The Naked Skeptic & The Singularity

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 …

A Brave New World?

“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 ….

Read the rest of the article here …

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.

1 thought on “The Naked Skeptic & The Singularity”

  1. As far as Ray Kurzweil and his theories go I can understand why others often fail to see where he is coming from. I find almost everything that Ray proposes hinges on the concept of exponential growth in technology. I often discussed this with professional colleagues and even they could not really grasp the concept. The reason for this is that the mind cannot conceive the concept of exponential growth in the same way that you cannot really perceive how large 1 billion is unless you convert it into something you can conceive. The best way to do this is to keep in mind that at an average rate of counting you would reach 1 million in 17 days but 1 billion would take you 32 years! We have the same problem with linear versus exponential growth. When I realised how hard it was to explain the concept I decided to draw up a list and it consists of the dates at which major discoveries arose. This list is on my site at I think that when anyone looks at this list it is clear that Ray is most likely very much on the right track. If the pattern is continued as Ray suggests and indeed continually accelarates as history confirms then we are set for a degree of progress during course of this century which will be on a scale never before seen in history. My conclusion is that even if the trends are not repeated and progress slows to only 20/25% of that suggested by the calculations on exponential growth the developments in technology will still be so staggering as to be inconceivable from where we stand currently. In other words I believe as Ray does that it is inevitable and nothing will prevent the singularity the only quesion is whether it arises in 2045 as Ray believes or maybe as late as 2095 but whenever it arises I cannot see it will not arise somewhere in the course of this century.


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