As you know, the Singularity Summit 2009 is on the weekend of Oct 3 - Oct 4. What is it, you ask? I'll start from the beginning...
An interesting collection of molecules occupied a certain tide pool 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago, interesting because the molecule collection built copies of itself out of surrounding molecules, and the resulting molecule collections also replicated while accumulating beneficial mutations. Those molecule collections satisfied a high-level functional criterion called "genetic fitness", and it happened by pure chance.
If you think about all the possible arrangements of atoms that can occupy a 1-millimeter by 1-millimeter by 1-millimeter cube of space, most of them are going to suck at causing the future universe to contain copies of themselves. Genetic fitness is a vanishingly small target in configuration-space.
And if you studied the universe 5 billion years ago, you would not see a process capable of hitting such a small target. No physical process could create low-entropy collections of atoms satisfying high-level functional criteria. The second law of thermodynamics thus ensured that mice, as well as mousetraps, were physically impossible.
Then a mutating replicator randomly emerged, and suddenly Earth was home to something special: the process of Natural Selection. Natural Selection optimizes for genetic fitness. It squeezes the space of possible futures into a tiny subspace -- the space of universes that contain self-replicators which are very good at self-replicating. And it remained a flickering candle of optimization in a dark, random universe for three billion years.
An interesting product of Natural Selection occupied a certain region of savannah 100 thousand to 2 million years ago, interesting because it could form internal representations of the world around it and predict the consequences of its own actions. By pure chance, Natural Selection had created its successor.
Thought is a more powerful process than Natural Selection. Thought can optimize atom configurations much faster than Natural Selection can. It takes much less time to think of a big design improvement for an organism, than to breed it for as many generations as it takes for a specimen to manifest one.
Now remember, Natural Selection emerged by coincidence -- not by Natural Selection. Processes that optimize for genetic fitness were previously not to be found in the universe. And remember, Thought was evolved by coincidence -- not by Thought. Organs that represent the world around them and make predictions were previously not to be found among the optimized organisms of Earth.
It is still early in the age of optimization processes. Brains are not very good equipment for doing optimization -- Natural Selection just hacked them together out of cells. Yet, Thought is much more powerful than Natural Selection. So what happens when Thought designs an optimization process more powerful than Thought?
What happens when that optimization process designs an optimization process that is more powerful still?
The Singularity Summit is about the critical transition into the third era of optimization processes, the successor to human Thought. To say we need to be careful about initial conditions is to make the understatement of our own entire era.