A Week in Tomorrow to Address Today’s Risk

Quite the eventful time for me, this past week, immersing myself in tomorrow.

First up, our C-PET Roundtable on Synthetic Biology last Friday. Biology isn’t what it used to be. As the engineering approach to living systems moves beyond theory to practice (as J. Craig Venter has recently reminded us), side by side with extraordinary possibilities for good lie options for the weird – and the scary. Scary, not least, in the Asymmetric Century. In tandem with concerns lest we “play God” lie anxieties at least as great that someone will play the Devil. Smallpox, anyone? Not your grandmother’s WMDs.

Then a quick shuttle over to San Francisco on Friday afternoon. Once again an instant reminder of the Bay Area’s reputation as a technology hub. My cab driver explained she had taken a sabbatical (her word) from running her second tech start-up (I’m not making this up). I was in town for the annual “summit” (that’s catching on as an edgy name for what we just used to call a conference) of the Singularity Institute, widely seen as inspired by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. And she was driving me, Friday evening (this was a long day), to an opening party in the home of investor and guru Peter Thiel. And a fun party it was, all the way through to some time in the small hours of Saturday morning when a dozen of us were left huddled outside trying to find another cab and the fun had subsided.

The two days that followed were nonstop candy for the (still biological) brains of the devotees, and also for the scattered handful of participants who like me are more quizzical. I had protested the way an earlier “summit” had been opened, with the greeting “Welcome Singularitarians.” This time we were all included, I suppose. “Welcome, Singularitarians – and Concerned Citizens.” Kurzweil’s is the most famous name among a group of futurist thinkers who have inspired the Singularity Institute, and its sibling Singularity University (a summer school for the very smart, hosted by NASA Ames, that was recently given a prominent write-up in the New York Times). But key summiteers are eager to point out that the Institute is not directly affiliated with Kurzweil. Which was, perhaps curiously, illustrated by the fact he addressed the 620 or so enthusiasts, to their chagrin, on a screen; and actually told them he was on vacation (shades of BP’s mastery of public relations).

One reason I have become a reg at these events is the extraordinary quality and range of the presenters. There really is nothing quite like it – for sheer fat sticks of intellectual cordite. Aspen, of course, attracts the most distinguished names in any Who’s Who. Burning Man and South by Southwest, offer hip context for techies and fellow-travelers. Yet for all the sometimes cultic feel, the Singularity efforts are singular in their commitment to the brainpower they keep suggesting is about to migrate to the chip, when (as RK stated this time around) we merge with our tools. Corvids and parrots, we learned, have intelligence on a par with the great apes; who have intelligence on a par with six-year-old children (the video of a crow bending wire, unbidden and untrained, to make a fishing hook – in the city where Hitchcock filmed part of The Birds – sent shivers down my mammalian spine). Cooling the recently heart-attacked as if they had fallen under ice could markedly improve our ability to bring them round, but it’s held up by red tape. Hour after hour of it; two tight-packed days, rounded off by magician, debunker, humorist, and – as he pointed out – Darwin lookalike, James Randi. Of course, as usual the drum-beat was of accelerating artificial intelligence. Yet the dialectic was perhaps more evident this time than in the past – between those who have confidence in the shape of the curve and sense we are close to going vertical, and those, especially from the biosciences, who keep saying we understand so remarkably little of our wetware (or even that of the animals), that the effort to duplicate it is faintly ridiculous.

As in the past, there was a brief staged debate, though the debaters spent most of their time falling over each other with pleasantries and agreements, so as an effort to ventilate the huge issues before the summit it failed. More generally, if there is a criticism to be made aside from (to use a handy Briticism that Americans could do with knowing) the general over-egging of the pudding (too much, too many, an embarras de richesse), it would lie here: in the need to discuss, to absorb, to hear fewer speeches, lectures, or perorations, and get the uber-brains round some tables to engage – and answer for themselves to their intellectual peers. This of course is what Aspen does; and Davos. It’s what we do at C-PET. It’s what helps build collaborative knowledge networks and reaches for a positive sum outcome for all parties.

So as I sat there at the back, being hit by flying half-bricks of intellect for hour after hour and tweeting to keep myself focused, what I craved most was a 10-15 minute limit to speechifying and a heavy dose of moderated engagement. What would the parrot lady say to the surgeon and the engineer? What would the robotics gurus say to each other, with or without the intermediation of their machines, which all seemed to be called Zeno? What would anyone have to say about the policy implications of the enterprise?Where are the National Academies? Where is OSTP? Where are the AI guys from Sandia, with whom I spent two days some years ago at ASU on the implications of enhanced human intelligence, and where is the spirit of that smart but self-critical gathering?

I’m quite a Kurzweil fan. As I told him at the San Jose summit, and as I have not ceased to tell the Singularity Institute leaders whom I admire, he has raised fundamental questions that have ramifications for everyone and everything – and that are being widely ignored. The SI people are not all Kurzweil clones in their optimism and notions of timescale. I was interested in Peter Thiel’s speech at the last event, in New York City, where he was criticized for taking a more generic view of the “singularity” and hit back that the movement includes people who take many views (as we were told this time, he is the major financial backer of the Institute). And in Vernor Vinge’s comment (he’s the computer expert and sci-fi writer whose early use of the term “singularity” has made him a godfather to the movement) at another, that “the longer we have our hand on the tiller, the better.” But the discussion has to go mainstream. There are ways to make that happen, and ways to make it harder to achieve.

The next stop on my trip was Seattle, for the pii2010 conference on privacy and identity of which C-PET is a co-sponsor. Quite the humdinger. Privacy experts from corporate and non-profit sectors, all-round IT gurus, and some outspoken commentators, produced the perfect mix. And the first evening offered a party and a tangent: pitch slam for a dozen start-ups looking for funding – basically speed-dating from the front of the room; 1-5 minute sales pitches for some highly creative efforts. A handy reminder of how things work in techland, among the small-scale practitioners rather than the large-scale theoreticians. There was also, interestingly, a lot more tweeting going on than at the Singularity, as some dozens of us kept up a parallel conversation and fed in questions in realtime. The matrix of online identity, online and offline privacy, and the future, lies at the heart of our culture – and some of the most profound questions Homo sapiens has yet faced.

The coincidental launch of Facebook’s Places feature tracking and sharing users’ locations, added a little salsa to the conversation. The vast quantities of data we are spewing onto the web have become the raw material for an evolving, global industry. Who owns all this stuff? Read the terms of online services (some of which run to dozens of pages of legalese, so take your lawyer with you and/or a nice bottle of red wine) and you find you have gaily signed away an ocean of rights you assumed were yours, or would have had you thought about them (example from me: Amazon! Go read what they can do with your book reviews). Privacy has yet to emerge as a money-making value proposition for the world of the internet. Yet it may. And my main takeaway from pii2010, aside from the sheer intellect and creativity of the participants (good news for us, or since most of them are corporate players, scarily bad?), was the notion that we should see this as our “banking” our own data, make it portable, find tech solutions to the fact that it is scattered across the web, some on our hard drives and much in the cloud – and encourage the emergence of business models within which we choose to sell what we choose to sell. Yet the current context, of playing ducks and drakes with ever-changing “privacy” rules, is not encouraging. As someone said, and I recall tweeting, every internet service has stayed true to its privacy commitments – until it has decided to change them. And the most chilling moment of pii2010? A panelist asked who we the audience would most trust to take care of our online data. He read a list of options, which ended with government. Hardly anyone voted for any of them. And these are the professionals. My comment: like transplant surgeons who don’t carry donor cards.

So as I return from my week in tomorrow, how do things look? My conviction that Washington, DC is mired in yesterday is clearer than ever; my sense of the urgency and opportunity we confront starker. We’re already a decade into the Asymmetry Century that opened with 9/11; synthetic biology, which carries the seeds of vast benefit, by accident or malicious design could deliver quite ghastly surprises; a technology with a malicious black swan built-in. We are shooting, at a rapid speed though we do not know how fast, up a curve into a world in which AI and robotics have a far larger footprint, and may yet stamp us out. In the meantime, our notions of identity are up for grabs, as we spew data online by the petabyte and think little of the consequences.

Yet how, as conversation after conversation has run, can Washington, DC be changed? Here’s one idea, totally practical and easy to implement. The U.S. Politicians’ Exposure to Technology Act, which could for all I care be known as Eric (Schmidt)’s Law (sounds better than PETA). It would require every politico elected to national office, from POTUS down, and every administration political appointee (the Plum List), to attend in their first year in office a minimum of 4 technology conferences to be selected from a list to be compiled by a committee consisting of the CEOs of the three largest NASDAQ companies and the six newest Valley tech start-ups of the previous year; and 2 in all subsequent years in office. Believe me, aside from doing wonders to registrations at tech events (if perhaps shifting the feel of the conversation a little), it would revolutionize the DC policy community – and do more for U.S. innovation than a myriad initiatives, breast-beating, commissions, and the valiant efforts of the several tech think-tanks.

The point I go around making is that unless you visit tomorrow you are fundamentally unqualified for decision-making today. I just spent a week there. I’m exhausted. Looking forward to getting back to now. But does anyone really disagree? And if Eric’s Law is not the answer, what is? This nation remains the greatest can-do society, at least since Rome. Let’s get onto it.

Permission given to forward and cross-post unedited and with full attribution.




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