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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, August 31, 2007

Approaching singularity

I have just read two books [From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner and What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff] which trace the origins of the personal computer plus internet back to the intersection of acid (LSD) inspired countercultural visions of a New Age and military/industrial computing research projects in the sixties and seventies in California.

These ‘histories’ of the USA counterculture are very different from the ‘history’ of the UK counterculture I have been exploring for the past couple of years on greengalloway. Nothing similar happened here.

But how essential to the computer revolution was the countercultural influence? Would it not have happened anyway? Possibly. Probably. The development of capitalism, its hunger for technological innovation as a way to increase profitability, would have pushed computers from being military tools into the world of commerce even without input from the counterculture.

Where it looks as if the USA counterculture had an influence was in shifting the focus of computer research away from the quest for artificial intelligence - from computers as replacing human intelligence - to computers as augmenting human intelligence by facilitating human to human communications. Or more crudely, that there was a market for ‘basic’ computers which could be used by individuals as well as for big computers for big businesses. A market for computers which could be used for playing games and sending e-mails and which would be an alternative to television.

But that was then. What about now? Well it seems the idea which inspired the first creators of computers like Alan Turing and John von Neumann as well as science fiction writers - the idea of the computer as an ‘artificial brain’ is once more haunting the military/industrial research labs and hi-tech countercultures of California. A ‘Singularity Summit’ is due to take place in San Francisco on 8th September…


The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence presents the Singularity Summit 2007, a major two-day event bringing together 17 leading thinkers to address and debate a historical moment in humanity's history – a window of opportunity to shape how we develop advanced artificial intelligence.

The Singularity Summit 2007 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

Theme: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity
When: September 8 - 9, 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, San Francisco, CA
Cost: $50 per ticket (includes seating for both days, the reception, and free lunches)

In recent years, many scientists and authors have argued that there is a significant chance that advanced artificial intelligence will be developed within a few decades. Similar claims, however, have been made since the beginning of artificial intelligence research over 50 years ago. Is there anything different going on now that would make someone think that these claims deserve serious consideration?

The Singularity Summit will bring together 17 outstanding thinkers to examine and debate in detail whether we are nearing a turning point toward powerful intelligence, the desirability of this, the potential consequences, and what we can do to prepare if these possibilities are to be realized within our lifetimes.

The Singularity Summit at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco this September will be a critical exploration of what may become a historical moment in time – a window of opportunity to affect how the world moves forward with a powerful new technology.

Speakers include: Rodney Brooks (MIT AI Lab Director), Peter Norvig (Google Director of Research), Paul Saffo (Institute for the Future Roy Amara Fellow), Barney Pell (Powerset CEO), and more

Audience includes: Scientists, technologists, c-level execs, foundation heads, researchers, entrepreneurs, students, forecasters, programmers, philanthropists, venture capitalists, bloggers, geeks, press

But what is this ‘singularity’?

In futures studies, the singularity represents an "event horizon" in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future cease to give reliable or accurate answers, following the creation of strong AI or the enhancement of human intelligence. Many futurists predict that after the singularity, humans as they exist presently won't be the driving force in scientific and technological progress, eclipsed cognitively by posthumans, AI, or both, with all models of change based on past trends in human behavior becoming obsolete. In the 1950's, the legendary information theorist John von Neumann was paraphrased by mathematician Stanislaw Lem as saying that "the ever-accelerating progress of technology...gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."

In 1965, statistician I.J. Good described a concept similar to today's meaning of the singularity, in "Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine":

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Typical techno-bullshit? Maybe. But if we are to believe Fred Turner and John Markoff the over-the-top rhetoric of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests , the seemingly ridiculous visions of the USA’s countercultural pioneers eventually took practical form in a (personal) computer revolution which is still unfolding. Which permits me to write these words which you are reading.

And… what about Karl Marx? Although I am still struggling to grasp exactly what ‘commodity fetishism’ and other parts of Marx’s invention of revolutionary capitalism really mean, if I have understood what Michael Taussig was going on about in ‘The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America’, then the advent of industrial capitalism was itself a ‘singularity’ in which ‘feudal/ rural humanity’ was eclipsed by ‘capitalist/urban humanity’.

Maybe the AI singularity is a non-politically class conscious way of talking ‘bout the revolution?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While nothing of the measure of Markoff et al.'s description of what went on on the left coast. I was an ex-60s-computer major when I ran Better Badges in the London in the late 70's. Badges are very much non-virtual icons, with one's lapel functioning as the homepage. The you-bring-it-we'll-print-it scheme under which Kill Your Pet Puppy itself was printed was a forerunner of the user-created-content revolution enabled by the internet 20 years later. And fanzines themselves of mass P2P communication..

1:54 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks Joly, this is very useful and 'enlightening'. Got to think about this, makes me look at the Markoff / Turner theory in a different way.

Must also thank you for the help and ideas you gave Kill Your Pet Puppy. From what Tony Drayton has said, KYPP would not have happened as it did without you.


8:15 am  

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