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STM – Introduction – The Big Picture

May 25, 2011

Let’s now look at the universe and life from the largest perspective possible.  The best “big picture” perspective I’ve found on this can be found in Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near.  He looks at the world from the standpoint of increasing order and information.  To him, the evolution of everything, including ourselves, is a continual process of creating patterns of order.  He divides all of time into six main epochs:  1) Information in atomic structures, 2) Information in DNA, 3) Information in Neural Patterns, 4) Information in hardware and software designs, 5) merger of technology and human intelligence, and 6) “The universe wakes up”.  Let’s briefly discuss these epochs.

Information in atomic structures

This stage consists of the birth of our universe through the big bang and the development of the first atoms.   The underlying structure of our universe consists of patterns of matter and energy.  In later posts, I’d like to discuss this epoch in detail, going into all the details and ramifications of it all.  For now, I’ll keep things very basic.  Theories related to quantum gravity specify that both time and space exist as small packets of information – discrete “quanta”.  John Wheeler describes it as a space-time “foam”.  This base reality allows atoms to store and transmit discrete units of information.  When we finally get around to discussing all of this, we’ll look into particle physics, string theory, and quantum mechanics, going into a lot of detail as to what the fabric of our universe is made of.  We’ll also dive into theories of parallel universes, and what they may be like.  Currently I’m doing a lot of research into this area, and still have a lot to learn myself.  That’s another reason why I’ll have to put off writing about all of this in detail for some time.  For now, what’s important is that the laws of physics in our universe are conducive to evolution of structures with increasing levels of order and complexity.

Information in DNA

After the evolution of the galaxies, the sun, and our solar system, simple single celled life-forms sprang up on planet Earth.  What’s really amazing about this is that they didn’t seem to waste any time.  Pretty much as soon as the Earth could support life, these single celled lifeforms were present.  These cells based their structures around the carbon atom, which can form more compounds than any other.  In other words, it was the most conducive atom to use for encoding information and building life. These self-replicating organisms eventually adopted the use DNA, both to build themselves, and to makes copies of themselves.  Over a very long time, diverse life-forms evolved on planet Earth, consisting of huge colonies of these microorganisms.

Information in neural patterns

Carl Sagan, in his wonderful series Cosmos, tells us that we’re star-stuff contemplating the stars.  The atoms of which we are made were forged in the nuclear fires of stars and later spread out all over space when they exploded in amazing supernovas.  As this epoch progressed, the star-stuff became aware of its environment.  Having to outwit predators and catch prey, these animals had to develop more and more sophisticated minds in order to survive and reproduce.

The earliest creatures, if they had any awareness at all, were only aware of what was right next to them and existed solely in the present.  As these creatures developed sensory organs and memory, however, they obtained a sense of space and time.  For instance, they developed eyes allowing them to see objects miles away.  They developed hearing allowing them to spatially arrange what was around them based on changes in air pressures, and so on and so forth.  Their memories allowed them to learn from their mistakes, pass on knowledge about the world to the next generation, and also feel a sense of identity.  This epoch will be one of the main focuses of this book.  I want to write, in detail, what this awareness consists of, how and why it developed, and give you all the trajectory that it’s on.  We’ll go on a journey, investigating how the human species evolved, take a look at our ancestors, and see why the brain in our head developed like it did.   We’ll see that what the “mind” consists of is information and particular algorithms for processing it.

Information in hardware and software designs

Using our minds we humans ushered in the fourth epoch as we created technology to help us live our daily lives.  Right now, information about the world is making its way into a vast “cloud” of technology, which we now call the internet.  Spread out over countless computers, more and more people are relying on this information to survive.  Also, artificial intelligence algorithms are becoming inseparable from our daily lives.  When we go to the store to buy something, computer intelligence processes our credit cards, debits our accounts, and communicates with our bank.  Companies need computers to manage their inventory and organize their workforce effectively.  Scientists rely on vast computer databases of information, gathered by high tech equipment, and analyzed by artificial intelligence algorithms.  Everyone is reliant on the computer nowadays.

The human is quickly being displaced by the machine.  Why?  Electronic circuits can conduct electricity over a million times faster than our brains.   Even though the brain’s calculation mechanisms are slow, it still is able to perform amazing things by having somewhere between 100~1000 trillion individual connections, all wired in parallel.  Though any individual neural connection is limited to around two-hundred computations per second, there’s so many connections that the brain still does some rather amazing calculation feats.   If you were to build an artificial brain using the kinds of electrical circuits we now use in our computers, that robot would think one million times faster than you do now.  Considering that technology is always getting smaller and faster, we’ll be using that power to help us reverse engineering the human brain, more and more quickly.  We have some serious changes coming to our world within the coming century and beyond.

What’s keeping us from completely understanding the human brain right now?  Well, it’s hard to find a way to get into an animal’s skull to read the electrical currents pulsing through their brain.  For humans, we’re currently reliant on big huge fMRI machines and MEG.  Their resolution is continually improving, but we also have to consider upcoming advances in nanotechnology.  The ideal is to have legions of microscopic computers injected into the body, which will then make their way up to the brain and read the electrical currents in detail.  This sort of technology will be available as soon as computer chips shrink small enough in size.  It’s not unrealistic to expect this sort of technology in twenty years or so.  Once neuroscientists have access to this level of information, reverse engineering the brain will be progressing in leaps and bounds.

The real wonder to ponder is this:  What happens when we can run an artificial human brain on high speed electronic hardware?  What happens when we have robots which will be able to do everything we can do, and much better at that?  They’ll be able to exchange information with one another at unimaginable speeds, and think millions of times faster than we can — and that’s just robots version 1.0.  You have to remember, eventually the robots will be able to upgrade themselves, designing their own chips.  At that point progress and innovation in our society is going to be a straight line upward.   It will be an exponential function growing at exponential powers.  It will be off the charts.  Kurzweil calls this transition ‘The Singularity’, hence the title of his book.  There will come a point in the not so distant future where our information technology is progressing so quickly, we’ll be unable to keep up, no matter how hard we try.  Our brains are just not fast enough.  We already see that trend today, and it’s only going to get worse.

It’s hard to imagine a mind thinking one million times faster than we do.  One day to this robot would be like one-million days to us.   That’s 2,739 years per day.  This robot can think up over two and a half MILLENIA of progress and innovation, in a single day.  Then you build an army of them and put them together in parallel, and what in the world does that even mean?  We can’t even imagine this yet it will happen within most of our lifetimes.  Starting with a basis of literally all human knowledge in existence, they will go to town, upgrading themselves in ways we can’t even imagine.  Making discovery after discovery.  It will be the ultimate power on Earth – far more powerful than anything we’ve ever thought or conceived.

Computer scientists started to realize this quite some time ago and almost found themselves lost for words.

You know, things are going to be really different! … No, no, I mean really different!
—Mark Miller (Computer Scientist) To Eric Drexler, around 1986

As I discuss in Engines of Creation, if you can build genuine AI, there are reasons to believe that you can build things like neurons that are a million times faster. That leads to the conclusion that you can make systems that think a million times faster than a person. With AI, these systems could do engineering design. Combining this with the capability of a system to build something that is better than it, you have the possibility for a very abrupt transition. This situation may be more difficult to deal with even than nanotechnology, but it is much more difficult to think about it constructively at this point. Thus, it hasn’t been the focus of things that I discuss, although I periodically point to it and say: “That’s important too.”

—Eric Drexler, 1989

So what happens to humans?  Do we become their pets?  Their contented playthings?  There’s no way of knowing, but I think one thing is clear: humans will have to upgrade themselves and integrate with their technology if they’re to continue having any relevance in the story of the universe.  This leads us to the next epoch.

The Merger Of Technology and Human Intelligence

Human beings will slowly merge with technology in stages over many decades, possibly centuries.  With time we’ll become more and more reliant on our technology and devices.  Next, I envision that we’ll have armies of tiny robots injected into our bodies which will keep us from getting sick, repair any damage our cells undergo, keep us from aging, and integrate with our brains, greatly enhancing our thinking abilities, and give us access to what’s going on around us in ways we can’t now comprehend.  This is a trans-human era where we leave our biological origins behind, step by step.

In the long run, humans will slowly shed their biological bodies in favor of a new and improved technologically created super-body.  Eventually their brains will be upgraded as well, possibly completely replaced once the nature of consciousness is discovered and figured out.  Just imagine if you could think a million times faster than you do now, and knew literally all human knowledge in existence.  With billions of these super-brains working on improving their lives, it’d be child’s play to reinvent the human body into something much better.

Kurzweil goes even deeper than this in his book.  He believes we’ll cover the earth with tiny robots which we’ll be capable of controlling with our conscious thought.  This will allow us to manifest any reality we want on the Earth’s surface as these little bots assemble themselves together into whatever configuration we ask.  If we want to “materialize” in the physical world, the nano-bots will assemble themselves together into any form we want, in any location we want.  But he speculates that this will be rather rare as most of us will interact with one another in virtual reality simulations on super-computers.  We’ll be immersed in all kinds of activities, sort of like the Matrix movie but without the dystopian aspects.

This sounds like science fiction, I know, but if you really think about it, and study the trends, it’s not as crazy as you may think.  Something akin to it probably will happen.   I think Kurzweil has some great insights into the general direction humanity will be moving, but I think he vastly underestimates the amount of time it will take to bring all of this into existence.  Besides various hurdles we’re sure to encounter designing this technology, and the dangers involved, there will also be heavy social resistance to these ideas.  Most people are not ready for this.  It’s all too much.

The Universe Wakes Up

And for the far distant future?  Our species will expand throughout the cosmos, turning entire planets, stars and all their energy into computational machines which do our bidding.  We’ll be like a giant shape-shifting cloud of robots and technology, our minds immersed both in reality and daydream, sailing through the cosmos.  Billions of unmanned probes will scour the deepest aspects of space, feeding back to our giant collective mind everything which they find.  Our technology will keep getting more and more advanced, our minds faster and faster, and our understanding of the universe more and more vast.

You able to take all that in?  It’s a lot to chew on.  My next post will be some more thoughts on the Singularity and its development.

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