A Neophyte's Guide to the Singularity

I have capitulated. I have stopped avoiding the Singularity.

For the past couple of years--at least--I have been catching threads of chatter about the concept of the Singularity--loosely, the point in time when, through Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering or other technological manipulation, a superhuman intellect is born. I have heard just enough to be weirded out. So I've avoided the topic all together.

Of course, I have also been curious. So this past weekend I decided to commit a few hours, dig in, learn more. And I proved Lev Grossman right. In Time he wrote, “People are attracted to the Singularity for the shock value, like an intellectual freak show, but they stay because there's more to it than they expected.”

Anyone who's just learning about the Singularity undoubtedly begins, as I did, with Ray Kurzweil. Prolific inventor, future thinker, it was his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, that pushed the concept of the Singularity into the public's consciousness, and he's been the relentless public face of the idea since. I started with the recent documentary about him, Transcendent Man

The take aways: Kurzweil is not the only advocate of the Singularity, the concept has its detractors, and there are many lesser riffs on the idea--ways in which technology may amp and extend our performance, capabilities, without taking over. As Grossman had predicted, I was hooked and went searching for more information.

A few of the resources I found:

  • Kurzweil AI--An aggregation of news items and event information, books, essays and blog entries from leading thinkers in the Singularity community. Includes links to Singularity-relevant podcasts, tv shows, movies.
  • Singularity Summit--Launched in 2006 by Kurzweil and PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel--an ardent supporter of all things Singularity--this year's Summit will be held October 15-16 in New York. Videos from past summits are here.
  • Singularity Reading List--A resource from the Summit, this list includes links to what I've learned are many of the foundational readings on the Singularity: Eric Drexler's 1986 book on the potentialities of nanotechnology, Vernor Vinge's 1993 article in which he introduced the term the Singularity, Bill Joy's 1999 Wired article outlining the ethical and social perils of the quest for the Singularity and, of course, Kurzweil's book.
  • IEEE Spectrum--IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This 2008 issue of their magazine, IEEE Spectrum, is devoted to the Singularity. I'm always happy to find CliffsNotes summaries on complex topics. Among other things, it includes a handy who's who guide to the Singularity universe.
  • Singularity University--Not only has Kurzweil created a weekend long summit on the Singularity, he's also--in conjunction with X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis--created a singularity University--actually, a summer program for graduate students and 4- and 7-day programs for executives, housed at NASA's Ames, co-founded with google. A New York Times article on the program is here.
  • TED Talks--In keeping with the CliffsNotes theme, TED is a reliable source of digestable presentations on challenging subjects by big thinkers. Here there are presentations by Singularity supporters, skeptics and influencers including, among others Bill Joy, former Wired magazine Executive Editor Kevin Kelly, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey--whose thinking on aging I find mind-bending, personal robotics expert Cynthia Breazeal and, of course, Kurzweil.
  • Google Conference on Artificial General Intelligence--Held early August in Mountainview, the videos from this event are available online here. This is, suffice it to say, the opposite of CliffsNotes.
  • Future of Humanity Institute--Run by Nick Bostrom, one of the organizations at the forefront of thinking about the moral and ethical issues inherent in the technologies underpinning the Singularity.

The Singularity, as it turns out, isn't so scary after all. 

Because I am a neophyte, I have just brushed the surface of this deep, broad subject. Please fill in, if there are additional valuable resources on the topic you know, recommend.