In this Part III of our Singularity Summit 2011 coverage, we’ll highlight the speakers who talked about such topics as robotics, economics, and engaging the general public about the singularity.
Peter Thiel – Back to the Future
Peter Thiel, famous as the co-founder of Paypal and one of the earliest investors in Facebook, gave a stern talk on the need for more people to join in the innovation and development of the future technologies instead of simply waiting on the sidelines. As a successful entrepreneur, Thiel advocates that it’s also not enough to simply innovate, but to also take developments to market, saying that one becomes an entrepreneur in order to solve a problem. Simply put, entrepreneurship is critical for bringing about the singularity. We simply cannot wait or depend on the government to pick and choose which industries/technologies it will support. Thiel was also not afraid to generate some controversy, making some harsh but accurate comments about the world’s most beloved technology company, Apple. He disagrees with Apple’s philosophy of designing great technology, but then hiding it, in essence making it akin to magic. He believes that this is not the way for the public to be involved with developing technology. He went on to say that society shouldn’t act as if Steve Jobs was the only person out there inventing things. He encourages everyone to be out there doing that, instead of simply being in awe of people like Jobs. Point taken.
Michael Shermer – Social Singularity: Transitioning from Civilization 1.0 to 2.0
A fast-moving and very entertaining presenter, Dr. Michael Shermer brought an interesting perspective to the topic of the singularity and delivered it well. Founder of Skeptic magazine, Shermer challenged the audience to be cautious in their excitement about the singularity. Why? Well, it seems that every generation of people finds it easy to believe that they are the “chosen” ones that will experience a radical new human existence before their time to die. Sure, the viewpoint of singulartarians is more rooted in science than mythological and religious ideas, but that doesn’t matter. We need to be skeptical of our own point of view to avoid falling into the trap of tribalism, which Shermer claims lead to most of our social ills.
Tribalism is simply the idea that we belong to certain groups and we protect those groups at the expense of others because they provide us with a sense of self. These include religious, economic, and political “tribes”. Shermer went on to show an endless number of graphs showing how everything is getting better. There is less war, less starvation, and less violent crime across the globe than in times past. There is an increase in lifespan, in levels of per capita GDP, multiculturism, and on and on. It truly was an uplifting talk! So what does Shermer think is behind this progress? Put simply, the growth of our moral nature.
The more we travel and trade with other people, the less likely we are to fear them or attack them. The “tribes” we belong to are continually growing and until we reach a global unity where arbitrary divisions disappear – the social singularity – then we may not survive to reach the technological singularity! A very thought-provoking and optimistic presentation that seemed to captivate much of the audience.
Jason Silva – The Undivided Mind: Science and Imagination
Jason Silva, a TV personality known as a host on Al Gore’s Current TV channel, gave a peppy presentation focusing on the need to package the idea and message behind the singularity in such a way that the general public will not only understand it, but also be excited by it. He showed a couple of video clips that featured a montage of fast-moving clips coupled with uplifting music and Silva narrating a philosophical outlook on what the future is shaping up to be. Check out one of those videos below. Jason summed up his talk with the quote “Articulate the future by utilizing a pop culture vernacular.” Basically, make the singularity sexy to get more people on board. It is too big a concept to be dominated by nerds!
Stephen Wolfram – Computation and the Future of Mankind
Dr. Stephen Wolfram presented on his work dealing with what he calls “the computational universe.” Of course, one cannot hear Wolfram speak without hearing about his discovery of “Rule 30”, an epiphany leading to his book “A New Kind of Science” and the computational search engine Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram is keen on his idea that mining the computational universe will inevitably lead to the sort of paradigm shift that the singularity represents. In speaking about himself, Wolfram generated some chuckles from the audience when he said that he is driven to deliver the future rather than just talk about it. This is something that other speakers also touched on, the need for more people to get involved in working on future technologies rather than just thinking and talking about them. We would all do well to follow Wolfram’s example!
James McLurkin – The Future of Robotics is Swarms: Why a Thousand Robots Are Better Than One
Dr. James McLurkin, assistant professor of computer science at Rice University presented his work on swarm robotics, which is using a group of communicating robots rather than a single robot to address a problem. McLurkin’s work specifically focuses on development of distributed algorithms that can be used to affect behavior among such a group.
The idea of swarm robotics comes from nature, where we witness insects such as ants and bees that can communicate and coordinate their efforts to accomplish a task that no individual could ever do alone. The emergent properties that arise from a coordinated group come from the transformative power of increasing population sizes. Thus, you can do things with a thousand robots that you can’t do with 10 and you can do things with a million robots that you can’t do with 10,000 and so.
Soon after McLurkin described his research, he delighted the audience by doing a live demonstration using several of his robots. He would assign a task to the robots – find a treasure or line up in increasing numerical order after being assigned a number – and then the robots would communicate with each other to accomplish their task. To make the demonstration even more engaging, the robots would play a simple tune as they went about their work. However, McLurkin didn’t stop there. He showed videos that his research team put together showing some potential real-life applications of swarm robots (check out one of them below). For example, a large group of miniature robots programmed with the blueprint of a collapsed building could quickly search the rubble for survivors. And to be most efficient at this task, some robots would be assigned to be “place-markers” so that once an area has been searched, the remaining robots will know not to waste time there and instead venture to the unexplored parts of the building.
As McLurkin put it, these multi-robot systems will use their physical configuration as a primary data structure. McLurkin closed his talk on a slightly different note, describing his efforts to bring these robots to K-12 classrooms in order to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. And with Americans falling behind in math and science on the global stage, this kind of outreach is what’s needed to make science appealing and just downright fun!
Max Tegmark – The Future of Life: a Cosmic Perspective
Dr. Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT, gave an engaging talk on taking a more long-term viewpoint when thinking about the future. And he really means long-term, as in the billions of years our sun is estimated to continuing burning for and where exactly the universe may be heading. Sure, most of us are convinced that the Big Bang adequately explains the origins of the universe, but do we know where it’s heading? The Big Rip or the Big Snap as the universe continues to expand until reaching some limit like a rubber band being stretched out? The Big Chill where the cooling of the universe continues until life can no longer exist? And while on the topic of life in the universe, Tegmark asked the audience if they thought that life exists anywhere besides Earth. He explained that although the common answer is “probably, since there are so many galaxies and planets and stars, etc”, he doesn’t think it is. And here is where he made a startling point: based on the Drake equation, there is some probability of intelligent life occurring outside of our planet. However, there seems to be a strong limit in the ability of an intelligent life to colonize and make contact outside of their respective corner of the universe. So the question is…where is that limit? Is it before the point of evolution we have reached? Or is it after the point of evolution we have reached? In other words, is the most difficult step evolving from single-celled organisms to intelligent and sentient multicellular organisms? Or is it evolving from this intelligence level and surviving long enough to colonize the galaxy and then the universe? A very profound question and one that should inform our decisions on a global level. Perhaps we are the greatest threat to ourselves and our potential to move beyond the limits of this planet.
David Brin – So you want to make gods? Now why would that bother anybody?
Dr. David Brin gave a light-hearted presentation on how to talk about the singularity to religious folks who might not be so open to some of the ideas involved with it. Like immortal human-machine hybrids or almost god-like AIs. Similar to what other speakers echoed, Brin acknowledged it’s unclear why we haven’t had interactions with other intelligent beings in the universe. He proposed that perhaps the anti-science, anti-intellectual crowds can also be found in other parts of the universe and they have, so far, been able to keep their civilizations grounded. Yikes! That doesn’t sound like a bright outlook on the future, but it is a plausible one. Brin believes that it will take a creative engagement with skeptics to make the possibilities of the future a reality. Are you doing your part?
Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University, gave everyone a wake-up call from the sweet dream about future technologies. Cowen asserts that the US is experiencing a stagnation in innovation that wasn’t apparent even just a couple of generations ago (check out a similar talk he presented at TEDxEast in May 2011 below). What’s more, science is losing its luster among the general public for a variety of reasons, among them the growing gap in income levels between scientists and those in other, more lucrative fields such as finance. This has led to more and more of the brain power moving away from the sciences at a time when innovation and invention are desperately needed to get us past the problems that plague humanity. All these factors put together mean a bleak future for the US unless things change.
John Mauldin – The Endgame Meets the Millennium Wave
John Mauldin gave an interesting presentation on the economics of the upcoming singularity, although he started by talking about the economic crisis facing not only this country, but also the world. He predicts that the debt problems facing Greece and Spain are only the start and things will likely get a lot worse before they get better. Mauldin believes that the biggest bubble in the world is getting ready to break and that’s the bubble of government spending. He went on to highlight the 7 waves of change that he believes will occur in the next 20 years and noted that humans didn’t evolve for rapid change, so be ready! These waves include high-speed ubiquitous bandwidth that will be ultra cheap, effectively bringing billions of new people to the marketplace. They also include a revolution in biotechnology that will allow us to live longer and the rise of the sovereign individual as more and more people realize that government simply can’t solve all of our problems. Mauldin also foresees revolutions in nanotechnology, robotics, and AI (not surprisingly). Finally, Mauldin implored the crowd to think about the repercussions of these waves of change: new customers for businesses, changes in geo-political realities (i.e. borders), build-up of infrastructure and replacement of scarce resources with cheaper, abundant resources.
Riley Crane – Rethinking Communication
Dr. Riley Crane, a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab, gave an excellent presentation on harnessing social media and aggregating the wisdom of the crowds to affect positive change. He accurately likened it to finding a path through a forest; the path is formed by many people walking over it time and time again. Crane is most famous for leading of team from MIT in winning DARPA’s network challenge using a viral networking scheme that resulted in them solving the puzzle in less than 9 hours (check out his interview on the Colbert Report below). However, this idea of using crowd-sourced knowledge is really nothing new. Every time you start typing a phrase into Google, suggestions pop up based on what other people have searched for. Further, Google and other entities have begun tracking flu outbreaks based on internet searches and posts on social media sites such as Twitter. However, Crane wants to take this to the next step. He highlighted the story of several people trapped in a building after the recent Haitian earthquake and that rescuers used a combination of Twitter posts and GPS coordinates to find their location. Crane contends that the very way we communicate with each other is changing at a rapid pace and it’ll be exciting to see just what’s around the corner.
Jaan Tallinn – Balancing the Trichotomy: Individual vs. Society vs. Universe
Jaan Tallinn, of Kazaa and Skype fame, gave a humorous presentation where he talked about his next big goal: to meet the challenges associated with increasingly advanced technology. Tallinn dissected the sometimes conflicting interests of the individual vs the current society vs the future society. In essence, the development of many of the technologies talked about during this summit are easy to see for their value in society. However, either through malevolent intent or lack of foresight, these technologies can also bring plenty of negative consequences. So instead of just talking about these existential risks we face as a species (which he classifies as Level 3 risk), Tallinn has given himself 3 tasks to lower these risks: donating, research, and evangelizing. He specified that he wants to encourage more researchers and innovators to not only ask “How do we build an AGI?” but also “How do we make an AGI do what we want?” According to Tallinn, the future isn’t necessarily dependent on societies, but on the individuals that make up that society. In closing, Tallinn urges more of us to be not only cognizant of these Level 3 risks, but to do our part in fixing these problems before it’s too late. Donate. Research. Evangelize.
[Sources: Singularity Summit, Wikipedia]
[Image credits: David Orban, Kris Krug, Singularity Summit, Lifeboat Foundation, Wikipedia, Lightspeed Magazine, KurzeilAI.net]
[Video credits: TEDxEast, Jason Silva, James McLurkin, Comedy Central]