The 2009 Singularity Summit wrapped up in New York City yesterday. The whole thing was something of a blur — two days of back-to-back talks, milling about with conferencegoers, and frenzied posting.
As you can see here, the attendees were predominantly male, and almost exclusively nerds of various flavors: long-haired, disheveled programmers; smoothly dressed, New-Age types looking for transcendence but not immune to the need to constantly check their iPhones; jargon-slinging, bespectacled academics; and gel-haired, polo-shirt-wearing, young social entrepreneurs. (Pop Sci shows a similar sampling.) Basically, the conference felt like being back in my college computer science department.
Everyone I met was quite inquisitive and friendly. There was an excitement in the air, a sense of being in the presence of great people working together towards a great cause (about which, more in a moment).
The content of the conference itself, however, was rather underwhelming. Most of the talks were highly technical but too short and delivered too rapidly to convey much substance in a way that would last. Only a few of the speakers gave presentations both insightful and clear enough to be truly informative or persuasive. (For my money, the best talks were those by David Chalmers and Peter Thiel, and the discussion with Stephen Wolfram.)
The conference also lacked an overarching message. Certainly a diversity of opinion and interests in such a conference is inevitable, even good. But the problem was that the presenters treated it like a scientific or technical conference (indeed, some of the presentations seemed to have been written for technical conferences, with only a coda tacked on to justify their relevance to this one) when in fact the Singularity, transhumanism, and the related subjects that attracted the audience this weekend are not, strictly speaking, scientific subjects.
To put it another way, while its means may be technical and scientific, the ends of Singularitarianism, as disparate and even incoherent as they may be, are rather like those of a spiritual movement. I kept waiting for the presenters to make grand statements about the moral imperatives of the movement and about the awe-inspiring new things we will do and be. There were a few, but those larger ideas were mostly taken for granted. I thought, in particular, that we might get some of these first principles from Anna Salamon, who gave the opening and closing talks, or from Ray Kurzweil, who presides as the de facto spiritual leader (and head coach) of the movement.
But for a movement that aspires to such revolutionary things, the summit was in fact rather conventional: dry talks, PowerPoint slides, and lectures in rapid succession. (I should note that the organizers kept the whole thing impeccably on schedule, except for allowing Kurzweil to go well over his time at the end of the first day.) It seemed that many of the attendees were most excited during the breaks between presentations. They huddled around the superstar presenters. I heard more than a few conferencegoers ask each other, "Have you seen Ray? Where is he? I want to talk to him." Many were excited just to be in the presence of fellow-travelers (since, as some of them told me, many of the attendees only knew of the Singularitarian movement through the Internet).
And this was where the organizers oddly seemed both to understand why people were really there and to fail to structure the event to reflect that. The proceedings rang of celebrity worship. The M.C. revved up the excitement before the big-name speakers. The final panel discussion was, unfortunately, about nothing substantive, just a sort of "behind the scenes with the boys of the Singularity," an interview focusing on personalities instead of ideas. And Kurzweil didn't deign to give a coherent presentation. For the first day, he literally came up on stage with a pad of paper and offered his ad hoc thoughts and pronouncements on the previous speakers. On the second day, he gave what one Twitterer described as his "stump speech" — a laundry list of responses to critics, mostly taken verbatim from his book on the Singularity. His talks just seemed to serve the purpose of assuring the crowd that the coach was still in control of the game and there was no need to worry (as another blogger has suggested).
But my impression was that there wasn't nearly enough discussion and interaction to really suit most conferencegoers (myself included). And I heard attendees again and again expressing their wish to interact more with the presenters, and many expressing frustration at not having been able to ask questions.
I don't really fault the organizers for this. Putting together a large conference is a demanding task, and this one was impressively smooth in its operation. Perhaps on some level it made sense to stick to the tried-and-true format of a professional, academic, or scientific conference. But that's the problem: this is not a business, it is not an academic discipline, and it is not a science. It is a movement, one with goals it seeks to accomplish. I have the sense that the attendees were interested less in simply hearing facts — many of which are better conveyed in print and online anyway — than in discussing what it is they are all engaged in. Perhaps in the future, these conferences might be run more like seminars instead of lectures, or might find other ways of incorporating give-and-take conversations.
Many of the conferencegoers want humanity to become more virtual, with our frail bodies supplanted and our minds uploaded. To apply that logic, perhaps future conferences will move wholly online to avoid the logistical constraints of meeting in the physical world. But for this year, at least, the attendees seemed largely to take satisfaction in physicality: in encountering their leaders, in being in the presence of others who agree with them, and just in chatting over coffee with the fellow members of their movement.