Saturday, September 19, 2009

How To Save The Human Race

I am a child of the "nuclear age" and my whole life I lived with the ongoing fear of missiles from Russia leaving me with only 8 minutes to enjoy the rest of my life as best as I can. Fortunately that has not happened so far. However despite the brief respite we got from the cold war after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in which we almost cheerfully got to focus our terror on lesser catastrophes such as biological weapons and other non-nuclear apocalyptic futures, the threat of nuclear war never really left the horizon (or at least my mental landscape). Now to compound matters we have the new and very real threat of a global catastrophe due to a variety of other environmental and climate related forces such as global warming, overpopulation, honey and bumblebee colony collapses, overfishing, and schools of Jellyfish taking over the world (sadly that last one is only half a joke).

It seems to me that the only way out is smarter humans and fast. However, we may be at an event horizon where solving the problems that are coming fast that could easily wipe us out or at least set us back thousands of years requires a level of intelligence that no single human has. It's a rough non-scientific assertion to see that the human mind has only so much processing power but I feel it's a valid one. Sure there are drastic differences between the IQ levels of member of our society, but if you adopt the viewpoint of a computer scientist for a moment, it stands to reason that the number of neurons and interconnections in a single human brain must have some upper limit in its maximum pattern recognition and manipulation capabilities. For example, take the old saw of people being able to hold about 5 to 7 disparate concepts or symbols in their head before they begin to have trouble maintaining that set of internal objects. It is equally possible that there is a maximal upper limit to the multi-dimensional patterns a single mind can hold, especially when it comes to the brain power required to internally animate connections between the objects that comprise those patterns; an activity vitally important to mirroring a complex process so you can analyze, predict, and manipulate it.

Therefore, the only way to out of our oncoming massively complex problems will be to create smarter people. However evolution is too slow and the future of artificial intelligence is quite murky in my opinion because as a famous man once said "if the mind was simple enough for us to understand it then we would be so simple we couldn't". This begs the question "what is a knowable path to smarter humans based on existing technologies even if those technologies are in their infancy?". One major fallacy many people carry is that cyborgs are centuries away because we have to understand the workings of the human mind in order to build the hardware necessary to connect to the human brain. I never believed that and now researchers are discovering that neurons don't need to be told how to solve a problem. As I'm sure you know they do that all by themselves. All they need is a set of signals and a feedback loop and they will do the rest. This means that it is very possible that some neuroscientist asking the right questions will create a viable link to the primary visual cortex within the next ten years. We already have monkeys operating robots by thought, albeit doing very simple operations. With advanced MRI imaging and a neural decoder box with lots of high speed chips using evolutionary algorithms it is feasible that the human mind could "teach" the neural decoder how to interface with its primary visual cortex in an important and powerful way.

Once this is done we can begin to tackle the larger problem of creating the first human cluster mind, where people could collectively imagine different parts of a much more complex problem than any of them could handle alone. And each individual would be much smarter too. Silicon based memory could augment a user's primary visual cortex by maintaining objects or symbols for the user that were beyond the usual set of 5 to 7 allowing them to solve problems of a complexity far beyond their unassisted mental capacity. What is the IQ of 5 people linked together in real time, each maintaining and dreaming a piece of a much large pattern, sharing data directly without the encumbrance of translating images to words and full direct non-verbal access to the vast databases of the world? What is the IQ of 10 such people, or a 100? The Zen parable that ends with "Am I now a man who dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming of being a man?" would take on concrete form as people would wake from a powerful dream state where they could see, solve, and understand incredibly complex patterns only to see that understanding slip away when they unplugged until the next time they reconnected. Would they ask after they unplugged for the day "Am I now a human who once dreamed of being a god, or a god now dreaming that I am a human?". Note I am not using god in a religious sense or as some people who would refer to as The Almighty, but in the sense of someone with what to us would appear to have superhuman intelligence.

Yes there are massive logistics and medical problems to solve, everything from preventing runaway feedback loops to designing a proper overall coordinator module needed to manage the attention sub-systems of each participant, but I bet you can see the path as compared to other solutions which are still mostly the stuff of sci-fi writers.

Is this the right path? Is it a good path? I don't know. But compared to the alternative which is watching the world descend into chaos, despair, and destruction then I'll take it if I have to. Besides, the cell phone revolution has shown us that if there's one thing all living beings love to do, it's to connect.

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