The second day I spent at Singularity University was absolutely crazy. Throughout the day we explored all the different types of technologies – artificial intelligence, IoT (Internet of Things), robotics, XReality, and 3D printing – that will make science-fiction novels look like mediocre soap operas from the 90s. I comprehended to what extent these world-class speakers were unafraid of the so-called “Terminator myth” announcing machines taking control over we feeble human beings. All these researchers and entrepreneurs aren’t worried about the future because they are the very ones inventing it! Here’s a summary of a few exchanges I had with some of them.
In a world where information is accessible by all, it’s the questions that count
Peter Diamandis is a rockstar here. A sort of Bono in the world of exponential technologies. He’s also the best-selling author of a book in which he presents his theory on abundance. Diamandis’s writing explains how mankind has come to democratise the cost of living over recent years. Through indicative curves and figures, he demonstrates how everything (energy, education, health, etc.) has become less expensive and more accessible for more and more people. Even though we might not feel it in our everyday lives, the data is there and the overall situation is improving.
One of the key elements of Diamandis’s theory is the role of the media in making us feel that we live in a world of constant insecurity, disease, and poverty. The media focuses on dramatic events and on what isn’t working. For example, plane accidents do happen, but air transport is still by far the safest means of air travel. Week-long reporting on a plane crash increases our fear of air travel whereas presenting statistics would, on the contrary, enable us to feel more serene.
According to Dr. Diamandis, we need to change our mindset to learn how to focus our attention on what is working. And we must ask ourselves how we can transform major global issues into as many opportunities. Each and every one of us is capable of addressing these problems because the answers are out there. We just need to ask the right questions. The difference between those who will succeed in changing the world, and the others, lies precisely in the relevance of these questions, from which solutions will stem naturally.
From an optimistic point of view, the capacity of the Silicon Valley crowd to focus on opportunities that can spring out of all types of situations is truly fascinating! From a pessimistic perspective, their capacity to circumvent widespread disaster-induced suffering is equally fascinating. But what makes Silicon Valley one of the most prominent hubs for technological innovation is – as explained by Diamandis – the SV crew’s capacity to react, no matter what, setting aside all things they deem futile.
Not how, but what
And there’s Peter Norvig, one of the big bosses in the field of artificial intelligence, and currently working for Google. His postulate is pretty simple: the power of AI will soon be unlimited and the question isn’t whether or how it will solve problems but what we want AI to achieve. This will force us to pinpoint the precise issues we want to address – and this is a good thing.
Over the break, I presented Norvig with the following reasoning. If we limit artificial intelligence by underpinning it to our knowledge and its associated predetermined mental models, AI won’t be able to fully express its power. But if we let AI learn in an inductive way, by feeding it tons of data, it is more than likely to gradually begin to see humans as a bunch of fools. And then I put forward the logically-ensuing question: how, then, can we guarantee that various forms of artificial intelligence won’t unite and take control over humans?
I’ll let you be the judge of how relevant my question was. But what surprised me the most wasn’t that Norvig thought it was relevant or not, but rather that he just didn’t understand why I had asked the question in the first place. I could see in his eyes that these types of questions just didn’t make any sense to him. And his answer was as follows: over the history of humanity, we have always discovered the dangers of our inventions gradually, only once having made them part of our everyday lives. So why should it be any different for AI?
I replied that we were facing a unique situation where the issue isn’t so much about knowing how humans are going to use machines, but rather how machines are going to use other machines to eventually take control of us. His resulting observation was that seeing as his friends didn’t seem worried, he had no reason to be worried either.
I have tremendous respect for Peter Norvig and don’t intend to undermine his precious expertise in any way whatsoever, but I just want to highlight the fact that this tech environment is a whole other world, where action takes precedence over ethical, political, legal, and intellectual issues. What counts is moving forward and mistakes are adjusted as we go along. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t spiral out of our control.
The super-hero era is near
Jody Medich gave an incredible presentation on XReality, or exponential reality. We’re already familiar with virtual and augmented reality. Exponential reality is at the crossroads of augmented reality, robotics, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence.
In other words, it’s about how robots and a virtual reality headset can “cheat” the brain of physically disabled people to enable them to gradually regain use of their hitherto completely paralyzed muscles. It’s about how someone of average strength finds themselves capable of lifting usually “unliftable” objects thanks to robots and an augmented reality headset. Basically, exponential reality gives us superpowers! It works on the assumption that our brains don’t differentiate between actual and virtual reality if we provide them with all the right signals (images, sounds, feelings, etc.).
After Microsoft Holoskype and Microsoft Holoportation, the impact of XReality on the world of business is clear in that it facilitates collaborative working, and learning. Prepare for change! This is also true for our use of XReality in our daily lives. Attending a concert from backstage, visiting a museum on the other side of the world, and going on a photo safari are just a few of things we’ll be able to do without ever leaving the comfort of our own home!
I couldn’t help but ask Medich if any studies had been carried out on the impact of these technologies on the human brain. And I asked her about whether she was worried at all about how it could lead younger generations to stay closeted in their homes, with real life starting to appear too dull next to what XReality has to offer in terms of experience.
Here again, I received a fairly tempered response, something along the lines that given the ridiculous number of times we check our phones every day, we’re already slaves to technology anyway. I replied that exponential technology could exponentially increase dependency and possibly be responsible for certain fragile individuals sinking into madness. This marked the end of our conversation.
Despite my equal admiration for all these eminent experts, I can’t help asking myself whether we’re fully aware that by playing the game of the sorcerer’s apprentice, we bear the entire responsibility for the future we’re shaping. Is it really reasonable to be working on all the potential opportunities these technologies represent, without an ethics and regulation committee to define what is humanely acceptable? Shouldn’t we be looking to ensure that these evolutions coincide with the vision of the society we aspire to live in?
This doesn’t mean constricting every single innovation through cumbersome and never-ending committee discussions. Nor does it entail incompatibility between business growth and societal impact. But surely it’s possible to strike a balance between wild innovation and endless reflection. Is it possible to act and think at the same time? Given the pace at which Silicon Valley is developing technology, it’s definitely time for some people to get started on this reflection process.
To read episods 1 & 2 of Pachulski’s experience at Singularity University: