What You Missed at Singularity Summit 2011

Exhilarating, frustrating, muddled, tea-party-ish, revealing, revolting, liberal rationalist, and hyper-optimistic are just a few of the pithy comments I tapped into my magical (inside joke) Apple MacBook.

And I hope not to hear the word exponential in general conversation for a few days. Of course, I would go to another Singularity Summit (next year’s is in far-away San Francisco) in an instant to experience the likes of Stephen Wolfram, Riley Crane, Ray Kurzweil, David Brin, Stephen Badylak, Michael Shermer, and Christoff Koch, to name a few of Singularity’s stellar roster of speakers.

Forthwith some memorable moments from SS11. For those with more time on their hands, here are audio podcasts of Thiel, Wolfram, and Itskov (may take a few minutes to download).

Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal, investor, and Singularity Institute board member) railed against the general public’s distrust and discomfort with technology.

And Steve Job’s making technology accessible and friendly? Said Thiel: “… a large part involves designing technology in order to hide it. And so the experience of iPad, iPhone is that it’s almost like magic. It fits the zeitgeist extremely well of a society which is actually not that technological and where it’s more a fashion statement.”

I write this as I tap-tap into my magical MacBook wonder device, which I now worship as a metallic god.

David Brin (scientist and sci-fi novelist) gave advice on how to convince a fundamentalist that the Bible is actually pro-science: Quoting Genesis, Brin pointed out that God asked Adam to name the animals. Adam therefore was the first taxonomist. QED.

Ray Kurzweil (inventor, restless genius, and author of The Singularity is Near) believes the law of accelerating returns (exponential performance improvements as far as the eye can see) will overcome all those pesky objections from AI contrarians. His use of the e-word in his talk was exponential.

Stephen Wolfram (physicist, developer of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, genius) is impressed by the iPhone 4s and Siri (even though it’s a magical device that hides the technology). And optimistic about immortality: “I’m quite sure that in time for all practical purposes we will be able to fix our biology to keep things running forever.”

Dimitry Itskov (founder of Russia 2045) does Wolfram one body better. He is leading an effort to extend and improve life through cybernetics. And Itskov sees a day when humanity will have a choice of bodies to inhabit. Itskov has a campaign slogan for a future candidate: “Free and immortal should be a right”.

Michael Shermer (contrarian and founder of Skeptic magazine): “I’m often queried by my theist debate partner in my God debates, ‘what would it take to prove to you that there is a God?’ That amputees grow a new limb!”

Shermer came on after Stephen Badylak showed it’s possible to regrow muscles and an esophagus in human patients.

Riley “Red Balloons” Crane (post doctoral fellow at MIT Media Lab and winner of DARPA’s balloon challenge) believes that the basis of Gladwell’s Tipping Point, the highly connected maven, doesn’t explain the types of cascade phenomena that’s observed in social networks.

Translation: A spike in Susan Boyle’s YouTube downloads is not driven by highly knowledgeable mavens. Also, Crane has great respect for network scientist Duncan Watts, who has come to similar conclusions. And TvB, ahem, has been a longstanding fan of Watts as well.

Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (writer, author of “The Theory That Would not Die”) told how Rev. Bayes’ theorem has caused “food fights” among statisticians and scientists up until recently. It was considered un-American, bordering on socialism in the dark days of the 1950s to use Bayes.

Why? That deviant a priori assumption caused indigestion among frequentists. But did you know that a Bayesian-oriented research company (Metron) was able to find the blackbox recorder of the doomed Air France flight 477 when others failed?

Tyler Cowen (economist, George Mason University): According to Cowen, we’re heading for stagnation because American society is too “egalitarian” and soft. His model for the way to organize our culture: Germany, circa 19th century. That ended well, of course.

Jaan Tallinn (founder of Skype) offered to match $100,000 worth of donations to Singularity. His clean, genuine message to help humanity was perfectly reflected in the best presentation, stylistically, given at Singularity. By the way, he used prezi with its impressive zooming capabilities.

Ken Jennings (Jeopardy champion and loser to Watson) said that by exploring the RV-sized Watson’s computer rack innards, he could claim that this was one contestant he was inside of. Enough said.

Dan Cerutti (IBM executive charged with marketing Watson) announced that IBM will introduce a “Watson for Healthcare” to improve medical diagnoses, making it evidence based. Watson comes not to replace doctor-kind but to help them. Well, at least at first.

One Comment

  1. None of these alleged geniuses appear to be aware that we have fucked up the world with our unflagging self interest, greed and stupidity and are due for extinction. They all believe in the techno fix, humans can solve any problem myth. At best, the remnants of the arrogant, selfish, pathological, psychotic ape will return to sustainable hunter-gatherers, while the remnants of the shiny plastic toys you are all so imprtessed with with slowly decompose back to the elements they came from and return to the Earth. As for the idiot [NOT genius] who thinks immortality is just a question of ‘fixing our biology to keep things running forever’ he understands nothing of the natural world and natural processes, and has barely started to think. Already the Earth is overcrowded with hominids and set to get even more crowded, yet the ecosystem that supports ALL life [yes, even that of Supermen like these] is decaying before our eyes. Some eyes just don’t see what’s in store. Dream on. Happy is the moron.

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