Sunday, April 16, 2006

Singularity Summit

On May 13th, Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program will be hosting the Singularity Summit, where many of today's leading futurist thinkers will speak on the profound implications of the Singularity. The event will include such note worthy speakers as Eliezer Yudkowsky and Tyler Emerson of the Singularity Institute, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, Max Moore of the Extropy Institute, nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler, philosopher Nick Bostrom, and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter among many others. This exciting and historic event will be free to the public and will hopefully serve to generate greater awareness and understanding of these ideas among the general public.

The Singularity Summit

Monday, January 16, 2006

Quantum Microchips

Scientists at the University of Michigan have recently constructed the first quantum microchip by utilizing individual ions to act in the place of transistors. By isolating an ion, scientists can manipulate the spin of its free electron to alter its quantum state. A quantum bit, or qubit can take the state of an up-spin, a down-spin, or both states simultaneously. By being able to occupy two states simultaneously, a qubit has an enormous advantage over the binary bit of classical computing. This is because a quantum computer would be able to test every possible combination of values simultaneously. A computer with 100 qubits would be able to test 2^100 solutions. Therefore computational power of a quantum computer grows expontential with each qubit added to the system.

Spin Doctors Create Quantum Chip

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Nature of Consciousness

In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil explores the age old question of the nature of consciousness. He explores the significance of this idea in light of the tremendous technological capabilities that humanity will soon acquire.

Since the dawn of culture, humans have speculated on why we have subjective experience through the mind and body that we call 'self'. Why is it that we are who we are? Our inability to truly grasps these concepts on a scientific level have lead to beliefs such as the existence of immaterial souls. However these types of beliefs have no supporting evidence and no basis in reality.

In his book, Kurzweil performs several thought experiments to try to make the concept clearer. In the first, a biological human brain is slowly replaced with nonbiological hardware. It is logical to reason that after the brain is completely replaced by the nonbiological substrate, the subjective experiences of the individual will remain the same. If it were my brain, I would still be me, and I would still think and experience the world as I always have. This is not a giant leap of assumption, as the atoms molecules of our brains and bodies are continually changing anyway. Every month the atoms constituting my brain will become completely different, the only thing that remains somewhat constant is the pattern of matter and energy that defines who I am.

Now lets take the idea further and explore what happens if that same biological mind were scanned, copied, and then instantiated on a completely new substrate. This is where the concept becomes blurry and does not lead to an easy explanation. For one, the copy of the mind would think and act exactly like the original. It would claim to have had the same experiences as the original and would be objectively indistinguishable from the original. However, if it was my mind that was copied, I would still be experiencing life subjectively through my biological brain. Clearly I could not be both me and my copy at the same time. If this process was for the purpose of transferring my mind to a non-biological substrate, I would most likely object to the destruction of my biological brain after its completion. Although the pattern of my mind has been transferred, my subjective experience has not. Clearly there must be something else besides my pattern of matter and energy that represents the true me.

But what confuses the matter even further is the fact that the first process of slowly replacing my mind is actually no different from the process of copying my mind and destroying the original. And so there lies the dilemma. At what point does subjective experience begin and end.

This question will have immense importance in our near future as technologies such as brain augmentation and mind uploading become possible. I believe, however, that our increased intelligence and technological capabilities over the next 20 years will finally reveal the answers to these age old questions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Evolution: Breakthrough of 2005

Science magazine has named advances in evolution research as the top scientific breakthrough of 2005. One major breakthrough in 2005 was the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, revealing a 4% difference with that of humans. By closely comparing it with the human genome, researchers will be able to uncover the genetic basis for many diseases. They will also be able to examine every evolutionary change that took place to now distinguish us from our distant cousins. Also in 2005, major advances in the understanding of speciation took place. New evidence revealed how members of the same species could split into two species, even if the were not isolated. One example was seen in a species of European birds, where one group would reach a common breeding ground slightly before the other. Ironically 2005 also saw a strong push to begin teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Fortunately a US court banned the notion as it was a thinly disguised version of creationism.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Designing a New Species

Craig Venter, the pivotal force behind the sequencing of the human genome, is now undertaking an exciting new challenge. He and his team are attempting to create an organism from scratch, by designing its genetic code piece by piece. They are attempting to accomplish this by using advanced computer technology to assemble DNA one nucleotide at a time. To start out, the team plans on assembling a single-cell bacterium with 517 genes. If they are able to create this living organism, simply by synthesizing the chemical sequences of its DNA, it will represent a profound scientific breakthrough. It will grant us insights into how life first arose, and will allow us to create genomes that do not even exist in nature. New synthetic organisms could be created to perform such tasks as generating hydrogen for energy, or cleaning up the environment. Synthetic life may serve as the precursor technology to nanobots.

Creating first synthetic life form

Robot Demonstrates Self-Awareness

Researchers at Meiji University in Japan have developed a robot that is able to distinguish its mirror image from other identical robots. Developing this type of cognitive architecture represents a big step in being able to reproduce human-like consciousness. Each of these developments provides another piece to the puzzle of human level intelligence and will bring us that much closer to its recreation.

Robot Demonstrates Self-Awareness

Monday, December 19, 2005

Transcendence: Our Responsibility

Given the trillions upon trillions of planets in the universe, it would appear logically unlikely that we are alone as sentient beings. Even if a small portion of the planets in the universe contained life, and a only a small portion of those evolved to intelligent life, the universe should still be teeming with intelligent civilizations. Given the age of the universe, a large portion of these civilizations should be many millions or billions of years ahead of our own. Since technology grows at an exponential rate, a civilization only a few thousand years ahead of us should have extended its reach far beyond its solar system. Just one sufficiently advanced civilization would have saturated enormous expanses of space with its intelligence, making them highly detectable. At the very least, we should have detected the plethora of radio signals broadcast over the ages. And yet the skies are silent.

What can account for the absence of intelligent life in the universe? It is highly improbable that an intelligent civilization would never adopt some form of radio communication. It is easy to invent radio and it is fundamental means of communication. And yet SETI has detected nothing in over twenty years of scanning the skies. Furthermore, even if a few highly advanced civilizations decided to remain hidden, it would be unlikely that they all would make that same decision. Either all other forms of intelligent life exist outside of our light sphere (assuming the speed of light cannot be exceeded), or perhaps we truly are alone.

Could it be, that the human species, with our constant warring and destructive nature, are the most intelligent beings in the universe? I, for one, think this is a shocking realization. Humans after all are still a product of blind, unintelligent forces. They are vastly inferior in design and capabilities to that which could be physically possible. The human brain, the most intelligent computer on the planet, is still at least 10^26 times computational slower than it could be for its mass. Humans, even with their current state of technology are still subject to horrible diseases, injury, aging, destructive emotions, needless suffering, and unavoidable death. I think that is proof enough to demonstrate the absence of any type of intelligent creator. We can, and will, do much better.

Right now we stand as the most intelligent beings, in our most enlightened time, on the verge of a change that will imbue us with intelligence and capabilities previously attributed to gods. I would say that we are very fortunate to be alive at this time. The coming decades will likely prove to be the most important time, not only in the history of humanity, but the history of the universe.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Rational Morality

In the recent film, The Island, a biotech firm, circa 2020, provides consumers with greatly enhanced life extension capabilities. They do so by creating a clone of the individual, which could later be harvested for organs, when the need arises. These clones, which miraculously develop into adults over a period of months, are supposedly kept in an unconscious, vegetative state. Since the clones supposedly remain unconscious, the process appears perfectly ethical to the public. However, the big secret (which im sure you already have guessed) is that the clones actually are fully conscious, and are kept in an underground facility with little knowledge of the real world.

Now I think that most people would agree that harvesting the organs of sentient beings might fall under the immoral category. Even I, a 100% pro-technology advocate, have some qualms about this particular practice. But the fact remains that the vast majority of outcries against advances in biotechnology are completely irrational and unjustifiable.

In recent years there have been arguments against the morality of stem cell research. Pro-life advocates and religious groups claim that extracting the stem cells from embryos is equivalent to taking a life. Even though this research has the potential to cure hundreds of life threatening diseases that are inflicting millions of ailing patients. Even though embryos are not conscious, and would simply be discarded anyway. It appears to me that blocking this type of research is actually vastly more immoral.

President Bush, some time ago, decided that it would be unethical to grant federal funding to research any new stem cell lines because he believed that it was a destruction of life. Yet, in all his wisdom, he also decided that it would be perfectly ethical to send thousands of Americans overseas to become incapacitated or killed. It might just be me, but somehow I don't think that the logic was flowing.

Cloning also has the potential to treat hundreds of disorders and diseases. With further developments in cloning we will have the ability to clone perfectly matching organs for transplants, cure genetic diseases, reverse the aging process, and bioengineer drugs. And yet so many people make the claim that it is a deeply amoral practice. They argue that "cloning violates human dignity and makes people into products that can be replaced", or that we are "playing God", or "tampering with nature", or the technology could be abused for evil purposes.

But lets come back to reality. Humans have been so-called "playing God" since their origin as a species. If humans didn't "play God" they would still be wandering the savannas in small isolated groups. It is our nature to learn about our world and acquire the abilities to control and manipulate it. Like any technology, cloning too could be abused as it was in The Island. Yet it is highly unlikely that cloning organs for replacement would ever require developing a complete conscious being. And new technologies will always provide us with ways to carry out an objective that could be deemed rationally moral. For example, medical immortality is likely to be obtained in the near future simply by infusing one's body with nonbiological nanobots.

It seems to me that the real problem surrounding the issues of morality is the way that humans typically approach it. Peter Voss of Adaptive AI wrote an interesting paper describing the shortcomings of systems from which humans commonly derive morality.

For example, when social rules and customs act as moral agents, morality becomes relative to the context of the society. He states that, "For example one society believes that having more than one child is immoral, while another sees contraception as depraved. Unfortunately, this relativism does not usually prevent people from trying to force their views on others, even killing and dying for it in its name."

Religious systems also commonly act as guiding moral forces. Of course these too are relative and have no rational basis. --"Many wars and vast amounts of human suffering have their roots in this kind of 'morality'." "One of the most disabling, and thus immoral, beliefs that has long been a cruel tool of suppression..., an essential part of religion, mysticism and superstition..., is the belief that our lives are subject to some unknown or inexorable masterplan or masterplanner: 'It's my karma...', ...'It is probably for the best', 'It is the stars', 'It is God's will - He works in mysterious ways'. These beliefs encourage us to abdicate self-responsibility, they paralyze us. They also undermine our self-esteem by casting doubt on our efficacy."

In light of the failings of religion, some resort to intuition, or emotional knowledge as ones "moral compass". However, this too can lead to errors in moral judgment. "...without explicit, conscious selection of the principles that we internalize, our emotions are unguided missiles. Slavery, racism or treating women as second class citizens may feel very right - as it has, and still does, to many people. Intuition is no guarantee of morality."

Voss recognized that true morality can only be derived from reason, and in his paper he develops a system of morality he calls "Rational Morality". He explores how by employing "rational virtues" one can define and adhere to a personal system to achieve what he calls "Optimal Living". Taken beyond the scope of personal "Optimal Living" it is evident that rational morality can be utilized to resolve questions on a societal or global scale.

Examining the question of human cloning, it would be irrational to make any argument that it was in opposition to a higher power or force. These types of arguments are relative to particular belief system and have no bearing on the reality of the situation. However, by utilizing reason, one can recognize the flaw in cloning humans for the purpose of killing them. It is evident that the process of cloning will produce a human no different from one produced biologically. Therefore, taking a cloned human life is no different from taking a human life. Since there is an instrinsic value to sentient beings, due to their awareness, intelligence, uniqueness, and will to live, it would be rationally immoral to take ones life. By attributing certain preordained purposes to existence, morality only becomes deluded and contradictory.