November 05, 2012
The Singularity Understood & Misunderstood
I've been attending Singularity events since they started having them, before people really knew what singularity meant.
Frankly, most people still don't.
Outside high powered technology circles and intellectuals, singularity isn't a topic that is discussed on dates or at the dinner table, even in Silicon Valley where technology and deals are sexier than toned women in miniskirts.
According to Wikipedia, "the technological singularity is the theoretical emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood."
Advocates talk about an "intelligence explosion", where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, AND most importantly, that they won't stop until the cognitive abilities surpass the human mind.
Whoah Nellie! That's what I said when I first read Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near and on many occasions since being involved in "singularity circles" since then. It's a scary concept for mere mortals to comprehend, at least until you better understand the landscape.
The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who I had an opportunity to hang with at the latest Singularity Summit in San Francisco in October. He argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces might be possible causes of the singularity.
Think of it as an era in time where civilization as we know has dramatically changed. The Singularians (yes, that's what they call themselves), believe that this era will "transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity."
I love that but wonder if technological singularity is the only way (or the best way) to transcend and amplify humans.
There is a group of spiritual and creative types like me who are intrigued by the singularity. We find some truth to it and while some of it sounds attractive and appealing, there's a whole subsection of the singularity world that takes me back to "Whoah Nellie" again and again.
When you sit on the right brain side of the fence for most of your life, you find yourself arguing (oops, debating) with scientists and technologists about all the issues that are often left out of the discussion, like emotions, love and feeling. Oh yeah, and intuition, something women have notoriously 'owned' because we're so damn good at it.
One could argue that in this new era, things like emotion and love will be transformed also, so how we view matters of the heart will not be the same way we view them today. In other words, there's no point trying to figure out how they'll matter in this new era because everything will be transcended: our intelligence and our emotional states.
What I love about singularian culture (if there is such a thing), is the commitment to progress, technological advancement (largely for positive change) and the ongoing, intriguing debate about the future and where we're heading. And, oh btw, it's an opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds who are pushing the needle forward today.
If you have a discussion with someone about singularity who knows what they're talking about, you shouldn't be too far along in the conversation before the phrase exponential growth comes up, a phrase referred to by Moore's Law as a logical reason why we can expect the singularity to happen sooner than some believe.
So, who's among this circle aside from respected futurist Ray Kurzweil (below) and scientist fiction writer Vernor Vinge? It's broad and growing every day.
They've even formed a university around it, whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.
Hans Moravec and Eliezer Yudkowsky are also cited as singularity theorists and the circle is expanding as "its" tentacles dip into other industries.
Speakers at the recent Singularity Summit included thinkers and entrepreneurs such as Julia Galef who spoke on rationality, cognition and the future, Linda Avey who addressed personal genomics, and professor Steven Pinker (below) who took us through a history of violence. (video here)
We also had an interactive dialogue with Daniel Kahneman, heard about artificial intelligence and the barrier of meaning from Melanie Mitchell, and our 'viral' future from Carl Zimmer. (below)
A quest in metaphysics was explored by Jaan Tallinn (below), Robin Hanson's topic was: A Tsunami of Life: The Extraordinary Society of Emulated Minds and Stuart Armstrong discussed how we're 'predicting' AI.
Temple Grandin who has done a lot of work with autism spoke to us about different types of thinking. There's the photorealistic visual thinker (poor in algebra), the pattern thinker (poor at music & math), the verbal mind (poor at drawing) and the auditory thinkers (who are poor at drawing). She brought up the power of bottom up thinking rather than bottom down, where you learn by specific examples. In other words, get out and discover things, citing travel as a great educator. Hear hear.
She says, "many talented, quirky and gifted students are going nowhere because they have no mentors to help them through their quirkiness." So right. While I received emotional support from my grandparents along the way (they raised me), I received more emotional support from random mentors who fell into my life path, amazing accidents in time I thought as a child.
Pinker, who took us on a journey of violence, talked about its connection to literacy. Much of his research wouldn't surprise anyone since its logical: literacy matters for a decrease in violence since it brings reason into the equation, winning over superstitious thinking.
Literacy is also a mixture of cosmopolitanism, where you increasingly consume fiction, drama, journalism and the arts.
The implication of this over time resulted in the need to redefine modernity...what culture means: our tribes, family, community and religion.
Like Kurzweil, I always love hearing Pinker speak. My brain is better off at the end of it.
So, if singularity thinking is drawing some of the best and the brightest, what's the real controversy aside from fear of the unknown, which is inevitable?
Carl H. Flygt quotes Bill Joy in a paper he wrote in 2005 on singularity theory:
“A traditional utopia is a good society and a good life involving other people,” says Bill Joy. “This techno-utopia is all about: ‘I don’t get diseases; I don’t die; I get to have better eyesight and be smarter’ and all of this. If you described this to Socrates or Plato they would laugh at you.”
But the paper goes on to say, "But Socrates or Plato would not laugh at the idea of pure conversation, which cuts off the me-talk before it can start and puts the human being directly in community with the reality of his (her) cosmic consciousness, of his (her) ontological impulses and of his (her) capacity for self-control and settlement into the higher bodies given human nature by its cosmic mereology."
I have no clue whether this paper has any credibility and note that it's also now seven years old...but, it was and is a viewpoint. Naysayer LogicPriest who calls himself an atheist, skeptic, anti-authoritarian and crazy person who likes cat and among other things, science, doesn't discount that AI isn't possible because any system of enough complexity can emerge into intelligence. He feels we may have very little to say to it however.
He writes: "we would need to emulate much of ourselves in an AI. We would need some pretend body and environment, some emulated limbic and nervous system (the brain is only PART of the nervous system, something most futurists forget). We would also need to build a completely different type of computer, one where the architecture is structurally tied to certain actions, one with DNA instructions, separate abstracted layers like our 'reptile' brain to work it's normal, computer functions and higher order processors for complex thought."
Regardless if you're an outside observer who is merely curious, a student of science, or writers like those I discovered in my search who have strong opinions on the topic, technology is accelerating with a force that's hard to deny. It is working its way into our every existence.
Consider that we use it get directions, read digital books, buy products and communicate to the outside world not to mention the people who email a loved one in the very next room rather than have a "human" conversation with them.
We use it for voting, research, asking questions on the most basic things like how to start a lawnmower or how to cook a turkey, sending photos to grandparents, watching a movie and monitoring our diets. We even use it to virtually talk to doctors about our health, consultants about our finances and teachers about our children's education. There's no end to how and where we use it or will use it in the not too distant future. Augmented reality is here and expanding.
The real question is a moral and ethical one. How conscious, present and aware are those who are building and executing the stuff that brings us into the next era, the one singularity promises is nearer than we think? What is their mission for "it" and for "us" as a species?
How will this explosion impact life as we know it? And, for women, artists, creative right brains and expressionists of the world, how will it impact things we hold so dear like love, emotion, physical relationships and our identity around spirituality?
What do you think?
Note: Twitter handles of some of the people either in this world or who talk about it from time-to-time: @raykurzweil2035 @labenz @lukeprog @laurademing @sydney_uni @ricolution @Sydney_ideas @jayrosen_nyc @biotechbusdev @elonmusk @robertwrighter @stephenfry @edge @rkurzban @temple_grandin @laurademing @lindaavey @sapinker @melmitchell1 @carlzimmer @robinhanson @wilbanks @ch402 @magicsaucemedia @noorFSiddigui
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