Revenge of the nerds: Should we listen to futurists or are they leading us towards ‘nerdocalypse’?

They're building robots, they're making us immortal, they're hanging out with Stevie Wonder and getting off on fruit-fly porn. These are the visionary thinkers who can make our future bright, and these are the ties that bind them. But are they leading us all towards 'nerdocalypse'?

As night thickens around Marina Boulevard on a murky San Francisco evening, one thing is crystal-clear: the future is not what it used to be. The wildest, most mind-frazzling visions of the years ahead are no longer the sole preserve of science fiction. At least, it seems that way at a reception to mark the start of the 2010 Singularity Summit, the world's leading forum for serious discussion of incredible things to come.

Here, in a plush and spacious apartment not far from the Golden Gate Bridge, scientists, academics and futurists – bankrolled by the Silicon Valley dollar – are discussing what many among them believe to be an imminent and radical transformation of the human experience. This sea change, caused by monumental advances in technology, has a name: the singularity. It also has a dedicated and well-informed fanbase: the singularitarians.

The reception is in full swing. Next to the open bar, the professional rationalist is rubbing shoulders with the preeminent neurobiologist, and the scenario forecaster is exchanging ideas with the cutting-edge nanotechnologist, as notions once thought too outlandish to merit serious consideration – such as beyond-human intelligence, immortality and god-like omniscience – are reassessed in the cool light of possibility. Yesterday's tech-obsessed fantasist is today's credible expert. A new, dynamic, cross-discipline geek community is visibly taking shape, as the buzz of high-brow chatter fills the room like pipe tobacco in an early 20th-century Vienna coffee house.

Michael Vassar, summit host and president of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), reduces the future to two competing scenarios: "Either you and everyone you love are going to be killed by robots; or you are going to live forever." Some very clever people, he says with a hint of mischief and a disconcerting flash of clear-eyed sincerity, can make a strong case for each of those arguments, so it's in our best interests to pay attention.

Looking around the apartment (which was borrowed for the evening from the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, SIAI backer and co-founder of PayPal), Vassar points out a couple of the summit's keynote speakers: there's the Canadian inventor Steve Mann, "the world's first cyborg", who's wearing a black woolly hat and computer-enhanced eyeglasses; and, over by the dessert table, Ben Goertzel, who has been called "the bad-ass of the artificial intelligence [AI] community", and looks as thought he's been blown off course on the way to Glastonbury.

Over the following two days, in the conference hall at the Hyatt Regency hotel, these and other invited experts add their latest insights and thoughts to a concept first suggested in the 1950s by information theorist John von Neumann, expanded on during the 1980s and 1990s by computer scientist Vernor Vinge, and carried enthusiastically through to the 21st century by current singularitarian-in-chief, inventor Ray Kurzweil.

The singularity is a metaphorical term used to express the transformative moment when technology has moved so rapidly that the human race can never be the same again. This could be a good thing, according to Kurzweil, if we avoid the dangers of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics, then succeed in harnessing artificial intelligence to conquer mortality and accept the next, transhuman phase of our evolution. Or it could all go badly wrong, resulting in what some have dubbed the "nerdocalypse". In Kurzweil's estimation we should know, either way, by 2045.

It's that sense of imminence and immediacy that has made the singularity such a passionately contested proposition, and attracted interest – and investment – from extremely wealthy and intelligent individuals, as well as Google and Nasa, which have each put money into the Singularity University (co-founded by Kurzweil) near San Jose.

An early hit at the summit is biophysicist and entrepreneur Gregory Stock, who enthuses the paying audience of future-followers with statements such as "science has slammed the evolutionary process into fast forward" and "evolution is itself evolving", before advising everyone to drink more coffee (based on the promising gene research he oversaw as chief executive of Signum Biosciences) and suggesting that we should not underestimate the current state of progress: "This is big stuff that's happening." He elicits a communal chuckle by showing pictures of gratuitous sex (featuring worms, beetles, squid and flies) as a precursor to his notion of a "planetary superorganism".

Away from the podium, Stock elaborates: "What's really freeing is if you walk through a city and think of it as purely biological: that there isn't a contradiction between flesh and biology and technology. It's the manifestation of biology creating this entity, this superorganism: a city. You have to be awestruck that it actually works."

The broad concept of a city is also central to understanding the AI theories of Demis Hassabis, who earnt a double-first in computer science at Cambridge before trading his career in the videogame industry for a job in cognitive neuroscience at University College London. Hassabis wants to enable computers to learn not just language but complex abstractions. "I'm interested in how we build the concept of a city. It's a really rich representation. You're thinking of size, tons of people, cathedrals... the actual concept. Basically, I think there are going to be some amazing breakthroughs by 2020."

Hassabis confesses that, while he's interested in the singularity, he himself is not a singularitarian. "Maybe it's because of my British side, but it's a bit Californian, I think. Potentially that's the ultimate thing we might have to deal with if anything we do in AI works. But I think we're so far away from that, and so far away from anything being dangerous or sentient, that we need to do a lot more work first before we can properly analyse what the dangers might be."

Goertzel is not as sure as Hassabis that we should relax. "I would be among the least shocked people if we had the singularity in 2015," he says, before qualifying that thought with: "I also wouldn't be amazed if it was delayed to 2100, because some technologies prove hard to work through all the details." Either way, he thinks, the singularity is coming. But what's it going to look like?

"There's a dichotomy," says Goertzel, "between people such as Ray Kurzweil, who see the kinder, gentler singularity, which makes the future much like it is today but without disease and without scarcity, and everyone's frolicking in the fields. And Vernor Vinge, [who says] once we've got a 'being' 10 times as smart as us, all bets are off. I'm a bit more inclined towards Vinge's views than Ray's. I'm hoping for the best, and will work toward a positive outcome. I feel like Ray and some others downplay the irreducible uncertainty of creating things massively more capable than us."

Roboticist David Hanson has been discussing with Goertzel some of the reasons why there hasn't been something like an Apollo programme, funded by the government, to achieve human-level cognition in machines. "Ben said he thought it was because people were scared of these machines, and I said that if people felt that the machines were friends, and lovable, they wouldn't be scared." To address that fear, Hanson makes robots he calls "empathy machines" because "if we don't feel like they're part of our family, then we're going to pick a fight with [them]. And the smarter they get, the more dangerous it will be to pick fights."

Steve Mann, still wearing his intelligent spectacles, demonstrates another way the man-machine gulf can be bridged, by playing House of the Rising Sun on what looks like a cross between a synthesizer and a bird bath: he creates music by placing his fingers on small jets of water. It's less an attempt to soundtrack the future than a way to show how the hard digital world can seem less alien, more tactile. Although Mann shares a claim to "world's first cyborg" status with the University of Reading's Kevin Warwick, he assures me he's been modifying himself since childhood.

If all cyborgs and robots end up as affable, enthusiastic and musical as Mann, the face of the singularity – should it ever show itself – will not appear too daunting, but all the speakers at the summit agree that, however the future unfolds, we're sure to have plenty to think about. For instance, with the promise of advanced AI comes the possibility of radical life extension, even immortality, after we've banished all bodily ills and uploaded ourselves to a hard-drive.

In case he doesn't live to see that day, Goertzel has signed up for cryonic suspension, so that he can be revived and rebooted in the transhuman, post-singularity era. Hanson has hedged his bets, saying that to be a transhumanist is to humbly realise that there is a future that exists beyond us. Stock, on the other hand, acknowledges that the human lifespan will most likely be modified, in a good way, but says that it won't really matter to him.

"I don't think I will quite make it," he admits, before urging us to step back for a second, and relish the fact that, in the broader picture, we live in incredible times. "Drink this stuff, imbibe of it. When you really penetrate into this stuff it's absolutely mind-boggling. People should be taking pleasure in that." n

Transhumanism "It's humanism on steroids," explains Max More. "It's a view that we can improve the human condition: things like mortality, the inevitability of death; the limited capacity of our brains; the primitive state of our emotional systems." Extropy The opposite of the natural tendency towards disorder and decay. "It's about increasing levels of a system's intelligence, its vitality, its experience, and its capacity and drive for improvement," says More. The singularity The point at which accelerating technology profoundly changes human existence. Ray Kurzweil believes it will arrive in around 2045; Ben Goertzel wouldn't be surprised if it arrived by 2015.

Ray Kurzweil

Age: 62 Born New York Lives Boston

Big idea: Reverse-engineering the brain

Quote: "Our tools for peering into our brains are improving at an exponential pace."

Profile: Kurzweil made his name with a series of inventions – the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind; the first synth capable of accurately replicating orchestral instruments – and after popularising the idea of the singularity (see "A futurist glossary, below"), he is now turning the bulk of his attention to reverse-engineering (structurally analysing) the brain. "It's not that we're going to simulate the brain mindlessly," he joked to 2010 Singularity Summit attendees. "I believe we are only two decades from fully modelling and simulating the human brain."

Stewart Brand

Age: 71 Born Illinois Lives San Francisco

Big idea: Whole Earth Discipline

Quote: "We are as gods, and have to get good at it."

Profile: Name-checked at the beginning of Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Brand emerged from the counterculture at the leading edge of technology and environmentalism. In 2009, he amended much of his green thinking in Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. "I think that geoengineering [or climate engineering] will become seen as necessary – whether it works well remains to be seen," he says. Of the singularity, he adds: "I think it has correctly been characterised as the Rapture of the Nerds."

Demis Hassabis

Age: 34 Born London Lives London

Big idea: Hybrid Systems Neuroscience

Quote: "There are spaceships being launched all over the place right now, so how about launching a few into the mind."

Profile: Hassabis is a former child chess prodigy and videogames designer hoping to surf the revolution in cognitive neuroscience, and enable computers to not only understand a concept but to "learn, store, and flexibly use concepts". This he hopes to achieve by 2020, by pursuing an approach summed up by the equation: machine learning + neuroscience = artificial general intelligence. "I want to create an interdisciplinary lab that basically has computer scientists and neuroscientists working together."

Larry Brilliant

Age: 66 Born Detroit Lives San Francisco

Big idea: Teleological Technology

Quote: "If you don't have a world that builds technology for the purpose of making life better, then technology is not the answer."

Profile: The physician and technologist who played a key role in the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, and is currently president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, set up "to safeguard the future", advocates applying the medical usage of teleology – disease-specific medicine – to technology. "I'd like to see more purposeful technology. We have unbridled increases in certain technologies and not enough in others. We've done really well with globalisation of products that make a profit, but really poorly at the globalisation of compassion and empathy."

David Hanson

Age: 40 Born Dallas Lives Dallas

Big idea: Character Robotics

Quote: "I think we can achieve something like human creative genius in machines, between 10 and 20 years from now, maybe sooner."

Profile: Hanson, a former Disney "imagineer" who developed Frubber™ artificial skin for robots at Hanson Robotics, suggests a renaissance philosophy whereby engineering, neuroscience and art feed on each other: "For civilisation to go forward we need friendly superintelligent machines. I focus on 'character intelligence' because I'm trying to see it from the human-use perspective: how would the user interact with this robot? Rolling techniques from art into the mix is a shortcut to realising machines we can empathise with."

Ben Goertzel

Age: 43 Born Rio de Janeiro Lives Washington

Big idea: Artificial Biology

Quote: "Artificial biologists will ultimately abolish involuntary death."

Profile: Goertzel is the prime mover behind OpenCog, a project developing Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). "AGI will be a system that has more of the type of general intelligence that we think of humans as having, where it can solve a huge variety of problems, including those the programmers of the system never thought of." The road to understanding radical life extension (like the longevity he's seen in fruit flies genetically bred to live five times longer than regular fruit flies) is "combining OpenCog AI stuff with narrow AI to get a system of artificial biology".

Max More

Age: 46 Born Bristol Lives Austin, Texas

Big idea: Dynamic Optimism

Quote: "I'm hoping not to age and die."

Profile: More is one of the more cautious futurists, who believes that, "Futurism shouldn't be about predictions – it should be about scenarios." He is not a singularitarian because "the singularity view seems to rely on a single forecasting method, and there are many other methods". However, he was one of the first thinkers to sharpen the definition of transhumanism (see glossary) and to map out a strategic approach to tech-based futurism. "Part of my view is this idea of Dynamic Optimism. We can make ourselves and the world better, but only if we make a big effort. It's not going to happen automatically."

Gregory Stock

Age: 60 Born LA Lives Princeton

Big idea: The Planetary Superorganism

Quote: "Things are going to get very weird, relatively quickly."

Profile: Stock has expanded on his 1993 book Metaman, which outlined a vision of humanity merged with technology. "The way we interact with each other, the kind of social networking that exists, all that has moved into the mainstream in a very profound way, extremely rapidly. To me, it's the networking that makes things beyond human level intelligence. We're able to multiply who we are by being tied together. If you look at those multiplication factors, that's already happening just in the past few years. I look at it and I go: What a privilege to be alive right now."

A futurist glossary

Transhumanism: “It’s humanism on steroids,” explains Max More. “It’s a view that we can improve the human condition: things like mortality, the inevitability of death; the limited capacity of our brains; the primitive state of our emotional systems.”

Extropy: The opposite of the natural tendency towards disorder and decay. “It’s about increasing levels of a system’s intelligence, its vitality, its experience, and its capacity and drive for improvement,” says More.

The singularity: The point at which accelerating technology profoundly changes human existence. Ray Kurzweil believes it will arrive in around 2045; Ben Goertzel wouldn’t be surprised if it arrived by 2015.

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