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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Computers or Humans, Which Will Achieve Superintelligence First?

Here's an interesting little Web article by Peter Voss on "Why Machines Will Become Hyper-Intelligent before Humans Do," the arguments of yet another artificial intelligence researcher on why AI is going to leave all other sentient beings in the dust. In Peter's own words:

These notes detail some of the reasons why it will be much easier to build hyper-intelligent non-organic machines, than to dramatically enhance individual human intelligence – why SI (super intelligences) will appear before radical human IA (intelligence augmentation).

In this context, super/ hyper intelligence refers to general intelligence far exceeding current top human abilities in (at least) the areas of abstract thinking, innovation, and practical problem solving; Systems obviously clever enough to understand human language and affairs, science and technology, and – crucially – to be able to
radically enhance their own design.

He adds:

Individual versus collective smarts/ Maximum versus aggregate intelligence – Individual, maximum intelligence is an overall limiting factor. It imposes limits on the maximum complexity of problems that can be effectively tackled. Quantity can ultimately not make up for quality: A million monkeys can not solve problems that individual humans can – A million porn or Pokemon messages will not cure cancer (see note1). This is not to say that group interaction and collaboration add nothing - they clearly do increase overall smarts.

Rates of change in individual human intelligence, machine ‘intelligence’, and overall human ability -
· Maximum individual intelligence has remained about constant over the past two thousand years: Aristotle - or someone as clever as him - would have formulated a ‘Theory of Relativity’ 2000 years ago given Einstein’s knowledge base
· Overall human knowledge and ability – smarts – has been, and continues to, accumulate and increase exponentially
· Machine intelligence is only just starting to emerge. The last fifty years have seen exponential improvements. I predict that machine progress will become hyper-exponential once near human-level intelligence is reached (causing a self-improvement feedback loop – more details below)

One of Voss' core arguments in favor of artificial superintelligence emerging before human superintelligence is that biological minds are extremely complex, difficult to tamper with, and effectively near the apex of biological evolution already.

Some additional problems with radical human intelligence enhancements/ upgrades:
· The human brain is already highly optimized by thousands of generations – difficult to improve further.
· Substantial difficulties with experimentation, development, and implementation:
a) Practical/ technical - see above: re-boot, hack, duplicate, increase speed, etc.
b) Social opposition – eg ‘Frankenfood’, human genetic engineering
c) Regulatory – eg. FDA restrictions, costs, delays – government bans
· Brain design/ structure does not lend itself well to integrating with existing digital data and communications (data formats, serial communication).
· Working with biological cell/ axon/ receptor structures essentially requires advanced biological nanotech. More generally, the level of computer technology needed to overcome IA’s technical problems will already at or near SI level – ie. SI will be at the hard-take-off point. In other words: Computers smart enough to help us dramatically enhance human brains will be more than smart enough to radically enhance themselves. A related point is that to the extent that we figure out the workings of the brain, this knowledge can (and is) immediately used to improve artificial systems.

I'm personally not as convinced of these arguments as Peter Voss is. He may be right... or at least, we may end up with superintelligent AI before we develop superintelligent humans. But I wouldn't necessarily bet on it. Why?

Because we still don't have the beginnings of even human-equivalent artificial intelligence (admittedly, the takeoff point for many radical evolution scenarios), and in the meantime, most of the technologies that can drive AI can also be used to improve humans -- as can all of the exclusively biotech research being done to protect and enhance human health.

More to the point, we already have various technologies and mental disciplines that significantly increase human intelligence, and not only can we develop more, there is nothing to prevent us from using more and more of these tools synergistically to produce truly radical augmentation with our existing resources. Even as officials argue about whether or not our latest Olympics have displayed the feats of genetically modified athletes, and a coach to Olympians faces charges related to (among other things) "gene-doping," we know that the bodies and brains of animals have already been successfully augmented by biotech treatments.

What is more, we know there are effective nootropic drugs, a number of relatively effective nootropic herbs and nutrients, accelerated learning methods, creativity stimulating techniques and non-invasive "mindtech"... all of which are capable of enhancing human intelligence. What happens when someone combines a few rudimentary genetic enhancements with all of the above options?

Done correctly, we could have a "transhuman" or "posthuman" already, with nothing but our present-day technology.

Which poses some interesting questions in itself. If we aren't prepared for the ethical questions and competitive element of a genetically modified athlete or ten at the Olympics, are we ready for a posthuman (or 50 million) of unfathomable intelligence? My answer would be, probably not...

Future Imperative

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Survival of the Fittest -- In Education

I found this article in the Boston Globe on the tutoring of both very young kids and college-bound SAT test takers. (Note: You may have to register (for free) if you try to read this Globe article more than once.)
Hayden Delatorre sat quietly at a table before his tutor in North Andover. He carefully studied the flashcards, tried an answer, got it wrong, looked up, and tried again.

His tutor grinned broadly and nodded.

''He's doing great," gushed his mother, Kristin, watching him through the glass from an adjoining room. ''He's way ahead of where his brother was at that age."

Hayden is not falling behind his playmates. He hasn't even gotten a report card. Hayden, age 4, represents the next big wave for the $1.2 billion private tutoring business.

There's some interesting comments in this piece about the competitive nature of the tutoring market. One SAT tutor was receiving $365 an hour before he dropped out of teaching directly two years to run his company. He now has six offices and will begin franchising next year.

This demand for high-quality education focused on tests, of course, is a result of parents who want their kids to go into the best possible universities available -- educational experiences ironically known for being considerably broader based and more challenging than cramming schools for exams. But there you go.

Someone might conceivably see a market for radically advanced educational alternatives -- not ones meant merely to get your child into a school where s/he can rise to the level of 21st Century global competition, but which help that child leap beyond the first tier of their future competitors.

How? Developing the ability to master any skill with dramatic speed, discovering vast inventive gifts in terms of both technology and socio-economic innovations... even art. Dramatically enhancing their basic intelligence, and core mental abilities -- not just creativity and learning ability, mathematical facility, memory... and even the drive to learn, to master, to triumph in every aspect of their lives. In other words, by fully utilizing the accelerated learning and creativity resources we already have access to. Which are substantial.

Children given these gifts might find they've been something considerably more impressive than a Harvard education. Difficult though that may be to believe.

Future Imperative