Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Revolution Will Be PowerPointed

A panel discussion during the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City.

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.


  1. I quite agree with your comments on the conference . For something presumably focused on a singularity , it was rather diffuse . And cramped coffee and lunch breaks don't replace a more relaxed time for social interaction -- that's really the only added value to making the trip there .

    I think there are lots of singularities going on all the time and show up as Ray Kurzweil's paradigm-shift-bumps on his double exponential . The collapse of time and distance , the very topology , of the world's knowledge by the Web is a definitionally accurate biggie . The ubiquity of PowerPoint a far lesser one .

    As I mentioned when we chatted briefly the second day , the singularity I spent the `70s working to understand is that of consciousness . Now , 3 decades later , the physical basis of consciousness is being openly explored . I attended the Singularity Summit to get a taste of the status of the study these days , and because I can I can crash in NYC and see old friends and nbds . It's a nice place to visit about 1%50 of the year .

    I appreciated Kurzweil's summary that all that consciousness and quantum theory have in common is that both are mysterious . Certainly the papers were short of the boundary of what was understood 30 years ago . For instance , Gary Marcus's discussion of "cue memory" seemed oblivious to the substantial understanding of the mathematics of associative memory , and therefore human memory , greatly accelerated back in the '70s by the reification of holograms .

    I guess I shouldn't have expected more from a non-mathematical , general audience targeted meeting . In contrast , see my http://www.cosy.com/views/mind.htm . The most important concept comes from someone who may well be known by Ray , Huseyin Yilmaz . Yilmaz pointed out years ago that within an information system ( network ) , the maximum velocity of information transmission holds many of the roles that c plays in reality . Most crucially , within the brain , the maximal axonal speed of around 200 m%s , induces a volume of simultaneity , a singularity , on the scale of the brain .

    As I think about it , there were some useful talks with some of the current rather incredible imaging , and seeing how planar the dendritic branching in , as I understood it , cerebellar tissue , and one with an estimate of less than 1e8 byte of info in the genome . But , in the future I'll be drawn by more focused conferences .

  2. Thanks for your comments, Bob. Nice to meet you at the conference and hear from you again.


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