*This is a guest post by Jock Gilchrist*
Phil’s Note: This is an article that got submitted to me by Jock after he read my article The Neuroscience Revolution is Here: 5 ways to Supercharge Your Brain with Technology. It brings a very interesting and thought-provoking perspective. Let us know what you think!
Do you ever feel like the world is moving so quickly that you can’t keep up? Technology, communication, the internet, transportation – all of these things have shrunk our world and expanded our possibilities exponentially. Is there a downside to this growth? I’m a Neuroscience major at college. My interests in the brain and in mankind’s industrial progress have led me to an interesting theoretical point in the future – the Singularity.
According to many scientists, technologists, and “futurists,” technology is progressing towards a stage in the development of computerized intelligence where the machines that we create will soon become more intelligent than we are. That is, the apprentice becomes the master. In theory, these machines will have no need for us to continue improving them once they’re smarter than us, because they’ll be able to improve themselves.
Such a moment in our technological progress, when intelligence greater than that of humanity is generated through technology, has been called “the Singularity.” In the same way that pondering “what’s outside the universe?” is futile, trying to predict what will happen once we reach the Singularity is futile, because we’re not smart enough to know what something smarter than us will do. The implications are enormous and mysterious. Computers with superhuman intelligence could find solutions to issues like poverty, disease, hunger, and energy consumption. But they’re just as likely to want nothing to do with humans – as one leading AI theorist, Eliezer Yudkowsky, says, “the AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”
That sounds intimidating – so is it real? Is the Singularity going to happen, for better or worse? Many say yes. Ray Kurzweil, who supposedly predicted the fall of the Soviet Union (1989), the defeat of a human by a computer in a chess match (1997), and the explosive growth of the internet (2000s), is one of the main promoters of Singularity Theory. He cites Moore’s Law, which says that the size of processing chips halves every two years. This pattern is analogous to the broader phenomenon of technological growth, as we see computer size and costs getting smaller and smaller, with memory capacity and processing speed increasing exponentially. Moore’s Law has proven to be eerily accurate, which says something about the possibilities of AI in the medium-term future.
But developing robots that walk amongst humans in an “I, Robot”-esque fashion is just one way of reaching the Singularity. Also feasible is a method of bio-enhancement, a la “Limitless.” Kurzweil and others believe that in the coming years we will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain, allowing us to reconstruct and improve it, leading to superhuman intelligence. Kurzweil has made other predictions which are slightly unsettling: machines having the same legal status as humans, human minds having no thinking advantages whatsoever over computer minds, and a distinction between humans and machines no longer existing, all by the year 2099. Alternatively, microchips implanted into our brains and other body parts may augment mental processing speed and performance, effectively making us part-man, part-machine – hence the saucy title to this piece.
This hypothetical moment in the future would obviously be extremely momentous. But whether you think it science or science-fiction, it raises interesting questions about our technological and social progression. Is technological advance for technological advancements’ sake a good thing to pursue? For many, the idea of living in a world where humans are second-in-command to robots is undesirable, but theoretically, it will occur in our lifetime, in the 2030’s or 40’s. Here’s one to ponder while bored in class: if you had uploaded your entire brain’s content – the birthdays, the heartbreaks, the dream of owning a business, the soft spot for pistachio ice cream – onto a computer, and then get hit by a bus, but having earlier signed a waiver allowing all of your memories, knowledge, personality, and goals to be downloaded onto another human body, or even a machine, who could then live and walk in the world, would that new person be you? If not, why not?
These are the strange existential questions that become necessary to consider when faced with the unforgiving advance of technology. Are we even ready to answer them? Maybe we should first learn how to play nicely with other nations, or subsist on a planet without depleting its resources, before we engineer machines that can have the potential to save or destroy us.
Please share this post so more people can open their mind to all the possibilities!