Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of the Singularity

by Socrates on March 9, 2011

After the release of a major documentary such as Transcendent Man, our very public and well publicized defeat at Jeopardy by IBM’s Watson, and a growing mainstream coverage of the technological singularity, I started wondering about the potential stages of humanity’s collective emotional and other reaction towards the concept of the singularity.

Arthur Schopenhauer claims that “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

So does this relate well to the singularity?

Let’s see. Firstly, is the singularity often ridiculed?

It seems to me that so far it has been predominantly ignored, though that observation is increasingly inaccurate as we get more and more coverage in the media.

Secondly, has it been violently opposed?

Well, we did have the Unabomber, even though Richard Clarke’s Breakpoint-type of violent resistance has not materialized yet and we are not yet divided into Luddites and Medievalists, or Terrans and Cosmists. This could easily change however, as artificial intelligence, genetics, robotics and nanotechnology become more and more advanced.

If one thing is for sure it is that the singularity hasn’t been popularly embraced as self-evident.

So within Schopenhauer’s framework we are, at best, within or around the first stage.

But, is it really so pure and simple?

Perhaps, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross can provide a more subtle framework of reference to look at our emotional attitude towards the singularity.

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying she argues that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Let’s see if those can present us with a better adapted framework of reference:

Denial: “The singularity is not a big deal” or “Anyway, the singularity is not going to happen.”

Denial is usually temporary, especially in the face of a growing body of evidence, and is eventually replaced with heightened awareness of the risks and the stakes (of the singularity).

Anger: “Why is the singularity happening? How can it happen to me (or to us)? Who is to blame?”

Once here, the person understands that denial cannot continue. But because of anger, she is very difficult to deal with in a rational manner. Any individual that embraces technology and progress in general is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Bargaining: “Just let me enjoy myself a little more.” or “All I want is to remain human for a few more years” or “Can’t we wait (and hold progress) for just a little while… ”

This stage involves the hope that one can somehow postpone or delay the singularity. Usually, the negotiation for an extended “timeout” is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand the singularity is near, but if I could just have a little more time…”

Depression: “The singularity sucks!”; “We are all going to die… What’s the point?”; “The machines are so much better at everything… resistance is futile… so, why go on?”

During the fourth stage, the person begins to understand the impending singularity. Because of this, she may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying or grieving. This process allows the depressed individual to overcome her sense that “biology is destiny” and embrace the fact that human is a process, not a defined entity. It is for this reason that it is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is important for a person to come to terms with the fact that change is the only thing that’s certain. 

Acceptance: “The singularity is cool.”; “I can’t fight progress, I may as well prepare for it.”; “If I can’t defeat the machines, I might as well join them.”; “I can live forever!”

In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with the potential upsides of the singularity and begins to focus on them, rather than on the negatives.

It is important to note that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross warned that these steps do not necessarily have to come in the above order. Nor are all steps experienced by all people. (Though she believes that one will always experience at least two.) Also, people often can experience several of the above stages in a “roller coaster” effect - switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through it fully.

Finally, it is important that futurists and techno-experts should not force understanding unto others. The process is highly personal and should not be rushed, nor lengthened. One should merely be aware that the stages can, and most likely, will be worked through, and the ultimate stage of “Acceptance” will be reached…


So, what do you think? Can we apply the Kübler-Ross framework to the singularity? If yes, then, what stage are we at currently?

If not, why not? And how about any alternatives?

  • Nikki Olson

    Great article Socrates!

    ‘We’ are currently in denial! Outside the Singularity community, a handful of bright scientists accept some of the principles of the Singularity, and outside that group, most people think life is either going to stay the same, or get worse, and that technology can’t really change that much more.

  • Nikki Olson

    Although I also see some ‘anger’ occuring. People are angry that things are accelerating.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    Happy you like it Nikki!

    I also see both denial and anger, though more of the former and less of the latter. But I also see much more coverage and, occasionally, debate in the media about the singularity.

    Don’t you think that the singularity is getting some notable traction in the last year or so?!

    I personally see such a trend but what worries me is that the stage of anger can indeed bring forth violent resistance of the kind that Richard Clarke wrote about in his great book “Breakpoint.”

  • Sally Morem

    I don’t think the Unibomber knew anything about the Singularity. So, no, I don’t think the Singularity has been violently opposed at all. We do get a few knee-jerk reactions from scientists who think it’s all nonsense, scientists who have clearly no concept of the history of accelerating tech, nor do they have any sort of mental model of the rapidity of accelerating tech. (I could name names, but why bother?) But, mostly, there seems to be growing friendly curiosity about the concept. Watson on Jeopardy and Transcendent Man have made certain points much more clear to the general public.

    There is a problem with the Kubler-Ross model. She devised her scale with respect to a dying person’s changing responses to his or her impending death. In short, the worst news possible. Whereas, the Singularity, with all the potential danger it entails, is quite the opposite. It’s tremendous news. Great news.

    I think that anyone who’s capable of grasping the concept and the power inherent in accelerating tech will have a strongly positive response to the concept almost immediately. That’s what happened to me when I read The Singularity is Near. Now, it might just be possible that I was predisposed to the concept, having read Drexler’s Engines of Creation in the 80s and numerous futurology books over the decades, and having had been a space development advocate in the 80s, and having had been an SF fan since the early 70s. Maybe this made it easier for me to grasp and to embrace. But, I don’t think any of that is necessary to a positive reception to the concept by any member of the general public.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    Hi Sally,the Unabomber didn’t use the term singularity but had a few singularity-like references in his manifesto.You are correct that the Kubler-Ross model pertains to one’s emotions towards death but I thought that it may provide a useful framework for examining our emotions, not in the least because, the rather old meaning of what is to be human is also going to die with the singularity. Furthermore, whether and what is the worst or the best kind of news is a matter of interpretation. (It reminds me of a Zen story titled “Will See”)Finally, based on your description of yourself I would definitely say that if you were not predisposed to embrace the concept of the singularity than not many are. You seem to have had both practical, theoretical and emotional connection with much of the concept even before you got to explicitly consider it as a whole. That sure helps. I can only hope that most other people will have similar paths to yours, though this is unlikely…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3E3DV22BXNTQZ5V7K5UVB7GPAI eric chaudy

    You missed something very, very, very importantThe singularity, and technological progress comes from a psycho sociological leitmotivIn different group of the societiesthe machines goes, because we want it to go further (and sometimes take the wrong way )It is all but dream from some people, the eliteYou know: you can “stop” everything, every research, and people will not die for that, understand?I suppose, most transhumanists don’t understand that ECONOMY, and DEMOGRAPHY, is the problemeThe problem that in fact you try to falsify with growth, and i.e. “technological progress”People are not dying because we automatize everythingPeople are dying because they don’t get what they must get in order to live, i.e. some kind of economy, or GLOBAL INCOME GUARANTEE In France, Switzerland, Germany, the politics talk about a 1000 $ per person, per month global INCOME GUARANTEEEAt the end, you will understand that it is not about technology, but about economy, the share of production even if there is no more jobs, no more works AT ALLIn fact people are dying in front of you, todayThe middle class is disappearing, the enginneer, the doctor, the lawyer, the financial expert is disappearingthe poor are dyingWhy, because you don’t understand that the biggest treat to human being is human beingYou don’t understand that without a society, people will die, or will be mass murderedfor some kind of mad elite, that want everything, even immortalityIf you accept a genocide in front of you, YOU ARE MADBecause you begin a suicide , and you don’t have much chance than someone else - (this is a psychological bias)You see people who don’t listen to critics, are madFinally Unabomber don’t criticize, progress, he criticizes the “technological society”, and its current worldview. People don’t not want GMO, do they have the choice ? NO. Is it important to have GMO for the production? NO. It is important for a technological corporatism economy? YESYou have to understand the final and the first question” what is the goal of life “If you cannot define a “peaceful” society, if you don’t have the capacity to do it: don’t call yourself a transhumanistthe only transhumanism is spiritual, it happens when you have the cognitive capacity to understand a new world.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3E3DV22BXNTQZ5V7K5UVB7GPAI eric chaudy

    (, my words are for Elisabeth Kübler )

  • Nikki Olson

    “Don’t you think that the singularity is getting some notable traction in the last year or so?!”

    -Yes! Being on the cover ot ‘Time’ was an important landmark, as was Watson on Jeopardy. Both were very exciting. Its hard to tell how much of an impact those things had, but it seems to be to have been quite a bit. Ray on Charlie Rose again is also an important step.

    “I personally see such a trend but what worries me is that the stage of anger can indeed bring forth violent resistance of the kind that Richard Clarke wrote about in his great book “Breakpoint.”"

    -I haven’t read “Breakpoint” yet.

    I can definitely imagine a violent resistence, despite how positive a thing the Singularity is. People already skew the message to make it seem anyting from total hubris to completely antithetical to ‘nature’.

    Right now perhaps the closest thing to a violent resistence is the ‘hate’ discourse coming from Tom and Nita Horn: http://www.forbiddengate.com/

    Some people think that religion is the greatest thing in opposition to the Singularity, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. I think in some ways the Singulairty goes against the whole history of Western existentialist thought (which religion in part stems from), and so cuts deeper in its antagonization. Despite being ‘born out of’ the Enlightenment, the Singulairty way of things is quite a radical departure in some ways.

  • Nikki Olson

    Part of the problem is that the vision involved in the Singularity is based on the best understanding we’ve had of the Universe to date. Computer processing power is allowing us to understand the world in a far better way than we ever have. It is by its very nature then going to oppose everything before it to some degree or another.

  • Khannea Suntzu

    Hihihihihi funny, in my articles I have been joking around with tis cycle subconciously. Very perceptive, Also look at SL4 - “Shock Levels”. Also honorablemention the perpetually level 2 Alex Jones. And jews. SOMEWHERE SOMEONE must blame the Jews.

  • Aliboy68

    Yes the human ability to express emotions. Will factor in. I have the understanding that humanity is already exposed to some level of singularity and will accept its progressive nature. The different categories of emotions will be based on the reaction to ones own level of. Anxiety. Well all know most technological and scientific discoveries advance to exponential proportions such as singularity and artificial intelligence. In saying all this I feel humans will express concern about advancing singularity and artificial intelligence but I don’t think it will negative if we use it towards increasing our intellectual advancement.

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