Singularity Summit 2010: No place for human values in a 'posthuman' future?

Singularity Summit 2010: No place for human values in a 'posthuman' future?

Summary: At the first day of the Singularity Summit 2010 in San Francisco, author and biophysicist Gregory Stock shares his macro-evolutionary perspective on the singularity, proving the concept itself is evolving.

TOPICS: Hardware

It's day one at Singularity Summit 2010 being held at the Hyatt Regency in foggy San Francisco. Gregory Stock, best-selling author--Redesigning Humans is a transhumanist classic--and biotech entrepreneur, took the stage this morning to offer his take on the coming singularity.

Stock, who days earlier stepped down as CEO of Signum Biosciences, explained that he was going to provide a macro-evolutionary perspective on the controversial idea that we're in the midst of an evolutionary breakthrough where life starts taking control of its own evolution and machines eventually become smarter than their makers.

But not so fast.

"The things that people care most about move at a very slow pace. For instance, where are all the wonder drugs we were promised 10 years ago?" he asked with an accompanying visual of a Times magazine cover dating from back in 2000 for emphasis. "The FDA is one reason. The clinical process takes too long, about 8 years. Another reason is that it is way too hard. Biology is too complex."

On the flip side, the cost of genome sequencing is collapsing. But that means we now have a tsunami of data to make sense of, he said.

The real question on the minds of those who care, paricualry those greying futurists, is whether or not we'll live long enough to see anything singularity-like. Stock, like singularitarian frontman Ray Kurzweil who is also speaking today via teleconference, is wondering (and hoping) if he'll live long enough to make it to the bridge that connects the future.

Stock then plugged the documentary, The Singularity Is Near, and presented the main point of his talk: it's a paradoxical that the mind-bending vision of the singularity is going to lead to a triumph of human values rather than the extinction of what it means to be human. It is contradictory, he said. "The reality is that we don't have a clue to where this is going. We don't have the tools to know its character. We are flesh and blood. Human values are not going to survive in cyberspace."

Stock drilled further into his macro evolutionary perspective, noting that two things are huge. The first is that we've leveraged sand to create silicon. The second, is the child of the first: the genomic revolution. We can now take control of our own evolutionary process. "Technology has slammed us forward and a transformation is underway."

By adding carbon to silicon, now evolution itself is evolving. That means evolutionary processes that are less ideal are completely displaced. "You can compete in a virtual realm now. The traditional method is being displaced."

The next evolutionary stop for humanity is a planetary superorganism, and it's not a new idea, said Stock. He showed images of 8-foot mounds created by "termite super organisms." If you look at humans through this perspective, we too have processes for orchestrating internal behaviors, and exhibit robustness, brutal internal competition, and need for a "membrane", meaning, by way of example, you can travel from your home to a foreign country and always be under a cover.

The reason for this transition is that we progressed from simple biology plus simple non biology to complex biology plus complex non biology. According to the biophysicist, it's important to note the nature of this transition to understand, at least slightly, where it may lead:

  • When new materials arrive they don't replace but they supplement
  • You get new levels of complexity that subsume old ones
  • You get homeostatic localized environments
  • Component parts get completely refashioned (mitochondria, which have a bacterial ancestry, doesn't exist alone)

Back to the big question. Where will humans remain? According to Scott, the singularity is underway, but no one really knows what it means. "We give ourselves a lot more credit that we should. We don't know the future. It is going to get really weird, really quickly."

As for when the transition will be complete? Does it really matter? It coud be 20 or 40 years but that doesn't mean anything on the scale of evolution, said Stock.

And what does it mean for humans? How would human ethics and values be like in a cyber-realm populated by AIs and brain emulations? Stock described the world as highly competitive, with "cheap copies disappearing through the skylight," a reference to an image presented from Michael Anissimov.

"What would such things have in common with biological creatures?" he asked.

Unforuntately, it's impossible to answer this question and define what's coming. "It's like cells determining the nature of multicellular life," he said.

Topic: Hardware

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  • Little hope for those in current generation

    Even if there is a breakthrough in biotech that allows us to re-engineer our bodies or "upload" our minds into some durable system, it's too late for people who are alive today. The simple reason is economics: it would be decades before any of these would be available for common citizens. Bill Gates and Ray Ellison might be able to afford it, but not Joe Blow or Jane Doe on the street.

    So we must content ourselves with the mundane, and take some comfort of the fact that we at least contributed a little bit to what our children's children may someday have as their future.
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  • I don't see it.

    I'm not really sold on the idea of the technological singularity. Why? Because Moore's law is not really a law. It's an observation. One that is not guaranteed to hold true. There are various fundamental, foundational limits to the laws of physics as we know them. And frankly, silicon has been hitting walls - I'm not seeing the Moore's "law" like progress we experienced in the past. We hit a heat wall, tried to toss in a few cores, but ended up going nowhere. Devices are getting a bit smaller now, but not really getting more powerful.

    I'm also not convinced we're anywhere near discovering some sort of strong AI. The AI people have been predicting a lot and producing very, very little. The progress just isn't there.

    My computer today may have shiny new graphics, but it's just as stupid as the 486's we had. And I'm not seeing any news on AI at all. We are making, for all intents and purposes, no progress with AI.

    Sorry, but just having vast amounts of processing power doesn't mean we know how to create AI, or mean that technology is gonna spiral "out of control" for some unknown reason.

    Can we control our tech progress? Sure we can. None of our machinery, no matter how powerful, is running out of control, magically doing things we don't want it to do. All of our machines are still machines - doing exactly what we programmed them to do.

    The idea that machines mysteriously become intelligent out of sheer processing power makes for great movies - but it is not a reality.

    I don't see a singularity in my lifetime or in the lifetime of our children, sorry.
    • RE: Singularity Summit 2010: No place for human values in a 'posthuman' future?

      Couple of thoughts:

      You write:
      "Because Moore's law is not really a law. It's an observation. One that is not guaranteed to hold true. "

      First of all, NO law is guaranteed to hold true. This is just the problem of induction. But this is splitting philosophic hairs, so let me move on. We all believe in inductive reasoning even if we can't demonstrate the methods legitimacy. Let me dive in deeper to your point.

      Indeed, Moore's "law" isn't a law, a la gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. (Though one could philosophically question the "foundational-law" stasis of thermodynamics-would "god" need to create the laws of thermodynamics to create the world as we know it?- but that is neither here nor there. In general we consider entropy a "law" inasmuch as anything is.) The Singulatarians however see Moore's law an expression of something they DO see as a fundamental law called, in Kurzweil's terms: The Law of Accelerating Returns. This idea is philosophically muddy but is best seen as a "law" of evolution. And, given the reality of natural selection, a "law" as much as any other. If evolution exists, then the law of accelerating returns holds. Or so goes the argument. The idea has some persuasiveness but arguments for it conflate empirical observations with (often undeclared) a priori commitments. Anyway...Moore's law is a current, and dramatic, expression of this "deeper" and fundamental law. The question really is whether or not the law of accelerating returns is a trend, and therefore, like Moore's Law, not a "law" at all, or whether it is a description of some fundamental pattern in the world. The argument needs deeper philosophic treatment but it can't be dismissed out of hand. While the empirical evidence cited by the Singulitarians can not prove its existence as a law without a deeper theoretical framework, the data nonetheless provides a strong motivating factor to consider the idea seriously.
  • Stucco'd On The Moon

    Technological advancements are built up all around us like Hugh skyscrapers reaching for the stars, yet leaving 'man' in a deep hole with no way out or up.<br>Dreamers come along saying this change or that change will catapult mankind back on top of his technological fortress so a second generation of silicon/carbon can be built on top of the first.<br>Problem is, its only a wish, a hope, a dream.<br>We have reaching our limits in many advancements due to the growth being out of sight, and as such...we don't know where the next piece should be fitted.<br>This is a very good indication that we have gone completely in the wrong direction.<br>We must start again, and build not around us, but beneath us...naturally raising mankind up as the advancements progress.<br>This will involve a complete re-think on what life really is; a chance to collect the most toys before one dies, or the simple celebration of life and each other.<br>The current world model is toxic to poor and rich alike, and can not be cured by removing one of these classes, in fact it would mean the destruction of both.<br>We have lost our way in this journey of life being drawn off the path by sparkling rocks cast about the landscape.<br>The Singular focus Needs to be re-realized, that we are all one organism invisibly connected to each other, in this experience...and to leave parts of humanity to wither and die, by osmosis causes us to wither and die.<br>Flush the current model of compartmentalized growth, level the field of advancements for all people everywhere (Have's/Have-not's) and invite every last person to join together as one living organism....and by sheer mutual reciprocation, we will skyrocket to a singularity yet unimaginable.<br>The brakes must be slammed on, before we completely loose sight of what and who we actually are once completely joined together, God.