Neurophilosophy

The technological rapture

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This month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum Online magazine contains an excellent special report on the singularity, the hypothetical point in time at which technology will be sufficiently advanced so as to enable the human race to transcend their biology and take their evolution into their own hands.

Some transhumanists envision a future characterized by cyborg-like beings and thinking machines with superhuman artificial intelligence, and await the singularity as eagerly as end-timers wait for the Second Coming. Some go as far as to say that we will one day be able to cheat death by uploading our conscious minds to computers. (See yesterday’s post, Matrix-style “brain downloads” for schooldchildren?)

Much of this is extremely far-fetched, and some of the claims of transhumanists are rightly dismissed as ridiculous. But the IEEE Spectrum report is balanced and down-to-earth. With an emphasis artificial intelligence on neuroscience, it includes commentary from leading reseachers such as Christof Koch and Steven Pinker, as well as 4 videos and an interactive 3D model which “gauge[s] progress toward the age of cyborgs”.

Comments

  1. #1 Quiet Desperation
    June 3, 2008

    Some go as far as to say that we will one day be able to cheat death by uploading our conscious minds to computers.

    Yes, but the more realistic amongst us laugh at those folks and put dirt in their hair. :-) That’s after we steal their lunch money, of course.

    It’s a fine gimmick in science fiction, but it’s not gonna happen. Sorry.

  2. #2 Vladimir Nesov
    June 3, 2008

    Unfortunately, topics like singularity and transhumanism attract a certain amount of silliness and prime readers to leap to conclusions, while understanding the core issues requires serious attention and careful analysis.

    See this article for refutation of some misconceptions under the “rapture of the nerds” umbrella.

  3. #3 DoubleOh7
    June 3, 2008

    the more realistic amongst us laugh at those folks

    Those who laugh don’t understand quantum mechanics and the Law of Accelerating Returns.

    Some analysts believe that the rate of technological progress is doubling every ten years. That means that we will equal the technological progress of the 20th century in a mere 20 years *at the current rate of technological progress*, but of course, it will continue to increase in the next 20 years. So, we will actually equal all of the technological progress of the 20th century in the next 14 years. And in the next century we will achieve ~20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate of progress). That’s the power of exponential returns (Cf. Ray Kurzweil).

    A good example of exponential returns is the Human Genome Project. Started in 1990, they expected to sequence the human genome by 2005, yet by 1997 they had only sequenced 1% of it. However, the amount of the genome that they had sequenced was doubling each year, and after seven years (by 2004), they had finished the genome. 2^7 = 128, which means you’re at 100%. Nobody could have predicted they would be done on time, let alone ahead time, when they had only sequenced 1% of the genome half way into it. At least, nobody who thinks linearly instead of exponentially, which is most people. Which is why people tend to underestimate longterm trends.

    As for mind uploading, you have to understand quantum mechanics to understand why it’s possible. I recommend Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writings on Overcoming Bias (http://www.overcomingbias.com/), starting around April 1.

  4. #4 thexray
    June 3, 2008

    Unfortunately, this report is far from excellent. I recommend to read the critique of this report by Michael Anissimov here and here.

    Much of this is extremely far-fetched, and some of the claims of transhumanists are rightly dismissed as ridiculous.
    I really don’t understand how people fail to notice the accelerating rate of progress, when it allready has reached the speed of a supersonic jet. All of transhuman predictions stem from this fact. I can see the only excuse for these people – lack of time to look into the matter more thorougly.:-)

  5. #5 Vladimir Nesov
    June 3, 2008

    “Exponential acceleration of technology”, popularized by Kurzweil, is not a phenomenon that is commonly accepted (as meaningful) or considered as central to the singularity vision by careful thinkers. The main force is superintelligent AI (which can indeed need sufficiently powerful hardware), but its invention doesn’t follow from advances in most of the other directions.

    DoubleOh7, quantum mechanics have nothing to do with uploading per se. Yours is an example of sloppy cultish mindset that casts additional sci-fi fanclub impression on singularitarianism. Yudkowsky’s point connecting his series on quantum mechanics with uploading was about philosophical question of personal identity, which has nothing to do with technical feasibility of uploading, and anyway lies too far away to be communicated in a blog comment.

  6. #6 Eliezer Yudkowsky
    June 4, 2008

    The IEEE Spectrum report reads like someone who saw “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and wrote an angry refutation of all this “quantum physics” nonsense that Hollywood is promoting.

    If you’d like to know what actual analysis of these issues look like, see e.g. http://singinst.org/AIRisk.pdf.

  7. #7 Ben_Wraith
    June 7, 2008

    That link doesn’t work for me. Shouldn’t it be: http://www.singinst.org/upload/artificial-intelligence-risk.pdf

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