Future of Education Part II


In the coming years people are likely to experience the most profound transformation in all of history.  The  event is often called “The singularity” because it’s very hard to know what will happen after the the ongoing fast rise in machine intelligence fully surpasses human capabilities.  Computers are very likely to become conscious and “recursively self improving”, allowing them to reinvent themselves as frequently as they choose in various forms.

I agree with those who believe the coming conscious computers will be the last human invention as they will improve themselves at lightning speed and surpass human intelligence by *millions of times* within years or perhaps even minutes of developing consciousness.
It is clear that when this happens education as we know it in all forms will be completely obsolete as the computers will spawn sweeping and extremely rapid advances in all scientific fields including biology and engineering.  Many humans will choose to either merge with machines or simply “download” their entire consciousness into a machine.   This transition would be seamless, merely shifting the “substrate” we use to think from our existing electrochemical, carbon based neural structure to something more permanent – probably some combination of silicon, carbon, and thinking software programs.
Although some experts believe the machines are likely to pose an “existential risk” to humanity because they will see human irrationality as a threat, my view is that historically intelligence has bred greater compassion and we’ll first enjoy the benefits of the conscious machine’s vast intellectual and engineering capabilities and later merge with them by downloading our existing memories and full intellects into something somewhat analogous to a computer’s “hard drive”.    “Life” would then become what we chose to make it as we might simply simulate an earthbound existence in our new virtual world, or we might choose to simulate entirely different lives or experiences designed within a vast interconnected global intelligence.   The underlying technical infrastructure would continue to improve and maintain itself indefinitely, making these intelligences immortal if they chose that route.

Some interesting *current* developments along these lines are:

Singularity University in Silicon Valley – sponsored by Google and other tech leaders this school will teach about the sweeping changes coming as machine intelligence surpasses that of humans.

Blue Brain Project, Switzerland.   IBM and several researchers have completed a simulation of a neocortical column with Blue Gene, the world’s fastest supercomputer.This project will expand the simulation with the next generation of supercomputers coming within a few years and seeks to create a fully functional human-like brain simulation.

Synapse Project: This project was announced earlier this year is funded by the US Military’s DARPA division, which represents the best funded attempt to date to build a functional brain.  The SyNAPSE initial goal is to design a working version of a mammalian brain.  The approach differs from Blue Brain in that it’s largely based on finding a working “software solution” rather than using techniques to duplicate the brain’s hardware.

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.

Computer Reads Minds, World Yawns


One of the fun parts of hanging out in the technology world is getting a good sense of the next big thing before folks really tune into how significant the next big thing will be.   I remember about 12 years back –  in the early days of the commercial internet – when it became clear to me that a huge shift was happening that would send virtually everybody online.   No amount of explaining or describing or showing people cool stuff could get most people to understand the massive transition they were about to experience.    As with so many technological innovations, the commercial internet had to be experienced by people at their own pace – often a painfully slow pace if you were watching this happen.   Few who loudly proclaimed their luddite pride ten years ago would admit this today – most are using email and internet, often with the same enthusiasm as the relatively small number of super early adopters in the tech and commercial communities who helped make it all happen. 

I did want to note why I’m talking about “commercial” internet vs “internet”.    Contrary to what is often claimed the internet is a pretty old structure, begun by the military after WWII and then adopted by academia where it pretty munch languished for about 30 years.    I would argue that cheap computing and ISP and online services (thank you Prodigy, Compuserve, AOL, more) then combined with graphical browsing (thank you Marc Andreessen and Mosaic friends) to create the backbone of the current “commercial internet” that has exploded onto the global scene as the key communication medium of all time. 

So, what is the *next* big thing?    Why, conscious computing of course!   And it’s not just *big* like the internet.    It’s super duper gigantic and earth shaking, and it’s coming soon to a planet very near us all.   Experts disagree about *when* conscious computing will happen, though I think very few who are paying much attention would suggest we won’t have it within 50 years.  However many experts, and I think the body of current projects such as Blue Brain, suggest that we will have conscious computers that exceed human intelligence within 20 years and perhaps even 10.    What happens *after* a machine becomes conscious is quite a new thought ballgame and it is very hard to speculate about how that machine will evolve and perhaps more importantly how they will view other machines and …. us.    Will the conscious machines get smarter slowly or almost explosively fast, surpassing all of humanity within months or even minutes of first attaining consciousness?

A simple way of understanding what many AI researchers are talking about in this respect is to simply recognize that the conscious machine is likely to be “recursively self improving” which means it will be able to build and/or program better versions of itself soon after consciousness, probably in something analogous to the way we humans improve our intellects and skills but much, much faster.   Humans pull this off as well.  I’m proud to say my wife and I have managed to create and program two impressive organic intellects who are now able to program themselves and we love them dearly.   However we were constrained by human organic evolution, so took us many years to do this.    Artificial intellects will likely be able to reproduce quite a bit faster and more effectively (no offense to any of you expectant parents intended).

Ironically for me, several of my favorite programming experts do not seem to conscious computing as something we can expect to happen anytime soon.   I’ve puzzled over this because they certainly know the mechanics better than I, but I remain convinced that they are putting too much faith – sometimes literally – into the idea that humans are somehow … fundamentally different …. from other physical manifestations of the world.    I’m confident we are not all that different, and in that light consciousness is probably best viewed more as a sort of tangential aspect of our lives than a key component. 

And speaking of tangents, this whole post was going to be about this Carnagie Mellon AI project where the computer was reading people’s minds.   Simple words, yes, but still a rudimentary form of  mind reading based on EEG output:  http://www.cmu.edu/news/archive/2008/May/may29_brainmeaning.shtml

 

Of Rats and Men: Rat brains, Blue Brains, and the coming AI age.


SEED magazine reports on the Blue Brain, which IMHO is the most likely project to attain machine-based self consciousness.  This in turn will change everything completely and usher in a new era that will bring more change to humanity than any previous event in history.

“The column has been built and it runs,” Markram says. “Now we just have to scale it up.” Blue Brain scientists are confident that, at some point in the next few years, they will be able to start simulating an entire brain. “If we build this brain right, it will do everything,” Markram says. I ask him if that includes selfconsciousness: Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? “When I say everything, I mean everything,” he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face.

As I’ve noted many times before I believe that machine consciousness will bring profound changes to humanity which will be hugely positive.   Now, we allocate resources very ineffectively.   Conscious computers will be able to do vastly superior resource allocations and staggering design improvements. These alone will likely resolve all global resource issues such as energy, food, and water.   It’s not as clear if the AI age will bring a resolution to problems that have as a a core cause our human defects.   Health, Education should benefit enormously but some of the human thinking that creates war, intolerance, crime and suicide will persist and it will resist the improvements. 

 However the abundance that the AI age will bring to the world should allow us to manage many of these human problems much more effectively. 

Markram:  “What is holding us back now are the computers.”  
Markram estimates that in order to accurately simulate the trillion synapses in the human brain, you’d need to be able to process about 500 petabytes of data – about 200 times more information than is stored on all of Google’s servers. 
Energy consumption is another huge problem …. Markram estimates that simulating the brain on a supercomputer with existing microchips would generate an annual electrical bill of about $3 billion …. But if computing speeds continue to develop at their current exponential pace, and energy efficiency improves, Markram believes that he’ll be able to model a complete human brain on a single machine in ten years or less.

This 10 year estimate is even more optimistic than Ray Kurzweil’s but in the same league.    Although most of the computer programmers I know strongly reject this view, I think it’s also possible that AI could emerge with very limited human intervention from the massive parallel processing environments such as Google’s search server farm of hundreds of thousands of connected machines.    Consciousness and human intelligence, if it is as overrated as I believe, is best seen as something of a byproduct of simpler, evolutionarily derived mental processes and other mental activities.  As the number of interconnections in machines approaches the number we have in our brains (again we bump into a 10-20 year time frame), and machines are programmed with current routines to do the same mental tasks we do, I’ll be very surprised if machine consciousness will require more than a modest level of additional tweaking of the type they have already started at Blue Brain. 

So, I’m not buying my laptop a birthday cake quite yet, but remain cautiously optimistic about the end of the world as we know it.