The shock and awe of the new
The future is touching down for three days in November. PHILIP MATTHEWS talks to representatives of the Singularity University ahead of its Christchurch summit.
All I know about Raymond McCauley is that he has something to do with the future and that he will tell us about it at the SingularityU summit in Christchurch in November. And his phone number is in front of me.
"We're off to a beautiful Zen-like start," says an amused McCauley down the line from a green campus in northern California.
We should get the Singularity buzzword out of the way first. What does it mean, exactly? It sounds like a promise or a threat or an irrevocable turning point. Are we talking about a belief that computer intelligence will come to match, imitate or surpass human intelligence?
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"Our founder, Ray Kurzweil, has one very specific prediction about the point when computers have a complexity that is similar to the complexity of the human brain, that you could buy for about $1000," McCauley says. "He places that in about 2035, which comes fairly quickly.
"Ray is a little crazy but he is rarely wrong," McCauley continues. "I've been following his stuff for nearly 30 years. He bats about 800, if you don't mind the baseball analogy."
That means Kurzweil's strike rate for predictions is way up there. Kurzweil co-founded the Singularity University think-tank in 2008, two years after the publication of his book The Singularity is Near. It is located on the Nasa Research Park just south of San Francisco, described as "a physical place for innovation and entrepreneurship and a technology accelerator".
Imagine Christchurch's humble Innovation Precinct on a massive scale. Blue Californian skies and manicured lawns. Cars without drivers, drones up above, people on laptops – do people in the future still use laptops? This is where everything starts to happen first. Or a bright and positive version of it, at least.
And 2035? That might sound like ages to us, but it feels "disturbingly close" to McCauley. It seems even closer once you allow for the fact that most of us will live longer. This is McCauley's field: digital biology and the ways in which technology moves fast in areas of life sciences, research and medicine.
"Most of what I do is teach people and inform companies about some of the new ways that DNA technology is being digitised," he explains.
Isn't there a conventional wisdom that says 120 is the natural limit of human life?
"With current technologies taken to their limit, 120 does seem to be a natural limit until we are able to repair cells or error check DNA. A lot of things we lump under ageing now have to do with your DNA accumulating errors and your cells accumulating toxins or junk. Once we can do something about that, we can pretty much leap past that 120 age barrier."
Do you want to be an eternal being? Most stories about technological change focus on the negatives, including the big negative about robots making masses of us unemployed. The Singularity can sound like a scenario from The Matrix or Ex Machina, where artificial intelligence outsmarts or even enslaves us. But the Singularity University generally takes a utopian not dystopian view.
"I think you could characterise nearly all of us as techno-optimists, although people tend to have a very measured view and are not afraid to point out the dangers of accelerating technology."
Which are? Take his field. Reading human genomes will become easier and cheaper. By the mid-2020s, you should have something on your phone that measures the DNA of everything around you and warns of risks. "But those technologies are dual use. For every several thousand good people using those technologies to stay healthy or chart biodiversity, there are some bad actors who use them to find bad viruses and corral them and perhaps do some genetic editing."
Not an entirely rosy view. In the meantime, there is New Zealand to visit. McCauley has never been before but his interest was piqued because one of his favourite writers, science-fiction author Robert A Heinlein of Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers fame, once visited and wrote about it.
Heinlein wasn't impressed at all with New Zealand but it was the 1950s. He reported that it was like socialism with even worse food but nice scenery. McCauley is pleased to hear that most of that has changed.
Which movie will we live in?
"The premise of Singularity University is that we as humans are not very good at thinking exponentially, so we keep getting surprised by exponential trends," says Michael Gillam.
You only have to go a short way into Singularity thinking before you come across Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years. It speaks of the sense of boundless possibility we have unleashed.
"There are good trends and there are bad," says Gillam, who is a medical researcher and is also happy with the techno-optimist label. "It so happens that there are a lot of trends that are good and just a few that are bad."
Health has been improving, as have wealth, mortality and longevity. What are the bad trends? Research tells him that terrorism and government corruption will get worse.
This suggests a plausible future in which individual life in prosperous countries is better than ever but the world outside is more dangerous. And Hollywood has captured that mixed picture, Gillam says.
"A movie like Brazil, where people can have plastic surgery and look young again but the governments are completely dysfunctional."
Gillam was at a Singularity University summit in Santiago, Chile when he met people organising the November summit in Christchurch. He has heard that New Zealand is making advances in "a shift in healthcare where patients are the centre of the universe rather than hospitals, where patients own their data and choose who can access it and share it".
He expects to talk about all this further when he meets senior Ministry of Health people during his New Zealand tour. Like McCauley, Gillam also looks ahead to a near future of cheaper and more accessible health technology.
"Every morning when you brush your teeth, not only will we sequence your human genome, we will sequence your microbiome. Everything you're breathing out in your breath and everything that's circulating in your body that's in your saliva. Your toothbrush will be diagnosing pneumonia, bronchitis, croup, upper respiratory infections, the flu. Your toothbrush will diagnose you before your doctor will."
This world of smart toothbrushes sounds fantastic but is there a flipside? How many GPs will be out of business?
"It's not that they will be out of business," Gillam says. "They will be caring for more people. It's estimated that there are two billion people worldwide who will never see a doctor, and yet about one billion of those people already have cellphones. The next billion will come online within the next five to 10 years. Many believe that the future of healthcare is the delivery of health through phones."
GPs might monitor larger catchment areas of patients remotely. The diabetes monitoring app BlueStar, approved for use by the Food and the Drug Administration in the US, offers a picture of how things will look. Another high-profile example is IBM's Watson supercomputer that can assess cancer treatments in seconds. In the age of the singularity, you will be your own doctor.
Who's going to drive you home?
"The facts and statistics do drive this idea that the world is getting better," says Brad Templeton. "That's not the impression you get from reading the paper or watching the news on television."
Templeton's thing is driverless cars. Actually, the phrase "self-driving car" is preferred, although he admits that is not perfect, either. Hopefully the ideal term will emerge soon.
"Driverless" has an element of danger that "self-driving" obviously lacks. Either way, it is an idea from the future that is easy to grasp and surprisingly near. Trials are happening in Milton Keynes, Singapore, Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh. There will be a trial at Christchurch Airport in 2017.
Does Templeton think that people find it hard to grasp the big idea of a car without a driver? Actually, the opposite applies.
"The amount of enthusiasm is almost too much. When we put people in for trials, they are much more trusting than they should be. People are surprisingly willing to trust it. The reality is that the people building them won't release them until they can convince themselves and their lawyers that they have made them safe enough."
They have to be, and will be, safer than cars and trucks with humans at the wheel. "We're talking about the car, the second most dangerous consumer product we sell."
The most dangerous are cigarettes, but cars kill 1.2 million people annually, or thereabouts. The potential benefits are huge: "It's kind of like curing polio or some other big disease."
There is the utopian spin, but what of the downside? Templeton will not be weeping alongside redundant truck drivers.
"For better or worse, those people are killing large numbers of people in the course of doing their jobs. Nobody kills more people in the course of doing their job than truck drivers, other than doctors."
Nor is he on the side of the doomsayers when it comes to future of work predictions: "I'm more optimistic simply because the history has shown we've had predictions that machines will take all our jobs, going back almost 200 years, and every time they've made that prediction, they've been wrong. Is there something about now which is different? There might be."
Templeton has an interesting philosophical bent. When asked about the Singularity, he says: "The funny thing is we don't talk about it a lot. [We're] not about trying to imagine what will happen beyond this point that we can't imagine beyond, by definition."
The next five years are easier to think about. Go back to the relatively imminent disruption of the self-driving car. Public transport may be knocked back to buses or trams at rush hour. At other times, passengers can summon up a vehicle at a minute's notice. No one will need to own a car, insure it, maintain it or even keep it filled up, in cities at least. No one will have to worry about parking.
"I predict it's going to cost [consumers] about half as much."
There will be a "land rush" after about 2020 as companies vie to be the first and biggest in the self-driving sector. You will see the big car companies, plus the likes of Uber, Apple and Google.
Anyway, he says with a quiet laugh, this is only half of what he will cover when he hits Christchurch. Also up for discussion: virtual reality and "the so-called Internet of Things, which is really a marketing phrase".
Meanwhile, back in the 20th century
"How many people are investing millions of dollars in carparking buildings in this city?" asks Kaila Colbin, as she takes in a view of central Christchurch.
The suggestion is that self-driving cars will turn carparking buildings into massive relics of the oil age. The idea is reminiscent of Fairfax columnist Rod Oram's recent finding that in Christchurch we are building the last city of the 20th century, not the first city of the 21st, despite a brief flourishing of sustainability rhetoric.
A New Yorker who has lived in New Zealand for 11 years, Colbin is the New Zealand ambassador for Singularity University as well as the curator of TEDx Christchurch. She loves these big, shareable ideas about personal and social transformation and carries that enthusiasm around with her, but her own view is more shaded.
"Singularity University as an organisation is unashamedly optimistic," she says. "People tend to predict either a brave new world or total dystopia like Terminator. My experience is that we tend to get something in the middle. We have iPhones, which are magical, and then we have the National Security Agency listening to our calls, which is not so awesome."
Colbin attended a six-day executive programme at the Singularity University and was converted. She was "so profoundly moved" by what she learned that she felt she must share it. The summit in November is the local result of her evangelism.
No offence, but it does sound almost cult-like, especially once you hear how people talk about Ray Kurzweil.
"Absolutely. I get where the cult-like thing comes from. I won't argue too hard on that one. I will say, with Ray, it's backed up by stats. He predicted that by 1998 a computer would beat a human at chess. That happened in 1997 when Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov. He's at that level of specificity. So it's not blind faith when it comes to Ray."
Has she met the guru? "I have. I'm sure he wouldn't remember me at all."
Back to the conference. Colbin is adamant that the potential negatives of the future will be covered, such as when Mark Goodman talks about future crime. "So it's not 'come along and we'll hold hands and sing about how awesome the future is going to be when technology saves us'. That's not what the conference is about."
The Singularity University is venturing out to five "global summits" in 2016, with Mumbai, Santiago, Berlin and Amsterdam on the itinerary before Christchurch. A handful of local experts will be on the bill to avoid the impression of "overseas experts coming in and giving us answers". Also, the title is abbreviated to SingularityU as it is not an accredited university in New Zealand.
The future is ambitious – three catered days at the Horncastle Arena. It is also expensive. Tickets at the top end are over $3000. But there are cheaper options for educators, entrepreneurs, non-profits and young people. The young pay just a tenth for the same event, which is "a political statement that we want the right people in the room, and the definition of right people is not dictated by the size of a chequebook".
She expects to see over 1000 people there, although she doesn't say how many will be rich and how many will be young. It is not entirely self-funding. The Christchurch City Council has put in $70,000, the Canterbury Development Corporation contributed $15,000 and Cookie Time founder Michael Mayell was persuaded to donate $25,000 towards the summit rather than attend the executive programme in California.
The future in three full days seems like a rapid education. How many New Zealanders have even heard of Ray Kurzweil? Surprisingly few. Then again, Colbin can't believe how unknown Elon Musk is in this country.
"He's my hero. I love Elon so much."
Musk is the South African-born, California-based billionaire who is funding electric cars, solar power and a space programme. Again, science and fantasy coincide. Actor Robert Downey Jr apparently based billionaire crime fighter and inventor Tony Stark from the Iron Man movies on Musk.
"For me, Musk is actually better than Iron Man because Iron Man uses all his wealth and power to make one suit for himself, and Musk is using his wealth and power to literally save humanity," Colbin says.
Save humanity? Sure. Musk wants to get some of us to Mars as an insurance policy for the human race if something bad happens to Earth. It might sound preposterous but Colbin has a warning from history.
"The reason dinosaurs went extinct is they didn't have a space programme."
It pays to think big.
The SingularityU New Zealand Summit is at Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, from November 14 to 16. More information at singularityunz.com.