Sunday, August 8, 2010

Singularity Summit 2010

Next weekend transhumanists, futurists, and interested parties will converge on San Francisco for the Singularity Summit, an event founded by the Singularity Institute. Speakers include familiar standards (e.g. Ray Kurzweil, Greg Stock, Ben Goertzel) and some other, newer figures. The most exciting of the newer folks looks to be magician and paranormal researcher James Randi, whose abstract says:

"We can trust our perceptions, or so we like to believe. But James Randi knows better. Randi, who for half a century traveled the world as a celebrated conjurer and escape artist, takes the stage to demonstrate how human beings fool each other and themselves. Drawing on his extensive experiences as an investigator of paranormal, supernatural, and generally weird claims, Randi will argue that the inhabitants of the modern world are not as rational as they appear -- and that as our technologies become ever-more potent, our hidden penchant for unreason becomes commensurately more dangerous. In singular times, it is the ethical responsibility of every thinking being to become an agent for the promulgation of critical thought, skepticism, and humility."

This reveals two serious problems:

1) getting all people to promulgate critical thought, etc. is, well, impossible. As evidence, witness the fact that poll numbers continue to indicate that Republican voters don't think that President Obama is a natural born citizen of the  U.S. and that a stunning 24% of them think he's the Antichrist while their leaders seem to think that the war in Afghanistan began in the Obama presidency

2) what if the thing we're all getting fooled about is that current technological trends are doing us any good? There'd be no way of figuring this out until far too late, as we have already discovered with the massive overuse of antibiotics and might be discovering with respect to things like pesticides and GMO crops. The humility that Randi mentions is in short supply, I'm afraid.

I'm on Randi's side. I'm a big believer that we can thoughtfully, ethically move forward technologically; and I definitely believe that this could include some (though probably not all) of the items on the transhumanist agenda. But I also wonder whether Singularity hype helps us toward this end; it all too often falls short of all three of Randi's concerns.

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