"The singularity” is closer than you think. It’s certainly closer than Ray Kurzweil thinks. Or at least, that’s what Dan Rosenbaum thinks.
Ten years ago, Kurzweil, a noted futurist and techno-intellectual, referred to a period of time, abut 30 years from now, when human and computer intelligence would be indistinguishable from each other. Rosenbaum, a long-time technology journalist and editor-in chief at Center Ring Media in Brooklyn, thinks this moment will be on us a lot earlier than the 2040s. When? He doesn’t know. But he knows it’s pretty much already here.
Rosenbaum will speak on the coming of the singularity as the keynote speaker at the 40th annual Trenton Computer Festival on Saturday, March 21, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the College of New Jersey. Cost: $12 for access to the entire festival. Visit http://tcf.pages.tcnj.edu.
Billed as the oldest computer show in the world, the Trenton festival’s existence has mirrored the growth of personal computing in society. In 1989 the keynote speaker was Bill Gates of Microsoft. This year’s event will feature more than 50 talks, workshops, tutorials, and demos in such subjects as object-oriented programming, “safe computing,” and 3D printing. Rosenbaum’s speech will be at 2:35 p.m..
Born in Long Island as the son of a political science professor father and Social Security Administration worker mother, Rosenbaum took an early interest in technology and business. As a kid, spending much time in upstate New York with family, he hung around radio stations because he was drawn to the old teletype machines delivering news to the world. Journalism appealed to him because “I always loved the idea of being the first to know things,” he says.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Union College in Schenectady in 1978 Rosenbaum became a reporter for the United Press International wire service, briefly stationed in Trenton. There he covered pretty much everything but specialized in business and technology issues, such as the divestiture of AT&T and the development of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.
In 1984 Rosenbaum spent a year as an analyst for the Yankee Group, tracking the post-breakup AT&T, then took his first of many editorships at tech magazines. He has been an editor for publications such as PC Source, Mobile Office, and NetGuide. In 1996 he founded an editorial consulting firm, 3Ships Communications, which worked with tech magazines and tech divisions of magazines such as Time, and where he was a weekly guest on CNNfn.
From 2000 to 2013 Rosenbaum worked as a tech writer, SEO manager, and content strategy manager for several companies. In 2013 he became the president and editor-in-chief at Center Ring, which publishes such titles as Wearable Tech Insider and Health Tech Insider.
A Long Island native now living in Brooklyn, Rosenbaum is focused on the singularity.
What’s going on? The singularity will happen, Rosenbaum says. That much is not in dispute. What it will mean is a little more up in the air. In general, the word refers to the point at which humanity cannot remove itself from the technology it uses. If you want an example of why the singularity is close at hand, think of people and their ever-present phones.
For historical perspective there were 15 million e-mail accounts worldwide in the mid-1990s, Rosenbaum says. Today there are probably 15 million in Brooklyn alone. Three billion people worldwide are connected to the internet, most using some type of mobile platform. Humanity, he says, is connected and progressively connecting further to technology, and technology now is at the point at which our lives are largely driven by it.
Largely, not fully. But we are close. One of the components of the singularity is how we will personally use technology — personally as in inside of us and directly on our bodies. If that sounds creepy, Rosenbaum offers a salve to your paranoia — we’re already using tech like this. “How many people do you know with a pacemaker?” he asks. Or an insulin pump? Devices that can operate and retrieve digital data that is piped to wherever it needs to go.
The question Rosenbaum asks surrounding this collection of data and its dispersal into the universe is, where is it going? Better, who is it going to? And how will they use it?
“No one really knows what’s happening with the data being collected,” Rosenbaum says. “In our daily lives we’re sort of throwing off this cloud of data, like shedding dead skin cells.”
Think about using your credit card at the supermarket. What information comes with that? Well, there’s your location; the items you buy, which can reveal everything from food tastes to likely political beliefs; how far from your home you venture to shop; how frequently you buy something. The list goes on and on for anyone looking to figure out who you are.
But no one in particular seems to be looking. And, Rosenbaum says, if the information we’re sloughing off is being aggregated, it’s not easy to trace anything back to individuals. At the same time, there is all this digital dust with our personal fingerprints all over it, just waiting for someone to figure out how to apply it.
We’ve seen signs of this already online. Browse the web for hammers and the next time you go onto YouTube to watch people fall off their skateboards, it’s a good bet you’ll see an ad from Home Depot before the video.
Should we be concerned? Probably. Rosenbaum says he sees no specific movement to the contrary of all this discarded data collection, but at least people are talking about it more frequently.
Is Rosenbaum scared? Excited? “I think it excites me up to the point at which we can’t shut it off,” he says.
Daily living with technology. The singularity will be, in some measure, about not shutting it off, even if we could. Implantable technology (like a pacemaker) freaks people out when it’s an implant into the brain. On the positive side, such technology would give our brains direct access to information — like the bus schedule. We’ll just know the bus will be here in eight minutes, Rosenbaum says, because we’ll be connected to the bus schedule as part of our connection to the world. On the negative, of course, there is the invasion of privacy issue, and the ability for anyone to track us everywhere.
To put this in movies-you’ve-seen terms, the good part will be like “The Matrix,” when Trinity needs to know how to fly a helicopter and the entirety of information on it is instantly uploaded to her brain. The bad part will at best be like “Minority Report,” where advertisements will be beamed right at you, and at worst like the other aspect of “The Matrix,” where machines get way smarter than us and use us for batteries.
Rosenbaum doesn’t expect that kind of thing. For him, the great part of the singularity will be the ability to know the world at his fingertips; an intimate connection to everything that, like traveling, allows us to experience the world in its every flavor. The downside would be those who retreat into their own thoughts and use the technology to link to others who share their unsavory beliefs. Kind of like Facebook.
So when will we know how this will play out? “My grandkids will probably know, but it’ll be too late to do anything about it then,” he says. “The world only spins forward, and I’ve never seen a genie go back into the bottle.”