Friday, March 23, 2007

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

I’m going to make a bold claim. Those living today are amongst the very last of the human race. In fact, we are so close to extinction that very many of us alive today will be around to experience it. This probably seems like an extremely stupid claim. We are, after all, greater in number than we have ever been and we have more knowledge of how to survive than ever. We are seriously working, and indeed we have had much success, on projects to protect ourselves from invisible enemies that infect our cells and cause our deaths. With accelerating advances in genetics it is very probable that it won’t be very long before there’ll be nothing viral or bacterial left to kill us that we can’t stop with readily available therapies. With our telescopes and rockets pointed to the skies we are just a few short decades away from immunity as a species to giant space rocks. Global warming might be an issue but even if it kills lots of us it isn’t going to kill all of us, not even close.

So where exactly do I see the threat that is going to form the ribbon we cross at the finishing line of the human race?

Well, that’s a bit of a misleading question. I don’t see it as a threat any more than I would see the ground as a threat if I were to fall out of an aeroplane without a parachute. I see it as an inevitability, the logical progression of observable laws. And I think it is pretty simple to demonstrate that this is true if we follow the logical progression of our technology. But first, let’s be honest about ourselves.

Yesterday I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room waiting to have an extraction. I’m not particularly fond of pain and discomfort but I’ll also admit a slight curiosity. Since I’m going to suffer it anyway I might as well be interested and get some value for my suffering, which is why I asked for a mirror to allow me to watch the proceedings. It’s a worthwhile thing to accept that you are meat and it reminded me of a time when I was at university and I bought a sheep head to dissect – it’s pretty difficult to get some of bits, the components, off. But this is irrelevant, so back to the point. Whilst waiting at the dentist I picked up a number of magazines. One of which is a lay science magazine published in Spain called Muy Interesante. It tends to be full of brief explorations of the most marketable topics, such as the anatomy of the breast, the hideously deformed, killer bees, asteroids, aliens and that sort of thing. An article that took my brief interest was about the capabilities of the human brain. They stated some performance characteristics without stating any evidence to support these claims but it doesn’t matter how accurate or far off their estimates were. What matters is that the human brain like any of the human body’s components has limits, wherever they are. Just like my teeth seem to have performance limitations, so does my mind. So does yours.

In the last hundred thousand years or so there is little doubt that the hardware specification of the human brain has changed by approximately nothing at all. The software we run on it, programmed by accumulated knowledge through education has improved quite a lot, but it is unarguably true that there is a limit to how fast we can process, how much information we can accumulate and at what rate and how much of that information we can correlate at any one time. For example, there is nobody alive that can simulate protein folding in their head, despite the fact that it is occurring constantly within every cell that makes up their head. We simply don’t have the capacity to perform such tasks. Computers on the other hand do. It’s an extremely laborious task for even the most powerful of supercomputers or grid computing networks, but previously it was impossible and now it is just slow. Soon, computers will be fast at this task whereas we will still be absolutely incapable. Similarly, there is nobody on this planet that has equivalent knowledge to that contained in Wikipedia. Our technology is advancing ever more rapidly whilst our brains are staying the same. Our technology can and does already out-knowledge us and out-perform us in many ways and in more ways literally every day. It appears to be inevitable that at some point our technology is going to be able to out perform us in every way. I think there is good reason to believe that the day when that happens is not far off.

Let’s explore an example - Robots. Right now the robot industry is starting to take off basically because robot capabilities are becoming more useful. We already know for instance that robots can weld cars together faster and more accurately than humans. When this technology was first coming into use there were job losses and people weren’t very happy about being replaced by machines but replaced they were because the machines were more cost efficient and arguably more reliable. We adjusted to this. Now we take it for granted that robots do some of the work in making cars. This was not a new situation – previously manual smelters had been reduced to a niche market by the use of machines in the industrial process of metal supply. Economies of scale and efficiency forced machines to take over where once we had been. After a short time nobody cared and I don’t think I’m wrong when I claim that not a lot of people have a problem with machines being good at some basic jobs. But it isn’t going to stop there. Trials are underway right now of robotic surgeons. Within ten years it is expected that some surgery will routinely be carried out by robots for the simple reason that they have advantages over us. They can work more hours, suffer no fatigue, and they perform in tight little areas with exceptional accuracy that human surgeons would find difficult to match. Machines are improving but we are not. We can design them to have abilities that we do not have and all the time their intelligence is improving. It is intelligence that is the key.

If you have used a computer for any number of years you may have noticed that they are getting more complicated. They are able to do more and do it faster. My sister has a web cam on her notebook that is able to perform face recognition and accurately overlay a moustache upon her face, even when she moves her head. One of my computers that I use for music is able to hear me say “Daisy (the name I gave it as I know nobody called Daisy), house, jazz, play” and respond by stating “Playing Little Louie Vega” before firing up my media player and filling my house with music that I like. This may seem irrelevant but what is obvious here is that computers are learning to do things that previously only we and other animals could do. They are learning to recognise faces, voices, words, objects, all sorts of things. Computer monitoring systems and instruments recognise things we cannot recognise, such as radiation levels, toxic odourless gasses, particle trails, and so on. Computers are developing the skills we do have and the skills we don’t have. They are catching us up in some ways and have already far exceeded us in many others. And all the time we are staying the same.

So, whilst you may be comfortable with automated welders, automated safety systems and maybe even automated surgeons (I know I will be once they are demonstrated to be effective) have you even thought about the fact that it probably won’t be very long before technological systems are able to do other things better than you as well? You should think about it, because the day is coming. The day is coming not just when they can build your cars but when they’ll be better drivers. When they are, how do you justify the risk to others of driving your own car? They’ll make better police officers, better lawyers, even better judges and politicians. They’ll even be better prostitutes, able to monitor your neural activity, blood flow, hormonal levels and brain chemistry and adapt their behaviour, their skin temperature, dimensions, motions and murmurs to be the best fuck you’ll ever have – every single time.

What I’m getting at here is that there will not be one thing we do that they can’t do at least as well and almost certainly better. From poetry to neurosurgery, we are rapidly nearing the time when computers really will do everything better than us. So what will we do and more importantly what valid argument can we make that we should be allowed to do anything at all?

Think about it. If a machine is a fairer, more observant, more loyal, more effective police officer than a human can be then we are punishing other humans if we allow a human to continue in the role. If a machine is a better brain surgeon than any human then we are risking lives to allow a human to continue operating on her fellows. If a computer teacher can educate my child more personally, more efficiently, more enjoyably and to a higher level than a human counter part then what right do I have to condemn my children to the relative ignorance and social disability of having been educated by a fellow ape?

So where does this leave us? Well for a time I expect that we are going to begin to improve ourselves with technology and we will do so by choice. I’m having an artificial tooth implanted in my head and most people are comfortable with this. It enhances my ability to chew over what my “natural” abilities had become. Amputees are quite keen to have better prosthetic limbs; visually impaired people are quite keen to have corrective technologies also. But it will not stop at just repairing what is wrong and indeed it has already passed that point. Laser Eye surgery can now provide better vision than 20/20 and people are opting for it. Designs and concepts are already published for implanted mobile phones that vibrate bones to reproduce sounds and monitor the vibration of the jaw bone to hear your voice. Implantable headphones are already designed to give you your music as loud and clear as you want without damaging your hearing. But maybe this doesn’t convince you.

Then how about this - I work in technology. A vast majority of the people I work with have a Blackberry to give them access to their email all the time. Wi-Fi and other mobile technologies give us access to the information we need all the time. Hours are spent on messenger sharing lines of code, discussing issues and coordinating efforts. More hours are spent googling to find key information and instructions that we need. Wouldn’t it provide an advantage, just as mobile Internet access does, if I could search Google by thinking and have the information reported straight back into my brain? You bet it would. The internet has already become my memory. I can safely forget pretty much everything and just remember the process of how to find it again. Would I be a more effective employee if I could just think to find that information instead of use my fingers on a keyboard and have to read it all again? Absolutely! Am I already more effective than the guy that has to try to remember every little detail because he makes no use of the reference potential of the Internet. Of course I am, and I prove this everyday. I work with lots of people with more knowledge than I have in specific fields but I solve problems faster than they do because they only do what they know. I retrieve the correct information for the specific task every time instead of sometimes trying to knock square pegs through round holes and the process of doing that is getting easier and faster all the time.

An example might help to prove the point. Let’s imagine that I decide to undergo an upgrade. A technology is available that allows me to put a calculator in my head that I can use by thinking. In my job I regularly have to work with numbers. I switch between hex and octal and decimal and aside from the smaller numbers I do most of this with a calculator. This requires me to open the calculator, or find it amongst the 25 apps open on my screens, tap in the numbers and hit the right button. The upgrade will allow me to think a number and immediately see it in my mind in all three notations. This is a tiny difference but I’d guess it’s going to save me 20 seconds or so every time I have to convert a number, which may be 100 times in one day. Suddenly I’m 20 seconds faster than the guy that’s using the calculator, 2000 seconds faster in the day. By itself that might not make much of a difference, but if you add a few extra features such as the ability to reference information, access and answer my email, use MSN messenger, answer my calls, securely login to servers, write documents, read documents, query databases, etc, my efficiency will go through the roof and all I would have done is remove the keyboard and for that matter also the screens. I’ve cut out the middlemen, my fingers and my eyes, and there is no reason that far more can’t be cut.

Just as people adopted the mobile phone and the Blackberry they will adopt technologies that over power those. At first these will be external but they will migrate inside the body for the interface benefits that this will provide. And once we are interfacing directly with the brain, able to enhance some of its functions we are back to where we started with technology as a whole. Every part of it will improve whilst what is left of us will remain the same. We can enhance up to a point, but then we can only replace. Ultimately we lose the race because there is no part of us that will not eventually be better if we replace it with a machine and not to do so is irresponsible. To make our limitations sacred is to declare our failings a sacred right to impose upon those around us and it is inevitable that those that ignore what is sacred will be more capable than those that don’t. Natural selection thus applies.

The end of the world as we know it is the end of us. Machines will be better than us at everything and they will be better than us soon. We can either pace them by augmentation for a while or just abandon the race and become their pets. Either way, we have no choice but to accept that we are becoming obsolete and that our days as the so called superior species are close to over. If you follow technology and you have an interest in AI, nanotech, quantum computing and the like then you are no doubt aware that we are already crossing the imaginary line to some really fantastically important technologies. I don’t know exactly how this will proceed, but I expect within 30 years we’ll have a good idea whether the human race has 50 or 100 hundred years left in it. I seriously doubt that it will be any more.

So assuming you buy my bold claim, which is of course up to you, do you think this should change our dreams of the future and our fantasies of what is to come. Does the idea of Star Trek not start to look a bit silly? Don’t you think that other races, if they are out there, are on their way or have already crossed the technology boundary too? Biological evolution, without wanting to demote it because there really are so many fantastic solutions many of which we are no where close to equalling at this time, is just the beginning. Technological evolution is the future of this world and probably every other upon which life starts and is given enough time. The world as we know it is almost over and I see it as no different to Homo Sapiens ending the world of the Neanderthals. We are not permanent and we are fortunate to live in such an interesting time – we get to live on the boundary that marks the most important transition that life has taken on this planet since the first cell wall. Some of us may even pass that transition, but certainly many of our memories, thoughts and ideas will. That is your immortality. You don’t get to take it or leave it – it’s going to take you.

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Louie said...

We are machines though CD....

chooseDoubt said...

We are machines but we are machines that are nearing the end of our production cycle. We're going to be replaced and I don't think many people realise that. Most people have some idiot fantasy idea of the future probably inspired by magic sword wiggling, super slow laser shooting, nonsense like Star Wars or we're-so-enlightened-now stuff like Star Trek. The future, for them, is full of people who are pretty much like people now. That ain't gonna happen. It's incredibly likely the computers of the next 30 years or so will outsmart us in every way. Can we remain as consumers when we are no longer producers? I'm not sure, but I think at that point our lives really do become even personally pointless as we contribute nothing to the future except the burden of our consumption. We will know that we are obsolete physically and mentally and at that point we will upgrade or die. Both options lead to our rapid extinction as breeding biological machines.