words Adam Fisher
Here comes the geek rapture: we’re on the brink of gadget singularity, when everything that can be invented will be invented.
Aeons ago, in internet time, one young man, Brian Lam, ran the gadget-testing lab in the bowels of Wired magazine’s San Francisco headquarters. And he had a trademark joke. Whenever the stresses of getting paid to play with the very latest electronic goodies got too much, he would hold up the latest GPS/phone/camera/fish-finder/what-have-you combo tool, fresh from it’s FedEx box and still flecked with bits of Styrofoam packing material, and announce to all assembled: “Gentleman, we have achieved gadget singularity.” The words never failed to get a laugh from the rest of the crew.
For those of you who had a little chuckle there, congratulations, you have reached the final stage of advanced geekdom. For the rest: please allow me to gently adjust your funny bone.
A “singularity” is a concept borrowed from cosmology. It’s what existed before the Big Bang kicked off time, the universe, and everything: it’s the primeval atom – a universe of size zero in all spatial dimensions, infinite density, infinite temperature, and infinite space-time curvature.
Technologists use the word to mean something different, but no less mind-boggling. The “technological singularity” is Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock on steroids. And the idea’s greatest champion is one of the most important figures in artificial intelligence, Ray Kurzweil. He argues that the rate of technological change is accelerating so rapidly that the curve that plots change over time is fast becoming vertical. At that point, everything that is possible to be invented will be invented, simultaneously – a technological Big Bang if you will.
What will this end-time look like? Well that’s the beauty of the singularity. In physics, the singularity marks the point at the beginning and, perhaps, the end of the universe where, by definition, there is no way of knowing what’s on the other side. The only thing you can really say about the singularity is that on the other side everything will be utterly different. Kurzweil has dropped some hints about what to look for. He thinks that the internet is going to wake up and become a fully conscious, global superbrain. He’s even calculated the date of this great awakening – 2029, with full legal equality between computers and men by 2099.
Gadget singularity, then, is the be-all, end-all gadget; the all-in-one gizmo; the last piece of consumer electronics that you’ll ever want or need. Back in the day, the joke was on what might be called a Ginzu gadget: “It slices! It dices! It never loses its edge!” Invariably the gadgets that could do “everything” were so limited by their so-called flexibility that they could do nothing particularly well. The camera that was a phone that was a PDA was a total joke. They always sucked.
But that was before Apple released its iPhone 3G and, in the same month, Google unveiled its God gadget, Android. Gadget singularity is nigh. “The endgame is a marble-sized device that replaces every gadget you have and implants directly into your brain,” says Lam, now the editorial director of Gizmodo.com, the world’s most-read gadget blog, “and this is the beginning.” He’s not joking any more.
To understand what Lam means, forget for a moment everything you might know about the iPhone and Android. (Techies out there should, for a moment, also overlook the fact that Android is not a phone, but rather a platform and operating system.) In the abstract neither gadget is a phone at all, but rather a mic, a speaker, a display, a lens, antennas and modems of various types, and an input device – all tied together by a microprocessor and some memory. In other words, they are pocket computers. What makes them phones, cameras, PDAs, web-browsers, digital recorders and so on is just the software that’s loaded onto them. Both the new iPhone and Google’s Android are specifically designed to run any software anyone manages to dream up. So they’re not gadgets, but meta-gadgets. It’s the first step towards that marble in your brain.
In the short run it’s anyone’s guess who will win the war for the pocket. Apple has now built openness into its system, and is actively encouraging third parties to develop software (that is, widgets and applications). But for Google, openness is the system: they just build the standards, and anyone can design the hardware and the software using them.
The trend is clear however. Just by the nature of the competition, more and more of the tools that we think of as separate will be integrated into one thing. And what particularly interests Lam is the gadget singularity endgame. “How do you write an email by just thinking about it? How do you pull up your pictures?” In other words, what’s the user interface going to look like when our must-have gadget is a marble-sized brain implant and nothing more? “Some designers are totally terrified of that idea and what it means,” says Lam. “Others just don’t get it at all.”
Adam Fisher is a technology writer based in San Francisco