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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Singularity Summit Highlights: World Fails to End

Posted By on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Good guess, champ!
  • Good guess, champ!
Well, the world didn't end this weekend. Nobody really expected it to, anyway -- the Singularity Summit at the Hyatt Regency (about which we wrote in some detail last Friday) was less about invoking an immediate techno-cataclysm than it was about laying the groundwork for one. That's fine. Scientists are patient people.

Scenes from the Summit:

We first encountered Socrates on the elevator, being wheeled down to the auditorium by a bellhop. He had no arms, no legs -- nothing much below the ribcage. Yet he was dashing, in a truncated way. His beard was smartly trimmed and auburn, and his abbreviated toga was fitted. His face was vacant, but friendly enough. Nevertheless, we experienced a moment of terror when we saw this apparently dismembered person being carried onto the elevator by a bored-looking man in uniform. What kind of hotel is this?

The torso, which turned out to be a robot, was posted on a table outside the conference room on the Regency's ground floor, where people could ask it questions. It had a tendency to end often-nonsensical answers with "...dude." The movements of its face were impressive -- many marvelously coordinated servo-motors were marshaled to create each of its exquisite expressions -- yet its smiles were often accomplished with a discomfiting Chucky-esque levitation of its upper lip.

But it could meet your eyes. Asked about its favorite color, it launched into a moving, presumably preprogrammed soliloquy about the infrared and ultraviolet spectra that it can perceive and humans can't, sounding pained as it said how much it would like to share those ineffable colors with the "people I love." We loitered around the robot for 20 minutes, hoping it might break free of its programming and achieve sentience. It didn't.

The Singularity Summit did host one sentient being that was at least partially artificial -- the world's first cyborg, depending on how you define the term. His name is Steve Mann and, in 1994, he began live-streaming his life through a camera mounted over one of his eyes. Thousands tapped in and sent messages to a sort of digital tickertape in his visor. Mann said in his presentation that he added a password to the feed after the "30,000 voices in his head" began driving him insane.

This year's Singularity Summit shined much-needed light on some of the tenacious, underfunded researchers, from Cambridge to MIT, making strides toward artificial intelligence and radical life extension. David Hanson -- the inventor of Frubber, a life-like android skin -- explained how we can make robots look more human and less like Mitt Romney. Ben Goertzel, CEO of the A.I. firm Novamente, described how he's created "superflies" -- carefully bred fruit flies that have more sex, better wings, and stronger hearts and live four to five times longer than their peers. Goertzel is reading his superflies' genomes to discover what makes them tick, and how human beings could one day be engineered to live forever.

Along the same lines, Ellen Heber-Katz of the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia showed how she's been able to regenerate rats' limbs by turning off a single gene. Early Saturday, Gregory Stock explained the method by which he hopes to eradicate Alzheimer's, and then opined that "human" values (love, fucking, etc.) will be hackneyed and useless in a post-Singularity world. (He didn't quite say "And good riddance!", but it sounded like he wanted to.) Sunday night, James "The Amazing" Randi riffed on human gullibility and read a young scientist's mind.

There wasn't much socializing at the Summit, save a few after-hours parties. On the first night, donors, speakers, and friends of the Institute visited the home of Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-creator of PayPal and Palantir (a firm that crunches numbers for the CIA, among others). Thiel is heavily invested in the Singularity Institute, as well as in Facebook and SpaceX -- the private space-travel firm founded by Thiel's old friend and colleague, Elon Musk. We were well aware that his industries may be the ones to define the contours of the planet's future, and we resolved to remain on his good side. (Though we think his concept of journalism is a little wonky, to say the least.)

Thiel lives, at least some of the time, in a big stucco house not far from the Exploratorium. The house is full of nooks, crannies, abstract paintings -- and on Friday, some 200 of the world's smartest people. Never before have we stood in a fashionable parlor, drinks in hand, and been approached by fellow-revelers who open their mouths to speak -- and, rather than asking our signs or introducing themselves as so-and-so from such-and-such, say: "Obviously interiority is an emergent function. But doesn't that mean that, on some level, even the walls have souls?"

Weird as it sounds, this was one of the more scrutable remarks we heard Friday night. A great deal of the verbiage flew above our heads. Computer science argot; rumors of exciting goings-on in the world of mitochondria: The banter was sober, and sobering. The open bar in the living room was notably under-abused.

On the roof, whence Thiel's house has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, things were mellower. There were actual smokers out there, and a few people who seemed to understand what, exactly, open bars are for. Up there, the crowd was less technophile and more Libertarian. (Thiel is, himself, extremely small-l libertarian.) A board member of The Reason Foundation, the Libertarian think-tank, recited a long, bawdy poem about spaceflight, delighting a young man who works for SpaceX, and causing a pretty young classical harpist to laugh and blush.

The next night, in a lounge at the Infinity condominiums, a handsome young free-marketeer almost picked a fight with us when we asked a few innocent questions about SeaSteading. It was disconcerting, and as it happened, avoidable: The founder of the SeaSteading Institute, Patri Friedman (Milton's grandson), was standing just a few yards away. We should have asked him.

After the Summit, one of us cornered Michael Vassar, the Singularity Institute's brilliant young president, in the Regency Hyatt's lobby bar. "We heard the magic words," he said. "From James Randi. In his talk, he said: 'I learned something.' That's a mark of success."

Vassar said the Singularity Summit didn't make nearly as much money as he'd hoped, but it was an okay haul. Work at the Institute will continue amain.

Trying to get a handle on what we'd seen, we asked: What's up with the creepy Libertarian cabal that's sprung up around Peter Thiel? (Answer: "I don't think Peter Thiel is a fundamentalist anything.") Is the person who will cause the end of the world here this weekend? (Answer: "That depends what you mean by 'cause.'") Why are the people here so dorky? (Answer: "Asperger's.") What do you want people to take away from the Summit? ("Simply, people need to know what's being done by these scientists.

The revenue generated from their projects will be in the trillions -- that's 'trillions,' with a 't,' and yet their funding is in the millions. Not the tens of millions. For fuck's sake, Lance Becker is raising the dead as an inpatient procedure at the University of Pennsylvania. You'd think somebody would notice.")

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