Posted by: graemebird | August 28, 2006

The Singularity: Part 1

I say the singularity won’t happen and that it cannot happen. But what is the singularity?

It seems that it is a hypothesised point in time when the rate of change in technology suddenly accelerates. I’ve had a look around on the net and you see sites with names like ‘acceleration watch’ and the like.

I would not deny that the pace of change can accelerate. But we are going to see this manifested, if anything, in higher rates of growth then would otherwise be expected (given policy and savings rates) over many decades. Not manifested in a singularity. The idea of the singularity brings in a focus on all sorts of developments that are most valid with the very exception of the singularity itself.

The basic mistake in this analysis is that the general growth rate is not determined by those parts of the economy that move ahead the fastest. Rather the general rate of change and growth is overwhelmingly determined by those parts of the economy that move forward THE SLOWEST.

To take an analogy from chemistry. When we have a multi-stage overlapping chemical reaction, that part of the reaction that we call THE RATE DETERMINING STEP is not the fastest step in the process. The rate-determining step is THE SLOWEST STEP.

In order to speed up a chemical reaction of this sort we have to find a catalyst that will speed up the slowest part of the reaction. Which is why the focus is on the rate-determining step.

People who are fixated on viewing those things that are moving ahead the fastest may be convinced that we are going to hit a sweet point of explosive growth. But if they really wanted to get an accurate view on how fast we can grow and on where great fortunes will be made they would be more well advised to look at all those areas that are holding us back.

What follows is an exhaustive and exhausting description of a sort of standard factory scenario. In this factory they make GUNK. Don’t laugh. Its only a matter of time.

Now they make this gunk at up to about 3 tonnes every 15 minutes for other industrial concerns who consume this gunk in the process of making consumer products.

We will also try and see what happens if we had to speed up any of the parts of what goes on in the factory by four times over.

It might be easier if you thought of it as various cake mixes or vitamin mixes or something of this nature.


The inwards goods come in on either side of the factory. They arrive on the left-hand side of the factory in trucks with containers that have ingredients on pallets. They are unloaded with a fork-lift and taken to be put on racks.

If you tried to multiply the speed of this process by a factor of four (not just for this factory but for all factories) the roads would be clogged with these trucks. There would not be enough racks. And we would have to go to just-in-time management. But just-in-time management is next to impossible to get on the go with public ownership of the roads and rail and a failure to have a caveated sell-off or a seamless congestion tax.

Some of the inwards ingredients however come in on the right-hand side of the building. These are the ingredients that are used with such volume and frequency in our many different formulations of gunk that we cut out the use of the pallets the containers and the bags and the trucks instead show up in giant tankers of the stuff. Now this is all a finely ground solid that can act in a liquid-like way.

The truck pulls up on the right-hand-side of the building and it pumps the ingredients through a whole series of pipes and fills up any one of 23 giant 30 tonne vats.

But it takes one and a half hours to empty each truck in this way. If we sped production up four times we would have one truck going one after the other. And if we tried to pump faster the gunk would get blocked in the pipes.

We could make the pipes bigger. But then gunk would get stuck there and be infected by critters and bacteria and the greater surface aread of the pipes would mean a great deal more cleaning when periodic maintenance was done.


Since all the ingredients must be combined in differing yet fairly precise amounts yet the bags of ingredients tend to come in 25kg bags the stuff has to go to a room to be pre-weighed. This is guys with a scoop weighing this stuff out and putting it on pallets. Its very hard to see it being worthwhile investing a great deal in machinery to speed this part of it up. Because we are dealing mostly with those ingredients that aren’t used in great volumes and aren’t used in all the gunk recipes.

These pre-weighed ingredients are put near racks close to two lifts. Now it might be a lot more efficient if you had less people working in pre-weigh but you had guys working round the clock. Then you wouldn’t have all this putting them in and taking them out of racks business. But the management won’t go in for this because there is a shift allowance involved. Still if they were doing four times the volume there is no question but that they’d have to work pre-weigh around the clock.

The pre-weighed stuff along with full pallets of ingredients go up to the fifth floor. There they are cut by a MIXER (That is to say a human) and the ingredients so cut falls down a chute into a MIXER ( that is to say a piece of machinery that mixes all the various ingredients up).

But at the same the more high-volume ingredients is pumped from some of the 23 vats to another vat whereupon it is then released into the MIXER.

The Mixer mixes all these solids together but then various oils and things are mixed in at the last minute. They have to come in at the last minute or the mix will overheat and cook and get solidified.

The mix then falls into a bunker where it is turned slowly to stop it clogging up. The Mixer (the human) was on the fifth floor. Whereas the mixer (the machine) was on the fourth floor. The bunker is on the third floor. The bunker lets the mix fall through chutes at a controlled rate. The mix moves through screws on the second floor. Is weighed out then falls down to a CAROUSEL on the first floor where it finds itself in bags…..

The bags are placed on a conveyer where they are sewed. They are turned and go along the conveyer. But you see on the third floor there are TWO CHUTES. So when we get down to the first floor there are two lines. And then the bags merge into one line. They are weighed again. They go through a metal detector and then onto a palletiser.

After the palletiser they are lifted up by a forklift and taken to the racks.

Now this would not work if we had to do four times the volume. Because the racks would get too clogged. We would have to load these pallets straight onto a truck and send the truck on its way straight onto the socialised road system.

Why don’t we do that now?

Because out of every two ton thats mixed we need to take between .5 kg and 2kg and labouriously test it in a laboratory that doubles as a sort of kitchen. Since some tests involves various heating and cooking scenarios……

But to handle four times the volume we simply would have to load it and then call the truck back if the lab people found anything wrong……….

Now something must be understood. There are just dozens of different gunk recipes. And we need to clean 5 floors worth of equipment each time we change from one gunk recipe to another. So we might spend 20% of the time cleaning. If we could speed up production to four times as fast we would wind up bringing forward the cleaning. We would wind up with more downtime cleaning all the equipment. We might wind up cleaning 60% of the time.

On top of that the maintenance cycle would be shortened. If the bags were going along the conveyer four times as fast it would bring forwards the breakdowns in the machinery ahead in time. And the need for tradesmen would go up exponentially.

This is something that must be understood. The higher the rate of production the greater PROPORTIONALLY is the need for tradesmen to service the machines. Where are all these tradesmen going to come from? There is a shortage of them now. Which brings us back to the socialised education system and the socialised labour market getting in the way of providing the people we need to get the job done.

Thats enough of that factory for awhile. But its there as an example to show that if you speed up any one process you don’t necessarily speed up the production entire. You could look at it and say “Well why don’t you speed up this part of it” And I will quickly be able to show you where a bottlekneck would next show up.

But I’ve alluded already to a particular bottleneck with the society more generallty. And that is with the road system itself.

Manufacturing, if it is to be massively productive in the future, has to be seen as JUST A SPECIAL CASE OF LOGISTICS. And really with logistics you are trying to bring everything to a single point (ie the factory) IN THE RIGHT SEQUENCE.

For hyper-productive manufacturing we need all these various trucks showing up at the factory in the exact right order and at the exact right time. And for that we need a road system that allows for all sorts of sized vehicles……… Vehicles of all sizes both manned and unmanned.

And we need to be able to get all the smaller vehicles to be moving along these roads and assemble themselves in the right order and to arrive at the factory in this order so that the ingredients may be assembled together and sent back out as something entirely other. So that all these various intermediate products can come together at one point without congestion and be combined in a hyper-productive automated way and sent straight back out again…. The racking there as back-up but 90% of the time unused.

For if we cannot GET to this stage there is only so much more productivity that we can squeeze out of a typical factory before it becomes super-clogged and we start spending all our time rotating stock and work-in-process. Before the factory entire becomes like a high-speed computer without enough random access memory.

Here I point to one thing that will hold back the development of any singularity. And that is that the roads are socialised.

And thats just ONE THING.

So the general rule to part one is that the speed of economic development comes not from those things that are developing fastest in society. But it is more a factor of those things that are holding us back.



  1. I think that Graeme Snooks’ The Ephemeral Society would be an interesting read for you, but you wouldn’t agree on his ideas on money!

  2. You clearly don’t understand the term “Singularity”. If you care perhaps a little Ray Kurzwiel or Vernor Vinge would help clear it up.

  3. Thats gutless Stargeezer. You clear it up. I’m not buying that I don’t understand in any case. But you clear it up and we’ll see.

  4. I’ve always thought the idea of a technological singularity was ridiculous although I am a firm believer in the disposable razor singularity.

  5. On the difference between cost and price you gave me references. Thanks! I do the same for you here. I’m gone.

  6. Chicken.

    You should explain why it is you reckon I don’t understand the singularity.

    Why I ‘clearly’ don’t understand the term singularity.

    If its so damn clear you ought to be able to back up what it is you are claiming.

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