Possible Insight

Quick Rundown on the Singularity Summit

with 14 comments

I attended the Singularity Summit today. Overall, it was worth the time spent.  I did not attend the workshop on Friday because it didn’t look substantive when I reviewed the program.  Today, I spoke to several people who were there and they confirmed my prediction. I took 7 pages of notes at the summit and hope to have some insightful synthesis of the material in a few days [Edit: first thought here, more here].  In the meantime, here is a short review of the talks.

To set the stage, Vernor Vinge submitted to a wide ranging interview. Unsurprisingly given that I’m a fan of his science fiction, I found the interview entertaining. He made one particularly excellent point and one particularly glaring error that are worth mentioning. The excellent point was that embedded, network processors are so useful that they will become ubiquitous (he mentioned that there will be trillions of them). Unfortunately, this popularity will also make them a critical point of failure.  The glaring error was to assert that as humans outsource their cognition to machines, the number of jobs suitable for humans will narrow. Economic history contradicts this theory, but more on this topic in a bit.

Then Nova Spivak talked about collective intelligence. While it took a while to get there, I found his ultimate point insightful: in order to truly achieve collective intelligence, we need some sort of “meta-self” that maintains models of the internal state of the collective and how the collective relates to the external world, as well as structures the goals of the collective and tracks progress towards the goals.

Esther Dyson was caught wrong-footed. Apparently, she thought someone was going to interview here and had not prepared any material. She talked a little bit about genetics, but nothing I found even remotely new.

James Miller was the hit of the morning. He spoke (somewhat tongue in cheek) about the economic implications of a significant portion of the population anticipating the singularity: more money spent on safer cars, construction workers becoming more expensive, people saving less for retirement, the market for office buildings crashing, students not wanting to study anything boring.

Justin Rattner gave a fascinating (to me) talk about the nuts and bolts of Intel’s approach to maintaining the inexorable march of computing power growth. I was blown away by the fact that Moore’s Law stopped last year and nobody noticed. The original formulation of Moore’s Law was about CMOS transistors. But CMOS reached its limits and Intel switched to HiK-MG without a blip in rest of the supply line. They have technologies mapped out to maintain exponential growth for another 8 years, which is about how long they’ve historically had visibility into future production technology.

Eric Baum had some good points about what “understanding” really means. He emphasized the ability to rapidly assemble programs to solve problems and illustrated this point with a comparison between how evolution and engineers design limbs. Evolution has a general representation for a limb.  Mutate this representation and you still have a limb. The difference in design instructions for an arm, a wing, and a flipper aren’t very much. Obviously, this isn’t currently the case for human-engineered prosthetic. I’m not sure I buy his conclusion that this implies we need some sort of hybrid programming tool that combines human-directed design with computer-generated programming. Seemed like a big inferential leap.

Like Rattner, Dharmendra Modha surprised me with some nuts and bolts. Apparently, Almaden Labs already has a simulation of a rat’s brain that runs at 1/10,000th real-time. Assuming the lower bound of the effective complexity of a neuron/synapse (there’s a lot of uncertainty about how much computation goes on here), they say they’ll have the infrastructure to simulate a human brain in real time by 2018. He noted that “software” to run on the brain is an open issue, but I’m still going to have to revise downward my estimation of the time until high quality brain uploading.

Ben Goertzel discussed OpenCog, an open platform for building AGI programs. I was impressed because he clearly understood the failures of past AGI projects and seemed like a smart guy. However, I’m not convinced this path will work, though this framework may accelerate the pace at which researchers narrow down the hard problems.

The only truly bad talk was by Marshall Brain. It’s not a good idea to discuss the economic implications of AI and robotics when you don’t understand anything about economics. He thinks the rise of interactive automatons will cause 50% unemployment. His use of economic statistics was worse than amateurish. He turned the aforementioned glaring error by Vinge into a painful 20 minute presentation.

Cynthia Breazeal cleansed the palate after the bad taste left by Marshall. She demonstrated how she’s working on imbuing computers with emotional intelligence. She showed some reasonably impressive videos of her emotive automaton. This avenue seems mostly like crank turning to me, necessary but not ground breaking because we pretty much understand the cognitive psychology already. However, I was somewhat impressed that they’ve managed to architect their software so the automaton uses the model of its own relationship to the world to model the state of someone else. As a result, the automaton can operate on false-beliefs in others just like a human child.

After lunch, the summit opened with a debate between John Horgan and Ray Kurzweil on whether the singularity would occur in the near future. John said that complexity is too high while Ray said that exponential growth would overcome the complexity.  John was badly overmatched.

Pete Estep told us that knowledge was expanding too fast for meat brains to keep pace so we needed to augment our intelligence. Yeah, yeah.  Preaching to the choir. He claimed that Innerspace was already working on a fully integrated memory prosethtic. Cool if true, but it appears to just be a prize at this point.

The most mind blowing presentation was by Neil Gershenfeld. I already thought the Fab Lab was pretty cool. But the long term stuff he’s working on is breathtaking. There’s a duality between computing and physics. For example, we use physics to build computers that we then use to model physics. The duality is much more fundamental than that (e.g., the equivalence of thermodynamic entropy and Shannon entropy). They have discovered/created a programming paradigm called asynchronous logic automata (ALA: so new there’s not a good reference on the Web; see also Conformal Computing: no good references on that either [edit 04/08/09: this term was coined by James Reynolds and Lenore Mullin in this paper]) that he says is based on fundamental physical properties. They can use ALA to PROGRAM MATTER. Such matter is made of identical cells that assemble themselves like proteins, based on the ALA instructions. He had some animations and it’s unclear from my notes whether these were merely simulations or visualizations of something they’d actually built.  My memory is that they were actual, but at a large scale.  Neil said they should be able to get exponential scaling and they don’t really rely on quantum effects. The bottom line was: 20 years to the Star Trek replicator.  This is the number one thing on my list to keep track of now.

Peter Diamandis talked about the space tourism and the X Prize.  Cool, but not that relevant.

Finally, Ray commented on all the talks. The most important comment was to dispell the notion that technology destroys jobs. He gave the example of gathering all the farmers and manufacturing workers in 1900 and telling them that farming and manufacturing jobs would only be a few percent of the total jobs in 2000. There’s just know way they could imagine all the new jobs like ASIC engineer, Web designer, and network programmer. Technology creates more opportunities than it destroys.  Hallelujah brother.


Written by Kevin

October 26, 2008 at 6:54 am

14 Responses

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  1. i think the issue of jobs and technology is a bit more complex from the descriptions of marshal brain and ray kurzweil.

    yes , ray’s example is correct – but what did happen in the short term with the move from agriculture to manufacturing ? was there any job issues? how long the move took ?

    also some economists think that in the last 30 years , the combination of technology and outsourcing led to wage loses (instead of working in manufacturing cars at high pay , working in walmart) .

    so there’s certainly a possibility that technology could make people unemployed or earning very little , for long periods of time.


    October 26, 2008 at 5:00 pm

  2. This report on the Singularity Summit has been rather thorough and informative. One wonders whether there were any demonstrations offered of artificial intelligence software or of autonomous robots. If the Summit consisted solely of speeches, it could have been a Web presentation open to people all over the world.

    A. T. Murray

    October 26, 2008 at 9:06 pm

  3. @joe. Marshall presented this as a certainty and that this was going to be a steady state phenomenon. Both of these are obviously not true. Every technological innovation has displaced some jobs and created others. On balance, the total has been positive. Moreover, the transition typically happens fairly gradually. We won’t wake up one day to find that robots can all of a sudden displace a bunch of jobs. What burned me was that he presented absolutely no real evidence from a micro or macro economic perspective to back up his bold assertion.

    @A. T. Murray. There were no real demonstrations. Each presenter had only 20 minutes. Some people showed short videos as I mentioned. I’m going to post about my general impression of the state of the art tomorrow.


    October 26, 2008 at 11:41 pm

  4. […] The Singularity is the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI). As you can read in my rundown of the Singularity Summit, speakers showcased a lot of progress in hardware substrate and software infrastructure, but no […]

  5. Accurate summary.

    Eliezer Yudkowsky

    October 27, 2008 at 11:33 pm

  6. Modha’s
    rodent brain sim is one tenth of real time


    The vast complexity of the simulation meant that it was only run for 10 seconds at a speed ten times slower than real life – the equivalent of one second in a real mouse brain. [2007]

    The rat brain simulation is 3.5 times bigger and I believe Modha said it was working and also at one tenth of real time

    Brian Wang

    October 29, 2008 at 9:18 pm

  7. Thank you Joe,

    I think the issue of jobs is very real. And the reference to the last technology/economic paradym shift is absolutely valid. I have an informal theory that when we go through those technology/economic shifts we do loose jobs, and it takes time and effort to get those jobs back. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last “great depression” happened at the early stages of shift from agricultural to industrial economies. I think that it’s natural to shift toward Keynesian economics during times like this (like the New Deal) to help get over the “valley” of job loss. (ultimately that job loss is a very very good thing as it leads to a dramatically more productive populace). But it also brings social upheaval, life will be as fundamentally different as factory work is from pre-industrial farm work.


    October 30, 2008 at 6:04 am

  8. @Brian Wang. My notes have Modha saying the rat brain simulation was 1/10,000th real time. He could have misspoke, I could have misheard, or I could have miswritten. If there’s an official transcript, I’d love to know the actual answer because it makes a big difference.

    @commandersprocket. Yes, technological change is constantly changing the job mix. But there is no single point of shift. It’s a constant, noisy forcing function. That’s why I think you need to check your understanding of the Great Depression. The shift towards an industrial economy was very far on its way and it occurred in fits and starts.

    I absolutely agree that we should try and help people over transitions, but I hardly think Keynesian fiscal policy is the answer. That merely creates a larger role for the government, which ultimately stifles flexibility and innovation.


    October 30, 2008 at 6:27 am

  9. Excellent summary kevindick.

    It was my first time at such a Summit, and I was surprised that I understood a majority of what was said.

    I had the most trouble understanding a large part of what Gershenfeld and Rattner presented, and its ironic that you found their lectures to be the most fascinating! It seemed to me that you needed to have worked at Intel or AMD to understand most of Rattner’s presentation.

    I am glad I wasn’t the only one who thought Marshall Brain’s presentation was the weakest. He has had that same stuff on his website for a few years, and has milked it for all its worth — via the Adsense ads on his website and publicity in the media. He also wrote “how to make a million dollars” or something like that, so you have to give him kudos regarding his entrepreneurial abilities. At this point, if he says that he was wrong, his lucrative website content becomes somewhat meaningless.

    I thought Miller was not that great — just funny and maybe the most pleasing to the eye of all the speakers for the relatively few ladies who attend these things.

    I am glad Kurzweil didn’t go over too many of the old slides from his book and instead analyzed some of the points made by the speakers. As usual, Kurzweil sounded very intelligent (and correct) and was understandable to the average person like myself.

    The one-sided debate between Kurzweil and Horgan was meaningless and a repetition of the old argument regarding “exponential” versus “complexity”. Horgan seemed like a great person to be around, but maybe Bill McKibben or Bill Joy would be more interesting to listen to in a debate with Kurzweil.


    October 31, 2008 at 4:12 pm

  10. […] 31, 2008 by kevindick Now that I’ve had a week to digest what I saw at the summit, I have some thoughts on the most likely path we’ll take to the singularity. From an absolute […]

  11. […] 25, 2008 by rafefurst There is an aspect to The Singularity which is not discussed much, an orthogonal dimension that is already taking shape, and which is […]

  12. […] The Singularity is the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI). As you can read in my rundown of the Singularity Summit, speakers showcased a lot of progress in hardware substrate and software infrastructure, but no […]

  13. […] that I’ve had a week to digest what I saw at the summit, I have some thoughts on the most likely path we’ll take to the singularity. From an absolute […]

  14. […] been following my posts on the financial crisis (here, here, and here) and Singularity Summit (there, there, and there), you might wonder, “Uh, but how do we get there from here?”. […]

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