Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, October 3, 2009

One day closer to the Singularity

It was with that remark that the M.C. closed the proceedings on the first day of the 2009 Singularity Summit here in New York City.

I'll do a full retrospective at the end of the conference, but will offer just a short wrap-up for the first day. Today's talks were, for the most part, rather dry and technical. Technical is good and important, but the talks today were really too short to provide anything but a high-level overview, and far too many of the presenters went into more detail than audience members could plausibly absorb. (Perhaps the speakers mean to induce through frustration a subtle case for neural enhancement? Or maybe they just figured they were preaching to an audience already well acquainted with the basics.) As is pretty typical, alas, of almost any kind of conference, many of the speakers seemed to be modifying talks they had given elsewhere and just tacking on a bit to the beginning and end about how their remarks were relevant to the Singularity — when they actually weren't as pertinent as many of the attendees were expecting. At the breaks, I saw a lot of the speakers milling around and found myself unable to think of anything interesting to ask most of them about their lectures.

There were a few very good and notable talks, however:

- Michael Nielsen's talk on quantum computing was just the right mix of technical and big-picture. It left me with more questions than answers, but that's not all bad.

- Juergen Schmidhuber's talk on the algorithms behind intelligence and creativity was lively and thought-provoking. I frankly thought it was mostly bunk, but it was engaging nonetheless.

- The conversation with Stephen Wolfram was fascinating, and got into some really meta, mind-blowing but actually quite comprehensible discussion about the computation, biology, the universe, and design.

- And far and away the best talk of the day was from David Chalmers. He cut right to the core of the salient issues in determining whether the Singularity will happen. (His comments in the way of ethics, though, were rather suspect.)

Tomorrow's lineup looks a lot more promising. Many more high-level talks about the philosophy, aims, and aspirations of "Singularitarians." Also some talks about exponential growth of technology, which was only mentioned in Kurzweil's boilerplate remarks today. I'm also looking forward to his talk tomorrow on the critics of the Singularity, which will hopefully be more structured than was his talk today.

I haven't had much time to check out other coverage of the Summit, but Stuart Fox of PopSci has been covering it, including a great post on the first two talks that I didn't cover in detail.

And that's it for today — liveblogging coverage will resume here tomorrow.

4 comments:

  1. Ari,

    Thanks for all the coverage. I gave you a shout out here - http://davidkirkpatrick.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/2009-singularity-summit-in-progess/

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  2. These people talk about the Singularity in exactly the same way that certain Christians talk about the Rapture. Come to think of it, they're pretty much the same thing, aren't they?

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  3. Thanks for the shoutout, David!

    Alan, you're quite right. In fact, Ken MacLeod has dubbed the Singularity "the Rapture for nerds". They're not exactly alike, though. For one thing, transhumanists want to bring about the Rapture by their own hands, not by God's. There's much more in the way here of the triumph of the technological will (if you will).

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  4. Apparently, at last year's Singularity Summit, a conferencegoer asked Kurzweil about the similarities between the Rapture and the Singularity. Video here.

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