Singularity lacking in motivation

Tom James @ 09-09-2009

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]


Artificial nerve cell breakthrough

Tom James @ 06-07-2009

line_curve_buildingResearchers at Karolinska Institutet and Linköping University in Sweden have made one more step towards artificial nerve cells with the creation of an artificial nerve cell that can communicate with natural nerve cells using neurotransmitters:

Scientists have now used an electrically conducting plastic to create a new type of “delivery electrode” that instead releases the neurotransmitters that brain cells use to communicate naturally. The advantage of this is that only neighbouring cells that have receptors for the specific neurotransmitter, and that are thus sensitive to this substance, will be activated.

The scientists intend to continue with the development of a small unit that can be implanted into the body. It will be possible to program the unit such that the release of neurotransmitters takes place as often or as seldom as required in order to treat the individual patient.

As ever the initial applications are intended to be towards treating diseases like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Progress on these fronts would be wonderful. But what further applications will become possible when this product matures?

[from Physorg][image from takanawho on flickr]


Your new designer brain

Tom James @ 15-05-2009

neuroneA fascinating article in New Scientist on neural prosthesese and the possibility of a new source of inequality: between those who can afford to pay for technological mental enhancements and those who cannot:

People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says. He stops short of saying that enhancement could “split” the human race, pointing out that society already tolerates huge inequity in access to existing enhancement tools such as books and education.

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

But the news is not all bad, with the observation that the human brain is becoming ever more plastic and capable of adaptation:

Today, our minds are even more fluid and open to enhancement due to what Merlin Donald of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, calls “superplasticity”, the ability of each mind to plug into the minds and experiences of countless others through culture or technology. “I’m not saying it’s a ‘group mind’, as each mind is sealed,” he says. “But cognition can be distributed, embedded in a huge cultural system, and technology has produced a huge multiplier effect.”

It is interesting to speculate what the long-term consequences of dense technological interconnectedness will be on the human condition. Even assuming actual precise neuroengineering proves difficult, neural prosthesese offer a world of opportunity.

[via KurzweilAI][image from n1/the larch on flickr]


Brain electrodes: in and out

Tom James @ 30-04-2009

silke1Following on nicely from Paul’s discussion of direct-to-brain broadband – and Robert Koslover’s comment – here we have news of the first read-write brain electrode from a company called IMEC:

Today’s deep-brain stimulation probes use millimeter-size electrodes. These stimulate, in a highly unfocused way, a large area of the brain and have significant unwanted side effects.

IMEC’s design and modeling strategy allows developing advanced brain implants consisting of multiple electrodes enabling simultaneous stimulation and recording. This strategy was used to create prototype probes with 10 micrometer-size electrodes and various electrode topologies.

These new design approaches open up possibilities for more effective stimulation with less side effects, reduced energy consumption due to focusing the stimulation current on the desired brain target, and closed-loop control adapting the stimulation based on the recorded effect.

Presumably the avenue towards the development of devices for direct-to-brain broadband will be through the development of ever more sophisticated products of this kind, possibly travelling via wirehead-style ecstasy generators.

[from this press release from IMEC, via Technovelgy][image from IMEC press release]


Brain control with light: neuroengineering at MIT

Tom James @ 02-03-2009

Just a nod to a must-read article at Wired on the new1 technology of neuroengineering:

Boyden directs MIT’s Neuroengineering and Neuromedia Lab, part of the MIT Media Lab. He explains the mission of neuroengineering this way: “If we take seriously the idea that our minds are implemented in the circuits of our brains, then it becomes a top priority to understand how to engineer brains for the better.”

Here, neuroscience is not merely studied, it is applied. Which is why we’re off again, to see the molecular engineer’s microscope, the viral growing area, and the machine where they cut micron-thin slices of mouse brains in order to evaluate what changes they’ve made using the rest of the equipment.

This video illustrates one of the most potentially disruptive technologies ever:

1:Although the article points out that, depending on how far you expand the definition, human beings have been “neuroengineering” for all history.