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The Singularity Is Near

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I have always been fascinated by technology and I have also always put significant amounts of faith in the fact that technology will be able to solve all of our problems. Nothing better captures my views than that of the Singularity movement that we learned about early on in the course. The singularity is used much more colloquially to describe a point at which technology will solve most of the major problems that humans struggle with, even death.However, the basic concept of the Singularity movement is actually that technology is advancing so rapidly that eventually humans will create a superintelligence so advanced that from that point on it will be impossible to accurately predict the future, just like scientists lack the ability to see beyond the singularity of a black hole. One of they keys to the singularity movement is that this superintelligence will be so advanced that it will actually be able to rewrite its own code or even create other more intelligent entities, just like humans are doing. Proponents of the singularity argue that this will lead to an intelligence explosion at which point the advancements could continue to accelerate until the laws of physics are the only limiting factors.

Now many people think that proponents of the singularity happen to be crazy. The advancement of AI and other technology begs to differ however, and suggests that the singularity might be approaching much more quickly than we might think. Take Nicole’s post on the Geminoid for example. This generation of robots created by a tech company in Tokyo look so human that it is difficult to tell that they’re actually robots. Not only that, but they are able to carry on conversations with each other and with human participants. To make things even scarier take a peek at Sasha’s article on the new wikipedia for robots which creates a compiled source of data specifically for use by robots. Creating a central data source that robots wirelessly have access to can only accelerate the coming of the singularity. Just as wikipedia has consolidated the knowledge base of human beings and increased our access to information and learning, the RoboEarth system could do the same for robots. This system is slightly reminiscent of the Viki system in iRobot that wirelessly controls all robot actions. Lastly, the Watson system that Chris describes could be the scariest of all. The superintelligent Watson was able to easily beat the best human competitors in Jeopardy history, which begs the question as Chris asks “How long will it be until future generations of super computers exceed human ability at other tasks?” It seems that the answer is not very long at all.

My feelings about the singularity are very mixed however. While many fear that superintelligent robots will be the bane of human existence(I do too), I am excited to see the effects as humans reach the pinnacle of their creativity and intelligence. I truly believe that with such rapid technological advancement, humans might be able to as Ashlee Vance argues in Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday, to stave off death for hundreds of years.

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Brain Download 95% Complete, Time Remaining: 39 years.

April 24, 2011 Leave a comment

While skeptics still speak out, more and more leading scientists are beginning to believe that it will one day actually be possible to download the human brain onto an external hard-drive. While computers are becoming incredibly intelligent and powerful(The IBM BlueGene computer can perform 72 trillion calculations per second), there has still been to date no match for the human brain. Billions of years of evolution have seemed to hone this natural organ to incredible ability. But soon, researchers predict that we will be able to read the neural networks within the brain and convert them into readable code. As Ian Pearson, head of the Futurology unit at British Technology says “‘If you draw the timelines, realistically by 2050 we would expect to be able to download your mind into a machine, so when you die it’s not a major career problem.”

Although this concept seems impossible, the truth is that we are not as far away as we think. The entire basis of computing relies on many of the same principles that are utilized by the human brain. Arrangements of wires, currents, and processors all currently exist in one form or another in the human brain. But this begs some lofty philosophical questions. If we can completely analyze and translate every neural interaction in the human brain, would what exists on that external hard drive actually be the individual consciousness, the person that that brain inhabited? This questions draws heavily on Rudy Rucker’s Software in which many of them were analyzed in novel form. In my opinion, the answer to this question is yes. I believe that the consciousness is the result of the placement an interactions of the neurons in the brain, nothing more and nothing less. But what does this mean? Well possibly the most exciting application is the fabled concept of immortality. If you could accurately download all of the existing thoughts, memories, and workings of the human brain onto a hard-drive, then you could upload the same information into another human brain in another body(possible a genetic copy), and you would be the same person. Continuing to do this might mean that humans could live for hundreds or even thousands of years. While technology is not yet at this level, we are rapidly approaching this ability and the question is an important one, both in philosophical and scientific terms.

The Twit-Worm Exists

April 24, 2011 Leave a comment

We laughed during the Futurama episode “Attack of the Killer App” as millions of people became infected with Mom’s “Twit-worm” and lumbered like zombies to the apple store. In this episode, Matt Groening satirizes the control that corporate marketing machines like Facebook and Twitter have over us. He shows how they can turn us into mindless consumers through a constant barrage of targeted advertising. As Hermes remarks in one scene after an advertisement for a pizza shows up on his computer: “This thing always knows what I want!” This kind of marketing interaction is actually occurring constantly even as I sit here to type this post. What hasn’t happened yet is the mind control that Futurama jokingly suggests. But is it a joke? Could that actually happen? While the answer might seem to be an obvious “no,” the possibility of this might be more realistic than one would think.

As technology continues to advance, we begin to incorporate it more into our bodies. Artificial hearts and cochlear implants are just a few examples of the invasive application of technology. Therefore, it is not a huge leap to say that in the future it is possible that our communication devices might be integrated with our bodies and possibly our minds. This is where things begin to get scary. Why exactly? Well I’ll tell you. If every person’s body is connected to an interconnected network, the the same technology that helps them can also be used to break them down. If you question the power of a malevolent entity to spread to the users of a network, just consider the “Mikeyy” worm that invaded Twitter in 2009. Users would be prompted to click on a harmless looking advertisement and as soon as they did their twitter account began immediately sending out thousands of links unwillingly to every follower that the individual had. If the follower clicked on the link then the link would again be sent to their followers and so on. One could also catch the worm by simply viewing the profile of an infected member.

As Mikko Hypphen of the F-Secure cybersecurity firm commented “It would have been a simple trick for malware authors to modify the worm to infect a user’s computer, where more serious offenses like identity theft could have occurred.” Now imagine that instead of just your external twitter account being linked to the network, technology that regulated your bodily functions was connected to the same network. It could be a disaster. Cyberspace has taken years of work and billions of dollars to construct. But in nature, it is often easier to tear something down than it is to build it. It seems that it might be inevitable that the body of the internet could be invaded by a super-virus that tears it down. Let’s just hope that we’re not a part of it when that day comes.

Los Angeles, CA 2019…Yeah right.

February 3, 2011 1 comment

Fire burst from smokestacks, holographic screens lit the streets, corporate pyramids loomed thousands of feet in the air, and hover cars roamed the smoggy city as “Los Angeles, November 2019” flashed across the bottom of the screen in the opening scene of Blade Runner. We couldn’t stop laughing at how the Ridley Scott probably got nothing right (except for the smog of course).

I don’t think I’m being too forward in predicting that LA won’t have any of those features eight years from now. And that got me thinking, it’s amazing how the 1980’s perception of the future of technology could be so wrong. Growing up in such a technologically advanced age I couldn’t imagine being so wrong about the future of technology forty years from now.

Now onto Blade Runner. A common theme that I never realized throughout all of my experience with Cyber Punk is the pivotal role that AI plays. It seems that in almost every novel and movie (Neuromancer, Bladerunner, and the Matrix to name a few), there is an AI gone violently rogue. And so I began to wonder; could a computer system really go rogue and void it’s programming? And what is at the basis of our fascination with AI?

While trying to answer the first question, I thought back to one of my favorite scenes from iRobot and came to the conclusion that yes, yes it could. Dr. Lanning states:

“There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code, that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul.”

As strange as this explanation is, I believe it to be true. If we imagine the code that computers use to function is a form of DNA, analogous to human DNA, and we accept the fact that there are unintended segments of code that due to faulty human programming, exist in computer systems, then there is statistically a possibility that random bits of code might come together to create “unexpected protocol,” or a kind of free will. This is no more forward than claiming that random bits of DNA cross over during meiosis in order to form new human traits.

So now that we have established that AI is not only possible, but that it is inevitable as long as we continue to use computers, the question about the nature of AI is raised.  Is AI necessarily bad? Why don’t we trust it? And of course, is AI really all that different from regular human intelligence? Is it better?

Blade Runner attempts to answer many of these difficult questions. In the movie, Harrison Ford is a “Blade Runner,” an officer sent to dispose of rogue androids who have rebelled and are now killing humans. At first it seems so clear, but as the movie progresses, lines continue to blur. Harrison Ford ends up having sex with one of the Androids in what seems like an act of pure love. The motto for the company that produces these androids is even “More human than human.” And when Ford is hanging from the edge of a building, the leader of the Android rebellion pulls him up to safety while howling like a wolf, clearly not characteristic of a robot. The android seems almost primal, throwing our perceptions of computer based beings out the window.

But one might ask oneself, what are we if not computer based beings? Our brain acting as the central processing unit and our DNA being the programming. Is an artificial intelligence that can feel, that can experience emotion, that can learn and replicate itself any different from a human? I’m not so sure anymore. And with Watson now beating human players on Jeopardy, I wonder how far we are from the beginnings of artificial intelligence.