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Randi To Speak at Singularity Summit PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Brandon K. Thorp   

singularityThis 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.

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written by MadScientist, August 09, 2010
Ah, the "thinking machine" - ever since the invention of the mechanical adding machine the thinking machine has been just around the corner - it will be created just a few year into the future. It sounds a lot like the Second Coming. Then again we could have said the same for human flight. It is not currently believed to be impossible to create one since humans can think, thus proving that it is possible for an assembly to think. Now will the machines believe, like Kryten, in a Silicon Heaven?

Ah, the memories of carnival tricks long forgotten such as the chess playing automaton ...
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written by sowellfan, August 09, 2010
If people want to pursue this stuff, then more power to them. Problem is, it's always seemed to me that when I hear interviews with Singularity proponents on various skeptical or scientific podcasts, it's pretty much unheard of to hear from an actual expert on artificial intelligence. Instead, you hear from somebody yammering on about the philosophy of what the Singularity is going to be like, or perhaps the societal implications of what it might be like when this assumed change happens.

I have a big problem with the claim in this article that "Those who gather for the Summit represent the best side of science...and doesn’t worry about following an idea to its apparently logical conclusions". Is this *really* the best side of science? Better than scientists that make actual predictions that are testable (whether in a lab, or via historical methods)? Are you saying Ray Kurzweil, adopting pretty much any methodology that *claims* to perhaps extend life, and taking 100+ pills a day, is really adhering to some sort of well-regarded scientific methodology? I'm not saying that speculation is useless - it can be useful, especially when it's built on a solid scientific foundation - but the foundation of the Singularity is lacking. I think it devalues real science, that's being done every day, to call this the best that science has to offer.
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written by kenhamer, August 09, 2010
Others have already beaten me to most of my comments, but let me add one more. The people who normally seem to profer this belief seem to have a geekish (i.e. "me") interest in things like "when Star Trek" will really happen. It's an interesting philosophical discussion, but I've yet to hear a realistic way forward or even need for such a technology, let alone any discussion about how it will work or how it will fit into society.

But I'm not much concerned. Like the others, I've been hearing that AI (or some variant, such as this singularity) are just around the corner for the past 50 years or so.

It does in someways remind me of a religion though, in that there seems to be a lot of faith without much evidence.

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written by SophieHirschfeld, August 09, 2010
Could you just give some details and rational backing for your claims about the precarious nature of creating A. I.? This feels very much like a scare article with very little justification.
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Offered in humour, but not without a point
written by kenhamer, August 09, 2010
The Second Comming, 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 long dead will return to life. 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 Second Comming and its adherents, are not necessarily looking forward to the Second Coming with relish. The practical problems posed by the return of this long dead person are too numerous to list, and the practical problems are outnumbered by philosophical problems of even greater import. (The problem of actually reanimating a dead person is also considerable, though not nearly so daunting as is claimed by the unbelievers, who insist that the means to create to do so 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 Second Coming should become a going concern in the next three decades, will it be met with hysteria? Will there be a massacre of innocents, virtual or otherwise? Will those with access to this god keep the general public safe from that god’s misuse, misdeeds, or innocent fecundity?

I’m posing these questions without an expectation of answers. I’d simply like to impress upon a unbeliever that when discussing the Second Coming, 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 philosopical or religous 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 Second Comming, 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 that many theologians try to make.

That said, the Second Coming won’t be a gloomy affair. Quite the opposite. Those who gather for the Second Coming represent the best side of humanity; one that we in the skeptical movement don’t see enough of. This is the side that sings hymns, that prays, that speaks in tongues 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 read the Bible.



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OMG
written by Michael Dawson, August 10, 2010
Ray Kurzweil is a spoonbender and nothing more. The fact that you guys don't see it really tips your hand. You over-congratulate yourselves on your critical capacities and spend too little time pondering how "skepticism," though a great and vital principle, is freakish and solipsistic as a self-promoting "movement."

The Singularity is exactly, precisely as likely as the Second Coming of Jeebus.
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written by Willy K, August 10, 2010
...construct a machine or computer program that is slightly smarter than its creator.
I worry if it is only "slightly" smarter. For every "smart" thing any individual does, there are a thousand stupid acts to counter it.

I would want to have AI that has none of the stupidity of Humans. smilies/cry.gif
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refining the definition
written by DrMatt, August 16, 2010
Just about every significant invention these days is a massive collaboration built upon previous generations of massive collaborations. So an artificial intelligence more intelligent than its inventor would be more intelligent than a whole mass of people, and might well be utterly, quite reasonably, incredulous that the last individual in the chain was its "creator" (see Asimov: "Reason"). It might well be a whole society of smaller semi-intelligent parts, a sort of hive intelligence--and, considering what neurologists have been telling us for years, we might be hive intelligences too.
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Too late?
written by DrMatt, August 16, 2010
There are those who claim that Google Search has already met the requirements. They even have a Church of Google.
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