So it goes with the singularity. In 1993, Vernor Vinge said "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." But 17 years into that, only the most optimistic thinkers think substantial progress has been made. Ray Kurzweil thinks so, but he said so in 2005 also, including a whole book called The Singularity is Near.
Well, what is the singularity? Good luck with that one (1). 'Singularity' of itself generally means an inflection point where even knowledge of the past has made it impossible to predict the future. In physics, for example, a gravitational singularity means when the quantities we use to measure the gravitational field become infinite to an extent that our reference frame, like a coordinate system, becomes meaningless.
But I asked three different people here about what the singularity was and got three different answers; one felt like they would cure death, or at least the aging issue, while one felt like the singularity would come in a merging of man and machine, while one said the singularity would be a leap of intelligence.
Thus the problem with being too inclusive. The people I talked to about ending aging insisted the science was clear. In reality, to anyone outside the caloric restriction community, it is incredibly unclear. Weaning mice on caloric restriction diets and then declaring it works in all mammals is not clean science - if so, we would never need to do clinical trials and we can't wean human babies on caloric restriction diets without going to jail.
Compare this to when Al Gore says the science is clear on climate change. It passes the gut test when he says it - we know pollution is bad for the environment and has consequences. And tens of thousands of scientists who love to debunk each other have confirmed it. But when it becomes a cultural issue - American cars cause climate change but Indian, Mexican and Chinese cars do not - is when people have a disconnect and things are less clear. But the science remains clear.
So it goes with the anti-aging aspects of the singularity movement. We get various claims about how Big Science is suppressing data, etc but they say the science is clear. How do we take a movement seriously when it involves a conspiracy theory, is critical of science, yet yearns for scientific legitimacy? It isn't easy.
What it becomes instead is a culture of believers mapping data to the topology they like - cherry picking. So it goes with my ATM card. When I left the Singularity Summit last night I walked across the street and used a Bank of America ATM. Having gotten up at 4:30 AM to prepare and drive into San Francisco for the conference - and having a Skeptic At the Pub to-do at 9:00PM, meaning I had to check in to my hotel in the interim - I was tired and in a hurry and not thinking clearly so I got some money and walked away. Result: I left my ATM card in the machine, someone took $300 and bought a bunch of clothes(2).
If I want to make correlation-causation arrows go a certain way here, I can, but it won't pass the gut check test for even casual thinkers. Clearly no one at the Singularity Summit can be responsible for my absent-mindedness or human thievery.
Likewise, the singularity movement can't be responsible for the more fringe aspects people bring to it - they want people to buy tickets to conferences and buy books so that they can fund what they want to fund - but they have to be concerned by the stigma it involves. Fortunately the other two key aspects of the singularity movement have some science grounding and that will be a lot more fun to discuss than me missing having a drink with James Randi last night because I was on the phone with Bank of America.
Speculating about the future is fun, so a Singularity Summit shouldn't be taken or criticized too seriously but modern science is incremental and it is slow and it is fastidious. Invoking Archimedes, for example, and saying he was not a scientist by modern definition is like saying Henry Ford is not an automobile maker by modern definition because he lacked CAD tools. This does not mean someone speculating about a car of the future and invoking Henry Ford gets the same credibility as the head of engineering at Ford Motor Company gets when he talks about cars.
When Ray Kurzweil insists Moore's Law is just a paradigm among many and we are completely on track for artificial intelligence as Vinge roadmapped even though we have no idea how future processing will exist - not hypothetically, but in the very real we-have-a-physics-induced-train-wreck-coming-at-25-nM way science has to think about the future - it is fun and hopeful, and it sells some books, but his calling himself a scientist and saying he has models that show this is true does not make it so, it makes it a just-so story.
The Magic Bullet of future science is the sort of reasoning some use to say we don't need to worry about climate change now - science in the future will clean up messes even if we don't know how now. Road-mapping the future is hard, I get that, but the singularity also can't be 'we can never be wrong because it's all possible' or it is more like psychics than science.
Luckily, a number of people here are doing boring old science with haptics and the brain that can at least show us there is potential - and it may still involve robots. And I get to talk about the good stuff next.
(1) There have been objections in the more militant fringes of science about protecting Science 2.0 also but jargon-izing a term has never led to meaningful benefit for anyone - who cares if a company says they are Web 2.0 today? If you 'Google' something, you mean a search, and that's because Google does not let people decide their brand means fried chicken or anything else.
(2) Fear not. Bank of America was on it right away. It was not out of the realm of possibility that I might withdraw money twice but it was incredibly unlikely, given a decade of spending history, that I then bought crappy clothes. So thieves, I now make you aware that Burlington Coat Factory at 899 Howard Street in San Francisco will let you buy anything at all using an ATM card without checking ID, no matter how high the purchase amount, though the restaurant at my hotel checked my ID with a credit card even though it was $20. Bank of America, for their part, says I am protected from loss even though it was clearly my fault for leaving it in the machine, so supposedly evil corporations that only care about money seem to care about mine even if it costs them some and I do appreciate that. They have elaborate image scanning technology at ATMs and I assume there is a 95% chance the thief was a Bank of America customer and, if so, they have seen the person before and I am betting they find out who did it, even though it won't make the papers. Thanks, BofA.