I really enjoyed the Singularity Summit last Saturday. I didn’t go as an official blogger, and I didn’t bring my laptop, so I only have a few basic notes on key ideas that I captured on my blackberry. I went and stood in line with the other “singularians”, a new word I learned that seems to denote far-out folks that think they will live forever amid super-intelligent machines. Much more complete conference coverage can be found at Dan Farber, Down the Avenue, Responsible Nanotech, and Chaos Manor.
I was a little surprised to see Steve Jurvetson on the stage. If I had known, I might have hit him up to get in to the VIP lunch. He did a good job trying to moderate a Q&A session that was a little too wide-ranging with too many panelists.
Ray Kurzweil was first up. I enjoyed his book, and had listened to his speech at Accelerating Change via IT Conversations. This talk was pretty similar, but still stunning in the amount and depth of detail. He was the only person at the conference with facts and figures at his fingertips, and it gave him an aura of credibility that nobody else matched. I would have loved to hear someone argue with his facts and conclusions. Unfortunately the only real dissenters in the group (Douglas Hofstadter and Bill McKibben) just had vague unease with Ray’s conclusions, and no solid numbers or logic to back them up. Douglas was downright petulant, and it was a huge disappointment for me, since I have been in awe of him since I read Goedel, Escher, Bach back in high school. Ray nicely eviscerated Doug’s comments in his wrap-up.
Sebastian Thrun was inspiring and hilarious in his presentation of the features Stanley needed to win the DARPA Grand Challenge. Particularly funny were his video clips of the “autonomous motorcycle” – allegedly from Berkeley – that kept falling over. One interesting question is whether these kinds of approaches are like “climbing trees to get to the moon” – i.e. seemingly in the right direction, but ultimately never going to reach the goal.
Eric Drexler was fabulous, on his usual theme of “atoms are becoming like bits.” He sees a future where manufacturing has the same economies of scale and replication as information technology. I don’t know much about this, but it sure sounds great. I read Engines of Creation a long time ago, but I need to get back up to speed.
Max More was talking about the Proactionary Principle, which I didn’t quite get, but subsequently looked up. He also talked about ensuring that super intelligence equals super wisdom in these intelligences. I submitted a written question during his talk, wondering which, if any, of the human emotions would need to be replicated in such a machine to enable it to effectively communicate with humans, and further if any of those emotions would be required to succeed in a super intelligent, super wise society. I didn’t get picked, though, and I couldn’t stay for the entire Q&A session, so I guess I’ll have to wait until the next one to ask.
Eliezar Yudkowsky had some interesting ideas to share. In particular, the idea that intelligence is the most powerful force we can deploy to improve our world, and that therefore the question for super intelligence gives us the most leverage. Reminds me of a talk by Bill Joy I heard back in 1987 or 1988 about the almost inconceivably powerful Sun 9 (they had just released the Sun 4, we named our first one “speed” because it seemed so fast). He said if you had a program that would take a century to run on the Sun 4, just wait 15 or so years for the Sun 9, and run it in 8 hours.
Bill McKiibben talked a lot about how less is more, and the journey is its own reward, exhorting us to slow down. Of course, when Ray asked him exactly how to do that, he didn’t have any good answers. This talk reminded me of a series of award-winning short stories called Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick, where a group of African tribesmen try to preserve their culture by moving to a different planet. Ultimately, progress wins out, and you only have utopia for a fleeting moment that you rarely appreciate while it is happening. Bill wants to save the environment, but doesn’t seem to get that some of this progress is in advanced energy sources and manufacturing techniques that will be much better for the environment.
I came away pretty impressed with the caliber and the depth of the thinking that has gone into this issue. One of my goals is to find the time and resources to contribute to this conversation.