Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Guest Post - A Different Take on Futurism

A Slightly Different Take on Futurism from Douglas Hofstadter

Dr. Douglas Hofstadter, a noted American academic and author of the best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "Godel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid," is also deeply involved in tracking Artificial Intelligence developments. As a cognitive scientist and general polymath with a background in physics, Hofstadter has played an instrumental role in discussions about the singularity and futurism in general.

While Kurzweil and his contemporaries approach the singularity as a very specific point in time that is close at hand considering the remarkably speedy technological developments of the last few years, Hofstadter takes a more conservative view. Regardless of who is right or wrong, Hofstadter has certainly substantively added to the exciting discussion of futurism.

Hofstadter does take issue with Kurzweil's and others' claims of the persistence of Moore's Law, which, if taken more figuratively than Moore himself intended, essentially undergirds the argument of the impending singularity. While it is true that we have seen quicker and quicker accelerations in change and technological advancement over the past few decades, as compared to relatively slow change in the distant past, Hofstadter points out that S curves, which demonstrate exponential growth that eventually levels off, could be just as possible in describing the future course of technological change.

Another point of contention that Hofstadter makes with several futurists is an ethical one. In an interview in the magazine American Scientist, Hofstadter noted, when asked about the singularity and advances in robotics:

"But the point is, there doesn't seem to be any discussion anywhere of "Is this good?" It's all "Let's go faster! Faster! Faster!" Well, where are you going? What are you trying to do? And I don't see any asking of these questions."

After having organized symposia at Stanford University to discuss these issues, Hofstadter was simply not satisfied with what he heard. As he put it in his interview, "the people [futurists at the symposia] didn't confront their own ideas."

While many consider Hofstadter to be a hard-line skeptic of the notion of a "singularity", nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Hofstadter does assert that many of Kurzweil's ideas are "impressive" and solid. Whatever Hofstadter's opinions, the futurist community is deeply indebted to Hofstadter's questioning, if only because every idea--no matter how well-supported--must constantly re-evaluate itself in order to gain serious intellectual standing.

For further thoughts on the Singularity, view the Singularity Summit at Stanford on Youtube.

By-line: This guest post is contributed by Roger Elmore, who writes on the topics of hospitality management degree. He welcomes your comments at his email Id:

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Anonymous said...

You know, I respect Hofstadter tremendously. His books have had a profound impact on my own life. However, the hand-wringing "Where are we going? Is this good?" questions are incredibly annoying on so many levels.

These are unanswerable questions. They are unanswerable in the same measure as it would have been to answer, "Are cars good?" a hundred and fifty years ago. Even if Kurzweil is right, and the general trajectory of a technological capability can be predicted, the details of how it will be used and its impact with other (existing and not yet existing) technologies is impossible to predict.

Even after the rapid rise of the personal automobile, it's hard to give a straight good/bad answer. It's not either or, it's both. It's bad that we've polluted; it's good that we've created a society of economic mobility and liberty, at least in the United States.

Surely Hofstadter knows this; he's not stupid, either. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what sort of answer would satisfy him.

It's doubly frustrating to see that lobbed at Kurzweil, because as unanswerable as that question is, Kurzweil at least *does* articulate the background assumption that as we're doing this, we can along the way greatly improve the lives of billions of people.