Tuesday, June 29, 2004

We are the Borg...

I'm not an expert on nanotechnology, but I know enough to know that it will greatly amplify the power of our technology. Highly efficient, microscopic machines will be able to perform pinpoint repairs on human organs, cheaply refine raw materials, synthesize foods, and construct complex objects inexpensively.

They also have a well-publicized downside. The power of nanotechnology can be boosted by making these molecular robots self-replicating. Like programmed bacteria, the nanobots will consume "food", reproduce and fulfill their programming in numbers. The nightmare scenario is that the nanobots don't stop replicating when we deem their task complete. In the gray goo scenario, rogue nanobots eat everything in the world leaving only a gray goo behind.

Recently, Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler published a paper described a way to generate large numbers of nanobots without using self-replication. This is good news, as it shows that nanotechnology can be both effective and relatively safe at the same time. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean people won't take the self-replication route. Just look at computer viruses.

The Future Doesn't Need Us
There's a really great article that was published in Wired Magazine written by Bill Joy. The article, entitled Why the Future Doesn't Need Us, is sobering, but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in... well, mankind's survival.

Joy advocates a policy of "relinquishment". Abandoning and restricting the use of certain technologies until we are wise enough to safely use them. It's a nice idea in theory, but I don't see it working. Economic and social competition is a force almost as strong as Nature's own selective forces. Technologically, relinquishment might even be impractical. Also, Joy's article was written before September 11th 2001, in an era when the world seemed an altogether more stable place.

My own view is that progress in Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (GNR) is inevitable. As Joy points out, these technology will provide small groups or individuals with weapons of mass destruction. Even if we exclude criminal and military abuse of these technologies, there's enough insanity in the world to unleash planet-wide destruction. We're definitely in for some unpleasant choices in the future. Freedoms may have to be sacrificed to avoid extinction.

Resistance Is Futile
I can see only one basic solution to this problem. Human individuals are far too unreliable to apply GNR directly. To the extent that there is freedom of thought and information, there must be limits on freedom of action. One variation of this idea is the Borg. The Borg is a very interesting race of Star Trek "bad guys". The Borg consists of a collective of individuals that thinks as a single life form. Decisions are made by committee, albeit at light speed. In the TV show, the Borg collective takes away the individual personalities of its members, replacing it with a sort of shared consciousness.

Writers of the TV show would have you believe that being assimilated by the Borg is a fate worse than death, but there are alternative formulations of collective mind that need not be unpleasant. On the TV show, humans are effectively reduced to zombies, and used to perform manual labor. Since machines will be better manual laborers and better thinkers, the Borg of Star Trek isn't very plausible. The Borgified humans are really just so much dead weight. But suppose, for argument's sake, we obsolete humans are preserved relatively unchanged within a Borg-like collective. We might then preserve all of humanity, and mitigate the risks of self-destruction.

Borg 2.0
Our ideal is to retain our freedom of thought, expression and interaction with others, but avoid the pitfalls of individual doing harm to others or to the species as a whole. Beyond this goal is one that is more abstract. We want to retain the human spirit of exploration and self-improvement that has brought us this far. Simply putting our brains in jars, and living out our fantasies isn't what we founding fathers (and mothers) would wish for our progeny.

Ray Kurzweil and others have described theoretical methods for "putting our brains in jars". Since the brain is a cellular neural network computer, there's no physical reason why we ought not to be able to run accurate simulations of an individual intellect in software. Kurzweil estimates that this might be possible in the next 30 years.

Once "scanned" into the simulation, people will become immortal and potentially much more intelligent. It will be relatively easy to enhance human intellect when our minds are running as a software simulation. If something goes wrong, we can always hit "undo" and try again. Simulated people would also be a well-informed electorate. Decisions about resource use and application of power in the physical world can be reliably made by democratic process. Essentially, a kind of "race operating system" restricts access to critical software components to prevent rogue brains from accessing resources without a social mandate.

I foresee several criticisms of this solution. First of all, to convey immunity from self-destruction, participation in the collective would not be optional. Certainly, a thorny issue. However, it might be possible to entice the vast majority of humans to join voluntarily. The collective would have many benefits including immortality, and the Greek ideal of happiness: "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." Essentially, the collective could be a nirvana.

The second criticism one can raise is that we would be handing control over our destiny to machines, albeit non-sentient ones. However, we can make the same criticism about today's infrastructure. Non-sentient machines control electricity, water, airplanes, satellites and communications. True, we won't blink out of existence if these systems all failed at once, but millions of human individuals would.

The third criticism has to do with the performance of democracy in software nirvana. While we may all have the ability to vote today, only 50% of us do. One can assume that the other 50% of the time we are preoccupied with matters of the heart. What will voter participation look like when we can live out our fantasies in a virtual world? Perhaps participation in the process will be the price of CPU cycles in the collective. Instead of cash, we'll be paid in computation. Our only job will be participation in the decision-making process for the collective.

Back to life, back to reality...
For many of us, Borg and Borg 2.0 are just so much science fiction. Unfortunately, Bill Joy's position is altogether reasonable. The future really doesn't need us. Nightmare scenarios abound. Borg 2.0 may sound far-fetched and unromantic, but the alternatives are far worse. The only things that can prevent our obtaining GNR technologies are themselves things that threaten our survival, e.g., nuclear war, disease, runaway environmental disaster or some other cataclysm. It seems to me that our best hope is to find a safe way to apply and control GNR technologies before it is too late.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (spoilers)

I enjoyed the first Harry Potter movie, and I liked the sequel even more.

I enjoyed every scene in the third movie, but, unfortunately, the plot was a bit convoluted. There were lots of clues and red herrings along the way, so I was taking each character's statements with a grain of salt. When the plot was finally revealed in one of the more climactic scenes, I still didn't trust what the characters were saying, even when they spoke the truth. Thus, the pivotal scene of the picture went by without my getting the emotional satisfaction that was intended. Had I been watching on DVD, I would have skipped back to the start of the scene. I guess it pays to read the books first.

Bottom line: I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but not quite as much as Chamber of Secrets. ***

"America's blankness"

I read a great article on Salon.com, today. Stephen Holmes writes about why so many people around the world hate us and what a post-Bush foreign policy might look like.

The article had one very nice section about Machiavelli's phrase "it is better to be feared than loved." This phrase was quoted by neoconservatives before the Iraq war. Holmes points out that Machiavelli goes on to say that "it is worst of all to be hated."


Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What happened to our brand?

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an astronaut. As a child, I loved jet fighters, space probes, rocket boosters and the like. I grew up in England, but always wanted to come and live in America. I loved the "brand". America, though not perfect, was always the biggest and the best. Besides, whose footprints were on the moon?

Not all of my friends were in love with the USA. A lot of Britons resented American style. To the British, the stereotypical American was loud and unsophisticated, though friendly. There have always been facets of American culture or history that were worthy of criticism, and many British people took some pleasure in pointing them out. Even so, most Britons respected the United States, and were proud of the great partnership the two nations have had in the Twentieth century.

Like me, millions of people around the world wanted to emigrate to the United States. And it's wasn't just because of the strong U.S. economy. It was because they too believed in the brand. The American dream. They hear Superman speak about "Truth, Justice and the American Way", and it doesn't sound corny. Okay, it sounds corny, but it rings true.

The day I became a U.S. citizen, was perhaps the proudest day of my life.

Today, George W. Bush and his administration advocate pre-emptive war, torture, corporate interest above human interest, commerce above environmentalism, and religious fundamentalism.

Allow me to enlighten you, Mr. Bush. In the business world, this is called polluting the brand. What you advocate isn't what America stands for.

George, when you lose your job in November, we'll go back to the American way. Who knows, perhaps in 30 years, our brand will be back where it was before you came into the White House. Then again, the world has learned that we're only ever four years away from having another incompetent CEO in the Oval Office.

On a related note, Welcome to America

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I hate to think of it.

I regularly read the blogs on MSNBC.COM, especially Altercation and Glen Reynolds.

Today, I read something that I found very disturbing. Apparently, Alan Dershowitz, a man with whom I have frequently agreed, has gone off the deep end. In an opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun, Dershowitz argues that the Geneva Conventions are obsolete because they provide advantage only to terrorists.

Now I have to admit that I haven't read the Conventions in their entirety, but I looked up the full title of the legal document, and it is as follows:
Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War
I think Dershowitz's confusion has its root, in part, on how he defines our current conflict. The "War on Terror" is a misnomer. It's not a war. Terrorists are criminals, and we can no more make war on terrorists than we can make war on bank robbers or rapists. The capture and prosecution of terrorists is primarily a civil affair. We may fight true wars to reach terrorists in foreign states, but military power cannot defeat terrorists in civil society.

Indeed, the so-called War on Terror cannot be won militarily. This is a psychological war. Throwing away the Geneva Conventions doesn't win us anything. No civil society applies coercion in interrogation because of the abuses it will engender.

Dershowitz's true motives are relatively transparent in his article, but he's not alone in condemning the Geneva Conventions and those human rights organizations that seek to uphold them. I have to wonder whether the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib have been the impetus for some of these attacks on the Geneva Conventions. I refer the reader to Andy Rooney's article, Our Darkest Days Are Here:
The day the world learned that American soldiers had tortured Iraqi prisoners belongs high on the list of worst things that ever happened to our country. It's a black mark that will be in the history books in a hundred languages for as long as there are history books. I hate to think of it.
I, too, hate to think of it. Nonetheless, one cannot defend the abuses at Abu Ghraib -- especially not by changing the letter of the law that makes those abuses illegal.

The End of Work

The twenty-first century will be a critical time for humanity. As if the threats of terrorism, nuclear war and disease weren't enough, we are approaching a time when technology will impose dramatic changes on us all.

A couple of years ago, I read The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil's book transformed my world view. Kurzweil himself is a bit of a showman, and I don't subscribe to his utopian views of the future. However, his thesis is basically sound: within the next 50 years, computers will exceed human intelligence by orders of magnitude.

Today, computer power is growing exponentially. Moore's Law originally described the number of transistors on a Silicon integrated circuit. Historically, Moore's Law has meant that every two years, we get twice the circuitry on a chip running at twice the speed for the same price. The conventional wisdom is that Moore's Law will expire in the next ten or fifteen years, when the limits of two-dimensional Silicon semiconductors are reached.

What Kurzweil shows that this exponential growth in computing power pre-dates the era of Silicon integrated circuits. If Moore's Law transcends the medium of computing technology, it's plausible that we will see continued exponential growth in computing power indefinitely. Already, optical computing, carbon nanotubes, diamond substrates, superconductivity and three-dimensional Silicon are all showing promise for uninterrupted performance gains. Kurzweil estimates that if computer performance continues on the same curve, then by about 2025, a $1000 personal computer will have the same raw computing power as the human brain. By 2048, a $1000 PC will have the same raw computing capacity as 30,000 human brains.

Of course, critics of "strong artificial intelligence" have put forth arguments, albeit weak, that claim that computers will never be truly conscious or intelligent like humans. Kurzweil has excellent rebuttals to his critics in a subsequent book. However, from a short-term (twenty-year) point of view, the strong AI question is not critical. It's reasonable to claim that, whether sentient or not, machines will be able to perform tasks currently undertaken by 99% of all employed humans.

Needless to say, this will drastically alter the economic structure of our world. While initially quite frightening, there are potential benefits. The cost of goods and services will be massively reduced, so it won't require much income to live like a king. Imagine how much a hotel stay will cost when the hotel is built by robots out of raw materials mined and refined by robots, and even staffed by robots.

Jeremy Rifkin has written a book called The End of Work that makes a the case that structural unemployment is a natural consequence of capitalism and technological advancement. Reading his book in isolation, one might be tempted dismiss it as a Malthusian prophesy of doom. I could even see myself arguing that historically technology and market forces have led to more employment and more labor. However, Kurzweil shows us that our working days are numbered. While today's machines may be a million times less intelligent than we are, we're not getting any smarter! Machines will soon have abilities that rival or exceed our own, a situation unaccounted for in traditional economic models.

What I take with me from Rifkin's book is that the End of Work will likely be more gradual than I initially feared. There's probably no critical technological innovation that will push us all off an economic cliff. Instead, automation will increasingly seep into the economic fabric, largely ending employment over the next two decades.

My prediction: at some point in the next twenty years, high "unemployment" rates will not be viewed as intrinsically negative.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

About me

I, doctor(logic), am always optimistic.

Since I was a child, I have firmly believed that technology holds mankind's hope for the future. I dream of a future in which technology is so advanced, that it can even repair my flawed character.

I am trained in physics, and practiced in the art of software.

The dictionary defines a liberal as: a person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of civil liberties. Not only do I subscribe to this philosophy, I actively support its advancement.

In other philosophical matters, I am a logical empiricist. My favorite philosopher is A. J. Ayer. His highly accessible work, "Language, Truth and Logic", sweeps away metaphysics. Good riddance to bad rubbish!

My hobby is composing electronic music with the FLStudio sequencer and VST plug-ins.

Enjoy my blog!


Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.

Samuel Ullman

It's all too easy to fall into the same old routines, and lose sight of the big picture (or spend too much time watching small pictures on television). It has been years since I last pushed my mind to its meager limits, and, in my isolation, my enthusiasm has waned. So I turn to writing in the hope that I can reopen my mind.