This is the speech I gave yesterday morning at Singularity University -- the slightly-edited template, anyway; I improvised a fair amount in actually giving it. They recorded it -- I don't know when the video will be available to the public.

They gave me a badge that said "Daniel Keys Moran - Faculty." Not a word I ever expected to see after my name, that ...

Programming People

SLIDE: You Are Going To Die. Again.

The good news is, everyone in this room is going to die. Again.

I was dead once. For about 13 billion years, give or take. Didn’t inconvenience me any, or you either. So I don’t worry about not existing. I don’t believe in an afterlife. All I know there is, is this. And someday this goes away. That’s OK. It’s gone away before, in bits and pieces: that’s life. I’m not the same person today I was as a child. Bit by bit, that person ceased to exist. His memories went away. His attitudes changed. The dreams and desires he had I remember having … but I mostly don’t share. That person’s body didn’t die physically – but he’s gone.

SLIDE: Time Is Going To Happen To You

Time Happens, man. I don’t like it, but it’s the truth of being human. Time gives and time takes away. Time took my ability to get to the rim, and then it took my hair, and lately it’s taken my jump shot. I can still shoot, but my jumper just gets me a few inches off the ground.

But it’s not all bad. I’m a lot mellower than I used to be. Probably not any smarter, but maybe a little wiser. While I’d love to have my jumper back … I wouldn’t want to be the person again who I used to be. I like myself more than he liked himself, and that’s valuable to me.

SLIDE: Your Options Are Enormous

So that guy is gone. He died … every way that matters. I am in most ways the person he wanted to be. I feel fond of him, but I don’t feel any obligation to live the live he’d have wanted to live. I’m going to live my own life. Later on, another version of me is going to live his own life … and I won’t be here any more.

And neither will any of you.

SLIDE: This Is Liberation

Once you let go of the idea that you can really live forever, you, or some version of you, is going to have astonishing options. I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the Singularity – but I’m pretty sure my kids are going to. My daughter sitting over there is 21: her odds of seeing a healthy vigorous 150 years of age look pretty good to me. Mind you, it’ll just be a version of her: already she’s not remotely the child I knew at 10. I don't know who she’ll be at 150 – but I can guess. I’m good at guessing.

SLIDE: What Is The Singularity?

I’ve heard a dozen definitions. The only one that’s ever made sense to me is this: it’s the point at which humans as currently constituted are no longer even theoretically capable of understanding the functioning of the world around them. Of course, by this definition – we already live in the Singularity. And always did.

SLIDE: No One Understands The World.

The world is too complicated for us. It’s too complicated for any one of us to understand: it’s too complex for all of us to understand. Economists don’t understand the economy, though they understand how bits and pieces of it work, usually after the fact. Physicists don’t understand how the Sun works and they sure don’t undersand how the Sun interacts with the Earth to provide this beautiful little blue bubble with land and air and water. We can pick out little bits and pieces: focus on that – and understand that piece, at that moment. But then that piece bangs into another piece and we’re off to the races and we’re lost again.

SLIDE: AI Is Coming! Not That It Matters

But AI is going to come along and then they’ll understand how things work, these AIs who are so much smarter and so much faster than us –

Well, sort of.

SLIDE: The Singularity Is Not A Point. It’s a Process.

It’s a truism that you can’t solve your problems at the same level of understanding at which you created them. But it’s broader than that: you cannot understand yourself. Bits and pieces, sure: but it would take an intellect much larger and faster than your own to understand, in anything like real time, the Wonderfulness That Is You. But then that intellect can’t understand how its own subsystems interact: it needs a bigger, smarter intellect to understand the Wonderfulness Of It.

SLIDE: Your Own Personal Singularity

The ring of the Singularity travels outward. There will always be a Singularity: a point of complexity where we and the intellects that succeed us will be incapable of understanding. But your Singularity and mine will be different, and the intellects that succeed us will have yet another spot where they run up against the end of the world, eternally and forever, amen.

I find that a downright comforting thought.

SLIDE: But I Did Not Come Here To Talk To You About The Singularity

No, ladies and gentlemen and those of you in between and out off the edges of the map, I came here to talk to you about money! Cash, moolah, bread, bucks, legal tender, loot ... money. Or, more specifically, about Michelle Pfeiffer. Here in our modern capitalist American economy we know things by their dollar cost. Isn’t that right? Something that costs $100 is more important than something that costs $2, that’s just sense.

SLIDE: It’s Michelle Money That Matters (Picture of Michelle Pfeiffer)

Michelle Pfeiffer’s movies have made over a billion dollars. She’s made tens of millions of dollars herself. That’s a sign of quality, isn’t it? Don’t you think? A whole bunch of people have voted with their hard-earned or sometimes inherited or stolen dollars … because Michelle was worth it.

SLIDE: What Would Michelle Do?

Now the truth is, I never ask myself this question, though it's an interesting one: because I am not Michelle Pfeiffer, I’m just little ol’ me. Just a normal average regular person, in many ways the most regular normal person I ever met. Like all of you. Maybe we’re all a little more handsome than average, a little better looking and in this room a whole lot smarter, but even that just identifies which parts of this n-dimensional bell curve we all land on.

SLIDE: There’s A Lot Of Us And More Coming

About fifteen years ago I was managing a young developer. Sharp guy. Knew it, too. He was arrogant and the other developers didn’t like him much even though he did good work and didn’t smell. So at one point I asked him: How smart do you think you are? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? One in a hundred thousand?

One in a thousand, he decided. OK, I agreed, one in a thousand: there are 300,000 others as smart as you in the United States alone. You can be replaced.

SLIDE: OK, We’re Smart Regular Good Looking People

And we’re still not Michelle Pfeiffer. Because let’s face it, she’s at the very far end of a bell curve for poise, presence, and beauty. She’s the one in a hundred thousand, one in a million for that particular set of attributes. (And if you’re not a Michelle fan, well, that’s a personal failing and one I can’t help you with, but pick the Astonishing Human Being of your choice and you know what I’m talking about.)

SLIDE: Shake Hell Out of the Curve

But boy oh boy, we’re about to shake the hell out of that bell curve in the next generation or two. What genes went into making up the people in this room? What genes went into making up Michelle Pfeiffer? We’re coming up pretty soon on a time when we can pick those genes, when we can design the next generation of humans. That’s almost trivially obvious at this point, though it wasn’t always. But that’s them, that’s the people yet to arrive, and the hell with them.

SLIDE: Let’s Talk About Us … And Michelle.

So human beings are biochemical machines, end of day, probably with some quantum effects tied in here and there. We’re not well designed machines – we’re not designed at all. We’re just sort of the the hodgepodge result of billions and billions of random accidents, of bits of code that got thrown up against the wall to see what would stick – in short we’re the descendants of random accidents that nature didn’t execute for the sin of being bad code.

SLIDE: That Doesn’t Mean We Work Well

As devices go, you’d have to look hard to find worse gear than us. If the iPhone sucked as bad as humans do, Steve Jobs would be a swear word for everyone instead of just almost everyone. “Go Jobs yourself” would be in common everyday use, instead of just occuring among Windows, and Linux … and Android and Blackberry … well a lot of people really. Showed them my phone at that point: “Android. Real 4G, tethering, hot spot … just saying.” But in fact the iPhone works really, really well, certainly it’s much more reliable than human beings. Which isn’t saying much. Most human beings are ticking time bombs of lust and deranged fury that could explode at any moment. Hell, I might go diving into the audience unexpectedly my own self.

SLIDE: Deranged Writer Attacks Crowd

It could happen. You don’t know. I could have me a moment right now … go charging at someone. Headlines next day would read “Deranged Writer Attacks Crowd, screaming Jobs You! Jobs You!” – god knows we’ve all seen that headline before. Because as machines go, we suck. We are Engines of Sucktitude scattered across a series of bell curves. At one end: Writer Attacks Crowd. At the other: Michelle Pfeiffer.

SLIDE: I Play Basketball

I play basketball every weekend. It’s my principle form of exercise. We all know we need exercise, because otherwise the crappy machine we’ve been handed falls apart in practically no time. Now I got rotten knees – this is mostly good news guys, because if I did attack the crowd, you could probably all outrun me … so you got that going for you. Now, I just play pickup basketball. In the sun. After a couple hours of basketball, my rotten knees are worse. I walk out to my car moving reasonably well – and then I drive home. By the time I get home getting out of the car is a painful bit of business and if I’ve forgotten my sunscreen and it’s summer time, I probably have a bit of a sunburn too.

SLIDE: Raymond McCauley Is Getting Worried About Now

So I’ve been up here a while now and I haven’t really talked about genetics too much, about 21st Century Biotechnology. I’ve probably talked more about Michelle Pfeiffer, because, Jesus, isn’t that a much better subject? Michelle Marie Pfeiffer was born – hey! To Raymond, who's visibly worrying: “I stopped talking about attacking your paying customers over here. Right? Relax a bit, you’ll live longer.” Michelle Marie Pfeiffer was born on April 29, 1958, in Santa Ana, California. She’s appeared in Scarface, Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Dangerous Liasons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Dangerous Minds, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stardust … 54 movies in all. Today she’s 53 years of age, and my God, doesn’t she look good at 53? We should all look so good at that age.

SLIDE: Oh, Thank God, He’s Going To Talk About What We Asked Him To Talk About

I’ve been programming complex systems my entire adult life. I’ve worked on or architected solutions for a lot of big companies. In the almost 30 years I’ve been programming, the most interesting thing that’s happened is that the large has gotten small and the slow has gotten fast. A task that cost millions of dollars and took years to perform can, in some cases, be performed on your phone in minutes. Now, this is the most trivial method of prediction: but it’s also probably the most accurate. We take things that we know work and we find ways to make them work faster and at a smaller scale.

Not to belabor the obvious … but this is about to happen to us.

SLIDE: We Don’t Have To Suck

My knees don’t have to hurt. I don’t need to be having that occasional sunburn. I’d like my damn hair back, I was a handsome lad once. I’d like to stop dying my beard. I don’t mean I want it to go gray: I mean I want to stop dying it and have it stay black.

SLIDE: You Are Shallow

You certainly have similar desires, though it’s possible they are not as shallow as mine. Still shallow … not as shallow as me.

End of the day, most of you want the machine to work. Just work. When we hit the ignition, the machine should pick up and go. All parts of the machine. This is the obvious sci-fi stuff, but we’ll touch on it briefly.

SLIDE: OK, You’re Not Really Shallow

Almost all of us want to be high functioning. Smart. Strong, healthy. Good looking, whatever that means to you personally. Attractive to the people you want to be attracted to you.

That last bit is critical. When we consider ourselves in isolation, we’re easy to please. I want what I want, give it to me. I want good knees, I want my hair back, I’m blind in one eye and I’d like that eye to work again. I want it all to work better than it ever did before – I want perfection. This is a puerile fantasy … but in fact it’s probably coming. You probably … in the near to mid term … can get what you want. Your genetic code, which informs everything that you are … can be rewritten.

SLIDE: You Are Going to Be Refactored

By this I don’t mean that someone else is going to refactor you. You’re going to refactor yourself. Not too terribly long ago if you wanted to draw a circle on a computer screen you had to be a programmer. Regular users couldn’t do it – there were no paint tools, there was just an addressable screen that bright tech nerds could manipulate to turn pixels on and off. Well, that didn’t continue: the bright tech nerds wrote a tool that let people who couldn’t program draw circles on the screen. Fast forward fifty years and you have Photoshop, a tool for individuals to do almost anything painterly that you can imagine doing on a computer screen.

Right now you need someone else to factor out your genes. But … pretty soon … you’ll be able to do it yourself, on your phone or the equivalent thereof or just in your own damn head. You’ll give instructions for new muscles, to get taller, to get shorter, to get smarter, to sleep less or not at all – whatever you like... unless you’re Amish. And it’ll just … happen … in something like real time.

SLIDE: OK, Not In Real Time. At First.

OK. At first it won’t happen in real time or anything much close to it. Refactoring yourself will be a slow and painful process – certainly it is today for people who want to choose gender reassignment. But it’ll get better. Our ability to code DNA and RNA and little messenger and builder nanobots will improve: our ability to draw a circle on the screen will evolve into Photoshop and then into the metaphorical equivalent of something like the computer effects you find in a modern summer movie. Simply ridiculous body modifications will become possible – if you want them.

Most of us, at least at first, won’t. Most of us will choose to be backward compatible at first. We will want to remind ourselves of ourselves. We will want to pretend that we are who we were, but better. We’ll be lying to ourselves mostly but even that’s OK – pretending that you are now who you were then is about as harmless a self-deception as you can engage in … most of the time.

SLIDE: No More Doctors.

You know who I don’t run into much these days? Elevator operators. Because the operation of an elevator has grown so simple that it doesn’t require a skilled technician to get me from the first to the eighth floor.

The average doctors is going to go away for much the same reason, though there’ll be a new career of DNA programmer, at least for a while – even that I suspect will be transitional, until tools to self-modify come about. But the profession of Doctor, which has existed almost as long as people have existed, will finally be a thing of the past. You’ll be your own doctor, your own designer, your own surgeon, your own plastic surgeon … and you’ll be better at it than any of those experts ever were.

But you’re probably still going to need a shrink. "Are you Mommy or Daddy today?" Growing up will be interesting.

SLIDE: Yesterday I was Male. Today I’m Michelle Pfeiffer.

Maybe. You know … for a long weekend.

SLIDE: Who Do You Want To Be?

As long as we keep talking about ourselves, about adult humans deciding who they want to be, this is pretty harmless science fiction … and while I hope I’ve been interesting and amusing and acceptably nonviolent … so far … the truth is I don’t care what adults do to themselves in isolation. The universe will correct, and by correct I mean execute, those of us who make the wrong decisions.

Of course … and this should win the Oscar for Obviousness for this particular speech … humans don’t exist in isolation.

SLIDE: Who Do We Want To Be?

I could be young again. Stronger and smarter than I ever was. Long-lived enough to experience a lot of different lives. My skin could be black or blue or it could display the interior of the Sistine Chapel. I could be three feet tall or seven. Or ten. Pick your sci-fi scenario … a lot of them are going to be realized.

Would my wife still love me if I were an incredibly strong seven foot tall blue-skinned dude with a tail who was smarter than Einstein? The truth is she might not. She might not know me any longer. This is the luxury of dying, really dying: we get to grow old together. We get to know who the other person is, day by day, year by year, decade by decade – and most of that last long stretch is losing things, of getting out of the way and letting the generation behind you come into their own.

SLIDE: I Don’t Want To Outlive My Children

Fear is fear of death. That’s almost all fear is, and by death in this context I mean death of the ego. There are people I don’t want to be. I would rather be gone from the universe forever than to become the person who outlived his children. I fear that. I fear being that person far more than I fear being gone.

Time may change that. Maybe some day the death of one of my children will be something I could shake off – but my word, I’d be a different person by then, and the man I am today would be dead already, regardless of any continuity of the flesh.

SLIDE: I Fear Incapacity

As long as I have a functioning hand and a functioning brain, I can arrange a graceful exit. Life is not infinitely valuable to me. Being gone isn’t so bad. I was gone before I got here for 13 billion years and have no complaints about the service provided during that period. But I fear being that person who is so limited that he couldn’t check himself out when the time came.

SLIDE: Let’s Talk About My Wife Again

Would she still love me if I were very different? Would I still love her? I hope so … and certainly we could take steps to arrange that. If she showed up one day in a form I did not find attractive … I could refactor myself so that I did find that form attractive. There’s no reason desire has to be something that just is, that was just handed to you – this is sex I’m talking about here, but it’s also something as simple as waking up next to someone who feels right and smells right. A lot of that is pure genetics and when we control the biology, we can control who we point our desire at. Lawrence of Arabia famously said that a man can do whatever he want … “but he can’t want what he wants. This -- Lawrence touches his flesh -- is the stuff that decides what he wants.”

Well, folks, this is going to be within our control … and we are going to be able to decide what we want. And then we’re going to have to decide what happens to the people who love us, and that, as always, is going to be the hard part.

SLIDE: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

So we won’t just do one pass at the making-ourselves-better thing. We’ll come at it again and again. If you’re with people who love you you change … and then you stop and check: “Do you still love me?” Change a bit more: “Do you still love me?” And finally, the only question that really matters, ever, for any of us who love and are loved: “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

SLIDE: And Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow …

I’ll tell you what I want, just to put a nail in this.

You don’t really get to control much in life. Not control. You get to influence a lot of things, you get to shape and help and move … but there’s only one thing in this entire world you get to control. You can’t control your own stinking body. It’ll break down on you. So will your car and your iPhone and even your much superior HTC EVO 3D, eventually. You can’t control the people you love, can’t control your children or parents, your brothers and sisters, your wives and husbands, or any person you will ever meet for the rest of your life.

You get to control your effort. You get to control the quality of your effort. How hard and with how much focus you work at something: this is the sole area of control you have now or will ever have as long as humans remain human.

SLIDE: But You Do Get To Control That.

That’s something. Hell, that’s something Big. If Biotech does anything for me outside the trivial and obvious, the sci-fi fantasies of the last hundred odd years, I want it to help me control the quality of my effort. I want to be smarter, and biotech can and will do that. I want to have more energy, and biotech can and will do that. I want to focus better. I want to rewire my brain. I want to change memories that distract or upset me, and see how well I perform with them gone or altered. Then I want to bring them back. How effective am I now? Better or worse? How do people relate to me with those memories gone? Better or worse? I want to be 10% more charismatic today than I was yesterday – how’s that working for me? My daughter Alex, in the audience, burst out laughing here. Make of that what you will... Am I getting what I want and are the people around me getting what they want?

SLIDE: Because Seriously, Being Alone Sucks.

I want to A/B test my life. If you work in a variety of fields you know what that means – let’s try things two different ways and see which one works better. I want to A/B test my life not just for my own purposes, but for all the people I love and by whom I am privileged to be loved. Our lives lack meaning without other people. There’s no heaven, there’s no hell: there’s just Us. And I want to do a better job of being Us. That’s a much bigger goal, a much more important thing, than to do a better job of being Me.

SLIDE: It’s Great To Be Me

When I was young I used to worry about all sorts of bad things. Nuclear war, trucks … seriously, when I was little trucks freaked me the fuck out. Got older and worried about the Malthusian Crisis, about nuclear meltdowns, about Y2K … well, some of the work I did on Y2K is why Y2K turned out to be not such a bad thing. Nothing wrong with looking for the bad so you can avoid it. But for the most part I’ve had astonishing opportunities. I live better than any king lived in the history of the world prior to maybe a hundred years ago. I want to end with Theodore Parker, who was memorably paraphrased by Martin Luther King – not with King’s paraphrase but with Parker’s original text from 1853:

SLIDE: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

SLIDE: It’s Great To Be You

There has never been a better time to be alive. Until tomorrow gets here.

Amy, Alexandra, Andrea, Bram, Richard and Connor: I love you forever.

Thank you all for having me speak.
~~~~~

The question and answer session was interesting. When I have a transcript -- no idea when that will be -- I'll post it.
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