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.


Michael said...

I've been looking into some of these topics for a while, now, and would like to offer a couple points:

Gray goo: by their nature, nanobots are, of course, small. You can't watch bacteria multiply in a culture any more than you can watch grass grow. The smaller something becomes, the longer it takes to travel, and the longer it takes to reproduce into the kind of population required for the gray goo scenario. Medical nanobots floating throughout our bloodstream which are hackable... now that's scary. Crichton sucks, anymore. He should just write screenplays. Slant, by Greg Bear, has beleivable (imo) nano in it. But he's practically my favorite writer, so I'm partial. Gibson had some good nano in his latest trilogy.

Downloading brains: the brain is not just a storage device for memories, and thinking is not analogous to a software algorithm. Much of the thinking about what we see isn't thinking which occurs in the brain, but actually in the eyes and optic nerves. The entire nervous system is an extension of the brain. Reductionist ideas don't apply to the emergent dynamical phenomena of a human being. On the flip side, any kind of true engineered intelligence will, I think, need to be biologically based. It would literally have to be "born" and learn its way to maturity through experiences. Otherwise all you might get is something that would win a Turing test in letter, but not in... um, spirit.

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for reading my comments. One thing's for sure, we're gonna be in for one hell of a ride!

PS-- the term mankind is innacurate and just plain sexist. One of the few ways we can eliminate the built-in sexism of the English language without butchering the sentence structure or reinventing pronouns is to use humankind, humans, or human race, instead. Unless, of course, you mean to be sexist! Then by all means, have at it.


formerbackpacker said...

These are very neat ideas.

However, I just can't accept the idea of a person "becoming" their scanned simulation in some Matrix-like world. Simulations are no more "you" than somebody creating a walking, talking plastic robot with your memories and mannerisms. Would you think, "Oh, ok, that's 'me' now--you can terminate my meat body." You would not, because you still experience the world through your bodily senses and cognition happening in your brain. Didn't you see the 6th Day--Arnold Schwartzenegger wasn't exactly happy about his clone taking over his life.

Secondly, I'm about as worried about the gray goo scenario of nanotechnology as I am worried about Ice 9.