Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On persuasion and saving the world

The penultimate item on the agenda of the 2009 Singularity Summit is a panel discussion, on no particular topic, involving Aubrey de GreyEliezer Yudkowsky, and Peter Thiel. The moderator is Michael Vassar of the Singularity Institute. And it is in that order, from left to right, that the four men appear in this picture:
From left: Aubrey de Grey, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Peter Thiel, and Michael Vassar.
Vassar starts with a question about when each of the panelists realized they wanted to change the world. Thiel says he knew when he was young he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and once he found out about the Singularity, it was just natural to get on board with it and "save the world."

Yudkowsky says, "Once I realized there was a problem, it never occurred to me not to save the world," with a shrug and arms in the air. (Very scattered laughter and applause. The audience seems uncomfortable with him. I am, anyway. As I noted earlier, everything the guy says seems to drip with condescension, even in this room filled with people overwhelmingly on his side. He keeps having to invent straw men to put down as he talks.)

De Grey says he knows exactly when he realized he wanted to make a difference. It was when he was young and wanted to be a great pianist, but then realized that he'd spend all this time practicing — and then what? He'd just be another pianist and there are tons of those. So he decided he wanted to change a world. Then later he discovered no one was looking at stopping aging and he was horrified, so he decided to do that.

The moderator asks what each man would be working on if not the Singularity. De Grey says other existential risks besides aging. Yudkowsky says studying human rationality. (If only he would. A Twitterer seems to share my sentiments.) But he says it's not about doing what you're good at or want to do, but what you need to do. Thiel would be studying competition. Competition can be extremely good, he says, but can go way too far, and crush people. He says it was better for him as a youth that computers got better than chess, because he realized he shouldn't be stressing himself so much over being a super-achieving chess player.

They get into talking about achievement a bit more later, and Thiel says he thinks it's really important for people to have ways to persevere that aren't necessarily about public success.

De Grey highlights the importance of "embarrassing people" to make them realize how wrong they are. We're all aware of some of the things people say in defense of aging, he says. Thiel says his own personal bias is that that's not a good approach, because there are so many different ways of looking at things, people have so many different cultural and value systems, and there may be deep-seated reasons they believe what they do. He says he likes to try hard to explain his points to people.

The rest of the discussion is not especially noteworthy. A bit of celebrity worship and ego stroking. Peter Thiel easily takes the cake for charm on this stage.

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