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Friday, August 13, 2010

Singularity Summit Hits San Francisco

Posted By on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 4:45 PM

click to enlarge Ah, crap...
  • Ah, crap...
We are writing this aboard the Virgin flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco. We are not sitting next to James "The Amazing" Randi, though we are ostensibly his escorts. Nor are we sitting next to each other.

One of us has scored a seat next to the magician Andrew

Mayne, an acquaintance from Florida, who we didn't even know would be on this flight. As it happens, he is going to San Francisco for the same reason we are: To plot the annihilation of humanity.

That's an oversimplification, but true in essence. No matter how you

slice it, we expect that most of the men and women we shall encounter

this weekend will agree that humanity (at least in its

fleshy/hormone-addled/war-mongering present state) is on the way out.

What's debatable is whether we're going to be 1) destroyed utterly, 2)

gradually, pleasantly replaced by technology-enhanced, better versions

of ourselves, or 3) experience something even weirder less


Such are the subjects of conversation at The Singularity Summit.

The Singularity is a thing debated passionately by those who love or

fear it; seldom agreed upon by those who are supposed to know about it,

and callously dismissed by people who ought to know better. What the Singularity is,

basically, is a hypothetical moment in the (relatively) near future when a

computer (or computer program) achieves ever-so-slightly-greater-than-human


See you soon?
  • See you soon?
When such an intelligence finally appears in the world, the

thinking goes, just about anything could happen. This non-human intelligence --

or its hyper-intelligent children -- may emerge as the salvation of Western

Civilization; the embodiment of our most treasured humanistic ideals, bearing

us onward into progress, peace, and plenty. Or it could spawn a species of

self-replicating nano-machines that turn the planet and its creatures into so

much hot goo.

There are other

possibilities, too.

The one

of us sitting next to Andrew Mayne has spent the last three hours discussing precisely

these contingencies. Sample snippet, from Mayne: "People have this idea that

we're going to have this computer-brain in a box, like something out of Isaac

Asimov. It's very 1950s -- this stand-alone machine, you talk to it, you

tinker, you make improvements. But that's probably not how it's going to be.

Well before we have a smarter-than-human computer, we're going to have thousands

of these computers with almost-human intelligence, each designed with very

particular tasks in mind, and each one enormously powerful. So what if a

slightly smarter one emerges and goes haywire? There will be extraordinary

computational resources available to combat it."

Mayne -- who is known internationally as the founder of iTricksand --

is an optimist. Many of those at the Summit are greater optimists than he. Some are much, much more pessimistic. But none doubt that the era of computer-level human intelligences is nearly upon us.


gradual mainstreaming of the idea is exemplified by the presence, somewhere on

this plane, of James


Randi is himself a retired magician. (He prefers the term

"conjurer.") Now 82, he has spent the past 40 years pursuing a second career as an educator,

warning the public away from the uncritical acceptance of "extraordinary

claims." Originally, he embarked upon this career to combat the ascendant New

Age movement, with its fraudulent psychics, spoon-benders, faith healers and

mind-readers -- most of whom, Randi well knew, were tricksters passing off

stunts as miracles. Randi still goes after supernaturalists, but in recent

years has turned his attention increasingly to pseudoscience. In particular,

Randi has publicly locked horns both with homeopaths and the anti-vaccine


So it

says something that he's traveling to San

Francisco to address the Singularity Summit. Mostly,

that the idea of understanding, modeling, and replicating something as nebulous

"consciousness" doesn't seem so crazy as it once did. Humans accrue knowledge

quickly, after all, and the more we accrue, the faster we accrue it. Avoid

dying long enough and you'll see certainties upended and the impossible made

possible. Ask Randi: He's extremely old. He knows better than most that the

speed at which sci-fi becomes non-fi (or whatever) can fail to exhilarate only

those who are really, really not paying attention.

The Summit runs all weekend.

Randi co-headlines with Ray Kurzweil; Wunderkind Michael Vassar,

president of the Singularity Institute (the group responsible for the Summit), begins the

proceedings on Saturday with a meditation on the increased importance of

skepticism and rationality in a world where irrational little monkeys have the

power to create new kinds of minds. If the world's still here come Monday,

we'll let you know how it went.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF

and @SFWeekly 

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