Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rethinking Singularity

I have concerns about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity.  The following three stories will show you where I'm coming from and give some background to what I want to say:

(1) In the '80s, Tom Axworthy, then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (and now with the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens U in Kingston, Canada and the Gordon Foundation), spoke before my group, the American Association of Political Consultants, and told why Canadians and other countries distinguished themselves from Americans and American political campaign technology.  He said that Americans pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a national credo whereas most other societies have as their goals peace, order, liberty and fraternity.  Fraternity being the sharing in the well-being of all of society.  Big difference between the individual pursuit of happiness to the altruistic sharing of the well-being of everyone.  And that difference translates into political orientation, campaign practices and social ethic.  In America elected officials have star status whereas most members of parliaments worldwide are part of the party and not well known.  They are often elected as the x-party member for the y area.  Hence there's less personality and more issue orientation.  Not Barney Frank versus Earl Sholley but instead Liberal versus Tory.  Axworthy's talk has stuck with me to this day because I strongly believe in his version of Fraternity and what it means for society and the future.  Also it was one of the many reasons I chose to sell off and quit my activities in politics.

(2) Ray Kurzweil's projections of logarithmic (exponentially accelerating) technological progress - particularly in the fields of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology - leading to a "singularity" or merging of these super-intelligent sciences sometime between 2040 and 2045, a merging where differentiating between a human with consciousness and a robot-like device acting as if it had consciousness, has been fascinating to me because I'm a technology enthusiast, particularly in the areas of computers, AI and robotics. I see it happening just as he says. In robots, genetics, longevity, artificial intelligence, aging, stem cells, and many more sciences, my vision of the future is similar to Kurtzweil's. And this is disturbing because his projections are leading to a conclusion that I don't want for society.

(3) While driving to and from Lake Tahoe last weekend, some friends and I listened to an audiobook entitled Death Match. Although it was a mystery, it was really about artificial intelligence. It involved a computer dating service that went beyond simple questionnaires and instead merged psychological, medical and financial data along with social data such as travel, movie and book preferences, phone call records, traffic tickets, etc. into a massive database which was then sliced and diced to provide information about the candidates well-beyond what they entered on their initial survey forms. Armed with all that data, the computer did it's match and was quite successful. A discussion occurred about individual boundaries, and computer capabilities. Coincidentally, I had recently listened to a podcast of an AI expert discussing how things were presently done (constructivist) and how they will be done shortly (software developing software). This shed light on what was fictional in the story. The discussion continued to include the fact that the story's software and manipulation of massive databases was available today but that it wasn't going to get too much better until more capable and extensive software could be developed and that was precluded because the present state of the art was constructivist (done by human programmers and limited by their time and capacity). Although software is used to create new computer chips, humans are still cranking out AI software. When AI software becomes self-generating, that's when robotics and other embedded sciences will grow - and the dangers I foresee begin.
    This brings me to a long and old (2000) Wired Magazine article written by Bill Joy, co-founder and network computer scientist of Sun Microsystems, a VC at Kleiner Perkins Greentech and FOO (Friend of Obama).  In the article, Joy worked his way through his own history of thoughts about technology to an evening when he spent some time with Ray Kurzweil and learned, first-hand, what Kurzweil foresaw.
    Ray was saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that and John [Searle, also at the meeting] countering that this couldn't happen because the robots couldn't be conscious.
    I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction.  But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility.  I was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future.  I already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.
    Joy wrote pages of his history in thought from then until he met scholar and author Jacques Attali who described his interpretation of Fraternity.
    Jacques helped me understand... Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism. Fraternity alone associates individual happiness with the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
    This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through robotics - may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit brings clear dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
    I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.
    We are getting a belated start on seriously addressing the issues around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of knowledge-enabled mass destruction - and further delay seems unacceptable. 
    It seems to me that Joy's seriousness and concern is well-deserved and appropriate.  I share his concerns fully.  What do you think?