Singularity Summit Promises to Stimulate Your Brain

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Singularity summit logoThe Singularity Summit, held in San Francisco this past weekend, is not new to me since I helped market the very first one, held in Stanford in 2006. The goal of the first Summit was to further the understanding and discussion about the Singularity concept and the future of human technological progress.

The idea over time is to improve people’s thinking about the future and increasing public awareness of radical technologies under development today and of the transformative implications of such technologies as part of a larger process.

It was founded as a venue for leading thinkers to explore the subject, whether they be scientist, enthusiast, or skeptic.

Randi Speaking of skeptics, the last talk of the event was by James Randi, (left) who some think of as a magician, but he is also known as a debunker.

I first learned of Randi’s work at TED where he spoke several years ago. The title debunker equates to his strong and very vocal skepticism, which he writes and speaks about extensively. Fascinating as ever, Randi has the ability to draw you into his logic even if you don’t necessarily agree with him.

Gregory Stock is a renown biophysicist who I had the pleasure of meeting at PopTech in Maine more than five years ago. What I love about Stock is his ability to move from academic, physicist and author to entrepreneur and philosopher all within a one-hour window. He also has a very engaging curiosity about random things outside his world when you talk to him one-on-one that most experts lack. He wrote the book Redesigning Humans eight years ago already, which is considered a transhumanist classic.

You can’t have a Singularity Conference without a bunch of Artificial Intelligence (AI) geeks running around, which at this event, included Eliezer Yudkowsky (also a profilic writer about human rationality), Ben Goertzel, who is Chief Scientist of AI firm Novamente and Ray Kurzweil, who joined us remotely via video and as always, delivered a riveting and mind-expanding talk.

My favorite line all day was a Kurzweil one: “My feelings about the brain, the mind and AI – If it quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If it seems conscious it is conscious” — meaning a conscious being.

Below, Ben Goertzel on the Singularity Summit Stage

Ben-Geoertzel at Singularity Summit (4)

Psychologists Irene Pepperberg and John Tooby (considered a pioneer of evolutionary psychology) also brought their perspective to the table as did neurobiologists Terrence Sejnowski, Brian Litt, Dennis Bray and Demis Hassabis, who is a research fellow at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at the University College of London.

“Futurists like to predict how genetic engineering and computational implants will allow humans to become a super-species, but few examine the application of similar technologies to non-humans,” says Pepperberg.

David Hanson, who I first met at TED more than six years ago, is a well known roboticist. When I first met him, he was working at Disney Imagineering and while you may not think of a roboticist as an artist, this one is. Formerly a sculptor, he has merged his artistic way of looking at the world with his left brain ability to design and develop a robotic with human-like expressive capabilities. He holds a patent on Frubber, a novel material that imitates the look and feel of human skin. I had an opportunity to touch it while I was talking to their very human robot named Zeno. (extensive video of my experience coming later this month).

Below, David Hanson and his very human-like robot Zeno, who has a sexy British accent and has accepted a date with me as soon as he is given ‘legs’ – I told David I’d fly to Dallas for the occasion.

Zeno the robot and David Hanson of Hanson Robotics at Singularity Summit (5)

Also on the agenda was Anita Goel, who works at the intersection of physics, nanotechnology and medicine, Lance Becker, a Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Venezuelan born Jose Luis Cordeiro who is the Director of the Venezuela node of the Millenium Project. Jose, who I met at the cocktail party the night before the event started, has been living in Japan and lived in Ecuador for a year around the time the currency changed over to the dollar.

Engaging and witty on stage, Steve Mann doesn’t look like your ordinary professor. A pioneer in the study and practice of virtual reality, he has also been dubbed the world’s first cyborg. He even published a book with its name in the title: Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. Together with collaborator Ryan Janzen, a Canadian researcher, scientist and composer, they gave a demo of the very powerful and mesmerizing Hydraulophone, a tonal acoustic musical instrument played by direct physical contact with water where sound is generated or affected hydraulically.

Below, Toronto-based Steve Mann is engaging, interactive and wows the audience with his examples of virtual reality and a demo of the Hydraulophone on stage.

Steve-Mann (2)

Other impressive talks from other disciplines included Shane Legg, who won the 2008 Canadian Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research Prize, Ellen Heber-Katz whose research focuses on molecular biology and genetics of healing, and Ramez Naam, who is the author of More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.

Because I’m a right brain, I must admit that my favorite parts of the day were playing the Hydraulophone, which I’m doing below with Ryan Janzen’s guidance, and interacting with Hanson’s robot, the very endearing Zeno.

Renee-Blodgett plays the Hydraulophone at Singularity Summit (4)

  • Gaedge Erikssen

    Kurzweil doesn’t know the first thing about connecting to and experiencing higher states of consciousness… which is really hilarious to me.

  • http://accelerationthemovie.com Laure

    Great coverage- and the YouTube videos are excellent. I especially liked “Steve Mann Teaches Blind Woman the Hydraulophone” which I missed in person.