Man vs. Machine: The Singularity Summit 2009


Over 800 technology obsessed “futurists” — some with bleached ’80s rocker hair, long ponytails, and rainbow socks with cowboy boots — gathered this weekend at the 92nd Street Y to discuss the Singularity: a point in time in the future when technology progresses so rapidly that man and machine become one and machine intelligence (artificial intelligence or AI) may surpass human intelligence. Michael Vassar, the president of the Singularity Institute, says once the Singularity happens, nothing will be the same: “Humans living in the post-Singularity world will be as powerless as jellyfish are in today’s world.”

Photo credit: MacGregor Harp

Photo credit: MacGregor Harp

Ben Goertzel, the Singularity Institute’s Director of Research, discussed how we can achieve a “Friendly Artificial Intelligence” in 10 years, thus avoiding a Matrix like machine takeover and jellyfish existence.

Steve Wolfram and sci-fi author Gregory Benford Photo Credit: MacGregor Harp

Tickets for the two-day Singularity Summit weren’t cheap. For over 400 bucks a pop, the audience was treated to presentations by today’s better-known tech soothsayers, including Steve Wolfram, the founder of the novel search engine Alpha, Australian philosopher David Chalmers, whose idea inspired the Matrix film series, and Pay-Pal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has donated in the six figures to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the organization putting on the event. After each academic scrunched decades of research into a 20 minute presentation, the floor opened up to Q&A sessions.

Brad Templeton’s presentation on the future of the auto industry included exciting videos featuring robotic cars. “Robots won’t drink and drive,” Templeton explained. As human drivers kill 40,000 people per year in the US alone, this is a future we can all be happy about… unless you’re an insurance agent.

One man asked Templeton, “Well, if no one dies from accidents anymore, what will happen to the collision insurance industry?” The audience gasped. Templeton pondered for a moment (probably thinking, is this guy for real?) and then answered, “Eh, fuck ’em.”

Photo credit: MacGregor Harp

The audience became silent in anticipation as Ray Kurzweil took the stage. Kurzweil is one of the most famous technological futurists and the author of several books with titles such as The Singularity Is Near and The Age of the Spiritual Machines. He believes that we will one day live in a world where machines will have consciousness. The audience was not convinced. Kurzweil then asked, well, how does one test consciousness?

“Did you see that bird flying by?” he asked.

“No…Well maybe I did. But I don’t remember it,” he answered hypothetically.

“But were you conscious of it?”

He then summed up, “The fact that you don’t remember something doesn’t mean you were not conscious of it.” He has a point. So maybe machines will one day achieve consciousness, since we humans seem to be at a philosophical loss for how to answer the question. We’re left wondering, does a computer think? Or is computing thinking?

Kurzweil looks forward to living in an age in which human intelligence is enhanced by brain implants that extend our memories, enhance our senses, and allow us to solve problems faster and with greater accuracy. There is only a small population of people who are more optimistic about the future than Kurzweil. He believes that futurism is about thinking exponentially, not linearly, and points to technology’s history of rapid acceleration. When we reach the Singularity, Kurzweil believes that by using technology like nano-sized blood cells that swim through our body, zapping cancer and bad cholesterol, humans will be able to live forever.

Photo credit: MacGegor Harp

To some futurists, like Cambridge professor Aubrey deGray, (pictured below) the idea of living forever is not only technologically attainable but a real biological possibility. After seeing a great amount of success with life extension in Methuselarity flies, deGray believes that by experimenting with calorie restriction, cell therapies, and genetic stimulations, we will be able to extend our natural lifespans by 30 years very soon. One day we will be able to live forever.

Photo credit: MacGregor Harp

As venture capitalists met with robotic car builders and anti-aging scientists; high school geeks, MIT students, and Trekkies drooled in their seats over two days of mind-blowing presentations. With Rip Van Winkle-like beards, it’s hard not to wonder whether these technological geniuses are the result of too many bong rips and sci-fi novels, or if they’re really early prophets. After this weekend, we believe it’s more the latter. Their vision for our future, while a little horrifying at times, seems to have our best interests at heart as they promise to continue working to guarantee our survival.