Dr Karen Stollznow, author and skeptical investigator, writes a column on the CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) website under the name of “The Naked Skeptic”. Her latest posting is all about her visit to the Singularity summit conference that took place in San Francisco 14-15 Aug. Its a fascinating read … in her own words …
“Do you want to attend a conference about artificial intelligence?” I was asked by Sean McCabe, former intern to James Randi.
“Sure,” I responded, not knowing that he was referring to the Singularity Summit, the annual conference held by the Singularity Institute. This is artificial intelligence (AI) with a philosophy behind it.
The Technological Tipping Point
The futurist concept of “the singularity” is far from Aldous Huxley’s early futurist ideas of subliminal learning and reproductive technology in Brave New World. “Technological singularity” is the theory, prediction, and objective that artificial intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence.
A range of ideas and ideologies underpin the singularity. Back in 1965, I.J. Good envisioned an “intelligence explosion,” leading to the invention of “ultraintelligent machines.”1 In 1993 Vernor Vinge postulated that “superintelligence” will render us the self-executioners of humankind, creating our own obsolescence and ending “the human era.”2 Ray Kurzweil forecasts that science will soon emulate then exceed the capabilities of the human brain, citing the exponential growth trend in technological development as evidence for his theories.3
These beliefs intersect with transhumanism, which aims to improve human characteristics and capabilities using science and technology while considering the resulting ethical issues. There are humanitarian ambitions to overcome poverty and disease, extend human longevity, and address problems of dwindling resources. Then there are bold claims that we will ultimately reverse engineer the human brain, replicate consciousness, and graduate from programming computers to programming people.
A Computational Critical Mass
Skeptics are often skeptical of the singularity ….
OK, I confess, the concept of the singularity has always fascinated me, its a topic that is truly worthy of much debate and speculation, so the fact that I was able to hang out recently with D.J Grothe (JREF president) and Michael Vassar (President of the Singularity Institute) and chat about transhumanism at TAM was totally cool.
Now before we go any further, I better define a couple of terms to ensure that nobody out there is confused.
The Singularity: The theory, prediction, and objective that artificial intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence
Transhumanism: Aims to improve human characteristics and capabilities using science and technology while considering the resulting ethical issues
If interested to find out more, well as always, Google is your friend.
OK, so what about the skeptics, are they skeptical about all this? Many are of course. Skepticism is not a church with one true belief, its simply a community of rational thinkers, and so it embraces a wide range of different views. Take for example the recent spat between P.Z. Myers and Ray Kurzweil. PZ open with, “Ray Kurzweil does not understand the brain”, then Ray responds with, “You don’t understand my thesis“, and PZ then comes back with “Kurzweil still dosn’t understand the brain” … etc.. Or, as the Naked Skeptic puts it …
“Some skeptics see singulatarians as optimists at best or extremists at worst. Some think that the proponents posit unrealistic timelines and have unrealistic goals of a scientific Utopia. Others see singulatarians as evil doctors playing eugenics in the transhumanist name of “human enhancement.” Some see the singularity as science fiction, with its dreams of immortality and the ability to upload and download the human brain.”
Or as others put it, its …
“the rapture for nerds.”
thus implying its almost akin to religious belief.
So where do I stand on all this? Well, as a good skeptic (whatever that is) I simply suspend judgement and look for actual evidence. I obviously do have a bias here, because I’m simply fascinated by all this, but at the same time, I’m also prepared to face reality and embrace an evidence-based approach and not simply replace religious-belief with a technology-belief. So, is it simply a technology religion, and was the conference an opportunity for the believers to gather and worship at the shrine of innovation and hail Kurzweil as the one true prophet? Apparently not, the Naked Skeptic made the following observations while immersed deep inside this community
“The summit was a conglomeration of scholars, students, science enthusiasts, and technophiles with diverse backgrounds, all bound by an interest in emerging technologies ….most of the presenters treated their areas of expertise without necessarily correlating it to the singularity …. the singularity is mostly about conjecture, and discussions raise more questions than answers … was valuable for knowledge-sharing, networking, and introducing the latest advances in science”
To put all that another way, critical-thinking was not dropped off at the cloakroom on the way in, it was simply a gathering of smart folks with a keen interest in disruptive technologies who were exploring a conjecture that human technology will soon surpass us in intelligence … its utterly and completely fascinating.
So what do other notable skeptics make of all this? For instance, would D.J Grothe think its all cool? What about James Randi, does he think they are all kooks? Hey guess what … DJ was there … and as for James Randi, he was a keynote speaker. The Naked Skeptic notes …
“Randi remarked that we all make assumptions. For example, the audience assumed that he was talking into a hand-held microphone-until he switched on the beard trimmer he was using as a prop. We also assumed that he was wearing spectacles, too, until he revealed that they contained empty frames. His point was that assumptions are natural and necessary, but sometimes they can lead our thinking in the wrong direction.”
In other words, even the smartest can make silly assumptions and fool themselves. Its very healthy for the singularity folks to allow themselves to be exposed to skeptics; they don’t just need smart folks, they also need a reality check every now and then (as we all do).
One final key point is that one of the objectives of the Singularity Institute is to …
“encourage rational thought about our future as a species”
That’s a vitally important objective to embrace, being rational is what being skeptical is all about.