header image

Interesting times

May you live in interesting times, says a curse (wrongly) attributed to the ancient Chinese. Are times of change worse than idle stability? I don’t think so.

And we indeed live in interesting times. Last year brought us many breakthroughs and intriguing discoveries. We learned about the first small rocky exoplanet, Kepler-10b. Large Hadron Collider, the largest machine man ever built, finally observed some hints that may be attributed to Higgs boson, an elusive particle missing from the Standard Model of particle physics. Another experiment, OPERA, shocked the world with possibility that neutrinos may travel faster than light, notion at odds with Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Human clinical tests of a HIV vaccine were approved to start in early 2012. And hundreds more.

Technological progress accelerates. And accelerates with increasing speed. That means exponential growth of knowledge and abilities to change our world. At a conference in 2010, Google CEO said that mankind creates as much data in two days as it did from the beginning of civilization up until 2003. That’s of course a rough estimate, but it’s still striking. Amount of data produced globally more than doubles every two years. Somewhere in 2007 that amount exceeded storage capabilities of the world (which is also doubling, but at a slower rate). In 2010 quantity of newly created and replicated information exceeded one zettabyte for the first time. That’s 1000000000000000000000 bytes.

Human brain contains about 1011 neurons and 1014 synapses. Maximum frequency at which neurons can discharge is about 1 kilohertz. If every synapse in the brain processed one bit of information with maximum speed, that would give us theoretical upper limit of about 1017 bits per second as brain’s information processing capability. Of course in reality that number is much, much lower (limited mainly by sensory input), but let’s take 1016 bytes (ten million gigabytes) per second as the upper value. Such super-powered brain would need over two days to process 2011’s two zettabytes of new data. “That’s nothing!”, you might say. Let’s conduct a small thought experiment then. If the amount of data produced by human civilization rises by 50% each year (a very conservative stance) it will exceed 6*1033B (6 billion yottabytes) by 2083. World’s human population will almost reach 17 billion then, with 1.2% annual growth rate. If we calculate total computing power of 17 billion human super-brains at that time, it will be less than 6*1033 bytes per year. That means even if our brains reach impossible efficiency, humanity will not be able to comprehend all the data generated worldwide.

Of course that’s only very approximate estimation, assuming upper limits and steady exponential progression, not accounting for physical limitations etc. Accuracy is not the point however. Everything we have seen so far points to an explosive growth of processing power available to humans in the near future, and that our mental capacity will eventually be outclassed. Outclassed by artificially built computers, and most likely soon. Maybe even within our lifetimes.

What does that mean? Why is it so significant to think about the day when we build the first super-intelligent system? And is it even possible?

Human brain is a machine. Incredibly complex and precise one, but still only machine. It can be analyzed down to molecular level (that’s what Blue Brain project is aiming to do) and possibly replicated artificially or simulated. The same laws of physics govern neurons as well as transistors. Given time we will gain complete understanding of how our brains work. But it’s most likely not necessary for general artificial intelligence to be created. If quantum effects do not significantly impact brain’s operation, we should be fine with just map of neurons, synaptic connections and their states. And it would be foolish to expect that our brain is the only structure capable of intelligent thought. Intelligence may just be a property of sufficiently complex systems, quite possibly systems with different physical characteristics. We already know that many deceivingly simple systems exhibit self-emergent behavior. Cellular automata, nonlinear dynamic systems, even a recursive quadratic function. But I digress.

So we will finally create something that is more intelligent than us. Super-intelligence, SI for short. What then?

SI will not be a computer like we know today. It most likely won’t be programmed: it will “program” itself, like our brain. We will need to communicate with it in a meaningful way, which may not be easy. It may not even want to communicate with us. Yes – if such an intelligent being can set its own goals, those goals may not be in line with our goals. It can even perceive humans as a threat, if it learns of our existence. Rogue AI, such a lovely subject for science-fiction. Of course the reason for lack of communication may be more prosaic: if the SI is intelligent enough, it may just come to conclusion that exchanging data with such primitive creatures as humans is a waste of time. Who knows.

Let’s say we overcome all these difficulties and humanity is able to benefit from SI’s power. What now?

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. 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,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make. – Good, I. J. (1965), Franz L. Alt and Morris Rubinoff, ed., “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine”.

Indeed. Recursive self-improvement. Once the first SI is created, the exponential growth of our technological prowess will accelerate even further, to the point that present human would not be able to comprehend such future in any meaningful way. It’s like a veil covering things to come, asymptote in a plot, event horizon of a black hole. Thus we call such an event a technological singularity.

It’s not possible to predict impact of even “normal” inventions if they are radical enough. What would 18th century man say when presented with a present-day personal computer or a phone? How would he comprehend working of GPS system, which relies on Einstein’s theories for precise measurements? And technological singularity is far more radical than that.

We can try to come up with possible achievements of a post-singularity era. Most are incarnations of old and new dreams. Immortality achieved by repairing our bodies or creating new ones from scratch, biological or not. Better bodies, better brains integrated with the new superintelligent network. Breakthroughs in physics allowing manipulation of space and time. Working molecular nanotechnology shaping the world around and inside us as we desire, probably eliminating the need for material economy forever. Possibility to extend our consciousness, make snapshots of it, split and merge multiple copies of our mind. But that’s only speculation. In essence, such posthumans will probably rapidly advance to and beyond Kardashev’s Type I civilization, completely controlling their home planet. Come to think of it, what if some cosmic civilization achieved such state thousands or millions of years ago, still a very short time in the grand scheme of things? They would be like gods to us, almost omnipotent, incomprehensible, alien.

What’s striking is that we are most likely very close to the Singularity ourselves. We are transhumans, witnessing qualitative change of our civilization happening before our eyes. If we are lucky, we may live long enough to peek through the veil and become something else. Something greater. Something more.

~ ~ ~

Sources and/or recommended reading:
The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era
The Law of Accelerating Returns
Wikipedia: Technological singularity, Exabyte, Zettabyte, Artificial Intelligence, Neuron, Mind uploading, Nanotechnology, Kardashev scale, Post-scarcity
New Measure of Human Brain Processing Speed
How Much Information? 2003
How much total information is there in the world?
The Expanding Digital Universe (2007), The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe (2008), Extracting Value from Chaos (2011)

Charles StrossAccelerando and other works.
Stanisław Lem
Jacek Dukaj
Peter WattsBlindsight
Neal Stephenson
Bruce Sterling
William Gibson
Dan Simmons
Iain Banks
Walter Jon WilliamsAristoi
Ian McDonald

~ by omeg on January 19, 2012.


Leave a Reply