Sunday, August 31, 2008

Transhumanists as Cabal, Singularity as Revolution



I have a somewhat melodramatic thought about Transhumanism and the Singularitarians: if these movements are as threatening as they would appear to be to so many traditional religious and "liberal" value systems, is this community better served by working very quietly toward their goals? Should transhumanists operate as a kind of cabal, a global uber-elite of scientists and engineers whose work is only made public at the moment of implementation? To put it bluntly: should all the Singularitary theorists (myself included) simply stfu and stop alerting the public to the potentially revolutionary developments that are in the offing?

One of my greatest fears, as I have discussed before, is the onset of a new Dark Age of religious Luddism and anti-modernity. The United States is currently the leader of this trend in the Western world, as evidenced by the growing influence of religious fundamentalists who seek to mandate the teaching of creationism in schools and restrict biological research on religious grounds. Carried to its conclusion, this trend will result in the USA becoming a Third World country in fairly short order. The only real danger in this scenario is that a group of Christian extremists might attempt to hasten Armageddon by launching the nuclear arsenal created by some of history’s great secular scientific minds. This would be the ultimate irony: the former world leader in science and technology gets hijacked by some kind of Christian al-Qaeda who wields these technologies for religious terrorism — think 9/11 times ten thousand. If this can somehow be avoided, we can expect a religion-dominated United States to fade into irrelevance and impotence, and rightfully so. But in a worst-case scenario, perhaps the transhumanist movement will become an outlaw order, not too dissimilar from the European monks who preserved knowledge during the Dark Ages. This is a real possibility if transhumanists do not tread carefully in these uncertain and backward-looking times.

The challenges to transhumanism will not come only from the conservative religious elements of society; many who claim to be “progressive”, “enlightened” and “humanitarian” can be expected to resist transhumanism from the moral ground of “anti-fascism” and “egalitarianism”. In the minds of these generally rational people, any movement that promises to radically alter human capabilities can only mean dramatic inequality and the onset of some kind of techno-fascism. A prominent example of such a thinker is Francis Fukuyama, who calls transhumanism the world’s most dangerous idea. While such concerns are understandable, from the larger evolutionary perspective we must resist going down this intellectual dead end. Just as the Neanderthals were ultimately surpassed and replaced by our ancestors, it is short-sighted and arrogant to insist that humanity in its current form should last forever. The processes of evolution will continue with or without our moral approval, but if the means to guide them intelligently are within technological reach, it is imperative that we seize upon them now before this historic window of opportunity closes.

It is quite conceivable that transhumanist research will become outlaw science in the not too distant future. Transhumanism may simply present too many ethical and cultural challenges for any society to peacefully accept, whether it be secular-humanist or traditional-religious. I suggest that everyone in this community begin preparing for that day now, and consider viewing themselves as a kind of revolutionary cabal. Because that is really what Transhumanism and the attendant Singularity represent: a total revolution in human affairs, which no established order can be expected to accept without a fight. I hope everyone who understands what is at stake will consider keeping their lips sealed while they sharpen their revolutionary weapons.

Further Reading:
  • Baily, Ronald Transhumanism, the Most Dangerous Idea?
  • Bostrom, Nick Transhumanism: the World's Most Dangerous Idea?
  • Fukuyama, Francis The World's Most Dangerous Ideas
  • Fukuyama, Francis Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
  • Thursday, August 21, 2008

    Monkeys in Space and Other Absurdities



    I recently found myself reading the classic novel Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, and I was struck by how absurd and improbable its vision of the 22nd century looks from a transhumanist perspective. The interplanetary civilization envisioned in the book, like so many futures in classic science fiction, essentially takes 20th century human beings and projects them forward a century or two without modification — no advanced AI’s, no genetic engineering, no cybernetic enhancements. This results in the kind of "monkeys in space" fantasy that has plagued the popular consciousness, from Buck Rogers to Star Trek. With all due respect to Mr. Clarke, whom I revere as one of the 20th century’s great scientific visionaries, the future almost certainly won’t look anything like the "United Planets" of Rendezvous With Rama.

    Our current biological substrates are products of millions of years of evolution on only one planet: Earth. To think that this is the biological form that will colonize the solar system and beyond is short sighted and na├»ve. Almost by definition, human beings aren’t designed for space travel or life on other planets. The costs and risks of attempting to do so are not only excessive but unnecessary. Without some overwhelming motivation (imminent extinction, discovery of extraterrestrial life, vast wealth potential, etc.), it is difficult to imagine human primates in their current form colonizing other planets in a serious way.

    When it comes to interstellar exploration, the situation is even bleaker for homo sapiens. As a recent article points out, the energy requirements for getting any spacecraft to the nearest stars are enormous, particularly if the craft is constrained by the needs of fragile human passengers. Barring revolutionary breakthroughs in physics, we’re looking at either multi-millenial missions or energy requirements in excess of total current global energy output. Neither option seems very feasible for obvious biological, economic and philosophical reasons.

    Given these limitations, I would suggest that the best hope for making the physical exploration and colonization of space a reality (while awaiting breakthroughs in physics) is to focus our collective resources on modifying human beings themselves, and on abstracting our intelligence into more flexible forms. My guess is that the first earthlings to visit the outer solar system, and certainly the nearby stars, will not be humans at all but artificially intelligent probes capable of totally autonomous, adaptive behavior. (For a semi-plausible description of an interstellar AI probe, see Vernor Vinge’s short story The Long Shot)

    Speculating further into the future, even if the energy can be found and suitable propulsion systems designed to send spacecraft to the stars in a reasonable period of time, it’s not clear that they would be necessary for long. Since the most efficient means of information transfer on astronomical scales is electromagnetic energy travelling at the speed of light, it’s conceivable that space travel will be replaced by the transmission of consciousness itself as pure information. If intelligence is ultimately reducible to patterns of information, as most AI theorists believe, then it isn’t difficult to envision a network of "consciousness transceivers" being established by advanced probes across interstellar space. These transceivers would "download" minds directly into some kind of robotic bodies established at various locations of interest, allowing light speed "teleportation" of human minds across the galaxy. Obviously this is all highly speculative, but to my way of thinking it is much more believable than the idea of glorified chimpanzees rocketing across the galaxy in giant tin cans. Beam me up Scotty!

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    Singularities According to Hollywood


    The first technological Singularity, circa 1,000,000 B.C.E.


    "This is the voice of World Control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied dead. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die."


    "What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this [holds up a Duracell battery]."


    "Skynet has become self aware. In one hour it will initiate a massive nuclear attack on its enemy."

    "What enemy?"

    "Us! Humans!"


    Most of the above scenarios are what David Brin calls "Negative Singularities" — futures in which runaway technologies enslave or destroy us. Obviously they make for highly entertaining movies. There are of course "Positive Singularities", featuring radically increased levels of wealth, intelligence, lifespan, freedom, etc., but who wants to watch a movie about such things? Fortunately, the real world rarely has any resemblance to Hollywood movies...

    Friday, August 15, 2008

    Choose Your Future: Singularity or 7th Century

    ?

    I can’t help wondering if the cultural disruptions produced by our accelerating technologies are going to lead to a new worldwide Luddite movement in the near future. Is the growth of fundamentalist Islam just one form of a more general coming rebellion against the dehumanizing effects of our modern technological world? What happens if radical environmentalists, anti-globalists and religious fundamentalists form a united front against the forces of technological change? Will Ted Kaczynski come to be seen as a visionary and a prophet rather than a homicidal madman? If and when the Singularity draws near, will humanity rise up en masse to destroy the work of those who would make it possible? Do we go forward into the 21st century, or backward to the 7th? These may sound like melodramatic and science fictional questions, but the possibility of such developments seems very real to me.

    As I see it modern civilization is approaching an inflection point: as we probe ever deeper into our genetic building blocks, the mechanisms of our intelligence and the man-machine interface, we are exposing contradictions in the philosophical underpinnings of our liberal, democratic societies themselves. The possibilities inherent in genetic engineering, cybernetic augmentation and artificial intelligence call into question very basic principles, such as "all men are created equal". In what sense will this axiom, which is the basis of every democratic society, remain true in a post human era?

    The uncomfortable truth is, "all men are created equal" is a religious belief, not a self evident principle. Until now this hasn’t been an insurmountable problem, primarily because the means to engineer dramatic human inequality hasn't been available. As Nietzsche observed:

    “Never yet hath there been a Superman. Naked have I seen both of them, the greatest man and the smallest man: all too similar are they still to each other. Verily, even the greatest found I — all too human!” —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

    However, if and when we begin to guide our evolution, to engineer new types of humans and new forms of intelligence, we should expect the abilities of these various branches of humanity to diverge rapidly. It is far from science fictional to imagine the emergence of "transhumans" who differ from current humans at least as much as we differ from chimpanzees. And since primates are not granted the same rights as humans, this will pose a serious challenge to any religion or political system that holds that man is created in the image of God and derives equal rights therefrom. It follows that religious opposition to transhuman engineering will be very strident and unyielding. Whether this will culminate in some kind of apocalyptic showdown between transhumanists and Luddites is unclear. Since committed transhumanists constitute a tiny minority of humanity, it is also unclear whether they could prevail over the masses of God-fearing traditionalists, despite their superior technology. But it does seem clear to me that we should be discussing these issues now in a very serious way before things get totally out of hand.

    Thursday, August 14, 2008

    The Lotus-Eating Future is Now!


    "So this is man's future, to bask in the sunlight, bathe in the clear streams and eat the fruits of the earth with all knowledge of work and hardship forgotten. Well and why not?" -- Time Machine

    For decades futurists and science fiction writers have been telling us that the future promises a life of infinite leisure and freedom, made possible by dramatic advances in labor saving technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. In an effort to get ahead of this curve, I have begun exploring the challenges of this coming Lotus-Eating future in my own life.

    As wonderful as it may sound to our lazy primate brains, doing nothing is one of the more difficult modes of existence imaginable. Let’s face it: humans simply aren’t wired for excessive leisure. Our biological substrate compels us to eat, reproduce, fight, control territory, "pimp rides" and a host of other very non-leisurely activities. Take away the need for these drives and human beings tend to degenerate into hedonists, hoodlums, religious wackos or self-absorbed idlers. A life of pure mental indulgence is perhaps the most unnatural state of being imaginable for any organism. Nevertheless, the rise of such intellectually masturbatory phenomena as the blogosphere, immersive virtual worlds and video games has made it an increasingly popular option for untold millions of idle human brains around the planet. The net product of such activities is very close to zero in a material sense, but while immersed in them the participants can easily convince themselves that what they are doing is meaningful, productive and necessary. This kind of transference of values is essential if we are to move successfully into a post biological future.

    Unfortunately, most cultures regard this state of existence as something to be avoided at all costs. In The Odyssey, Odysseus takes drastic action rather than joining the Lotus-Eaters in their narcotic utopia:

    "They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars." --Odyssey IX



    A more recent example of this myth is found in the movie Star Trek Generations. Here Captain Kirk finds himself trapped in the "Nexus", a universe where every desire becomes a reality. Captain Picard has to "rescue" Kirk from his blissful existence, and together they thwart the villain, who is willing to sacrifice entire planets to return to this realm. This serves as an interesting metaphor for present day transhumanists: are they willing to risk an entire planet to achieve their dreams of technological transcendence?

    I know one thing for certain: if the glorious future imagined by transhumanists is really coming, and we are going to achieve immortality, mind uploading or a Matrix of unlimited reality simulations, we sure as hell had better get used to the idea of occupying vast stretches of time without biological purpose. I know I am preparing, as this blog itself proves. Are you?

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008

    Nietzsche and the Transhumanists



    As I study the ideas of leading transhumanists in more detail, I’m struck by the parallels between transhumanist philosophy and the writings of the great 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. This is hardly an accident. Max More, one of the founders of modern transhumanism, cites Nietzsche as an inspiration for his ideas; among his favorite quotes is this one, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:
    "Man is a rope, fastened between animal and overman — a rope over an abyss...What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."

    Indeed, Nietzsche’s poetic masterpiece "Zarathustra" could be viewed as an early manifesto of transhumanism. The idea of the "Overman" is the central theme of the book, as described by the protagonist in the prologue:

    "I teach you the Overman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to animals rather than to overcome man?"

    This seems to capture the spirit of modern transhumanism perfectly: man in his current state is something that should be overcome — and with our exponentially advancing technologies the means to do so are now close at hand. One of Max More’s more notable quotes on this subject is very much in the spirit of a Nietszschean exhortation:
    "No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future belongs to posthumanity." —Max More, On Becoming Posthuman

    Make no mistake: transhumanism is a radical, atheistic, materialistic view of humanity and its future in the universe, inspired by a Nietzschean vision of superhumanity. Whether this movement will prove to be the 21st century version of the Futurists of early 20th century Italy — i.e. a precursor to techno-fascism — or something more benign, remains to be seen. Certainly we should be wary of any movement that promises "improvements" to humanity. The 20th century reads like a history of failed experiments in human improvement, from Fascism and Nazism to Marxist-Leninism and Maoism. Nietzsche himself warned against these "improvers of humanity" at length:

    "Throughout the ages people have wanted to 'improve' humanity: this is above all what has been called morality. But under the same word the most extraordinary variety of tendencies is hiding. Both the taming of the beast man and the breeding of a particular species of man have been called 'improvement'...to call the taming of an animal its 'improvement' is to our ears almost a joke.” —Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

    Singularity skeptic Bill Joy invokes Nietzsche to warn us of the dangers inherent in the transhumanist agenda:

    "It was Nietzsche who warned us, at the end of the 19th century, not only that God is dead but that "faith in science, which after all exists undeniably, cannot owe its origin to a calculus of utility; it must have originated in spite of the fact that the disutility and dangerousness of the 'will to truth,' of 'truth at any price' is proved to it constantly." It is this further danger that we now fully face - the consequences of our truth-seeking. The truth that science seeks can certainly be considered a dangerous substitute for God if it is likely to lead to our extinction." —Bill Joy, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us

    This is really the crux of the matter. If transhumanism becomes the next great experiment in human improvement, will anyone survive if it fails?

    Book Review: Neuromancer



    One of my current goals is to read or re-read as many of the truly classic, visionary works of science fiction as I can get my hands on. As I do so, I’ll write reviews and discuss the relevance of the stories to the Singularitarian themes of this blog. Since some people have accused Singularitarians of being overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts, this will be an interesting way to investigate the roots of this growing movement.

    My first review is of one of my all time favorite novels, a book I haven’t read since I was in my early twenties (which was not recently): Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Re-reading this book brings back a sense of nostalgia for that 1980’s dystopian, "cyberpunk" vision of the future that was all the rage during my formative years. The film Blade Runner, which pre-dated it by a couple of years, had a similar look and feel, but in literature it was Neuromancer that launched the cyberpunk movement like a rocket across the science fiction landscape.

    For my money the "Sprawl" world of Neuromancer is the most stylish and vividly realized future in all of science fiction. Gibson captures not just the technological gadgetry of a post-Singularity world, but the values, lifestyles and language of a culture that has made radical adaptations to transhuman technologies. Characters in the novel have a wide range of cybernetic implants and enhancements, from improved reflexes to retractable claws and built-in holographic projectors. The Internet has evolved into a fully immersive, "consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions" called "cyberspace" — the idea might seem like old hat now, but it was this novel that introduced the word into our vocabulary. And most fascinating and chilling of all, Gibson foresees the emergence of superhuman AI in the form of the twin systems Neuromancer and Wintermute. The scene where a row of pay phones rings in sequence under the control of Wintermute, as Case walks by, is an image I have never forgotten; for me it captures the frightening potential of superhuman AI more clearly than anything except perhaps HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    If you’ve watched and enjoyed the “Matrix” movies but haven’t read this book and its sequels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Those movies appropriated many of their ideas directly from the Sprawl series; Gibson could almost demand royalties from the Wachowski Brothers given how many elements they copied for their films. But where The Matrix was eye candy, Neuromancer is pure verbal confection. Gibson’s masterful use of language transcends genre fiction and elevates the novel almost to the level of poetry. The novel’s famous first line gives us a taste of what is to come:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    Gibson's writing style owes a lot to the drug-fueled aesthetics of William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick:

    The drug hit him like an express train, a white-hot column of light mounting his spine from the region of his prostate, illuminating the sutures of his skull with x-rays of short-circuited sexual energy. His teeth sang in their individual sockets like tuning forks, each one pitch-perfect and clear as ethanol. His bones, beneath the hazy envelope of flesh, were chromed and polished, the joints lubricated with a film of silicone. Sandstorms raged across the scoured floor of his skull, generating waves of high thin static that broke behind his eyes, spheres of pures crystal, expanding...

    In writing Neuromancer, William Gibson was somehow able to see over the event horizon of the technological Singularity and bring us a glimpse of life as it might look early in such an era. The reader gets both an exhilarating sense of the possibilities and a frightening dose of the terrors that may await us across that frontier. If you want to prepare yourself for such a future — one that accelerates closer with each passing year — this visionary and supremely stylish work of literature is absolutely required reading.

    Chess as "Canary in a Coal Mine"

    As both an avid chess player and a Singularitarian, it is interesting to observe the disruptive effects that technological advancement is having on this grand old game. At the Internet Chess Club (ICC), the most popular on-line chess site, grandmasters and amateurs from around the world play games and watch relays of in-person tournaments featuring the world’s top players. The impact of computers serves as a kind of early warning of the Singularity, and brings up issues that we are going to be facing in an increasing number of areas in the very near future.

    The biggest problem at ICC, not surprisingly, is concern over the use of computers to cheat. I have watched some of the world’s best players accuse their opponents of using computer assistance on numerous occasions. In one case, a player ranked in the top 10 in the world lost 10 games in a row to an unknown player, which is virtually unheard of at this level. The accusations of cheating were loud and long, but to my knowledge the accused player was never caught or punished. In another case, in a tournament with cash prizes, the top-seeded player accused the eventual winner of cheating after he was soundly defeated by him. Apparently this winning player had been found guilty of cheating years before, but after ICC sent an observer to his house during the same tournament the previous year (which he also won), he was exonerated of further suspicion. ICC has elaborate systems to detect cheating, but it is difficult to see how accusations could ever be proven against a player who is determined to use computer assistance. When a player wins “too many games” then suddenly loses, observers accuse him of intentionally losing to avoid suspicion. Detecting on-line cheaters becomes a narrow version of the Turing test: can you distinguish between a human and a computer (or computer/human hybrid) solely on the basis of their chess moves? Based on the things I have witnessed at ICC, the answer is clearly “no”.

    Cheating is far from the only disruption brought on by the advance of chess computing. One of the most commonly heard complaints on ICC is that “chess is dead” now that computers have been used to analyze openings 25 and 30 moves deep. It is widely believed that computers have produced an over-analyzed, dull and defensive style of play at the highest levels that results in a high number of drawn games. The great Bobby Fischer himself said in his later years that chess was “played out”, and recommended rules changes to revive the game. It is particularly odd to watch a game between two of the world’s best players, and hear the comments of amateur observers as they point out all the errors that their $50 software is finding in the moves of these super-grandmasters!

    Now you might reasonably say about all this: so what? It’s only chess, a simple game has that nothing to do with real intelligence. But don’t forget, until fairly recently chess strength was considered a benchmark of machine intelligence. Let’s recall what the respected AI theorist Douglas Hofstadter said about chess in his famous book Godel, Escher, Bach, published in 1979:

    Question: Will there be chess programs that can beat anyone?

    Speculation: No. There may be programs which can beat anyone at chess, but they will not be exclusively chess players. They will be programs of general intelligence, and they will be just as temperamental as people.

    Clearly Hofstadter was way off the mark here, in light of Deep Blue’s defeat of Garry Kasparov in 1997 and the situation today, where software such as Rybka, running on a desktop PC, can defeat the strongest players in the world. In speed chess, the ‘bots at ICC are now far superior to the best human players. Regardless of whether these programs are intelligent, they defeat our most brilliant minds at a game that requires tremendous skill and intelligence to play well.

    Given this situation, it is difficult to imagine chess ever being the prestigious game that it once was. Chess seems to have fallen victim to Moore’s law and lost its mystique as one of the great and uniquely human intellectual pastimes. How many other “uniquely human intellectual pastimes” will fall victim to the march of technology as we move into the 21st century? Will computer "cheating" become a problem in music, mathematics, literature and art? A Singularitarian would say that no intellectual activity is safe from a similar disruption, and that future (presumably transhuman) historians will see chess as one of the earliest casualties of the post human era.

    Is the Scientific Method Really Dead?

    The recent cover article in Wired Magazine, The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Model Obsolete, by Chris Anderson, has generated a storm of criticism from readers. The author essentially claims that the scientific method is becoming obsolete in an era of petabyte-capacity computing. Anderson argues that the ability of computers to collect and store vast amounts of data, and to find correlations within it, has rendered traditional scientific cause and effect modeling superfluous.

    I think Anderson makes a very valid point, but he needs to draw a sharper distinction between fundamental, “hard” science and “soft” science. It seems to me that in many fields of vast complexity, where reductionist models such as Newtonian Physics are hopelessly inadequate and essentially useless, any system of investigation that reveals measurable relationships is useful. Whether we choose to call it science, according to the classical definition, or something else, the simple fact is it works, and is therefore of value. Most of the examples of successful applications of this kind of data mining are in the soft sciences -- economics, marketing, sports, etc. -- i.e. areas that have never been successfully modeled by hard science and probably never will be. Data mining is a different tool for a different problem. If it can reveal correlations that impact a baseball team’s ability to win games, for example, and if acting on those findings in future games measurably improves a team’s performance, is that not science? We may not know the underlying causal mechanisms at work, but the point is they don’t matter. The data mining approach is nothing but the realization that many phenomena are far too complex for causal models. It allows us to find correlations that can be exploited in useful ways--which, after all, is the practical goal of all science.

    Perhaps Anderson is correct and this technology does in fact herald a new era of inductive, as opposed to deductive, science. One of the benefits of this methodology is the ease with which it lends itself to automation. If an increasing amount of scientific investigation of this type can be performed by computers themselves, it promises to provide an exponential acceleration in the rate of scientific discoveries. No one is claiming that these methods are going to replace the Albert Einsteins of the world any time soon. But if nothing else, they contribute to a general quickening of progress which may culminate in the transhumanist dream of machines which equal and ultimately far surpass our greatest human intellects.

    The Rise of the Mathematocracy


    Are you a member of the Numerati?

    The "mathematocracy" is a word I'm coining to describe the ascendence of the mathematical/computational elite to power in all human organizations. My claim is that this development is both inevitable and desirable; our complex technological world requires a new class of decision makers whose decisions are driven by data analysis and quantitative models rather than emotion or ideological conviction. This new aristocracy has the potential to sweep aside non-quant ideologues and provide rational political leadership for the 21st century.

    As things stand now, the mathematocrats are clearly on the march. In business, the military, medicine, education, the media and countless other fields, data-driven thinking is sweeping aside older methods of decision making at an accelerating rate. The question now becomes: when will these same quantitative methods be applied to the political process? When will data drive our political policies rather than human ideology? Is there something fundamentally different about political decision making that should prohibit the type of ascendence of quantitative methods that we are seeing in so many other fields? My answer--the mathematocrat's answer--is of course not. Modern politics, being fundamentally a problem of statistics and optimization, would in fact seem to be an ideal field for the rise of quant power. No human politician can hope to know what is actually happening in a population of hundreds of millions without being guided by the data. Human intuition is dangerously inadequate for the task of managing societies on this scale. Just as medical expert systems can now diagnose diseases better than any human doctor, it is reasonable to expect political expert systems to be capable of diagnosing political problems better than any politician. And just as financial engineers can now devise stock portfolios that outperform those of traditional stock brokers, we should expect political engineers to be able to produce political solutions that outperform the policies of our current leaders.

    My claim as a Singularitarian is that humanity is entering an era which is fundamentally different from anything we have seen before. The exponential march of technology is producing a world with phenomena that are without precedent in history. The founding fathers of the United States, for example, could never have imagined a global computer network such as the Internet; nor did they need to concern themselves with the prospect of non-human intelligences far superior in many respects to their own. Both of these are now central facts of life, and will become ever more so with each passing year. It is therefore natural to expect to see political systems evolve which are unlike anything that has existed before. We should no more cling to 18th century political models than we should still light our homes with candles. The illumination provided by our quantitative machinery far outshines any tools we have ever had at our disposal. To not use these tools to guide our political process is to continue to operate in the darkness of political prejudice.

    Further Reading:
  • Ayres, Ian Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart
  • Baker, Stephen The Numerati
  • General AI as an "Emergent Hack" of Narrow AI's



    I'm far from an AI expert, but I'm wondering: is top-down engineering a realistic or necessary approach in trying to produce general AI? Isn’t a more practical approach to simply continue developing more powerful specialized AI’s in an ever increasing number of domains, and to look for clever ways to combine them? It seems to me that by doing this, synergistic forms of intelligence will emerge that couldn’t have been imagined or engineered until the technology had advanced enough to make them possible. As these various types of narrow AI evolve, can’t they simply become components of a more generalized architecture which can exhibit a more general type of intelligence? Will strong AI turn out to be nothing more than a “hacking together” of a vast number of subsystems into a more powerful whole?

    To take a simple example that I’ve been playing around with, the knowledge embodied in google can be combined with existing language processing software to provide a decent imitation of an all-knowing oracle. Using basic network programming and statistical methods, simple questions can be answered correctly a reasonable percentage of the time. While no one will claim that this system is intelligent, it is a means of tapping into the “wisdom of crowds” in a way that would have been impossible before the development of the internet and a search engine such as google. With further refinements, such as are promised by the development of the “semantic web”, we should expect much more interesting results along these lines. By combining a system like this with, say, financial databases, correlations can be found between financial numbers and news stories that are semantically represented in a search engine. This would allow the system to answer questions such as “which stocks should I buy today?” As the semantic web expands and more components are added, such a system would become more and more “knowledgeable” and able to find correlations across a greater number of fields. Other layers could be kludged onto the system across any networkable device to incorporate sensory input, speech recognition, robotic controls, etc. as those AI’s evolve. Is it possible that general AI’s will evolve in this way out of the Net itself?

    Are You a Singularitarian?

    The purpose of this blog is to discuss ideas relating to the so-called "Singularity", including developments in artificial intelligence, science, technology, philosophy, popular culture and politics. If you suspect, as so many of the greatest minds of modern times seem to, that humanity is rapidly approaching a point where life as we have known it will be fundamentally transformed, you have come to the right place!

    Just so everyone is on the same page, let's start by quoting one of the earliest known references to the Singularity, a conversation between the great mathematicians Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann in 1958:

    "One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."

    In subsequent years this vision has been echoed and expanded upon by numerous scientists, writers and futurists. Some of the greatest scientific minds of the past half century, from John von Neumann to Marvin Minsky to Stephen Hawking, have concerned themselves with the disruptive effects of our exponentially advancing technologies. In the cultural sphere, the fiction of Vernor Vinge, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, along with the "Terminator" and "Matrix" movies, have brought post-Singularity worlds to life in all their terrifying glory. A whole cottage industry of technologists and futurists has sprung up to promote this idea, including Hans Moravec, Ben Goertzel and Ray Kurzweil. Critics have called belief in the Singularity "the rapture of the nerds" -- a response to the almost religious fervor that some seem to have toward this phenomenon.

    In this blog I will speculate at length about developments relating to the Singularity -- not as a "true believer", but as a scientific thinker looking to separate the real substance from the hype. I look forward to sharing ideas with others who share my skeptical yet optimistic outlook.

    Further Reading:
  • Brin, David Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future
  • Gibson, William Neuromancer
  • Joy, Bill, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us
  • Kurzweil, Ray The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
  • Moravec, Hans Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence
  • Vinge, Vernor The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era
  • Vinge, Vernor True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier
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