The term singularity describes the moment when a civilization changes so much that its rules and technologies are incomprehensible to previous generations. Think of it as a point-of-no-return in history.

Most thinkers believe the singularity will be jump-started by extremely rapid technological and scientific changes. These changes will be so fast, and so profound, that every aspect of our society will be transformed, from our bodies and families to our governments and economies.

A good way to understand the singularity is to imagine explaining the internet to somebody living in the year 1200. Your frames of reference would be so different that it would be almost impossible to convey how the internet works, let alone what it means to our society. You are on the other side of what seems like a singularity to our person from the Middle Ages. But from the perspective of a future singularity, we are the medieval ones. Advances in science and technology mean that singularities might happen over periods much shorter than 800 years. And nobody knows for sure what the hell they’ll bring.

Talking about the singularity is a paradox, because it is an attempt to imagine something that is by definition unimaginable to people in the present day.

Author Ken MacLeod has a character describe the singularity as “the Rapture for nerds” in his novel The Cassini Division, and the turn of phrase stuck, becoming a popular way to describe the singularity. Catherynne Valente argued recently for an expansion of the term to include what she calls “personal singularities,” moments where a person is altered so much that she becomes unrecognizable to her former self. This definition could include posthuman experiences.

What technologies are likely to cause the next singularity?
As mentioned earlier, artificial intelligence is the technology that most people believe will usher in the singularity. Authors like Vinge and singulatarian Ray Kurzweil think AI will usher in the singularity for a twofold reason. First, creating a new form of intelligent life will completely change our understanding of ourselves as humans. Second, AI will allow us to develop new technologies so much faster than we could before that our civilization will transform rapidly. A corollary to AI is the development of robots who can work alongside – and beyond – humans.

Another singularity technology is the self-replicating molecular machine, also called autonomous nanobots, “gray goo,” and a host of other things. Basically the idea is that if we can build machines that manipulate matter at the atomic level, we can control our world in the most granular way imaginable.

So when will the singularity really happen? It depends on your perspective. But it always seem like it’s just a few decades off.