The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?


The wealth of humans: work and its absence in the twenty-first century

The Wealth of Humans, by Ryan Avent, a senior editor at The Economist, addresses the economic and social challenges imposed on societies by the rapid development of digital technologies.  Although the book includes an analysis of the mechanisms, technologies, and effects that may lead to massive unemployment, brought by the emergence of digital technologies, intelligent systems, and smart robots, the focus is on the economic and social effects of those technologies.

The main point Avent makes is that market mechanisms may be relied upon to create growth and wealth for society, and to improve the average condition of humans, but cannot be relied upon to ensure adequate redistribution of the generated wealth. Left to themselves, the markets will tend to concentrate wealth. This happened in the industrial revolution, but society adapted (unions, welfare, education) to ensure that adequate redistribution mechanisms were put in place.

To Avent, this tendency towards increased income asymmetry, between the top earners and the rest, which is already so clear, will only be made worst by the inevitable glut of labor that will be created by digital technologies and artificial intelligence.

There are many possible redistribution mechanisms, from universal basic income to minimum wage requirements but, as the author points out, none is guaranteed to work well in a society where a large majority of people may become unable to find work. The largest and most important asymmetry that remains is, probably, the asymmetry that exists between developed countries and underdeveloped ones. Although this asymmetry was somewhat reduced by the recent economic development of the BRIC countries, Avent believes that was a one time event that will not reoccur.

Avent points out that the strength of the developed economies is not a direct consequence of the factors that are most commonly thought to be decisive: more capital, adequate infrastructures, and better education. These factors do indeed play a role but what makes the decisive difference is “social capital”, the set of rules shared by members of developed societies that makes them more effective at creating value for themselves and for society. Social capital, the unwritten set of rules that make it possible to create value, in a society, in a country or in a company, cannot be easily copied, sold, or exported.

This social capital (which, interestingly, closely matches the idea of shared beliefs Yuval Harari describes in Sapiens) can be assimilated, by immigrants or new hires, who can learn how to contribute to the creation of wealth, and benefit from it. However, as countries and societies became adverse at receiving immigrants, and companies reduce workforces, social capital becomes more and more concentrated.

In the end, Avent concludes that no public policies, no known economic theories, are guaranteed to fix the problem of inequality, mass unemployment, and lack of redistribution. It comes down to society, as whole, i.e., to each one of us, to decide to be generous and altruistic, in order to make sure that the wealth created by the hidden hand of the market benefits all of mankind.

A must-read if you care about the effects of asymmetries in income distribution on societies.

IEEE Spectrum special issue on whether we can duplicate a brain

Maybe you have read The Digital Mind or The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil, or other similar books, thought it all a bit farfetched, and wondered whether the authors are bonkers or just dreamers.

Wonder no more. The latest issue of the flagship publication of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, IEEE Spectrum , is dedicated to the interesting and timely question of whether we can copy the brain, and use it as blueprint for intelligent systems.  This issue, which you can access here, includes many interesting articles, definitely worth reading.

I cannot even begin to describe here, even briefly, the many interesting articles in this special issue, but it is worthwhile reading the introduction, on the perspective of near future intelligent personal assistants or the piece on how we could build an artificial brain right now, by Jennifer Hasler.

Other articles address the question on how expensive, computationally, is the simulation of a brain at the right level of abstraction. Karlheinz Meier’s article on this topic explains very clearly why present day simulations are so slow:

“The big gap between the brain and today’s computers is perhaps best underscored by looking at large-scale simulations of the brain. There have been several such efforts over the years, but they have all been severely limited by two factors: energy and simulation time. As an example, consider a simulation that Markus Diesmann and his colleagues conducted several years ago using nearly 83,000 processors on the K supercomputer in Japan. Simulating 1.73 billion neurons consumed 10 billion times as much energy as an equivalent size portion of the brain, even though it used very simplified models and did not perform any learning. And these simulations generally ran at less than a thousandth of the speed of biological real time.

Why so slow? The reason is that simulating the brain on a conventional computer requires billions of differential equations coupled together to describe the dynamics of cells and networks: analog processes like the movement of charges across a cell membrane. Computers that use Boolean logic—which trades energy for precision—and that separate memory and computing, appear to be very inefficient at truly emulating a brain.”

Another interesting article, by Eliza Strickland, describes some of the efforts that are taking place to use  reverse engineer animal intelligence in order to build true artificial intelligence , including a part about the work by David Cox, whose team trains rats to perform specific tasks and then analyses the brains by slicing and imaging them:

“Then the brain nugget comes back to the Harvard lab of Jeff Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology and a leading expert on the brain’s connectome. ­Lichtman’s team takes that 1 mm3 of brain and uses the machine that resembles a deli slicer to carve 33,000 slices, each only 30 nanometers thick. These gossamer sheets are automatically collected on strips of tape and arranged on silicon wafers. Next the researchers deploy one of the world’s fastest scanning electron microscopes, which slings 61 beams of electrons at each brain sample and measures how the electrons scatter. The refrigerator-size machine runs around the clock, producing images of each slice with 4-nm resolution.”

Other approaches are even more ambitious. George Church, a well-known researcher in biology and bioinformatics, uses sequencing technologies to efficiently obtain large-scale, detailed information about brain structure:

“Church’s method isn’t affected by the length of axons or the size of the brain chunk under investigation. He uses genetically engineered mice and a technique called DNA bar coding, which tags each neuron with a unique genetic identifier that can be read out from the fringy tips of its dendrites to the terminus of its long axon. “It doesn’t matter if you have some gargantuan long axon,” he says. “With bar coding you find the two ends, and it doesn’t matter how much confusion there is along the way.” His team uses slices of brain tissue that are thicker than those used by Cox’s team—20 μm instead of 30 nm—because they don’t have to worry about losing the path of an axon from one slice to the next. DNA sequencing machines record all the bar codes present in a given slice of brain tissue, and then a program sorts through the genetic information to make a map showing which neurons connect to one another.”

There is also a piece on the issue of AI and consciousness, where Christoph Koch and Giulio Tononi describe their (more than dubious, in my humble opinion) theory on the application of Integrated Information Theory to the question of: can we quantify machine consciousness?

The issue also includes interesting quotes and predictions by famous visionairies, such as Ray Kurzweil, Carver Mead, Nick Bostrom, Rodney Brooks, among others.

Images from the special issue of IEEE Spectrum.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O’Connell witty, insightful and sometimes deeply moving account of his research on the topic of transhumanism deserves a place in the bookshelf of anyone interested in the future of humanity. Reading To Be a Machine is a delightful trip through the ideals, technologies, places and characters involved in transhumanism, the idea that science and technology will one day transform human into immortal computer based lifeforms.

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, transhumanism remains mostly a fringe culture, limited to a few futurists, off-the-mainstream scientists and technology nuts. As shared fictions go (to use Yuval Harari’s notation), I would imagine transhumanism is one idea whose time has come. However, it remains mostly unknown by the general public. While humanists believe that the human person, with his/her desires, choices, and fears, should be the most important value to be preserved by a society (check my review of Homo Deus), transhumanists believe that biological based intelligence is imperfect, exists purely because of historical reasons (evolution, that is) and will go away soon as we move intelligence into other computational supports, more robust than our frail bodies.

O’Connell, himself a hard-core humanist, as becomes clear from reading between the lines of this book, pursued a deep, almost forensic, investigation on what transhumanists are up to. In this process, he talks with many unusual individuals involved in the transhumanist saga, from Max More, who runs Alcor, a company that, in exchange for a couple hundred dollars, will preserve your body for the future in liquid nitrogen (or 80k for just the head) to Aubrey de Grey, a reputed scientist working in life extension technologies, who argues that we should all be working on this problem. In de Grey’s words, cited by O’Connell “aging is a human disaster on an unimaginably vast scale, a massacre, a methodical and comprehensive annihilation of every single person that ever lived“. These are just two of the dozens of fascinating characters in the book interviewed in place by O’Connell.

The narrative is gripping, hilarious at times, but moving and compelling, not the least because O’Connell himself provides deep insights about the issues the book discusses. The characters in the book are, at once, alien and deeply human, as they are only trying to overcome the limits of our bodies. Deservedly, the book has been getting excellent reviews, from many sources.

In the end, one gets the idea that transhumanists are crazy, maybe, but not nearly as crazy as all other believers in immortality, be it by divine intervention, by reincarnation, or by any other mechanisms so ingrained in mainstream culture.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, the sequel to the wildly successful hit Sapiens, by Yuval Harari, aims to chronicle the history of tomorrow and to provide us with a unique and dispassionate view of the future of humanity. In Homo Deus, Harari develops further the strongest idea in Sapiens, the idea that religions (or shared fictions) are the reason why humanity came to dominate the world.

Many things are classified by Harari as religions, from the traditional ones like Christianism, Islamism or Hinduism, to other shared fictions that we tend not to view as religions, such as countries, money, capitalism, or humanism. The ability to share fictions, such as these, created in Homo sapiens the ability to coordinate enormous numbers of individuals in order to create vast common projects: cities, empires and, ultimately, modern technology. This is the idea, proposed in Sapiens, that Harari develops further in this book.

Harari thinks that, with the development of modern technology, humans will doggedly pursue an agenda consisting of three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. Humanity will try to become immortal, to live in constant happiness and to be god-like in its power to control nature.

The most interesting part of the book is in middle, where Harari analyses, in depth, the progressive but effective replacement of ancient religions by the dominant modern religion, humanism. Humanism, the relatively recent idea that there is a unique spark in humans, that makes human life sacred and every individual unique. Humanism therefore believes that meaning should be sought in the individual choices, views, and feelings, of humans, replaced almost completely traditional religions (some of them with millennia), which believed that meaning was to be found in ancient scriptures or “divine” sayings.

True, many people still believe in traditional religions, but with the exception of a few extremist sects and states, these religions plays a relatively minor role in conducting the business of modern societies. Traditional religions have almost nothing to say about the key ideas that are central to modern societies, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of the freedom of choice, ideas that led to our current view of democracies and ever-growing market-oriented economies. Being religious, in the traditional sense, is viewed as a personal choice, a choice that must exist because of the essential humanist value of freedom of choice.

Harari’s description of the humanism schism, into the three flavors of liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism (Nazism and other similar systems), is interesting and entertaining. Liberal humanism, based on the ideals of free choice, capitalism, and democracy, has been gaining the upper hand in the twentieth century, with occasional relapses, over socialism or enlightened dictatorships.

The last part of the book, where one expects Harari to give us a hint of what may come after humanism, once technology creates systems and machines that make humanist creeds obsolete, is rather disappointing. Instead of presenting us with the promises and threats of transhumanism, he clings to common clichés and rather mundane worries.

Harari firmly believes that there are two types of intelligent systems: biological ones, which are conscious and have, possibly, some other special properties, and the artificial ones, created by technology, which are not conscious, even though they may come to outperform humans in almost every task. According to him, artificial systems may supersede humans in many jobs and activities, and possibly even replace humans as the intelligent species on Earth, but they will never have that unique spark of consciousness that we, humans, have.

This belief leads to two rather short-sighted final chapters, which are little more than a rant against the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Harari is (and justifiably so) particularly aghast with the new fad, so common these days, of believing that every single human experience should go online, to make shareable and give it meaning. The downsize is that this fad provides data to the all-powerful algorithms that are learning all there is to know about us. I agree with him that this is a worrying trend, but viewing it as the major threat of future technologies is a mistake. There are much much more important issues to deal with.

It is not that these chapters are pessimistic, even though they are. It is that, unlike in the rest of Homo Deus (and in Sapiens), in these last chapters Harari’s views seem to be locked inside a narrow and traditionalist view of intelligence, society, and, ultimately, humanity.

Other books, like SuperintelligenceWhat Technology Wants or The Digital Mind provide, in my opinion, much more interesting views on what a transhumanist society may come to be.

Europe wants to have one exascale supercomputer by 2023

On March 23rd, in Rome, seven European countries signed a joint declaration on High Performance Computing (HPC), committing to an initiative that aims at securing the required budget and developing the technologies necessary to acquire and deploy two exascale supercomputers, in Europe, by 2023. Other Member States will be encouraged to join this initiative.

Exascale computers, defined as machines that execute 10 to the 18th power operations per second will be roughly 10 times more powerful than the existing fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, which clocks in at 93 petaflop/s, or 93 times 10 to the 15 floating point operations per second. No country in Europe has, at the moment, any machine among the 10 most powerful in the world. The declaration, and related documents, do not fully specify that these machines will clock at more than one exaflop/s, given that the requirements for supercomputers are changing with the technology, and floating point operations per second may not be the right measure.

This renewed interest of European countries in High Performance Computing highlights the fact that this technology plays a significant role in the economic competitiveness of research and development. Machines with these characteristics are used mainly in complex system simulations, in physics, chemistry, materials, fluid dynamics, but they are also useful in storing and processing the large amounts of data required to create intelligent systems, namely by using deep learning.

Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market remarked that: “High-performance computing is moving towards its next frontier – more than 100 times faster than the fastest machines currently available in Europe. But not all EU countries have the capacity to build and maintain such infrastructure, or to develop such technologies on their own. If we stay dependent on others for this critical resource, then we risk getting technologically ‘locked’, delayed or deprived of strategic know-how. Europe needs integrated world-class capability in supercomputing to be ahead in the global race. Today’s declaration is a great step forward. I encourage even more EU countries to engage in this ambitious endeavour”.

The European Commission press release includes additional information on the next steps that will be taken in the process.

Photo of the signature event, by the European Commission. In the photo, from left to right, the signatories: Mark Bressers (Netherlands), Thierry Mandon (France), Etienne Schneider (Luxembourg), Andrus Ansip (European Commission), Valeria Fedeli (Italy), Manuel Heitor (Portugal), Carmen Vela (Spain) and Herbert Zeisel (Germany).


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Historian Yuval Noah Harari‘s best seller book, Sapiens is a hard-to-put-down analysis of the reasons Homo sapiens became not only the dominant species of planet Earth, but also the only one that can control its destiny.

It is difficult to summarize a book that covers the whole of human history, and also a bit of the future. However, Harari’s main point is that the most unique characteristic of our species is not the intelligence of individual human beings, nor some unique quality (a soul, maybe) that only humans possess, much less the ability to stand erect and to create tools. Instead, it is our unique ability to believe and act on collective fictions, created and passed on, over time and space, by language, culture and behavior.

One hundred thousand years ago, humans were already as smart as they are today, were able to make tools, and lived in small groups that could be a threat to the survival of large animals. However, they did not have the ability to change the planet, an ability that only appeared recently, in evolutionary terms.

According to Harari, what makes the human species so different from other species is the ability of humans to create collective fictions that are used to coordinate the actions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of human beings. These fictions, the result of what could be called “collective hallucinations”, have created first the agricultural revolution and then the technological revolutions that led to today’s world. It is the ability to create these collective fictions that made Homo sapiens unique, in its ability to transform and also to destroy the world.

Almost anything that is important in today’s society fits into this wide category of a collective fictions or, as he also calls them, religions. Money is, of course, a collective fiction, not valuable by itself, but only because everyone believes in it. But the concept also encompasses religions, political systems, philosophical beliefs, and even several concepts in ethics. Harari’s convincing arguments put at the same level (and calls them nothing else than collective fictions, or religions) systems as diverse as Christianism, Islamism, Capitalism, Marxism, Socialism, Nazism, Humanism, Liberalism, and Democracy. Harari argues that even ideas so commonly accepted as nations, corporations, afterlife, human rights or the sanctity of human life are nothing more than a shared belief, held by almost everyone today, but relatively recent in historical terms.

The argument is powerful, and the book very engaging, a real page turner. As a side benefit, Sapiens is also a grandiose lesson in history, from the prehistoric times to the rise and fall of modern empires, full of surprising facts and wonderful tales.