Singularity Summit: a brief review

So this last weekend I was very privileged to be invited to attend the Singularity Summit in New York, an annual meeting of minds to discuss the implications of growing (and possible accelerating) technologies.  Now, despite having written a comic story about this very subject, I’ve never actually been in to an official gathering of these folks before, and didn’t really know what to expect.


- The audience was of a much higher caliber than what I expected.  Beforehand I had a lurking fear that Singularitarians were actually mostly navel-gazing sci-fi geeks who were more interested in a “nerd rapture” than the facts of emerging technologies.  In truth, it turns out that I was likely the dumbest guy in the room, with essentially all the attendees being very educated, thoughtful and (often) professionally successful individuals.  It was an interesting mix of industry leaders, scientists, economist and skeptics all possessing the necessary faculties for diverse and sober views concerning the subjects at hand.  Folks were friendly, too, and mingling in between talks I could always make my way into a group where interesting conversation was going on.

- The selection of speakers was very diverse.  I was concerned that the majority may involve a cheerleading squad for a particular view, but in fact topics and speakers ranged from those who believed in an inevitable “hard takeoff” Singularity to those who though *some* singularity was necessary to avoid existential risks to AI researchers who believed that belief in the Singularity is just a cognitive bias that futurists have.  Regardless of their views, though, every speaker treated the subject matter as a very serious and legitimate topic of discussion and investigation.

- Ray Kurzweil’s talks were very good as one might expect, though I personally felt these were some of the less exciting parts of the summit.  I don’t think it’s any fault of Kurzweil’s, though, since I’m just really familiar with his work and arguments, and it seems like he’s had to respond to the same tired arguments for several years now.  Two things that impressed me were the astonishing amount of evidence, detail and overall research he puts into his thesis (far more thorough than any other speakers) and second, the fact that he really looks a lot younger than a man in his 60s.  I know some folks take jabs at the astonishing amount of supplements and other dietary/medical steps he takes to increase his lifespan, but it really does seem to have an effect on his vitality and appearance.  He could easily be a good front man for the movement, though I noted that he wasn’t presented as such, and a variety of other speakers seemed to be pushed to the forefront instead.

- Eliezer Yudkowsky, as always, was very clever and humorous in his examination of cognitive bias and how downright insane human beings are really wired to be.  With a series of statistics (with the audience participating in some questions), he showed how even a “rational” person’s mind can be hacked primarily due to its messy “spaghetti code” evolutionary history.  Symptoms of cognitive bias include tending to believe more specific or dramatic threats over more realistic ones (examples included the Bush administration preparing for elaborate “movie threats” while ignoring statistically more likely and dangerous threats like hurricane disasters).  With relation to the Singularity, one popular fear is the “Terminator Scenario” where AI becomes violent, humanoid and bend on destroying the human race.  Despite having not even the slightest grounds in fact, this image is popular because it’s specific and dramatic.  Likewise, in regards to futurism in general, we tend to overestimate the macroscopic (flying cars, jet packs, space travel) and underestimate the advances of the subtle (internet, cloud computing, augmented reality, specific and general AI).

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and venture capitalist, provided a very interesting perspective.  From the view of a technologist and businessman, he believes that the topic that needs to be discussed further is what happens if the Singularity doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen fast enough.  He seems to be of the opinion that if it doesn’t develop quickly enough, there could be an incident similar to the ‘dot com crash’ (where investors overestimated tech growth) only on a much larger, more devastating scale.  He argued that the Singularity has the potential to be an extremely beneficial trend in the future, but there needs to be a more concentrated economic and industrial effort to ensure that it develops the right way and at the right pace.

Aubrey de Grey may have been my favorite speaker, as the topic of biological longevity research is an area where my education is sorely lacking.  Some magnificent leaps and bounds in this field have been made, and Dr. de Grey graphed life expectancy paths (using only the most pessimistic predictions regarding advancements) amongst different age groups today.  It was a very thorough talk and, while seemingly optimistic, it involved some of the hardest, tangible science out there.  I feel this is one angle of Transhumanism that should get more face time in the public eye.  While AI is the more significant thing to watch in the long run (and the most terrifying), aging and longevity research is a very tangible, understandable science with a growing and continuous set of real-world applications that even the harshest cynic couldn’t call useless.  On top of that, Dr. de Gray really does come off as a very charming, thoughtful person who is genuinely interested in helping everyone he can (at the expense of perhaps his own longevity).

-Another interesting observation is that half the freaking people at the summit read Dresden Codak. Why on Earth would such important individuals waste their time on this comic is beyond me, but it was kind of neat.  Even though I was just an attendee, I’ve never gotten this much attention even at a comic show (on the second day I was even roped into giving autographs in the lobby!).  A definite highlight was when Aubrey de Grey pulled me aside to praise my satirical essay featuring Trans-Simianism. Who knew?

Conclusion: a wonderful group of intellectuals discussing a relevant and fascinating array of subjects, from autonomous cars to brain scans to curing blindness to avoiding being destroyed by a superintelligence.  Both the speakers and attendees are the type of people I wouldn’t mind seeing again at next year’s summit.  If you’re interested in the subject at all (from skeptic to optimist) and can afford the price of admission, it’s definitely an event worth seeing for yourself.