Ahead of the SingularityU conference in Christchurch this November, Francis Cook talked to event organiser Kaila Colbin about what the singularity means for work, leisure, sex, and the future.

For an explainer on the singularity, click here.
Read more about the summit here.
Can you describe what you mean by the singularity? Are we talking about the end of humanity as we know it? Do you foresee human consciousness as being unified with technology or apart from it?

Great question! The first point here is that this conference is not really about the singularity. Actually, even SingularityU is not really about the singularity! It's about understanding exponentially accelerating technologies, and how they can be used to address humanity's biggest challenges.

But one of the fascinating things that happened when I started learning about the exponential progression of technology is that I suddenly understood how "the singularity" - which refers to the point at which machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence - could be possible.

How soon do you think technology will change the make-up of working life? Do you think it will be the end of the 9-5? Who benefits and who loses as technology takes over manual labour and (eventually) intellectual labour?


Technology is already dramatically changing working life. Just a few weeks ago, Apple's Foxconn factory in China laid off 60,000 workers and replaced them with robots. That's obviously really disruptive for everyone involved, but it's kind of an old story, right?

Automation replacing manufacturing labour. But two other news stories came out that week: one, that an artificially intelligent lawyer, "Ross", was hired by a law firm, and two, that an artificially intelligent teacher's assistant helped students online for an entire semester and nobody noticed. So it's not just blue-collar jobs being affected anymore.

Will it be the end of the 9-5?

It may be the end of the need for the 9-5. But one of the really interesting things we're seeing is that, for the first time in history, working longer hours is seen as a sign of status.

There's a lot of discussion right now about minimum basic income or universal basic income as a means to more fairly and consistently ensure that people's basic needs are met. There is less discussion about the ethical and philosophical implications of a world in which we don't have to work. Most of us have created meaningful self-identities that revolve around the kind of job we do.

What happens when we're no longer needed?

The upside of that is that we have the opportunity to shift away from working to survive, and towards work as a means of self-expression and contribution.

Do you think that we will see The Singularity within our lifetimes?

That depends. How old are you, and do you smoke?

Does the popularity of virtual and augmented reality herald the arrival of a new state of living - a step forward to embracing virtual life?

Absolutely. Do not underestimate the impact of virtual and augmented reality -- or our brains' ability to treat virtual reality as real. We can now replicate the real world in VR so that we can play with it and manipulate it, and that creates some fantastic opportunities.

In Christchurch, Henry Lane's company Corvecto is creating training software for radiology students that puts you in the lab, with a patient on the table, and you can operate the X-ray machine and mess with the settings and see what happens. It's incredibly vivid; I even leaned on the "table" at one point!

But it also gives us the opportunity to create worlds that don't exist, and not just look at them as external models but experience them as real. Imagine if we were rebuilding Christchurch and instead of renderings and tiny models we could physically be in it, and understand how it feels, and what works and what doesn't. Imagine if you're teaching kids about the solar system and they can fly through it and see how the Earth both spins on an axis and revolves around the sun.

Following from that - will we see the end of (real) sexual relationships within our lifetime?

I sure hope not! But the porn industry has always been one of the major drivers for technological advancement.

Do you think businesses are taking the necessary steps for technological advancement and how it could disrupt economy and markets?

The vast majority of us don't begin to grasp the immensity of the shift we're experiencing. We did not evolve to think in exponential terms; we evolved to think in linear terms. So we continually underestimate the impact of exponential technologies.

Even the experts do this. Gordon Moore, who created Moore's Law, twice said Moore's Law was over. Both times he was proven wrong. If Gordon Moore can't get his own law right, what hope do the rest of us have?

So because we don't think exponentially, it's really hard to be adequately prepared. When an exponential technology hits the inflection point where it goes from so-so into amazement, we're always taken by surprise; there's always a part of us that thought the amazement bit would never really come.

Like self-driving cars, which seemed like they were so far away but are already here. Or bioengineered milk that is identical to milk from a cow. Or computer interfaces embedded in our contact lenses, or operated with our thoughts. They seem fantastical and science fiction-y until WHAMMO they're everywhere.

Is the singularity something to look forward to or dread?

There are definitely reasons to be concerned about it. Nick Bostrom's book "Superintelligence" is pretty scary, and is what caused Elon Musk to tweet that AI was potentially more dangerous than nukes.

One of the things I've observed, though, is that when we try to predict the future, we usually predict either brave new world or dystopia. And then what we get is somewhere in the middle. We've got iPhones, which are magical, and we've got the NSA listening to our conversations, which is not so magical.

Imprisonment/punishment and technology have become a recent subject of debate in that it will soon be possible to make people suffer more and for longer periods of time - how do you see law interacting with the rapid advancement of technology?

It's really hard for the law to keep up. Our criminal justice systems were built on the assumption of co-location of perpetrator, victim and law enforcement. Now you can get a kid in a basement wreaking large-scale havoc on a society halfway across the world.

So you get this issue that you mentioned, that law enforcement can get out of control, and then you have the other issue, that it isn't equipped to deal with the kinds of crimes that can be committed in an exponential age.

Or even where it can keep up, and where there are good intentions, we can get into a Minority Report scenario, where machine learning and big data give us really accurate predictive capabilities when it comes to crime, and we have to explore the ethical implications of intervening before a crime can occur.