Singularity Summit 2007: How to be a Singular boy scout

It's day two at the Singularity Summit 2007 in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts. Today's topics include the risks of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and what preparations are necessary to stack the odds in favor of humans.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive on

It's day two at the Singularity Summit 2007 in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts. Today's topics include the risks of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and what preparations are necessary to stack the odds in favor of humans. Our extensive day one coverage from myself and guest poster Chris Matyszczyk are here.

Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk ponders the issues of risk and reward and forces of good and evil on the path to the Singularity, when machines are smarter than humans.

So who were the first animals to bring altruism into the social world?

Dogs? Cats? Christians?

No, vampire bats.

And the ones who began to function along the lines of actually thinking about the fellow vampire bat had brains three times bigger than vampire bats who were only interested in their own salvation.

Josh Hall, author of "Beyond AI: Creating the Conscious of the Machine," has a brain that is clearly three times bigger than most people I know. And he is dedicating those three brains of his to try and consider The Constitution of the United States of Robots.

Anyone who is smart enough to try to create rules that people actually want to respect should be called a genius. Or, in common parlance, nuts.

Yet Hall is a remarkably pragmatic intellectual. He accepts that there will be all kinds of robots out there. There will be military robots. There will be corporate robots. In fact, by 2050, corporations, according to Hall, will be largely populated by corporate robots. (Yippee. Because there aren’t any robots in senior positions in 2007, are there?)

Hall wants the creation of robots to be a singular force for good. He wants them to understand the human condition, to be able to respond to the human condition, to improve themselves in order to improve the human condition.

At last, good intentions. Good news. Forces for good.

Then Hall put up a picture of a man in uniform, Baden Powell. (He is not to be confused with Colin Baden Powell, who also wore a uniform, but retired from the Goodness Force in order to pursue other interests.)

Baden Powell was the founder of the Boy Scout movement. Boy Scouts were little boys who, in my youth, used to come to my house and offer to clean my mother’s windows. They wore uniforms, smiled, turned up on time, made the windows clean, never asked for a tip and were very respectful towards my mother.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we think the world really needs more Boy Scouts. My mother would probably say ‘yes.” But she wishes I had become a doctor or a priest.

It is very easy to confuse goodness and niceness. Reece Witherspoon is nice. Mother Teresa is good. (Or should that be the other way around?) And I am not sure whether, in fact, Josh Hall is secretly desperate for a robotic return of Ms. Witherspoon’s heartland values (in her movies, at least) or Mother Teresa’s need to help others.

If it’s the Witherspoon model, should the boy scout robots have the ability to improve themselves, one wonders whether they would experience something akin to the current crystal meth epidemic in the heartland.

And if it’s the Mother Teresa model, will they be tortured by the same daily doubts that appear to have chewed away at the venerable Albanian?

In either case, given that the engineers will design these robots with the power to self-improve, based on what Hall hopes are evolutionary, stable and open strategies that are beneficial to their creators, what choices will they make?

Then, just as goodness began to swill around the audience’s brains like a very fine protein shake, up stepped Peter Thiel, a supporter of the Singularity Summit and co-founder of PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.

Thiel appears to be one of the boy scouts of the world of investment in technology, had a simple message.

If you want to make money out of this Singularity world, look at what Warren Buffet is doing. He’s putting his money into insurance companies that are ready for disasters.

This may not be all of what Mr. Thiel said--he also seemed to suggest that real transformations in humanity, and therefore, in finance- will come from an entirely unpredictable direction--but immediately my optimism slipped out of the Palace of Fine Arts and into the Cathedral of Despair.

While my head began to bang involuntarily against my laptop, up stepped Charles Harper of the John Templeton Foundation, and the third presenter wearing white pants in the last two days.

Look, he said. Science and technology moves quickly. Human cultures move very slowly.

He left us to consider who was going to win.

Vampire bats or vulture Warrens?

Chris Matyszczyk has spent most of his career as an award- winning creative director in the advertising industry. He is perhaps most well known for his advertising campaign against domestic violence in Poland, which had a major impact on cultural behavior. He has also been a journalist, covering the Olympics, SuperBowl and other sporting events. He brings a refreshingly, non-techie, and humorous, perspective to the Singularity Summit. Check out his "Pond Culture" blog.

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