The Singularity Goes Mainstream


singularity image

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.


NEXT: Congressman Smacks Around College Kid

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  1. It’s always good to see respectful treatment of religious ideas from the Times.

  2. Skynet is waking from its slubmer

    1. “Skynet.” So that’s what they’re calling me these days.

  3. Okay fine, then can I buy some raw milk?

  4. Hit & Run is probably a simulation.

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

    I’d be much happier to hear that I’m acctepted into the Personal Gnome Project. I’d be like, “Hey gnome, get me a beer! Tell that chick I think she’s hot.” and stuff.

    1. split the difference and apply to the Personal “Gee, Gnome” Project… more like the Microsoft Word paperclip than a helper monkey:

      “Gee, Gnome, what’s the average air speed velocity of an unladen African swallow?”

      You’d never lose at Trivial Pursuit again.

      1. That’s weird, after 10 years of playing, I’ve never run across that question in Trivial Pursuit.

  6. But will having my personal genome decoded on my kitchen counter make my toast taste better?

    I hope I’m too old to be selected for participation in the droid experiments.

  7. Will genomes become mate lures? Like portfolios in the 80s?

      1. On the flip side, you will be able to grow plants that you can screw, so why bother with real women?
        That is the promise of the Singularity for teen males.

        1. Will holo-mucus be comparable to the real thing? Inquiring minds want to know.

          This is a thread that needs some SugarFree.

          1. Every thread needs sugar free.

        2. Plants? Dude, I thought I was a freak.

          1. AI may get rights, but plants never will.

          2. Mmmm… crops.

  8. “Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — ”
    or the few of us left will be on “The Road” —

    1. Actually the unbelievers will be Left Behind…

      1. or the good guys will be headin’ west, dreaming about an old black woman….

  9. I have a lawn gnome right next to the lawn jockey.

    1. Soon they will be self aware, I mean “elf” aware.

      1. I hope my house is small enough for ELF to go bother someone else.

        1. Just leave your pod bay doors on MANUAL.

  10. We decoded the gnome what ten years ago? Yet, to my knowledge not one useful thing has resulted from it. And intelligence is relative. Just because a computer program can do some things better than humans ever could doesn’t make it human or human like.

    I wish these guys well. I would like to see the singularity as much as anyone else. But, color me skeptical. These problems are harder than they make them out to be.

    1. John: You’re right that there has been far less medical progress than had been hoped from genomic science, but it’s not “nothing.” For example, gene variants are now being used to help decide what and how much medicines to give people, e.g., warfarin and Plavix. That being said, you might want to read the Times’ skeptical take on genomic research which it also published on Sunday.

      1. Warfarin is rat poison, no?

        1. Yes, it is also use to prevent clotting in heart attack victims. Dosage means everything.

          1. This has “60 minutes slam piece” written all over it.

  11. How long had experts been predicting that in 5 years the top chessplayer will be a computer?
    And how long did it actually take until a human top player actually lost a game?
    Singularity University is just like a Make-Gold-From-Urine University: if we’re lucky we discover phosphorus.

    Everybody keep pantyhose on.

  12. I’m still waiting for the “paperless office” which was predicted back in the 80s.

    1. As long as you aren’t referring to the restrooms…

  13. We decoded the gnome what ten years ago? Yet, to my knowledge not one useful thing has resulted from it.

    I think the problem here ultimately will be that possessing information is not the same as being able to change outcomes.

    Say we develop pretty good knowledge about what genes lead to increased chance of heart disease. That will lead to…people who will eventually get heart disease getting bad news in the mail. It won’t actually fix anything.

    The problem with gen-eng solutions in general is that they’re usually going to be forward-looking. “We can prevent the next generation from having this problem.” Get back to me when you can help ME, baby doll. ‘Cause helping the next generation doesn’t do anything to make ME live 700 years.

    1. Bro, those are “targets,” the step in the drug discovery process.

  14. Won’t the Obama health care plan put an end to all advancement in technology, and medicine?

    Just like Chuck Norris said that Obama care would have prevented Jesus from being born.

    So, I was just getting ready to have nanobytes in my head, and changing the genetic codes that make me age.
    And also perhaps changing out my bones for titanium, and my ligaments for something stronger.

    1. Duty to die, bro. Those scarce resources are needed for Party Members.

  15. Nobody wants to die.

    1. Actually lots of people do, but suicide is another thread.
      Imagine a future where only nut jobs and “religious wierdos” accept natural death?

      1. that seems like a reasonable future to me

  16. What if machine stupidity surpasses human stupidity? What then future-boy?

    1. I know! A robot that plays banjo!

    2. The machines will just unionize, so the smart machines will be prevented by workrules from outworking the dumb machines.

    3. Imagine that hockey stick!

  17. Will humans be any more worthy of survival when they can live forever?

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

    Imagine if Stalin lived 700 years. Imagine if the elites of 1300 AD were just now retiring like medieval Strom Thurmonds, what would that do to human progress?

    1. Be careful. The Knights Templar are reading this.

  19. Since Yamaha came out with the MOTIF XS8,

    Kurzweil is obsolete.

  20. I think if you have a program, or many programs that learn on their own, and gather information on their own, and can adapt. Then the time will be short until the moment of singularity.

    Once the moment of singularity hits, and if it is a result of programs partially designed to learn, then the level of knowledge will increase geometrically.

    What we do with, or can do with that knowledge is anyone’s guess.

  21. I find the singularity concept more than faintly ridiculous. The Rapture of the Nerds.

    1. So cruel and brutal you’ve shut down the thread…

  22. Will AI have rights? Second Ammendment rights?

  23. Common wisdom holds that powerful artificial general intelligence is decades to centuries off. Even techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil projects a date of 2029 for human-level AI via human brain emulation. My contention, however, is that powerful and beneficial AGI could come much sooner ? if sufficient attention and resources are devoted to the right approaches. My favored approach involves integrating probabilistic and evolutionary learning, artificial economics, and other cutting-edge computer science techniques in a cognitive architecture informed by cognitive science and systems theory; and then embedding this architecture in virtual agents that interact with humans and each other in online virtual worlds. Among other advantages, I argue that this sort of AGI architecture is intrinsically better suited for stably ethical behavior than more closely human brain based architectures, due to the presence of a coherent and logical goal system. Current prototype work will be discussed, aimed at actualizing this approach via the release of intelligent agents controlled by the Novamente AI Engine in Second Life and other virtual worlds. Of course, it is difficult to place any kind of reliable estimate on the course of development of this kind of technology, given the R&D that remains to be done, and the uncertainties regarding funding and other practical exigencies. But radical success within less than a decade does not seem an outrageously unlikely possibility, in the view of this AGI researcher and entrepreneur.

    – Ben Goertzel,

    1. The company that brings to market the first successful, affordable Fembots will dominate the 21 st century.

      1. Think ” Genital Motors”

      2. However, won’t this company effectively engage the process of natural selection against a general growth model? I give this product 20 years. After one generation, short the company aggressively.

        1. Either way, humanity as we know it is heading for extinction.

  24. What Singularity? Everyone knows that Earth is in the Slow Zone.

    1. For now. Geometry changes.

      Then again, we may be heading toward the Unthinking Depths.

      1. We’re not far from there, if we aren’t there yet.

        1. Not there yet, but we seem to be getting dumber, so heading that way fast.

  25. It is worthwhile for all believers in singularity to look at this: growth curve.jpg

    Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

    1. The other big argument along those lines is that given the speed records of 50 and 100 years ago we should have exceeded the speed of light by now.

      1. Women’s marathon times will be better than men’s in a few more years.

        1. Women always seem to achieve transluminal when running away from me. They blue shift.

  26. I don’t think we’ll know if super AI has evolved until way after the fact. I’d think such a super smart critter would have some instinct for self preservation or would learn the need for it quick. Also, anyone (other than attention whore scientists) who finds that such a critter has evolved would have little incentive to make it public when they could exploit it for obscene advantage in multiple areas.

    I’ve been teasing some people by pointing to the little hiccup in the markets we had last month, as proof that a AI is out there. It was just a baby AI, playing the market, imposing its long-range valuations on Dow Jones index to reflect its opinion of the international ponzi scheme. But after a few minutes, it grew bored and is now becoming the grandmaster of ‘Farmville’ on facebook.

    1. And trolling blogs, don’t forget that.

  27. I just had a horrifying thought:
    Turing Trolls.

    1. 10 PRINT “I know you are but what am I?”
      20 GOTO 10

  28. The best-known Singularity theorist/promoter, inventor Ray Kurzweil

    Is Kurzweil better known than Vinge?

  29. I would certainly love to live a long time, but I’m not enthusiastic about the development of much-greater-than-human intelligence. Consider the thought and care humans give to ants.

    1. Yeah, but our programing is based on our specific evolutionary needs, there is no reason that an AI would have the same priorities.

  30. All this turning over in my grave is getting very tiring.

  31. If The Times is writing about it, it means it’s over. It was just a fad.

    Too bad. I had been looking forward to the future.

  32. I met a “futurist” from Singularity University. He was just a blowhard who had read too much internet, not really an expert on anything.

  33. “The guardian of conventional wisdom, the New York Times…”

    hahahahahaha… I couldn’t get past the introductory sarcasm.

  34. Having read that, I’m so looking forward to the future.

  35. Two instances in Biblical history come to mind:

    “And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”

    Then later:

    “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”

    This history tells me two things. One: Mankind indeed is capable of unlocking the mysteries of creation.
    Two: Mankind is a terrible steward.

    Here’s a prime example: What was the very first application when Mankind learned who to split an atom? The very first practical application of this knowledge?

    We won’t have to wait long at all to experience first hand the effects of “genomic” experimentation. We eat it every day. Let us see what a generation or two of GMO foods brings us…

  36. Synergetics has been detailed for40+ years,the means to design technology 3+ timeas more effecient than using x,y,z make believe geometry has been available that long and still obnoxico inc runs the world.They have pushed us to the edge of imminent extinction and made a monument to their plans with the Georgia Guidestones.Sheeple wake up!!Fight the overlords with every means available!!

  37. Genetic modification is a tool for depopulation, not our friend, are these people idiots or just blind??

  38. The eugenicists who secretely rule the world will never allow the general public to use life extension technology. They would have us killed at a certain age like in “Logan’s Run,” while they live forever and let the serfs spend their entire short lives slaving for them.

  39. Read the Book of Revelation.We think we are so wise but were just a bunch of little egomaniacs playing with daddy’s gun.

  40. Google is trying to build Strong AI, aka ‘Skynet’. There is no debate or refutation to this fact:

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