Singularity Summit Day 1

[All videos for the summit are available.  Click a link, then click “Watch Full Video]. See also my review of Day 2 of Singularity Summit.

The Singularity Summit is an annual gathering of self-identified freethinkers, visionaries, futurists, geeks, rationalists, optimistic millenarians, entrepreneurs, tinkerers, and mathematicians. A more congenial, personable and educated crowd is hard to find. During an unscheduled panel discussion in early afternoon, Christine Peterson, a slight middle-aged woman and board member of the nanotech Foresight Institute, beamed at the crowd and told us how working towards a change that would utterly transform society and even obliterate human nature as we know it isn’t just important, “it’s fun, and you get to spend time with great people!”

Indeed, where else can you have a discussion over lunch of the anthropocene, NLP, cochlear implants, technological telepathy, the quantified self, and gray goo?

The highlight of today was the opening hour-long talk by Temple Grandin, expert on cattle and autism, who regaled the crowd with ideas and opinions on everything from early childhood education to engineering design. She tends to speak in a fast monotone, generously illustrating her own “associative” mentality along the way. So out will come zingers such as “You can actually get a degree is bureaucracy” (public administration) or “I cried during the scene when they disconnected HAL.”

What was Grandin doing at a conference on accelerating technology? Nathan Lebenz, the moderator, introduced her as “a hero of the singularity movement” because “she is an exponent for non-human minds.” Actually, her non-human expertise is focused on animals, and when she got to talking about artificial intelligence (like HAL), she was mostly cautionary, urging engineers to building physical fail-safe switches. She drove home the necessity for physical awareness by relating her experience visiting Fukushima, noting that the generators were in the basement, with cute baby blue but useless doors between them and the sea. Just one example of the autistic tendency, as she said, to be “bottom-up,” visual, detailed thinkers.

Rather than pushing for non-human minds, Grandin urged us to find places in school, at home, and in life for the variety of very human psyches – several times castigating the tendency to let kids sit around and play video games all day. “I want kids to realize that there is more to life than sports and video games,” she said, adding that the United States is falling behind in the very skills that used to characterize this country, a hands-on, roll-up-your sleeves engagement with the very physical world.

Her comments echo the introduction to Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, a collection of short stories and essays edited by James Kelly and John Kessel. They say “Of all current SF, Singularity fiction is certainly the most idea-based. The characters are serviceable vehicles for the exposition of ideas, the settings so vague as to be nonexistent. … Both pre- and post-Singularity stories lack sensory detail. The tangible world does not loom large in this fiction. For example, few of these stories spend time evoking the experience of being an embodied human being or the natural world around us. … A body is just meat, a squishy, inferior platform for what is important: intellect.”

In other words, rationality rules. At the Singularity Summit the mention of ritual, belief, faith, or spiritual experience is occasion for frowns and tut-tutting. Oddly, the conference is being held in the Masonic Temple of San Francisco, an imposingly massive marble edifice glorifying the secret ritualistic order of Masons – right across the street from Grace Cathedral, a soaring example of baroque stone mysterium. Yet Grace with its murals of the fire and the founding, cats and raccoons, bishops and ships, and the Masonic with its workers and all-seeing eye show the very interweaving of belief, culture, and religion that is the New West. Rationality may be worshiped inside, but the architecture argues for a more complex humanity.

Over breakfast a small group shared a table, among us an older woman. When the conversation waxed, she dampened the technical enthusiasm by flat-out declaring that human nature hadn’t changed in 10,000 years, and it sure wasn’t going to change in the next 10,000 either. I liked her. Over lunch I chatted with her again. We looked around at twenty-somethings dressed in urban black who were chipper about living forever, uploading their minds into computronium, making backups of themselves, or perhaps just tuning a circuit so they can stay up late. “It’s not their fault,” we opined with aged wisdom, “they just haven’t experienced much yet. They haven’t had time to go through natural grief, or ecstasy, or transcendence.”

A few minutes later I was swept up in a group of similar young singularitarians crowding around a Thiel Fellow, Noor Siddiqui. She had spoken for a few minutes about trying to work for the “bottom billion,” the poorest of the poor, and the conversation was deep into strategies for NGOs, failed experiments of bringing toilets to distant villages, and how we could all learn from the lean (and mean?) world of Silicon Valley startups. That last didn’t quite make sense, but her practical, humanitarian idealism was a breath of fresh air. We were then hustled over for a five-minute video on a software for a natural language processing API.

NLP came up at the end of the day as well, when Ray Kurzweil, the grand mentor of the movement, said in passing that most people underestimate what Watson did when beating the pants off the best humans a couple of years ago at the game of Jeopardy – and what it implies. The title of Kurzweil’s talk was the topic of his upcoming book, How to Create a Mind, but with his usual mild-mannered and genial delivery he strayed far, starting and finishing on his bread and butter concept, the underpinning to almost every conversation during the weekend, the law of accelerating returns.

In mid-afternoon Steven Pinker took the stage and delivered a fast-paced, tightly-powerpointed talk illustrating his idea that society has gotten less violent over the ages. In rapid fashion he presented  graphs and arguments from the major sections of his book from last year, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Although I haven’t read the tome (832 pages), his thesis is close to my heart, and Pinker makes a good empirical argument, covering everything from deaths in war, to capital punishment, to the treatment of women, children, minorities, and animals. His talk was even more tangential to the theme of the day (“Minds and Machines”) than Grandin’s, unless you were already familiar with the broad outlines of singularity thought.

Singularity philosophy might be characterized as the New Optimism. I’m emotionally optimistic by nature, and this part of the movement appeals to me, but it can be disconcerting to hear speakers talk gaily about evil artificial intelligence, nanotechnology run amuck, or the end of humanity as we know it. In their recent novel The Rapture of the Nerds Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross lampoon singularity/transhuman thought with biting wit, along the way playing with concepts that are discussed with solemnity at the Summit: uploading, speeding up of subjective time, backing yourself up onto computer memory. Stross and Doctorow go one step further, however: they link the New Optimism to the Old Objectivism (Ayn Rand), a subtle, generally missed, and weak libertarian element of singularity thought.

At the end of the day I went up to Grandin and asked her how her own perspective had changed over the years. By her own admission she started life with an unusual set of mental skills. Of all the people here, she should have a sense of what it means to be outside the general run of humanity – and thus, perhaps, better prepared if technical and scientific acceleration does take us into strange new worlds. Had she noted a change in her own mind? Had she moved closer to the norm? She replied “I have more data points. And I can understand people better.”

Not a bad take-away from the conference. We could all do with a few more data points, and a better understanding of the varieties of human (and non-human) nature.

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