The Singularity … will return after this message from our sponsor?

First, note that I’m a big fan of the concept of “The Singularity” and of Ray Kurzweil, the brilliant technological evangelist who is creating a film to introduce the concept, The Singularity is Near. However I find it more than ironic that the film is delayed.    It’s not even clear from the website if it’s out yet – I think screenings at a couple of film festivals went more poorly than expected so I’m (wildly guessing) they are making some changes before widespread distribution.    But in any case it was supposed to be out in 2009 and it’s not even out yet.

Nitpicky?   To some extent yes, but I think a major  challenge for the pro-singularity, pro-technology movement is that despite the brilliance of many advocates, we need to see a lot less talk and a lot more action.    Skeptics reasonably point to a history of failed promises of artificial intelligence, where advocates like Kurzweil reasonably counter-note that you can’t call these major shots to the exact date, that there is every indication processing power will equal human brainpower very soon, and that technology is clearly advancing in exponential  fashion – basically  that technological progress over the last year is far greater than that of the preceding year and we can expect this accelerating rate of technological progress to continue.

Still, it’s conspicuous when somebody insisting that “The Singularity is Near”  can’t get the movie launched in the year it was supposed to be out.    Perhaps, Ray, your timeframes are too optimistic?   I sure hope not, because I’m rooting for the singularity ASAP, but ….

Brain enhancement through technology – just say YES!

Over at Read Write Web, The most excellent Marshall Kirkpatrick was suggesting and continues to think that connecting our brains to the internet – things like Internet Brain Implants – are a bad idea.

As much as I don’t like to challenge a fellow Oregonian, I could not disagree with Marshall more on this issue for several reasons:

The first is practical.   Invasive technologies that are wonderful are here already in the form of cochlear implants for hearing enhancements and even crude artificial eyes using brain implants.    Less invasive technologies that use brain wave controller devices (e.g. Emotiv Headsets and some simpler fun games) are here and will be coming soon to a brain near yours.

Regardless of whether other brain enhancements are good or bad, why fight the inevitable rather than just working with it?     Although nobody yet offers internet access it should be available within a few years.

Think of the amazing advantages, especially when we can get the communication flowing in both directions at computer speeds – which are generally much faster than those obtained via organic transmissions.     Language enhancements alone suggest to me that this would have amazing value, and I think more than a few high schoolers will enjoy computing calculus equations without any study.

Will these new abilities make us lazy?    It’s impossible to know, but I’d guess that the intellectual explosion we’ll see as enhancements hit the marketplace will bring far more solutions than problems as people can spend the huge amount of time once spent *learning*, *doing things* instead.

Brain implants?   Sign me up, Scotty!

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.

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

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.

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:


Conscious Computers and Friendly vs Unfriendly AI

As I’ve noted here in posts about AI many times I think we are within 15 years – probably fewer – of the most profound change in technology and humanity ever to hit the planet.   This will be the advent of conscious computers which we can reasonably expect to surpass us in all thinking and organizational skills within a very short time – probably months or even days of becoming conscious.    

Some AI folks believe that strong AI machinery will require a somewhat lengthy learning period, much like human intellects require, before becoming highly functional but I think the process will be very fast after consciousness happens.  In my opinion it is easy to exaggerate the significance of the intellectual complexity that comes from massive numbers of redundant, mostly simple processes.  Unlike humans, computer intelligences will grow extremly fast as soon as they “choose” that approach.   Initially those choices to expand will be programmed in by the human AI programmer, but it seems logical to assume that as computers design their own replacements they will continue to give the next generation “motivation”.     You don’t even need to assume it’ll happen in this proactive way though.   In a world with various forms of intelligences those that value their own survival will tend to increase in number simply through basic mathematical/evolutionary processes as those that do not value survival as highly simply are more likely to drop off the scene.

So, my cousin asked me today, why would a machine care much if at all about human welfare?    My gut says they will, and I think this is based on watching how humans care so much for their animals and even inanimate objects.    Also I think it’s important to note how crappily we take care of our fellow humans.    We consistently choose fighting and selfishness over harmonious existence. 

So I say give the computers a shot at making the world a better place!  


I am SO very interested in how people are going to process the upcoming film about the Singularity as defined by Ray Kurzweil, which is a pretty awesome future for humans:  

Within a quarter century, nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence.  It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains, and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality …

And holy string cosmology, that’s not even the singularity part!   Kurzweil predicts that around 2045, after we all become superintellects, the machine intelligences will surpass the total brainpower of planet earth by so much that it’s likely most of us will simply upload into the giant intelligent machine, or some other future we can’t know because….it’s hard to think what we’d do when we are 1,000,000,000 times smarter than we are right now.

Too optimistic?    Too weird?    Maybe, but Kurzweil is arguably the best thinker out there on artificial intelligence, and unlike the past where AI overhyped and underdelivered it is now clear that at least in terms of computational power and memory storage we’ll be reaching human capabilities soon.   

So, are you ready?   

Singularity – the Movie – is near

Ray Kurzweil is one of the most exciting thinkers anywhere, and unlike some “futurist advocates” of the past he’s distinguished himself in several fields relevant to those he speaks about.    He’s producing a film based on his book “The Singularity is Near” that will take the form of a narrative storyline featuring cyberterror, nanotechnology, and virtual beings and also a documentary with interviews featuring many leading thinkers about the future of technology.    See the Singularity website for more.

Ironically the early misguided optimism about AI has led even some early AI pioneers to scoff at the notion we are near the brink of conscious computing.  Yet a lot of evidence now suggests we are near reaching the capability of creating consciousness in machines. 

First, the IBM Blue Brain project is within about 8 years of a good working model of the brain.  They are not claiming to seek “consciousness” with the model  – rather they are focusing on brain and disease research – but I see no reason to think they won’t soon attain a conscious computer as the machine approaches the number of connections we have in our own brains.  

Second, the computational power of computers is approaching that of a human brain.   Kurzweil discusses this at great length in “The Singularity is Near”, noting that exponentially improving processing and memory capacity will soon lead to plenty of power in computers to replicate human thinking patterns.

Third, the explosion in profitability for massively parallel computing power – such as that used by Google and Microsoft – will fuel innovation for many years to come.

The question of “Do you believe in a technological singularity” needs to be replaced with “what are we going to do when the singularity happens?”

Hey, I’ve written a lot more about the Singularity , because I think it’s the biggest thing to hit humanity since….ummmm…. the advent of humanity?