Saturday, May 15, 2004

Roboethics (What, Virginia, No Singularity?)

[via Amor Mundi] Bruce Sterling reports back edifyingly in Wired from the First International Symposium on Roboethics, which took place earlier this year in Sanremo, Italy. He writes: "Ever since Karel Capek introduced the term with his 1924 play R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots, robots have been our theatrical attempt to dress up technology in human form. They embody our very human desire to make technology into a buddy or maybe a doppelgänger - but at least somebody. Somebody like us, with one improvement: We can make a robot behave, even though we've never managed that trick with ourselves."

A survey of abstracts from the symposium provides plenty to chew on, though of course such descriptions tend to be rather genial and general. One word that appears to be conspicuous in its absence there is “Singularity.”

For those who have never before stumbled onto this term, it tends to be attributed to Vernor Vinge (a fantastically interesting thinker and the author of a number of sprawling, provocative space-operas that just drip with sensawunda). "Singularity-talk" usually amounts to either (1) a claim that exponentially increasing technological development will eventuate in a sudden and total historical discontinuity or (2) a claim that the creation of "superhuman" post-biological intelligence will eventuate in a comparable discontinuity.

I think that discussions of “singularity” at their best (which can certainly be interesting and unquestionably well-intentioned) tend to overestimate the smooth-function of postulated technologies while underestimating the extent to which technological development is embedded in social and cultural contexts that are not readily represented in exponential graph-curves. Meanwhile, at its worst, singularity-talk can devolve into a kind of manifest-destiny discourse bulldozing forward without much but its own acceleration to recommend it, something like techno-apocalyptic survivalist ranting conjoined to the tropic paraphernalia of transcendental theology.

It remains to be seen whether scholars, scientists, and policy-makers can grapple with the promises and quandaries of the technological mediation and augmentation of human (and nonhuman!) intelligences, as well as the emergence of quasi-intelligent modes of technological agency – but without wandering into what seems to me the usually transcendentalizing, often distracting, sometimes deranging metaphorical entanglements of singularity-talk. But, heck, for all I know, it was all singularity all the time behind the scenes at the symposium itself.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


THEY RULE: A brillaint illustration of the pattern of interlocking directories of the top companies in the US in 2004.

The data was collected from their websites and SEC filings in early 2004, so it may not be completely accurate - companies merge and disappear and directors shift boards."

Monday, May 10, 2004

Dale's got his own blog now:

Sunday, May 09, 2004

84% of the Betterhumans audience can't be wrong

Interesting results to our nanotechnology poll on Betterhumans this week. We asked, "Which scientist is right about the prospect of nanobots, Eric Drexler or Richard Smalley?" While I expected the majority to side with Drexler, I was stunned at just how many sided with Drexler and with just how few sided with Smalley -- a miniscule 2%!

Here are the entire poll results with 148 votes in:
Drexler: It is possible to create engineered nanoscale machinery for molecular manufacturing: 84%
Smalley: Nanobots are impossible and the assembly of complex molecular structures is more subtle and complex than advocates think: 2%
I'm still weighing the evidence: 11%
What's a nanobot, and who are these people? 2%

New Version of Betterhumans Launched

Late last light we launched a significant upgrade to Betterhumans. It's the 7th incarnation of the site and it's inarguably never looked better. We also issued a press release to announce the re-launch:
New Betterhumans Website an Info Seeker's Delight

Leading science and technology Webzine gets cleaner interface, faster response times and new features to facilitate information foraging

Finding information on issues and developments in advancing science and technology just got easier.

Today's rapid pace of scientific and technological advancement makes it difficult to keep track of developments as they happen. With a mandate of connecting people to the future, editorial production company Betterhumans provides news, features and resources that help people make sense of accelerating change.

Now Betterhumans is pleased to announce a new version of its Website that's designed to make it even easier to access its leading science, technology and health-related content.

"If there's one thing that Internet users have shown time and again it's a craving for functionality, usability and the ability to easily locate information of interest," says Simon Smith, Editor-in-chief of Betterhumans. "The new has been designed to help people find the information they seek, as well as get that information faster."

Previous visitors to Betterhumans will immediately notice that the site is cleaner and more user-friendly, featuring drop-down menus to ease navigation. Behind the scenes, the site makes better use of caching and has been optimized in other ways to improve response times.

Information foragers will be happy about new topic-finder functionality that allows users to browse an index of all topics Betterhumans covers and to use this to access all editorial—from news items to columns—on a given topic. Each content item now also displays its topics, enabling users to link through from them to an index of related content. And new search functionality allows users to search for specific content, such as events and directory items.

The new version of marks the beginning of several Betterhumans initiatives planned for the second and third quarter of 2004 as the company seeks to expand its offering and increase its reach.

"The launch of the revised Website is an important milestone for us," says George Dvorsky, Deputy Editor of Betterhumans. "It's an integral step forward as we continue to improve Betterhumans at all levels."

About Betterhumans

Aiming to connect people to the future so that they can create it, Betterhumans is an editorial production company that's dedicated to having the best information, analysis and opinion on the impact of advancing science and technology. Betterhumans runs leading Website, connects advertisers with its audience, licenses editorial for syndication and republication and offers clients custom research and custom editorial services.

Michael Anissimov reports in from AHA2004

Michael Anissimov, the director of the Immortality Institute, is currently at AHA2004, the annual American Humanist Association's conference in Las Vegas. Michael writes in from the conference with a report (btw, one of the articles he's referring to in the Humanist is my "Better Living Through Transhumanism" article. We've also got a 1/2 page Betterhumans ad in that edition):
Hey everyone, just letting you all know that I'm in Las Vegas for AHA2004 and doing well. I only have 5 minutes of internet time remaining so I will be brief. First of all, I was somewhat astonished to see that 90% or more of conference attendees were seniors. So I knew the argument "this could happen within your lifetime..." wouldn't necessarily have much of an effect. Attendees did seem to be interested in passing on transhumanist ideas to their children, however. On the plus side, a copy of "The Humanist" was in everyone's conference packet, along with two articles on transhumanism! That set the stage nicely for the talk I was going to give. There were only about 30 attendees at my talk; it was held at the same time as "A Humanist Sex Writer Tells All" and some talk that seemed to be focused on bashing Bush and the conservatives. (A whole lot of that seems to be going on at this conference, at the exclusion of all else.) Daniel Dennett is flying in today and hopefully I will have the good fortune to talk to him in person this evening. This conference is quite different than the transhumanist conferences I've been to in the past... there seem to be many atheist factions involved in political infighting. It serves as a warning for the constant risk that transhumanism will fall to the same fate. The moral of the story is... do whatever you can to hold the transhumanist community together, as a strong group, despite all of our different ideas. Anyhoo, one minute left, so I'm out. Feel free to pass this along to wta-talk, big thanks to George D. btw!!

Michael Anissimov