Startups and the Singularity: Which Boston Innovators Are Believers?

8/9/12Follow @gthuang

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, 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. “I’m sure tech will be brought into [the] body, and that soon,” says Christopher Ahlberg from the Web analysis and prediction firm Recorded Future. “Singularity though… Nah.”

In case you’re wondering, there isn’t really a big point here. But as it turns out, the more interesting responses tend to come from the skeptics. Maybe that’s just because if you agree with Kurzweil and Vinge, or are open to their arguments, there isn’t as much to say.

“I don’t think it will ever come,” says Jason Jacobs of mobile-health startup FitnessKeeper. “Machines will get smarter and smarter, but unlike humans, they will never have a soul. We do need to be careful though, because as they get smarter, they are an increasingly powerful force. This force can be incredibly beneficial if used for good, but also destructive if it gets into the wrong hands.”

Jacobs brings up a much-ballyhooed point: that the singularity, if it ever occurs, could bring about massive destruction and the end of civilization. But there are those who disagree with that outcome (and would probably side more with Kurzweil’s utopian view), even as they cast doubt on its fundamental premise. “I don’t believe in the concept of a singularity as [Vinge] predicts,” says Mike Tuchen of security software firm Rapid7. “I agree we’re seeing an incredible pace of technological progress but don’t see that as inevitably causing a cataclysm.”

Anytime you talk about tech predictions, of course, you have to remember how bad humans are at imagining all the things that could change in the future. Could many of us even see beyond the event horizon of the iPhone in 2007? By that token, some entrepreneurs are hedging their bets. “We tend to limit our view to existing constraints, and when structural changes take place our constraints totally change. So I would say, nothing in this field is really impossible,” says Iker Marcaide from peerTransfer, a financial ed-tech startup.

And, speaking of ed-tech, what about those Boundless guys who started all of this? What do they think of the Singularity? On a recent afternoon, chief exec Ariel Diaz sat in a conference room spinning his intellectual web. “I’m a huge believer in it,” he said. “It’s up to the user to figure out if it’s constructive or destructive. But if it can happen, it will happen. Within my lifetime.” But, he adds, “I think it will sneak up on us in terms of what it looks like.”

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.