February 8, 2009

Singularity University launched to considerable debate

Earlier last week, renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil and Xprize founder Peter Diamandis officially announced the launching of The Singularity University. As KurzweilAI noted, "With the support of NASA, Google and a broad range of technology thought leaders and entrepreneurs, a new university will launch in Silicon Valley this summer with the goal of preparing the next generation of leaders to address 'humanity's grand challenges.'"

As part of the launch, Kurzweil released this promo video:

SU will feature a number of prominent futurists and intellectuals, including the IEET's very own Ben Goertzel (who is also on the Board for Humanity+) and Aubrey de Grey.

The launch of SU has kindled considerable debate about their offering, mission and purpose. I've compiled some highlights:

Jamais Cascio of the IEET and Open the Future: "Flunking Out":

For an institution that claims to be "preparing humanity for accelerating technological change," it sure seems to be spending a lot more time talking about nifty gadgets than about the connection between technology and society.

To put it another way: this is all about the symptoms of "accelerating technological change," and almost nothing about the consequences.

For a trade show or a business workshop, that's fine. For something calling itself a university, it's amazingly short-sighted. Given the nature of the subject matter, that's especially ironic/tragic.

Bob Mottram of The Streeb-Greebling Diaries: "The Singularity University: where's the beef?":
So, if there is to be a Singularity University you would expect them to be doing...research, boldly going where other universities can't or won't, right?


The description of what the Singularity University will be doing, as described in their FAQ, looks very disappointing and I tried in vain to locate information on any particular research which they'll be doing.
Brian Wang of Next Big Future: "Debating Singularity Education Programs":
This site has noted that the term "University" has some getting their expectations messed up. By examining the program and its stated model, International Space University, we can see that is a crash program and startup bootcamp with team projects.
Alvin Brigis: Memebox/Future Bogger: "Asocial Singularitarianism - Breeding an Incomplete View of Convergent Accelerating Change":
By taking the emphasis off of social acceleration, dynamics and punctuated change, the HTAE [Hard-Tech Attribution Error] increases the tendency for inaccurate and/or incomplete forecasting. Sure, it's still very important to spread the word about accelerating technological change, but I think we've now been provided with enough data (massively valuable social networks, rise of the prosumer, the impact of abstractions on intelligence, Reed's Law, etc) to recognize the importance of social intelligence and dynamics in the equation. By not giving these threads their due, we fail to develop the most comprehensive view of what is going on (which hurts our collective intelligence, behavior and economics).

If the goal of SU is to focus on "the exponential growth of information technology and how it can solve the major problems of the world", as Kurzweil summarizes in the promotional video...then the curriculum as currently presented will 1) fail to bring in minds from explosive social fields, 2) attract non-critical tech-Singularity devotees, and ultimately 3) fail to provide a comprehensive picture of acceleration.

What do you think?

As an interesting aside, David Orban (who is involved with SU) writes:
It hasn’t been reported by the numerous articles covering the announcement of the Singularity University, but Ray confirmed to me, and it is rather important, that all the lectures, and the course materials that are going to be developed and delivered at its sessions are going to be made available online under a liberal license. This is going to be equivalent to or more liberal than the license applied to the Open Courseware Consortium’s content, of which famously MIT’s courses are also a part. This means that all the materials of the Singularity University are going to be published under Creative Commons Attribution license!


Anonymous said...

Singularly epic failure predicted for this venture. Not one of the Grand Engineering Challenges will be solved or accelerated thanks to it. Innovation refuses to work that way. The primary outcomes of these “hey, let’s get together and invent the future”-workshops (oh, now it’s a University - how prestigious), are moist hot air, handwaving, a whole lotta carbon dumped in the form of air fuel, thick wads of cash exchanging hands …and the future arrives at exactly the same pace as it would have without the futurefest. And someone else invents it.

In other news, the event horizon of music composing has arrived: Songsmithularity is here. Any songs beyond this point are not ours to compose…

The Long Nose of Innovation

“Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. That doesn’t imply that the 10-year-old technologies we might draw from are mature or that we understand their implications; rather, just the basic concept is known, or knowable to those who care to look.”

Entirely new ideas are very hard to come by; refining old ones to world-changing perfection takes a long time; just look at any Grand Technology, like phones, microchips, operating systems. No doubt, version 7 of Songsmithularity may actually kick some talented musician’s butt.

Of course, some seriously neat tech may take less time. But no less than a decade. It seems 3-5 years is the absolute minimum to get anything worthwhile done. If you’re starting from scratch, be prepared to do your homework first, adding 5-20 years.

“Starting from scratch” meaning creating something entirely new, unprecedented tech. Say, someone claims an AGI leading to the Singularity is possible in less than a decade. You can’t take that seriously unless that someone’s been working on it for 10-30 years and already has some proof of concept.

“Seriously neat tech” meaning recursively self-improving or somehow evolving and optimizing, kicking humans out of the loop. An example of minor seriously neat tech is an operating system that learns what you do, and does everything you’d rather not; a servant, not just a tool.


Books like 'Fantastic Voyage' don't help Kurzweil's credibility at all.

The results of a huge comprehensive study of the long-term effects of vitamin and mineral supplementation were just recently published, which proved beyond doubt that vitamin/mineral supplements are utterly useless at preventing any illness.

Recommendations for mega-doses of vitamins and mineral supplements in "Fantasic Voyage' is just one example of numerous, unforgivable factual inaccuracies in Kurzweil's writings.

His book 'The Singularity Is Near' makes numerous 'exact date' for predictions for things unsupported by any evidence.

He needs to stop this pseudo-science now. He should be spend more time programming and studying, and stop engaging in constant self-promotion and wild claims.

Anonymous said...

I’m not saying they’re saying “under a decade” (except for one fairly credible researcher http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/goertzel20080823/ - credible because he seems to at least have the necessary time put into his work) but the tone of their communication is that they’re going to solve some major, grand, large scale, high impact problems, just by putting a bunch of smart people in the same room and letting the CO2 levels rise. And do that in a relative hurry. You may ask “Where does it say so?” Don’t know if it does explicitly, but it doesn’t say: “Going to bear fruit 20-30 years from now”. You can’t sell that. There always has to be this feeling of immediacy, communicated between the lines, that the future is just around the corner to get people excited and open up their wallets.

Whereas, in the real world, what actually Actually happens, anything worthwhile usually takes a whole Lifetime to come to grips with, let alone do something about it that hasn’t been done before.

The easy stuff is already done. Problems we’re faced with solving today are Deep. 10 weeks doesn’t have that quality. Not even a year. A decade is a good start.

What good is it to put a group of relative strangers in a room? Cross-pollination? Synergy? For that time they only manage to become a bunch of useless specialists, deprived of their research tools and teams. You can rattle off a number of such “innovation acceleration” terms and tout the blessings of group effort, but it won’t change the fact that history is replete with stories of epic, world-changing breakthroughs that are the result of an SDI - Single Dedicated Individual - or a small team led by one. Groups of disparate people that get together for 10 weeks to discuss? Yeah, I guess there are a few examples of those too, but key individuals played a crucial part. Lose them, and the success of the project goes down the tubes. And they surely weren’t accelerated by anything like SU.

These kinds of schemes have a built-in fail. They’re architecturally incapable of achieving what they claim. So what’s effective? Use the funds wasted on this non-starter to fund individual researchers/teams of important and promising tech. Massively fund massively important and promising tech. Perhaps that’s what they actually do with the money.

The only good outcome I expect is that it makes the issues more known and that may increase funding.

Perhaps, if all the smart, key people who actually have a potential to make a difference attend the next 20 sessions, you *might* see something come out of it, but until then all we’re likely to see is an ever increasing corpus of futurebabble.

Alvis Brigis said...

@ Songsmithularity - Though I am more than a bit disappointed by the proposed SU curriculum I do think it's an important mile marker on the road to understanding accelerating change and its consequences. It's terrific that big names are getting involved, though some will probably get burned by the affiliation.

@ Marc Geddes - Kurzweil has predicted many things successfully. Many have been directly related to hard tech trends like Moore's law that are more-or-less safe to predict now (but weren't at the time when Kurzweil was first broadcasting his views). My problem with his work is that he seems to largely miss the gradual AI / cultural shift story that's critical to the ongoing advancement of the hard-tech. As Jamais puts it in a comment on his FLunking Out thread, we should be "moving away from the unidirectional technological change -> social change model that seems so commonplace in emerging tech/Singularity discussions". That's the missing piece. Otherwise, Kurzweil is doing some great work. I just wish he'd go on a camp-out with some social media founders, flash mob organizers, social tehorists, diffusion scholars, etc. He's so strong in one area, and so weak in the other (though he does cover his ass by mentioning IA).

@ George - Thanks for the quote compilation and the link-back. What's your take on the curriculum? (Though I agree with Jamais' points, I do think his proposed curriculum is too soft/scholarly, as Brian Wang argues - but way better than the version presented through the SU site. We need some more comprehensive, actionable middle ground.)

Dave W Baldwin said...

Dear Folks With Strong Opinions,

The importance of the Singularity University is the open invitation to learning how the world can be changed in a way beneficial to everyone.

All the disciplines are studied, and this is a very important turning point.

I attended the First AGI Conference in Memphis last year and found many attendees were not thinking of the advancing parrallel disciplines, namely Nanotechnology.

Singularity University will bring groups together that will be learning about the disciplines and ideas will form.

Just as important is 'post school' exchange of information among the different graduates of the University. New ideas will form as they converse and the exchange with the public regarding what is coming will improve.

They will find, as I did last year in Memphis (thanks Ben and the others), ways that can bring a positive disruptive change...and yes, when they get the needed plan and seed money together, they will bring about profit.

That profit will help feed the needed funding from the private sector and that is what we need in the end to accelerate the advancements...

Give Singularity University a chance and remember, no one has said the first class this Summer will solve all the world's problems by Christmas...