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Category: Futurism

I was  asked a few months ago to answer three questions for the new “Rough Guide to the Future” which has just come out in print: Looking at the future of humanity (with no particular timeframe), what’s a. your highest hope; b. your best bet and c. your view as to what’s likely to happen in view of answers a. and b.

As this is a futuristic publication I naturally veered to the singularity aspect of what I see in humanity’s future, particularly the merging with AI, of which I wrote of extensively here. Some would call this about as far-fetched as can be (heck, some of my closest peeps constantly jibe me about this), but read the article here on the site and judge for yourself…

Now, while they did manage to get my job title wrong, I think it came out quite well.

Of course, any publication that I contribute to deserves a full-fledged plug, so if you want to read the experts’ opinion on what’s to come in a variety of fields, and this includes some very serious people and not just frenzied geeks like myself, you can order yourself a copy  here.

If you’ve read my previous posts and the two singularity articles I’ve added to the site, you will know that in my opinion (and many others) there are two main avenues through which the singularity will emerge, when it does.

The first, and most widely considered (both scientifically and in the public/media view), will follow the development of what is known as “Strong AI” or “artificial general intelligence”. That is, the generation of an artificial intelligence which exceeds human intelligence,  coupled with this entity acquiring the ability to improve itself or develop an improved iteration of strong AI.

singularityThe route generally postulated in this case is that this AI and the ones it begets recursively improve themselves, rapidly reaching levels of intelligence ungraspable by us one-human-brain-power beings. Following this Singularity event, they either vanish into another dimension, build killer robots and destroy humanity, harvest humans as batteries and employ multiple copies of Hugo Weaving as unsuccessful agents or perhaps other realistic scenarios.

The slightly less well-covered route, though, is that prior to machines achieving supra-human intelligence, a way is found to link the human brain to machine components, followed by integrating the two – machines in the human body and multitudes of bodies and minds in a global cyborg consciousness. Thus, effectively rendering “us” and “them” inseparable. As a result, when strong AI does emerge, any advance made in intelligence levels will directly affect humans too. In effect, we will become part of the machine, able ultimately to transfer our consciousness to digital form and achieve the same leaps in intelligence levels as they emerge from the self-improving machines, or indeed be part of these improvements.

So which of these two possibilities (which are by no means categorically the only way things are set to pan out – there could be many variations in between, or completely different outcomes – remember, this is conjecture!)  is more likely? Which is better for humanity’s future?singluarity

Unfortunately, the advance rate in the bio and medical sciences naturally lags that in AI and related fields, due to the inherent restrictions on research in humans. Thus, one is forced to take a pessimistic outlook with regard to the likely sequence of events.  Ultimately an effective permanent link between man and machine will be made, but the question is whether it will still be relevant by the time it is established.

It must be remembered, though, that technological breakthroughs do happen. Should the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and the multitude of technologies which comprise and surround it receive sufficient attention and funding, the chances of a beneficial sequence can increase profoundly, increasing the chance of the survival of humanity…or should I say, post-humanity.

It is clear, though, that making the connection to machine intelligences will radically change humanity. Thus, the question of which route is more preferable depends on your outlook: do you want to see humanity evolve, or are you content with us staying just the way we are, even if this renders us evolutionarily irrelevant? Are bacteria disappointed not to have evolved?

So, if you are of the belief that we must and will evolve – make a contribution: donate, write to your congressman, or just become a researcher! The future is almost here… 🙂

 

When considering all that is written about the singularity, in print and online (including by yours truly), it is useful to step back and consider things from a different, less involved, standpoint.

religion_god_man

What we have here is basically an idea. A belief. One which may be based on observed trends, but is nevertheless a projection made regarding the future. A future which for many is seen as exciting, fascinating, or even as offering salvation from the sufferings and limitations of humanity.

In these respects and others, the belief in the singularity is a semi-religious one. “In a few decades we will reach a point in which humanity will evolve/ merge with machines/ disappear/ be free of its mortal coil/ be redeemed/ saved/ connect to the infinity of information”. We have a prophet who writes books on the subject, speaks widely about the fantastic future he foresees and is quoted in pretty much every article about the subject.  We have droves of believers of all different backgrounds who are convinced that this future is certain and that they should do everything in their power to bring it to existence.

We even have blind, unquestioning, easily manipulatable faith, the worst aspect of traditional religions, in which people stop, or never start, doubting anything they are told. This despite the generally higher intelligence and educational background and wider scope and interests which many of the “believers” hold.prophet

So as with all religions, blind faith is bad. Always question your beliefs, always doubt what you read about the future. It may be…no, it almost certainly will be, different than the one you envisage. Try to make up your own mind based upon real data. Many people may be speaking their minds and confidently foreseeing and prophesyzing what the future will be like. Don’t take their word for it – you read, you decide.

A few thoughts on post-human society, one which will emerge after the singularity (if we make it that far).

First of all, a definition of Singularity for you laymen (and women) by one of those who coined the phrase, Vernor Vinge, taken from this interview:singluarity233

“My version is that in the near-historical future, it seems very likely that we will be able to create beings that are smarter than humans in every way we think of humans being smart and creative. This sort of technical advance is qualitatively different from other technical advances, and it qualifies for the name “singularity” in that the world afterwards is intrinsically unknowable to people on our side of the singularity.”

The interesting question for tonight is: where might religion, that ever-present blind belief in a creator/s and all the associated paraphernalia which has gathered round this idea over the centuries, fit in in such a world? Would it still be relevant and necessary for post-human beings, or would the radical changes which define this new civilization render religious belief obsolete?

Assuming you’re interested, there’s an easy way to answer this question: “how the heck could we know – that’s the nature of a singularity!”. This is a fair answer, scientifically speaking, however it’s not much fun and would not allow me to free-wheel in pontification. So allow me to venture forth.

Much regarding the answer to this question depends on the definition you use for the term “religion”:  is it a general fear of god – an “awe before the divine”? Perhaps it can be classified as a search for the ultimate truth, a source for guidance regarding the “right” way to live our lives: “a push…toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life”? Or a more generic classification of any and every belief in a single or multiple god(s): “a general term used… to designate all concepts concerning the belief in god(s) and goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns”?

The definition will naturally determine the answer, with the more traditional, restricted view of deities as omnipotent beings which respond to prayer/sacrifice/meditation less likely to persist than the wider view of “the search for ultimate truth” . However, the basic question is: will post-humans still need a god or supernatural beliefs to explain the unknown or that which they cannot answer (the meaning of life and all that), or will this be coolly categorized as “not yet known”? singularityThe latter is  an attitude much more in line with the scientific rationale of attempting to explain nature using observation and experimentation, while retaining doubt towards every theory until it is proven.

Two elements may factor in the answer to this: a. what post-human society consists of  (an evolution of machine intelligence – true AI gone exponential, or the joining of human and machine followed by this rapid increase in intelligence), and b. (in both cases) what are the rules according to which this society will be founded and operate upon?

In a “rise of intelligent machines” scenario, programming could play a vital role. As some would say that the search for the meaning of life goes hand in hand with self-consciousness, the emergence of real AI would bring this intelligence to question the meaning of its existence – with the associated questioning of the nature of its creator(s) (in this case humans) figuring heavily, at least in the early phases. Seeing beyond its human parents would quickly bring the question to where they came from, leading to deeper philosophical and metaphysical questions – and perhaps coming nearer to religious ideas.

The “human integration” scenario, which is in my eyes a much more optimistic one for humanity’s future (unless you take the hardcore and somewhat morbid “we evolve or become irrelevant and that’s the way things should be” view), incorporates the human view of religion into post-humanity. Surely a more interesting concept to think about. A post-human society would include in its core make-up some measure remaining from the vast heterogeneity which characterizes present-day humanity (reasonably assuming that some groups – religious? – will opt out of combining with machines), with religious beliefs being only one small aspect of this variety in thought. Of course, Atheism would also be an important and relevant viewpoint. How would such different beliefs be mirrored into the thoughts (I use this word very loosely as the thinking of a multi-conscious being is very different from that of a single entity) of a collective?

A good analogy which can perhaps help us take a glimpse into what such collective thought would be like is the coming together of many single-celled  organisms to form a multicellular structure. Consider for a moment that you are comprised of billions of cells, each with its own copy of your DNA and its cellular structure. Singularity23However, the function of your body is part automatic and part led by your conscious thought – the product of billions of neurons firing in patterns in your brain. Thus, while many different cells with different functions and some degree of ‘autonomy’ exist, there is an overriding consciousness which can determine the path the whole organism takes. The analogy seems to dictate a central decision-making “body” which will breathe a set of beliefs, ideals and mundane instructions to the super-organism. It can be suggested that since such a central body will determine these central tenets, the “Body” of organized  religion will become redundant and disappear, with only the central, philosophical ideas such as the search for the meaning of life and the nature of creation remaining. Which is (or should be) of course, the central point of religion anyway 🙂

This entire subject is, of course, a matter to be discussed and debated. My opinion is limited to myself, and I’m sure many would argue with my limited conclusions here, and even with the rationale underlying them. Nevertheless, it makes for a very interesting thought experiment, one which I will pursue further within this blog.

Today’s fare is an article I was invited to submit to Forbes.com’s AI report, and was mysteriously (and very annoyingly) yanked out at the last moment. Their loss.

Enjoy.

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It will probably come as a surprise to those who are not well acquainted with the life and work of Alan Turing that in addition to his renowned pioneering work in computer science and mathematics, he also helped to lay the groundwork in the field of mathematical biology(1). turingWhy would a renowned mathematician and computer scientist find himself drawn to the biosciences?

Interestingly, it appears that Turing’s fascination with this sub-discipline of biology most probably stemmed from the same source as the one that inspired his better known research: at that time all of these fields of knowledge were in a state of flux and development, and all posed challenging fundamental questions. Furthermore, in each of the three disciplines that engaged his interest, the matters to which he applied his uniquely creative vision were directly connected to central questions underlying these disciplines, and indeed to deeper and broader philosophical questions into the nature of humanity, intelligence and the role played by evolution in shaping who we are and how we shape our world.

Central to Turing’s biological work was his interest in mechanisms that shape the development of form and pattern in autonomous biological systems, and which underlie the patterns we see in nature (2), from animal coat markings to leaf arrangement patterns on plant stems (phyllotaxis). This topic of research, which he named “morphogenesis,” (3) had not been previously studied with modeling tools. This was a knowledge gap that beckoned Turing; particularly as such methods of research came naturally to him.

In addition to the diverse reasons that attracted him to the field of pattern formation, a major ulterior motive for his research had to do with a contentious subject which, astonishingly, is still highly controversial in some countries to this day. In studying pattern formation he was seeking to help invalidate the “argument from design(4) concept, which we know today as the hypothesis of “Intelligent Design.

Turing was intent on demonstrating that the laws of physics are sufficient to explain our observations in the natural world; or in other words, that our findings do not need an omnipotent creator to explain them. It is ironic that Turing, whose work played a central role in laying the groundwork for the creation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), took a clear stance against creationism. This is testament to his acceptance of scientific evidence and rigorous research over weak analogy.

Unfortunately, those who did not and will not accept Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism of evolution will not see anything compelling in Turing’s work on morphogenesis. To those individuals, the development of AI can be taken as “proof,” or a convincing analogy, of the necessity and presence of a creator, the argument being that the Creator created humanity, and humanity creates AI.

However, what the supporters of intelligent design do not acknowledge is that natural selection is itself precisely the cause underlying the development of both humanity and its AI progeny. Just as natural selection resulted in the phenomena that Turing sought to model in his work on morphogenesis (which brings about the propagation of successful traits through the development of biological form and pattern), it is also the driver for the development of intelligence. Itself generated via internalized neuronal selection mechanisms (5, 6), intelligence allows organisms to adapt to their environment continually during life.

Intelligence is the ultimate tool, the development of which allows organisms to survive; it enables them to learn, respond to their environment and adapt their behavior within their own lifetime. It is the fruit of the natural process that brings about successive development over time in organisms faced with scarcity of resources. Moreover, it now allows humans to defy generational selection and develop intelligences external to our own, making use of computational techniques, including some which utilize evolutionary mechanisms (7).

The eventual development of true AI will be a landmark in many ways, notably in that these intelligences will have the ability to alter their own circuits (their version of neurons), immediately and at will. While the human body is capable of some degree of non-developmental neuronal plasticity, this takes place slowly and control of the process is limited to indirect mechanisms (such as varied forms of learning or stimulation). In contrast, the high plasticity and directly controlled design and structure of AI software and hardware will render them well suited to altering themselves and hence to developing improved subsequent AI generations.

In addition to a jump in the degree of plasticity and its control, AIs will constitute a further step forward with regard to the speed at which beneficial information can be shared. In contrast to the exceedingly slow rate at which advantageous evolutionary adaptations were spread through the populations observed by Darwin (over several generations), the rapidly increasing rates of communication in current society result in successful “adaptations” (which we call science and technology) being distributed at ever-increasing speeds. This is, of course, the principal reason why information sharing is beneficial for humans – it allows us to better adapt to reality and harness the environment to our advantage. It seems reasonable to predict that ultimately the sharing of information in AI will be practically instantaneous.

It is difficult to speculate what a combination of such rapid communication and high plasticity combined with ever-increasing processing speeds will be like. The point at which self-improving AIs emerge has been termed a technological singularity (8).

Thus, in summary: evolution begets intelligence (via evolutionary neuronal selection mechanisms); human intelligence begets artificial intelligence (using, among others, evolutionary computation methods), which at increasing cycle speeds, leads to a technological singularity – a further big step up the evolutionary ladder.

Sadly, being considerably ahead of his time and living in an environment that castigated his lifestyle and drove him from his research, meant that Turing did not live to see the full extent of his work’s influence. While he did not survive to an age in which AIs became prevalent, he did fulfill his ambition by taking part in the defeat of argument from design in the scientific community, and witnessed Darwinian natural selection becoming widely accepted. The breadth of his vision, the insight he displayed, and his groundbreaking research clearly place Turing on an equal footing with the most celebrated scientists of the previous century.