Singularity Hub is proud to deliver the web’s most comprehensive coverage and analysis of the Singularity Summit 2008. The Singularity Summit is the premier annual event for those that are interested in the singularity. Below you will find our high level summary, followed by a link to a much more detailed description with pictures.

On Saturday October 25, 2008 I attended the Singularity Summit at the Montgomery Theatre in San Jose, CA. An impressive lineup of speakers, including Ray Kurzweil (de facto singularity advocate), Peter Diamandis (Founder/Chairman of Xprize Foundation), Vernor Vinge (famous science fiction author), and Justin Rattner (CTO of Intel) were on showcase for the roughly 500 attendees. The summit was thought provoking, inspiring, and overall a success.

The summit began promptly at 9:00am and continued throughout the day until 6:00pm with a few breaks in between and a one and a half hour lunch break. Here are the Hub’s major takeaways from the event:

1. When people become believers in a near term singularity (a singularity that may come in their lifetimes) they radically change their behavior in terms of risk tolerance, eating habits, and investment horizon. If large numbers of people begin to believe in a near term singularity this poses the possibility of enormous and potentially dangerous upheavals for society.

2. Even if a true singularity is not reached within our lifetimes the singularity summit reinforces the vision that tremendous technological change beyond our imagining is coming in the next 40 years. In the next 5 years an explosion in interest about the singularity and the pace of accelerating technology may occur.

3. According to Ray Kurzweil, solar energy is an information technology that is experiencing exponential growth. Solar energy production has doubled every year for the last 20 years and is now only 8 doublings away (that is about 10 years!) from providing nearly all of the world’s energy needs. The implications of this trend are huge and warrant careful consideration for the environment, investment, politics, etc.

4. Peter Diamandis announced that the Singularity University (SU) will be launched in the near future. The Hub’s Keith Kleiner will be a founding member of SU and we will have much more to say about SU soon!

5. According to Intel CTO Justin Rattner Intel has a solid roadmap that will ensure that Moore’s law will continue for at least another 10 years, by which time computers will be at least 1,000 times more powerful than today’s computers

6. Virtual worlds will continue to gain traction and functionality as people continue to recognize and leverage the unique advantages that these worlds offer versus the physical world.

7. Computers may be able to beat humans at chess and air hockey, but they are still a long way off from emulating human emotion and social behavior. Demonstrations today of the cutting edge in computer emulation of emotion and social ability were downright pitiful. Of course it is possible that we will make big leaps in the coming years, but today’s demonstrations were not encouraging.

Below is a breakout of the entire Singularity Summit:

9:05am to 9:35am – Conversation between Bob Pisani and Vernor Vinge

The conversation between Bob Pisani and Vernor Vinge was a pleasure to witness. Pisani is a famous financial news reporter from CNBC who turns out to be a huge fan of Vernor Vinge and the singularity. Pisani was surprisingly well versed in the singularity and he was very familiar with Vinge’s work. Vernor Vinge has written a number of science fiction novels about the singularity and is in fact the person who originally coined the term “singularity” as it relates to technological progress. Vinge has spent decades thinking and writing about the singularity and he had plenty of interesting thoughts and ideas to share with the audience.

Above: Pisani and Vinge Discussing the Singularity

Vernor Vinge pointed out that science fiction writers like himself have been thinking about the singularity for over thirty years now. As a result, science fiction novels are not only fun, but they are also a serious source of ideas, inspiration, and scenarios that we can use to explore the nature and impact of a singularity in mankind’s future.

Vinge confirmed that he still holds to his 1993 prediction that a technological singularity will occur by 2030. He said that the singularity was inevitable unless some cataclysm were to impact society so strongly as to totally or nearly wipe us all out.

Perhaps my favorite part of the conversation was when Vinge gave his thoughts about the embedded networked microprocessors that are becoming pervasive in every aspect of our lives, even to the point of being implanted into our bodies. Vinge said these microprocessors collectively might be the framework for the emergence of a singularity intelligence. On the flip side these ubiquitous microprocessors represent one of many technological single points of failure that could spell disaster for humanity and our march towards the singularity. Vinge said that a power failure or perhaps a massive electormagnetic disturbance could potentially wreak havoc on a society that depends so heavily on embedded networked microprocessors.

9:35am to 9:55am – Nova Spivack

Technology entreprenuer Nova Spivack gave a fast paced, thought provoking, and overall enjoyable presentation.

Nova’s presentation focused on the evolution of collective intelligence, also known as the global mind or world mind. The internet as we currently know it is generally called Web 2.0. Nova is calling Web 4.0 the version of the web that advances to a potentially sentient, global mind of human intelligence. Nova cited ants, bees, and even Star Trek’s borg as examples of superorganisms or superminds that emerge from the limited intelligence of the individuals. Nova speculated on the possibility of human society breeding humans to fulfill pre-designated roles, such as mathemeticians, soldiers, and so on.

The last part of Nova’s presentation focused on his idea of the 7 functions essential to a meta self. At this point I sort of lost interest because I am really not that into hearing someone’s arbitrary categorization of the complexity of human thought. Even if I were to be interested in this part of Nova’s presentation he did not have near enough time to explain it and so the entire idea passed right over my head (and probably that of most of the audience).

9:55am to 10:15am Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson is a prominent female investor in technology startups, holding board seats on a number of such companies. Most notably for the purposes of the singularity Esther is on the board of 23andme.

I was fairly disappointed in Esther’s presentation because it lacked very much in the way of new information or ideas. Esther’s talk was fairly random in nature, first covering her upcoming 6 month intensive training as an astronaut in Russia, moving on to a shallow summary of the field of genetics and 23andme, and finally moving on to questions from the audience that were perhaps interesting but still lacking focus.

The main takeaway I gleaned from Esther’s talk was her analogy that our current understanding of genetics is similar to someone who understands 90 words of the Russian language. With only 90 words you can actually do quite a bit with a language, but more importantly you are well on your way to being able to reverse engineer and acquire the other 99% of the language based on your 90 word foothold. This seemed to be a useful analogy and also an inspiring analogy for the majority of us who excitedly await mankind’s ability to fully master the realm of genetics.

10:15am to 10:40am James Miller

James Miller, associate professor of economics at Smith College, easily delivered the most entertaining presentation of the day. His presentation was so humorous at times that it was somewhat hard to take him seriously. Yet behind this facade of humor lay some very thought provoking ideas that were relevant and important to all of us.

The entire premise of Miller’s presentation was that societies and individuals will radically change their behavior and thinking if large numbers of them begin to believe that the singularity is imminent. James pointed out a number of examples (often humorous) in which such individuals would radically change their diets, their risk tolerance, their daily behavior, and their attitudes in anticipation of a singularity that might arrive in the next 30 years or so.

As an economist, Miller especially focused on how those who believe in a near term singularity would change their investment behavior and he urged his listeners to profit from the predictability of this behavior. For example, according to Miller the field of cryonics ought to be a booming industry in a world of singularity believers who want to preserve their bodies for a better future. In addition, people who believe in the singularity will be unlikely to invest for the long term because of the extreme uncertainty and promise that upcoming technological change will create. Why invest in a massive construction project that will pay for itself after 20 or 30 years if the singularity will cause unknown demand for office space in the future? Why invest in drug research that might bear fruit after 20 years when technological advances that are coming in the next 10 years could make your research obsolete?

Overall, Miller’s point is simple yet powerful: If the idea of a near term singularity really gains mindshare in society then we may be faced with an unprecedented, radical change in human behavior. This is a very big deal.

10:40am to 10:55am – morning break

10:55am to 11:25 – Justin Rattner

Intel CTO Justin Rattner only months ago delivered a keynote at the Intel Developer Forum devoted entirely to the technologies and breakthroughs in the pipeline at Intel that are bringing mankind to a singularity within 40 years. Singularity Hub performed a thorough review of the Keynote here. Rattner’s public belief in a near term singularity has been hailed by the singularity community as a significant endorsement of the singularity concept from a credible industry player.

Rattner’s presentation was in many ways a repeat of the keynote he delivered at the IDF, but with the small difference that it was much more technical, which I for one was pleased to see.

Rattner first focused on the technical pathways by which Intel and the microprocessor industry will be able to continue to uphold Moore’s law of doubling cpu capacity every 18 months for the foreseeable future. Rattner pointed out that in one sense we have already reached the limit of Moore’s original law because we can no longer appreciably increase the speed or shrink the size of yesterday’s cmos silicon gate. Luckily Intel and others have been able to circumvent the limits of silicon by innovating new types of transistor gates, such as the HiK-MG gate that recently allowed us to move to 32 nm microprocessors during the last year. Rattner argued that the industry has a pipeline of transistor innovations such as HiK-MG, Trigate finfet, and III-V, that will allow us to continue Moore’s law for at least another 10 years.

Looking even beyond 10 years, Rattner says that we will eventually reach the limits of metal oxide, electron transport based microprocessors. At this point, we will have to move on to a different primary state variable, such as molecular conformation or electron spin to represent on and off. In addition, at about 20Ghz or so we simply cannot propagate an electrical signal cleanly or quickly enough and we will need to move on to an alternative transport mechanism that replaces electrons. Intel believes the new transport alternative will be photons and Rattner claimed that Intel is well on its way to developing his technology in a decade or so.

Rattner highlighted the major effort Intel is spearheading to create digital multi-radios. Rattner and others have predicted that there may be trillions of radio/wireless enabled devices on earth in the coming years and today’s analog radios are simply too inefficient to supply this need properly.

Finally, Rattner briefly described Intel’s Claytronics initiative, which is a project to build programmable matter that can change shape, color, and other characteristics in realtime. Such programmable matter is envisioned to be made of building blocks called catams which are able to assemble themselves together in various configurations to create superstructures with changeable characteristics.

11:25am to 11:45am – Eric Baum

Eric Baum is a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence and the author of a 2004 book entitled “What is Thought”. True to the name of his book, Baum has spent a great deal of time trying to explain and understand what human understanding and consciousness truly are and how they can be replicated.

Overall I have to admit that most of what Baum said went right over my head, perhaps because of my own technical weakness in the field of AI. The entire presentation seemed abstract and was difficult for me to grasp. What I was able to gather was the following:

Baum proposed that understanding is the ability to retrieve and rapidly assemble meaningful programs that are then able to solve new problems and create even more meaningful programs recursively. Rather than evolve understanding through software or to code understanding by hand through software, Baum proposed that the true pathway to creating artificial intelligence would be through a collaboration of man and machine.

11:45am to 12:05am – Dharmendra Modha

Dharmendra Modha is the manager of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center. Modha’s small team is charged with the minor task of trying to reverse engineer the human mind 🙂

This is not the first time I have seen Modha speak, and just as before I very much enjoyed hearing what he had to say. Modha claimed that mankind is now at the intersection of three trends that are about to make the dream of reverse engineering the human brain a reality:

Neuroscience – Modha claims that in recent years mankind has made huge strides in our understanding of the inner workings of the brain. We now recognize the crucial role that synapses play in brain function. We have detailed maps of the 6 layers of the neocortex, the brain’s primary area of cognition. Furthermore, we have substantial evidence that the connectivity within the brain is not deterministic from genes, but rather is developed from a simple set of rules and then molded and pruned over time as a result of our experiences and sensory input/output.

Supercomputing capacity – Modha calculates that by 2018 the computing capacity will be generally available to simulate the ability of a real human brain in realtime. Modha’s group has just recently published a paper in which they were able to create a reasonable simulation of a rat brain in realtime.

Nanotechnology – Modha claims that the upcoming revolution in nanotechnology will allow us to replicate and develop the nano-scale structure of a true human brain.


12:05pm to 12:30pm – Ben Goertzel

Ben Goertzel is the person behind opencog.org, which singularity hub reported on earlier here. Opencog is a wiki based website that is promoting the establishment of an open source framework for worldwide collaboration and development of artificial intelligence.

Goertzel promoted his AGI (artificial general intelligence) conference which will be taking place in March 2009 in Washington DC. Goertzel showed a video of a virtual person and a virtual dog that use opencog AI subroutines to communicate and learn from each other. Over the course of the video the virtual dog learned how to dance by imitating the virtual person. Goertzel also showed a connectivity map of terms that was created by using the reasoning module from the opencog project. After unleashing the reasoning module on a collection of widipedia articles the module was able to make associations such as foreign being related to the words “official” (foreign official) and “administration” (foreign administration). Making such associations is a simple and commonplace ability for today’s AI, yet it is representative of the capabilities that are available free and open source for anyone to use at opencog.org

12:30pm to 2:05pm Lunch

2:05pm to 2:25pm – Marshall Brain

Marshall Brain is the founder of HowStuffWorks.com and the author of the book “Robotic Nation” that makes predictions about a robot dominated future for humanity. Marshall’s presentation was scientifically weak and was not well received by myself nor by most of the audience from what I could tell. Marshall’s presentation was so terrible in fact that I was torn between feeling sorry for him and being angry at him.

Marshall claimed that we are in the midst of a massive replacement of human labor with robots and that mankind is on a rapid path to unemployment as robots start taking our jobs. According to Marshall, in the coming years robots will replace people in construction jobs and also in retail jobs at places like McDonalds and Home Depot. In addition, we will see longer and deeper recessions and wages will decrease. He tried to back up these claims with some silly graphs showing that of the last three recessions in America, the last one was the worst. Somehow this was supposed to be correlated with the competition of machines with humans in the labor force.

The holes in Marshall’s presentation were numerous and gaping, but here are a few of the major ones:

Even if future jobs are to be taken over by robots, Marshall completely ignores the fact that new job categories are created everyday to replace yesterday’s obsolete jobs. Even as millions of manufacturing jobs have been replaced by robots in the car industry and elsewhere over the last few decades, the creation of new jobs in emerging fields like computer programming and electrical engineering have more than compensated for these losses. In addition, Marshall is woefully underestimating the difficulty involved in creating a robot that can compete with a human in construction, retail and many other fields. When mankind actually creates robots that can perform construction as well as a human can it would be one of the final signs that we have nearly reached or already have reached the singularity. At this point we will be at the convergence of so many changes in society that we will need a much more thorough and fact driven theory than Marshall was offering to understand and predict the implications to job trends, let alone countless other trends in society.

2:25pm to 2:45pm – Cynthia Breazeal

Cynthia Breazeal is Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT where she and her team are working to develop robots with social abilities and emotions like humans. Her group created the well known social robot, Kismet.

Cynthia’s presentation lacked technical detail that could have made it much more useful and interesting. Furthermore, she wasted the first 7 minutes at the beginning of her precious 20 minute presentation explaining how important it is for robots to have social abilities as if this wasn’t already obvious.

Anyway, the presentation got better once Cynthia moved on to showcasing some of the interesting work her team has been doing in the lab. Using neural net based algorithms Cynthia’s team has been able to develop robots, such as Kismet, that have the ability to learn and imitate human facial expressions. Cynthia showed a demonstration of a robot learning to show fearful gestures and facial expressions when presented with a stuffed animal that it had been told was mean and bad. Cynthia also show a more powerful demonstration of a robot learning to detect and react to the behavior of a person that was deceiving another person by hiding food in a different place when the other person wasn’t looking. The robot correctly identified this deception and reacted appropriately to notify the unsuspecting person of the deception.

2:45pm to 3:30pm – Singularity Conversation Between Ray Kurzweil and John Horgan (moderated by Glenn Zorpette)

Ray Kurzweil, author of the “Singularity is Near” and de facto spokesperson for the idea of a near term singularity faced off in a conversation with John Horgan, prominent science writer and non-believer in a near term singularity. The conversation was moderated by Glenn Zorpette, Executive Editor of IEEE Spectrum.

John started off saying that 20 years ago he was actually a singularity optimist, but since then he has seen a number of once promising scientific visions fall far short of their potential. John argued that the singularity will fall similarly short of people’s expectations. John cited numerous examples to promote his point:

a. 1980’s dreams of nuclear fusion have not come true.

b. 1980’s dreams of an end to infectious disease have not come true

c. Initiatives since the 1970’s to cure cancer have had very little success

d. Visions of gene therapy have not come to fruition despite billions of investment and grand predictions since the early 1990’s

e. Advances in neuroscience since the early 1990’s have had almost zero success in improving treatment and understanding of mental illness

John argued that the examples above show that for many fields man’s advances have been relatively flat rather than exponential or even linear.

Personally, I thought that John’s argument was extremely weak. History is littered with countless examples of grand hopes and dreams that never became reality, but at the same time there were countless other predictions that did come true. In addition, there were several amazing advances that were not predicted or even thought to be impossible, such as landing on the moon or the rise of the internet and mobile devices.

Ray countered John’s arguments by stating that the exponential gains he predicts are only applicable to problems that are grounded in information technology. Nuclear fusion has yet to be based on information technology, so it is not subject to the same laws of exponential advances. Recently, medicine, genetics, solar energy, and brain analysis have all been converted into information technologies and as such they are now on paths of exponential advances.

3:30 to 3:50pm break

3:50pm to 4:10pm Pete Estep

Pete Estep is Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer at the Innerspace Foundation (IF). The Innerspace Foundation (IF) is a nonprofit organization established to improve brain function. They sponsor scientific research and prize-based challenges for rewarding innovative technological breakthroughs for improving learning, memory and mind.

Pete Estep gave a presentation to promote and explain the mission of the Innerspace Foundation. Pete proposed that in contrast to scenarios such as Terminator where man and machine are adversaries, the real future will be a partnership between man and machine. Pete claimed that technology and information are accelerating too fast for our brains to keep up. In order to fully leverage and take advantage of this explosion in technology and information we need to augment the brain through BCI (brain computer interfaces).

Pete announced that IF has an impressive $1 Million for research funding in Q1 of 2009.  IF seems to have some serious momentum and it will be exciting to see what they can achieve in 2009 and beyond.

4:10pm to 4:30pm Neil Gershenfeld

Physicist Neil Gershenfeld is the Director for the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Gershenfeld gave an overview of the exciting work that his team is doing to bridge the gap between the digital world and the physical world.

Gershenfeld is working to bring programming to the physical world. The idea is to write software that becomes a physical object, rather than simply describing an object or simulating an object in cyberspace. Think of the replicator on Star Trek…you tell the replicator that you want a cup of black coffee and the replicator fabricates a real world cup of coffee for you from its programming.

What is most fascinating about this work is that although it may be difficult to achieve, research from Neil Gershenfeld, Rolf Landauer, John Archibald Wheeler, and others seems to indicate that such a vision is theoretically possible and does not violate the laws of physics. Gershenfeld’s work is seriously interesting and the Hub will have to make a more in depth post about it in the future.

4:30pm to 5:00pm Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis is the founder and CEO of the Xprize Foundation. He is also a co-founder of the very successful and long running International Space University (ISU).

Diamandis delivered an inspiring and informative presentation about the history and future goals of the Xprize foundation. Diamandis proposed that governments and corporations, although flush with lots of money and people, are actually poor at taking risk and creating innovation. Instead, Diamandis said that it is the massive wealth and vision of individuals combined with small teams of dedicated, smart people that create many of the greatest innovations in the world. Diamandis promoted his vision that the impossible is almost always possible as long as people are willing to devote the money and resources to give it a try.

Diamandis gave a brief overview of the original Xprize, which was a challenge to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. This challenge was a stunning achievement that is now paving the way for a revolution in space travel in the private sector. A host of new Xprizes have been launched to promote similar innovation in genomics, automobile efficiency, space, and many other fields.

5:00pm to 5:30pm Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil closed out the Summit with his own vision of man’s current progress towards the singularity along with his critiques of what we had all heard after a long day of presentations

Ray commented on how quickly society can embrace and adopt technologies that had previously seemed impossible or even shunned before they had been made ubiquitous by technological innovation. As an example, the ability of a computer to beat human chess masters was seen as spectacular and nearly impossible until it was achieved by IBM’s Big Blue, yet today this seems unspectacular and obvious.

Technological innovation is showing up in interesting ways and places. Ray stated that half of the farmers in china and africa have web enabled cell phones that access all of human knowledge. Solar energy was cited as an information technology that is experiencing exponential growth. Solar energy production has doubled every year for the last 20 years and is now only 8 doublings away (that is about 10 years away!) from providing nearly all of the world’s energy needs. Magnetic data storage, genetic sequencing are experiencing a similar trend.

Ray made it clear that he did not see the approaching singularity as a pure utopia. Rather, like any technological advance it will have positive and negative consequences. Just as it always has, technology will continue to amplify both our constructive and destructive abilities and it is up to us as a society to work towards the most positive outcomes.

Ray pointed out the interesting notion that when a computer is able to pass the Turing test, it will actually have to dumb itself down to pass. As an example, during a Turing test the computer would have to fake not knowing everything about every book that was ever written even though it might actually have access to this information because clearly this would be beyond human ability.

Ray pointed out that virtual reality will become an increasingly important part of our lives because virtual reality will provide us with new capabilities and enhancements that simply are not offered in the physical world.

Ray addressed the fact that the historical 50% deflation rate in information technology could potentially pose a serious economic problem for society. Thus far this has not been an issue because our growth in consumption of information technology has more than compensated for this deflation, and this trend will likely continue.

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