How to Profit from the Coming Singularity

Breed polar bears. Buy Arctic beachfront property. Live forever.
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Singularity” is a term that futurists have borrowed from mathematics to describe an event so profound that nothing is the same afterwards. Noah’s flood would be an example. There are four singularities on the horizon, and each offers many opportunities to make money.


The internet swallows the world

In “Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean,” David Gerlernter predicts an accelerating migration of information into computers and the use of that information to control the world. He predicts we’ll reach a singularity where everything important happens first inside a computer, not in the world. The force behind the mass migration of activity to the Internet is called Metcalfe’s Law: Any communication medium becomes more attractive as more people use it. So the faster it grows, the faster it grows.

For example, PayTrust is an Internet service that receives all my bills and writes the checks, so most of my economic activity is now electronic. PayTrust is gradually getting all firms to exchange information with it, so someday everything may be electronic.

Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snowcrash” is a story of the near future in which people spend a lot of time in an artificial world constructed by computers. Today’s version of that near future is SecondLife, a Web site where you act through an avatar, a representative of yourself. You can make clothing for your avatar, buy virtual land from the virtual government, build stuff, make stuff and buy stuff. Nearly $1 million a day of real money is exchanged in SecondLife— about the same economic activity as in Switzerland or Samoa. This is money being spent on virtual things in this artificial world.

How can one profit from these things? Whatever you do well in the normal world, move it on the Internet.

An investor might become a land speculator in SecondLife, buying virtual property and selling it to later arrivals. This is risky, however, because the people who created SecondLife can create more property whenever they like — unlike Whoever created Earth. A more reliable occupation is to make things like artificial buildings and clothing to sell.

You could monetize a hobby by creating a Web site. Suppose you are a fan of the 1970s singing duo Peaches and Herb. Create a fan site with music snippets and all the background information you can find; e.g. the careers and names of the four different “Peaches.” Then sign up for Google AdSense, which finds and places ads on your Peaches and Herb site and you get paid when people click on them. Probably some of the ads will be selling music, so you don’t want to give it away, whatever your sensitivity to copyright law.

The Internet singularity is consuming print media. If you are a journalist or editor, become a blog packager. Millions of people are writing blogs ranging from personal diaries to intelligent reporting to insane ranting. Some of them, called vlogs, contain video clips or pointers to YouTube. Mainstream media people are correct to say most blogs are rubbish, but some offer new information that appears nowhere else, e.g. first-​hand reports from Iraq. Finding and packaging the good things in a particular area of interest makes you a micro-​magazine editor. This is the future of journalism, so stop working for people who run printing presses, paperboys and broadcast networks.

Cable hosts such as Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann have segments like “stuff we found on the Internet.” The Internet people return the favor by watching the comedy shows and putting the best segments on YouTube. I never watch “Saturday Night Live” anymore. If there’s a good sketch, it will appear on YouTube. Why watch the original when someone will cull out the good parts for you? You don’t even need TiVo anymore.

The mainstream media folks keep saying that sites such as YouTube and Google News are parasites that could kill the sources of the stuff they digest. The trick for these parasites is to stay benign like the common cold and not to get greedy like the Ebola virus. An entrepreneur who figures out a good compromise between the copyright holders and the Internet can make money, as Steve Jobs did when he introduced iTunes.

Computers get smarter

In “The Singularity is Near,” Ray Kurzweil says, “The Singularity is a technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-​based humans, and ultra-​high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.” He believes technological progress follows a hyper-​exponential curve. Developments are just around the corner.

He tempts the reader in an Internet essay, saying, “You will get $40 trillion just by reading this essay and understanding what it says.” Later he explains that the “you” is the collective pronoun for everyone and “$40 trillion” is based on his claim that current stock valuations are one-​third of their true value. So if everyone reads, understands and believes his essay, they will bid up collective stock values from $20 trillion to $60 trillion — and “everyone” will be $40 trillion richer from this Kurzweil-​inspired bubble.

In the meantime he has a more mundane way to profit himself. He believes that immortality will be available after 2045. The trick is living until then, and he takes 250 pills a day to stall his biological clock. His way of profiting is selling you these pills at $45 for a two-​month supply — www​.rayandterry​.com.

The oceans rise 10 feet

A very negative singularity is an environmental cataclysm. James Hansen, a NASA scientist, observes that because white ice reflects the sun’s rays back into space, melted polar ice caps will accelerate global warming. The water that will replace the ice will absorb the sun’s rays, further warming the ocean and melting more ice. He estimates we have 10 years to reach a tipping point, after which the polar ice caps will disappear. This theory, which Hansen says was censored in the White House, buttresses Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” Gore predicts some rather drastic global changes, and Diamond presents the history of humans blithely ignoring civilization-​destroying trends.

To make money preventing this singularity, Silicon Valley venture firms have made big bets on alternative energy. Vinod Khosla, in his modest Indian way, opined that the government didn’t have enough money to invest in solving the problem, but the venture community did.

If you believe a big environmental change will occur, buy Canadian real estate, the farther north the better. Buy future beachfront property in the Arctic. The Northwest Passage, long blocked by ice, is opening up so you could invest in shipping companies that will exploit it. Start breeding polar bears before extinction.

The apocalypse

The ultimate singularity, of course, is the End Times and the Second Coming, as described in the Book of Revelations. Tim LeHay and Jerry Jenkins have profited handsomely from their “Left Behind” book series and video games. If you are flown into heaven by the Rapture, you needn’t worry about money, but if you’re left behind, you’ll need all you can get. If the current Mideast war is part of the End Times —Armageddon is thought to be in Israel — Halliburton and the arms makers are certainly making a profit from this developing singularity. And finally, the Rapture could offer a cheaper route to space, assuming heaven is reached via space.


James H. Morris

James is a retired professor of computer science and dean of the West Coast campus of Carnegie Mellon University. He is a CMU graduate who received a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT. He taught at the University of California at Berkeley, worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and is a founder of MAYA Design Group.

Explore Related Stories:

Other stories in this category: « The China Syndrome Time for a change »
Close Window Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Keep up with the latest

Sign up for our Newsletter, Pittsburgh Quarterly This Week.

We’ll keep in touch, but only when we think there’s something worth sharing. To receive exclusive Pittsburgh Quarterly news and stories, please fill out the form below. Be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription!

View past newsletters here.

Don’t miss a story! Sign up for our newsletter to receive award-​winning journalism in your inbox.

Please let us know your name.
Invalid Input
Please let us know your email address.
Invalid Input