The emerging technologies are beginning to emerge, at least into the higher echelons of the culture. First it was synthetic biology in the New Yorker, now the Singularity in the NY Times. Interestingly, the business section of the NYT. Which all goes to show that some of us have been right to look to savvy investors to raise the key questions – and, just perhaps, to persuade policymakers and cultural leaders of them.
Ashlee Vance’s piece about the “singularity university” (a summer school program based at NASA Ames) well shows that some of the smartest people out there are looking far ahead, while the policy establishment is focused on today and tomorrow. One can see why they do. Problem is, unless you have some idea what lies down much further the road, you are liable to get today and tomorrow wrong.
The disconnect is actually huge, and as so often happens those focused on each end pull further apart and lose yet more perspective by their mutual disinclination. One interesting feature of the NYT report is the variety of perspectives it reports. I go to Singularity conferences when I can, and I think this is typical. While there is a default kind of “true believer,” who believes it will all happen a week on Tuesday AND be wonderful, that’s a caricature of many of the smart and rather diverse people who participate. So the Times quotes the NSF’s Bill Bainbridge to say that things are not happening as fast as some had hoped. It quotes James Hughes as suggesting that the Singularity is not just Kurzweil’s concept of it. It notes Peter Thiele’s involvement, which seems to be more generic than true-believerish – he seems to be committed to the rapid development of these technologies without expecting the supersession of the human race. What they have in common, of course, is a conviction that things are trending this way. And if that is the case, then it matters.
And people who are less, some much less, positive about the scope and timescale of these developments – and also those less convinced of their likely benevolence (compare Stephen Hawking’s recent warning that extra-terrestrials may not be friendly, so perhaps we should keep out cosmic heads down) – need to start paying a lot more attention.