Our Kurzweilian Future.
Ray Kurzweil explores mankinds ultimate destiny in the bestseller The Singularity is Near. How we will eventually transcend our biology, have radical life-span expansions, understand how the mind works and be able to build new ones - and much more.
So, are we ready for the Kurzweilian future?
Soon, according to Ray Kurzweil, we will be able to augment our bodies and minds with technology. Three important technologies of the 21st century: Genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including artificial intelligence) will drive humanity into Blade Runner territory. Here technology reaches a level of sophistication and fine-structuring comparable with that of biology, allowing the two to merge to create higher forms of life and intelligence. Eventually, Kurzweil predicts that this (our) human/machine civilization will expand its frontiers deep into the universe. And as computation and intelligence advances, as we move forward and upward, the end product will be human-machine super intelligence.
Not unlike Pierre Teilhard de Chardins Omega Point, in which mankind will have reached its highest point of complexification and thus its highest point of consciousness. At this point, according to Teilhard de Chardin, consciousness will rupture through time and space.
In The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard de Chardin states that the Omega Point will be
a) Personal – i.e. an intellectual being and not an abstract idea and
b) Transcendent. - Go figure! :-)
Frank Tiplers Omega Point follows suit. Here (at Tiplers Omega Point), the computational capacity of the universe (in terms of both its processor speed and memory storage) is also capable of increasing unlimitedly.
Back on Earth, Ray Kurzweil gives us a number of predictions for the years ahead, speeding ahead towards the coming singularity. Predictions fall in three categories:
a) Cognitive enhancements using pharmaceuticals, genetic therapies and tissue engineering. Direct modification of the organic brain will allow human beings to increase our intelligence, expand our memory, and sharpen our capacity for concentration.
b) 'Cyborgization' - the incorporation of devices, nanorobots and computers into the body. This trajectory may permit the augmentation of the senses with artificial hearing and sight superior to organic ears and eyes, the direct augmentation of cognition with brain prostheses, and connecting the brain wirelessly to the Internet. See Arthur C. Clarke's BrainCap.
c) Civilization (and cultural) enhancements through the creation of 'mind-children', computers and robots with at least, human-level cognition, emotions and abilities.
E.g. according to Kurzweil:
2020s - Personal computers will have the same processing power as human brains.
2020s - Highly advanced medical nanobots will perform detailed brainscans on live patients.
2030s - Mind uploading becomes possible.
2040s - Human body 3.0 (as Kurzweil calls it) comes into existence. Later, human beings will lack a fixed, corporeal form. (When in material form) Organs are gradually replaced by superior cybernetic implants. etc. Effective world domination is shared between machines and humans, who have evolved into postbiological cyborgs.
A ''runaway reaction'' of self-improvement cycles, turns these intelligences into one giant super intelligence. According to Kurzweil much of this will happen as early as 2199.
Sure, others might be worried sick about a coming age of Terminators on Windows. But, in the Kurzweilian universe things work out for the best. And it is both good and necessary that humans tamper with fundamental aspects of themselves. Indeed, one should look elsewhere for answers to questions like:
* What philosophical questions are posed by efforts to enhance intellectual, aesthetic and moral abilities with drugs, gene therapies, brain machines and computers?
* What philosophical questions are posed by cyborgization, blurring of the real and virtual?
* Should we regulate cognitive enhancement, cyborgization and uploading?
* What implications do these technologies pose for personal identity and legal personhood? At what point, if any, do machine minds become rights-bearing persons?
Concrete examples - transcending biological limitations.
The coming Human-Machine Super Intelligence might still be some years out in the future. And sure, we might still not be entirely comfortable with the dawn of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations (and amplify our creativity). Nevertheless, Kurzweil does insist that it is coming. And the book is crammed with examples from recent years that does seem to help prove his point.
Reverse engineering parts of the brain.
a) An artificial Hippocampus.
Ted Berger, University of Southern California, is working on the world's first brain prosthesis. A brain chip - an artificial hippocampus.
The job of the hippocampus appears to be to ''encode'' experiences so they can be stored as long-term memories elsewhere in the brain. ''If you lose your hippocampus you only lose the ability to store new memories.'' says Berger. That offers a relatively simple and safe way to test the device: if someone with the prosthesis regains the ability to store new memories, then it's safe to assume it works.
The chip will be programmed to do the same transformations ordinarily performed by layers of the Hippocampus. Their plan is to test the chip in animals by disabling the corresponding part of the brain. Note the resulting memory failures. And then determining whether the mental functions can be restored by installing the hippocampal chip in place of the the disabled region [Singularity is Near - p 188].
The hippocampus has a similar structure in most mammals, so little will have to be changed to adapt the technology for people (Ted Berger argues). Obviously, human trials will only begin, when Bergers team have proved unequivocally that the prosthesis is safe. Will people eventually accept this transplant? Some say yes: Initially people thought heart transplants were an abomination because they assumed that having the heart you were born with was an important part of who you are!? Perhaps!
Still, replacing damaged tissue, - with computer hardware that performs a function formerly carried out by neurons -, is not trivial. However, ultimately, this approach could be used to replace the hippocampus in patients affected by strokes, epilepsy or Alzheimers disease. And from an artificial hippocampus, using implantables to enhance competency seems just down the road? Just a matter of time?
But, but... before this works you will have to figure out how to connect dendrites and axons of the surrounding brain tissue onto the artificial chip. Not a trivial task! :-) And testing the chip in any sensible way will probably also run into major difficulties. Because taking out the existing hippocampus and wiring this device in somehow would cause damage. More damage than it would potential cure?
b) An artificial Olivocerebellar region.
Modelling brain regions might still be useful, even if implants are to difficult for now. Further on in Kurzweils book one reads: Another region being modelled and simulated is the Olivocerebellar region, responsible for balance and coordinating the movement of limbs. The goal is to apply an artificial Olivocerebellar region in military robots and in robots that will assist the disabled. One of the reasons for selecting this particular brain region is that the region is present in all vertebrates.
According to Rodolfo Llinas, New York University Medical School: The assumption is that it is conserved in evolution because it embodies a very intelligent solution. Robots that uses artificial Olivo-cerebellar systems could be very useful in the future: Think of a paralyzed patient. It is possible to imagine that many ordinary tasks - getting a glass of water,dressing, etc. could be carried out by robotic assistance. [Singularity is Near - p 189].
Deep Brain Stimulation and Brain-Machine interfaces to empower paralyzed patients.
Here, some might ask: Has research in neural interfaces and development of neural prosthetics actually benefited patients? Certainly, the NINDS (US National Institute of Disorders and Strokes) seems quite adamant that it has: Neural interfaces have already provided substantive benefits to individuals. For example, the NIH had a key role in the development of the cochlear prosthesis, which bypasses damaged hair cells in the auditory system by direct electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve. In addition, neural interfaces, that allow deep brain stimulation, have been useful for some patients in reducing the motor symptoms associated with Parkinson's Disease. Where Deep Brain Stimulation uses a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device called a neurostimulator (like a pacemaker) to deliver electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement, blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremor and Parkinson symptoms. Stimulation from the neurostimulator is easily adjustable — without further surgery — If the patient’s condition changes. Some people describe the stimulator adjustments as ''programming'' .
And patients might soon benefit from Brain-Machine interfaces. In Berkeley, Jose Carmena and others are working on Brain-Machine interfaces to empower paralyzed patients. It has been demonstrated that: It is possible to train neurons in the motor cortex to gain stable control of a prosthetic device, and, most importantly, these neurons are able to retain this knowledge day after day. So, with Brain-Machine interfaces it might be possible to bypass damaged neurons, allowing intact cells to control computers and robots. The interfaces come in a variety of flavors, from invasive surgical methods to non-invasive electrode skull caps. The non-invasive approaches can be used to control computer cursors and spell words (albeit slowly), invasive methods may be more powerful, since proximity to neurons yields a stronger signal.
Synthetic biology - the next steps in human evolution?
And, silicon implants is not the only technology being tested for improving human cognition and health. At the Personal Genome Project they Develop a broad vision for how personal genomes may be used to improve the understanding and management of human health and disease. And foresee a day when many individuals will want to get their own genome sequenced so that they may use this information to understand such things as their individual risk profiles for disease, their physical and biological characteristics, and their personal ancestries. Discover Magazine (March 2010) puts it like this: The Personal Genome project aims to sequence the genomes of 100.000 volunteers for free. The project would provide the first extensive genome database that matches DNA to a wide range of traits. Height, eye color, disease histories and ... personalities? Eventually, with it - individuals can receive preventions and treatments tailored to his or specific genetic makeup, along with predictions of future health issues.
Genetics pioneer George Church takes it a little further (Discover Magazine, March 2010): When he is not involved in projects to engineer bacteria that can produce jet fuel, he is working on a technique he calls MAGE, learning how to insert multiple changes into the genome all at once. According to Discover - With a machine that speeds up evolution: It might provide a way to redesign our selves from the DNA up, so we might no longer be plain old Homo Sapiens.Eventually, this road might make people resistant to a lot of virusses, lengthen life spans, and increase human intelligence. It could advance human evolution, to places it has never gone before.
Church is certainly not a man to be easily stopped. Again, according to Discover Magazine: When Svante Paabo of the Max Planck institute announced that he and his team had sequenced about 63 percent of the Neanderthal genome - Church told the New York Times that a Neanderthal could be brough back to life with present technology for 30 million dollars. - The implications are so mindblowing, that I have to ask you: You dont see anything sacrilegious about this? - I wouldnt say sacrilegious, Church responds - Humans have been manipulating humans in many ways for many years.It would give us an inkling into an alien intelligence possiblely greater than our own.
A brave new world.
According to Kurzweil: Life a 100 years was short, labor intensive, powerty filled, disease and disaster prone... [Singularity is Near - p. 436].
But with the coming Singularity things are beginning to look better: Good news Ray, we've successfully reinstanted you into a more durable substrate, so you wont be needing your old body and brain anymore... [Singularity is Near - p 384].
And before that, nanobots that travel through the bloodstream, go in and out our cells and perform various services. Removing toxins, correcting DNA errors, repairing and restoring cell membranes, modifying the levels of hormones [Singularity is Near - p 257].
Some just can't wait:
I want to do something with my life. I want to be a cyborg.
While others are not entirely comfortable with nanobots inside the body being controlled by software over the internet. Maybe, some of us have read to much Greg Egan
Sure, now your might think that ''the public will not sit still while the government upload their personalities and more''. But what about a hundred years from now?
For Kurzweil there is no going back: Once human intelligence is understood, expanding its abilities will be done by human scientists, Whose own intelligence has been applified through the merger with non biological intelligences. Over time the non biological portion will begin to dominate.... [Singularity is Near - p 296].