Friday, November 25, 2005

Cracking the Code of Visual Processing

Researchers at MIT have uncovered part of the code responsible for processing and storing visual input to the brain. After visual information is processed by the retina, it eventually enters a region known as the inferotemporal cortex (IT). The IT is responsible for then organizing and categorizing this information. By running algorithms against the patterns of neural data generated by the IT, the researchers were able to decode how it stores and retrieves information. They have found that even a split second of visual information is enough to identify and categorize objects.

Neuroscientists Break Code on Sight

Monday, November 21, 2005

Life Extension Breakthrough

Gerontologists at the Univerity of Southern California have discovered a method to extend the life span of certain organisms by six times its normal length. The method involved blocking two key genes from yeast cells that are resonsible for converting nutrients into energy and then utilizing that energy for growth and reproduction. Apparently this switches an organism into a type of survival mode where growth and aging are suspended until further nutrients become available. The genetic manipulation of mice and humans cells is now taking place and similar results are being produced.

Geneticists claim ageing breakthrough but immortality will have to wait

Monday, November 14, 2005

Nanotechnology Introduction

Nanotechnology will become the key materials technology underlying all major developments during the 21st century. Already it is seeding breakthroughs in fields ranging from medicine to transportation to computing, and its impact will only accelerate in the coming decades.

Eric Drexler, the father of nanotechnology, layed out its initial conception in his 1986 seminal book, Engines of Creation. Drexler is also the founder of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, an organization dedicated to the safe and beneficial implementation of nanotechnology.

The term nanotechnology refers to a broad spectrum of technologies that utilize the ability to manipulate matter on a molecular or atomic level. From the forming of stone tools to the development of computers, humans have always been restricted to moving atoms and molecules in large herds. Even the development of silicon chips on the micrometer scale involves manipulating massive clusters of atoms. Nanotechnology transcends this limitation by giving precise control over every atom or molecule.

The implications for this kind of control are tremendous. Virtually anything could be constructed from cheap and abundant raw materials. Feed a nanoassembler sand and out comes a computer, feed it dirt and water and out comes any type of fruit or vegetable. Furthermore, these molecularly assembled products will be far superior to anything that can be constructed today. Nanotechnology will be able to construct materials and products that are many times lighter, stronger, smarter, and cleaner. The material cost of any product will shrink to pennies per pound and its value will be determined solely by the information of its design.

Already we have seen the development of carbon nanotubes, which are cylindrical arrays of carbon atoms 1/100,000 times the thickness of a human hair. Nanotubes are an extremely durable substance that possess hundreds of times the strength of steel with only a fraction of its weight. Nanotubes also exhibit both metallic and semiconducting properties making them excellent candidates to replace the much larger and less efficient transistors of today's microelectronics. Nanotube based electronics would produce computing devices billions of times faster and consume many times less energy.

However, these kinds of materials represent only the tip of the iceberg that nanotechnology will become. At the heart of nanotechnology exists the molecular level machine, or nanobot. Nanobots the size of cells will able to self-replicate, communicate with each other, and work together towards achieving any desired objective.

Nanobots injected into the blood stream would be able to continually clean and repair the body. They could kill pathogens, toxins, and cancer cells, repair DNA errors, and even take over biological functions and systems. This would not only provide radical life extension, it would also would make the body stronger, healthier, and more resilient than biologically possible.

These benefits are not limited to the body, they can also provide amazing potential for the brain. Nanobots injected into the blood vessels of the brain will be able to interact with our neurons to radically extend our biological intelligence and memory. In time we will be able to completely replace the slow biological hardware of the mind with far superior nanomachinery.

Nanobots can also be utilized to reverse the effects of pollution, such as by breaking down the damaging levels of carbon dioxide in the air. Furthermore, we wont have to rely on the burning of fossil fuels as our primary energy source. Nano based fuel cells will provide a clean, safe, and inexpensive renewable source of energy.

The potential benefits of nanotechnology during the 21st century are unfathomable. From eliminating disease and death, to ending poverty and pollution, to providing unlimited resources and energy, nanotechnology will become indispensable to humanity.

Unfortunately the potential dangers of such a powerful technology are equally as great. A few misguided individuals with the ability to manipulate matter on the atomic level could cause massive harm. Many cite the "grey goo" scenario as a potential risk, where out of control self replicating nanomachines rapidly consume large portions of the biosphere. However a much greater chance of risk comes from the ability to rapidly and inexpensively manufacture large quantities of highly advanced nano-weaponry.

Humans at their currently limited state of intelligence are likely unable to handle this kind of power. The best way to safeguard the planet would be the development of a smarter-than-human level of intelligence. Only then would we have the level of understanding necessary to insure our survival.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Singularity Introduction

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. " Vernor Vinge-1993

Although a few definitions exists, the Singularity is most accurately defined as the point in time ushered in by the development of recursively self-improving smarter-than-human intelligence. This could be achieved either through the augmentation of a human brain, mind uploading, or the development of Seed Artificial Intelligence. In any case, this development will create a discontinuity in human history so abrupt and profound that our existence will forever be radically altered.

The term Singularity was derived from the concept in physics where a singularity represents the center of a black hole. At this point in space all of our physical models break down as the density of the black hole approaches infinity. Similarly, the technological Singularity represents a point at which our models of the future break down and we become unable to extrapolate beyond its event horizon. Just as light cannot escape beyond the event horizon, or "surface", of a black hole, once we pass the event horizon of the Singularity, there will be no going back.

The Singularity has greater significance than any event prior to it because it represents transcending a limitation that has existed on our planet, and possibly the entire universe, since its origins. Although humans have evolved far enough to develop a self-reflective level of intelligence, they have been restricted by that same level of intelligence for the past 50,000 years of their existence. Despite its successes, human level intelligence also has many short comings. For one, human minds are unable to access their underlying "source code" and thus cannot make modifications or improvements. Also, they very limited in their ability to absorb information, retain information, perform rapid calculations, communicate information to other minds, and think on very complex or abstract levels.

One reason for these limitations is due to the restrictive hardware of the human mind. While there exist hundreds of billions of neurons each with thousands of connections, each neuron is only able to operate at a lowly 200 Hz speed. And so the serial speed of the human mind remains tens of millions times slower than that of the modern computer. By transferring a biological mind to a non-biological substrate, while retaining massive parallelism, we would achieve enormous increases in thinking speed. However, simply thinking trillions of times faster is not enough, we also need a mind to be able to think smarter.

And so the second limitation of the human mind is on the software level. The blind forces of evolution produced a software focused on enabling the survival of genes within competitive environments. There was no forethought or planning, whatever produced immediate benefit was introduced to the gene pool. Furthermore, evolution could not scrap a design and start fresh, it could only work with what was already available. So the human mind is a conglomeration of specialized modules added throughout its evolutionary history. This specialized intelligence represents one in a vast space of possible intelligences. And while it has proven effective in out-smarting predators and competing for food and mates, it falls short on many other levels. For instance, the human brain is prone to utilize certain heuristics and biases that produce falicous ideas and irrational decisions.

If we were to redesign the human brain we could remove all of its failings and weaknesses while adding new layers of cognition to create a type of general intelligence. The strongest advantage of this general intelligence would be its ability to examine its own internal workings or "source code" and make improvements as it sees fit. This recursively self-improving mind could then create an even more intelligent mind, thus generating a near infinite positive feedback loop. Within a very short period of time, this intelligence could reach levels beyond human comprehension, thus generating the "spike" of the Singularity.

"From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century." Vernor Vinge

And so why would the Singularity be desirable for humanity?

The development of smarter-than-human intelligence would provide greater benefit to humanity than all other developments combined. This is because a "hard" problem for humanity will suddenly become trivial when a level of intelligence of the appropriate magnitude is applied to it. Problems of limited resources, pollution, war, destruction, needless suffering, poverty, starvation, disease, aging, and death could be solved in a single insight. Humans could become smarter, healthier, happier, and gain the potential for unlimited growth, exploration, understanding, and advancement. The Singularity represents humanity's greatest chance to achieve the Apotheosis, the best of all possible worlds.