Category Archives: Mind/Body

Are You Afraid of the Singularity?

I was amazed to read this week that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Tesla inventor Elon Musk are all afraid that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to the human race. Musk’s warning was the most colorful:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Bill Gates chimes in:

I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

They are worried that artificial intelligence (AI) will advance until AI machines are able to improve their own designs, and build even smarter, more-capable machines, which will be smart enough to build even better ones, and so on. Although biological evolution has taken billions of years to produce humans, the AI stage of evolution will happen very, very quickly.

When AI has transformed our culture so much that present-day people would not recognize it, we will have passed the Singularity.

Pessimists think the Singularity will be as portrayed in the movie I, Robot or even The Matrix, in which humans are nothing more than power sources for their machine overlords. Hollywood, Hawking, Gates and Musk notwithstanding, I am not afraid of the Singularity. I look forward to it.

Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book on the subject, The Singularity Is Near, is subtitled When Humans Transcend Biology. In his analysis, humans will not be replaced by AI so much as merge with it. At first, the non-biological portion of our intelligence might consist of a specialized module or two. Think of what you could do right now if you only had Wikipedia and a few other reference sources wired directly into your brain. At a minimum, you could win Jeopardy! and make a lot of money to fund your next project.

With our augmented intelligence, we will be able to design even more improvements. Progress will be exponential. Before the midpoint of this century, according to Kurzweil, the biological portion of our intelligence will be insignificant compared to our augmentations. What we now call artificial life will not exterminate us. It will become a major part of us.

Now I ask, “Why is that so bad?” Why should we cling to the form of existence that has given us global warming, the science-deniers to make sure it continues, the Islamic State, violence against LGBT people, lynching of African Americans, World Wars II and I, the subjugation of women, a Civil War fought in part to defend the institution of slavery, the burning of heretics in the name of the Prince of Peace, and other instances of insanity stretching as far back as history can see? Even if a super-smart AI were to have no goal beyond its own survival, could it possibly do any worse?

Beyond that, isn’t there something aesthetically satisfying in letting intelligence bloom? We think we are the bloom, but maybe we’re just the seed.

Ray Kurzweil projects that intelligence will ultimately permeate the universe. Which would be smarter: to embrace that destiny, or to obstruct it? Which would bring more beauty to the cosmos?

31 Days – You Are a Siamese Twin

The title is an understatement. You are more like a Siamese triplet — or more.

Before I get to that, have you ever wondered how Siamese twins manage? I recently saw a video of a pair of twins who shared almost everything except their heads. I wondered how they could walk so smoothly with two brains controlling their single set of legs. And how did they decide where to go?

People like you and me are in the same situation, except our potentially conflicting voices are within one head, not two.

Roz Chast - Voice of Reason

Those voices come from distinct areas of the brain. The frontal lobes engage in rational thought. Emotional responses come from the more primitive limbic system. Each region might be telling you to do something different. It’s a miracle that we remain sane, isn’t it?

If that’s not amazing enough, research has shown that humans’ unique intelligence derives from the sophisticated wiring between brain areas, not just larger brains. We have embraced and exploited the cacophony, and are better for it. It reminds me of  democracy — another of this month’s wonders.

P.S. – I wrote this post yesterday morning, but the voice in my head that said I should proofread it at night overrode the voice that said I should post it right away because I might not get to it at night. The warning voice was right. :\

31 Days – Birds and Transhumans

Bird Migrationwrote recently about impossible things being accomplished by simple means. When I was young, one of the seemingly impossible feats in the animal kingdom was birds that can navigate over hundreds or thousands of miles. Now we know it’s simple. Birds have a sixth sense. They can “see” Earth’s magnetic field just as easily as you and I can see light. Scientists have even found the magnetoreceptive cells and the neurons they’re connected to.

Tuck that wonder in your mind as I move to another front.

There’s a movement afoot called transhumanism, whose adherents advocate enhancing the human body with various gizmos.

When you think about it, the ways we already enhance our capabilities are myriad. We extend our memories with pencil and paper. We strap ourselves onto bicycles and into cars to improve our efficiency of motion. We improve our eyesight with contact lenses, and our hearing with hearing aids. You could even say that a Google-equipped computer extends our brains to tap much of the accumulated knowledge of mankind.

That’s all great, but it only improves the senses and capabilities we already have, and only as long as we’re using the device in question. Transhumansists aim for more. They don’t just want to improve or repair what we have. They want to make us more than we ever were, and they want it to be permanent.

Finger Magnet

Finger Magnet Implant

One of their first innovations has been to install in humans the magnetic sense that birds have. Well, not quite. So far, the results are primitive: just a piece of magnetic material in the finger that gives a tingle in the presence of a magnetic field. It’s not hard to imagine, though, where this is heading. How long until we have GPSs built into our bodies instead of our cars?

Do you think this is a good idea, or is it “playing God”?

If you favor the idea, what new senses or capabilities would you like to have?Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Introduce chlorophyll into our skin so we could make supplemental energy from sunlight and water. Could be very handy for troops who have to function at high levels of performance in harsh environments.
  • Modify the body so we could breathe underwater. If lungfish can breathe on land and in the water, why shouldn’t we?
  • Install sensors that can detect minute variations in other people’s skin conductivity, from a few feet away. Integrate the sensors with the circuitry of a lie detector. You could probably detect subtle changes people’s voices, too, and send that data to the lie detector.
  • Flying, of course, but that’s probably less practical than the others.

What do you think?

31 Days – Telepathic Dogs

Dogs That Known When Their Owners Are Coming HomeHere’s something to wonder about: dogs that know when their owners are coming home — seemingly by telepathy.

I’ve been rereading a book on the subject by Rupert Sheldrake. Here is one story as told by  a woman named Elizabeth Bryan.

My whole working life has been as a cabin crew member working out of Gatwick Airport. For ten years my dog Rusty would jump around and bark at the same time I landed and then sit quietly watching the front door until I got home. The astonishing thing is there is no routine to my coming and goings. I could be gone one day or fourteen and no regular time of landing, yet he knew without fail.

Here’s another.

Monika Sauer, who lives near Munich, Germany, carried out some tests at my [Sheldrake’s] request with her dog, Pluto, whose reactions were observed by her partner. Pluto reacted not only when Monika set off to come home in her own car but also when she set off in friends’ cars with which he was unfamiliar. I then asked her to come home by taxi. … The dog reacted not when she got into the taxi, but when she ordered it.

There are many more stories in the book, and they refute the explanations I would come up with (the dogs’ superior hearing is responsible; the dogs were pickup up cues from people who knew of their owners’ return; the dogs knew their owners’ routines; etc.).

Could there be an extrasensory connection between some dogs and their owners? It seems impossible. What would be the medium through which transmission would take place? On the other hand, the idea of electromagnetic fields passing through empty space was considered impossible until the 1800’s. Why couldn’t thoughts be transmitted without the medium of neurons?

What do you think? Is it bunk? Or do you know of people (maybe yourself) who have had this experience with their dogs?

31 Days – Unconscious Life

Take a look at these moon jellies swimming around in the San Francisco Aquarium. Do you find them as fascinating as I do?

The video is not mine, but I did have a chance to see the display when I visited San Francisco earlier this year. Some of the jellies had decided to swim from here to there with well-coordinated pulses of their bells; others had decided to just hang out. What was fascinating for me to contemplate was that their decision-making was an illusion. Jellies have no brains, and thus cannot “decide” anything.

On Day 4 (OK, I’m a day late) of 31 Days of Wonder, I’d like to consider jellies and other unconscious life.

I’ve written before about how consciousness is a matter of degree. As Douglas Hofstadter delightfully points out in his book, I Am a Strange Loop, even a thermostat has some degree (sorry) of consciousness: It “observes” the temperature and “decides” to open or close a circuit when certain thresholds are crossed.

But that’s not what we mean by “conscious life,” is it? We mean something like self-awareness. We might grudgingly concede that the thermostat is “aware” of temperature, but there is no sense in which it is aware of itself.

Is a jelly aware of itself? It’s hard to imagine an animal that’s not, but let’s consider all that happens in our own bodies without our awareness. Here’s a drama that is playing out in your body right now. Although less than a minute long, it would make a worthy sequel to Star Wars, complete with a Death Star.  Pathogens attack a cell, and then antibodies arrive and foil the attack. Finally, a macrophage engulfs a pathogen. (Full explanation here.)

Although fighting off invading cells is high drama, you could not be aware of it even if you tried, because it is disconnected from your brain. What if every process in your body were like that? What if you didn’t even have a brain?

Here’s the wonder: It’s impossible to imagine what such life would be like because if you were such a life-form, you couldn’t imagine anything.

31 Days – Color

Color – one of our most basic perceptions – is a fiction.

I’m not suggesting that “it’s all a dream” but color is only the interpretation we give to different wavelengths of light. Is there a reason that a photon whose squiggles are 400 nanometers long should look violet, while the same photon slowed down to a wavelength of 570 nanometers should have the “opposite” color, yellow? If there is a connection, it is so remote as to appear arbitrary, and philosophers are still arguing about it.

However that debate plays out, we have the raw data (wavelength) and a very different interpretation (color).

Astonishingly, we are unconscious of the raw data. A child could stare all day at a cherry and a lime and have no way to tell you whether the red or the green had the shorter wavelength. In fact, if you were to ask him the question, he wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. How amazing is that?

We invent (?) color to interpret the very different phenomenon of wavelength, and then we take the further step of assigning emotional states to colors. In some cases, the reason is clear: Black conveys doom because scary things do happen in the dark. In others, the assignment is arbitrary: Red means “danger” to an American, but “good luck” to the Chinese.

So the next time you’re bored and restless at a stoplight, maybe you’ll use the moment to marvel with me at how a wavelength of 650 nanometers came to mean “stop.”

The Selfish Gene – Part 5

<< Previous in this Series: The Selfish Gene – Part 4 (Chapter 10)

Chapter 11 – Memes: The New Replicators

The ideas in this final chapter have penetrated popular culture more thoroughly than everything in the previous ten chapters combined. That’s fitting, because it’s is all about how ideas penetrate popular culture!

This is the chapter in which Dawkins coined the word meme to mean a replicating unit of cultural evolution. Examples include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.” Amusingly, the word itself has evolved additional meanings, but this is where it all started.

The first 10 chapters of this book explained how genes, which can neither think nor decide, have managed to construct (wait…they can’t manage either, but you know what I mean) have managed to construct elaborate machines that execute strategies for their self-propagation. We call those machines bodies, and the strategies include surprising ones like altruism.

The limitless variety of bodies and strategies all started with one or a few self-replicating molecules, which soon spawned mutants, which then competed with each other, and here we are.

But why limit the discussion to self-replicating molecules? What if the replicating units were ideas?

Everything we have seen about genes would apply to the replication of ideas. Ideas would mutate as they were passed from one body to the next. The mutants would accrete strategies for increased replication. The survival of host-bodies would be of little consequence compared to the survival of copies of the ideas. Ideas might form alliances to reinforce each other.

And this is exactly what we see. Ideas are passed down in a culture just as genes are transmitted through a population. Some ideas are beneficial. Others can only be called infectious.

Sometimes we say that an idea “takes on a life of its own” and that’s a very apt description.

As Dawkins puts it, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain in a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. …memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the same way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

I’ll illustrate using the Christian religion, since I’m familiar with it.

Like any religion or philosophy, Christianity is not just one meme, but a constellation of them. Each of the 10 Commandments is a meme, the virgin birth is a meme, the resurrection is a meme, and so on. These memes ride together on the chromosome we call the Christian faith, in symbiosis.

Each of these memes spawns diverse mutations over time, and thus diverse strains of Christianity arise. The faith now occupies many niches in the ecosystem of ideas, very much like species have evolved to occupy physical niches. Just as strains of animals diverge through evolution so much that they can no longer mate with each other, different branches of Christianity have split so completely that some do not recognize others as Christian.

Sometimes, the Christian chromosome has been crossed with other world-views, resulting in syncretic religions like Santeria.

Let’s look at one of the Judeo-Christian memes: life after death. This one has mutated considerably. It all started with the concept of Sheol — a sleepy, dreary sort of place to which we  all descend at death. Even the patriarch, Jacob, expected to go there (Genesis 37:35), and so could the wicked (Numbers 16:33). God was there (Psalm 139:8) but its denizens were unaware of him (Psalm 6:5). It was a place of “no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Basically, you were asleep.

Asleep? So who cares?

Everybody goes there? So why should I worry about it?

Obviously, the Sheol meme does not have much replicating power. We should not be surprised that the Jews who believed it were not proselytizers. But the meme mutated and over the next few hundred years the mutations overwhelmed the original in the meme pool.

The idea of godly people being rewarded by an eternity of bliss, but the ungodly suffering eternal separation from God, was one of those mutations. The reason this meme was more powerful was that it contains the motivation for its own replication. You want to tell your loved ones how to avoid hell and go to heaven.

Further mutations arose. Eventually the Catholic church enumerated 7 deadly sins and specific punishments for them. Pride was the most serious, and punishable by breaking on the wheel in hell (warning: very disturbing content). Lesser sins got you boiled in oil, thrown in snake pits, smothered in fire and brimstone, etc.. How far we have wandered from the sleepy meme of Sheol!

Some liberal branches of Christianity carry another mutation, which sees heaven and hell as conditions we create for ourselves here on Earth.

The spread of these memes is only tangentially related to their truth or falsehood. As Dawkins establishes earlier in the book, any self-replicator will be successful to the extent that it possesses three characteristics: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. By all three measures, fundamentalist faiths have the upper hand.

A meme that emphasizes a life-long “relationship with God” and severely penalizes apostasy will have a longevity advantage over memes that encourage a live-in-the-moment approach. We have already seen that the hell meme is more fecund than the less fearsome ideas about the afterlife. A faith based on a foundational text has an inherent copying-fidelity advantage over a faith that extols free inquiry.

If truth or falsehood have little to do with the success of a meme, what is to become of us? In a culture that has a strong dose of the rationalism meme, another meme that can be shown to be ridiculous may eventually be shamed into extinction, but one thing on which we can all agree is that people (other people) have a nearly unbounded ability to believe the ridiculous.

Some memes have done their human hosts much good. The meme of participatory democracy has unarguably improved human well-being where it has taken hold. The technique of mass production is also a meme, and has vastly improved our standard of living — while, some would say, nearly extinguishing other beneficial memes.

Will the good memes or the bad memes prevail? That is an open question, and I’ll speculate on it in an upcoming post. [Done, here.]