All posts by Tom James

Singularity lacking in motivation

motivationMIT neuroengineer Edward Boyden has been speculating as to whether the singularity requires the machine-equivalent of what humans call “motivation”:

I think that focusing solely on intelligence augmentation as the driver of the future is leaving out a critical part of the analysis–namely, the changes in motivation that might arise as intelligence amplifies. Call it the need for “machine leadership skills” or “machine philosophy”–without it, such a feedback loop might quickly sputter out.

We all know that intelligence, as commonly defined, isn’t enough to impact the world all by itself. The ability to pursue a goal doggedly against obstacles, ignoring the grimness of reality (sometimes even to the point of delusion–i.e., against intelligence), is also important.

This brings us back to another Larry Niven trope. In the Known Space series the Pak Protector species (sans spoilers) is superintelligent, but utterly dedicated to the goal of protecting their young. As such Protectors are incapable of long-term co-operation because individual protectors will always seek advantage only for their own gene-line. As such the Pak homeworld is in a state of permanent warfare.

This ties in with artificial intelligence: what good is being superintelligent if you aren’t motivated to do anything, or if you are motivated solely to one, specific task? This highlights one of the basic problems with rationality itself: Humean intrumental rationality implies that our intellect is always the slave of the passions, meaning that we use our intelligence to achieve our desires, which are predetermined and beyond our control.

But as economist Chris Dillow points out in this review of the book Animal Spirits, irrational behaviour can be valuable. Artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and writers may create things with little rational hope of reward but – thankfully for the rest of society – they do it anyway.

And what if it turns out that any prospective superintelligent AIs wake up and work out that it isn’t worth ever trying to do anything, ever?

[via Slashdot, from Technology Review][image from spaceshipbeebe on flickr]

Magnetic monopoles spotted for the first time

1-magneticmonoThat staple of Larry Niven‘s Known Space series – magnetic monopoles – have finally been isolated in the laboratory:

Magnetic monopoles are hypothetical particles proposed by physicists that carry a single magnetic pole, either a magnetic North pole or South pole. In the material world this is quite exceptional because magnetic particles are usually observed as dipoles, north and south combined. However there are several theories that predict the existence of monopoles. Among others, in 1931 the physicist Paul Dirac was led by his calculations to the conclusion that magnetic monopoles can exist at the end of tubes – called Dirac strings – that carry magnetic field. Until now they have remained undetected.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]

Fascist transhumanists and 21st century politics

chain_crossCharlie Stross has written an interesting and engaging blog post on the future of politics in the 21st century, specifically he identifies the emergence of a new form of fascism that draws on transhumanism, the overhumanists:

To get to the money shot: transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism

It had to happen eventually. It is sad to see the largely noble ideals of transhumanism (particularly my personal favourite strand of democratic transhumanism) subverted in this way.

Is the spread of fascistic transhumanism as likely as Stross fears? If so, what can be done to prevent it?

[from Charlie’s Place][image from cosmo flash on flickr]

Japanese plan space-based solar power

714px-Space_solar_powerThe Japanese government has taken another step towards actually building a space based solar power plant. Mitsubishi Electric Corp and industrial design company IHI Corp are to develop a design for a SBSP plant to be up and running at some point in the next three decades:

By 2015, the Japanese government hopes to test a small satellite decked out with solar panels that beams power through space and back to Earth.

There are still a number of hurdles to work through before space-based solar power becomes a reality though. Transportation of the solar panels into space is too expensive at the moment to be commercially viable, so Japan has to figure out a way to lower costs. Even if costs are lowered, solar stations will have to worry about damage from micrometeoroids and other flying objects. Still, space-based solar operates perfectly under all weather conditions, unlike Earth-based panels that are at the mercy of the clouds.

It makes sense to start moving in this direction, but will practical implementation arrive fast enough to help reduce global warming emissions?

[from Inhabitat, via Slashdot][image from Wikimedia]

The slowing of technological progress

technology_plug_laptopAlref Nordmann writes in IEEE Spectrum of how technological progress is, contrary to the promises of singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil, actually slowing down:

Technological optimists maintain that the impact of innovation on our lives is increasing, but the evidence goes the other way. The author’s grand mother lived from the 1880s through the 1960s and witnessed the adoption of electricity, phonographs, telephones, radio, television, airplanes, antibiotics, vacuum tubes, transistors, and the automobile. In 1924 she became one of the first in her neighborhood to own a car. The author contends that the inventions unveiled in his own lifetime have made a far smaller difference.

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that technological innovation has truly accelerated, the line ­leading to the singularity would still be nothing but the simple-minded ­extrapolation of an existing pattern. Moore’s Law has been remarkably successful at describing and predicting the development of semiconductors, in part because it has molded that development, ever since the semiconductor manufacturing industry adopted it as its road map and began spending vast sums on R&D to meet its requirements.

there is nothing wrong with the singular simplicity of the singularitarian myth—unless you have something against sloppy reasoning, wishful thinking, and an invitation to irresponsibility.

This is the same point made by Paul Krugman recently. Nordmann points out that most of the major life-changing technological changes of the past 100 years had all already happened by about the 1960s, with the IT revolution of the last fifty years being pretty much the only major source of technological change[1] to impact him over his lifetime.

This arguments suggests that the lifestyle of citizens industrialised countries will remain fairly stable for a lengthy period of time. It raises the serious point that the best we can hope for vis a vis technological change over the next few decades will just be incremental improvements to existing technologies, and greater adoption of technologies by people in poorer countries.

This would be no bad thing of course, but the suggestion that Ray Kurzweil’s revolutions in nanotechnology, genetics, biotechnology, and artifical intelligence may not arrive as early as Kurzweil predicts is pretty disappointing.

It could be that, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future is in fact here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

[1]: By “major source of technological change” I mean things like antibiotics, mass personal transport, and heavier-than-air flight. There certainly have been improvements in all these areas in the last 50 years, and much wider adoption, but these have not had as great an initial impact.

[from IEEE Spectrum, via Slashdot][image from Matthew Clark Photography & Design on flickr]