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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Commercial Spaceport

The new company Virgin Galactic is planning to make commercial space flight a reality by constructing its own spaceport in New Mexico. $200,000 will buy you a seat on one of Virgin's spaceships which will orbit the earth for several hours. Hopefully roundtrip is included in the price. Already 38,000 people have paid an initial deposit for flights that will begin in late 2008. Many are predicting that commerical space travel will become a booming industry, generating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investments.

Virgin Spaceport to Be Built in N.M.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Self-Assembling Microcubes

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have created self-assembling microcontainers that could be used to dispense medications at precise locations within the body. These porous cubes have magnetic properties and so can be guided and tracked within the body. They can also be massed produced at very little cost. The researchers hope to extend the capabilities of the containers by incorporating electronic components that will allow for the dispensing of molecules on command.

Tiny self-assembling cubes could carry medicine, cell therapy

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Colloquium Insights

Yesterday I called into the Law of Transhuman Persons conference in Florida to listen to two presenters involved in projects surrounding the development of smarter-than-human artificial intelligence. The first, Peter Voss from Adaptive AI, described the concept and implications of artificial general intelligence or AGI. The essence of AGI is intelligence that can learn, adapt, and grow within any realm of knowledge, rather than being domain specific. Voss believes that the creation of AGI could become a reality as early as 3 to 6 years, and that a "firm" take off is likely. That is, within a period of months after its development, it will be able to recursively improve its capabilities many times that of humans.

The second speaker, Eliezer Yudkowsky, gave an interesting talk surrounding the anthropomorphic nature of humanity. He described how humans attribute human characteristics to non-human entities, and how this presents a major flaw in approaching the issues of AGI. Many will tend to think that non-human sentient beings will still have the same desires for possession and control, the same aversion to captivity and harm, even the same will to live. However, there is nothing to suggest that an AGI will have any specific desires, fears, or agendas unless the programmer purposefully places them there. Yudkowsky goes on to describe the "psychic unity of humankind" as set of basic human assumptions that transcend humans of all times and places. If we think beyond the assumptions of our narrow human world, we will have a more complete and accurate understanding of general intelligence. Voss complimented this idea by describing how morality can be derived purely from rationality and that human emotions and religious beliefs should not play any part.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Transhuman Rights

The First Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transhuman Persons, sponsored by the Terasem Movement, will be held tomorrow in Space Coast Florida. The conference will focus around the rights of transhumans, and sentient beings of nonbiological origin. The presenters will include many experts in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, including director of the Singularity Institute, Eliezer Yudkowsky.

1st Colloquium on the Law of Transhuman Persons

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Singularity Meme

Probably the most well known advocate and promoter of the concepts surrounding the Singularity is Ray Kurzweil. Over the last few decades Kurzweil has developed numerous AI related inventions, started various technology related companies, and has authored several books with remarkably accurate predictions of the future. The basic premise behind Kurzweil's portrayal of the Singularity is as follows: Our technological growth is accelerating at an exponential rate; in the near future, humans will begin merge with their technology, enhancing their intelligence and capabilities trillions fold. Eventually this intelligence will saturate the entire universe.

Other advocates of the Singularity, such as Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute have interpreted the Singularity in a different light. Yudkowsky believes that the Singularity should only be thought of in terms of Vernor Vinge's original definition. That is, the Singularity represents the point time that we develop smarter-than-human intelligence, and that this single development will create an abrupt discontinuity in the fabric of human history. He also believes that the Singularity should be thought of entirely independently from our accelerating technological growth. This is because he believes that we currently have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. He sees the creation of superhuman intelligence as the product of seed artificial intelligence, not through advances in nanotechnology as described by Kurzweil. Yudkowsky also advocates the importance of human activism in developing seed AI so as to bring about a safe and accelerated Singularity. He believes that we should focus our efforts on this task alone, as seed AI will have an impact many magnitudes greater than any other technological development.

Although at odds, I believe that both interpretations have their own appeal and validity. I think that they both can be reconciled by the fact that superhuman intelligence eventually will be achieved, no matter the path taken to arrive there. I think the real issue is the nature of the nonbiological superhuman intelligence developed and if it possesses the ability to recursively self-improve. Recursive self-improvement is the true key behind the explosion of the Singularity. Simply augmenting a human mind with portions of nonbiological intelligence will not necessarily allow that mind to recursively self-improve. It may, however, boost human intelligence to a point where recursively improving seed AI becomes a trivial problem. Once seed AI is instantiated, it will likely then become a trivial problem to upload a human mind to a fully nonbiological substrate. The synergy of these technologies acting together will greatly expedite the coming of the Singularity.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rat Brain Trained to Pilot Jet Simulator

In a fascinating recent experiment at the University of Florida, researchers have created a "brain" by extracting the neural cells of a rat embryo and laying them across a dish lined with electrodes. Once in the dish, neurons began forming connections to create a single computational unit. The electrodes were then connected to a computer and the brain was trained to pilot an F-22 jet simulator. Although unsuccessful at first, over time the brain began to learn how to control the jet, even under extreme weather conditions.
Experiments like this are a critical step in fully understanding how biological neurons perform calculations and store information as collective entities.

Why this brain flies on rat cunning

Monday, December 05, 2005

Printing Organs

Researchers at several universities have developed a system to actually create tissues and organs by printing them using bio-ink and bio-paper. Already they have created human heart muscles and blood vessels by stacking sheets of printed bio-paper. Whole human organs will only be a few years down the road.

Printing Organs on Demand

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Autonomous Robotics for Space Exploration

Nasa plans on funding two competitions, to begin in 2007, in the hopes of developing autonomous robots that will be able to perform complex tasks in space. One competition will involve terrestrial robots that must assemble intricate structures from simple building blocks. The other will involve auto-piloted planes that must follow complex flight paths and be able to detect targets on the ground.

Robots aim to explore and build on other worlds

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Eliezer's Easy Steps to Building Your Own Nanotech Assembler

"Don't believe those fuddy-duddies at the Foresight Institute who say that building nanotechnology will require years and billions of dollars. Building your own assembler is easy.

You'll need:

An atomic-force microscope
Graph paper
A GNU C compiler
Two AA batteries
A bag of Hershey's chocolates

Obtaining an atomic-force microscope is easy, although most people already own one (check around in your garage). Today's AFMs are cheaper than ever, and several sets of online instructions show how you can construct your own AFM from Legos and duct tape. I picked up my own AFM for five bucks at a garage sale.

Once you have your AFM, your next step is to design the assembler, being careful to show the exact positions of all atoms on your sheets of graph paper. (You may want to consult the Periodic Table of Elements from time to time if you're not sure about the exact properties of a given element, or refer back to your high-school physics books for a full explanation of molecular binding forces.) This should take a couple of days, or a week if it's your first assembler design. A typical assembler might contain a trillion atoms, so you should probably get a full package of graph paper from an office supply store in advance.

Next, create the software that directs your assembler to create a copy of itself. (Your assembler design should include an on-board computer – you didn't forget to include it, did you?) If your on-board computer doesn't us an existing instruction set, you may need to create a "cross-compiler" plugin for your programming environment, so be sure to use an open-source compiler. (The GNU C compiler is widely used as a cross-compiler.) Designing and debugging this software will probably take at least three hours, or longer if you run into any problems, so you should probably start on a Sunday morning when there's plenty of time.

Once you have the software and the hardware design, the rest of your job is pretty trivial. Just take the Atomic Force Microscope and arrange atoms into the form of the assembler shown on your graph paper. (If your Atomic Force Microscope doesn't have a six-degrees-of-freedom manipulator, shop around until you find one that does). Arranging a trillion atoms one by one will be a bit tedious, so you may want to stretch out the work over a few days instead of doing it all in one afternoon.

Since most of an assembler is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, you'll need a supply of these elements on hand. Nitrogen is just floating around in the air, so the trick is finding a good source of carbon-hydrogen-oxygen, such as sugar. Chocolate is always a good source of sugar, so just pick up a bag of Hershey's Kisses at the supermarket. Be sure to get a whole bag so you don't run out of atoms.

All your assembler needs now is a power supply. Connect the assembler to the AA batteries, tell the assembler to start reproducing itself, and you're off! (The Foresight Institute recommends that you make sure the assembler can't reproduce itself in a natural environment, but those guidelines are only mandatory for professional nanotech companies, not hobbyists.)

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

I plan to start on mine this weekend.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Gaining Control at the Atomic Level

Scientists at Princeton University have discovered an approach to actually control how atoms and molecules interact with one another. This overturns our currently held notion of the fundamental properties of matter and will grant us unprecedented control at this level. Nanotechnologists will be able to specify the design of any conceivable type of particle and will be able to build precise structures without the tedium and uncertainity of trial and error experiments.

Nanotech discovery could have radical implications