The Future is Here: Live From the Singularity Summit in NYC

BY NATHANA O’BRIEN & ILANA GREENE

The Singularity Summit is an annual gathering of futurists: people who spend a lot of time thinking about the future. But it is not your typical group of comic convention teenage geeks. Hundreds of people have gathered in NYC at the 92nd St Y to pay homage to technologists, inventors, doctors, and thinkers including billionaire investor and co-founder of Pay Pal Peter Thiel and Jeopardy player Ken Jennings. The crowd is filled with men in their late 30’s and early 40’s wearing stylish suits and chatting in the crowd about their investment strategies in emerging markets. The people you meet online for registration offhandedly mention that they run companies or happen to advise the Dutch government on innovation. The future is already here and highly connected, wealthy, and influential people are talking about it.

The mission of the singularity summit is to think critically about the potential implications of the development of artificial intelligence that is more intelligent than any human. No one knows exactly what will happen at that point, whether it will herald a new age of prosperity and happiness or a dystopian dark age for humans. At the Singularity Summit, people are taking this debate seriously.

The first speaker of the event is Ray Kurzweil, futurist and inventor, recipient of over a dozen honorary doctorates and writer of best selling books. Ray is not your typical bashful scientist. Sharply dressed, hands bedecked with rings, he looks like he’d fit in better in a society party than in the lab. But his talk was pitched at a very high level, discussing mathematical, scientific, philosophical and physical theories in a way that would never fit on 60 minutes. Ray is writing a new book called How the Mind Works and How to Build One in which he explores issues of consciousness and the relationship between the brain and experience. He predicts that the Singularity, the development of artificial intelligence that is smarter than humans, will take place in 2029.

The acceptance of the possibility of the development of artificial intelligence in the next 25 years is increasing rapidly. But not everyone agrees with Kurzweil. And he would not have it any other way. According to Kurzweil, “We encourage debate at the Singularity Summit. There is no one path in terms of the right way to think about the ongoing exponential growth of information technology.”

Kurzweil suggests that IBM’s Watson can actually think and has real genuine understanding of language. “There is no way Watson could answer these Jeapordy questions without understanding of language. Its level of command is below a human’s but it does have a level of understanding. And it gets its knowledge by reading human documents, just the way we do” Kurzweil argues.

In Watson we see the beginning of a new age of intelligence because Watson does have the strengths of computers: speed and perfect recall. “Computers will be used to extend our human reach. Computers make us smarter.”

From a business perspective, Kurzweil suggests that we should take into account how much more productive computers have made human beings into our economic statistics. The new purchasing power of a dollar in terms of computing power is staggering. “One dollar now can by something like a billion dollars of computing power in 1980” says Kurzweil.

With debate in NYC on the growing disparity between rich and poor taking place in a public forum at Zucotti Park at the Occupy Wall Street Protest, another more cerebral, thoughtful and reflective debate is taking place on the upper east side of Manhattan, as some of the world’s leading thinkers share information as to how technology has the potential to transform life for everyone on the planet.

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