Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sitting Down for Some Screen Time


To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.
-George Santayana

Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.
- Donna Haraway

One cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.
-Ray Kurzweil

I

All afternoon on the trail I could look west toward the massive spine of the Smokies and study its tallest peak. Mulberry Mountain they used to call it. 



*Long, long ago several families settled in a valley beneath the mountain. 

One boy from this clan would leave home every morning and spend his days wandering Mulberry Mountain. After a while, he stopped eating at home and spent more and more time in the woods each day.  When his parents noticed long brown hair growing all over his body, they asked why he preferred the woods.

“I find plenty to eat there, and it is better than the corn and beans we have in the settlement.  Pretty soon I am going into the woods to stay all the time.”

His parents begged him not to leave. He was determined, though, and invited his parents to come along, since there was plenty to eat without having to work for it.

The father and mother considered his offer and consulted the elders of the community. Assembled together, all the people of the community agreed they would go since scarcity had been the result of their hard labor up until that time.

After seven days of prayer and fasting, they left their settlement for the mountain with the boy leading the way.

The people of the other towns learned of this and rushed to dissuade them from going into the woods to live. Messengers from the other towns found the exiles already growing hair like that of animals because they had abstained from human food for seven days.

The clan refused to turn back. “From now on we shall be called bears, and when you are hungry come into the woods and call us and we shall come to give you our own flesh. You need not be afraid to kill us for we shall live always.”


They taught the messengers the songs with which to call them, and the groups parted ways, After returning a short distance down the mountain, the messengers looked back and saw a drove of bears going into the woods.

Ever since the hike that day, when I viewed the place where this all happened, I've been thinking about Mulberry Mountain.  Sometimes I hear the siren call of the wild, and I feel drawn into the woods, as if I could remain there in comfort and plenty with no need or desire to return to society.  The story, too, illustrates the acceptance of change, even to the point of forfeiting one's humanity. 

Several days ago I was venting about the transformation of our culture - people incessantly gazing into their screens.   Later, I learned that at the exact hour I was composing that rant, a poor soul on the California coast became distracted by his handheld device, took an errant step at Sunset Cliffs, and plunged fifty feet to his death. 

There are different ways of forfeiting one's humanity for the sake of change. 

But now I'm willing to give change a second chance.

In an online thread for a National Public Radio story about a screen-free coffee house in Vermont, commenter Luc G tweaked someone who shared my outrage:

...the way people socialize in our hyper-connected world will never go back to the way it was before the ubiquity of 'screens'. Stop looking wistfully into the past and try to discover new ways of connecting with your fellow man.  Communication technology and our ability to socialize with anybody at any time has radically altered the public perception of what is acceptable for social environments, and it will do nothing but continue to change that perception as technology continues to get better. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for moments of quiet contemplation over a cup of coffee, but to say that a coffee house isn't a social space because of screens is completely missing the mark. We have to move and think with our eyes to the future, not the past...

Wistfulness be damned!  Eyes to the future, I've taken a few days to focus on where we are headed.

My attitude has been adjusted. At the very least, we are on the verge of some interesting times.

*Adapted from James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees

II

Before continuing, it would be helpful to interject a little wordplay into this discussion of "screen" time. 

Consider the word "screen." 

One definition in the old, yellowed dictionary seemed to strike closest to the point:

3. a phosphorescent surface upon which the image is formed in a cathode-ray tube...

But other definitions have more relevance than it might first appear:

2. something that serves to divide, conceal, or protect...

Plenty to chew on with this one. My favorite screens, how do they divide, what do they conceal, whom do they protect?



Then there's what could be the most apt definition of the bunch:

1. a coarse sieve used for sifting out fine particles...

That's digital technology in a nutshell.  By the time something as sublime as the view at Sunset Cliffs passes your screen, it has been broken down to its finest particles, a series of zeroes and ones.  That's all.

Nothing comes through the screen that hasn't been reduced to electromagnetic impulses.

III

On June 13, 1863 American newspapers were reporting on a crucial event of the Civil War, the Siege of Vicksburg.  On that same date, 8000 miles away in Christchurch, New Zealand a newspaper reported a different struggle for power, a different form of slavery.

The article, Darwin Among the Machines, was attributed to "Cellarius," the pen name of  Samuel Butler (1835-1902).  The English novelist and student of evolutionary science warned that machines were a kind of artificial life-form, constantly evolving and ultimately replacing humans as the dominant species.  Butler explained:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race....



Man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. We treat our horses, dogs, cattle, and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness; we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals....

A few minutes after reading Darwin Among the Machines, I received my daily email from the Washington Post, linking to an article on "A. I. Anxiety" that profiles "the world’s spookiest philosopher," Nick Bostrom, "a thin, soft-spoken Swede:"

Bostrom’s favorite apocalyptic hypothetical involves a machine that has been programmed to make paper clips (although any mundane product will do). This machine keeps getting smarter and more powerful, but never develops human values. It achieves “superintelligence.” It begins to convert all kinds of ordinary materials into paper clips. Eventually it decides to turn everything on Earth — including the human race (!!!) — into paper clips.

Then it goes interstellar.

The Washington Post writer attempts to quell such hysteria:

The machines are not on the verge of taking over.

But the writer does concede that:

We live in an age in which machine intelligence has become a part of daily life. Computers fly planes and soon will drive cars. Computer algorithms anticipate our needs and decide which advertisements to show us. Machines create news stories without human intervention. Machines can recognize your face in a crowd.  New technologies — including genetic engineering and nanotechnology — are cascading upon one another and converging. We don’t know how this will play out. But some of the most serious thinkers on Earth worry about potential hazards — and wonder whether we remain fully in control of our inventions.

Besides, for every anxious Swedish philosopher, you can find an hopeful technophile, such as inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil whose books predict an age of intelligent, spiritual machines:

Kurzweil, now a director of engineering at Google, embraces such a future; he is perhaps the most famous of the techno-utopians, for he believes that technological progress will culminate in a merger of human and machine intelligence. We will all become “transhuman.”

The Post article introduces a second Swede, MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who is helping Elon Musk spend $10 million on research to prevent artificial intelligence from going rogue. As Tegmark frames the issue:

“The future is ours to shape. I feel we are in a race that we need to win. It’s a race between the growing power of the technology and the growing wisdom we need to manage it. Right now, almost all the resources tend to go into growing the power of the tech.”

In a recent tweet, Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, was more blunt:

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon."

The Washington Post article concludes:

In [Bostrom's] view, we have a chance to go galactic — or even intergalactic — with our intelligence. Bostrom, like Tegmark, is keenly aware that human intelligence occupies a minuscule space in the grand scheme of things. The Earth is a small rock orbiting an ordinary star on one of the spiral arms of a galaxy with hundreds of billions of stars. And at least tens of billions of galaxies twirl across the known universe.

Artificial intelligence, Bostrom said, “is the technology that unlocks this much larger space of possibilities, of capabilities, that enables unlimited space colonization, that enables uploading of human minds into computers, that enables intergalactic civilizations with planetary-size minds living for billions of years.”

There’s a bizarre wrinkle in Bostrom’s thinking. He thinks a superior civilization would possess essentially infinite computing power. These superintelligent machines could do almost anything, including create simulated universes that include programs that precisely mimic human consciousness, replete with memories of a person’s history — even though all this would be entirely manufactured by software, with no real-world, physical manifestation.

Bostrom goes so far as to say that unless we rule out the possibility that a machine could create a simulation of a human existence, we should assume that it is overwhelmingly likely that we are living in such a simulation.

“I’m not sure that I’m not already in a machine,” he said calmly.



Two days before the Bostrom story, the Post had published "Techno-skeptics’ Objection Growing Louder:"

Many technophiles [are] unhappy about the way the tech revolution has played out. Political progressives once embraced the utopian promise of the Internet as a democratizing force, but they’ve been dismayed by the rise of the “surveillance state,” and the near-monopolization of digital platforms by huge corporations...

The dissenters have no easy task. We’re in a new Machine Age. Machine intelligence and digital social networks are now embedded in the basic infrastructure of the developed world...

Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.  “I’m on Team Human!” author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk...

The article rattles off the books authored by digital dissenters -

“You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier)
“The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen)
“The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” (Astra Taylor)
 “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat)

The story continues:

Technological skepticism isn’t new. Plato told the story of a king who protested the invention of writing, saying it would weaken his people’s memory and “implant forgetfulness in their souls.”

Our thoughts, friendships and basic urges are processed by computer algorithms and sold to advertisers. The machines may soon know more about us than we know about ourselves...on Facebook, we’re not the customers, we’re the merchandise.

Some digital dissenters aren’t focused on the economic issues, but simply on the nature of human-machine interactions. This is an issue we all understand intuitively: We’re constantly distracted. We walk around with our eyes cast down upon our devices. We’re rarely fully present anywhere...

The robot issue leads inevitably to the most apocalyptic fear: that machine intelligence could run away from its human inventors, leaving us enslaved — or worse — by the machines we created.

All this talk from 2015 was nothing new for Samuel Butler in 1863:

The fact is that our interests are inseparable from theirs [the machines], and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species. It is true that these organs may be ultimately developed, inasmuch as man’s interest lies in that direction; there is nothing which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines; it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind, but the days of flirtation, courtship, and matrimony appear to be very remote, and indeed can hardly be realised by our feeble and imperfect imagination...



Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

He minces no words in the conclusion to Darwin Among the Machines:

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

IV

Cyborg Blues

I've heard it from the Madman, I've heard it from the Sage:
The years in which we're living are the dwindling of an Age.


Machines will liberate us from the limits we have known,
Polymer and alloy will replace our skin and bone.


Our current form of life will gradually dissolve
As the species, Homo sapiens, continues to evolve.


We are entering an Era called "Posthumanist,"
Becoming dots on a screen small and luminous.


Will we recognize it, the day the threshold's crossed?
When what it was we used to be becomes completely lost?


We could test the waters cautiously, as human frailties we expunge.
More likely we won't know our fate 'til the end of a headlong plunge.





V

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It's alright we told you what to dream...




VI

Fifty years ago, the science fiction writer Frank Herbert paid tribute to Samuel Butler with something he termed the "Butlerian Jihad."

In a glossary of words found in the Dune series of books, Herbert defined:

Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. [Orange Catholic] Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."

In God Emperor of Dune, a character mentioned the upheaval:

"The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines," Leto said. "Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed."




The Jihad succeeded in purging the known universe of all thinking machines.  Laws against artificial intelligence imposed a penalty of immediate death for anyone owning an AI device or developing technology resembling the human mind.

To retain the powers of computing without violating the commandment, human computers called mentats were perfected.

VII


Now for the flip side to Frank Herbert's Butlerian Jihad. 

Donna J. Haraway is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She might be best known for "A Cyborg Manifesto," which she began writing in 1983.  Early versions were too controversial for publication in The Socialist Review East Coast Collective, and I can see why.  Her flavor of radical feminism makes Adrienne Rich look like Anita Bryant.

Central to Haraway's message is that there's no distinction between machines and natural life:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind.

Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion....

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense - a 'final' irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the 'West's' escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space.

If Haraway's manfesto was far-out in the 1980s, it rests comfortably upon the bosom of America's politically correct culture, ca. 2016:

Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy.




Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection- they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential....

By the late twentieth century in United States scientific culture, the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached. The last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks--language tool  use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal. And many people no longer feel the need for such a separation; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures.

Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse....

We cannot go back ideologically or materially. It's not just that 'god' is dead; so is the 'goddess'. Or both are revivified in the worlds charged with microelectronic and biotechnological politics. In relation to objects like biotic components, one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints.

I want to give Haraway a fair shake, but I can't get past the suspicion that her writing style is, for whatever reason, an intentional parody of Ivory Tower babble.  Apparently, I'm not alone in this impression.  Mark Cartmill's 1991 review of her book Primate Visions is simply too delightful not to include at this point:

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor. This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.


But, now, back to the manifesto:

Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of 'Western' idendty, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. 'We' did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of 'texts'.

Haraway might be pleased to know that her essay sounds as if it was written by a computer program, but one with really lousy algorithms.  Here's one more bite at the apple:

To recapitulate, certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals - in short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/ made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man.

The self is the One who is not dominated, who knows that by the semice of the other, the other is the one who holds the future, who knows that by the experience of domination, which gives the lie to the autonomy of the self. To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many. 

High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse (for example, biology) and in daily practice (for example, the homework economy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic.

As so it goes.  I have offered an admittedly dualistic presentation of arguments for and against a cyborgian union of humans and machines.  But if it does come to pass, then liking it or not is a matter of little consequence.  It is time to move on from the question of "What if it happens?" to "Could it happen?"



VIII

If one entertains the hypothesis that consciousness is an electromagnetic phenomenon, then it is not much of a stretch to expect the seamless merger of biology and technology on the near horizon.

Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, and co-author of "Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology." (2014) In his study of the electromagnetic nature of consciousness, McFadden has developed the idea of the cemi field.   As he explained in a 2007 interview:

Put simply the cemi field is that component of the brain’s electromagnetic (em) field that influences our actions. The theory proposes that the seat of consciousness is the brain’s em field.... All the information in scattered neurons will be unified in the brain’s em field. A number of researchers have proposed this much but the cemi field goes one step further and proposes that the cemi field loops back to influence brain activity via electromagnetic induction: the brain’s em fields influences neuronal membrane potentials and thereby the probability of neuron firing and thereby influence our actions. This influence we experience as ‘free will’.



McFadden elaborates on this theory:

This consciousness electromagnetic information field (cemi field) theory may sound far-fetched, but it rests on just three propositions.

The first is that the brain generates its own em field, a fact that is well known and utilised in brain scanning techniques such as EEG.

The second is that the brain’s em field is indeed the seat of consciousness.  This is far harder to prove but there is plenty of evidence that is at least consistent with this hypothesis. Em fields are waves that tend to cancel out when the peaks and troughs from many unsynchronised waves combine. But if neurones fire together, then the peaks and troughs of their em fields will reinforce each other to generate a large disturbance to the overall em field.

In recent years neuroscientists in many laboratories across the world have become interested in the phenomenon of neuronal synchrony. Experiments from Paris’ Laboratoire de Neurosciences demonstrated synchronous firing in distinct regions of the brain when a subject’s attention is aroused by a pattern that resembled a face. When the subject saw only lines then his neurones fired randomly but when the subject realised he was looking at a face, his neurones snapped into step to fire synchronously.

In this, and in many similar experiments, neurone firing alone does not correlate with awareness but the em field disturbance generated by synchronous firing, does.  The simplest explanation is that the brain’s em field is conscious awareness – the cemi field.

The last cemi field proposition is that the brain’s (conscious) em field can itself influence neuronal firing. Like the first proposition, this is easy to prove and is indeed inevitable.

That concept of information encoded as an electromagnetic field is actually a very familiar one. We routinely encode complex images and sounds in em fields that we transmit to our TV and radio sets.

What I am proposing is that our brain is both the transmitter and the receiver of its own electromagnetic signals in a feedback loop that generates the conscious em field as a kind of informational sink. This informational transfer, through the cem field, may provide distinct advantages over neuronal computing, in rapidly integrating and processing information distributed in different parts of the brain. It may also provide an additional level of computation that is wave-mechanical, rather than digital; one that drives our free will. This is the advantage that consciousness provides: the capacity to make decisions.



So, how does this relate to artificial intelligence or "conscious machines?"  McFadden sees no insurmountable technological obstacle to replicating the electromagnetic process of consciousness:

One of the proposals of the cemi field theory is that the cemi field performs field computation in the brain (a process very similar to quantum computing) and this is the major advantage of consciousness that has been selected by natural selection. Computers currently lack this level of interaction and thereby lack the cemi field mediated general intelligence that is provided by field computing. I therefore predict that computers that compute only through wires will never acquire general intelligence and will never be aware.

However, there is nothing magical about cemi field awareness: it could be simulated by a computer with an architecture that allowed computations to take place through field interactions. Such computers would acquire natural intelligence and awareness.

AI pioneer Ray Kurzweil, a modern-day Thomas Edison, has blazed his own trail toward the same destination. Although Kurzweil has had an ongoing feud with UC-Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, he often quotes a statement by Searle:

The brain is a machine, a biological machine to be sure, but a machine all the same. So the first step is to figure out how the brain does it and then build an artificial machine that has an equally effective mechanism for causing consciousness. We know that brains cause consciousness with specific biological mechanisms.

Kurzweil, like McFadden, considers this quite do-able:

My objective prediction is that machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people.... They will exhibit the full range of subtle, familiar emotional clues; they will make us laugh and cry; and they will get mad at us if we say that we don't believe that they are conscious....We will come to accept that they are conscious persons.  My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their...conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.




Kurzweil is convinced that such beings will become routine in the 2030s.  Kurzweil observes the speed of technological advancement:

Biological evolution is continuing but technological evolution is moving a million times faster than the former.

And it brings to mind what Samuel Butler wrote in 1863:

We find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom.

Butler suggested that the thinking machines he anticipated would eventually be self-replicating. And Kurzweil expects something similar:

The intelligence we will create from the reverse-engineering of the brain will have access to its own source code and will be able to improve itself in an accelerating iterative design cycle....

From quantitative improvement comes qualitative advance. The most important evolutionary advance in Homo sapiens was quantitative: the development of a larger forehead to accommodate more neocortex. Greater neocortical capacity enabled this new species to create and contemplate thoughts at higher conceptual levels, resulting in the establishment of all the varied fields of art and science. As we add more neocortex in a nonbiological form, we can expect ever higher qualitative levels of abstraction.

British mathematician Irvin J. Good... wrote in 1965 that “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.” He defined such a machine as one that could surpass the “intellectual activities of any man however clever” and concluded that “since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion.’”

The last invention that biological evolution needed to make—the neocortex—is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make—truly intelligent machines—and the design of one is inspiring the other. Biological evolution is continuing but technological evolution is moving a million times faster than the former.



That's about all for now.  I hope I have learned my lesson.  Watching all those coffeehouse people in silent reverie with their smartphones, I thought they were surrendering their humanity.  But now I see it's not that way at all. Just like Samuel Butler said:

Every one should keep a mental wastepaper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it - torn up to irrecoverable tatters.

Or, in the words of Ray Kurzweil:

Waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.


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