Tim O'Reilly on Nanotechnology at the Foresight Gathering
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Ray Kurzweil -- Technology in the 21st Century, An Imminent Intimate Merger

"I'm an inventor, and that's what made me interested in trend analysis: Inventions need to make sense in the world where you finish a project, not the world in which you start the project"

Some tidbits:

  • The paradigm shift rate itself is accelerating. Progress through the entire 20th century is equivalent to 20 years at today's rate. Few people really internalize the implications of exponential change. Self-replicating machines will take 100 years at today's rate of progress, but Ray expects them in only 25 because of the exponential increase of progress itself.

  • Evolution works by indirection. It creates some products, but then those products create the conditions for the creation of the next round of products. In particular, this happens when there is a means of recording progress.

  • The first step in evolution took billions of years. Once we got to DNA, acceleration accelerated. The Cambrian explosion took only a few tens of millions of years, Homo Sapiens a couple of hundred thousand years. Now that product has built new ways of recording and sharing info.

  • Ray showed slides of lots of different exponential growth curves. While the talk was not identical, a lot of the ideas can be found in a talk that Ray gave at a Business Week conference in December 2001, excerpts of which are found on Ray's site. So I'm not going to repeat the details here.

  • A key prediction regarding computing was that today, $1000 will buy you a computer with the complexity of a mouse brain. By 2020, $1000 will buy a computer with the complexity of the human brain, and by 2030, perhaps 1000 times that. But actually, the human brain has lots of redundancy, so we probably don't need to match all 20 billion MIPS; cognition uses only about 1000th of the brain's theoretical capacity. So this may happen sooner.

  • He pointed to some work by Lloyd Watts on reverse engineering the human brain.

  • By 2010 -- computers disappear. Images are piped directly to our retinas, with ubiquitous high bandwidth electronics embedded in the environment.

  • By 2029 -- reverse engineering of human brain completed. Computers pass the Turing test. Non-biological intelligence combines the subtlety and pattern recognition of human intelligence with the speed, storage capacity, and information-sharing ability of computers. Nanobots provide neural implants that are noninvasive, surgery free, distributed to millions of points in the brain. There will be full-immersion virtual reality.

  • People will beam their full experience out on the net, a la webcams, including the neurological component of their emotions. By 2050, humans will need to be augmented to keep up.

  • Q: The spiny echidna and other monotremes actually have the largest frontal cortex [presumably proportionally to the rest of their brain, not in an absolute sense] -- this is the hardware for remembering and processing. In human adolescence, there's a huge amount of pruning that goes on. In order to be able to do something, we need to be able to forget. Analogously, really rich people choose empty space and empty time. In the future you're portraying, won't we have to get better at getting rid of stuff?

    Ray: This is an argument for death. :-) But right now, our software is dependent on our hardware. Death is a hardware crash. But software only lives if we care about it. Info only stays alive if continually maintained. Our lives will ultimately be in our ownhands, and we'll retain what we care about.

    Pattern recognition is the constant destruction of information and the replacement by abstracted patterns. "The ultimate ontological reality is patterns."

  • Q: I've seen your curves, and I accept them. But if this is inevitable, why should we be working towards it?

    Ray didn't answer this question directly, which was a shame. Of course, the answer is because of local optimization. A lot of things may be happening to our society, but the benefits often accrue disproportionately to those who are closest to the heart of the change.

Stewart Brand: Why Long Now/Long Bets

In his talk, Stewart (originally famous for the iconic Whole Earth Catalog) assumed that the audience was already familiar with the Long Now Foundation; his talk focused on why he's created a follow-on Long Bets Foundation. If you aren't familiar with the Long Now, definitely visit their Web site. In addition to the general information there, be sure to check out Brian Eno's account of where the name came from, "The Big Here and the Long Now." (I heard Brian give this as a talk a few years ago, when he was helping publicizeStewart's book, The Clock of the Long Now. Both the article and the book are well worth a read.)

Here's a brief synopsis of the talk.

  • The goal of the Long Now Foundation is to foster long term thinking. We want to debate intelligently, and remember and revisit the debates. We started to wonder if we could make record-keeping of our thinking not boring, as well as self-documenting. So we came up with the Long Bets Foundation. Let's make it fun.

  • The basic idea is that people place long term bets, with arguments for those bets (pro and con), and with the proceeds going to charity. For example, Ray Kurzweil bet Mitch Kapor $10,000 on whether the Turing test would be passed by a computer before 2029. The arguments are what counts. A great way to frame a debate at a particular point in time.

  • Stewart pointed out that a long bet can be interesting even if no one takes the bet. For example, Martin Rees placed the "open bet" that there will be one million deaths from bioterror by 2020. So far, no one has stepped forward to take the negative side of the bet. This is itself interesting.

  • Some hacks that make long bets work:

    • True names only. People have to put their real names and reputation on the line; ditto for voting one way or the other.
    • Winnings go to charity. this makes it legal (bets between private individuals are in fact illegal, at least if done formally), but also introduces a quality of long-term thinking. Also, the bettors may be dead before the bet concludes.
    • Money goes up front. it is invested and grows. Half of growth goes to the Long Bets foundation (netting $40 or so per year per $1000 in bet value). This funds longevity and improving service. And of course, compound interest is itself an example of long term.
    • Gaming the system is OK. You can place bets on your ownvision, and point to a charity that you're involved with. For example, Esther Dyson bet $10,000 that by 2012, the NY Times will refer to Russia as the world's premier software development location. She has raised the profile of Russian software companies, in which she's an investor.

  • Coming attractions:
    • Voting on bets.
    • Bets in parallel, so you can have your own version of the arguments.
    • Predictions -- since odds are always even, you can do bets with time. Predictions are, in effect, open bets that don't get takers.
    • Browsing and stats.
    • Future timeline calculator.
    • Bets by region.

  • Q: Your favorite bet?

    A: The US soccer team will win the World Cup before the Red Sox win world series. (This is really a bet about immigration and globalization, not sports.)

  • Q: Robin Hanson's Idea Futures seems to have advantages over your system. Her users can make money ...

    A: I sense a bet there.

I skipped out of the afternoon sessions, to go to Kevin Kelly's birthday party instead.

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