Panel discussion on The Singularity Is Near at Woodstock Film Festival

October 27, 2010

Film Synopsis | Film directed by: Anthony Waller and Ray Kurzweil. The future: human history and mythology have been consumed with foretelling it, traveling to it and depicting it in our pop culture. “Science Fiction” futures are imagined where robots have equaled or surpassed human intelligence and we have conquered disease through genetics and technology. Is that future becoming reality? In Anthony Waller’s The Singularity Is Near, celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil presents his and other preeminent luminaries’ visions of the approaching singularity where artificial intelligence begins to surpass our own, changing the face of how the human race lives and interacts. While also delving into the potential dangers on a philosophical and technological level, Kurzweil delivers an outlook of the future that is both insightful and bewildering; and imaginative and hopeful. (Michael Burke).

Panel Sponsor | Terasem Motion Infoculture

Panel Synopsis | We live in an era of exponentially increasing advances in artificial intelligence, nano technology, robotics, designer drugs, bionics, and techniques to defeat—and perhaps even reverse—cellular aging. Scientific optimists look forward to a transhuman future when our life expectancy will be dramatically, if not infinitely, extended; when people no longer suffer from disability or disease; when super-intelligent machines will “reproduce” by designing and building their own successors; when the line between humans and computers will increasingly blur, as we “download” our memories and minds into machines and become bionic ourselves. What promises and challenges does this vision of the future hold?

Moderator | Paul Hoffman is the editorial chairman of, a storyteller at The Moth, and an award-winning science writer. His website is

Panelists | Martine Rothblatt: Ph.D, MBA, lawyer, author and entrepreneur. Ray Kurzweil: One of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers and futurists, with a twenty-year track record of accurate predictions.

My Take | Much of the audience, myself included, who had just watched the quasi-documentary/sci-fi narrative feature film, The Singularity Is Near (based on Kurzweil’s book of the same name), headed over from the Bearsville Theater across the way to Utopia Studios for a panel discussion with the scientific and creative mind behind the film and co-director, Ray Kurzweil, and producer Martine Rothblatt (founder of Sirius Satellite Radio) for a panel discussion moderated by Paul Hoffman. The panel somewhat continued the discussion where last year’s Redesigning Humanity: The New Frontier panel left off. I found both the film and the discussion to be quite fascinating. What if there were technologies to extend our lives, cure certain diseases, artificial intelligence with feelings, and so on? Well it seems as if scientists and technology pioneers are making this happen as analyzed in the film. I didn’t think I would like the hybrid element of mixing a narrative with documentary, but in this case, it really made the topic even more interesting and relatable. The narrative, involving a bot named Ramona with artificial intelligence that is trying to become more conscious and human, pumped a lot of energy into the film, making it very fun and entertaining, despite some hokey acting. What I also learned is that some of this technology can be used for solar panels to create a source of renewable energy, a topic that perhaps we can try to address at the Environmentally Speaking: Improving Our Planet with the Power of Film panel discussion this Sunday at 2:00 P.M. (shameless plug). Below are some highlights of The Singularity Is Near panel discussion.

Notes | Before getting into some of the broader questions the panel would address — Kurzweil’s and Rothblatt’s visions of the future, what society needs to do to get there, and what obstacles they might encounter – Hoffman asked Kurzweil to define Singularity. Kurzweil said the core idea behind Singularity is the exponential growth of Information Technology. Computer growth has doubled by a billion in 25 years. It is not intuitive, the only thing that is constant is change, but change is not a constant. Our intuition about the future is that it is linear, not exponential. He has debated with other scientists whether Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) will pass the turn test in 20 years. His view is that the view of exponential growth is underestimated. The other key point is that it is not just gadgets, but biology, the premise of biotechnology. The reason to be concerned about this is it holds the key to solving the major challenges in humanity: energy, the environment, disease, longevity, and poverty. On the other hand, biotechnologies can be abused, for example biological weapons for terrorism.

Hoffman said Singularity is the point in which A.I. reaches and surpasses human intelligence, but when will this happen. According to Rothblatt, this is a misleading question to answer, because intelligence isn’t something that’s concrete. She alludes to Kurzweil’s point in the film and his book that there are hundreds of A.I. applications that come into existence year after year, and the film begins that the Singularity has already begun. The question really is, when will non-flesh-based intelligence demonstrate consciousness (such as the character of Ramona in the film) and when will this artificial person care about its existence, and we as human should really care about this artificial person? She thinks it will happen in a few decades. Kurzweil said it’s a philosophical matter of personal belief about the consciousness of A.I., his being that “if it seems conscious, it is.” If it passes the turn test, we will come to believe that they conscious, and he believes we’ll get to that threshold in about 20 years.

There’s the future, and then there’s now, 2010. Hoffman asked the panel what they feel the most amazing things are happening now in these fields, such as biomedicine. Rothblatt said she thinks the most incredible thing going on now is stem cell research. She referred to an Australian company taking a male baby’s foreskin and using it to grow in a laboratory environment to grow fresh tissue that can be transplanted on burn victims [Side Note: I actually knew a little bit about this fact through the documentary, Partly Private, which deals with circumcision. I handled publicity for this film and it won the award for Best New York Documentary at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival J]. Rothblatt’s company focuses on the lungs for people dying of lung cancer, and they’re working on growing fresh air sacks to be re-planted back into the patient.

Of nanotechnology, what is an example of something that has worked in a lab, Hoffman asked. Kurzweil said an application of nanotechnology are new solar panels that have been created that have resulted in the price per watt coming down. There’s also an emerging field of creating three-dimensional objects by re-organizing molecules.

How do these new technologies change human relations, Hoffman asked. Rothblatt said it will bring people closer together. Her point of view is that we’ve moved two steps forward and one step back. There is an emerging global consciousness. More than half the people in the world now have means to communicate with everyone via cell phones. Kurzweil added that decentralized communication has a positive democratizing effect.

Hoffman looked back on the turn of the 19th to 20th Century when there seemed to be a sense of technological optimism. Is there that same sense now? Kurzweil articulated what the key thesis is — if you measure the underlying properties of Information Technology, it was an amazingly smooth exponential. It’s not an erratic curve. Hoffman interjected to say that it wasn’t his point to examine the growth of I.T., but how it is handled. Kurzweil said there will always be plusses and minuses, and things have come a long way. There are things we could be doing, and we’re not. That’s why it is important to understand the potential of today’s technology.

Hoffman said he learned from one of the interview subjects in the film, that as people live longer, there will be no murder, because it will be so morally reprehensible to take someone’s life. How will that vanish? Rothblatt said no one’s arguing that evil deeds are going to vanish, but that the ratio of good versus bad in the world is continuing to increase. In the future, everyone will routinely back up his or her brain, which could possibly federally mandated. One reason there wouldn’t be murder, is that everyone would come back as his or her virtual selves.

Why are there so many smart people at the top of their fields who think that Kurzweil’s vision in the film is inaccurate, Hoffman asked. Kurzweil said these skeptics are linear thinkers. He questioned why people stick to this perspective. No one had ever really adopted exponential growth emotional, but the acceptance of exponential growth and its implications is growing. Rothblatt said it’s just human nature, not about the technological change. Now matter how intelligent you are, humans will be naturally threatened.

Hoffman asked the panel to discuss more about what they think is going to happen in the future. Rothblatt said it comes to a concept of being able to operate across multiple bodies. We’re accustomed to having one mind and one body. Once we’re able to abstract our consciousness outside of our body, you can then operate your mind across multiple bodies. Because of this exponential intelligence, you’ll be able to be aware of you multiple selves at the same time. Kurzweil said a trend to look at is virtual reality, Second Life for example, even in its brief existence so far, it is moving toward greater realism. Imagine how illicit and compelling these virtual environments will be in 20 or 50 years.

One question asked from the audience to Martine was will there be an end to racism, and will machines have a sense of social belonging? She said the thesis of her foundation that helped fund this film is that that race is fiction, but racism is real. Trying to define the human species as separate races is just a mental construct, but racism is totally real. What she is concerned about is this mapping over into non-fleshed race. A concept brought up in the film is fleshism. We have to be able to accept people whatever their appearance or virtual appearance and think about the behavior and their nature, but not their physical manifestations.