Friday, May 30, 2008

The Singularity: An IEEE Spectrum Special Report

The June issue of the IEEE Spectrum has a special report on "The Singularity". Is you'd expect from a journal by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, most of the stories are about machines and artificial intelligence. But the technology that would allow us humans to transcend our physical bodies likes at the interface between man and machine, so biology necessarily must be taken into consideration.

A few of the articles:

Computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (and who's 1993 article "The Coming Technological Singularity", that introduced the term) introduces the special report and looks at Signs of the Singularity. Not surprisingly he sees the signs are there.

Spectrum editor Glenn Zorpette has his own, less glowing, intro, "Waiting for the Rapture."
The leading spokesman for the life-everlasting version of the singularity is the entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who’s also behind the movie The Singularity Is Near and a recent book of the same title. Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.
University of Sheffield polymer physicist Richard A.L. Jones looks at "Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture: Biological nanobots could repair and improve the human body, but they'll be more bio than bot." The article points out that the science of molecular nanotechnology is still in its infancy.
It's not that the singularity vision is completely unrecognizable in today's work. It's just that the gulf between the two is a bit like the gap between traveling by horse and buggy and by interplanetary transport. The birth of nanotechnology is popularly taken to be 1989, when IBM Fellow Don Eigler used a scanning tunneling microscope to create the company's logo out of xenon atoms. [. . .] However, it is a very long way indeed from a top-notch tennis racket to smart nanoscale robots capable of swarming in our bodies like infinitesimal guardian angels, recognizing and fixing damaged cells or DNA, and detecting, chasing, and destroying harmful viruses and bacteria. But the transhumanists underestimate the magnitude of that leap. They look beyond the manipulation of an atom or molecule with a scanning tunneling microscope and see swarms of manipulators that are themselves nanoscale. Under software control, these “nanofactories” would be able to arrange atoms in any pattern consistent with the laws of physics.
CalTech professor of biology and engineering Christof Koch and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Guilio Tononi ask Can machines be conscious?

Data from clinical studies and from basic research laboratories, made possible by the use of sophisticated instruments that detect and record neuronal activity, have given us a complex if still rudimentary understanding of the myriad processes that give rise to consciousness. We are still a very long way from being able to use this knowledge to build a conscious machine. Yet we can already take the first step in that long journey: we can list some aspects of consciousness that are not strictly necessary for building such an artifact.

They makes an interesting point: while consciousness requires brain activity, it doesn't actually require any input from or interaction with the environment. It doesn't require emotions, or attention, or memory, or language - all the things that seem to make us human. Instead consciousness has to do with integration of information, and that gives scientists a place to start for the development of conscious machines. They argue that trying to replicate the human brain is unlikely to happen "in the foreseeable future". Instead they suggest that it might work better to start with a simple "brain" and let it learn and evolve in the hopes it will develop consciousness on its own. In a related sidebar Koch asks "Do you need a Quantum Computer to Achieve Machine Consciousness? " The short answer: no.

IEEE Spectrum writer Sally Adee looks at "Reverse Engineering the Brain." Her focus is the work being done to map the fruit fly brain at Janelia Farm "a kind of Bell Labs for neuro-biology." Director Gerry Rubin points out that the basic wiring of the human brain should follow the same rules, so understanding the fruit fly's mind is a way of understanding our own. But that doesn't mean it's a simple task:
In Rubin's mind, solving the fruit-fly brain is a 20-year problem. “After we solve this, I'd say we're one-fifth of the way to understanding the human mind.”
In "Tech Luminaries Address Singularity" the Spectrum asked scientists and technologists their opinion on whether the singularity and/or machine conscious will occur. The interviewees include Douglas Hofstadter of Indiana University who studies computer modeling of mental processes, Jeff Hawkins of Numenta (and Palm Computing), John Casti - computer modeler of "complex human systems" like the stock market, writer and cofounder of the futurist Kenos Circle, TJ Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, software entrepreneur Eric Hahn, Microsoft's Gordon Bell, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Gorden Moore of Intel, Jim Fruchterman of Benetech Initiative, and "commentator and evangelist for emerging technologies" Esther Dyson. Interestingly, only Casti, Hahn, and Fruchterman think the singularity will occur within 70 years. Maybe they should talk to the biologists.

Other articles in the report:
The special web-only content is not online yet, but it looks interesting enough to check back later. It will include an interactive 3D model of a human showing where high tech body parts are already a reality. There will also be videos of Verner Vinge on "How to Prepare for the Singularity" and by Christof Koch on "Teaching Machines to Watch Blade Runner."

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  1. Peggy,if this monosyllable word is now relegated to a sort of word-play only there may be yet many more singularities coming out of the black holes embedded in man's Grey matter. Singularities of body and soul,lovers souls,microcosm and macrocosm,supreme consciousness and individual consciousness and so on so forth.
    Any way this new nomenclature is appealing one and is most welcome.

  2. Arvind: that sounds more like poetry than science fiction!

  3. Anonymous12:40 AM

    I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

    Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

    There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

  4. Thanks for the recommendation anon. I saw Taylor's TED talk and she's got a fascinating story (and is a good storyteller).

  5. Anonymous1:22 AM

    Good Job! :)


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