The Future of Mankind: Moore's Law, the Internet, and Global Consciousness
Artificial Intelligence: Automated Discovery and the Singularity
Cognitive Neuroscience: Memory, Creativity, and Consciousness
The Future of Biotechnology and Medicine
Critical Thinking and the Evaluation of Evidence
Knowledge, Wisdom, and Values
We humans are a transition species. Our bodies, like those of our primate cousins, evolved in a world that existed millions of years ago. We share almost all our DNA with the other great apes. Our brains evolved over the past several hundred thousand years and are not much changed since the dawn of civilization ten thousand years ago.
The big change, since the dawn of recorded history,is culture — that vast sea of information in which we are immersed. Culture enables the dissemination of the tools created by our best thinkers: language, books, electronic media, art, and artifacts. Since the Renaissance our technology has exploded. Our brains are, however, basically unchanged.
Wielding our technology we've been able to subdue nature and rule the planet — primates with language and technology. We are apemen, building roads and houses, driving cars, and transforming Earth into shelter and feedstock for our species.
The Darwinian evolution of humanity is at present slow and almost irrelevant. We live in the Age of Design. Mankind is in the process of developing humanity 2.0 by permeating and surrounding ourselves with technology. Some of us already have cochlear implants, deep brain stimulators, artificial limbs, pacemakers, artificial hips and knees, kidney transplants, and so on. The future will bring an even greater panoply of organ replacements.
The certainty that mankind and society will radically transform carries with it the enormous peril that our essential humanity and core values will deteriorate. As the transformation occurs, it is essential that we safeguard, strengthen, and promulgate our core humanity by every means possible. Recursive Self-Improvement: Computer Version In 1965 the possibility of an intelligence explosion was famously addressed by I. J. Good:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of 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.
Is this easy or difficult? Desirable or undesirable? Inevitable or impossible? These questions are the focus of the Singularity Institute . My own answers are – extremely difficult but ultimately feasible, desirability unknown, and inevitable. Note: while I'm confident that computers will easily be able to pass the Turing Test (faking human discourse) before 2030, designing their successors is far more difficult. See my Story of Ralph . Automated computer design and manufacture is millions of times more difficult than idle chatter.
I. J. Good's quote, however, defines the Singularity, the point where humans become as irrelevant to future tech progress as chimpanzees. The original and best essay on this was written by Vernor Vinge and is a must read: The Coming Technological Singularity .
Moore 's Law and Its Consequences: How likely is an intelligence explosion by computers? In 1965 Gordon Moore, founder of Intel Corporation, proposed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years. This prediction has held true for more than fifty years. In fact, Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near , points out that Moore 's Law of integrated circuit transistor doublings was not the first but the fifth type of technology to which these doublings applied. The trend began all the way back in 1890 with the tabulation of the United States Census. Moore's Law has steadily progressed through primitive punch card-based tabulators, relays, vacuum tubes, and individually packaged transistors. So, integrated circuits are the fifth technological paradigm - not the first.
Ray Kurzweil (a classmate of mine at MIT) refers to Moore's Law as a special case of the Law of Accelerating Returns and provides evidence that technological progress has, in fact, been increasing exponentially since the Cambrian Exposion 540 million years ago. The essence of the Law of Accelerating Returns is recursive self-improvement : each round of biological or technological innovation uses stored, past innovations.
How long will this exponential, continual doubling, of technological power continue? The most authoritative answer is in the ITRS International Technology Roadmap consensus produced by the world's semiconductor researchers and manufacturers. Their answer is at least 15 years: that is their self-imposed time horizon. Beyond 2027 they decline to speculate.
Recursive Self-Improvement: Human Version
Human beings may also benefit from positive feedback cycles. Example: learning how to learn faster is self-accelerating . Human self-improvement obviously involves learning how to improve key human foci : health, wealth, knowledge, work, love, and freedom . But - beyond the ordinary curriculum - there is a far more interesting variety - radical self-improvement .
This variety in its extreme form is called transhumanism, extropy, or radical life extension.( See Humanity+ ) These deal with brain augmentation (by stem cells or electronic add-ons), faster brain/computer interaces, and radical biological revision. While fascinating, they are now quite speculative and usually beyond my time horizon of interest - one decade, maybe two - same horizon as the International Technology Roadmap - longer than the venture capitalists but shorter than the futurist/ sci fi crowd.
Societal Version: The huge improvement in average human intelligence that might result from the internet is, however, greatly of interest. Thomas Friedman documents this in The World is Flat . Smoothly functioning, flexible, democratic societies are autocatalytic.
The internet will increasingly be the vehicle for transmitting knowledge. A focus of this website will be the Wikipedia movement, the One Laptop Per Child project, telemedicine by internet, education by streaming video (see MIT’s OpenCourseWare), and efforts to democratize totalitarian regimes via the internet.
Waving the banner of technology does not imply that computers and the internet are without significant problems. There are at least four problems of particular importance. First the internet creates a huge potential for the dissemination of falsehood. It is therefore essential to teach skills of critical thinking and evidence evaluation. Second, and possibly even worse, the sheer NOISE and DISTRACTION created by electronic media is deafening. The silence known to our ancestors a hundred years ago was a blessing. The ability to quietly experience nature, friends, and one's self is precious. Third, the robotization of mankind is a an obvious hazard. Our humanity and potential for higher consciousness is a jewel that must be protected. Our individual and collective ability to solve serious issues requires sustained, focused effort. Fourth, our current technology far exceeds our collective wisdom. Further unbridled tech development, if not guided and deployed wisely, may make a bad situation worse.
Knowledge, Memory, Creativity While electronic devices will ultimately take over from humans as the autonomous designers of technology, they won't do so during my lifetime. During the next few decades the key to recursive self-improvement is in the human race - making ourselves smarter, wiser, and more capable.
The magic of humanity is in our ability to store, create, and transmit culture. Culture in my usage means the entirety of all our bodies of knowledge, all our artifacts, all our collective wisdom, attitudes, and beliefs, and everything that our collective human civilization has stored or informally conveyed. This is the ocean that each of us swims in.
How does the human brain store, create, and enact ideas? Those questions are at the core of recursive self-improvement. What is the neurobiological basis of memory? How is knowledge stored in each of us? How much is there?
If you were designing a robot with AGI (artificial general intelligence) , what knowledge would you include? What pieces are essential?
Human beings have a prodigious ability to learn. How is it mediated? How rapidly can it be accomplished? What are its limits? Our creative geniuses - Einstein, Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Edison, Mozart – are highly celebrated and renowned. What factors enabled their success? Creativity is a part of being human whether in toddlers or in geniuses. How specifically does it take place? Can it be understood such that it can be engineered? It can, and it will be.
Since I first became interested in these questions fifty years ago there has been an explosion of research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. New research tools have made possible an increasingly intimate understanding of the mind and brain. These tools ultimately are tied to Moore's Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns and will continue to proliferate: submicron microscopy (SEM, TEM, STED, AFM), CT, functional MRI, PET, patch-clamping, multi-electrode recording (eeg, meg and ecog), and transcranial stimulation. Also aiding the research are new biotech tools: genetic manipulation, antibody fluorescence imaging, and biochemical modeling to name a few.
This website will specifically focus on those findings that bring us closer to a precise understanding of the mechanisms of memory, cognition, and creativity.
Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Computer Science
As I predicted in 1971 there would be a cross fertilization among AI, computer science, psychology, and neuroscience. While the engineering of intelligent artifacts is not necessarily coupled to the study of natural intelligence, the human brain is the sine qua non of intelligent machines and it would be foolish for the AI community not to exploit this new understanding.
Progress in robotics as in other fields of technology depends on a match between market demand and cost-effective tech capability. As costs for sensors and effectors have plummeted, robotics applications and capabilities have exploded. Highly publicized feats include the robotic vehicles of the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge, military robots, soccer playing robots, robots controlled by monkeys, and the ubiquitous roomba vacuum cleaners.
Besides robotics, every avenue to AI is being explored: highly parallel computer architectures, non-von Neumann architectures, neural networks, non-digital transistors that simulate neurons, supercomputer models of the cerebral cortex: the variety is endless.
Biotechnology, Medicine, and Health
Excellent health is obviously a cornerstone of self-improvement. The success of a nation as well as an individual depends on its health.
Biotechnology and clinical medicine are also directly tied to the Law of Accelerating Returns and partially to Moore's Law. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 marked the beginning of the era of medicine as information technology. Every new discovery in basic science accelerates the transformation of medical science into bioengineering .
Recent decades have seen the introduction of monoclonal antibodies for cancer, stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine (in the lab), robotic-assisted surgery, closed-loop therapy of juvenile diabetes (in studies), and deep-brain implants for Parkinson's. However, this is just a warm-up act. With thousands of new drugs and devices in clinical trials, the Golden Age of Medicine is just beginning.
Wisdom: Ancient and Modern
Mankind has repeatedly gotten into trouble as its technological knowledge and artifacts have outstripped their wise use. Fire may cook our food or kill us. Technology is clearly a double-edged sword. Clearly, our wisdom must grow at least in proportion to our power over nature. I am interested in efforts - particularly through television and the internet - to raise the level of our awareness and sense of responsibility.
One of the most exciting global developments has been the increasing interest in higher consciousness, spirituality, positive psychology, core human values, and ancient wisdom. Long the exclusive province of religions, these areas are far too important to be neglected by non-sectarian society. The virtues and values of positive psychology are increasingly being taught by psychologists and educators. The dogma and unsupportable claims of traditional religions have driven many intelligent people from them. As a result, a vacuum in the teaching of positive values may have been created by the benign neglect of science. Scientists have traditionally kept their distance - at least professionally - from studying human values. Fortunately, this trend is being replaced by an increasing recognition of the scientific respectability of the study and active promulgation of traditional human strengths and virtues: wisdom, courage, patience, gratitude, balance, and transcendence, among others. (This brilliant 2010 TED lecture by Sam Harris espouses this viewpoint.)
Higher consciousness is a key focus of this website. What is humanity's place in the Universe and on Earth? What is special about us and needs preservation and protection? And more immediately important, what must be protected from us at all cost?
Mankind is the greatest threat in millions of years to extant species and to the biosphere. There are too many of us and not enough emphasis on birth control research and population control. Humans, their feed stock, and their pets comprise 98% of all land vertebrates on Earth. In deploying the biosphere for our exclusive and unbridled enjoyment, we are destroying it.
On this website I will highlight important efforts to combat global warming, to reduce humanity's carbon footprint, to transition to sustainable energy resources, to decrease our materialistic lifestyles, and most importantly, to spare the lives of our fellow non-human inhabitants.
I view efforts to conserve ecological hot spots as an especial priority of mankind. The species and habitats contained therein must survive even without any currently perceived benefit to mankind. However, the benefits to us in preserving those places are potentially enormous. Their genetic diversity and biochemical secrets — the result of billions of years of evolution — are essentially untapped. The loss of this diversity would be catastrophic. (For their selfless efforts in this sphere I highly commend Mongabay.com and Nature and Culture International (among many similar organizations.)