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Calling All Transhumanists

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Future Tech

Calling All Transhumanists

Courtney Boyd Myers, 10.02.09, 12:00 PM EDT

The Singularity is not yet here, but its annual conference is, uniting futurists and their man-machine dreams.


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Michael Vassar, President of the Singularity Summit

Technology futurists love to talk about the Singularity as the point in time when technology starts to progress so rapidly that machine intelligence melds with and surpasses human intelligence. It is to futurists what the Rapture is to fundamentalist Christians.

Those who welcome or fear this eventuality are gathering this weekend in New York City for the fourth annual Singularity Summit. Speaking at the summit are some of the better-known tech soothsayers, including author and programmer Ray Kurzweil; Steve Wolfram, the founder of the novel search engine Alpha; and Aubrey de Grey, an expert on anti-aging science. Also giving talks are Australian philosopher David Chalmers, whose idea inspired the Matrix film series, and Pay-Pal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has donated in the six figures to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the organization putting on the event. Last year, the summit drew 1,000 curious academics and entrepreneurs in San Jose, Calif. (See our story on the 2007 Summit here.)

Michael Vassar, the president of the institute, gives the Singularity just under a 25% chance of happening by 2040 and a 70% chance by 2060. When we do cross that line, Vassar says nothing will be the same. “Humans living in the post-Singularity world will be as powerless as jellyfish are in today’s world,” he says. His odds don’t take into account the chances of the world plunging into rapid technological decline due to a nuclear war or a worldwide collapse into barbarism.

Vassar’s six staffers at the Singularity Institute, including Kurzweil, publish papers with titles such as, “Uncertain Future Project,” “Global Catastrophic Risk Project” and “Economics and Machine Intelligence,” and have developed software that supposedly predicts technology’s trajectories and generates odds on the occurrences of global catastrophes like nuclear war and global warming.

Singularists fall into optimist and pessimist camps. Optimists, such as Kurzweil, look forward to living in an age in which human intelligence is enhanced by brain implants that extend our memories, enhance our senses and allow us to solve problems faster and with greater accuracy.

The pessimists, and Vassar is one of them, see threats to humanity from the rise of an unfriendly machine intelligence that will want to enslave humans (think The Matrix) and use our brain matter for endless computation, much as we’ve used computers in the past 60 years.

Vassar says he and his colleagues at the Singularity Institute are working on seeing that a Matrix-like future never happens. Institute research fellow Eliezer Yudkowsky coined the term “Friendly AI” to describe an AI that could be built to have a moral conscience. One of the institute’s chief goals is to encourage other scientists to create this Friendly AI. (Read “Vassar’s Machine Minds” in the AI Report.)

Many computer scientists and engineers remain very skeptical of the Singularity and the cargo-cult enthusiasm that surrounds it. They don’t believe in humanity’s ability to reach a point at which technology will be so complex as to render us inconsequential. It’s also likely that for economic reasons, technical progress and computer hardware performance will never accelerate at the speed required to reach the Singularity.

Will Wright, the creator of The Sims videogame series, has gone on record saying that machines will never achieve the kind of intelligence and creativity of which humans are capable. But he does believe that machines will one day be able to make themselves more intelligent, effectively reprogramming themselves until the first real AI achieves its own sort of sentience, one that is very alien to our own human cognizance.

Ariel Rabkin, a third year Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkley’s Computer Science program, doubts that many technical people take the Singularity seriously. “Human-comparable AI is really hard,” he says, “And we’re nowhere close to achieving it.” He adds, “I can tell you that nobody I work with at Berkeley or elsewhere has ever mentioned it. And just to be clear, I don’t just mean, ‘We don’t talk about it in courses.’ I mean, nobody mentions it, at all, ever. We don’t think about it.”

But the Singularity continues to pique the curiosity of the layman. Over the next 12 months, Hollywood will release several movies with trans-humanist themes, such as Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, James Cameron’s Avatar, Barry Ptolemy’s Transcendent Man and The Singularity is Near, with a script by Ray Kurzweil. In a time when the publishing industry is struggling, Better Humans LLC has just launched a new magazine called H+ covering the trans-humanism scene for fans of radical technological change.

It’s possible that because the Singularity is a relatively new idea, it’s embraced mostly by the youth and dismissed as a counter-cultural trend by an older generation of professors and scientists. “I’m the older side of the Singularists,” says Vassar, who is 30 years old.

The Singularity probably won’t destroy humanity in our lifetime, but it’s productive to keep asking the question of whether technology is serving us or if things are the other way around.

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Written by oracle

October 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm

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The Whole Point Of Capitalism

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October 5, 2009 at 4:32 pm

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The Education Solution

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Written by oracle

October 5, 2009 at 4:30 pm

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China’s Innovation Advantage

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China’s Innovation Advantage

Sramana Mitra, 08.07.09, 06:00 AM EDT

DCM’s David Chao predicts that China will surpass the U.S. in clean tech and online games.

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In my efforts to gauge the state of entrepreneurship and venture capital around the world, I recently spoke with David Chao, general partner at DCM, about China. Chao belongs to a select group of early investors who started looking at China as far back as 1997, when Silicon Valley VCs would not consider deals beyond a 35-mile radius of Sand Hill Road.

“The venture capital market in China really only opened up in the mid-1990s,” Chao says. “Business law came into effect in China in the late 1980s. There was not very much access to capital. IDG was there in the early 1990s, but that was a slow process. There were firms like Walden and WI Harper that originally did a lot of Taiwan deals and then did a deal or two in China. In 1999, we made an investment in 51Job, which is the Monster.com of China.”

51Job went public in 2004 and saw its market cap top $1 billion. DCM sold its position when 51Job’s market cap was around $800 million and realized about $250 million in return. “We had invested about $14 million. It was a big home run for our firm,” Chao reminisces.

It is really only after 2005 that many VC firms in the U.S. started paying close attention to China. That came in two flavors. There are companies that were long term and strategic investors in China. Then there were a whole batch of companies that realized that the U.S. market was not doing well and felt that a China strategy would look good on paper and help them raise money.

So what is going on in China these days in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship?

Chao poses a leading question: “What is the one core competence that China has which will drive innovation? One answer is scale. We are investors in a couple of big Internet companies. China has the largest number of Internet users already. We are investors in Xiaonei.com, the Facebook of China. Softbank recently invested $400 million in this company, and we dominate in the student and white-collar market.

“If you combine the mobile access, people getting into the system, and the database 51Job has for employment opportunities, the numbers of the largest player in Japan or Monster.com look like peanuts. When you dig into how they architect it, they have an ingenious way of making it really cheap. They are not buying AS400 or expensive Sun/Unix machines. They are innovative at working on a shoestring budget. My hunch says that in the future anything that has to do with scale will likely come out of China or even India.”

My observation: It is scale and price. Those two countries cater to extremely price-sensitive markets, the likes of which the Western world has not experienced. That is where they have to come up with original solutions. Think about the price point needed for chips and smart phones to be viable in the Chinese and Indian mass markets. I can tell you, it ain’t the iPhone price point.

Chao agrees and adds: “There is one sector where I think China has done phenomenally and uniquely well. That is online games. If you look at the revenue generated by online games in China, they are larger than Internet advertising dollars. People can’t afford to buy the Xbox, Wii or Playstation. People would rather go to Internet cafés, pay a dollar and play an online game for a few hours. The first generation of online Chinese games were licensed games from Korea. Over the next 10 years, many of the innovative online games are going to come out of China.”

What about education as a business opportunity, I ask. “It is great. Vocational schools are on fire because not everybody gets to go to school,” Chao says. “There are some schools focusing on Cisco networking certificates while others are about fixing cars. Partly because of the one-child policy, parents are willing to work hard and help pay for their kids’ education. China has always had a history of making education important, and scholars are celebrated culturally.”

Chao also thinks that China will breeze past the U.S. in clean-tech innovation. “There are fewer regulations in China. If Menlo Park were going to put a smart-energy grid in place, residents would most likely vote against it. In China, the government says it is going there, and that’s it.

“I think that there will be some cleantech deployments that China might experience earlier and faster. Wind power is certainly one, as is the use of LED lights to reduce energy requirements. That may lead to innovation.”

Chao also observes a bright future for Chinese e-commerce. “E-commerce is finally booming. This is noteworthy because in the U.S. e-commerce exploded at the same time as did Internet content. The infrastructure was not in China for that to occur, so content came first. People did not have credit cards or a UPS ( UPS news people ), but in the last year and a half it has exploded.

“This is going to have an interesting impact on retail in China. In the U.S. and Japan, good retail brands were not born online. In China there are brands which are capturing good market share which were born online.”

And finally, Chao also forecasts a boom in chips. “Semiconductors are going through a down cycle right now, but I think they will come back,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you have the largest scale consumer electronics company in China, demand for semiconductors will return.”

Read my interview with David Chao.

Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her first book, Entrepreneur Journeys (Volume One), is available from Amazon.com. Her second book, Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction, is now ready for order.

Written by oracle

October 4, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Posted in China, Innovation

Easy And Effective Tech Fixes At Your Fingertips

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Easy And Effective Tech Fixes At Your Fingertips

Gene Marks, 09.04.09, 02:50 PM EDT

Want to get more out of your day without spending a fortune on new gadgets? Read on.

 

Some stuff won’t ever work the way we want it to.

To wit: That cellular dead spot on Route 23 in Merion, Pa., will remain dead. Home printers will drop off their networks, only to later spring back to life, all for no apparent reason. And your Sirius signal will continue to cut out at the exact moment Howard Stern is grilling that new porn star.

The same is true at the office–printers fail; computers crash; the Web wobbles. All of which has nothing to do with another fact of life: There are plenty of things–at minimal expense–you can do right now to make life easier and your hours more productive. Here are but a few (for more, check out our slide show).

Clean House
All computers need some TLC. Hard drives plump with junk, including trial versions of software, viruses and other fishy applications that run in the background. Outdated operating systems slow things down and leave the door ajar for hackers. Dirt builds up in the fans and components.

Timely Tips: 10 Tech Fixes You Can Make Right Now

In Depth: 21 Top Twitter Tips

In Depth: Nine Productivity-Enhancing Tools

That’s why it’s worth bringing in an IT SWAT team, at $1,000 a day, a couple times a year to clean it all up. Expensive insurance? Not when you consider that just one bad virus could bring your network to its knees.

Print With Care
Fed up with spending thousands on printer cartridges? Start by setting all default fonts to Sprang Eco Sans, easily downloaded for free online. The font uses thousands of tiny circles, and thus 20% less ink. (To the naked eye it looks normal, but when magnified, you can see the little “holes” in each character.)

Buying refurbished cartridges, at perhaps 30% off the cost of new ones, works well too. Check out CartridgeWorldUSA.com.

Get the Most Out of Your Cellphone
Software applications for mobile phones are multiplying like bunnies. A few really save time.

YouMail is one: This free service redirects calls to a voicemail system, which then can send the messages as texts or e-mail them as recorded audio files. Google‘s ( GOOG news people ) Latitude spits out directions for customer locations–or even a convenient Starbucks ( SBUX news people ). Opera, yet another free download, yields full, clear Web pages on a cellphone.

Lean on Your Technology Vendors
The best vendors act like partners, meaning that they don’t sell you equipment, pocket the dough and wipe their hands of you. Keep them honest, and keep your company up to date. Have no fear: These guys don’t mind doling out free advice–somewhere along the way they will figure out how to sell you something else.

Appoint a “Super User”
The easiest fix of all: Make sure someone at the company is in charge of making sure all the IT stuff works at all times. Because here’s the deal: For all the wonders of technology, this stuff will never run itself.

Gene Marks is owner of Marks Group, a technology consulting firm, and author ofThe Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists.

Written by oracle

October 4, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Environment, Technology

test email posting

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October 4, 2009 at 3:12 pm

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Reliving Genghis Khan

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mongolia sands gobi Reliving Genghis Khan –

Written by oracle

October 4, 2009 at 4:50 am

Posted in Entrepreneurship