michael vassar vs. weird things, round one

Michael Vassar of the Singularity Institute offers a rebuttal to Weird Things' coverage of the Singularity and its advocates.

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As you might remember, Michael Vassar, the president of the Singularity Institute had a glance at some of my posts regarding theories of human transcendence through machines and artificial intelligence, and he’s not thrilled. In fact, he’s taken the time to send me a few rebuttals, the first of which primarily deals with the post that prompted his original e-mail, a look at how Ray Kurzweil and his partners are making money from their computer-inspired futurology. So settle in for the first episode of the Singularity debate…

Hi Greg, I’m happy to be here. I appreciate you giving me an opportunity to present my response to your recent articles on the Singularity. I don’t see a lot of technical disagreement between us in most of your articles on the Singularity. For instance, Visions of a Digital Doomsday seems totally reasonable. By contrast, we seem to disagree regarding what prominent Singularitarians think, say and do.

Well, I’m glad I’ve been able to write something reasonable for a change. As far as our disagreements go, the focus is not the Singularitarians. They’re actually the source of the ideas being scrutinized and it’s those ideas with which I see serious technical problems when it comes to real world implementation. Now, maybe I’m not quite right about what they mean when they say what they do, but I’m not here to put them on the couch. I’m an analyst and designer when it comes to the computer realm, not a philosopher or psychologist.

In Your Pricey Ticket to Immortality we seem to also agree on technical details. You say that to get where Kurzweil says we will be by 2045 will require tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of research. Naturally. That’s why he says 2045 not 2011. Global research expenditures are many hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and between the largest few US tech companies alone tens of billions are spent on research.

Estimating very conservatively, if half of research spending over the next thirty six years goes into relevant fields, such as biotech, computer science, nanotechnology and electronics, and if just a meager ten percent of that is spent on relevant work within those fields, we’re talking about nearly a trillion dollars worth of relevant work.

Relevant research is all well and good, but it’s not necessarily going to help you. The applications of all these relevant fields are incredibly diverse and just because a lot of money is constantly being pumped into them, it doesn’t mean that in the next few decades the labs doing the research will produce something that will get the Singularitarians closer to their goals. Instead, these labs would need funding for decades of work on the very specific challenge of turning humans into immortal machines as per Kurzweil’s predictions in The Singularity Is Near. There are thousands of different projects in nanotech and computer science that have nothing to do with AI or making computers faster because those aren’t the priorities for the researchers.

[Your post] rather clearly and incorrectly indicates: a) that the [Singularity Summit] is put on by one of Ray Kurzweil’s organizations, b) that we are selling advice on how to be immortal and c) that the Summit costs a minimum of $399 and doesn’t include meals.

In truth, the Summit includes meals, though not dinner, and the discounts on our web page are clearly indicated to be cumulative by our statement “Each non-student referral receives a 20% discount. Summit is FREE with five referrals!”

In any event, all of our presentations, like the presentations from previous years, will be available on the web for free within a few months.

According to the Singularity Institute’s team page, Kurzweil is a member of the Institute’s board of directors. In fact, his photo and bio are right under yours. Ray is also a featured speaker, and he and Peter Thiel are prominent in all the ads and pages associated with the Singularity Summit. The post itself lists all the ways Ray sells his immortality advice and while I know you’re interested in protecting the Summit’s reputation, the event just happens to be one of the ways he keeps people interested in his theories. I don’t dwell on the event, I simply list it as a venue for promoting Kurzweil’s futurology business. I concede about the meals however since I just didn’t find any information about what’s being included in the package other than the speeches.

I also clearly noted that the fee “still amounts to $399 for attending both days of the event” after discounts, not that it was the minimum cost. And at the time the post was written, the note about getting a free pass for five non-student referrals was not posted. Since there was, and still is, a direct link to the registration page on the post I’m sure that at least one of the hundreds of readers who opened the page to see for themselves would have alerted me to the omission. The web is like that. You get fact checked whether you expect to or not.

But while we’re hotly debating what discount applies where and how, the two key questions are getting lost in this storm in a teacup. Are people going to the event so they can hear Ray’s presentations? Yes. And are they paying for it? Yes. We can talk about how much and discuss the cheapest way to attend the Summit of if the whole thing is profitable or not until the the Sun turns into a red giant but that doesn’t change these facts. It’s a small piece of the puzzle but just because you have a vested interest in this particular piece doesn’t mean we should miss the forest for the tress here.

If someone wants Ray’s advice on extending lifespan, they should probably read the most recent of the three books he has written on the subject, though they can get the highlights of Ray’s and other people’s life extension work from some of the other attendees.

And they would still be giving him money, which was the whole point of the post. You just can’t marginalize the person who’s the smiling face of the Summit to the outside world and say that he’s basically just one speaker and it’s not his organization running the show despite the fact that he’s on the board of directors of the group which organizes the event. If you would like to distance yourself from Ray so much and minimize the weight or popularity of his theories with the Singularitarian crowd, why even have him on the ads and on the board in the first place? Why not just advertise all the speakers and try to drive home how great of a bargain the event is?

# tech // ray kurzweil / singularity summit / technological singularity


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