Saturday, 27 July 2013

90. The Future of Intelligence

'Technology, hailed as the means of bringing nature under the control of our intelligence, is enabling nature to exercise intelligence over us' (Dyson 1997).

We are orders of magnitude more intelligent than any other species around. But can we become even more intelligent as a species? Stephen Hawking made an interesting suggestion. To the extent that our typical intelligence has a correlation with our typical brain size, there is scope for manipulation and improvement. Our present average brain size is limited by the size of the orifice through which a newborn baby has to pass at birth. This limitation can be got over by going for conception, followed by the entire growth of the foetus, outside the womb.

 But it is more likely that the future of our intelligence will be influenced by developments underway in robotics. Progress in machine intelligence will have absolutely mind-boggling effects on our intelligence. Why?

At present we make a distinction between two kinds of intelligence: biological or organic intelligence, and machine or inorganic intelligence. A composite (organic-inorganic, or man-machine) intelligence will evolve in the near future (cf. Part 89). It appears inevitable that, aided by human beings, an empire of inorganic life (intelligent robots) will evolve, just as biological or organic life has evolved. We are about to enter a post-biological world, in which machine intelligence, once it has crossed a certain threshold, will not only undergo Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution on its own, but will do so millions of times faster than the biological evolution we are familiar with so far. The result will be intelligent structures with a composite, i.e. organic-inorganic or man-machine, intelligence.

Moravec's (1999) book, 'Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind', sets out a possible scenario. He expects robots to model themselves on successful biological forms. One such form - used by trees, the human circulatory system, and basket starfish - is a network of ever-finer branches: the starfish robot.

A 'bush robot' is another likely development in Moravec's scheme of things: 'Twenty-five branchings would connect a meter-long stem to a trillion fingers, each a thousand atoms long and able to move about a million times per second.'

Medical applications are one among the many likely uses of the bush robot listed by Moravec: 'The most complicated procedures could be completed almost instantaneously by a trillion-fingered robot, able, if necessary, to simultaneously work on almost every cell of a human body.'

When will all this happen, and what will be its possible bearing on our intelligence? Estimates vary widely. The most optimistic ones are those of Kurzweil. This is what he wrote in 1999: 'Sometime early in the next century, the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within several decades, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. By 2019 a $1,000 computer will at least match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029 the software for intelligence will have been largely mastered, and the average personal computer will be equivalent to 1,000 brains.'

There were reasons for the optimism exuded by Kurzweil: 'We are already putting computers –- neural implants -– directly into people’s brains to counteract Parkinson’s disease and tremors from multiple sclerosis. We have cochlear implants that restore hearing. A retinal implant is being developed in the U.S. that is intended to provide at least some visual perception for some blind individuals, basically by replacing certain visual-processing circuits of the brain. Recently scientists from Emory University implanted a chip in the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim that allows him to use his brainpower to move a cursor across a computer screen.'

In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), Kurzweil enunciated his Law of Accelerating Returns, which simply paraphrases the occurrence of positive feedback in the evolution of complex adaptive systems in general, and biological and artificial evolution in particular; the law embodies exponential growth of evolutionary complexity and sophistication: 'advances build on one another and progress erupts at an increasingly furious pace. . . .As order exponentially increases (which reflects the essence of evolution), the time between salient events grows shorter. Advancement speeds up. The returns –- the valuable products of the process –- accelerate at a nonlinear rate. The escalating growth in the price performance of computing is one important example of such accelerating returns. . . The Law of Accelerating Returns shows that by 2019 a $1,000 personal computer will have the processing power of the human brain –- 20 million billion calculations per second. . . Neuroscientists came up with this figure by taking an estimation of the number of neurons in the brain, 100 billion, and multiplying it by 1,000 connections per neuron and 200 calculations per second per connection. By 2055, $1,000 worth of computing will equal the processing power of all human brains on Earth (of course, I may be off by a year or two).'

The law is similar to Moore's law, except that it is applicable to all 'human technological advancement, the billions of years of terrestrial evolution' and even 'the entire history of the universe'.

Kurzweil's latest book How to Create a Mind (2012) has been summarized in considerable detail at He puts forward a 'pattern recognition theory' for how the brain functions, similar to Jeff Hawkins' theory published in his famous book On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines (2004). According to Kurzweil, our neocortex contains 300 million very general pattern-recognition circuits which are responsible for most aspects of human thought, and a computer version of this design can be used to create artificial intelligence more capable than the human brain. As computational power grows, machine intelligence would represent an ever increasing percentage of total intelligence on the planet. Ultimately it will lead (by 2045) to the 'Singularity', a merger between biology and technology. 'There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine intelligence . . .'. 

It is only a matter of time before we merge with the intelligent machines we are creating.

Stephen Hawking expressed the fear that humanity may destroy itself if there is a nuclear holocaust, and suggested the escape of at least a few individuals into outer space as a way for preserving the human race. But, for all our bravado, our bodies are delicate stuff which can survive only in a narrow range of temperatures and other environmental conditions. But our robots will not suffer from that handicap, and will be able to withstand high radiation fields, extreme temperatures, near-vacuum conditions, etc. Such robots (or even cyborgs) will be able to communicate with one another, with the inevitable possibility of developing distributed intelligence. And when each such robot is already way ahead of us in intelligence, a distributed superintelligence will emerge, capable of further evolution, of course. The ever evolving superintelligence and knowledge will benefit each agent in the network, leading to a snowballing effect.

Further, the superintelligent agents may organize themselves into a hierarchy, rather like what occurs in the human neocortex. Such an assembly would be able to see incredibly complex patterns and analogies which escape our comprehension, leading to a dramatic increase in our knowledge and understanding of the universe. Moravec expressed the view that this superintelligence will advance to a level where it is more mind than matter, suffusing the entire universe. We humans will be left far behind, and may even disappear altogether from the cosmic scene.

An alternative though similar picture was painted by Kurzweil (2005), envisioning a coevolution of humans and machines via neural implants that will enable an uploading of the human carbon-based neural circuitry into the prevailing hardware of the intelligent machines. Humans will simply merge with the intelligent machines. The inevitable habitation of outer space and the further evolution of distributed intelligence will occur concomitantly. Widely separated intelligences will communicate with one another, leading to the emergence of an omnipresent superintelligence.

You want to call that 'God'?  Don't. That omnipresent superintelligence would be our creation; a triumph of our science and technology; a result of what we humans can achieve by adopting the scientific method of interpreting data and information.
'We are the brothers and sisters of our machines' (Dyson 1997).

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