This article talks about the concept of neural augmentation that will render a type of collective electronic tele-link between our minds. A fascinating, if not fantastical, concept. But at our present rate of technological expansion and innovation, ask yourself if someday it may actually be not only possible, but highly likely.

Electronic Telepathy is Around the Corner

The Committed Sardine, March 15, 2011, by Ian Jukes  —  Along with all the hubbub about the victory of IBM’s Watson supercomputer over human competitors on Jeopardy, there has been a lot of talk about the “Singularity,” in which computers move closer to matching the intelligence of humans, and humans embed more technology to augment their own bodies.

So the timing couldn’t have been better for the release of Michael Chorost’s new book World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet.

Chorost proposes that technology is evolving to the point that it will bring our collective thinking and intellectual capacity into a kind of global “hive mind.” Technology, he posits, may augment neural processes and, thus, enable “electronic telepathy,” or digital communication between human minds.

He has some personal experience with this convergence: he wears cochlear implants, which are implanted computer chips that send sound information directly to the brain and enable him to hear. The ability to extend and connect our mindpower is coming through such implants, wearable computers, and the Internet.

“If human minds could work directly with the Internet, two grand unifications could happen at once. First, humans would become more closely connected with each other. …we would have entirely new ways to sense each others’ presence, moods and needs… Second, humanity and its tool, the Internet, would become a single organism with entirely new powers. Not just a mere hybrid, but a new species in its own right.”

This actually sounds a little scary, but Chorost argues that there were plenty of fears when telegraphs and telephones first came on the scene. And who could have envisioned social networking as recently as 20 years ago? He also points

out that technology will not be reading minds, or implanting memories or instant learning.

Still, the ability of a “wired mind” to interact, in real time, with the global Internet represents the next stage of communication and interaction, he says.

Singularity University, Where You Major In Immortality

Graphic Credit: Kyle VanHemert

The New York Times ran a lengthy profile on Singularity University, an incubator for futurists of all stripe founded by tech-visionary Ray Kurzweil. On the exclusive school’s curriculum: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and, of course, immortality.


Established by Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, the University serves as a meeting place for a variety of powerful, future-minded individuals, including Googlers Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Defense Department officials, scientists, and venture capitalists.


And what they’re getting instruction on? The Singularity, of course—the not-so-distant moment when humanity and technology are inexorably intertwined, allowing us to conquer illnesses and expand the limits of human intelligence. The Times piece runs through a typical Singularity U session, which includes discussions on various brainy topics and general high-level hobnobbing. But it also touches on how the University’s concerns—how the increasingly advanced technology we create will change the course of humanity—are becoming increasingly mainstream, with formerly eccentric futurists like Ray Kurzweil looking, as his son says, “much less weird” as our society becomes ever more dependent on technology.


Anyway, the full article is a fascinating read—basically some of the smartest people on the planet having the same discussions you did when you were stoned sophomore year of college. But at this school, the participants in that conversation are the rare individuals with the intellect and wherewithal to make those ideas a reality. [NYT]

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Death and Taxes; You can get around the latter, but there is no escaping the former. That not withstanding, I am glad there is a forum for discussion of non traditional subject matter. Not everything fits in the boxes most schools try and force you into.

Duergar are wimps but @Curves


Not that anyone should really want to indefinitely avoid the former.
Being immortal would be great at first, but give it a few hundred years and you’d go insane.
Human brain just couldn’t handle it.

Living like 300 years, though – that I could get behind.


jackslackofselfrespe… @Curves promoted by Curves


If you actually consider the atomic makeup of a human brain. Its not too far fetched to think of extending the existence of that construction ‘indefinitely’, by either fiddling with the natural self destructing genetics and combating mutations and disease. Or by moving the construction to something a little less frail, such as a digital framework.

So that being said, I could imagine what we would consider human ‘consciousness’ being made ‘immortal’. Someday…. Not today, and tomorrow isn’t looking too good for us either


SkipErnst @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: I have heard many times that “the human brain cannot handle immortality”, but that’s just conjecture? I mean, where is the scientific study of someone living forever?

With an enhanced brain, living forever might be completely different, mentally speaking. We just won’t know until it happens. (Edit comment)

Duergar are wimps but @SkipErnst promoted by psychiccheese


Sorry, I should probably clarify that. You’re right, the way I stated it is just baseless conjecture.

This is just conjecture too, but so is everything until people start living longer:

Let’s assume that, when medical science starts vastly increasing people’s lifespans, it’s rather expensive to do so. I don’t think this is a big stretch, but if you disagree, feel free to contest it and I’ll try to respond.
Now, with anything expensive, there are always people who can’t afford it. Right there we have people who won’t be living as long.
Then there’s the segment of the population that won’t want to play god with their own body, people who would rather die naturally, etc. The size of this group depends on the societal makeup when this technology starts becoming available, but it will always exist and it will always encompass all economical tiers.

Then, imagine you’re one of the people who vastly extended their life/became immortal. A lot of people around you are dying natural deaths; people are born and die and you’re there to witness it all.
I guess some people could stay unattached. But I think it would be too much for a lot of folks. And hey, if you’re living infinitely, there’s an infinite amount of time for you to get attached to people and lose them.

psychiccheese @Duergar are wimps but

@Svirfneblin: Presumably, the type of people you’d associate with would also hold similar ideals as you. So, assuming your friends could afford the “operation” or whatever it happens to be, they would probably opt for it as well. (Edit comment)

psychiccheese @Duergar are wimps but


Double post. My bad.


Edited by psychiccheese at 06/14/10 3:10 PM

baneyu @Curves promoted by Curves
hmmm! phylosophical question.
are you still yourself if you replace one of your neurones by an artificial one , wich can regrow dendrites?

then you replace a second one? not at the same time.

you continue and wait for stabilisation every time.

are you still your own self?

then you are to the last original cell, all the other were replaced, one by one, and a wait time for each one to settle accordingly to the replaced cell.

then you replace the last one.

the question is between, is the mythical should part of the structure of your brain = mechanical or something incorporeal?

we cannot answer that yet, but might in just a few decades seen from the advances in brain surgery, and nerves regeneration (artificial neurones)

yet, it might be good to already think of the consequences of such things, before they are even done.
I welcome the science that starts thinking of the consequences of it’s discoveries before making them


Curves @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: I dont want to live forever. I dont even want to live 300 years. There have been times in life that I didnt want to live until next week. I am glad a think tank is discussing it, but for myself, I long for either eternal rest, eternal nothingness, or whatever comes in the next “life”. I just hope its better than this one. (Edit comment)

Kirkaiya @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: I don’t believe that – even if the tech becomes available to grant indefinitely long life – that anyone would be forced to use it indefinitely. If it became practical to extend our lives (either our physical bodies or by replicating our minds in software, or whatever), eventually people would become bored, and opt to die, or end their program, or whatever constitutes “dying”.

As JackSlackofselfRespct says above – there’s nothing we know of about physics or engineering that proscribes us extending our minds for indefinite periods of time, so eventually, it’s likely to be possible (assuming technological advance continues, even at an arbitrarily slower pace). (Edit comment)

Kirkaiya @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: That sounds a lot like today: what percentage of the Earth’s population can actually afford to get a heart or liver transplant when needed? What percent can afford the latest anti-cancer treatments?

Already, the rich live far longer than the world’s poor (look at the average life expectancy in North America, Europe or Japan compared to Angola, Bangladesh or North Korea, for example). I know the analogy is not perfect, but in any case, people in wealthy countries have vastly better odds of surviving into old age than those in very poor countries.

Inevitably, though, tech becomes cheaper over time. So what starts out as a 200-year lifespan for the rich, might then move to be 200-years for most people, and 300 years for the rich, and so on.

Personally, I’ll be ecstatic if I’m alive to celebrate my 100th birthday (two of my grandparents lived into their 90s). (Edit comment)

Duergar are wimps but @Kirkaiya


Heh, good points. Let me see if I can address them properly as such…

You’re right, it’s not a perfect analogy. The biggest flaw with this is scale.
Looking at wikipedia’s list of countries by life expectancy (I’m a horrible scientist, I know), while the worst-off country has a life expectancy of ~32, it only takes a couple more countries up the list to get to 40, and a few more to get to 50. Furthermore, that’s in the second chart down, which has lower numbers (which I’m choosing to use, as it works against me and yet still works for my point).
We’ll call the world average 45 (which is WAY below what it actually is; I’m trying to not take into account the high countries on the list, and it’s an estimate).

Now, compare the world average of 45 with the US (ranking in at 34th place), with a life expectancy of about 78 years. There’s about a 30-year difference.

Now, I’ll extend to your example – 200 years for poor, 300 for rich. That’s a 100 year difference.
Consider the psychological ramifications of that. Then, consider that the people living to 300 would probably be living long enough to see improvements in medical science that could extend their lives even more (which they could afford, as we’ve established them as rich).

I’m not saying people would be going insane, simply that, once we reach a point where people are living extraordinary amounts of time, I’d think they’d start being disillusioned with the concept of their lives continuing indefinitely. (Edit comment)

Kirkaiya @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: You wrote, “… I’d think they’d start being disillusioned with the concept of their lives continuing indefinitely”

So, sounds like a self-correcting problem then? In any case – I agree with what what you wrote, although the flaw in my analogy, looked at from a percentage point of view, is not so bad; If Japan’s life expectancy is about 82 (and I’m too lazy to check), and the world’s is 45, that’s a ratio of Japan:World of 1.82.

A ratio of rich:poor if it’s 300 vs 200 is 1.5, which is actually lower ;-)

See what I did there?

Duergar are wimps but @Kirkaiya


Yeah, I know it’s fine from a percentage point of view =P That’s why I was pointing out that it’s important not to forget 100 years is 100 years.

But who knows, maybe the human mind will learn to cope and perceive time differently even to that extent (as it does now, with older people thinking the years go by faster). (Edit comment)

Kirkaiya @Duergar are wimps but


@Svirfneblin: Oh god! So we might live to be 300, but the last century goes by so fast, it only seems like 20?

Yet another case of diminishing returns, then…. also, if old people are often crotchety and grouchy now, think how much more grouchy and crotchety a 280 year-old guy might be? Eieieiei (Edit comment)

From: (Dani Eder)
Newsgroups: sci.nanotech Subject: Re: The Singularity
GMT Organization: Boeing AI Center, Huntsville, AL

What is this Singularity? Is it a science-fiction thing invented by Vernor Vinge?  —  Human history has been characterized by an accelerating rate of
technological progress.  It is caused by a positive feedback loop.
A new technology, such as agriculture, allows an increase in population.
A larger population has more brains at work, so the next technology
is developed or discovered more quickly.  In more recent times,
larger numbers of people are liberated from peasant-level agriculture
into professions that entail more education.  So not only are there
more brains to think, but those brains have more knowledge to work
with, and more time to spend on coming up with new ideas.

We are still in the transition from mostly peasant-level agriculture
(most of the world’s population is in un-developed countries), but the
fraction of the world considered ‘developed’ is constantly expanding.
So we expect the rate of technological progress to continue to accelerate
because there are more and more scientists and engineers at work.

Assume that there are fundamental limits to how far technology
can progress.  These limits are set by physical constants such as
the speed of light and Planck’s constant.  Then we would expect that
the rate of progress in technology will slow down as these limits are
approached.  From this we can deduce that there will be some time
(probably in the future) at which technological progress will be at
it’s most rapid.  This is a singular event in the sense that it happens
once in human history, hence the name ‘Singularity’.

This is my definition of the concept.  Vernor Vinge, in his series
of stories ‘The Peace War’ and ‘Marooned in Real Time’ had a different
definition.  He implicitly assumed that there was no limit to how
far technology could progress, or that the limit was very very high.
The pace of progress became very rapid, and then at some point
mankind simply disappeared in some mysterious way.  It is implied that
they ascended to the next level of existence or something.  From the
point of view of the 20th century, mankind had become incomprehensively
different.  So that time horizon when we can no longer say anything
useful about the future is Vinge’s Singularity.  One would expect
that his version of the Singularity would recede in time as time
goes by, i.e. the horizon moves with us.

When will the Singularity Occur?

The short answer is that the near edge of the Singularity is due about
the year 2035 AD.  Several lines of reasoning point to this date.  One
is simple projection from human population trends.  Human population
over the past 10,000 years has been following a hyperbolic growth trend.
Since about 1600 AD the trend has been very steadily accelerating with
the asymptote located in the year 2035 AD.  Now, either the human
population really will become infinite at that time (more about that
later), or a trend that has persisted over all of human history will
be broken.  Either way it is a pretty special time.

If population growth slows down and the population levels off, then
we would expect the rate of progress to level off, then slow down as
we approach physical limits built into the universe.  There’s just one
problem with this naive expectation – it’s the thing you are probably
staring at right now – the computer.

Computers aren’t terribly smart right now, but that’s because the
human brain has about a million times the raw power of todays’ computers.
Here’s how you can figure the problem:  10^11 neurons with 10^3 synapses
each with a peak firing rate of 10^3 Hz makes for a raw bit rate of
10^17 bits/sec.  A 66 MHz processor chip with 64 bit architecture has
a raw bit rate of 4.2×10^9.  You can buy about 100 complete PC’s for
the cost of one engineer or scientist, so about 4×10^11 bits/sec, or
about a factor of a millionless than a human brain.

Since computer capacity doubles every two years or so, we expect that
in about 40 years, the computers will be as powerful as human brains.
And two years after that, they will be twice as powerful, etc.  And
computer production is not limited by the rate of human reproduction.
So the total amount of brain-power available, counting humans plus
computers, takes a rapid jump upward in 40 years or so.  40 years
from now is 2035 AD.

Can the Singularity be avoided?

There are a couple of ways the Singularity might be avoided.  One
is if there is a hard limit to computer power that is well below the
human-equivalent level.  Well below means like a factor of 1000
below.  If, for example, computer power were limited to only a
factor of 100 short of human capacity, then you could cram 100 CPU
chips in a box and get the power you wanted.  And you would then
concentrate on automating the chip production process to get the
cost down.  Current photolithography techniqes seem to be good
for a factor of 50 improvement over today’s chips (maybe a real
expert can correct this figure for me if I am off).  So it seems
that we need at least one major process change before the Singularity
and maybe it doesn’t exist.

Another way to possibly avoid the Singularity is by humans messing
themselves up sufficiently.  The argument goes that the work involved
in killing people is roughly constant over time, but the energy
and wealth available to each person goes up over time.  So it becomes
easier over time for small numbers of people to kill ever larger
numbers of people.  Then, given a small but finite rate of loonies
bent on mass murder, you eventually kill off large numbers of people
and set things back.

The usual technologies pointed to are nuclear weapons and engineered
plagues.  One can describe scenarios like the hobbyist mad scientist
of the future extracting Uranium from sea-water (where it is present
in a few parts per billion), and then separating the U-235 with a
home mass-spectrometer, and building a bomb with his desktop milling
machine.  It all is designed on his ‘SuperCAD version 9.0’ design

Some Other Interesting Thresholds

Human life expectancies have been increasing at about 0.1 years
per calendar year.  If the rate of progress in medical areas increases
by a factor of 10, then life expectancy will be increasing as fast
as you are aging.  This means your projected lifespan suddenly jumps
from being in the mid to upper 80 year range to a much larger number.
From my point of view as a 36 year old, biotechnology is making
gratifyingly rapid progress even today, and I hope that this will feed
jumps in life expectancy in the future.

Whether the size of a factory or a Drexler-style assembler, the complexity
of a self-replicating machine is probably about constant.  At some point
we will have tools capable of modeling and designing such machines, and
shortly therafter building them.  A finite investment in building the
first such machine will yield an exponentially expanding output.  This
has radical consequences for wealth levels, etc.  Even nearly self-
replicating machines (say 99% capable) will have dramatic economic

Dani Eder

Dani Eder/Rt 1 Box 188-2/Athens AL 35611/(205)232-7467

Vernor Vinge
Department of Mathematical Sciences
San Diego State University

(c) 1993 by Vernor Vinge
(This article may be reproduced for noncommercial
purposes if it is copied in its entirety,
including this notice.)

The original version of this article
was presented at the VISION-21 Symposium
sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and
the Ohio Aerospace Institute

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? These questions are investigated. Some possible answers (and some further dangers) are presented.

What is The Singularity?
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):

  • There may be developed computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is “yes, we can”, then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  • Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.

The first three possibilities depend in large part on improvements in computer hardware. Progress in computer hardware has followed an amazingly steady curve in the last few decades [17]. Based largely on this trend, I believe that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. (Charles Platt [20] has pointed out that AI enthusiasts have been making claims like this for the last thirty years. Just so I’m not guilty of a relative-time ambiguity, let me more specific: I’ll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.)

What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale. 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 acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We 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 regime 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. Developments that before were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. (In [5], Greg Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours.)

I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In the 1950s there were very few who saw it: Stan Ulam [28] paraphrased John von Neumann as saying:

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.

Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he is thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed (see [25]).)

In the 1960s there was recognition of some of the implications of superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good wrote [11]:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make.

Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but does not pursue its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the sort he describes would not be humankind’s “tool” — any more than humans are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees.

Through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, recognition of the cataclysm spread [29] [1] [31] [5]. Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact. After all, the “hard” science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future [24]. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable … soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.

What about the ’90s and the ’00s and the ’10s, as we slide toward the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine sapience will have good press. After all, till we have hardware as powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we’ll be able to create human equivalent (or greater) intelligence. (There is the far-fetched possibility that we could make a human equivalent out of less powerful hardware, if we were willing to give up speed, if we were willing to settle for an artificial being who was literally slow [30]. But it’s much more likely that devising the software will be a tricky process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If so, then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen till after the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than humans’ natural equipment.)

But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt by science fiction writers will be perceived in other creative endeavors. (I have heard thoughtful comic book writers worry about how to have spectacular effects when everything visible can be produced by the technologically commonplace.) We will see automation replacing higher and higher level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Or put another way: The work that is truly productive is the domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of true technological unemployment finally come true.

Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in the middle ’60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.

And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected — perhaps even to the researchers involved. (“But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters….”) If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.

And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism, sometimes I think I’d be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years remove … instead of twenty.

Can the Singularity be Avoided?
Well, maybe it won’t happen at all: Sometimes I try to imagine the symptoms that we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to develop. There are the widely respected arguments of Penrose [19] and Searle [22] against the practicality of machine sapience. In August of 1992, Thinking Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate the question “How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks” [27]. As you might guess from the workshop’s title, the participants were not especially supportive of the arguments against machine intelligence. In fact, there was general agreement that minds can exist on nonbiological substrates and that algorithms are of central importance to the existence of minds. However, there was much debate about the raw hardware power that is present in organic brains. A minority felt that the largest 1992 computers were within three orders of magnitude of the power of the human brain. The majority of the participants agreed with Moravec’s estimate [17] that we are ten to forty years away from hardware parity. And yet there was another minority who pointed to [7] [21], and conjectured that the computational competence of single neurons may be far higher than generally believed. If so, our present computer hardware might be as much as ten orders of magnitude short of the equipment we carry around in our heads. If this is true (or for that matter, if the Penrose or Searle critique is valid), we might never see a Singularity. Instead, in the early ’00s we would find our hardware performance curves beginning to level off — this because of our inability to automate the design work needed to support further hardware improvements. We’d end up with some very powerful hardware, but without the ability to push it further. Commercial digital signal processing might be awesome, giving an analog appearance even to digital operations, but nothing would ever “wake up” and there would never be the intellectual runaway which is the essence of the Singularity. It would likely be seen as a golden age … and it would also be an end of progress. This is very like the future predicted by Gunther Stent. In fact, on page 137 of [25], Stent explicitly cites the development of transhuman intelligence as a sufficient condition to break his projections.

But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue. In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the construction of “a machine in the likeness of the human mind” [13]. In fact, the competitive advantage — economic, military, even artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.

Eric Drexler [8] has provided spectacular insights about how far technical improvement may go. He agrees that superhuman intelligences will be available in the near future — and that such entities pose a threat to the human status quo. But Drexler argues that we can confine such transhuman devices so that their results can be examined and used safely. This is I. J. Good’s ultraintelligent machine, with a dose of caution. I argue that confinement is intrinsically impractical. For the case of physical confinement: Imagine yourself locked in your home with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with “helpful advice” that would incidentally set you free. (I call this “fast thinking” form of superintelligence “weak superhumanity”. Such a “weakly superhuman” entity would probably burn out in a few weeks of outside time. “Strong superhumanity” would be more than cranking up the clock speed on a human-equivalent mind. It’s hard to say precisely what “strong superhumanity” would be like, but the difference appears to be profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight? (Now if the dog mind were cleverly rewired and then run at high speed, we might see something different….) Many speculations about superintelligence seem to be based on the weakly superhuman model. I believe that our best guesses about the post-Singularity world can be obtained by thinking on the nature of strong superhumanity. I will return to this point later in the paper.)

Another approach to confinement is to build rules into the mind of the created superhuman entity (for example, Asimov’s Laws [3]). I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (and so human competition would favor the development of the those more dangerous models). Still, the Asimov dream is a wonderful one: Imagine a willing slave, who has 1000 times your capabilities in every way. Imagine a creature who could satisfy your every safe wish (whatever that means) and still have 99.9% of its time free for other activities. There would be a new universe we never really understood, but filled with benevolent gods (though one of my wishes might be to become one of them).

If the Singularity can not be prevented or confined, just how bad could the Post-Human era be? Well … pretty bad. The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility. (Or as Eric Drexler put it of nanotechnology: Given all that such technology can do, perhaps governments would simply decide that they no longer need citizens!). Yet physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility. Again, analogies: Think of the different ways we relate to animals. Some of the crude physical abuses are implausible, yet…. In a Post-Human world there would still be plenty of niches where human equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. (A strongly superhuman intelligence would likely be a Society of Mind [16] with some very competent components.) Some of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital signal processing. They would be more like whales than humans. Others might be very human-like, yet with a one-sidedness, a dedication that would put them in a mental hospital in our era. Though none of these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new enviroment to what we call human now. (I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good [12] proposed a “Meta-Golden Rule”, which might be paraphrased as “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.” It’s a wonderful, paradoxical idea (and most of my friends don’t believe it) since the game-theoretic payoff is so hard to articulate. Yet if we were able to follow it, in some sense that might say something about the plausibility of such kindness in this universe.)

I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet … we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is:

Other Paths to the Singularity: Intelligence Amplification
When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings, they are usually imagining an AI project. But as I noted at the beginning of this paper, there are other paths to superhumanity. Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than AI, and yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is something that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the team of a PhD human and good computer workstation (even an off-net workstation!) could probably max any written intelligence test in existence.

And it’s very likely that IA is a much easier road to the achievement of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest development problems have already been solved. Building up from within ourselves ought to be easier than figuring out first what we really are and then building machines that are all of that. And there is at least conjectural precedent for this approach. Cairns-Smith [6] has speculated that biological life may have begun as an adjunct to still more primitive life based on crystalline growth. Lynn Margulis (in [15] and elsewhere) has made strong arguments that mutualism is a great driving force in evolution.

Note that I am not proposing that AI research be ignored or less funded. What goes on with AI will often have applications in IA, and vice versa. I am suggesting that we recognize that in network and interface research there is something as profound (and potential wild) as Artificial Intelligence. With that insight, we may see projects that are not as directly applicable as conventional interface and network design work, but which serve to advance us toward the Singularity along the IA path.

Here are some possible projects that take on special significance, given the IA point of view:

  • Human/computer team automation: Take problems that are normally considered for purely machine solution (like hill-climbing problems), and design programs and interfaces that take a advantage of humans’ intuition and available computer hardware. Considering all the bizarreness of higher dimensional hill-climbing problems (and the neat algorithms that have been devised for their solution), there could be some very interesting displays and control tools provided to the human team member.
  • Develop human/computer symbiosis in art: Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans. Of course, there has been an enormous amount of research in designing computer aids for artists, as labor saving tools. I’m suggesting that we explicitly aim for a greater merging of competence, that we explicitly recognize the cooperative approach that is possible. Karl Sims [23] has done wonderful work in this direction.
  • Allow human/computer teams at chess tournaments. We already have programs that can play better than almost all humans. But how much work has been done on how this power could be used by a human, to get something even better? If such teams were allowed in at least some chess tournaments, it could have the positive effect on IA research that allowing computers in tournaments had for the corresponding niche in AI.
  • Develop interfaces that allow computer and network access without requiring the human to be tied to one spot, sitting in front of a computer. (This is an aspect of IA that fits so well with known economic advantages that lots of effort is already being spent on it.)
  • Develop more symmetrical decision support systems. A popular research/product area in recent years has been decision support systems. This is a form of IA, but may be too focussed on systems that are oracular. As much as the program giving the user information, there must be the idea of the user giving the program guidance.
  • Use local area nets to make human teams that really work (ie, are more effective than their component members). This is generally the area of “groupware”, already a very popular commercial pursuit. The change in viewpoint here would be to regard the group activity as a combination organism. In one sense, this suggestion might be regarded as the goal of inventing a “Rules of Order” for such combination operations. For instance, group focus might be more easily maintained than in classical meetings. Expertise of individual human members could be isolated from ego issues such that the contribution of different members is focussed on the team project. And of course shared data bases could be used much more conveniently than in conventional committee operations. (Note that this suggestion is aimed at team operations rather than political meetings. In a political setting, the automation described above would simply enforce the power of the persons making the rules!)
  • Exploit the worldwide Internet as a combination human/machine tool. Of all the items on the list, progress in this is proceeding the fastest and may run us into the Singularity before anything else. The power and influence of even the present-day Internet is vastly underestimated. For instance, I think our contemporary computer systems would break under the weight of their own complexity if it weren’t for the edge that the USENET “group mind” gives the system administration and support people! The very anarchy of the worldwide net development is evidence of its potential. As connectivity and bandwidth and archive size and computer speed all increase, we are seeing something like Lynn Margulis’ [15] vision of the biosphere as data processor recapitulated, but at a million times greater speed and with millions of humanly intelligent agents (ourselves).

The above examples illustrate research that can be done within the context of contemporary computer science departments. There are other paradigms. For example, much of the work in Artificial Intelligence and neural nets would benefit from a closer connection with biological life. Instead of simply trying to model and understand biological life with computers, research could be directed toward the creation of composite systems that rely on biological life for guidance or for the providing features we don’t understand well enough yet to implement in hardware. A long-time dream of science-fiction has been direct brain to computer interfaces [2] [29]. In fact, there is concrete work that can be done (and is being done) in this area:

  • Limb prosthetics is a topic of direct commercial applicability. Nerve to silicon transducers can be made [14]. This is an exciting, near-term step toward direct communication.
  • Direct links into brains seem feasible, if the bit rate is low: given human learning flexibility, the actual brain neuron targets might not have to be precisely selected. Even 100 bits per second would be of great use to stroke victims who would otherwise be confined to menu-driven interfaces.
  • Plugging in to the optic trunk has the potential for bandwidths of 1 Mbit/second or so. But for this, we need to know the fine-scale architecture of vision, and we need to place an enormous web of electrodes with exquisite precision. If we want our high bandwidth connection to be in addition to what paths are already present in the brain, the problem becomes vastly more intractable. Just sticking a grid of high-bandwidth receivers into a brain certainly won’t do it. But suppose that the high-bandwidth grid were present while the brain structure was actually setting up, as the embryo develops. That suggests:
  • Animal embryo experiments. I wouldn’t expect any IA success in the first years of such research, but giving developing brains access to complex simulated neural structures might be very interesting to the people who study how the embryonic brain develops. In the long run, such experiments might produce animals with additional sense paths and interesting intellectual abilities.

Originally, I had hoped that this discussion of IA would yield some clearly safer approaches to the Singularity. (After all, IA allows our participation in a kind of transcendance.) Alas, looking back over these IA proposals, about all I am sure of is that they should be considered, that they may give us more options. But as for safety … well, some of the suggestions are a little scarey on their face. One of my informal reviewers pointed out that IA for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite. We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light. Much of that deadliness may not be necessary in today’s world, one where losers take on the winners’ tricks and are coopted into the winners’ enterprises. A creature that was built de novo might possibly be a much more benign entity than one with a kernel based on fang and talon. And even the egalitarian view of an Internet that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a nightmare [26].

The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being. I think a closer look at the notion of strong superhumanity can show why that is.

Strong Superhumanity and the Best We Can Ask for
Suppose we could tailor the Singularity. Suppose we could attain our most extravagant hopes. What then would we ask for: That humans themselves would become their own successors, that whatever injustice occurs would be tempered by our knowledge of our roots. For those who remained unaltered, the goal would be benign treatment (perhaps even giving the stay-behinds the appearance of being masters of godlike slaves). It could be a golden age that also involved progress (overleaping Stent’s barrier). Immortality (or at least a lifetime as long as we can make the universe survive [10] [4]) would be achievable.

But in this brightest and kindest world, the philosophical problems themselves become intimidating. A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person. (The most chilling picture I have seen of this is in [18].) To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally? Certainly the later being would be everything the original was, but so much vastly more. And so even for the individual, the Cairns-Smith or Lynn Margulis notion of new life growing incrementally out of the old must still be valid.

This “problem” about immortality comes up in much more direct ways. The notion of ego and self-awareness has been the bedrock of the hardheaded rationalism of the last few centuries. Yet now the notion of self-awareness is under attack from the Artificial Intelligence people (“self-awareness and other delusions”). Intelligence Amplification undercuts our concept of ego from another direction. The post-Singularity world will involve extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages. What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of a selfawareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration? These are essential features of strong superhumanity and the Singularity. Thinking about them, one begins to feel how essentially strange and different the Post-Human era will be — no matter how cleverly and benignly it is brought to be.

From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams: a time unending, where we can truly know one another and understand the deepest mysteries. From another angle, it’s a lot like the worst- case scenario I imagined earlier in this paper.

Which is the valid viewpoint? In fact, I think the new era is simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil. That frame is based on the idea of isolated, immutable minds connected by tenuous, low-bandwith links. But the post-Singularity world does fit with the larger tradition of change and cooperation that started long ago (perhaps even before the rise of biological life). I think there are notions of ethics that would apply in such an era. Research into IA and high-bandwidth communications should improve this understanding. I see just the glimmerings of this now [32]. There is Good’s Meta-Golden Rule; perhaps there are rules for distinguishing self from others on the basis of bandwidth of connection. And while mind and self will be vastly more labile than in the past, much of what we value (knowledge, memory, thought) need never be lost. I think Freeman Dyson has it right when he says [9]: “God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.”

[I wish to thank John Carroll of San Diego State University and Howard Davidson of Sun Microsystems for discussing the draft version of this paper

Robotic Performers on Stage

As is the case in many an Opera, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”  In this case, a more appropriate version might be “It’s not over until the transhumanist voice bellows.”  It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but the new robotic opera “Death and the Powers” is showcasing an entirely new take on a classic art form.

MIT professor Todd Machover combines OperaBots, Human Performers, and integrates a new technology termed ”disembodied performance” to create a totally technological experience.  “Death and the Powers” tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful businessman and inventor who wants to leave more behind than just the things that he has created.

MIT professor Todd Machover combines OperaBots, Human Performers, and integrates a new technology termed ”disembodied performance” to create a totally technological experience.  “Death and the Powers” tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful businessman and inventor who wants to leave more behind than just the things that he has created.  The story opens with him stepping into “the system” – his invention that will take his being from human reality to virtual reality, existing only as an electronic presence that will continue to control his family and businesses.  His virtual being sings “And by the way, I have billions of bucks, And I can still sign checks.”  You tell ‘em Simon.

In true operatic form, the ensuing tale is a dramatic one, following his third wife, his daughter, and his adopted, semi-robotic son as they come to terms with their new virtual patriarch. In a nut shell:  the daughter misses her flesh and blood father, and gets philosophical trying to decide whether to follow him into “the system” or to remain human and embrace the finality of death; the adopted son who is already half robotic is all for transcending the mortal world idea; and the wife struggles to come to terms with a virtual husband.  Below is video of her singing an aria entitled “Touch me” to the chandelier that her husband inhabits at the moment.  Yes, it’s as weird as it sounds.

All in all it seems a little cheesy and a bit too sci fi for my tastes, but the reviews are good, and the questions posed are unarguably relevant in today’s day and age.  As technological advances bring us closer to a time when something like this is possible, we may soon be pondering the same things as the characters in this Opera.  If we lose a loved one, but a part of them remains on a computer, how do we grieve their loss?  Ghost stories might cease to be scary if everyone is surrounded by the virtual presence of non-human relatives.  Perpetuating one’s life would likely have consequences that we may not even be able to imagine, so would this technology really be a good thing?  On the other side of that coin, would you be willing to commit your psyche to an electronic form, especially when we have seen that technology doesn’t always work the way we want it to?  In an interview on NPR, the Opera’s creator Todd Machover points out that “One of the biggest limits to technology, which we know all too well [is that] we can make all kinds of technology, but the way the technology evolves, its implications, what happens with it is very seldom the way we imagine it.” Despite the cautionary elements implicit in the story, Machover and the show’s other creators insist that it isn’t meant as a didactic tale, but rather a commentary on the nature of life, love and death in a technological age.

Though his human body is gone, Simon Powers continues to be a controlling presence in his family.  Naturally this presented a challenge for production – how could Simon Powers remain a central character and interact with the others without having an actor physically present on stage?  To solve that conundrum, Machover and his team at MIT’s Media Lab developed “disembodied performance” technology specifically for the show. Once Simon ceases to be human and the actor leaves the stage, he is hooked up to a variety of sensors and he continues to sing and participate in the show from off stage.  The sensors measure things like his posture, his gestures, his muscle tension and breathing.  All of this is fed into computers and the outputs are real time graphic representations and robotic movement on stage that roughly correspond to the actor’s movement offstage.  To the audience, it seems like the virtual being is present in the bookshelves, chandelier, and robots that make up the set.  Check out videos below, showing some of these robots in action.

Using technology to transform a classic art form in order to explore the potential impact of technological advances on our lives – leave it to MIT right?  The story of Simon Powers might not appeal to all opera fans, but at the very least you have to admit that seeing robots perform in an opera would be kind of cool, and the central themes are fairly universal.  The concept of life after death is paramount in many religions, and the subject of prolonging life is nothing new either.  Currently, scientists are working to grow replacement organs, develop nanobots to cure cancer, and artificial limbs that could be controlled by chips implanted in our brains.  So downloading grandma and saving her for future generations might just be something we have to think about one of these days as technology gets more and more advanced.  As Simon Powers sings pre-virtualization,  “I’m nearly out of matter.  But maybe I’m not out of time.”

[image credits: MIT Media Lab ]

[source: MIT Media Lab, On Point]

Title: Operatic Robots


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