Coast Chronicles: The Singular Steven Romero

Steven Romero, co-founder of Critical Path Software and now VP for eBay, gave a fascinating Oysterville Schoolhouse lecture on technology this past Thursday.

I watch the deer — my deer I’ll call her — browse in the yard, nibbling off tiny viola blooms and the new leaves of the raspberries. She munches moss and dandelions sprouting in my “lawn,” finally a useful task. When she begins to eat my lingering daffs, I take my stand.

“No, you cannot eat my daffodils or my blueberries in the lower garden,” I call out to her from the porch. I’m willing to share. She looks at me steadily, then walks meticulously like a ballerina, pointing her left foreleg and hoof out and, after a suspension in mid-air, placing it down; the right follows. She lies under the plum to chew her cud. (Deer are ruminants like cows.)

Steven has already set up when I arrive. He’s borrowed Gail Accuardi’s large monitor in order to show us graphs and images, essential for explaining his topic. The schoolhouse is full of mostly us older folks, so he brings us along slowly, affectionately, stopping often to ask, “Are you with me?”

Steve co-founded Critical Path Software in 1991 and ran it as CEO until it was acquired by eBay in 2010. Now he’s a VP for eBay and works in their Portland office. Steve notes the Critical Path mission was simple, “Is it good for you? Is it good for the company? Is it legal? Then do it.” His team worked behind the scenes creating foundational tools for the digital world. As he tells us, “If you have a computer you’ve probably used something we created at Critical Path.”

Mike Rogoway, tech reporter for the Oregonian, says eBay’s purchase of Critical Path was a “talent acquisition” ( Ebay’s Portland Office is the hub for mobile software development — the company’s fastest growing segment of business. Mobile transactions for online purchases, GPS locators, smartphones, iPads and such are growing exponentially. (We’re coming back for the math on that soon.) “This acquisition gives us the backing and power to be able to fulfill a really large mobile vision,” Steve said at the time of the purchase.

But here I’ve run all ahead of myself — a characteristic of technology too. Let’s go back to the basics. Steve grew up in Amity, Oregon and was an avid video-gamer. (How many remember those early good ‘ole days of Pacman and Asteroids?) He had one of the first Apple computers. (Here I must pause to note that my first computer was the TRS-80 that Tandy Radio Shack rolled out in December of 1977 — a device I thought was brilliant because I could, with some simply coding, change the line breaks on a poem without typing the whole darn thing over.)

At the University of Oregon, Steve earned degrees in both molecular biology and mathematics. While taking algebraic topology, he created a piece of software to help himself visualize four, five, multiple dimensions. Someone walking by in the hall noticed it and gave him a job on the spot. His digital-data software career had begun.

At one point in Steve’s presentation he compared the specs for his first Apple computer with what he now owns, illustrating Moore’s Law. In 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, calculated that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit had doubled every year since it was invented; he predicted this trend would continue — and it has. Cheaper, faster, better has always been the motto of the digital age.

This doubling is called exponential growth. Things start out quiet and slow but soon the numbers or volumes or quantities of things — if one were to put them on an X-Y graph against time — shoot off into the stratosphere. (Linear growth is one plus one equals two, plus one more equals three, plus one more equals four, etc.)

Steve illustrated exponential growth with a cool example: if you have a chess or checker board and you put one grain of sand in the first square; two in the second; four in the third; eight in the fourth and you double this all the way to 64 squares, you end up with “18 quintillion grains of sand.” (There are many examples of exponential growth on our planet; unfortunately one of them is population; the other is carbon emissions.)

So you begin to see how Moore’s Law has gotten us where we are today; and, according to Steve, we’re only at the beginning of this stratospheric growth curve, because we see that technology is not only twice as fast, but twice as small (think nanotechnology) and uses materials twice as light (think titanium, molded aluminum, new forms of plastic), so there’s lots of room yet to grow.

Well, we could fly off in all sorts of directions here but let’s zero in on one mind-boggling point Steve emphasized. There is a Singularity coming! A singularity in participle physics lingo is the point at which a state, condition or quality becomes singular — that is, so dense it cannot densify any further. At the center of a Black Hole is a singularity where matter is infinitely dense; and because it is infinitely dense, it sucks all other matter into it. What does it look like? It’s sort of invisible — astronomers only know it exists because of the properties of things around it.

Vernor Vinge and other artificial intelligence (AI) folks have taken up this term and use it to mean the hypothetical point at which superintelligent computers can improve themselves without human intervention and will, therefore, begin to surpass human intelligence. Another definition for this is “technologically created cognitive capacity.”

Ray Kurtzweil, an early proponent of AI and author of “The Singularity Is Near,” predicts this singularity could take place as soon as 2045. He says by this time humans could “transcend biology” and that computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence could lead to progress so rapid it outstrips our ability to comprehend it. Post-singularity, it is said, we could scan our consciousness into a computer and live eternally in virtual reality. (Matrix anyone?)

Steve is excited about these possibilities but was stumped by the analogue world — he had run out of time — and had only the briefest moment to mention developments like Bitcoin (digital currency), superior processing and memory (computers have beaten humans in chess and Go), DNA research and nanotechnology (imagine tiny medical DNA repair devices), and virtual identity (we already have one that Facebook and other sites are tracking.) We wanted him to continue for another hour or perhaps stay into next week!

Our heads were bursting as we burst out into the Oysterville sun. I had nearly forgotten my deer, quietly eating bluebells when I got home. Next week — after consulting with her — I’ll talk more about my neurological view of AI and counter Kurtzweil with David Linden’s “The Singularity Is Far.”

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