A Trip To Singularity University Leads To Questions and Criticisms For Jonathan White

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jonathan White

Recently at Dr. Kim Solez's Technology and the Future of Medicine course at the University of Alberta, there was a remarkable recanting of previous views about the Singularity by surgeon Jonathan White. Is he right now? Is he wrong? You can decide, but his "nine myths of the near future" are remarkably thought-provoking.
A t Dr.Kim Solez's on Technology and the Future of Medicine LABMP 590 course at the University of Alberta, surgeon Dr. Jonathan White recently spoke about, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Debunking Myths About the Future.". Solez writes that It is amazing to see one of our most articulate lecturers in the course recant previously strongly held views.

Dr. White MD PhD FRCS(Gen Surg) MSc(Med Ed) is the University of Alberta’s first Tom Williams Endowed Chair in Surgical Education. He is also a McCalla Professor and was the 2010 recipient of the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. He is the co-creator of the Surgery 101 podcast series which has been downloaded more than 350,000 times in over 100 countries.

About White's talk Solez writes:
Twenty years after iconic Canadian singer songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote these words in the song The Future we are finally starting to understand through Jonathan White what the song means when it gives Leonard's own version of the Singularity: "Things are going to slide, slide in all directions Won't be nothing Nothing you can measure anymore The blizzard, the blizzard of the world Has crossed the threshold And it has overturned The order of the soul When they said repent repent I wonder what they meant" Here indeed we have Jonathan White repenting! 
White begins with, background influence of grandmother, science fiction, and Ray Kurzweil. He also discusses how a recent visit to Singularity University for FutureMed caused his rethinking.

White mentions the Gartner hype cycle, and says that for him his view of the Singularity is currently at trough of disillusionment.  He is not sure the Singularity even exists.  For White, there are more questions than answers following his trip to Singularity University.  He hopes that by being critical of the Singularity and that through dialogue, answers can be reached.

Gartner hype cycle

White talks about nine myths of the near future, and some harsh truths in his Singularity University review:

  • Myth #1 Technology will fix everything, Politics and practicality still rule according to White.
  • Myth #2 Exponential will take care of everything, White says it is Exponentially lazy to rely on the exponential function to fix everything, it just isn't going to happen, we need to take action to fix the things that need fixing, the future does not build itself, most intellectually bankrupt statements.
  • Myth #3 Big data is the solution, for White, Big Data is not the solution to everything, in fact it is the problem information overwhelms us, and technology separates us.  He tells about how his first experience with Google Glass.  He mentions Sherry Turkle and her book Alone Together, which talks about how even in an increasingly interconnected world, people are more alone with their devices, not truly connecting with each other.  The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay Johnson is also discussed. In that book, Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential for everyone who strives to be smart, productive, and sane.
  • Myth #4 We will harness technology to do amazing things, This is White's favorite.  In fact, he argues we are not getting exponentially wiser or kinder.  He is critical of the Singularity movement for believing that today's complex problems will be solved by technology, and that the human capacity is always to do good.  He mentions the atrocities of the last century as evidence for our evil ways, but as Steven Pinker has shown, we are in fact, as a whole behaving better.  White is worried about the fact that our increasingly powerful technology is becoming more open and widely distributed and may not have the appropriate controls.
  • Myth #5 The Singularity is all about fixing hunger, poverty and war  For White, the Singularity may just be another neo-colonialist ideology at the core. Only by understanding what the people you are helping want at a local level will work.  White criticizes the perception that the only way we can help starving people in the slums of the world is first to help the people in Silicon valley.  "We can't really get to Africa before we get to radical life extension... those are the important projects."


  • Myth #6 The Singularity is all about you, not me, "I am doing this for you, but first buy my new book, my new video, or my new gadget" White wonders if that is the point of the Singularity.  Sociologist says it is not a movement, it is not a proper sociological phenomenon, not that important.  Is the Singularity movement just a marketing campaign?
  • Myth # 7 A rising tide lifts all boats, White says this is not true, not how the world works, some people get left behind.  When new technology is created,  everything will not be given away for free, politics and practicality will enter in.   It might not be so bad to be left behind, says White.
  • Myth #8, We just need to change a few details and then everything will be much better, the simple solutions idea, there are not single solutions, changing your brain, changing your thoughts, changing your DNA, changing the essence of your being, be careful what you are thinking, soon it will all be discoverable, everything you think right now or thought in the past, can do a forensic analysis of your neural activity, should be radically honest, not possible.  White talks about the complexity of cancer, for instance, where no simple single solutions exist.  
  • Myth #9 Are we there yet, I can't wait for the future! The main feeling in the 1970s was that the world was going backwards, now events like Future Day celebration.  For White, this is like celebrating the sun coming up tomorrow. According to White, if we are not careful, these may be the good old days.  We might be saying in the future "How simple things were in 2013, before it all got terribly complicated! Where do we go from here?"
White says, "I haven't drunk the Kool-Aid," with regards to the Singularity. Technology is not going to save us, he adds.  Technology will not solve all our problems, and it will, in fact, create more new complicated problems.

White recommends the new novel, The Postmortal as how radical life extension may actually mean for future society. The book details a near future where a cure for aging is discovered and-after much political and moral debate-made available to people worldwide. Immortality, however, comes with its own unique problems-including evil green people, government euthanasia programs, a disturbing new religious cult, and other horrors. In the book, China intentionally sets off nuclear explosions as a population control method.

Comparing his previous talks about the Singularity to this one is enlightening and perhaps reflects how you are looking at the movement over the years.  How have your experiences and perceptions of the Singularity changed and evolved over the years? Are there any other Singularity University reviews you have seen that are like this one?

SOURCE  Kim Solez

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