Last weekend I was at the Singularity Summit for a few days. There were interesting speakers, but the reality is that quite often a talk given at a conference has been given elsewhere, and there isn’t going to be much “value-add” in the Q & A, which is often limited and constrained. No, the point of the conference is to meet interesting people, and there were some conference goers who didn’t go to any talks at all, but simply milled around the lobby, talking to whoever they chanced upon.
I spent a lot of the conference talking about genomics, and answering questions about genomics, if I thought could give a precise, accurate, and competent answer (e.g., I dodged any microbiome related questions because I don’t know much about that). Perhaps more curiously, in the course of talking about personal genomics issues relating to my daughter’s genotype came to the fore, and I would ask if my interlocutor had seen “the lion.” By the end of the conference a substantial proportion of the attendees had seen the lion.
This included a polite Estonian physicist. I spent about 20 minutes talking to him and his wife about personal genomics (since he was a physicist he grokked abstract and complex explanations rather quickly), and eventually I had to show him the lion. But during the course of the whole conference he was the only one who had a counter-response: he pulled up a photo of his 5 children! Touché! Only as I was leaving did I realize that I’d been talking the ear off of Jaan Tallinn, the lead developer of Skype . For much of the conference Tallinn stood like an impassive Nordic sentinel, engaging in discussions with half a dozen individuals in a circle (often his wife was at his side, though she often engaged people by herself). Some extremely successful and wealthy people manifest a certain reticence, rightly suspicious that others may attempt to cultivate them for personal advantage. Tallinn seems to be immune to this syndrome. His manner and affect resemble that of a graduate student. He was there to learn, listen, and was exceedingly patient even with the sort of monomaniacal personality which dominated conference attendees (I plead guilty!).
At the conference I had a press pass, but generally I just introduced myself by name. But because of the demographic I knew that many people would know me from this weblog, and that was the case (multiple times I’d talk to someone for 5 minutes, and they’d finally ask if I had a blog, nervous that they’d gone false positive). An interesting encounter was with a 22 year old young man who explained that he stumbled onto my weblog while searching for content on the singularity. This surprised me, because this is primarily a weblog devoted to genetics, and my curiosity about futurism and technological change is marginal. Nevertheless, it did make me reconsider the relative paucity of information on the singularity out there on the web (or, perhaps websites discussing the singularity don’t have a high Pagerank, I don’t know).
I also had an interesting interaction with an individual who was at his first conference. A few times he spoke of “Ray,” and expressed disappointment that Ray Kurzweil had not heard of Bitcoin, which was part of his business. Though I didn’t say it explicitly, I had to break it to this individual that Ray Kurzweil is not god. In fact, I told him to watch for the exits when Kurzweil’s time to talk came up. He would notice that many Summit volunteers and other V.I.P. types would head for the lobby. And that’s exactly what happened.
There are two classes of reasons why this occurs. First, Kurzweil gives the same talks many times, and people don’t want to waste their time listening to him repeat himself. Second, Kurzweil’s ideas are not universally accepted within the community which is most closely associated with Singularity Institute. In fact, I don’t recall ever meeting a 100-proof Kurzweilian. So why is the singularity so closely associated with Ray Kurzweil in the public mind? Why not Vernor Vinge? Ultimately, it’s because Ray Kurzweil is not just a thinker, he’s a marketer and businessman. Kurzweil’s personal empire is substantial, and he’s a wealthy man from his previous ventures. He doesn’t need the singularity “movement,” he has his own means of propagation and communication. People interested in the concept of the singularity may come in through Kurzweil’s books, articles, and talks, but if they become embedded in the hyper-rational community which has grown out of acceptance of the possibility of the singularity they’ll come to understand that Kurzweil is no god or Ayn Rand, and that pluralism of opinion and assessment is the norm. I feel rather ridiculous even writing this, because I’ve known people associated with the singularity movement for so many years (e.g., Michael Vassar) that I take all this as a given. But after talking to enough people, and even some of the more naive summit attendees, I thought it would be useful to lay it all out there.
As for the talks, many of them, such as Steven Pinker’s, would be familiar to readers of this weblog. Others, perhaps less so. Linda Avey and John Wilbanks gave complementary talks about personalized data and bringing healthcare into the 21st century. To make a long story short it seems that Avey’s new firm aims to make the quantified self into a retail & wholesale business. Wilbanks made the case for grassroots and open source data sharing, both genetic and phenotypic. In fact, Avey explicitly suggested her new firm aims to be to phenotypes what her old firm, 23andMe, is to genotypes. I’m a biased audience, obviously I disagree very little with any of the arguments which Avey and Wilbanks deployed (I also appreciated Linda Avey’s emphasis on the fact that you own your own information). But I’m also now more optimistic about the promise of this enterprise after getting a more fleshed out case. Nevertheless, I see change in this space to be a ten year project. We won’t see much difference in the next few I suspect.
The two above talks seem only tangentially related to the singularity in all its cosmic significance. Other talks also exhibited the same distance, such as Pinker’s talk on violence. But let me highlight two individuals who spoke more to the spirit of the Summit at its emotional heart. Laura Deming is a young woman whose passion for research really impressed me, and made me hopeful for the future of the human race. This the quest for science at its purest. No careerism, no politics, just straight up assault on an insurmountable problem. If I had to bet money, I don’t think she’ll succeed. But at least this isn’t a person who is going to expend their talents on making money on Wall Street. I’m hopeful that significant successes will come out of her battles in the course of a war I suspect she’ll lose.
The second talk which grabbed my attention was the aforementioned Jaan Tallinn’s. Jaan’s talk was about the metaphysics of the singularity, and it was presented in a congenial cartoon form. Being a physicist it was larded with some of the basic presuppositions of modern cosmology (e.g., multi-verse), but also extended the logic in a singularitarian direction. And yet Tallinn ended his talk with a very humanistic message. I don’t even know what to think of some of his propositions, but he certainly has me thinking even now. Sometimes it’s easy to get fixated on your own personal obsessions, and lose track of the cosmic scale.
Which goes back to the whole point of a face-to-face conference. You can ponder grand theories in the pages of a book. For that to become human you have to meet, talk, engage, eat, and drink. A conference which at its heart is about transcending humanity as we understand is interestingly very much a reflection of ancient human urges to be social, and part of a broader community.