Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Singularity Summit

Check up on the current status of the Singularity -- Summit 2006 and Summit 2007. All via Metafilter.

As in the early days of futurology, a 'discipline' usually attributed to H.G. Wells, the degree of influence from science fiction on all proceedings is immediately apparent.

Here's AI scientist Rodney Brooks introducing the subject:

Now, predicting the future is sometimes hard, so I want to take you back to Paris in 1783.The first hot air balloon floats out of Paris. Marie turns to Francois, and what does she predict about the future based on that hot air balloon? Does she say, “This is great, we’ll be able to travel internationally anywhere within 24 hours”? Does she get upset about noise abatement at airports, which is a big issue from flying? No, that’s not the sort of things that she can think about. They are the consequences that happened from tha, but they weren’t the things she could think about. She was more likely to have said, “No one will be able to breathe in those things.” Or, “It’s going to crash and the city is going to burn down!” Or, maybe, and this looks a little quaint, we’ll be able to get up really close to God and touch his face.

I think at the time when things are happening, you understand the world as it is, but it is very hard to understand the world as it will be. And the sorts of questions we ask ourselves here may well be the wrong questions in the long term. So, I’m a little skeptical about some of the worries of an artificial general intelligence and I’m a little skeptical about some of the promises. I sort of see a little too much techno salvation and techno holocaust. I don’t think things are ever quite as good as we expect, in my experience anyway, and never quite as bad as we fear. I’m being up front about that. There are the questions that Hollywood asks. Will they be great, will we accept them, or should we fear them? This is a theme in movies.

When we think about the future, lots of people have thought about it. Niels Bohr said it’s really difficult to predict. Albert Einstein, this shows he was really a scientist, he was not a technologist, because technologists will not bear with that. And Yogi, he had something intelligent to say. As I was looking through quotes about the future I realized, we didn’t know how good we had it when Dan Quayle was our vice president. “The future is here, maybe, just not everyone’s got it.” And now every research lab in the world now uses this one as their slogan: the best way to predict the future is to invent it, and we’re the ones who are going to invent it. I actually think Arthur C. Clarke had it right. Arthur C. Clarke said that when it comes to technology, most people overestimate it in the short term, but underestimate it in the long-term. And that’s, I think, what we would have seen in Paris in 1783 - overestimating how good it would be in the short term but completely missing the understanding that we have 200 years later.

So, in the future, the way we think about the future often is through Hollywood. But Hollywood has a very specific way of talking about the future. This is from one of, I think, the best movies about the future, Bicentennial Man. And there’s Robin Williams being a robot, but look what else is in this picture. Here, he’s sitting there, he’s got a fully functional android and he’s reading a paper newspaper. She’s pouring orange juice, though she’s got a fully functional android. So, what happens in Hollywood, we tale the world exactly as it is, and then we add one thing. So, in AI, which is one of the worst movies about the future, it was the world as it is and then they had robots, and then they added emotion to the robot and then everything changed. In Minority Report, they still used regular guns, even though they were able to predict the future in great detail.

My point there is that when an artificial general intelligence appears, the world is going to be a very different place than it is today. So it’s not today’s world and add in this really super-intelligent being. It’s the world that’s going to change over time. By the way, I think by then “we” will be long gone, but in a positive way. I’ll come back to that.
The rest is here.

For the sake of historical comparison, let's look at Wells' seminal work, Anticipations, his attempt to collate all the ideas from his earlier science fiction novels into a single theoretical position (which, characteristically, required several more attempts). Note the financial metaphors on top of the references to fiction. Note especially the widening gap, as in the above speech, between the drag of a gradualist evolutionary narrative, now increasingly weighed down by excess data and escalating standards for 'completeness,' and the accelerated speed of speculation. And watch how deemphasizing the individual's role in historical (now technological/'natural') change draws the meaning of 'invention' and 'creation' closer and closer to speculation and investment -- placing (or preferably fixing) a bet -- even as the underlying overdetermined techno-historical narrative paradoxically becomes deterministic.

It is proposed in this book to present in as orderly an arrangement as the necessarily diffused nature of the subject admits, certain speculations about the trend of present forces, speculations which, taken all together, will build up an imperfect and very hypothetical, but sincerely intended forecast of the way things will probably go in this new century. Necessarily diffidence will be one of the graces of the performance. Hitherto such forecasts have been presented almost invariably in the form of fiction, and commonly the provocation of the satirical opportunity has been too much for the writer; the narrative form becomes more and more of a nuisance as the speculative inductions become sincerer, and here it will be abandoned altogether in favour of a texture of frank inquiries and arranged considerations. Our utmost aim is a rough sketch of the coming time, a prospectus, as it were, of the joint undertaking of mankind in facing these impending years. The reader is a prospective shareholder—he and his heirs—though whether he will find this anticipatory balance-sheet to his belief or liking is another matter.

For reasons that will develop themselves more clearly as these papers unfold, it is extremely convenient to begin with a speculation upon the probable developments and changes of the means of land locomotion during the coming decades. No one who has studied the civil history of the nineteenth century will deny how far-reaching the consequences of changes in transit may be, and no one who has studied the military performances of General Buller and General De Wet but will see that upon transport, upon locomotion, may also hang the most momentous issues of politics and war. The growth of our great cities, the rapid populating of America, the entry of China into the field of European politics are, for example, quite obviously and directly consequences of new methods of locomotion. And while so much hangs upon the development of these methods, that development is, on the other hand, a process comparatively independent, now at any rate, of most of the other great movements affected by it. It depends upon a sequence of ideas arising, and of experiments made, and upon laws of political economy, almost as inevitable as natural laws. Such great issues, supposing them to be possible, as the return of Western Europe to the Roman communion, the overthrow of the British Empire by Germany, or the inundation of Europe by the "Yellow Peril," might conceivably affect such details, let us say, as door-handles and ventilators or mileage of line, but would probably leave the essential features of the evolution of locomotion untouched. The evolution of locomotion has a purely historical relation to the Western European peoples. It is no longer dependent upon them, or exclusively in their hands. The Malay nowadays sets out upon his pilgrimage to Mecca in an excursion steamship of iron, and the immemorial Hindoo goes a-shopping in a train, and in Japan and Australasia and America, there are plentiful hands and minds to take up the process now, even should the European let it fall.


A curious and profitable question arises at once. How is it that the steam locomotive appeared at the time it did, and not earlier in the history of the world?

Because it was not invented. But why was it not invented? Not for want of a crowning intellect, for none of the many minds concerned in the development strikes one—as the mind of Newton, Shakespeare, or Darwin strikes one—as being that of an unprecedented man. It is not that the need for the railway and steam engine had only just arisen, and—to use one of the most egregiously wrong and misleading phrases that ever dropped from the lips of man—the demand created the supply; it was quite the other way about.

And to drive the point home with a hammer, here's a hedge fund manager on the perils of investing in the world in a time of extreme crisis:

I thought I would dispense with the powerpoint presentations and the detailed slides to share a few thoughts I’ve had on investing in a world where the possibility of a Singularity exists. It’s sort of a different perspective from some of the discussions people have had. There are two levels one can think about investing. One is as a venture capitalist, investing in early stage companies. The basic rule there, and for investing in general, is that you want to do something that is fundamentally true and that nobody else sees. That’s how your do really well.

Artificial intelligence, or near-artificial intelligence, or quasi artificial intelligence, this is so out of fashion today that it is perhaps the only thing thematically that I think makes sense on a venture capital side to do - to try to identify things that are promising in this sort of direction. I think the venture capital end of it is fairly straightforward. There are all sorts of details you can discuss, but I want to focus instead on a very different element of it, which is the big picture. How do you invest in the world as a whole? What is going to happen to the world’s stock market or the world’s larger financial markets in a world where this possibility of a Singularity, or something like this, exists? How will the world’s markets be different from a Singularity-type world from a world where such a thing would never happen or not even be possible?

I suppose the basic intuition that I have about it is very simply, this is a world in which there is a possibility of things going extraordinarily well or extraordinarily badly, where both the good things and the bad things are bigger than people think. If you have a bell curve distribution of possible futures for the world, the tails on that bell curve are much fatter than people think. There is far more that can happen at the far edges. This would lead to a very different behavior in markets from a normal bell curve of distributions where nothing that interesting or extraordinary is going to happen. In particular, the Singularity will either be very successful, in which case we are going to have the biggest boom ever, or it is going to blow up the whole world and there will be nothing left to invest in whatsoever. This leads to an interesting investment dynamic.

I will start parenthetically by saying that the second category is one that’s rather difficult to invest in. If you are somebody who is predicting the end of the world, even if you are right, I think you will still not make a lot of money. Even if you put all of your money into gold coins in a silver chest and hide it in some forgotten corner of the planet, when the world does come to an end there will be nothing left to buy or to sell, and probably well before then some humans or robots will have come along and taken your gold away from you. The bad versions of the Singularity are things that one cannot invest in, at all. They are not investable. So there are all these possibilities that one cannot even think about. In some sense, if you believe in something like this, you have no choice but to bet on it, as an investor. The best investments will be the ones that represent the most aggressive bets on it: you have no choice at all, ultimately.