It was my pleasure to attend last Saturday's Transhuman Debate event in Oakland, organized and hosted by Hank Pellissier, and sponsored by the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, Brighter Brains Institute and East Bay Futurists.
My thanks to Mr. Pellissier for the invitation and for introducing me to so many brilliant and interesting people.
Before last weekend, I had never been to a Transhumanist event of any kind. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect. I've seen some short documentaries by various journalists portraying Transhumanists as disconnected outcasts who spend their days tripping on psychedelics while dreaming of living forever. I didn't know if I was going to encounter a pack of LSD addicts or an elite clique of academics.
I found that Transhumanists cover a wide diversity of political ideologies, cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. From socialists to libertarians, atheists to religious traditionalists, it was definitely a mixed group. What binds them, however, is an enthusiasm for science and a shared interest in the future of our race.
The variety of ideology made for some intriguing debates. There were three presentations: two Oxford-style debates on social issues, and a final panel discussion on The Singularity. Although each session was remarkable, I will focus on the final exchange.
Panelists were given the dual question:
What is the 'Nature' of The Singularity and when do you forecast it will arrive?
The context behind the inquiry was Ray Kurzweil's prediction that machines will surpass human intelligence by the year 2045, thus bringing on The Technological Singularity. (Specifically, Kurzweil has said, "The nonbiological intelligence created in  will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. ")
Each member of the panel took seven minutes to make remarks, and then questions were opened to the audience.
The nature of The Singularity was treated in separate, although convergent, aspects. Karlin defined it as "Artificial Intelligence that is much more capable than human intelligence", while Emilsson denoted an Intelligence Explosion. Koene described a situation in which we are no longer in control of our own future because something else has taken over. The focus of The Singularity is all about who is in control.
To the question of when, Karlin said he does not foresee The Singularity arriving by 2045. He refuted the date by calling into question Kurzweil's train of reasoning in making the projection. Rather, Karlin suggested that humans might never actually achieve Artificial Intelligence: that perhaps the capacity to do so is far beyond our intellect.
"Imagine we have a society of eight billion chimpanzees. No amount of them will ever ...start writing books or building statues or invent antibiotics. It's simply beyond the species' competence level. What if the problems we have to solve to get to Superintelligence are above our level?"
Hanley's opinion was that we may see 'functionally intelligent' Artificial Intelligence. He emphasized that such systems will be designed for a purpose: they will be built to have a goal in mind, and people will set the goals. Thus, we as humans will effectively determine how we are affected. "The real question is what is the training, what is the goal of the system? ... We can decide what it’s going to do."
Hanley also spoke about direct brain-to-brain communication, stating it will likely be realized, although people might not accept it. "If we do, that is going to be a Singularity—an unanticipated one—that will totally revolutionize the human race." Such a change could cause minds to merge collectively, resulting in 'Over-personalities': the union of multiple individuals into one psyche.
Karlin later commented that a collective mind already exists. "It's called Twitter," he said, drawing laughter from the audience.
Emilsson maintained the 2045 date as "fairly reasonable." He proposed the idea of "brute forcing" our way to Superintelligence if we are able to replicate the processes of neurons in the brain. "What matters for intelligence is the functionality of these neurons and how they are blended together."
Nonetheless, Emilsson suggested that intelligence may require consciousness, which cannot be replicated in a digital machine. Rather, he foresees The Singularity as being achieved through engineering the brain to amplify intelligence. Furthermore, experimenting with states of consciousness may lead to breakthroughs in unlocking the secrets of the mind.
Koene, who was last to present his remarks, expressed caution about making predictions. "If you were to go back, say 100 years, and ask somebody what was going to happen 100 years from that time, would they have been able to predict much of anything of what's going on now? Certainly not." Koene acknowledged that he cannot foresee when The Singularity will come to pass. "There are so many factors that I just don't understand right now ...I can't put a number on it."
I was somewhat surprised that none of the four panelists agreed with Ray Kurzweil's prediction. There is certainly a wide diversity of opinion on the topic, even among some of our best scholars. With so much speculation, it becomes evident that our understanding of intelligence is not quite as advanced as we would like.
Artificial Intelligence has been predicted time and again since the dawn of the machine age. And yet, we are still waiting for it to arrive. The prospect seems exciting, but why? What is it about being human that causes us to look into space, or to the creations of our own hands, for contact? Why are we so lonely?