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Gnarly Computations For the Future


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IF YOU REALLY WANT the grit on how fast society is changing, Stanford University will host a conference called "Accelerating Change 2005: Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Amplification; Transforming Technology, Empowering Humanity" (www.accelerating.org). Artificial intelligence ("AI"), broadly defined, improves the intelligence, capacity and autonomy of our technology. Intelligence amplification ("IA") empowers human beings and their social, political and economic environments.

A wide variety of entrepreneurs, technologists and futurists from every discipline will address themes like robotic intelligence, media/communications intelligence, interface intelligence, computer security, investing, nutrition, linguistics, nanoelectronics, business strategies and creative/artistic intelligence. How's that for a bent stew of intellectual topics? Folks right here in the valley are predicting and planning for the future decades down the road. You'll never find a more multidisciplinary jumble of intellectual revolutionaries assembled in one locale anywhere in Silicon Valley.

Keynote speakers include AI expert and internationally renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil, who penned The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. In that book, he makes a case that since technology is accelerating exponentially, by the year 2020 computers will outpace the human brain in computational power. That doesn't mean the robots will take over, it just means that someday humans are going to have to deal with conscious machines.

Kurzweill's keynote address is timed with the release of his new book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which explores what he says will happen after our brains and bodies merge with machines. According to the book description, he describes "a human-machine civilization where our experiences shift from real reality to virtual reality and where our intelligence becomes nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful. In practical terms, this means that human aging and pollution will be reversed; world hunger will be solved; our bodies and environment transformed by nanotechnology to overcome the limitations of biology, including death; and virtually any physical product can be created from information alone."

A lot of intriguing questions will be asked at this conference: When will your computer converse with you, even if it doesn't "understand" you? In what ways will this change the nature of the world? What major new opportunities will emerge? Is the aging process an information process?

According to Los Gatos–based science fiction author Rudy Rucker, it's all about computation. Rucker, a retired SJSU professor, will infiltrate the conference to discuss his new nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy, a tome that looks to be a rip-roaring combo of popular science, fringe math and Rucker's bent journey of discovering the computational universe. (Full disclosure: Rucker is a friend and former professor of mine.)

Allow me to recite exactly how he explains this "computational" thang: "We're presently in the midst of a new intellectual revolution: were coming to realize that physics, biology, minds and societies all emerge from interacting laws that can be regarded as computations. Everything is a computation; more precisely, everything is a gnarly computation. I use ‘gnarly' to mean richly complex—or what Stephen Wolfram calls class-four. A tree's growth, the changes in the weather, the flow of daily news, a person's ever-changing moods—all of these are gnarly computations."

A week after the Accelerating Change conference—and this was tentative at presstime—Rucker will talk about the book again at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit independent research group based in Palo Alto and founded in 1968. And he has also emerged from retirement to teach a philosophy class at SJSU, using this book as the textbook.

In the book's introduction, Rucker explains that he spent 20 years in the dark confines of Silicon Valley, that he's covered in a thick lint of bytes and computer code, and it's time to come out in the open and spill to the world how computers have changed the already bent way he views everything. It's all about new ideas, man.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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