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?

 

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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.

Microsoft HoloLens merges the real and the virtual worlds

The possibility to superimpose the real physical world and the virtual world created by computers has been viewed, for a long time, as a technology looking for a killer application.

The fact is that, until now, the technology was incipient and the user experience less than perfect. Microsoft is trying to change that, with their new product, Microsoft HoloLens. As of April this year, Microsoft is shipping the pre-production version of HoloLens, for developers.

The basic idea is that, by using HoloLens, computer generated objects can be superimposed with actual physical objects. Instead of using the “desktop” metaphor, users will be able to deploy applications in actual physical space. Non-holographic applications run as floating virtual screens  that will stick to a specific point in the physical space or move with the user. Holographic enabled applications will let you to use the physical space for virtual objects as you would for physical objects. For instance, if you leave a report, say, on top of a desk, it will stay there until you pick it up.

hololensThe IEEE Spectrum report on the device, by Rod Furlan, provides some interesting additional information and gives the device a clear  “thumbs up”.

The HoloLens, a self-contained computer weighting 580 grams, is powered by a 32-bit Intel Atom processor and Microsoft’s custom Holographic Processing Unit (HPU).

The following YouTube video, made available by Microsoft, gives some idea of what the product may become, once sufficiently powerful applications are developed.

Image and video credits: Microsoft HoloLens website.

Pokemon Go: the first step in the path to Accelerando?

The recent release of Pokemon Go,  an augmented reality mobile game attracted much attention, and made the value of its parent company, Nintendo, raise by more than 14 billion dollars. Rarely has the release of a mobile game had so much impact in the media and the financial world.

In large part, this happened because the market (and the world) are expecting this to be the first of many applications that explore the possibilities of augmented reality, a technology that superimposes the perceptions of the real and the virtual world.

Pokemon Go players, instead of staying at home playing with their cellphones, walk around the real world, looking for little monsters that appear in more or less random locations. More advanced players meet in specific places, called gyms, to have their monsters fight each other. Pokemon Go brought augmented reality into the mainstream, and may indeed represent the first of many applications that merge the real and the virtual world. The game still has many limitations in what concerns the use of augmented reality. Exact physical location, below a few feet cannot be obtained, and the illusion is slightly less than perfect. Nonetheless, the game represents a significant usage of augmented reality, a potentially disruptive technology.

Charles Stross, in the novel Accelerando, imagines a society where the hero, Manfred Macx, is one of the first to live permanently in augmented reality, looking into the world through an always-on pair of digital glasses. The glasses integrate information from the real world and the always present web. This society provides just the starting point for the novel, which recounts the story of three generations of a family as the world goes into (and emerges out of) a technological singularity.

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It is not difficult to imagine a future where digital glasses keep you informed of the name (and history, interests, and marital status) of anyone you meet in a party, where to go for your next appointment, or what are the last relevant news. Such an augmented reality world does not really require much more technology that what is available today, only the right applications and the right user interfaces.

Until we have Manfred’s glasses, we can use Pokemon Go to imagine what the fusion of real and artificial worlds will look like.

Left picture: cover of Accelerando

Right picture: The author, posing with an Oddish Pokemon monster, found in a remote town, in Portugal.

 

Are we living in a computer simulation?

The idea that the Earth, its inhabitants and the whole universe could be just a computer simulation is not new. Many have argued that intelligent agents simulated in a computer are not necessarily aware they are part of a computer simulation. Nick Bostrum, author of Supperintelligence and professor at Oxford, suggested in 2003 that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors.

Of course, no computer simulation created by mankind was ever able to simulate realities as complex as our world, nor beings as intelligent as humans. Current computer technology is not powerful enough to simulate worlds with that level of complexity. However, more advanced computer technologies could be used to simulate much more complex virtual realities, possibly as complex as our own reality.

A recent article in Scientific American about this topic includes opinions from many well known scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson, well-known for the series Cosmos, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT) pointed out that “If I were a character in a computer game, I would also discover eventually that the rules seemed completely rigid and mathematical,” just as our universe.

This week the topic came to the forefront, at the Code Conference 2016, where Elon Musk said that “we’re probably characters in some advanced civilisation’s video game“.  His argument is that “If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality, even if that rate of advancement drops by a thousand from what it is now. Then you just say, okay, let’s imagine it’s 10,000 years in the future, which is nothing on the evolutionary scale.

Therefore, if you assume this rate of evolution lasts for a few centuries, computer games will become indistinguishable from reality and we may well be inside one of those.

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To be fair, there are many things that could be interpreted as signs that we do live, indeed, inside a computer simulation. The strangeness of quantum computing, the vastness and the many inexplicable coincidences of the universe, the unexplained start of the evolutionary process, are all things that could be easily explained by the “simulated world” hypothesis.

This topic has, of course, already been fully addressed by Zach Weiner in a brilliant SMBC strip.

Pictured, the Marenostrun supercomputer, in a photo by David Abián, available at Wikimedia Commons.

How to make friends, influence people and, ultimately, conquer the world

A recent report on The Economist about Facebook makes clear that the ever-present social network is now more, much more, than simply the sixth most valuable company on Earth and the (virtual) place where humanity spends a significant fraction of its time.

What started simply as a social network, doomed to perish (many believed) as many other social networks, turned into “one great empire with a vast population, immense wealth, a charismatic leader, and mind-boggling reach and influence“, according to The Economist.

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But, more relevant to the topic of this blog, is the fact that Facebook has amassed immense knowledge and created the tools necessary to explore it, in the process making enormous sums of money from targeted advertising.

As artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics advance, companies like Facebook and Google can explore better and better the troves of data they have, in a process that may end up with the engines behind these companies becoming truly intelligent and, who knows, even conscious. Maybe one day Facebook will become not just the place to meet friends, but a friend. The investments made on chatbot and virtual reality technologies certainly show that we have not yet seen all the social network can do.