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

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.
Written by Chris Jablonski, Inactive on

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.

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