Friendly vs Unfriendly Artificial Intelligences – an important debate

As we quickly approach the rise of self-aware and self-improving intelligent machines the debates are going to sound pretty strange, but they are arguably the most important questions humanity has ever faced.    Over at Michael’s Blog there’s a great discussion about how unfriendly AI’s could pose an existential risk to humanity.

I remain skeptical, writing over there about Steve Omohundro’s paper:

Great references to make your earlier point though I remain very skeptical of Steve’s worries even though one can easily agree with most of his itemized points. They just don’t lead to the conclusion that a “free range” AI is likely to pose a threat to humanity.

With a hard takeoff it seems likely to me that any *human* efforts at making a friendly AI will be modified to obscurity within a very short time. More importantly though it seems very reasonable to assume machine AI ethics won’t diverge profoundly from the ethics humanity has developed over time. We’ve become far less ruthless and selfish in our thinking than in the past, both on an individual and collective basis. Most of the violence now rises from *irrational* approaches, not the supremely rational ones we can expect from Mr. and Mrs. AI.

Wait, there’s MORE AI fun here at CNET

Of course we are not alone in the universe, but not for the reasons suggested by most UFO enthusiasts.

I can’t tell you how much I wish the UFO stories were all true.   In fact I’d be thrilled if even *one* of them was a credible story.   But they aren’t.  It’s very, very unlikely that even a single one of the thousands of reported stories about aliens visiting earth are true, for the reasons I discuss below.

Every so often Astronaut Ed Mitchell is quoted – here at CNN – talking about the Government cover ups of Roswell and other alien incidents he is convinced prove the existence of extraterrestrials and their visits to earth.    With all due respect to Mr. Mitchell’s accomplished career this is an area where he’s by no means an expert and clearly has just been convinced by the same silly stories that have convinced thousands of other people “We are not alone”, mostly because they want to believe rather than because there is any compelling evidence.    In fact there is no compelling evidence of alien visits to earth, and the idea the Government is covering up those visits is just dumb.

Don’t get me wrong – it is in my view it is nearly *certain* that there are at least *millions* of other planets with intelligent life on them.   I’ve blogged about why I think there’s a very high likelihood that there are probably many billions of civilizations in the universe.     In short it’s because we – as little replicating macromolecular structures – are unlikely to be all that special and because the universe is so darn huge with hundreds of billions of *galaxies*, each with hundreds of billions of stars and probably billions of planets.

But unfortunately for us earth lies in the low traffic zone of our milky way galaxy.    We are so far from the center, and so far from even the closest star, that visits from aliens – especially organic ones like the dude pictured in the silly Roswell hoax – are very, very unlikely.    Even with advanced technologies it would likely take many organic being lifetimes to travel to earth.  Tommo corrects me on this – time dilation would allow organic beings to travel extensively if the ship could approach speed of light.

Why would they choose this part of the Galaxy when the center is teaming with  star systems and probably millions of times more life per sector?

Don’t flatter yourself – the idea that we have attained some special status of great interest to more advanced beings that have the technologies to travel throughout the galaxy is a weak idea.   Possible, sure, but weak.

We are NOT alone in the universe, but we won’t be visited anytime soon.


Roswell Joe

Marissa Mayer on Charlie Rose

Marissa Mayer on Charlie Rose. Two of my favorite people at the same time!

Mayer is one of a handful of people who drive many key online innovations as a result of her role at Google. Mayer’s background at Stanford is in AI, and it is very clear that she will remain a key player for many years in the technological changes now sweeping over the legacy industrial landscape.

Singularity University

Singularity University is the first major academic effort to study the acceleration of technological change. many believe will lead to the most profound changes the world has ever seen, first in the form of conscious computing and then perhaps as an explosion of change that will transform all of humanity.

Sound incredible?  It will be which is why NASA, Google, and a host of interesting folks are all involved in the project which will be based at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley.

More details are in the Singularity University Press Release

Dear President Obama – Fund these projects FTW!

I’ve written about the remarkable Blue Brain project here and at Technology Report, but there is a new AI project on the block that some seem to think has more potential to attain “strong AI” or independent computer thinking and probably  machine consciousness.   That project is called SyNapse and the lead researcher explains some of the thinking behind this amazing effort:

The problem is not in the organisation of existing neuron-like circuitry, however; the adaptability of brains lies in their ability to tune synapses, the connections between the neurons.

Synaptic connections form, break, and are strengthened or weakened depending on the signals that pass through them. Making a nano-scale material that can fit that description is one of the major goals of the project.

“The brain is much less a neural network than a synaptic network,” Modha says.

There’s not much information yet about this new project but a Wiki that appears to be open to the public has started here.

IBM and five universities are involved in this with funding from DARPA, the US Military’s cutting edge technology folks.   I’m glad to see what appears to be a very open architecture approach here because there should be very real concerns that a militaristic AI would be less likely to be “friendly”, and once we open the Pandora’s box of machine consciousness and superintelligence there is little reason to think we’ll ever be able to close it again.

The upside of these projects is literally and quite simply beyond our wildest imaginations.    A thinking, conscious machine will solve almost every simple problem on earth and is very likely to solve major problems such as providing massive amounts of cheap  energy, clean water, and health innovation.   Although I’m guessing we’ll still run around killing other humans for some time it’s reasonable to assume that a thinking machine will be the last significant human innovation as it ushers in the beginning of a remarkable machine-based era of spectacular new technological innovation.

Mattel Mind Flex – Theta Wave Game Controller

Mattel Mind Flex – Theta Wave Game Controller
Originally uploaded by JoeDuck

Mattel Mind Flex was one of the most remarkable devices at CES 2009.  Simpler but coneptually similar to the Emotiv headset expected to be out soon,  Mattel’s device measures brain theta waves and lets you control a small ball with this output as you change the theta waves by thinking.     Unless I’m mistaken a lot of folks think these devices are silly gimmicks when in fact I’d argue that this type of controller represent the single most important change in history in the way humans interface with machines.    For millions of years our relationship to tools has been primarily by hand and/or foot, generally using sights and sounds and  touch to manage our relationships with the tools we use.     In this sense computer control, like hammer and nail control, comes from our physical interactions with the device.

Brain wave control, although still fairly primitive, is likely to accelerate the process that is going on right now at a pace too slow to be popularly recognized for what it is – the merging of human and machine.    From heart pacemakers to glasses to BrainGate,  the distinction between human and machine is breaking down slowly.    I think that it will break down very rapidly as soon as technologies exist to enhance intelligence via this type of direct brain interface.    How long will it take to refine this such that we can pull up the internet in our mind and access information at computerized rather than junky organic neuron speeds?    I’d wildly guess 5-10 years though part of this answer will come from popular use and “hacks” with things like the mindflex and the Emotiv headsets coming out this year (yes, I’ll be getting one!).

The extension of this approach to interaction with machines may lead to the technological singularity predicted by an increasing number of technologists and futurists though I remain somewhat skeptical that conscious computing will quickly lead to the massive universal intelligence explosion predicted by Kurtzweil and others.

Artificial Intuition

Convergence08 was a great conference with many interesting people and ideas. Thankfully the number of crackpots was very low, and even the “new age” mysticism stuff was at a minimum. Instead I found hundreds of authors, doctors, biologists, programmers, engineers, physicists, and more clear thinking folks all interested in how the new technologies will shape our world in ways more profound than we have ever experienced before.

My favorite insights came from Monica Anderson’s presentation on her approach to AI programming, which she called “Artificial Intuition“. Unlike all other approaches to AI I’m familiar with Anderson uses biological evolution as her main analogs for conceptualizing human intelligence. I see this approach as almost a *given* if you have a good understanding of human thought, but it’s actually not a popular conceptual framework at all.

It has always surprised me how poorly many computer programmers understand even rudimentary biological concepts such as the underlying simplicity of the human neocortex and the basic principles of evolution which I’d argue emphatically have defined *every single aspect* of our human intelligence over a slow and clumsy, hit and miss process operating over millions of years. I think programmers tend to focus on mathematics and rule systems which are great modelling systems but probably a very poor analog for intelligence. This focus has in many ways poisoned the well of understanding about what humans and other animals do when they … think… which I continue to maintain is “not all that special”.

….. more on this later over at Technology Report …..

Mashup Camp and Convergence08

Looking forward to two upcoming conferences – Mashup Camp and the very first Convergence 08 conference.

Mashup Camps have been coming to Mountain View for over two years, bringing great startups for their product launches as well as lively discussions about innovations and new products to help the mashup community. There also will be mashup experts from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, and many more key players. Programmable Web has the best coverage of the Mashup topic.

Convergence will have even more provocative content as the first conference to address the intersection of four technologies likely to shape the world in extraordinary ways: Nanotechnology, Biological technologies (gene splicing, stem cells, DNS mapping, life extension) , Information technologies (internet and computing) and Cognitive technologies. This last would, I think, broadly include everything from brain enhancing drugs and devices to artificial intelligence. AI is the most exciting category for me, and I remain convinced that we’ll see conscious computers within about 20 years – hopefully and very possibly less. Conscious computing is likely to change the entire planetary game to such a degree it’s nearly impossible to predict what will happen *after that*, which is one of the issues that will be discussed at the conference.

My main concern is that proponents and predictions keep things real and this does not become a sort of brainstorming session for half-baked ideas and ideologies.

After millions of years of very slow biological evolution we’ve now entered a new age where technology is likely to eclipse most and probably all of our human abilities. Even that fairly obvious idea – which simply is an extension of current developments – leaves many people skeptical, cold to the idea, or even antagonistic about the changes that are coming. Like it or not … we are all in this together and it’s best to keep it that way as much as possible.

Intel: Computers Win by 2050

Intel’s Chief recently explored some of the innovations that are shaping technology, and suggested that computers will surpass humans in intelligence by 2050.    Although I think that is a pessimistic time frame, it is encouraging to see the notion of very intelligent and/or conscious computers discussed in the mainstream company news:

Rat Brained Robot

This amazing project is using rat brain neurons  to control robots.    Like other projects of its kind, they are finding that the neurons almost immediately seek interconnection – in some ways they appear to be  pre-programmed (aka evolutionarily designed) to assemble into more advanced forms.

Unfortunately for misguided and shortsighted ethical reasons reasearches are not using human neurons, but as they note here that’s not a huge problem because our human brain cells have a lot in common with rats cells – or other vertebrates for that matter.

As Kevin Warwick, the project architect who one might call something of an “Dr A.I. Frankenstein”, notes:

…. rats brain cells are not a bad stand-in: much of the difference between rodent and human intelligence, speculates Warwick, could be attributed to quantity not quality.

Thanks to Glenn for the tip!