Is the Singularity Near? Depends on who you ask. The New York Public Library and FORA.tv recently sponsored a discussion on accelerating technologies and whether they will benefit or harm our society. On hand were Kevin Kelly, Steven Johnson, and Robert Krulwich, all popular commentators on science and innovation. The three speakers generally took a ‘middle of the road’ view of our developing scientific possibility – the future will probably produce some amazing technologies, but they will be matched by amazing concerns and dangers. Somewhere in that mix, the concept of the Singularity, as outlined by Ray Kurzweil, came up for discussion, and all three were quick to dismiss it. Kelly, Krulwich, and Johnson seemed to believe in the progression of technology, but the idea that such progression might lead to unending exponential growth was not only implausible, but the people who believed in such change were trying to solve problems “just by thinking about them”. For those of us who like “thinking too much” it’s nice to hear opinions from the other side of the table.
The entire 80+ minute discussion can be found courtesy of NYPL on FORA.tv by clicking here.
Whether or not you agree with their opinions, it’s hard to find three speakers who have had more success discussing science than Kelly, Krulwich, and Johnson. Excluding actual scientists, of course. Kevin Kelly is one of the founders of Wired and author of works like Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines…(you can download it for free). Steven Johnson is a New York Times Bestselling List author many times over and has written about topics as varied as disease, innovation, pop culture, and technology. Robert Krulwich is one of the hosts of RadioLab, a science minded show on NPR, a well known speaker, moderator, and science-type journalist. …He’s also one of my favorite people to listen to (a very funny and level headed guy).
So, should their dismissal of the Singularity sway you? Maybe. With complex issues like accelerating technologies, it’s often easier to listen to experts than to try to become an expert yourself. That sentiment goes for those who adhere to Ray Kurzweil as well as Kelly, Johnson, and Krulwich. Clearly when you’re dealing with predicting the future there’s no real way to prove any side of the argument is right without simply waiting for time to pass. I think, though, for those of us who find the entire concept of the Singularity intriguing, it’s good to hear opposing views that are based on experience rather than ignorance. Krulwich, Kelly, and Johnson aren’t cutting-edge scientists, they are commentators like myself (forgive the conceit of comparing them to me) and while I disagree with their sentiments in this case, I appreciate the time they’ve spent researching, learning, and talking about technological innovation. The discussion about the Singularity has to be just that, a discussion, not a monologue. Now, I can only hope that FORA.tv and NYPL invite Kurzweil, James Canton, and Aubrey deGrey to give a counter argument.
[screen capture and video credit: Fora.tv]