Startups and the Singularity: Which Boston Innovators Are Believers?

Hollywood has Scientology. The tech world has the Singularity. I’m not conflating their beliefs or intellectual frameworks. I’m not calling them cults. I’m just saying, either you believe it or you don’t.

As it would happen, I was sitting around a table at a local startup shooting the breeze about what’s on entrepreneurs’ minds these days. The guys from Boundless, an ed-tech company that just opened its site to the masses this week, said there have been numerous lunchtime debates about something called the Singularity. My first reaction was that these guys have been working way too hard.

The technological singularity is an old idea, often credited to sci-fi author and computer scientist Vernor Vinge and popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil. It postulates that exponential technological progress will lead to superhuman intelligence, through advances in computer networks, strong AI, human-computer interfaces, neuroscience, biotech enhancement, and nanotechnology. A merging of humans and computers will bring about an end to the human era (whatever that means), and will create an intellectual event horizon beyond which we cannot see or fathom. Hence the “singularity,” like a black hole in outer space. And the prospects of life extension and even immortality by uploading our minds into machines. What’s more, Kurzweil predicts this will happen within many of our lifetimes, by 2045 or so. (He used to think it would happen by the 2030s…hmm.)

I was a little surprised that a new generation of entrepreneurs is even talking about this idea. Is there a broader trend to uncover, say, about the startup culture of believers versus non-believers? This warranted some digging. So I conducted a highly unscientific poll of about 20 Boston-area tech CEOs (mostly startups) and a few other thought leaders. The question: Do you believe in the Kurzweil-Vinge vision of the technological singularity, and if so, will it occur in our lifetime?

(I didn’t explicitly ask those who have well-known beliefs about the Singularity and AI, such as roboticist Rod Brooks from Rethink Robotics and human-augmentation enthusiast Hugh Herr from iWalk. Computational guru Stephen Wolfram also has many thoughts on the topic, but they are, shall we say, complicated. I also purposefully left out Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They have a “Singularity University” there, for God’s sake.)

Well, the responses I got ranged widely, from “Hells yes!” to “Is Kurzweil a type of hot dog?” (Bonus points if you can guess who said those.) Actually, there were a refreshing number of prominent people who weren’t familiar enough with the concept to comment. And a few didn’t reply at all; they must be beyond the event horizon already. But according to my current breakdown, about 55 percent of tech-startup CEOs are Singularitarians (most don’t think it will occur in our lifetimes though), while 45 percent aren’t. Upon inspection, … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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