Monday, February 16, 2009

What is a paradigm shift?

I was just doing a little reading and stumbled across a document that discussed paradigm shifts of technology. Not that the concept is new or mysterious, but I was curious what the technical definition really is. More importantly, I was interested in the application of the concept to technology, commerce, and society in the context of the Internet, Web, Web x.0/social-computing, and how people will earn a living in the future (or even next week) in the New Economy.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary does not define the term paradigm shift, but does offer a reasonable definition for paradigm:

a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated ; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind

The Wikipedia was far less useful than it usually is. It does have a reasonable explanation for paradigm shifts in science or even social science, but was not so helpful regarding technology and money in the New Economy. The lead for Paradigm shift merely says:

Paradigm shift (sometimes known as extraordinary science or revolutionary science) is the term first used by Thomas Kuhn in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) to describe a change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science. It is in contrast to his idea of normal science.

It has since become widely applied to many other realms of human experience as well even though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences. According to Kuhn, "A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone, share." (The Essential Tension, 1997). Unlike a normal scientist, Kuhn held, "a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself." (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, posit the possibility that miasma causes disease or that ether carries light. In contrast, a critic in Humanities can choose to adopt a 19th century theory of poetics, for instance, or interpret economic behaviour from a Marxist perspective.

Thus, paradigms, in the sense that Kuhn used them, do not exist in Humanities or social sciences. Nonetheless, the term has been adopted since the 1960s and applied in non-scientific contexts.

There is very little mention of technology paradigms. The closest is an odd section entitled "As marketing speak":

In the later part of the 1990s, 'paradigm shift' emerged as a buzzword, popularized as marketing speak and appearing more frequently in print and publication. In his book, Mind The Gaffe, author Larry Trask advises readers to refrain from using it, and to use caution when reading anything that contains the phrase. It is referred to in several articles and books as abused and overused to the point of becoming meaningless.

Granted, I agree that the term is overused, but I find it is still applicable and in that original scientific sense.

I find it amusingly noteworthy that the Wikipedia article does not even mention the paradigm shift from books, encyclopedias, and libaries to the Wikipedia itself. Missed that one.

I will offer my own brief definition:

A paradigm is a combination of a worldview and a collection of rules for operating in the context of that worldview. Opportunities are available and success can be achieved when individuals and organizations acknowledge the worldview and follow its rules.

A paradigm shift is a relatively abrupt change that brings about a relatively radically new worldview with new rules, such that opportunities are accessible and success can be achieved only to the extent that individuals and organizations adapt their thinking to the new worldview and adapt their behavior to follow its new rules.

-- Jack Krupansky

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Launch of the Singularity University

There is now a Singularity University that will offer training to professionals interested in pursuing Ray Kurzweil's vision of a "singularity." Their stated mission is "Preparing Humanity For Accelerating Technological Change":

Singularity University aims to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity's grand challenges.

From their press release today:

Singularity University to Study Accelerating Technologies, Launches at NASA Ames

February 3rd, 2009 – news
Singularity University, Press Release

MOUNTAIN VIEW and LONG BEACH, Calif. — (TED CONFERENCE) — February 3, 2009 – With the support of NASA, Google and a broad range of technology thought leaders and entrepreneurs, a new university will launch in Silicon Valley this summer with the goal of preparing the next generation of leaders to address "humanity's grand challenges." Singularity University (SU) ( will open its doors in June 2009 on the NASA Research Park campus with a nine-week graduate-level interdisciplinary curriculum designed to facilitate understanding, collaboration, and innovation across a broad range of carefully chosen scientific and technological disciplines whose developments are exponentially accelerating.

SU co-founders Dr. Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Peter Diamandis unveiled plans for the new university today at the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference in Long Beach, Ca.

"We are now in the steep part of the exponential trajectory of information technologies in a broad variety of fields, including health, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence," said Kurzweil. "It is only these accelerating technologies that have the scale to address the major challenges of humanity ranging from energy and the environment, to disease and poverty. With its strong focus on interdisciplinary learning, Singularity University is poised to foster the leaders who will create a uniquely creative and productive future world."

I am still not persuaded of the concept or practicality of the supposed singularity, but all of the component technologies make perfect sense and are in need of research, innovation, and dissemination. The release goes on to say:

"We are reaching out across the globe to gather the smartest and most passionate future leaders and arm them with the tools and network they need to wrestle with the grand challenges of our day," said Diamandis. "There is no existing program that will offer the breadth and intensity that SU will offer. During the year, between the Graduate Summer Programs, SU will offer a unique 3-day and 10-day program for CEOs and executives that will give them the forward-looking radar they need to determine how these key technologies might transform their companies and industries in the 5-10 years ahead."

That makes sense to me, but what CEO can afford to look out even two years let alone 5-10 years? Still, it is good to promote interest in the degree of research needed to tackle any of the "grand challenges" in front of us.

The curriculum will provide a broad, interdisciplinary exposure to ten key fields of study:

  1. future studies and forecasting
  2. networks and computing systems
  3. biotechnology and bioinformatics
  4. nanotechnology
  5. medicine, neuroscience and human enhancement
  6. AI, robotics, and cognitive computing
  7. energy and ecological systems
  8. space and physical sciences
  9. policy, law and ethics
  10. finance and entrepreneurship.

Unless you have read Ray's book, you are probably wondering what the Singularity is all about. From the first chapter of the book:

Gradually, I've become aware of a transforming event looming in the first half of the twenty-first century. Just as a black hole in space dramatically alters the patterns of matter and energy accelerating toward its event horizon, this impending Singularity in our future is increasingly transforming every institution and aspect of human life, from sexuality to spirituality.

What, then, is the Singularity? It's a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself. Understanding the Singularity will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future. To truly understand it inherently changes one's view of life in general and one's own particular life. I regard someone who understands the Singularity and who has reflected on its implications for his or her own life as a "singularitarian."


The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury -- unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

That still does not adequately convey the full nature of the Singularity, but it is a start. In essence, the Singularity involves major breakthroughs in hard artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. The book calls this GNR for Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. When all of the related technologies come together and enable a new acceleration of knowledge and thinking, that is the Singularity. That is still an oversimplification, but will have to do for now.

The interesting thing is that this is an interesting attempt to achieve revolutionary change rather than simply plod along at a pace at which we started the 20th century with automobiles for personal transportation, but ended there as well. So much of what we use computers (and robots) for today is simply the automation of traditional tasks, but not so much in the way of revolutionary new concepts.

-- Jack Krupansky