This Friday, Randi, DJ and I decamp for the Singularity Summit in San Francisco. There we will be guests of the Singularity Institute, and Randi will speak to the assembled scientists, futurists, idealists, philosophers, and writers about the importance of critical thinking.
Yes — ringing that old bell again. But this will be a special talk, even by Randi’s standards. The Singularity, as it is called — those unfamiliar with the concept may feel some alarm at my insistence on capitalization; please believe this is how it must be done — is defined in various ways by those who talk about it, but generally refers to the moment in the not-too-distant-future when a human being will construct a machine or computer program that is slightly smarter than its creator. After that, the thinking goes, all bets are off. The subsequent course of human history will undergo a significant weirding.
Those brought together by the Singularity Institute and its brilliant young president, Michael Vassar, are not necessarily looking forward to the Singularity with relish. The practical problems posed by the creation of such technology are too numerous to list, and the practical problems are outnumbered by philosophical problems of almost equal import. (The problem of actually constructing such an intelligence is also considerable, though not nearly so daunting as is claimed by those who insist that the means to create human-level intelligences will remain beyond our species’ ken for centuries, if not eternally. In their arguments I often think I detect an echo of mind-body dualism, though that’s a conversation for another time.) If the Singularity should become a going concern in the next three decades, will it be met with hysteria? Will there be a massacre of virtual innocents? Will those with access to the technology keep the general public safe from that technology’s misuse, misdeeds, or innocent fecundity?
I’m posing these questions without an expectation of answers. I’d simply like to impress upon a skeptical reader that when discussing the Singularity, even those declined to dismiss the idea oughtn‘t do so flippantly — the stakes are too high. If we are entering an era when the human mind can create its technological equal, then the effort to create a global culture of skepticism is of greater-than-ever importance. It’s old news that our technological progress has advanced well beyond our ethical and intellectual development, and the Singularity, should it arrive in the near- or medium-term future, will amplify that imbalance. The consequences could be unpleasant. This is more or less the point Randi will make in his address at the Summit.
That said, the Singularity Summit won’t be a gloomy affair. Quite the opposite. Those who gather for the Summit represent the best side of science; one that we in the skeptical movement don’t see enough of. This is the side that discovers, that probes, that dreams big dreams and doesn’t worry about following an idea to its apparently logical conclusions — no matter how ridiculous that conclusion may appear to those who never took the trip.
So: If you’re in the Bay Area, please consider checking out the Summit next week. Speakers include Ray Kurzweil, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, and various luminaries from MIT, Cambridge, University College, and the Salk Institute. Full details may be found the Singularity Summit’s homepage.