Startups and the Singularity: Which Boston Innovators Are Believers?

8/9/12Follow @gthuang

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I didn’t find any obvious correlation between their beliefs and the cultures or approaches of their companies.

Where it gets interesting, though, is in their reasoning. Rob May from Backupify, a cloud-based data firm, says it makes sense that the singularity will occur:

“I think technology as an ecosystem is at an unstable point, and like any system it has to settle into something more stable,” he says. “For example, things are changing and expanding faster than most people can keep up, and the lack of deep expertise across joint knowledge verticals by a single person is causing an innovation drag. The singularity resolves this by reaching a stage where both augmented humans and machines can reach new levels of mastery.” (Then he said something about consciousness that I couldn’t follow; nothing about consciousness ever makes sense.)

As a counterpoint, Coach Wei from Web optimization startup Yottaa argues, “The probability of it happening in the 21st century as predicted isn’t much higher than 2012 Red Sox playing good baseball. Even if we get there, it is going to be thousands of years later. It took billions of years for life to evolve to the current level of complexity, and our technological super-intelligence isn’t close to understanding the basic brain activities yet.”

Others got mucho philosophical. “Like the perfectly efficient market in economics, I think it’s an ideal ceiling for which to strive as opposed to an achievable end,” says Phil Beauregard from analytics startup Objective Logistics. “We can’t possibly keep creating and stacking new arenas of knowledge over the centuries and anticipate that we will at one finite point perfect technologies/solutions to meet them, thereby achieving a singularity.”

And one guy who knows something about big data (which is itself a singularity, I think) and “global brain” issues was pretty succinct. … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://twitter.com/Vovix Volodymyr Semenyuk

    I think the question of “believe or not” itself does not reflect what is really important about the singularity, unless you see it just as a meme of popular culture. Those who introduced this concept and who do any meaningful research into it do not see it as a religion-like belief in, say, mind uploading. They say like, trends in IT and other tech tell us that with a high probability in not so distant future we can get to a point when we will know much more about our mind, and may get some positive result from that science, either in a form of uploading or something else. The whole singularity community is not so unanimous about uploading, cryonics, time scale, existential risks or any other future issue, as it may seem. The Singularity is not a religion, it is the space for debates. For me as a Singularitatian, the only stupid thing one can do about the S-thing is not to be skeptical on whether A, B, C… will happen; it is to pretend that nothing of these will ever happen just because it is so “radical” or “strange” or “uncomfortable to think” etc. So in fact it is not believers vs. unbelievers, but thinkers vs, cognitophobes.

  • http://twitter.com/AndyMaddocks Andy Maddocks

    The concept of the singularity is a wonderful heuristic for
    all of us who are, at heart, techno-enthusiasts. As technologists, inventors, and producers of
    value for our society we get up every day believing that something we do will
    ratchet forward some positive aspect of humanity. Whether we’re medical device makers or inventors
    of digital marketing technologies, we recognize ‘pain points’ that others
    encounter and believe we can ‘fix’ them and receive value in exchange for our
    efforts. We often do this even if the
    value to us individuals is as simple as the feelings we get when we just solve
    a problem and experience achievement.
    Why shouldn’t we be enticed by the entreaties of the ‘singularity’? Even if it just spurs our imagination onward
    and we conceive of more inventions.

    Will a real singularity occur in our lifetimes, or in the lifetimes
    of our next generations? Personally, I
    don’t think so. It seems to me that
    scientific and technical frontiers just keep advancing as we develop our
    capacities to measure, observe, predict and make things. Just when you are about to acknowledge that
    the singularity appears, some speck of disconfirmation is likely to appear on
    the horizon. Singularity always seems to
    imply omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. I really haven’t been able to measure those
    things to date. Have you?

    After all, how can we anticipate the singularity when we’ve
    really only begun the extension of sensing and data collection across satellites
    and planets recently with space telescopes, robotic probes, etc.? Sure, machines keep getting smarter,
    self-repairing, and perhaps have potential for affective and moral
    computing. Maybe computational cognition
    and related disciplines will even shed light on philosophical and epistemological questions like, “Is
    the soul real or just an epiphenomenon?”
    These are fun things for speculation and party conversations in places
    like Kendall Square, Harvard Square, and even Berkeley.

    From my point of view, regardless of ‘belief’ in the
    possible occurrence of singularity, conversations like this expose the optimists,
    pessimists and pragmatists within our communities or science and
    technology. These debates demonstrate
    the current non-singular uniqueness that abides in all of us who work very hard
    to come up with something of value, some solution, to help other people live,
    work or play in a better way; and I like that, singular or not.