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Singularity Summit

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Last weekend I was at the Singularity Summit for a few days. There were interesting speakers, but the reality is that quite often a talk given at a conference has been given elsewhere, and there isn’t going to be much “value-add” in the Q & A, which is often limited and constrained. No, the point of the conference is to meet interesting people, and there were some conference goers who didn’t go to any talks at all, but simply milled around the lobby, talking to whoever they chanced upon.

I spent a lot of the conference talking about genomics, and answering questions about genomics, if I thought could give a precise, accurate, and competent answer (e.g., I dodged any microbiome related questions because I don’t know much about that). Perhaps more curiously, in the course of talking about personal genomics issues relating to my daughter’s genotype came to the fore, and I would ask if my interlocutor had seen “the lion.” By the end of the conference a substantial proportion of the attendees had seen the lion.

This included a polite Estonian physicist. I spent about 20 minutes talking to him and his wife about personal genomics (since he was a physicist he grokked abstract and complex explanations rather quickly), and eventually I had to show him the lion. But during the course of the whole conference he was the only one who had a counter-response: he pulled up a photo of his 5 children! Touché! Only as I was leaving did I realize that I’d been talking the ear off of Jaan Tallinn, the lead developer of Skype . For much of the conference Tallinn stood like an impassive Nordic sentinel, engaging in discussions with half a dozen individuals in a circle (often his wife was at his side, though she often engaged people by herself). Some extremely successful and wealthy people manifest a certain reticence, rightly suspicious that others may attempt to cultivate them for personal advantage. Tallinn seems to be immune to this syndrome. His manner and affect resemble that of a graduate student. He was there to learn, listen, and was exceedingly patient even with the sort of monomaniacal personality which dominated conference attendees (I plead guilty!).

At the conference I had a press pass, but generally I just introduced myself by name. But because of the demographic I knew that many people would know me from this weblog, and that was the case (multiple times I’d talk to someone for 5 minutes, and they’d finally ask if I had a blog, nervous that they’d gone false positive). An interesting encounter was with a 22 year old young man who explained that he stumbled onto my weblog while searching for content on the singularity. This surprised me, because this is primarily a weblog devoted to genetics, and my curiosity about futurism and technological change is marginal. Nevertheless, it did make me reconsider the relative paucity of information on the singularity out there on the web (or, perhaps websites discussing the singularity don’t have a high Pagerank, I don’t know).

I also had an interesting interaction with an individual who was at his first conference. A few times he spoke of “Ray,” and expressed disappointment that Ray Kurzweil had not heard of Bitcoin, which was part of his business. Though I didn’t say it explicitly, I had to break it to this individual that Ray Kurzweil is not god. In fact, I told him to watch for the exits when Kurzweil’s time to talk came up. He would notice that many Summit volunteers and other V.I.P. types would head for the lobby. And that’s exactly what happened.

There are two classes of reasons why this occurs. First, Kurzweil gives the same talks many times, and people don’t want to waste their time listening to him repeat himself. Second, Kurzweil’s ideas are not universally accepted within the community which is most closely associated with Singularity Institute. In fact, I don’t recall ever meeting a 100-proof Kurzweilian. So why is the singularity so closely associated with Ray Kurzweil in the public mind? Why not Vernor Vinge? Ultimately, it’s because Ray Kurzweil is not just a thinker, he’s a marketer and businessman. Kurzweil’s personal empire is substantial, and he’s a wealthy man from his previous ventures. He doesn’t need the singularity “movement,” he has his own means of propagation and communication. People interested in the concept of the singularity may come in through Kurzweil’s books, articles, and talks, but if they become embedded in the hyper-rational community which has grown out of acceptance of the possibility of the singularity they’ll come to understand that Kurzweil is no god or Ayn Rand, and that pluralism of opinion and assessment is the norm. I feel rather ridiculous even writing this, because I’ve known people associated with the singularity movement for so many years (e.g., Michael Vassar) that I take all this as a given. But after talking to enough people, and even some of the more naive summit attendees, I thought it would be useful to lay it all out there.

As for the talks, many of them, such as Steven Pinker’s, would be familiar to readers of this weblog. Others, perhaps less so. Linda Avey and John Wilbanks gave complementary talks about personalized data and bringing healthcare into the 21st century. To make a long story short it seems that Avey’s new firm aims to make the quantified self into a retail & wholesale business. Wilbanks made the case for grassroots and open source data sharing, both genetic and phenotypic. In fact, Avey explicitly suggested her new firm aims to be to phenotypes what her old firm, 23andMe, is to genotypes. I’m a biased audience, obviously I disagree very little with any of the arguments which Avey and Wilbanks deployed (I also appreciated Linda Avey’s emphasis on the fact that you own your own information). But I’m also now more optimistic about the promise of this enterprise after getting a more fleshed out case. Nevertheless, I see change in this space to be a ten year project. We won’t see much difference in the next few I suspect.

The two above talks seem only tangentially related to the singularity in all its cosmic significance. Other talks also exhibited the same distance, such as Pinker’s talk on violence. But let me highlight two individuals who spoke more to the spirit of the Summit at its emotional heart. Laura Deming is a young woman whose passion for research really impressed me, and made me hopeful for the future of the human race. This the quest for science at its purest. No careerism, no politics, just straight up assault on an insurmountable problem. If I had to bet money, I don’t think she’ll succeed. But at least this isn’t a person who is going to expend their talents on making money on Wall Street. I’m hopeful that significant successes will come out of her battles in the course of a war I suspect she’ll lose.

The second talk which grabbed my attention was the aforementioned Jaan Tallinn’s. Jaan’s talk was about the metaphysics of the singularity, and it was presented in a congenial cartoon form. Being a physicist it was larded with some of the basic presuppositions of modern cosmology (e.g., multi-verse), but also extended the logic in a singularitarian direction. And yet Tallinn ended his talk with a very humanistic message. I don’t even know what to think of some of his propositions, but he certainly has me thinking even now. Sometimes it’s easy to get fixated on your own personal obsessions, and lose track of the cosmic scale.

Which goes back to the whole point of a face-to-face conference. You can ponder grand theories in the pages of a book. For that to become human you have to meet, talk, engage, eat, and drink. A conference which at its heart is about transcending humanity as we understand is interestingly very much a reflection of ancient human urges to be social, and part of a broader community.

• Category: Science • Tags: Singularity, Singularity Summit, Technology 
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As regular readers know I have been to two previous Singularity Summits (2008 and 2010), and will be at the 2012 event. The speakers look particularly interesting to me this year. I may finally be stupid enough to blurt out to Vernor Vinge how awesome the adolescent me thought Fire Upon the Deep was (I downed a beer with Vinge in 2008, but didn’t say a word to him). Carl will be there again, and we’ll definitely catch up in the “meat-space.” More importantly I have a lot of socializing to do, since I haven’t seen any of my friends from the Berkeley LW community since I left the Bay Area in the summer of 2011. But I hope to meet new & interesting people, as I always have at these events (the social circle overlaps a great deal with BIL). So if you read this weblog and are going to the Singularity Summit and think I’m worth talking to in person just come on up, I’m not very shy. With the prior that you’re actually at the Summit my assumption is that you’re interesting, unless proven otherwise!

Addendum: Some people are curious if I am a “believer” in the Singularity. I’ll be honest and say I don’t think that the idea is necessarily crazy, but I spend my days thinking about genetics far too much to really be a hardcore A.I.-obsessive, which is what is needed to entertain the concept with any seriousness. Rather, my interest is rather in the social milieu where I can temporarily dispense with niceties and get down to the type of verbal blood-sport which I truly relish: engagement with intent not to thrash your opponent, but to wrestle with reality and perhaps squeeze out a few points against it.

• Category: Science • Tags: Administration, Singularity Summit 
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Many of you know that I am on good terms with many people involved with the Singularity Institute and the Less Wrong community. This year I am going to be at the Singularity Summit, October 13th & 14th in San Francisco, after skipping the past few. I’m excited to meet up Carl and Robin again, and I really hope that I’ll finally run into Tyler Cowen (I had lunch with some of his GMU colleages back in 2007, but he was out of town). I’ve also confirmed with Steven Pinker that he’s most likely going to be there (no offense, but the bigger the name, the more likely that conferences are going to trumpet the presence of a speaker when their services are highly provisional).

I understand that many readers are skeptical of Transhumanism, Singulitarianism, etc. What I would like to offer is that people who are open to exploring these far out topics are often extremely intellectually engaging more generally. My goal in life is to “avoid boring people”, and I find that events like the Singularity Summit are aids to that (also, see the BIL conferences).

• Category: Science • Tags: Singularity Summit, Transhumanism 
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That time of the year for a certain type of nerd, the Singularity Summit. Here’s a a preview:

This Singularity Summit line-up this year features a mix of 25 speakers from numerous fields, with a central focus on robotics and artificial intelligence, in particular the victory of the IBM computer Watson in Jeopardy! this February. Inventor and award-winning author Ray Kurzweil will give the opening keynote on “From Eliza to Watson to Passing the Turing Test”. Registration for the Summit, which runs on October 15-16 at the 92Y in New York, is open to the public now.

The theme of the Summit this year is the Watson victory and future Watson applications, such as in medicine. Dan Cerutti, IBM’s VP of Commercialization for Watson, will give a talk on medical applications for Watson, and the closing keynote will be by Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive Jeopardy! matches only to lose to Watson in February. Watson won $1,000,000 in the contest and Jennings won $300,000, coming in second place. Jennings’ talk will be “The Human Brain in Jeopardy: Computers That “Think”.

I won’t be able to make it because I’m very busy right now, but that’s too bad. Ken Jennings is a great headliner, but do look at all the speakers. Tyler Cowen and Sonia Arrison will be there. I had lunch with some of the practitioners of Masonomics a few years back, but Tyler and Bryan Caplan were both out of town. No doubt the day will come. Just not this day. I haven’t had time to review 100 Plus (alas, the neglect of the Razib Khan on Books website), but it’s an excellent take on the possible implications of greater longevity (no, I don’t think longevity research is crazy as such, though I’m probably not as optimistic as many in the community).

• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism, Singularity Summit, Transhumanism 
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The Singularity Summit is going to happen in about a month in San Francisco (August 14th-15th). Registration here. Yes, Ray Kurzweil will be there, but also Irene Pepperberg, James Randi and John Tooby. If you want to meet the ladies, probably not your scene (perhaps more accurately the lady, or two). But if you want to high five Robin Hanson at an after hours meet-up, get ready to party!

Here are my reflections from last year.

• Category: Science • Tags: Singularity Summit, Transhumanism 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"