Friday, February 17, 2017

Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

“There are no inherent barriers to our being able to reverse engineer the operating principles of human intelligence and replicate these capabilities in the more powerful computational substrates that will become available in the decades ahead. The human brain is a complex hierarchy of complex systems, but it does not represent a level of complexity beyond what we are already capable of handling.”
     Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
“The big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when it works but what it does when it’s stuck.”
     Marvin Minsky. 1927-2016.
“But they are useless. They can only give you answers.”
   Pablo Picasso, on computers.


“Future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”
      Timbuk 3.


A colleague recently sent me a link to an article and video of a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence with Elon Musk. It's a long video but worth your while if you’re interested in AI and the future of technology and, by extension, the future of humanity. If you are only interested in Musk’s thoughts, reading the article is sufficient since it includes most of his comments. If, however, you want to hear some of the other panelists such as the brilliant Ray Kurzweil and Sam Harris, you’ll have to watch the video.
I have seen a lot of Elon Musk quotes on the web but had never actually listened to him beyond a few sound bites. He points out that we are already cyborgs, by some simplistic definition of the word.
“By far you have more power, more capability, than the President of the United States had 30 years ago. If you have an Internet link you have an article of wisdom, you can communicate to millions of people, you can communicate to the rest of Earth instantly. I mean, these are magical powers that didn’t exist, not that long ago. So everyone is already superhuman, and a cyborg,” says Musk [at 33:56].
To the extent that our laptops and smartphones connect us to the internet and give us instant access to a world of information, they make us a new type of being. Given recent advances in nanotechnology, computing, genetics, and neural networks - to mention just a few of the disciplines involved - it’s easy to see an ever accelerating rush towards a science fiction future in which we are plugged into The Matrix using a “high bandwidth interconnect to the cortex” (according to Musk), nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, our mental functions assisted and augmented with artificial intelligence. Science fiction stuff, to be sure, but more science and less fiction as we continue to make advances in every academic field imaginable.
Musk goes so far as to describe a future in which we bypass keyboards, mice, and even natural languages and instead develop technologies that allow us to directly plug computers into our spinal cord. As Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well said. Imagine explaining the Internet, Google Glass, and iPhone to a time traveler from the nineteenth century and you will see that Musk’s proposed future is not too far-fetched. The technology we already have at our disposal today - not just computers and the internet, but the advances in genetic engineering alone - should convince you that such a future is not only possible but also quite probable.


Bob Newhart has a hilarious comedy routine about a hypothetical phone conversation between a British aristocrat and Sir Walter Raleigh, laughing his head off in disbelief as the explorer tells him about his crazy discoveries, such as cigars and corn, in the Americas. I'd love to see him do a similar conversation between a 19th century citizen and a 21st century scientist: “Yeah, right. You can grow human ears on laboratory rats. Right. Contact lenses that measure your blood sugar level. Right. Pull the other one.”
I highly recommend reading “The Gene: An Intimate History”, by Siddhartha Mukherjee if you have the time. We have already deciphered much of our DNA. We can clone living beings, including humans. Remember Dolly the Sheep? We can edit our own DNA, re-writing much of our destiny, if we wish. Genetic scientists are doing a good job policing themselves as they grapple with the ethical implications of these recent advances. So far, we’ve mostly utilized these techniques to fight genetic diseases but rogue scientists (and rogue regimes) don't necessarily abide by those self-imposed bans.
I reminded my colleague that I'd actually blogged about this topic - clumsily, to be sure - last year. The whole topic of “The Singularity”, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil and others, is fascinating. Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near in 2005, describing a time in the very near future when we will not only augment our intelligence with that of machines but become one with them. I think more and more people see today that the first baby steps towards that vision have already materialized across several scientific disciplines in just the past few years. Despite what Hollywood says, I’m not worried about such an eventuality turning into a nightmare scenario like The Terminator movies with machines becoming our overlords. Rather, I think we will continue to stay one step ahead of computers and be in control at all times.

What Picasso said is so true. Computers only have the answers. They don't (yet) know how to ask questions. Humans are the only species capable of generating and maintaining thousands of "what if" scenarios simultaneously. Chimps have been shown to understand the concept of "lying" and "deceit". They'll readily lie about where they hid the banana. But humans are the only species capable of asking: "What if there are green men on Mars? What if a billion years ago huge animals roamed the earth? What if I genetically modify my own DNA? What if ..." I have yet to see a computer spontaneously ask a question and then set about to solve it. Until that day, we're still in control.
I stopped talking about the topic because I was afraid people might think I'd lost my marbles. It's good to see people like Elon Musk publicly discussing it. For those of you who are rolling your eyes in disbelief, stop worrying about the end stage of a world like The Matrix. Instead, just think about the incremental next few steps and you will see a path to such a “cyborg” future. Virtual and Augmented Reality. Natural Language Processing. Facial and gesture recognition. DNA cloning and editing. Bionic prosthetics that can be manipulated purely through brain waves. The list keeps going on and on. These technologies are taken for granted today and on the verge of broad adoption, the same technologies that would have been considered science fiction by most people even fifty years ago.
The question, in my opinion, is not whether we are going to enhance ourselves and our physical and mental capabilities through science. The question is which ones first and how quickly do we get there.


The future is bright, I'm sure of it. It may be hard to believe that in today's political climate but I believe it. That was the last message I sent to my colleague. Always be an optimist in the long run. Be a pessimist in the short term. Be a skeptic. Question everything. That is what science has taught us. But be an optimist long term. That’s what history has shown us. Trust in the uncanny ability of human beings to continue to pull hat tricks at the most improbable moments. Take a look back at the amazing scientific advances of the past couple of centuries and remember that they happened amid massive world wars, widespread famine, pandemics like the Spanish Influenza that killed tens of millions in a single shot, dictators and despots who plundered their own countries and killed their own citizens, natural disasters like the recent Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people each, staggering poverty, etc.

We shall overcome. This, too, shall pass. Be an optimist. The alternative is not much fun any way.

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