modern silk roads …

… another journey begins every infinitesimal unit of time

Calling All Transhumanists

leave a comment »

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.


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.


Written by oracle

October 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: