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.

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.

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?

 

Arrival of the Fittest: why are biological systems so robust?

In his 2014 book, Arrival of the Fittest, Andreas Wagner addresses important open questions in evolution: how are useful innovations created in biological systems, enabling natural selection to perform its magic of creating ever more complex organisms? Why is it that changes in these complex systems do not lead only to non-working systems? What is the origin of variation upon which natural selection acts?

Wagner’s main point is that “Natural selection can preserve innovations, but it cannot create them. Nature’s many innovations—some uncannily perfect—call for natural principles that accelerate life’s ability to innovate, its innovability.”51bwxg5grcl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

In fact, natural selection can apply selective pressure, selecting organisms that have useful phenotypic variations, caused by the underlying genetic variations. However, for this to happen, genetic mutations and variations have to occur and, with high enough frequency, they have to lead to viable and more fit organisms.

In most man-made systems, almost all changes in the original design lead to systems that do not work, or that perform much worse than the original. Performing almost any random change in a plane, in a computer or in a program leads to a system that either performs worst than the original, or else, that fails catastrophically. Biological systems seem much more resilient, though. In this book, Wagner explores several types of (conceptual) biological networks: metabolic networks, protein interaction networks and gene regulatory networks.

Each node in these networks corresponds to one specific biological function: in the first case, a metabolic network, where chemical entities interact; in the second case, a protein interaction network, where proteins interact to create complex functions; and in the third case, a gene regulatory network, where genes regulate the expression of other genes. Two nodes in such networks are neighbors if they differ in only one DNA position, in the genotype that encodes the network.

He concludes that these networks are robust to mutations and, therefore, to innovations. In particular, he shows that you can traverse these networks, from node to neighboring node, while keeping the biological function unchanged, only slightly degraded, or even improved. Unlike man-made systems, biological systems are robust to change, and nature can experiment tweaking them, in the process creating innovation and increasingly complex systems. This how the amazingly complex richness of life has been created in a mere four billion years.

 

How to create a mind

Ray Kurzweil’s latest book, How to Create a Mind, published in 2012, is an interesting read and shows some welcome change on his views of science and technology. Unlike some of his previous (and influntial) books, including The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Age of Intelligent Machines, the main point of this book is not that exponential technological development will bring in a technological singularity in a few decades.

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True, that theme is still present, but takes second place to the main theme of the book, a concrete (although incomplete) proposal to build intelligent systems that are inspired in the architecture of the human neocortex.

Kurzweil main point in this book is to present a model of the human neocortex, what he calls The Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM). In this theory, the neocortex is simply a very powerful pattern recognition system, built out of about 300 million (his number, not mine) similar pattern recognizers. The input from each of these recognizers can come from either external inputs, through the senses, or from the older parts (evolutionary speaking) of the brain, or from the output of other pattern recognizers in the neocortex. Each recognizer is relatively simple, and can only recognize a simple pattern (say the word APPLE) but, through complex interconnections with other recognizers above and below, it makes possible all sorts of thinking and abstract reasoning.

Each pattern consists, in its essence, in a short sequence of symbols, and is connected, through bundles of axons, to the actual place in the cortex where these symbols are activated, by another pattern recognizer. In most cases, the memories these recognizers represent must be accessed in a specific order. He gives the example that very few persons can recite the alphabet backwards, or even their social security number, which is taken as evidence of the sequential nature of operation of these pattern recognizers.

The key point of the book is that the actual algorithms used to build and structure a neocortex may soon become well understood, and used to build intelligent machines, embodied with true strong Artificial Intelligence. How to Create a Mind falls somewhat short of the promise in the subtitle, The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, but still makes for some interesting reading.

Algorithms to live by: the computer science of human decisions

This delightful book, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, provides a very interesting and orthogonal view on the role of computer science in our everyday lives.

The book covers a number of algorithms, which range from the best way to choose a bride (check the first 37% of the available candidates and pick the first one that is better than them) to the best way to manage your email ( just drop messages once you are over the top, don’t queue them for future processing, which will never happen).

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The book makes for a very enjoyable and engaging read, and should be required material for any computer science student, professor, or researcher.

The chapters include advice on when to stop looking for the best person for the job (e.g., your bride); how to manage the explore vs. exploit dilemma, as in picking the best restaurant for dinner; how to sort things in your closet; how to make sure the things you need frequently are nearby (caching); how to choose the things you should do first; how to predict the future (use Bayes’ rule); how to avoid overfitting and learn from the past; how to tackle difficult problems by looking at easier versions of them (relaxations); when rolling a dice is the best way to make a decision; how to handle long queues of requests, which are above and beyond your capacity; and how to avoid the tragedy of the commons that so commonly gets all of us into trouble, as in the prisoner’s dilemma.

Definitely, two thumbs up!