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!).
As regular readers know I have been to two previous Singularity Summits (2008 and 2010), and will be at the 2012 event. The speakers look particularly interesting to me this year. I may finally be stupid enough to blurt out to Vernor Vinge how awesome the adolescent me thought Fire Upon the Deep was (I downed a beer with Vinge in 2008, but didn’t say a word to him). Carl will be there again, and we’ll definitely catch up in the “meat-space.” More importantly I have a lot of socializing to do, since I haven’t seen any of my friends from the Berkeley LW community since I left the Bay Area in the summer of 2011. But I hope to meet new & interesting people, as I always have at these events (the social circle overlaps a great deal with BIL). So if you read this weblog and are going to the Singularity Summit and think I’m worth talking to in person just come on up, I’m not very shy. With the prior that you’re actually at the Summit my assumption is that you’re interesting, unless proven otherwise!
Addendum: Some people are curious if I am a “believer” in the Singularity. I’ll be honest and say I don’t think that the idea is necessarily crazy, but I spend my days thinking about genetics far too much to really be a hardcore A.I.-obsessive, which is what is needed to entertain the concept with any seriousness. Rather, my interest is rather in the social milieu where I can temporarily dispense with niceties and get down to the type of verbal blood-sport which I truly relish: engagement with intent not to thrash your opponent, but to wrestle with reality and perhaps squeeze out a few points against it.
Many of you know that I am on good terms with many people involved with the Singularity Institute and the Less Wrong community. This year I am going to be at the Singularity Summit, October 13th & 14th in San Francisco, after skipping the past few. I’m excited to meet up Carl and Robin again, and I really hope that I’ll finally run into Tyler Cowen (I had lunch with some of his GMU colleages back in 2007, but he was out of town). I’ve also confirmed with Steven Pinker that he’s most likely going to be there (no offense, but the bigger the name, the more likely that conferences are going to trumpet the presence of a speaker when their services are highly provisional).
I understand that many readers are skeptical of Transhumanism, Singulitarianism, etc. What I would like to offer is that people who are open to exploring these far out topics are often extremely intellectually engaging more generally. My goal in life is to “avoid boring people”, and I find that events like the Singularity Summit are aids to that (also, see the BIL conferences).
This Singularity Summit line-up this year features a mix of 25 speakers from numerous fields, with a central focus on robotics and artificial intelligence, in particular the victory of the IBM computer Watson in Jeopardy! this February. Inventor and award-winning author Ray Kurzweil will give the opening keynote on “From Eliza to Watson to Passing the Turing Test”. Registration for the Summit, which runs on October 15-16 at the 92Y in New York, is open to the public now.
The theme of the Summit this year is the Watson victory and future Watson applications, such as in medicine. Dan Cerutti, IBM’s VP of Commercialization for Watson, will give a talk on medical applications for Watson, and the closing keynote will be by Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutiveJeopardy! matches only to lose to Watson in February. Watson won $1,000,000 in the contest and Jennings won $300,000, coming in second place. Jennings’ talk will be “The Human Brain in Jeopardy: Computers That “Think”.
I won’t be able to make it because I’m very busy right now, but that’s too bad. Ken Jennings is a great headliner, but do look at all the speakers. Tyler Cowen and Sonia Arrison will be there. I had lunch with some of the practitioners of Masonomics a few years back, but Tyler and Bryan Caplan were both out of town. No doubt the day will come. Just not this day. I haven’t had time to review 100 Plus (alas, the neglect of the Razib Khan on Books website), but it’s an excellent take on the possible implications of greater longevity (no, I don’t think longevity research is crazy as such, though I’m probably not as optimistic as many in the community).
The Singularity Summit is going to happen in about a month in San Francisco (August 14th-15th). Registration here. Yes, Ray Kurzweil will be there, but also Irene Pepperberg, James Randi and John Tooby. If you want to meet the ladies, probably not your scene (perhaps more accurately the lady, or two). But if you want to high five Robin Hanson at an after hours meet-up, get ready to party!
Here are my reflections from last year.