Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Vision of Future Technology and its Implications for Humanity

By Bill Honer

Copyright 2007

Ray Kurzweil, in his book, “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”, describes how there is “a specific game plan for achieving human level intelligence in the machine: reverse engineer the parallel, chaotic, self organizing, and fractal methods used in the human brain and apply these methods to modern computational hardware.” If achieved, the implications for humanity are profound. Indeed, the definition of humanity may need revision.

The speculation shared by Kurzweil will not change the way we currently live. However, it has the capacity to profoundly change our vision of the world 30 years in the future. The informational power of machines is growing exponentially, yet the tendency of humans is to view growth in linear terms. In the course of evolution, species have evolved through biological changes. For the first time, the possibility (by no means a certainty) looms of a species (homo sapiens) consciously creating a non-biological entity with a computational power 3 million times that of the human brain, including the capacity to access the entire internet in seconds. Such a machine may, in turn, develop and design future machines in ways never conceived by man.

Kurzweil envisions the singularity as “the merger of the best knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge sharing ability of our technology”. Scientists at the University of Wales have already created a “robot scientist” capable of experimenting, analyzing results, and originating hypotheses. An algebraic conjecture was proved by an artificial intelligence system at Argonne National Laboratory. Some mathematicians referred to the proof developed by the computer as “creative”.

In discussing the singularity, Vernor Vinge, in his 1993 work entitled “the Technological Singularity” observed that “the best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work-the world access its own simulator in the case of natural selection. Humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a régime that is as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals. From the human point of view, this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control.” John Good refers to this moment as “an intelligence explosion” that would leave man far behind. “Thus”, observes Good, “the first ultra intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”

Kurzweil has offered 2045 as the estimated time of arrival of the singularity that will represent “a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—

The non-biological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”

One scientist has noted that there is no difference between magic and technological breakthroughs. Imagine a person born in the early part of the 19th-century waking up in the 20th century and watching the Concorde take off for a three-hour flight between New York and Europe. What are some of the “magical” technical breakthroughs envisioned by Kurweil to occur in less than thirty years?

Kurzweil believes that robots designed at the molecular level called nanobots will one day interact with biological neurons, thereby extending human experience through the creation of virtual reality within the nervous system. Software models emulating human intelligence will be available by 2025. He predicts that virtual reality will become competitive with real reality in terms of believability and resolution, noting that “our experiences will increasingly take place in virtual environments”.

Robert Freitas Jr. has suggested the net effect of nanotechnology on the human body “will be the continuing arrest of all biological aging—using annual checkups and cleanouts, and some occasional major repairs, your biological age could be restored once a year to the more or less constant physiological age that you select. You might still eventually die of accidental causes, but you’ll live at least 10 times longer than you do now.”

Some critics question whether information technology will continue to expand as rapidly as it has done in recent years. Problems could also occur in efforts to deconstruct the human brain.

However, even if we assume that only a small fraction of Kursweil’s predictions come to pass by 2045, it is nonetheless a breathtaking vision for the future that is at once exhilarating and unsettling. It appears inevitable that a few personal computers will surpass the collective work of a thousand scientists. Will non-biological intelligence systems create an ultra-intelligent machine, as Kurzweil believes? In such an event, we would be the creator of that evolutionary leap.

Future technological advances are hardly likely to result in an improved quality of life

shared equally among human beings, given the widespread inequities that exist on earth despite considerable technological progress during the last 50 years. In the United States, the Congress, Presidency and the Supreme Court continue to function, in the words of Gore Vidal, as a coordinating committee for the wealthy elite. Meanwhile, 45 million Americans lack health-insurance, while homelessness in its major cities is a national disgrace. In the recent past, leaders of the advanced nations of Western Europe have engaged in hand wringing and inaction while the world has witnessed millions of Africans dying of AIDS and genocide.

Will this dazzling exponential technological evolution result in even a modest advance

in human social advancement that results in an improved quality of life for millions of people on the planet? In the absence of such progress, the gross inequities among human beings that currently exist on our planet will continue to be justified with the conservative mantra “life isn’t fair”.

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