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Engineering The Mind

December 30, 2011

As I woke up today, I found myself wondering what it is that drives my near obsession with understanding the human mind.  By far it’s the subject I’m most interested in.  I have bookshelves of textbooks on neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, artificial intelligence, neural computation, and many more.  Though it’s been a rather long and winding road which lead me to all of this, over the years I’ve gradually found out just how important these areas of research are.

Back in 2002 the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), along with the Department of Commerce, created a report entitled Converging Technologies For Improving Human Performance.   In it you’ll find the same conclusion I’ve drawn from what research into these areas has to offer.

“Understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems that can generate economic wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable. Within a half-century, intelligent machines might create the wealth needed to provide food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, a clean environment, and physical and financial security for the entire world population. Intelligent machines may eventually generate the production capacity to support universal prosperity and financial security for all human beings. Thus, the engineering of the mind is much more than the pursuit of scientific curiosity. It is more even than a monumental technological challenge. It is an opportunity to eradicate poverty and usher in the golden age for all humankind.

Few people today realize how powerful these technologies will be as they mature.  Right now they’re in their infancy.  Rates of progress are currently exponential and I expect they will continue to move forward very rapidly in the future.  When will these technologies completely reshape human society?  Will it be fifty years?  One hundred years?  Two hundred years?  I can’t pinpoint it down very easily, but I see the trends, and this is going to bring huge changes to the human condition.  I’d like to be a part if I can.

Things are going to be changing so rapidly, it’s hard to see very far into the future.  My father grew up in a rural area and he didn’t even have an indoor bathroom, access telephones, or electricity.  Just a generation later, I’m playing online games over the internet with people all over the world in 3D virtual worlds on my computer, sit cozily in my heated and air conditioned home, and have access to countless movies with Netflix.  That’s pretty crazy when you think about it.

I’m not an old man by any means.  I’m not even thirty yet.  Even so, when I was in high school in the late 1990’s, very few people had the internet.  I remember hanging out with guys on the basketball team and Mike was telling us how his family had just got access to the internet over dial-up.  That was the big thing.  We ran around with Walkman handheld cd-players, oftentimes with all our cds in a big folder in our backpacks.  Barely a decade later, we have nearly all human knowledge available at our fingertips, iPhones, and Kindles.  University lectures on almost every subject are available on Youtube.  Nearly every major book has been scanned and is available on the web in PDF form.  Every type of scientific dataset is becoming accessible and computable with Wolfram Alpha.  It’s incredible.

When I’m around college students nowadays, there’s about a decade age difference between us.  One of them noticed that I don’t carry a cell phone and just couldn’t believe it.  He asked how people got ahold of me.  I coyly replied, “They don’t.”  When I was in school nobody had cell phones.  We’d find a landline phone someplace and make our calls.

What will things be like a few generations from now?  I don’t think many of us can even imagine how much things will change.  If you had a time machine and could visit the Earth in five hundred years, I wonder if you’d recognize the place.  I’m beginning to think you wouldn’t.

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