Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Age of Spiritual Machines, Part II

[Part II of a long review. Part I is here.]

One area where I am deeply skeptical of Kurzweil is in the idea of scanning a living person's mind and reinstantiating them on the Net somewhere. While I think the principles of intelligence and consciousness are fairly robust, the instantaneous state of an individual's mind indeed seem to be ephemeral and delicate, dependent on the Brownian motion and diffusion of neurotransmitter molecules and the electronic state of individual neurons. Samuel Braunstein (a well-known quantum computing researcher) gave a casual talk a few years ago in which he estimated that teleporting a human being would require 10^32 bits of information. Even lopping off a couple of zeroes and doing just the brain, that's still eight or nine decimal orders of magnitude larger than the biggest data archives I know of. Braunstein is estimating at the atomic level, but at the molecular level might be adequate for much of the data; Kurzweil would abstract away a bunch of that data, but the scanning process would probably require that level of detail to capture the state of mind of a person, and it would have to be done in some small time slice. I'm not convinced that this will ultimately prove to be within the bounds of the laws of physics, let alone be technically practical. I certainly don't foresee that we'll have a brain scanner whose data rate is, say, 10^33 bits/second within fifty years.

But Kurzweil talks about an interesting "back door" to getting your mind on the Net that borrows from the cyberpunks. We already have retinal and cochlear implants, pacemakers, and experimental systems (both invasive and not) that transform neuronal impulses into mechanical movements. It seems that brain implants to help control seizures are on the horizon. It's certainly plausible that we will eventually develop implants with other capabilities -- the direct network (and starship piloting) links of science fiction, maybe trackers and immobilizers for violent felons, spinal cord bridges for those with damage. Maybe some sort of memory augmentation for those with a particular form of dementia? Then what's to stop an aging chess master with strong reasoning but fading memory from getting a memory implant that happens to have Modern Chess Openings in ROM? Kurzweil seems to hit a very important point that defining who remains human (and who becomes human -- ask Andrew of Isaac Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man") will become an interesting task over the next century or so. Baseball players can use contact lenses, weight machines and special diets but not steroids. As wearable computing becomes more unobtrusive and blends into implants, what is acceptable for professional go players, and for that matter what is detectable?

The creation of these technologies will take a long time, in my opinion; I very much doubt that any time during this century some human will abandon a physical body and move completely onto the Net. Instead, I foresee a century full of gradually more useful and interactive tools, some of which will begin to exhibit enough "intelligence" that they appear to think both strategically and spontaneously. Kurzweil talks about these personal virtual assistants, and how people will become more and more attached to them. I saw a remarkable example of this with Sony's Aibo robot dog. A friend bought one and brought it to the office. It had no real facial expressions, but when it tilted its head to one side and cocked an ear, everyone within sight said, "Oh, how cute!" projecting a personality onto a bit of clever programming. That phenomenon will undoubtedly accelerate as the behavior of computer systems becomes more complex; we will become emotionally attached to those that are helpful or friendly or clever or meet our biologically and culturally preconceived notions of cute. (Kurzweil doesn't really seem to consider deeply the possibility that the artificial intelligences we create will be *different* from us. If computer chess has taught us anything, it's that there's more than one way to be good at chess; what if the same turns out to be true of many other intellectual endeavors?)

Finally, but critically, Kurzweil seems to happily ignore the real world. Luddites make a cameo or two, mostly to serve as foils for explaining his technical notions more thoroughly, but society as anything other than a substrate for the growth of the technology itself seems to play no role in his thinking. We will all adopt the technology as soon as is feasible, and eventually we'll all move onto the Net (it'll be wonderful there). In particular, the developing world never appears in Spiritual. What will become of people in Bhutan and Tibet? Will this accelerate the disparity in birth rates between the developed and developing worlds, and what will that do to the world economy? Who will mine the coal that keeps the machines running? Does a world of physical isolation and idleness await us, and who will fix it when it breaks (as in E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops")? Will this inflame ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions? What will Muslim and Catholic societies think of artificial intelligences that demand rights, let alone implants that mess around with any bodily function viewed as something core to being human? The Dalai Lama recently had some interesting speculations on the possibility that a true AI would have a soul, which must be drawn from the pre-existing, fixed pool of souls -- hmm, a grasshopper reincarnated as an AI?

In the end, even the predictions I agree with I find simplistic, and likely optimistic by a factor of two or more in time frame. I'm not sure if his unbridled optimism does more good than harm to the important ideas of AI, and the future of technology.

This is recommended reading, especially if you haven't spent any time thinking about the topics involved -- but fill your salt shaker first.

You'll find Kurzweil's timeline (created circa 1998, and continuing seamlessly from the birth of the Universe to the end of the twenty-first century) here.

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