Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Time Now for the Future

I've been on a mini-sabbatical for the past several months and I've done alot of emotional purging on this blog about the past and the present, some positive and some negative. But lately, I feel my sabbatical coming to an end and find myself thinking alot more about the future. So lets talk about the future.

Lets start with today's futurists. You can't really begin a conversation about modern futurists unless you start with Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, who argues that we're experiencing accelerated growth across a range of technological disciplines spanning across medicine, industry, art, media and information technology. He seems to argue that this exponential growth is an intrinsic (and probably unstoppable) property of technological innovation that started with life's humble beginnings on this planet to our tool using cave dwelling ancestors to the information technology frenzy that we have today. Kurweil suggests that we're currently on the upward swing of this "acceleration" and that we should prepare ourselves for what he considers a technological singularity. A singularity is generally known as the point within a black hole where the math and physics breaks down, a point that cannot be computed and where the curvature warps so intensely that it probably results in a "hole" in the fabric of space-time.
The Singularity is described by Kurzweil as "technological change so rapid and profound it could create a rupture in the very fabric of human history". The main crux of this singularity revolves around the relentless march of progress and the merging of technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic manipulation/engineering and nanotechnology known collectively as GNR or the GRIN technologies.

Futurism has always had a reputation for harboring new age crackpots and is still dismissed as pseudo science by vocal groups of research scientists. But Kurzweil has added a sense of legitimacy to futurism since he is such a highly regarded and respected engineer and inventor. He's currently a very popular speaker at large conferences spanning across all of the GNR technologies.

Two major groups of technologies exist. Kurzweil and others feel that progress in genetics and nanotechnology will result in a proliferation of health advancements possibly reducing today's most feared diseases and health ailments to a quick trip to your local nano-doctor for the latest download of nanobots. Much speculation also exists suggesting that these health-related advancements may possibly delaying aging or age-related processes. The other major group of technologies revolve around artificial intelligence and robotics. Some feel that within the next 20-30 years with the current pace of I.T. growth, neuroscience research and brain imaging; we will be able to construct machine intelligences that rival or even surpass our own intelligence (via either improvements in AI algorithms due to neocortex modeling or blunt-force reverse engineering and modeling of an entire brain). Pick the blue pill Neo !!!

There's a common theme to most futurist thought regarding singularities (and disaster scenarios) and that's Self-Replication. If (or when) machine intelligence is realized, then it may be able to grow unimaginably fast since an advanced machine intelligence may be able to create another smarter machine intelligence which may create and even smarter machine intelligence .... well you get the point. Similar ideas revolve around nanotechnology. One of the central themes and constructs of nanotechnology is the concept of the molecular assembler. This assembler in theory should be able to construct complex molecules from single atomic units. And if 1 molecular assembler can make another molecular assembler just like it -- then you have the beginnings of a self-replication system much like bacteria that can create copies of itself and go from the single digits to millions or even billions of copies of themselves in relatively small amount of time. Even though some of the core concepts of the molecular assembler are still vehemently debated it still seems that one must reference the bacteria example. If bacteria can do it, then at the very least we know that it can be done on this planet ... then its just a matter of time, research and intelligence -- uh oh -- artificial intelligence..... I'm scared .... hold me.

I found Kurzweil's Singularity book compelling and it has elevated my general interest across all the futurist subject matter but a couple other books have had a significant impact on my thoughts regarding these technologies and specifically artificial intelligence.

Joel Garreau is author of a book named Radical Evolution. A reporter and editor for the Washington Post, Joel takes an in-depth look at the different groups of characters and organizations that surround these technologies including DARPA - the bleeding edge research arm of the D.O.D. He partitions the book (and the individuals involved) into 3 major groups named Heaven, Hell & Prevail. Each group describes the camp that key individuals involved in research, philosophy and speculation belong. With the obvious labels aligning with optimisitic, pessimistic or neutral feeling s towards the future and the impact technology will have on it. He provides compelling interviews and an excellent overview of the futurist landscape regarding GRIN technologies.

The other book that has piqued my interest recently is Jeff Hawkins onIntelligence book. Jeff is a founder of Palm Computing and Numenta. He has authored a book on his thoughts regarding AI and neocortex function. He provides an algorithmic framework for a new breed of AI that melds variants of Bayesian Inference, neocortex modeling and working memory to produce what he terms as HTM or Hierarchal Temporal Memory. This is an interesting read for anybody interested in AI and/or brain function. I will detail this more in a future post.

Robert Freitas is a key figure in nanomedicine where he prototypes future nanotechnology-based robot designs and strategies that will potentially help humans overcome inherent biological limitations that we currently experience. I have not read his books but its on my list. Here's a couple of websites with relevant info:
Foresight.org - NanoMedicine
Robert Freitas Homepage

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