[extropy-chat] singularity conference at stanford

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Mon May 15 22:43:32 UTC 2006

One more post while this is all fresh in my mind...

I enjoyed Douglas Hofstadter's talk.  BTW, they mentioned that he has
a new book coming out next year, "I am a Strange Loop".  I bumped into
him after the conference and he confirmed that it will be a philosophy
oriented book rather than the more computer-science one he came out with
most recently.  OK, I see it is available for pre-order from Amazon:
They imply that it will be out this summer but he said it would not be
until early next year.

As far as the talk, I liked three things particularly.  The first was that
he took issue with a number of things in Kurzweil's book that bothered
me, too.  Some were trivial, like Kurzweil's reference to the "knee"
of an exponential curve.  But others were more important, like the "law"
of accelerating returns.  Hofstadter pointed out that it was not really a
law, but a trend, and there was no guarantee it would continue.  I would
say it has similar status to Moore's Law, which is also a misnomer IMO.

One thing that bothered me about the conference was the status given
to Kurzweil.  He was not only the keynote speaker, he also got time at
the end for rebuttal (and went over his time limits for both).  It was
like he was the king of the conference, the Father of the Singularity.
Since when did he achieve this status?  I don't want to take anything
away from his many lifetime accomplishments and well-deserved acclaim in
general, but we've been talking about the Singularity here for a long
time and I've never gotten the sense that Ray Kurzweil was one of the
foremost thinkers on the topic.  We've probably mentioned Moravec more
than Kurzweil on this list.

Anyway, I was glad to see someone of Hofstadter's stature who was willing
to stand up and directly criticize Kurzweil's books and presentation.
I didn't notice the amusing body language byplay that Metavalent mentioned
but I can certainly believe it!

Second, I liked Hofstadter's cartoons.  They used clever word play
that reminded me of the playfulness in his writing that made GEB such
a pleasure to read.  I hope the new book maintains the same spirit.

And third, I liked the fact that he had gone around and queried a bunch
of people about the Singularity to see what they thought of the concept.
That's very much in the spirit of what I was talking about this morning.
The upshot was that some people were skeptical, many simply had no idea
about what would happen in the future, and some were supportive and
agreed that this was what would happen.  He didn't make it clear what the
percentages were, although I had the impression that skepticism dominated.
Now, these were people who had not read Kurzweil's book, but in some ways
that makes them a better sample, more likely to be thinking independently
about the topic.

Hofstadter also mentioned that these subjects are not being discussed
among the scientific community in general, such as physicists.  However I
don't find this all that significant as it doesn't much impact the day
to day work of a scientist.

I remember back when Hofstadter was doing his column for Scientific
American, in the 1980s.  He had gotten fixated on the idea of
super-rationality.  This is the principle that you should make your
decisions on the basis of what would happen if everyone reasoned like you.
In this way you would cooperate in the prisoner's dilemma, and behave
"nicely" in a variety of social conflict situations.  It's supposed to
be superior to rationality, and Hofstadter was convinced that it was
how everyone should be.

He had tried to get various friends and colleagues interested, presenting
them with various thought experiments and such, but without much luck.
Everyone was rational rather than super-rational.  And he was really
getting pretty frustrated, you could tell!  He finally posed a PD-related
thought experiment for the readership of SA, people sending in their
responses on postcards, and the same thing happened, everyone was rational
and messed up his contest.  He seemed really upset and announced he
was quitting.  That was his last column!

I see a connection between this event and his comments on the Singularity.
In each case he was asking a variety of people for their opinions.
The problem with the earlier case is that he just didn't listen to
their answer.  But he should have.  Super-rationality is not rational, by
definition, and he had really gotten himself into a confused place, IMO.
He would have been a lot better off to listen.

And then, the same lesson should be drawn with regard to the Singularity.
He (and we) should listen to the results of his little poll, and ideally
expand it beyond super-smart college professors and business leaders.
But I give him lots of credit for doing the poll at all; nobody else
mentioned any such experiment.


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