FEAR THE SINGULARITY

Coffee was our sole objective as we slunk and scuttled into the 92nd Street Y, in New York, last Saturday at 7 a.m. Trembling with anticipation, we had arrived almost a full hour early to the fourth annual Singularity Summit. We had hoped for an empty lobby and untouched fruit platters to help us get our bearings and settle into the right state of mind. Instead, we were greeted by a long line of attendees, bustling with excitement.

Behind us, there were computer hackers — some pony-tailed, most overweight, almost all clad in leather jackets — mingling with tech hippies sporting braided goatees and yoga pants. To the left, East Asian businessmen munched on bagel chips and hummus before returning to their booths to pedal their tech wares. Though they seemed incomprehensible at the time, we came to a better understanding of the attendees’ motives for schlepping from various parts of the country to New York, once we got a better grasp of the tenets behind the Singularity.

The Singularity connotes a moment in time; to be precise, some moment in 2029, when the first “super-intelligent” machine will arise, capable of improving on its own source code without human input. The sayings go that shortly thereafter, humans will fuse with computers, rendering biology obsolete and effectively marking the end of human history. These machines will communicate at the speed of light, exchanging knowledge of our civilization and pooling memories and resources in unprecedented ways. This, enormously reduced for the popular understanding, is the unfolding of the Singularity.

Thirty short lectures covering everything from neuroscience to artificial intelligence and genetics explored potential pathways to the Singularity. In the minds of most of those present at the conference, the Singularity is the inevitable next step in the evolution of the world. Since its birth, the universe has gravitated towards greater organizational complexity. Atoms formed and evolved into mass, DNA evolved from inert matter into codified biological information, neural patterns processed and transported information, evolving into brains and these brains (our brains!) designed hardware and software, the buildings blocks of technology. Now, technology can organize, use and recognize information at near-human levels.

The Singularity comes next. Soon, technology will be able to improve on itself and finally merge with human intelligence. The first super-intelligent machine will be the last human invention of all time.

The purpose of the summit was twofold: to celebrate and to expound. To celebrate, because the ever-accelerating rate of technological change cannot help but lead to a future where man is machine, inhabiting a world without famine, war or disease. And to expound, because its supposed inevitability aside, it is still unclear — to us two, to the pony-tailed geniuses in the room and no doubt to you — how the Singularity will actually come about.

If one man has the answer to the question, it’s Ray Kurzweil, the father of the Singularity. At the end of the first day of the conference, all were waiting for him to appear. When he finally arrived, around 7 p.m., the audience went silent. People choked on their samosas and carrot sticks.

Kurzweil is 61 but plans to live forever. An inventor and a businessman, he follows a lifestyle intended to prolong his life long enough to see the day when scientific procedures can make him immortal. At 10 cups of green tea per day, 20 glasses of water, hundreds of vitamin supplements and a lean diet, Kurzweil looks like sunshine. In the event that he dies before the Singularity comes, Kurzweil has opted to freeze his body, in hope that future technology will bring him back to life.

Kurzweil is one of the geniuses of our parents’ generation. He accurately predicted, decades in advance, the rise of the Internet and the personal computer, the spread of cell phones and the defeat of Gary Kasparov, the greatest chess player of all time — who lost, of course, to a computer called Deep Blue.

Kurzweil’s latest prediction, and the one he hopes to be remembered by, is the Singularity. He is obsessed with analyzing the patterns of technological improvement. According to him, a self-conscious computer program is the necessary product of Moore’s law, which says that technical innovation accelerates at exponential rates, currently doubling every 10 years and only getting faster.

The beauty of the Singularity is that it’s grounded in a rigorous understanding of the organizational principles of the universe, despite the ludicrous claims and messianic elements that might surround it.

Sure, except for Kurzweil, we didn’t know anyone there and couldn’t follow many of the talks. Too intelligent for themselves, too intelligent for others, too intelligent for the planet, the Singularity Summit attendees can only hope for a future humanity that is bound, it, too, by the cold intelligence of the machine mind. Live long and prosper, Mother Earth.

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