Top Ten Singularity Personalities

Monday, February 13, 2012

In our effort to produce a "Who's Who" of Singularity personalities we are sure to miss the mark according to some.  For one, we are dissapointed that the list so far is an all-male affair, however Sonia Arrison, Christine Peterson, and Natasha Vita-More and others came close to cracking the top ten. The list is meant to be a work in progress, so the next time we revisit it, things may look much different.  We welcome your comments on this list.

That said, here is our first take:

10. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (Tie)

As co-authors of the book,Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy Brynjolfsson and McAfee were among the initial inspirations for this website.

Their research and commentary on the economic impacts of accelerating technological change bring to the forefront the need for Singularity research and thought to take place.

Erik Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, a professor at the MIT Sloan School, and an award-winning researcher. His research examines the effects of information technologies on business strategy, productivity and employment. His recent work studies data-driven decision-making, the pricing implications of Internet commerce and the role intangible assets.
Brynjolfsson lectures worldwide on technology and strategy. Businessweek has profiled him as an “ebusiness visionary” and he is a director or advisor for several technology-intensive firms.

Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, studies the ways that information technology (IT) affects business. His research investigates how IT changes the way companies perform, organize themselves, and compete. At a higher level, his work also investigates how computerization affects competition itself –  the struggle among rivals for dominance and survival within an industry. He coined the phrase “Enterprise 2.0“ and his best-selling book on the topic was published in 2009 by Harvard Business School Press. McAffe has been named one of the "100 Most Influential People in IT."

9. Peter Thiel

From our perspective, there is a high rating given to individual on this list that 'Walk the walk.'  Among this category are Elon Musk and his Pay Pal co-founder, Peter Thiel.  After co-founding PayPal, Thiel took the company public on Feb. 15, 2002, and sold it to eBay for USD 1.5 billion later that year. His 3.7 percent stake in PayPal was worth approximately $55 million at the time of the acquisition. Thiel has used this capital not only to expand his personal wealth, with further investments (most notably in Facebook), but has philanthropically contributed to Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Methuselah Mouse Prize Foundation and libertarian political movements such as the campaign of Ron Paul.  Thiel is also on the steering committee of the controversial Bilderberg Group, whose secret meetings have been the fodder for conspiracy theorists for years.

Thiel has been a frequent speaker at the annual Singularity Summit events, and is scheduled for the event in 2012.  Thiel carries out most of his philanthropic activity through the Thiel Foundation. The Thiel Foundation supports the exploration of new frontiers in science and technology, including artificial intelligence, longevity science, cyberspace development, outer space exploration, and seasteading. To that end, we fund forward-thinking research that endeavors to improve the human condition and to ensure that technological breakthroughs will benefit humanity.

8. Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly has been tracking technology for many years. He is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor from its inception until 1999. His most recent book called  What Technology Wants , was published on October 18, 2010. Kevin is also editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which gets half a million unique visitors per month. From 1984-1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review, a journal of unorthodox technical news. He co-founded the ongoing Hackers’ Conference, and was involved with the launch of  , a pioneering online service started in 1985. He authored the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy and the classic book on decentralized emergent systems, Out of Control.

His work fed some of Ray Kurzweil's analysis of the Singularity for his books.  Subsequent to that, Kelly has offered more insights into the nature and phenomenom of technology.  His latest book, What Technology Wants has been called, the unofficial prequel to the Singularity is Near.

"The singularity is not a discreet event. It’s a continuum woven into the very warp of extropic systems. It is a travelling mirage that moves along with us, as life and the technium accelerate their evolution." - Kevin Kelly, The Singularity Is Always Near

7. Max More

Previously Max More would have been rated much higher on this list, however his duties as CEO at Alcor Life Extension Foundation have reduced his output of Singularitian essays and talks.  That said, More remains a figurehead of the movement.  His essays in the 1990's helped lay the groundwork for Singulatarianism.  Founder of the Extropy Institute, Max More has written many articles espousing the philosophy of transhumanism and the transhumanist philosophy of extropy, most importantly his Principles of Extropy (currently version 3.11).[3] In a 1990 essay "Transhumanism: Toward a Futurist Philosophy", he introduced the term "transhumanism" in its modern sense.

More is also noted for his writings about the impact of new and emerging technologies on businesses and other organizations. His "Proactionary Principle" is intended as a balanced guide to the risks and benefits of technological innovation.

6.  Ben Goertzel

Dr. Ben Goertzel is an American author and researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. He currently leads Novamente LLC, a privately held software company that attempts to develop a form of strong AI, which he calls "Artificial General Intelligence" (AGI).  Goertzel is the author of The Hidden Pattern: A Patternist Philosophy of Mind and A Cosmist Manifesto: Practical Philosophy for the Posthuman Age. He is also the CEO of Biomind LLC, a company that markets a software product for the AI-supported analysis of biological microarray data; and he is an advisor to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and formerly its Director of Research.

5. Vernor Vinge

Vernor Steffen Vinge is a retired San Diego State University (SDSU) Professor of Mathematics, computer scientist, and science fiction author. He is best known for his Hugo Award-winning novels and novellas A Fire Upon The Deep , A Deepness in the Sky, Rainbows End, Fast Times at Fairmont High  and The Cookie Monster , The Children of the Sky, as well as for his 1984 novel The Peace War and his 1993 essay "The Coming Technological Singularity", in which he argues that the creation of superhuman artificial intelligence will mark the point at which "the human era will be ended," such that no current models of reality are sufficient to predict beyond it.

As one of the key definers of the technological singularity, Vinge remains an active participant in the discussions that continue to develop the core ideas.  

4.  Aubrey de Gray

Someone once questioned Aubrey de Gray why, as a champion of life-extension does he make himself look so old.  With his long beard and hair, de Gray is an easily recognizable figure.  Despite his looks, de Gray has cultivated himself into an authority for life-extension, or as he prefers health extension.

As the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation, de Gray works tirelessly to develop, promote and ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies which comprehensively address the disabilities and diseases of aging. He is editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research, author of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging and co-author of Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. De Grey's research focuses on whether regenerative medicine can thwart the aging process. He works on the development of what he calls "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" (SENS), a tissue-repair strategy intended to rejuvenate the human body and allow an indefinite lifespan. To this end, he has identified seven types of molecular and cellular damage caused by essential metabolic processes. SENS is a proposed panel of therapies designed to repair this damage. De Grey is a fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, the American Aging Association, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and an adviser to the Singularity Institute.

3. Eliezer Yudkowsky

According to his own webiste, Eliezer Yudkowsky writes about the fine art of human rationality. Yudkowsky concerns himself with Artificial Intelligence. Since the rise of Homo sapiens, human beings have been the smartest minds around. But very shortly – on a historical scale, that is – we can expect technology to break the upper bound on intelligence that has held for the last few tens of thousands of years. Artificial Intelligence is one of the technologies that potentially breaks this upper bound. The famous statistician I. J. Good coined the term “intelligence explosion” to refer to the idea that a sufficiently smart AI would be able to rewrite itself, improve itself, and so increase its own intelligence even further. This is the kind of Artificial Intelligence Yudkowsky work on.

2. Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis is considered a key figure in the development of the personal spaceflight industry, having created many space-related businesses or organizations. He is the Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, an educational non-profit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.  As mentioned above, we value the "Walk the Walk" factor on this list, and Diamandis' various efforts have propelled him to be a key Singularity personality.

His foundation is best known for offering the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize that was won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan with SpaceShipOne, the world's first non-government piloted spacecraft. More recently, Diamandis has created the Rocket Racing League. Born as a cross between Indy car racing and rocket-powered flight, RRL is developing a brand-new motor sport.

In addition to serving as chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, Diamandis is also the CEO and co-founder of Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers parabolic weightless flights to the general public. His most famous customer has been Professor Stephen Hawking.  He is also the co-Founder and a Director of Space Adventures, Ltd, the company that has flown eight private citizens on Soyuz to the International Space Station.

In 2008, Diamandis co-Founded the Singularity University along with Dr. Ray Kurzweil, serving as the Chairman & Vice-Chancellor of SU. Diamandis speaks dynamically and passionately explaining how the rapid growth of key exponential technologies are empowering individuals and companies to do what only governments were able to achieve in past decades. The key exponential technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, synthetic biology, embedded networks, nanotechnology/materials and human machine interfaces have the potential to transform industries and society over the next twenty years. Such technologies will drive a period of significant disruption or opportunity depending on the company’s mind-set. Diamandis’ ultimate message is that companies cannot remain stagnant. They must evolve or they will die.

Diamandis recently released the book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think with co-author, Steven Kotler.

1.  Ray Kurzweil

The obvious choice for this list is the founder of the term, Ray Kurzweil.  After the publication of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, and further development of the ideas in subsequent books, Kurzweil helped to initiate popular use of the term and definition for the technological singularity.  Kurzweil predicts that machines might have the ability to make planet-sized computers by 2099, which underscores how enormously technology will advance after the Singularity.
"Well, science futurism and I have a strong track record, which is why people listen to me. I've been making predictions for 30 years and they've tried very well. I wrote a 150 page paper recently tracking the accuracy of my predictions; those which have stuck to predictions of where the quantified level of different technologies would be, such as instructions-per-second, have been extremely accurate." - from interview with Wired
An independent, feature-length documentary was made about Kurzweil, his life, and his ideas called Transcendent Man. Filmmakers Barry Ptolemy and Felicia Ptolemy followed Kurzweil, documenting his global speaking tour. Premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Transcendent Man documents Kurzweil's quest to reveal mankind's ultimate destiny and explores many of the ideas found in his book, The Singularity is Near, including his concept of exponential growth, radical life expansion, and how we will transcend our biology. The Ptolemys documented Kurzweil's stated goal of bringing back his late father using AI. The film also features critics who argue against Kurzweil's predictions.

For more of the key personalities involved with Singularity studies and activities, check out Exponential Times' thorough list