“Everyone talks about the Singularity; but no one does a thing about it!”
Nothing! Not a laugh, not even a snigger. You’d think that a theatre full of geeks would contain at least a single person who’d thought that I was funny; but no. They all just sat there, like veal; probably pissed that an unknown speaker was delaying Kurzweil’s entrance. Under any other set of circumstances, I would have been a nervous wreck; convinced that I’d lost them. I had a trick or two up my sleeve, though, so I pressed on.
“OK, OK, we all know that my assertion is far from true. You’ve had two days full of the cool stuff, and I’m pretty sure that the room feels the Singularity is coming on strong, even though it’s not quite here yet. Indeed, if Ray is to be believed, it won’t get here before 2045; some 22 years from now. I’m on this stage, though, to tell you that he’s completely and utterly wrong. If you let me, I’ll prove to each and every one of you, right here, right now, that the schedule’s been moved up. When they write the history books they’re gonna say that I personally kicked off the Singularity; did it in front of you, did it right here in Kaufman hall. Really.” Then, raising both of my hands and doing a “tada,” I repeated myself: “Really!”
That got them laughing. Not your amiable “we shared a funny” sort of laugh, mind you. More like an “I get it; he’s a complete and total idiot” laugh.
Holding up my hands, I said “I know that you think I’m a moron. Of course you do. That’s fine, the very idea that the Singularity could start today sounds ridiculous. And it should! It’s an extraordinary claim, and as we should all know: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs. I get that. So here’s the deal: take out your cameras, your iPhones, whatever, and point them at the stage. One of two things will happen. Something less than proof, and then you can boo me off, savage me in the press, and have a really good laugh; whatever. If, on the other hand, something truly amazing does indeed happen, then you can race to upload the first video to YouTube; maybe end up on CNN.”
That calmed them down a bit. No one (I was positive, no one!) believed that I could be right. A small percentage might have felt that I was going for something rhetorical, but the rest had little doubt that I was off my rocker. Even so, I’d made progress, since they were for the most part willing to hear more. The conference had been chockablock with serious erudition; often leavened with near messianic fervor. Now, it looked like the cart might go seriously off the rails; just the thing after 17 long hours of all-too-earnest talk.
The second I turned around, the room filled with an incredulous susurration, seatmate talking to seatmate, saying things like “Where does he get off,” and “Can you believe we have to listen to this idiot.” When I dragged a “magical” box out from the wings, a box covered in blue velvet, with stars and moons and other wizard spoor, though, the room erupted in outright guffaws. Everyone got it then, or to be more precise: thought they got it. My bit would be a spot of hilarity thrown in at the end of the conference to poke fun at all of the seriousness. I wasn’t an idiot after all, or if I was, I was a professional idiot; an entertainer. Suddenly, the mood in the room altered. The assumed reveal was so unexpected, so stupid at face value, that all of the bad will that I had built up evaporated in a thrice.
With the box at center stage, I made an elaborate flourish then slowly pulled something out that looked like a pogo stick. It wasn’t an ordinary pogo-stick, given that it lacked a plunger and had shoe-shaped pads on the bottom instead of a simple bar, but even so it was a fairly recognizable object. Continuing to play the prestidigitator, I stepped onto the pads then bent my legs a bit as if I was about to start a bounce, and did another “tada” with my head. By this point, the room was perplexed, had not the slightest idea as to what was going on, but it didn’t matter. I had brought them full circle, and the important thing was that they were, for the most part, laughing.
Pausing for a second, I reminded the crowd: “Cameras,” then bent my knees and launched into the air.
If I had been on an actual a pogo stick then I would have come right back down and everything would have gone on as before. The audience would have continued to laugh at my stupidity, unsure as to what I was doing, but even so they would have remained amused and ready for more. I’d have continued my shtick for as long as they’d let me, then ultimately exited the stage as what they falsely assumed: some sort of clown.
I didn’t, however, come down. Instead, I drifted a few feet higher then floated forward over the downstage lip. Within seconds I was above the audience’s heads. It took almost five minutes to overfly much of the auditorium; taking an eccentric path, zigzagging, circling, spinning around in tight little circles and squares, occasionally doing the porpoise thing just fun.
By the time I was done, you could have heard a pin drop.
For a wonder, no one had a heart attack, although a fair number did faint. “As I was saying, the Singularity starts here and now!” To emphasize my point, I began to fly a tight-edged square in the center of Kaufman hall, flying each circuit at greater and greater speed. After some four or five of these odd revolutions, I faked a loud belch and mimed being sick. Slowing the scooter to a crawl and drifting back over the stage, I set back down then said with a burpy voice, “Almost lost my cookies!”
If this were Vaudeville, the room would have jumped up onto their feet then erupted in applause. The weirdness meter, however, being totally pegged, they all remained fixed in their seats. A third arms-upraised “tada” didn’t get them going, either, so I was forced to turn explicit. “Stand up, people, get up on your feet; give yourselves some applause. The Singularity’s here, it’s what we’ve all been waiting for, it’s here; get on your feet, give yourself some joy.”
I started clapping. Nothing.
Stamping my feet, yelling, clapping, jumping up and down. Still nothing.
Incredulous, I looked offstage to see if anyone there got it, and suddenly—breaking eye contact with the crowd—it was like I flipped a huge switch. The room exploded into pandemonium. A few people clapped, but mostly everyone started talking to everyone else. There was crying and hugging and back slapping and shaking one’s neighbor’s hands; it was amazing. I’d never been to a tent revival, but I’m pretty sure that this was like the moment when everyone got “saved.”
It took forever to get them up onto their feet, so it naturally took even longer to get them calmed down. I quickly learned that no amount of shouting and gestures would compose them. I only made headway by pulling a woman out from the audience and getting her to take a ride. “It’s just like a Segway. Lean the way you want to go, or twist the handlebar to go up and down. Be careful, though, and try to go slow. Also, keep your feet on the pads and at least one hand on the handlebars. This isn’t anti-gravity. You step off and you’ll fall like a stone.”
Getting the remarkably complacent woman positioned, I asked “What’s your name?”
“Joan.” Without the slightest pause, she twisted the handlebar a bit and began to float. Just a little, not more than 6 inches off the deck. It took a minute or so to get the leaning thing down, but before long she was tooling around like a pro. At the lip of the stage, she hesitated for a moment, but gathering her courage, leaned forward and floated out over the audience. She almost clocked a guy in the first row, but right before she was going to hit him, she nudged the handlebar and vaulted up and over.
Shouting “Let’s give Joan a big round of applause,” got some of the people to pay attention. No one applauded, of course, but within three or four minutes, the entire room was mesmerized once again. It helped that Joan was a grandmotherly 60, maybe even 65; short, gray haired and more than a little zaftig, not the sort of gal that anyone would cast in an action-adventure film. Even so, she was flying and smiling; fully in control, and clearly having a bang-up time.
With a gesture, I drew Joan back to the stage. A neophyte flyer, she was nonetheless able to execute a quick little pirouette at the end, just before setting down. Then, getting into the true spirit of the thing, she stepped off the scooter and took an honest to goodness bow.
The room erupted, literally exploded into applause. Finally! It was one thing to have someone showy like myself do the do, but to have a random old lady take it for a spin, why that exceeded all bounds.
Doing the flapping arms “settle down” thing, I eventually quieted the room. Putting my hands up and palms forward, I waited another minute for true silence. Then, in a stage whisper, I asked: “Are you ready for more?”`
900 heads nodded, along with me, a fervent “Yes.” I was no P.T. Barnum, but even so, I had them; totally had them! “That’s good, because I have lots more to show. For starters, let’s talk about the scooter. I mean, really, how does it work? Can anyone guess?” I waited for someone, anyone, to raise a hand, but no one took the bait. “Look’s like anti-gravity, doesn’t it?” Milking the moment, nodding my head up and down, I took a slow turn around the stage, before I continued. “Yeah . . . not so much! I’d love to tell you that I’ve invented anti-gravity, but to tell the truth, it’s nothing more than a kind of force cell.”
Taking a short tube from the “wizard” box and holding it up horizontally over my head, I flipped a switch on the end and removed my hands to leave it floating in mid-air. Then, for fun, I did a chin up. “You’re looking at a simple force cell, folks; nothing more! It may look like magic, but I can assure you it’s nothing more than a couple of clever twists on the day to day physics you already know and love. Even better, you won’t need the expensive toys to build it, oh no! Forget your billion dollar fabs and cyclotrons; you should be thinking beakers and 3D printers instead. Assuming the government doesn’t throw a kinipsion, force cells could be in a thousand commercial products within the year.”
Taking a clicker out of my pocket, I did the old-school thing and brought up a PowerPoint slide with a shortened URL. “I’m going to introduce six more inventions today (all of which will be described ad-nauseum on my site!), but before I go on I’d like to talk about the Singularity. I mean, what actually makes a Singularity. Flying scooters are cool, force cells too, and I’ll get into how I powered them next. Regardless, I’m thinking that we should pause a bit to put things in perspective. The singularity isn’t a single unforeseen invention, not a hundred or even a thousand. The Singularity is all about unexpected, unimaginable change. And I’m not talking about something that comes along gradually and at an easy comfortable pace. No, I’m talking great big gobs of everything-turns-suddenly-and-completely-unimaginably-different, all at once.”
To make my point, I removed my head.
Louis S. Berman
Drexel Hill, PA, December 25th, 2012