5.02.2010

when do post-humans Show Up?


"Will the Singularity arrive within a few decades? Unlikely, according to most of experts writing in a fascinating issue of IEEE Spectrum examining the idea that we’re approaching a revolutionary transition when humans and/or machines start evolving into immortal beings with ever-improving software. The skeptics take issue with Ray Kurzweil’s predictions, described in myFindings column, that computers will be powerful enough before the middle of the century to reverse-engineer the human brain.

The neuroscientists Christof Koch and Giuliono Tononi write in Spectrum that their long study of consciousness has convinced them that it will eventually be created artificially, but not necessarily by reverse-engineering the human brain. They say it’s more likely to be done by starting with a fairly simple mental architecture and allowing it to evolve into a conscious entity.

Others quoted in Spectrum say we’ll be lucky to figure out the fruit fly’s brain in 20 years, and then it will take another 80 to understand our own, if it’s even possible. They argue that Mr. Kurzweil’s graphs — showing computing power exceeding the power of the human brain in the 2020s — are wrong because he has underestimated the brain’s complexity. The science writerJohn Horgan totes up the uncertainties and obstacles cited by neuroscientists and concludes that the old joke may be right: “If the brain were simple enough for us to understand, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand it.”

I asked Mr. Kurzweil for his reaction to the criticism. Here’s his response:
In general the Spectrum criticisms were de novo criticisms of these ideas as if I had never written about them. I have an extensive chapter dealing with all of these criticisms in‘The Singularity Is Near.’ These critics obviously have not read my book and have not read this chapter because they do not respond to anything I’ve written. It is as if they’ve just heard a superficial presentation of these ideas and respond without any engagement of the extensive discussion that has already taken place about these issues.

For example, I point out that the complexity of the design of the brain is at least 100 million times simpler than it appears because the design is in the genome. Even including the genetic machinery that implements the genome, the compressed genome is only about 50 million bytes (which I analyze in the book), and that is a level of complexity we can handle. We are already showing that we can develop realistic models and simulations of brain regions like the cerebellum and others. The cerebellum, for example, repeats a basic pattern a few billion times with some random variation within certain prescribed constraints. There is a lot of apparent complexity in the cerebellum but not very much unique design information, and we’re showing we can reverse-engineer it.

I asked Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, an eminent neuroscientist who appeared with Mr. Kurzweil at the World Science Festival, what he thought about the predictions for recreating the human brain. Dr. Ramachandran, who has identified circuitry in the brains responsible for subtle abilities like understand metaphors, said he couldn’t guess when or how an artificial brain would be created, but he certainly didn’t rule it out:
Obviously the brain is already a machine. It’s bits of jelly and you put them together in certain ways you get a brain. Maybe you need to actually get the squishy stuff to get the functions of the brain — you need messy biological stuff. Maybe all that matters is the software and you can construct it out of cans or whatever — we don’t know that. I’m agnostic. But it’s not anything mystical.
I’m similarly agnostic when it comes to a date for creating a conscious artificial intelligence as powerful as the human brain. Maybe it will take longer than Mr. Kurzweil expects. But I’d bet it’s going to happen, and so do even some of the skeptics writing in Spectrum. In his opening essay lambasting the unrealistic optimism of singularitarians, Spectrum editor Glenn Zorpette writes:

The brain is nothing more, and nothing less, than a very powerful and very odd computer. Evolution has honed it over millions of years to do a fantastic job at certain things, such as pattern recognition and fine control of muscles. The brain is deterministic, meaning that its reactions and responses, including the sensations and behavior of its “owner,” are determined completely by how it is stimulated and by its own internal biophysics and biochemistry. Given those facts, most mathematical philosophers conclude that all the brain’s functions, including consciousness, can be re- created in a machine. It’s a matter of time.

Whenever that happens, things will get very strange. I’ll give the last word in this post to Vernor Vinge, the computer scientist and science-fiction writer who introduced the concept of the Singularity in a 1993 essay and still predicts that it will occur by 2030. In a rebuttal to the skeptics published in Spectrum’s special issue, he observes:

The consequences of creating human-level artificial intelligence would be profound, but it would still be explainable to present-day humans like you and me.

But what happens a year or two after that? The best answer to the question, “Will computers ever be as smart as humans?” is probably “Yes, but only briefly.”
And then what happens? I welcome your thoughts on what comes next, or when this will happen, or why you don’t think it ever will come to pass."
text by John Tierney

1 comment:

  1. My novel "Post-Human" is a fun and engaging fictional exploration of many of Kurzweil's ideas. Whether he is wrong or right (and I actually have read his book and think he is closer to the 'right' side of the equation) no one should argue that the ideas are intriguing. Besides, if the Post-Human era arrives in 20 years or 200 years, it seems inevitable that it will arrive. It is a worthy enterprise to consider these notions now rather than getting lost in the intricate technicalities of the endeavour.

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