Singularity Summit ’08 from a non-nerd

Posted on October 27, 2008. Filed under: Layman's AI, The Singularity |

San Jose, California: the most expensive place to live in the USA. The international airport is only three miles from the historic downtown district, but my imaginative taxi driver was still able to get the meter up to $25. On Sunday morning, city employees are out power-washing the sidewalks and pedestrian alleyways. The “light train” seemingly goes everywhere, including right in front of the Hotel Montgomery, my home in Silicon Valley. Everything is clean, and the FBI says it’s the safest large town in the country. With only my orthotically-enhanced shoes for transportation, I easily enjoyed wonderful meals, great jazz, and mind-popping intellectual stimulation at the Singularity Summit.

Had he not passed on four days earlier (was he signed up for cryonics?), “Mr. Blackwell” could have found limitless fodder at the Summit for his worst-dressed lists. Singularitarians, for the most part, seem to practice the fashion credo: “I’m not like you, at all.” None were barefoot, but the footwear was imaginative, to say the least, including one young man whose “shoes” had ten individual toe compartments. As the age of the participants increased, there was a general decline in the volume of hair gel and spike points, with a trend toward less of what one might consider a “statement”, and more of a mere lack of good taste. It was reminiscent of a ghetto yard sale, except the clothes were moving around. As to the presenters themselves, there was a fashion spectrum: from one who easily could have passed for a hitch-hiker over from a ’60’s Big Sur commune, with hair and beard that had never been near a sharp object, to others in custom-tailored suits with Clintonesque coifs. Some were signaling “g” more than others, but all that I heard and met (stage and audience) were clearly quite sharp.

Singularity Institute volunteer Michael Vassar has written that non-nerds may be seen as “defective nerds”. I am definitely in the “defective” category, so my impressions of the Summit may differ significantly from other versions.

Perhaps the most all-encompassing concept about the Singularity that I gained from the Summit is this: millions of people are working on things that will cause the occurrence of the Singularity, even if they do not realize it. This idea is reminiscent of the human brain itself, in that there are millions of non-conscious interactive parts that somehow sum to create consciousness. This “wisdom of crowds” theme was injected into several presentations, and if accurate, confirms for me the inevitability of the Singularity, although not necessarily the pace. Ben Goertzel’s OpenCog project approaches AI through open sourcing (and is the only official entry of the Singularity Institute). Radar Networks CEO Nova Spivack envisions organizations increasing in intelligence, as opposed to individuals. He suggests that the most likely candidate for super-human intelligence already exists: the Internet. As it grows, he predicts the Web will “wake up”. In the view of Dr. Pete Estep, this and other developments would be part of a cooperative human/computer interface, described here.

Ray Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” seemed to be illustrated by the report of Intel’s Justin Rattner, who revealed that Moore’s Law actually reached its conclusion two years ago, at least as far as silicon-based chips go. Yet, human-level intelligence was ready,  and new technology took over without non-nerds ever seeing a blip. IBM’s director of cognitive computing, Dharmendra Modha, says the coalescence of three developments make the timing “perfect” for the development of AI: the maturing of neuroscience, the development of nanotechnology, and the production of supercomputer hardware. Although the software lags behind, Modha claims the hardware for human-scale simulation will be ready in 2018.

What about non-nerd preparations for the Singularity? Smith College economics professor James Miller spoke like, well, an economist. Currently, relatively few are aware of or accept the concept of the Singularity. As this number increases, until eventually it is commonplace, human attitudes about life will change. With the promise of extreme life extension, people will become more fixated on staying alive until the Singularity occurs. Their activities and priorities will change accordingly. They will take fewer physical risks, diminish their savings behaviors, and refuse to participate in activities and investments with long-term goals. Smaller savings amounts will lead to higher interest rates. Education will be more about subjects that are found to be entertaining, rather than those required for a career. The near present will become far more important than the future. Retirement plans will cease to exist. Cryonics and other preservation technologies will become more attractive than insurance. Miller’s point? We can invest now in ways that take advantage of early knowledge of these trends. After all, money will still be important before the Singularity.

Marshall Brain, author of Robotic Nation, stresses social and economic changes surrounding the Singularity. Initially, automation will replace the service sector, causing massive unemployment and severely curtailing the creation of human-based jobs. He predicts that early on, at least half of human jobs will be lost to AI’s. Left to free-market policies, there will be a marked redistribution of wealth, with concentration at the top. He encourages social and governmental plans now to address this inequity. Interestingly, given the same information, Peter Diamandis, of the X-Prize Foundation, draws the opposite conclusion. He feels that wealth concentration in a relative few hands makes for more efficient philanthropy and drives innovations in technology. He gives quite a number of examples in support of his point. Democrats versus Republicans.

Some months ago, on Overcoming Bias, the question of a “Manhattan Project” approach to super-human AI was discussed. One commenter mentioned that the US Department of Defense had no interest in the Singularity. The truth lies elsewhere. At the Summit, MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld chuckled that he had spent “many millions of our hard-earned tax dollars” on his projects, and Dr. Modha confirmed that the US government is spending hundreds of millions (that he knows about) on developments leading to advanced AI. Modha also confirmed that even if a non-government funded project (US) should develop a superhuman AI, the government would have first rights to its use, under national security laws.

The high-profile, oft-quoted Research Fellow at the Singularity Institute, Eliezer Yudkowsky, did not speak formally at the Summit. In a post yesterday on Overcoming Bias, titled “Aiming at the Target”, he responded to the question: does any non-trivial math exist concerning Friendly Artificial Intelligence (FAI)? Said he, “If I were going to write up a piece of novel FAI math, it would be my general theory of Newcomblike problems, but the last time I tried that it started turning into a book. But that would be the main thing that I would do, if it got to the point that impressing people with at least one piece of elegant math turned into a high enough priority.” 

He’d still need some slides.



















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4 Responses to “Singularity Summit ’08 from a non-nerd”

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Thanks for a non-nerd overview.

Interesting post.
Did you get to ask any of the questions you’d been pondering in the previous post?

I wonder if they’ll post any videos.

burger flipper:

Questions at the Summit were allowed only if a speaker had not used the entire alloted time for the presentation. 2 or 3 speakers chose two questioners (show of hands in the audience), more chose 1, and some had none at all. The answers were brief with no actual discussion. However, there was a reception the night before the Summit, and a reception for about an hour after the Summit ended, with most of the speakers available for informal chats. I listened in on a number of conversations, but the only actual question I asked was of IBM’s Modha, regarding governmental funding and governmental “first rights” to new technology that might affect national security (such as an AGI). Certainly, the opportunity was there for more questions, had I been more aggressive. I felt that my lack of basic knowledge in the fields of math and computer science made me a poor questioner, so I just listened.

This page at the Singularity Summit web site has quite a number of links about Summit coverage.

Hi Retired Urologist! It is good to see you commenting again at Overcoming Bias Dot Com; my impression is that you can make a positive contribution to the public discourse about the singularity if you work hard at it.

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