singularity-friendly PR product be? I honestly don't know, and I hope that I and others can come up with some ideas -- and produce them!

Sadly, the most likely spark for a memetic explosion regarding Singularity research would be a horribly tragic event. This is not to say that the disaster would directly involve AI, although it might. This is also not to say that a catastrophe would result in negative public reaction to the Singularity, though it might. It is actually possible to envision a scenario where disaster pushes people strongly in the direction of support for superintelligent AI if the appropriate introductory memes are already in place. Imagine a ruthless, effectively untreatable disease (perhaps genetically engineered) that infects virtually everyone and drastically reduces the quality of life; superintelligence might be seen as the best hope for an early cure, or as the precursor to moving humanity into Simulation, where biological disease is irrelevant. A dangerous self-replicating nanodevice might serve a similar role in pushing AI research to frantic levels.

Of course, I may have just given motivation for some sociopathically radical pro-Singularity group to conspire to intentionally cause just such a catastrophe -- but I do hope that the world is not cliché enough to follow this typical technothriller/horror plot.


In any case, the point should be emphasized that the probability of a disaster pushing humanity towards Singularity rather than towards a new Stone Age will be increased if the appropriate memes are already in circulation and can be taken seriously at a moment's notice. There are some examples of how not to handle memes regarding new technology; Take the current state of the Virtual Reality meme, for example. After more than a decade of great hype accompanied by consumer products that were costly, lackluster novelties at best, most people have come to see VR as a False Dream -- and full-blown Simulation as fantastic fiction. The excitement, and thus funding, are not what they ought to be at a time when technology makes VR far more possible than before.

The Singularity is really a much bigger idea than Virtual Reality, but the lessons might well be taken to heart. Those most in favor of AI research as the path to Singularity must seriously ask themselves if now is the best time to fight for those first critical 15 minutes of fame, keeping in mind that the second 15 minutes might not come so easily. Are there tangible products that people can see without feeling disillusioned?

Is public hype necessary to obtain the seed capital necessary for strong AI? What type of exposure now would best facilitate pro-Singularity attitudes if or when a global disaster strikes? What types of products could personally introduce the capabilities of strong AI to the general public in a positive way?

The Singularity may well happen so quickly that it will outpace its own memetic explosion like a supersonic aircraft outracing its own concussive noise. But the chance that it may not warrants every possible effort to ensure that any sudden public grasp of the Singularity will be a positive one.

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