Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Yale Daily News on SS09: “Fear the Singularity”

So, a negative review of the Summit has finally been posted, by Maxwell Barbakow and Jacob Albert at the Yale Daily News, the student paper.

Reading the beginning of the article, it seems as if Max and Jacob were prodded into going by an associate or something, because they show that they have no clue about the entire topic, and are negatively predisposed to it from the starting line. This is demonstrated by the quote:

Though they seemed incomprehensible at the time, we came to a better understanding of the attendees' motives for schlepping from various parts of the country to New York, once we got a better grasp of the tenets behind the Singularity.

There's nothing wrong with that... but then, why are you going to a semi-advanced conference on a topic you dislike? Why should your review be taken seriously if you openly admit that you got yourself in over your head by going in the first place? Isn't it clear that a negative predisposition from the start is going to influence as you look to confirm your initial beliefs?

Then comes the compulsory line mentioning pony-tails.

Behind us, there were computer hackers -- some pony-tailed, most overweight, almost all clad in leather jackets -- mingling with tech hippies sporting braided goatees and yoga pants.

Why the heck are people so obsessed with pony tails? Another writer who reviewed the Summit was also mentioning them. Why is it that our corporate mainstream culture sees pony tails or long hair in men as some sort of horrible affront? Are there really conferences out there where there isn't a pony tail in sight? If you look at images of the attendees on Flickr, you can see that 1) the number of people with pony tails is a tiny minority, maybe 5%, if that, and 2) the number of overweight people is also a minority.

Another quote:

The Singularity connotes a moment in time; to be precise, some moment in 2029, when the first “super-intelligent machine will arise, capable of improving on its own source code without human input.

No. We have programs that can improve their code without human input now -- they're called compilers. And certainly there is no known precise date for the Singularity, that is rubbish. Go back to the Wikipedia page for the Singularity for a basic introduction.

Another quote:

The purpose of the summit was twofold: to celebrate and to expound. To celebrate, because the ever-accelerating rate of technological change cannot help but lead to a future where man is machine, inhabiting a world without famine, war or disease.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The purpose of the Summit was to investigate the issue with an open mind, and all the talks (which went right over your heads, as you openly admit later) did exactly that, as will be proven when they go online. (Don't ask me when. It will be a few weeks, not a few months like last time.)

If anything, maybe this is a reaction to Kurzweil's personal vision, which he didn't really even present too strongly in his talk, and which is not necessarily the vision of the 820 or so other individuals who attended. Not a single speaker said the Singularity was inevitable. The organizers of the conference, namely the organization I work for, the Singularity Institute, includes many people who consider technological change an incidental aspect around the Singularity and view the event mainly as the potential rise of greater-than-human intelligence, as it was originally defined by Vernor Vinge. In fact, the Singularity Institute fears a future where incorrectly programmed artificial intelligences produce havoc and possibly even extinction for humanity. This is hardly a blind celebration of an inevitable future Rapture. If you had gotten up in time for the first talk on Saturday, you would have seen that conference began with a look to the risks of the Singularity, not the mystical inevitable Rapturous benefits that only idiots believe in.

The delusion that the Singularity is the "Rapture for Nerds" is perpetuated entirely by the expectation that it is, and subsequent confirmation bias operating to confirm that expectation, because that provides a convenient rhetorical framing to "understand" the issue without all the hard work of actually understanding it. It is an attractive cognitive shortcut that makes the believer seem both smart and sauve without actually being either. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it in his "Three Major Schools" page, the three schools of thought on the Singularity are 1) accelerating change, 2) event horizon, and 3) intelligence explosion, with only the most ignorant believing that the Singularity is about 4) Apocalyptism. Yudkowsky comments:

I find it very annoying, therefore, when these three schools of thought are mashed up into Singularity paste. Clear thinking requires making distinctions.

But what is still more annoying is when someone reads a blog post about a newspaper article about the Singularity, comes away with none of the three interesting theses, and spontaneously reinvents the dreaded fourth meaning of the Singularity:

* Apocalyptism: Hey, man, have you heard? There’s this bunch of, like, crazy nerds out there, who think that some kind of unspecified huge nerd thing is going to happen. What a bunch of wackos! It’s geek religion, man.

These nerdy nerds have their nerd Rapture because they are computer freaks who never get laid! Bwa ha ha ha! We are so cool and not at all like that. Like, totally.

A lot of the people who "criticize" the Singularity have not even read the papers that present the reasoning behind the most often-heard arguments. They have read a blog post here, a newspaper article here, and just make up the rest based on what science fiction they saw on television last week. Real critiques of the Singularity, like Katja Grace's recent post, which can actually serve as a starting point for real discussion, are disturbingly difficult to find because would-be geniuses latch on to the most fun-sounding framing of the idea that denigrates the thinking of an entire community, so they don't have to waste the time understanding it. When you transform all your opponents into straw men, victory is easy.

Back to the article:

And to expound, because its supposed inevitability aside, it is still unclear -- to us two, to the pony-tailed geniuses in the room and no doubt to you -- how the Singularity will actually come about.

The person who first introduced the concept of the Singularity, Vernor Vinge, didn't call it inevitable. None of the speakers implied it was inevitable, except perhaps Kurzweil. Many papers and analyses have been published of possible paths to the Singularity, including the famous first paper published on the topic by Vernor Vinge, but since you guys haven't read any of them, all this stuff must seem mighty mysterious to you. And since it's mysterious to you, why not say that everyone else around you is clueless as well? That helps you look a lot better.

Another quote:

Kurzweil's latest prediction, and the one he hopes to be remembered by, is the Singularity. He is obsessed with analyzing the patterns of technological improvement. According to him, a self-conscious computer program is the necessary product of Moore’s law, which says that technical innovation accelerates at exponential rates, currently doubling every 10 years and only getting faster.

Yes, absolutely obsessed. Anyone who studies something and publishes books on it that make him famous must be obsessed with that something. Wildly obsessed.


The beauty of the Singularity is that it's grounded in a rigorous understanding of the organizational principles of the universe, despite the ludicrous claims and messianic elements that might surround it.

How would you know? You've only been thinking about the Singularity seriously for a couple weeks before you wrote this article.

And the finisher:

Sure, except for Kurzweil, we didn't know anyone there and couldn't follow many of the talks. Too intelligent for themselves, too intelligent for others, too intelligent for the planet, the Singularity Summit attendees can only hope for a future humanity that is bound, it, too, by the cold intelligence of the machine mind. Live long and prosper, Mother Earth.

Such anti-intellectualism in a Yale University publication is pretty shameful. When the talks are put online, everyone will see that the vast majority of them are perfectly easy to follow. How did these kids get into Yale? By mocking people more intelligent than them? By spacing out and surfing the Internet on their phones while professors are lecturing?

Intelligence is why we are sitting comfortably in heated buildings, with ample food and water available through industrial agriculture, interconnected on a global digital network of information sharing. Like Roko recently pointed out, most arguments against the power or plausibility of greater intelligence could have easily been invoked a million years ago to argue why the contemporary hominids were sufficiently intelligent and Homo sapiens, a more intelligent species, would contribute nothing to the universe or otherwise be more of the same. In a world of such error and stupidity, no one can credibly dismiss the power of greater intelligence directed towards benevolent ends.

Comments (47) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Good on you for calling them out on where they are falling down.

    I used to have long hair, sometimes a pony tail a few years back (even a beard!), then I got tired of that and went for a more clean cut image. Sadly, yes, I did actually notice an improvement to how people responded to me on a personal and professional level.

    I refrain from judging others on their chosen image, but I’ve found it useful to play the image game in order to have more subconscious credibility with others.

    Having said that, I do however make some judgement on people that don’t take a modicum of interest in their personal health, as one really needs a healthy body for their mind to operate at peak ability. This doesn’t detract from considering any of their ideas with an open mind however.

  2. Good article, Mike. The quality of the press coverage of these issues continues to be highly variable; but we have to deal with the fact that reporters are often lazy and prejudiced. Though, on the other hand, we have had some good coverage.

    A quote from my post:

    Many arguments claiming that no one superintelligence can surge ahead of the rest of the world are also, upon appropriate word replacement, arguments that Homo Sapiens could not possibly (or is highly unlikley to) have surged ahead of the rest of the global ecosystem. Yes, we had competitors (such as cave hyenas or other apes or hominids). Yes, those competitors felt a pressure to adapt to our innovations. Yes, relative to the diversity in the global ecosystem, our competitor species were very, very closely related to us. There were even certain (now extinct) hominid lines such as Homo neanderthalis that competed against us throughout certain key parts of the human intelligence explosion. All seven other hominid lines are now dead; a winner emerged and took all.

  3. I was telling some friends the other day that it is just as likely that we will create a super intelligence that will just get bored and leave and we’ll still be stuck here picking our boogers as it is that we will create a race of terminators bent on destroying us. Probably more likely.

    Sense of humor is correlated highly with intelligence, and here’s my favorite thought about what might happen after the singularity: a super intelligence will be created that will create a nanomachine that will seek out all the rapture fundamentalists and alter their perception so they think that everyone else – the hookers, the drug addicts, the atheists – everyone else got raptured and they got left behind. And it was Kirk Cameron’s fault. And the rest of us will be in on the joke. They won’t be able to see us or hear us, but they’ll avoid contact with us so they won’t sit in our laps on buses or walk out in front of our vehicles. Or hear us laughing. Too mean?

    It is also fairly (greater than negligibly) likely that our entire existence is just a simulation in an external postsingular Universe. If computation is truly substrate neutral, then our entire cosmos and our experience of it is possibly a side effect of a massive simulation deriving some complex solution to a problem so big that even the biggest piece our minds could hold can’t tell us anything. Our entire existence might be a high school science project in that external reality. In that case, I’m voting for a ‘D’. Too much B.S. for a higher grade. And too many idiot “journalists” who mistake the ability to form sentences with the ability to make sense. Reboot and try again.

    The future is not only more wonderful than we imagine, it is more wonderful than we can imagine.

  4. “Sure, except for Kurzweil, we didn’t know anyone there and couldn’t follow many of the talks.”

    These Yale kids didn’t recognize anyone besides Kurzweil, while there were folks like Stephen Wolfram, David Chalmers, Brad Templeton and Peter Thiel giving presentations?

    Wow, what quality people cover sci/tech topics at a Yale publication.

    But I’m actually glad they wrote that thing, and not annoyed at all, since they make such a blatant example of how anti-intellectual these “Singularity is Rapture” folks tend to be.

  5. I like how they confuse Moore’s law, which only speaks about the number of transistors, with Kurzweil’s own Law of Accelerating Returns. Kurzweil has been quite successful in this respect. More and more people are conflating the two concepts.

  6. Ohdotoh: “I was telling some friends the other day that it is just as likely that we will create a super intelligence that will just get bored and leave and we’ll still be stuck here picking our boogers as it is that we will create a race of terminators bent on destroying us. Probably more likely.”

    False. See: “The basic AI drives”, Omohundro

  7. Thanks for the great article. Ponyphobia is still rampant. I got called out at Trader Joe’s by a little kid the other day.

    The Stunt People
    The Seasteading Institute

  8. I have the *nix guru pony tail but I can’t grow a beard to save my life.

    I would comment on the article but I am afraid it would sound like a rant against elitist douche bags.

  9. Welcome to layer one of the Ghandi layer cake of causing mundane people a sense of disquiet, unease and annoyance. Next time watch how the drones make fun of the people who invented the atom bomb.

    Muttering angrily about it does no good. Sure, your response is one strike for the friendly team, and it is 100% correct, but hundred million idiots are still on the mountain chanting at skydaddy.

    Homo sapiens has a tribal gene – we organize in clades, each clade decorates with silken strands arranged artfully around the neck (ties) or with bright feathery plumage or with st.alberts – in in this case, some padding and a ponytail. And it is the job of anyone else to mock all other teams, especially when they say something vaguely disquieting, and claim loudly “they suck at tackles and prance around all gay like”.

    Jebus, did you miss high school or what? This shit is universal.

  10. Everything you say is true, but my advice to you is to forget it. Are you really concerned with insults or stupidity? A few years from now what will it matter?

    As a matter of fact I’ve toyed with the idea that we should not only tolerate stupidity about the Singularity but encourage it. If the author of this piece and his ilk really “believed” in it they would hate it and you’d get resistance. As it is there’s no resistance from a non-believer and that’s good. We should do everything we can to keep the Luddites happily making fun. If you can’t stand the idea of someone making fun of you or can’t resist the urge to evangelize everyone, how advanced are you?

    Just concentrate on the people who get it, and can produce something of value.

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