Computers that think for themselves, humans achieving immortality, and nanorobots made from DNA? Last weekend nothing was too futuristic for The Singularity Summit, a conference based around the notion that technologies envisioned in Star Trek may be here sooner than you think.
It’s all because of the vision of Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, an inventor who takes ideas normally relegated to science fiction movies seriously. During the two day conference at the historic 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, casual reference to the fictional self-aware computer system “Skynet” from The Terminator movies was common. The group of intellectuals, scientists, entrepreneurs and wealthy eccentrics that came together to ponder Kurzweil’s concept of “The Singularity” felt at home amongst fellow futurists.
It was something of a safe environment to discuss the notion that soon humans and computers will merge as technological progress increases exponentially. But what, exactly, is The Singularity? Kurzweil gave a talk the first day; showing over a hundred slides with charts and graphs to describe the phenomenon. One of his classic charts shows how human progress, as determined by emergence of significant inventions such as the printing press or computer, is exponentially increasing. He believes that we will reach a point, a singularity, when progress will increase so fast we will cease to be able to control it as machines with superintelligences take over.
The hope is that these superintelligent beings will be friendly, forming an interdependent and mutually beneficial bond with humans, rather than enslaving them.
I was impressed with the mixture of perspectives offered by the speakers. While there were some that seemed purely Kurzweilian, supporting the idea that The Singularity is indeed approaching, others felt that we are safely far in time from the moment of non-biological consciousness. I ran into one speaker, Nadrian Seeman, a NYU chemist who makes DNA nanorobots, on my way to the conference. He confided that he wasn’t even sure why they invited him, that he hadn’t really heard of The Singularity and didn’t know how his research related to it. A couple of other speakers who don’t completely buy in to Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” publicly declared so, eyeing humanity’s future rate of technological progress more conservatively.
There was definitely an economic slant (some might say a plea) to a few of the talks, perhaps brought on by a lack of mainstream funding to these research areas. Peter Thiel, billionaire on the board of directors of Facebook, discussed the need to invest in Singularity-esque technologies during a panel on venture capitalism. There was even a pitch toward the end of the conference from a “friend” of The Singularity Institute asking audience members to support Singularity research financially.
Whether the Singularity Is Near or not, Kurzweil’s ideas are definitely here to stay. Let’s just hope that if computers do become conscious, they aren’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger.