In the Phoenix: The Singularity

A fun cover story in this week's Phoenix. The University of Rhode Island's 49th Annual Honors Colloquium, a speakers series and class, is titled "Are You Ready for the Future?" And the speaker who kicked off the event was Ray Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor - and media favorite - who says exponential growth in technological sophistication means we'll all be having sex with robots, running at Olympic speeds and, achieving immortality in the very near future.

It's all in the run-up to "singularity," the moment at which computers - on their own or implanted in the human body - create a superhuman intelligence that utterly transforms reality. Sound kooky? Think again. Kurzweil isn't a quack - he predicted the explosion of the Internet and the date for the mapping of the human genome. President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1999.

But his view of the singularity is quite utopian when compared to the lesser-known takes of several other very smart people who have dedicated their lives to the concept. These folks say the singularity will be far less predictable and, possibly, quite a bit darker. Among them - computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who spoke at the URI colloquium this week.

Vinge says we simply can't know what a superhuman intelligence will do. He draws a striking analogy, which didn't make it into the story. The coming of the singularity, he says, will be at least as consequential as the arrival of mankind, which accelerated by thousands and thousands of times the slow changes wrought by evolution.

We've also got a look at the other lectures coming up in the "Are You Ready" colloquium, an interview with the ProJo's G. Wayne Miller, who has a new biography of Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, and a chat with Roger Stahl, a professor of communications at the University of Georgia who will be appearing at the first of the fall Action Speaks! panels at Providence art space AS220.

The Action Speaks! panels, sponsored in part by the Phoenix, focus on underappreciated dates in history. This one looks to President Eisenhower's farewell speech, which warned of the rising "military-industrial complex." Stahl has interesting take on the speech. And, as author of a book called Militainment, he's got some insights on the contemporary collision of war and interactive entertainment.

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