January 12, 2011

Zimmer: Can You Live Forever? Maybe Not—But You Can Have Fun Trying

Writing in Scientific American, Carl Zimmer recounts his experience at the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City:
If the term "singularity" rings a bell, that may be because you've read the 2005 bestseller The Singularity Is Near. Its author, computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, confidently predicts intelligence will soon cross a profound threshold. The human brain will be dramatically enhanced with engineering. Artificial intelligence will take on a life of its own. If all goes well, Kurzweil predicts, we will ultimately fuse our minds with this machine superintelligence and find a cybernetic immortality. What's more, the Singularity is coming soon. Many of us alive today will be a part of it.

The Singularity is more than just hypothetic milestone in history. It's also a peculiar movement today. Along with spaceflight tycoon Peter Diamandis, Kurzweil has launched Singularity University, which brought in its first batch of students in the summer of 2009. Kurzweil is also director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which held its first annual summit in 2006. The summits are a mix of talks by Kurzweil and other Singularity advocates, along with scientists working on everything from robot cars to gene therapy. For its first three years the Singularity Summit took place around the Bay Area, but in 2009 the institute decided to decamp from its utopian environs and head for the more cynical streets of New York.

I was one of the curious skeptics who heeded the call and came to the 92nd Street Y. Writing about the brain and other scientific subjects had given me a strong immune defense against hype. The Singularity, with all its promises of a technorapture, seems tailor-made to bring out the worst in people like me. The writer John Horgan wrote a devastating essay about the Singularity in 2009 called "Science Cult."

Horgan acknowledged part of him enjoys pondering the Singularity's visions, such as boosting your IQ to 1,000. "But another part of me—the grown-up, responsible part—worries that so many people, smart people, are taking Kurzweil's sci-fi fantasies seriously," he wrote. "The last thing humanity needs right now is an apocalyptic cult masquerading as science."

I decided to check out the Singularity for myself. Between the talks, as I mingled among people wearing S lapel pins and eagerly discussing their personal theories of consciousness, I found myself tempted to reject the whole smorgasbord as half-baked science fiction. But in the end I didn't.
Read more.


Nebris said...

Best comment I read on that piece: "Interesting, both the article and the responses to it. I see a common thread in both and that's our lack of understanding.

The consciousness-shifters are light-years ahead of themselves. They're like classical Greek philosophers discussing health in terms of the four humors--their motives are honorable, but their lack of knowledge makes their conclusions unlikely to be accurate.

We should all keep studying and present facts, not flights of fancy. Before you talk about consciousness-transferal between humans and computers--other than in a science fiction context--maybe you should figure out some more elemental issues . . . such as, how to prevent headaches.

Keep dreaming, but don't confuse dreams with reality."

ZarPaulus said...

We may have laptops with as much processing power as the human brain by 2030 but they will not be conscious.

It is also possible that said computers will be capable of solving thousands of high-end equations per minute but incapable of passing the Turing test.

The only way I can see a Singularity happening in my (unmodified) lifetime is through Seed AI and genetic algorithms. Though considering that unlike many Singularitarians I managed a BC in college level Genetics I think that a VERY. BAD. IDEA.