The Singularity Goes Mainstream


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The guardian of conventional wisdom, the New York Times, published on Sunday a full two-page article in its business section on the coming technological Singularity. The best-known Singularity theorist/promoter, inventor Ray Kurzweil, defines the concept as follows:

Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

Kurzweil figures prominently in the fairly respectful Times article. The report focuses on the Singularity University where leading figures in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics, and computing interact with a select group of CEOs, inventors, and investors trying to parse out the future. The regular course costs $15,000 and students in the ten-week graudate course at Singularity University shell out $25,000. Some tidbits fromt the Times article below:

[X Prize technocelebrity Peter Diamandis told participants]: "My target is to live 700 years." The students chuckled. "I say this seriously," he retorted. …

Mr. Diamandis champions the idea that large prizes inspire rapid bursts of innovation and may pave a path to that 700-year lifetime.

"I don't think it's a matter of if," he says. "I think it's a matter of how. You and I have a decent shot, and for kids being born today, I think it will be a matter of choice." …

Other lecturers talk about a coming onslaught of biomedical advances as thousands of people have their genomes decoded. Jason Bobe, who works on the Personal Genome Project, an effort backed by the Harvard Medical School to establish a huge database of genetic information, points to forecasts that a million people will have their genomes decoded by 2014.

"The machines for doing this will be in your kitchen next to the toaster," Mr. Bobe says.

Mr. Hessel describes an even more dramatic future in which people create hybrid pets based on the body parts of different animals and tweak the genetic makeup of plants so they resemble things like chairs and tables, allowing us to grow fields of everyday objects for home and work. Mr. Hessel, like Mr. Kurzweil, thinks that people will use genetic engineering techniques to grow meat in factories rather than harvesting it from dead animals.

"I know in 10 years it will be a junior-high project to build a bacteria," says Mr. [Andrew] Hessel [former research manager at the biotech company Amgen]. "This is what happens when we get control over the code of life. We are just on the cusp of that."

Go here for my column, "Will Our Robot Overlords Be Friendly?," on the 2009 Singularity Summit. And go here for the whole Times article, "Merely Human? So Yesterday." 

On Tuesday my regular science column will be a report on the first day of the Humanity + Summit held at Harvard held over the past weekend. Unfortunately, my schedule wouldn't allow me to stay for the second day.

Disclosure: I am still hoping to hear that the Personal Genome Project has accepted me as a participant.