The Great Filter: are we rare, are we first, or are we doomed?

Fermi’s Paradox (the fact that we never detected any sign of aliens even though, conceptually, life could be relatively common in the universe) has already been discussed in this blog, as new results come in about the rarity of life bearing planets, the discovery of new Earth-like planets, or even the detection of possible signs of aliens.

There are a number of possible explanations for Fermi’s Paradox and one of them is exactly that sufficiently advanced civilizations could retreat into their own planets, or star systems, exploring the vastness of the nano-world, becoming digital minds.

A very interesting concept related with Fermi’s Paradox is the Great Filter theory, which states, basically, that if intelligent civilizations do not exist in the galaxy we, as a civilization, are either rare, first, or doomed. As this post very clearly describes, one of these three explanations has to be true, if no other civilizations exist.

The Great Filter theory is based on Robin Hanson’s argument that the failure to find any extraterrestrial civilizations in the observable universe has to be explained by the fact that somewhere, in the sequence of steps that leads from planet formation to the creation of technological civilizations, there has to be an extremely unlikely event, which he called the Great Filter.

This Great Filter may be behind us, in the process that led from inorganic compounds to humans. That means that we, intelligent beings, are rare in the universe. Maybe the conditions that lead to life are extremely rare, either due to the instability of planetary systems, or to the low probability that life gets started in the first place, or to some other phenomenon that we were lucky enough to overcome.

It can also happen that conditions that make possible the existence of life are relatively recent in the universe. That would mean that conditions for life only became common in the universe (or the galaxy) in the last few billions years. In that case, we may not be rare, but we would be the first, or among the first, planets to develop intelligent life.

The final explanation is that the Great Filter is not behind us, but ahead of us. That would mean that many technological civilizations develop but, in the end, they all collapse, due to unknown factors (some of them we can guess). In this case, we are doomed, like all other civilizations that, presumably, existed.

There is, of course, another group of explanations, which states that advanced civilizations do exist in the galaxy, but we are simply too dumb to contact or to observe them. Actually, many people believe that we should not even be trying to contact them, by broadcasting radio-signals into space, advertising that we are here. It may, simply, be too dangerous.


Image by the Bureau of Land Management, available at Wikimedia Commons

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.

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?


Is mind uploading nearer than you might think?

A recent article published in The Guardian, an otherwise mainstream newspaper, openly discusses the fact that mind uploading may become a real possibility in the near future. Mind uploading is based on the concept that the behavior of a brain can be emulated completely in a computer, ultimately leading to the possibility of transporting individual brains, and individual consciousnesses, into a program, which would emulate the behavior of the “uploaded” mind. Mind uploading represents, in practice, the surest and most guaranteed way to immortality, far faster than any other non-digital technologies can possibly aim to achieve in the foreseeable future.

This idea is not new, and the article makes an explicit reference to Hans Moravec book, The Mind Children, published by Harvard University Press in 1988. In fact, the topic has been already been addressed by a large number of authors, including Ray Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, Nick Bostrom, in Superintelligence, and even by me in The Digital Mind.

The article contains an interesting list of interesting sites and organizations, including CarbonCopies, a site dedicated to making whole brain emulation possible, founded by Randal A Koene, and a reference to the 2045 initiative, with similar goals, created by Dmitry Itskov.

The article, definitely worthwhile reading, goes into some detail in the idea of “substrate independent minds”, an idea clearly reminiscent of the concept of virtualization, so in vogue in today’s business world.

Picture source: The Guardian

Black Mirror, a glimpse of the (near) future


If you didn’t yet watch any episodes of Black Mirror, a British series created by Charlie Brooker, go and fix that now. The 12 episodes of Black Mirror have been rated by The Wrap from “Good” to “Mind Blowing”, and they all cover the anticipated and non-anticipated consequences of new technologies.

According to the series creator, “each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.” 

The series analyses, sometimes in excruciating ways, how new technologies, such as social networks, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence, can lead to unexpected, if plausible, lifestyles, problems and challenges.