Singularity Summit Hits San Francisco

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Ah, crap...
We are writing this aboard the Virgin flight from Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco. We are not sitting next to James "The Amazing" Randi, though we are ostensibly his escorts. Nor are we sitting next to each other.

One of us has scored a seat next to the magician Andrew Mayne, an acquaintance from Florida, who we didn't even know would be on this flight. As it happens, he is going to San Francisco for the same reason we are: To plot the annihilation of humanity.

That's an oversimplification, but true in essence. No matter how you slice it, we expect that most of the men and women we shall encounter this weekend will agree that humanity (at least in its fleshy/hormone-addled/war-mongering present state) is on the way out. What's debatable is whether we're going to be 1) destroyed utterly, 2) gradually, pleasantly replaced by technology-enhanced, better versions of ourselves, or 3) experience something even weirder less predictable.

Such are the subjects of conversation at The Singularity Summit. The Singularity is a thing debated passionately by those who love or fear it; seldom agreed upon by those who are supposed to know about it, and callously dismissed by people who ought to know better. What the Singularity is, basically, is a hypothetical moment in the (relatively) near future when a computer (or computer program) achieves ever-so-slightly-greater-than-human intelligence.

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See you soon?
When such an intelligence finally appears in the world, the thinking goes, just about anything could happen. This non-human intelligence -- or its hyper-intelligent children -- may emerge as the salvation of Western Civilization; the embodiment of our most treasured humanistic ideals, bearing us onward into progress, peace, and plenty. Or it could spawn a species of self-replicating nano-machines that turn the planet and its creatures into so much hot goo. There are other possibilities, too.

The one of us sitting next to Andrew Mayne has spent the last three hours discussing precisely these contingencies. Sample snippet, from Mayne: "People have this idea that we're going to have this computer-brain in a box, like something out of Isaac Asimov. It's very 1950s -- this stand-alone machine, you talk to it, you tinker, you make improvements. But that's probably not how it's going to be. Well before we have a smarter-than-human computer, we're going to have thousands of these computers with almost-human intelligence, each designed with very particular tasks in mind, and each one enormously powerful. So what if a slightly smarter one emerges and goes haywire? There will be extraordinary computational resources available to combat it."

Mayne -- who is known internationally as the founder of iTricksand WeirdThings.com -- is an optimist. Many of those at the Summit are greater optimists than he. Some are much, much more pessimistic. But none doubt that the era of computer-level human intelligences is nearly upon us. The gradual mainstreaming of the idea is exemplified by the presence, somewhere on this plane, of James Randi.

Randi is himself a retired magician. (He prefers the term "conjurer.") Now 82, he has spent the past 40 years pursuing a second career as an educator, warning the public away from the uncritical acceptance of "extraordinary claims." Originally, he embarked upon this career to combat the ascendant New Age movement, with its fraudulent psychics, spoon-benders, faith healers and mind-readers -- most of whom, Randi well knew, were tricksters passing off stunts as miracles. Randi still goes after supernaturalists, but in recent years has turned his attention increasingly to pseudoscience. In particular, Randi has publicly locked horns both with homeopaths and the anti-vaccine movement.

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So it says something that he's traveling to San Francisco to address the Singularity Summit. Mostly, that the idea of understanding, modeling, and replicating something as nebulous "consciousness" doesn't seem so crazy as it once did. Humans accrue knowledge quickly, after all, and the more we accrue, the faster we accrue it. Avoid dying long enough and you'll see certainties upended and the impossible made possible. Ask Randi: He's extremely old. He knows better than most that the speed at which sci-fi becomes non-fi (or whatever) can fail to exhilarate only those who are really, really not paying attention.

The Summit runs all weekend. Randi co-headlines with Ray Kurzweil; Wunderkind Michael Vassar, president of the Singularity Institute (the group responsible for the Summit), begins the proceedings on Saturday with a meditation on the increased importance of skepticism and rationality in a world where irrational little monkeys have the power to create new kinds of minds. If the world's still here come Monday, we'll let you know how it went.

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