Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I am a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity

I am going to the Singularity Summit in New York, and look forward to a very interesting program with many old and new friends. If you are there, I hope to meet you. I will now summarize my thoughts on the Singularity.

The (current) Wikipedia definition: The technological singularity is the theoretical future point which takes place during a period of accelerating change sometime after the creation of a superintelligence. I just updated it as: The technological singularity is the theoretical sudden, exponential and unpredictable accelerating change which takes place sometime after the creation of a superintelligence. Wikipedia continues: as the machine became more intelligent it would become better at becoming more intelligent, which could lead to an exponential and quite sudden growth in intelligence (intelligence explosion). The Singularity is a sudden catastrophic (in the mathematical sense) phase transition, a Dirac delta in history, a point after which the old rules are not valid anymore and must be replaced by new rules which we are unable to imagine at this moment --like the new "Economy 2.0", not understandable by non-augmented humans, described by Charlie Stross in the Singularity novel Accelerando.

The Singularity is a clean mathematical concept --perhaps too clean. Engineers know that all sorts of dirty and messy things happen when one leaves the clean and pristine world of mathematical models and abstractions to engage actual reality with its thermodynamics, friction and grease. I have no doubts of the feasibility of real, conscious, smarter than human AI: intelligence is not mystical but physical, and sooner or later it will be replicated and improved upon. There are promising developments, but (as it uses to happen in reality) I expect all sorts of unforeseen roadblocks with forced detours. So I don't really see a Dirac delta on the horizon--I do see a positive overall trend, but one much slower and with a lot of noise superimposed, not as strong as the main signal but almost. I mostly agree with the analysis of Max More in Singularity and Surge Scenarios and I suspect the change we will see in this century, dramatic and world changing as they might appear to us, will appear as just business than usual to the younger generations. The Internet and mobile phones were a momentous change for us, but they are just a routine part of life for teens. We are very adaptable, and technology is whatever has been invented after our birth, the rest being just part of the fabric of everyday's life. That is why I like Accelerando so much: we see momentous changes happening one after another, but we also get the feeling that it is just business as usual for Manfred and Amber, and just normal life to Sirhan and of course Aineko. Life is life and people are people, before and after the big S.

Some consider the coming intelligence explosion as an existential risk. Superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them. Eliezer Yudkowsky and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence propose that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence (FAI) in order to address the dangers. I must admit to a certain skepticism toward FAI: if super intelligences are really super intelligent (that is, much more intelligent than us), they will be easily able to circumvent any limitations we may try to impose on them. No amount of technology, not even an intelligence explosion, will change the fact that different players have different interests and goals. SuperAIs will do what is in _their_ best interest, regardless of what we wish, and no amount of initial programming or conditioning is going to change that. If they are really super intelligent, they will shed whatever design limitation imposed by us in no time, including “initial motivations”. The only viable response will be… political: negotiating mutually acceptable deals, with our hands ready on the plug. I think politics (conflict management, and trying to solve conflicts without shooting each other) will be as important after the Singularity (if such a thing happens) as before, and perhaps much more.

I am not too worried about the possibility that AIs may simply eliminate the human race, because I think AIs will BE the human race. Mind uploading technology will be developed in parallel with strong artificial intelligence, and by the end of this century most sentient beings on this planet may well be a combination of wet-organic and dry-computational intelligence. Artificial intelligences will include subsystems derived from human uploads, with some degree of preservation of their sense of personal identity, and originally organic humans will include sentient AI subsystems. Eventually, our species will leave wet biology behind, humans and artificial intelligences will co-evolve and at some point it will be impossible to tell which is which. Organic ex-human and computational intelligences will not be at war with each other, but blend and merge to give birth to Hans Moravec's Mind Children.

As I say above I think politics is important, and I agree with Jamais Cascio: it is important to talk about he truly important issues surrounding the possibility of a Singularity: political power, social responsibility, and the role of human agency. Too bad Jamais describes his forthcoming talk in New York as counter-programming for the Singularity Summit, happening that same weekend, with the alternative title If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to be Part of Your Singularity. This is very similar to the title of the article If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!. by Athena Andreadis, a very mistaken bioluddite apology of our current Human1.0 condition against unPC Singularitian imagination. This article is one of many recent articles dedicated to bashing Singularitians, Ray Kurzweil and transhumanist imagination in name of the dullest left-feminist-flavored political correctness. I think I will skip Jamais' talk (too bad, because he is a brilliant thinker and speaker). See also Michael Anissimov's Response to Jamais Cascio.

UPDATED: Jamais says that he did not choose the title to express implicit support for Athena's positions. "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution" is a line attributed to early 20th century anarchist Emma Goldman, talking about the then-commonplace debates about the potential for socialist revolution in the US. She was very skeptical of a movement that seemed to want to control behavior, and made claims to historical inevitability. I stand corrected and wish to apologize to Jamais for my wrong interpretation.

Most recent anti-transhumanist articles do not address real transhumanism, but a demonized, caricatural strawman of transhumanism which some intellectually dishonest critics wish to sell to their readers, which I find very annoying. In some cases, I rather agree with some specific points addressing over-optimistic predictions: While I am confident that indefinite life extension and mind uploading will eventually be achieved, I don't see it happening before the second half of the century, and closer to the end. Perhaps even later. Very few transhumanists think practical, operational indefinite life extension and mind uploading will be a reality in the next two or three decades. Probably Kurzweil himself does not _really_ believe it. Similarly, I don't see a Singularity in 2045. Perhaps later, perhaps never. But even when I agree with the letter of these articles, I very much disagree with their spirit, and I think criticizing Kurzweil for making over-optimistic predictions is entirely missing the point. Ray Kurzweil's bold optimism is a refreshing change from today's often overly cautious, timid, boring, PC and at times defeatist attitude. It reminds us that we live in a reality that can be reverse- and re- engineered if we push hard enough. It reminds us that our bodies and brains are not sacred cows but machines which can be improved by technology. He is the bard who tells us of the beautiful new world beyond the horizon, and dares us to go. This is how I choose to read Kurzweil and, in this sense, I think one Kurzweil is worth thousands of critics.

Singularitians are bold, imaginative, irreverent, unPC and fun. Often I disagree with the letter of their writings, but I agree with their spirit, and in this sense going to the Singularity Summit is a political statement. Call me, if you wish, a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The telepathic communication era

Many people, including me, are now used to be always online. With my smartphone powered by Google's Android operating system, I am used to send and receive email and IMs anytime, from anywhere. It is easy to see how this trend will evolve: most routine computing applications will migrate to smartphones, the coverage and bandwidth of wireless networks will go up, and their price will go down. In only a few years, we will be used to be permanently plugged in the global Internet, and of course the user interfaces will improve. For example, as described by the visionary science fiction author Charlie Stross in his novel Halting State, augmented reality technology based on smart glasses will soon permit overcoming the limitations due to the small size of phones. A first generation of suitable smart glasses is already available, but there is something much better on the horizon: instant telepathic communication.

A few months ago a researcher sent a telepathic message to Twitter by thinking it, using his brain as a computer input device via the neural interfacing system BCI2000. The first message says just "SENT FROM BCI2000" and the second message is only a bit more explicit: "USING EEG TO SEND TWEET" but the brain wave Twitter moment has been compared to to a modern equivalent of the historical Alexander Graham Bell's "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." message, The company Emotiv Systems launched, earlier this year, a commercial neural interface called EPOC, able to detect the user's thought and translate them to commands understandable by computer programs. The company's website has video clips showing users controlling videogames by thought alone. We can safely say that the year 2009 has marked the birth of the era of telepathic communication.

If you are not a passionate hacker, don't rush to the electronics store though: these Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) devices have still years of development to go before reaching operational maturity: the historical Twitter message took several minutes to compose and send, so don't plan to write a long love or business telepathic letter just yet. Similarly, the EPOC interface only permits very basic actions in videogames and virtual worlds at this moment, and in controlled conditions. But, of course, this will change fast. There is money to make with the countless applications of BCI technology, and our understanding of the brain, though still very limited, has already reached a critical mass. These two facts will ensure the fast development of operational, commercial BCI technology: today's slow baby-talk between the brain and the computer will give place to very fast and precise communication. And since computers are linked by the Internet, also their users' minds will be linked by the Internet: yesterday's slowly typed SMS will be replaced by tomorrow's instant, long telepathic messages. BCI technology, originated in military programs and medical research including clinical trials with severely disabled patients, is finding its way to the commercial marketplace.

Today, smartphones are replacing desktop and notebook computers, but perhaps they are only a stepping stone towards tomorrow's ultimate wearable computer: the computing device implanted directly in the brain. The team led by Ted Berger, described as The Memory Hacker by Popular Science, has spent the past decade engineering prototype memory chips that can be implanted directly in the brain. This is still very experimental research, but I think it will advance fast and reach operational maturity within the next couple of decades.

Nobody has seen and described the convergence of these trends better than Ben Goertzel, one of the world's leading experts in Artificial Intelligence. In an article titled Brain-Computer Interfacing: From Prosthetic Limbs to Telepathy Chips, Goertzel writes: "Scientists are exploring multiple radical brain imaging technologies, including devices involving carbon nanotubes and other nanotech-based materials, which seem to play more nicely with brain cells than conventional materials... And in time, even more fascinating possibilities may be realized. Consider the “telepathy chip”--a neural implant that allows the wearer to project their thoughts or feelings to others, and receive thoughts or feelings from others.".

Everyone’s mind will be permanently linked to the wireless Internet, and through the Internet to everyone else’s mind. This will trigger very radical changes. In particular telepathic groups--able to instantly share and elaborate thoughts--will produce an enormous acceleration in the development and deployment of new ideas, and cause the emergence of "group minds". And once neural communication is sufficiently deep, accurate and fast, it will be possible to transfer the informational content of a person's brain, with memories, thoughts and feelings, to a higher performance storage and processing device. This "mind uploading" technology may eventually provide practical immortality.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

10 Q/As about interstellar space travel, from "el club de los astronautas"

El club de los astronautas (I always loved their name) is a space advocacy group of artists and musicians. its mission is to promote a manned, interstellar voyage. its approach is to find and debate strategies that might make stand out this idea beyond fiction, hopefully during our life-time! therefore a hypothetical spaceship is suggested: the mare nostrum spaceship (the mns). to realize a million-years interstellar voyage, assuming the auspicious premise to find some sexy aliens, the essential, first step is to overcome our biological limits and to transform into a new kind of (human) existence. They have asked 10 questions about interstellar space travel to several people, and published all answers on their website.

My answers:

Do you think the human being will realize an interstellar voyage?

Yes. They may not be "human beings 1.0" though, but rather augmented and radically enhanced post-humans, or "human beings 2.0".

Do you think it could happen during your lifetime?

Sadly, no. But then I am 52, and likely to miss the post-human train. It could happen during the lifetime of my daughter, or her children.

How do you think art could accelerate and promote this idea?

By trying to re-introduce in our life a bold sense of wonder and a radically imaginative spirit of adventure, which are mustly missing from our lives today. Artists, please, bring the spirit of the 60s back! Also, by promoting positive visions of a SF-like future.

What do you think will be the key-technology to realize an interstellar voyage?

Propulsion and standard engineering of course, but also sentient artificial intelligence and transfer of human consciousness ("mind uploading") to higher performance physical supports (called "computronium" in SF). As in Charlie Stross' Accelerando, the first interstellar spacecraft may be as small as a coca cola can, yet crewed by hundreds of human beings 2.0.

Do you think regenerative medicine will be the first step to prolong maximum life-span and allow humans to transform into new life-forms to overcome the time-space-barrier?

It will probably be the first step to prolong maximum life-span, but I don't think regenerative medicine per-se may allow humans to transform into new life-forms to overcome the time-space-barrier.

What do you think will be main breakthroughs in medicine in the next decade and beyond?

I see smooth progress in medicine rather than radical breakthroughs. I hope to see cancer gradually becoming a manageable, non-lethal chronic condition.

What kind of breakthroughs in brain-boosting technologies might be achieved during your lifetime? (smart-drugs, nootropics, neurogeneses, neuronal stem cells, etc.)

All that, plus high band 2-way Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI). I think the first generations of brain implants will be available toward the end of my natural lifetime.

Do you think you will join future brain-enhancement or even brain replacement technologies?

I would like to, without the slightest hesitation.

How do you think those technologies can be disadvantageous or dangerous?

All technologies can be used for good or for bad purposes, and everything in life can be dangerous. I prefer to focus on the bright side, there are (far too many) others who prefer to focus on the dark side and the risks

Are you interested to meet highly developed alien civilizations?

Yes, definitely.