What Intelligent Life Is Made Of

A Talk by Michael Bogdanffy-Kriegh

First delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, December 20, 2009.

The chance of gain is by every man more or less over-valued, and the chance of loss is by most men undervalued, and by scarce any man, who is in tolerable health and spirits, valued more than it is worth.

From Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

I described this talk as a walk around the world of alternative intelligence with a few stops to consider the meaning of life in a world of rapid technological advancement. As I am now coming from the perspective of having researched and written the talk, I should probably amend that to be a walk around the world of alternative being.

I will tell you right away that I am not any kind of expert on computers, artificial intelligence, molecular electronics, the meaning of life or any of the other technologies and philosophical questions I may touch on directly or indirectly during the course of this talk. Nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. So I don’t have any particular qualifications to be giving this talk, other than I am human, as curious as the next guy or gal, read a lot, and have always wondered about what it all adds up to.

The seed of this talk was planted by a New York Times article by John Markoff published last July. The article was about a conference that took place almost a year ago in February. The world’s leading computer and robotic scientists met to discuss the implications of, and ethical issues raised by, emerging technologies that can increasingly simulate human intelligence and emotions, as well as a host of computer driven technologies with the potential to cause a great deal of harm.

The conference took place at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California, the same site used in 1975 by the world’s leading biologists to discuss the possible hazards and ethical implications of genetic engineering.

Among their concerns were the possible criminal uses of artificial intelligence, the potential for significant job loss as intelligent machines assume increasing amounts of the human work load and the possibility of machines becoming capable of making life and death decisions on their own. On that last point, the article pointed to the predator drones in use in Iraq and Afghanistan and statements by the airforce about future plans for them that paint a vision of a broad range of drones, from strategic bombers to nano sized spy bots. As computer technology advances, the air force envisions swarms of drones mounting “preprogrammed attacks on their own.”

According to scientists at the conference “we have reached the cockroach stage of machine intelligence.” My AI antennas now being fully raised and extended, I signed up for a blog called “Smart Planet,” which regularly posts juicy tech items like a link to a video of a remote control beetle. Scientists had managed to implant electrodes in a rather large beetle and were able to make it turn right or left by remote control.

This, I thought, could give a whole new dimension to the cockroach problem in NYC. Honey! The government cockroaches are spying on us again! On the other hand, I can imagine organized crime being brought to its knees with the help of police surveillance cockroaches. Maybe it’s not all bad.

Even before this a web community of architects using the same cad program I use posted a link to this video which I find astonishing:

Boston Dynamics Big Dog

Big Dog and the remote control beetle are DARPA projects. DARPA is the defense department’s weird science arm. And speaking of arms, one last peak at a DARPA project that addresses a compelling need but also has some further implications by logical extension:

Prosthetic Arm

Alright, my antennas are not only up, but this is really starting to get interesting! And it gets better, or more worrisome, depending on how much of a technophobe you are. Recently, two articles about robotic technology and computers that can make scientific discoveries and intuit the laws of physics were published.

In the first case, scientists at Aberystwyth and Cambridge Universities in England have built a robot named Adam that was able to:

• Hypothesize that certain genes in a yeast code for certain important enzymes;
• Devise experiments to test the hypothesis;
• Run the experiments;
• Interpret the results;
• And use those findings to revise the original hypothesis and test it out further.

Researchers confirmed “that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.”

In the second case researchers at Cornell created a computer program that was able to derive the laws of motion from data about the movement of a pendulum in just over a day. The computer’s process relies on genetic algorithms which practice a kind of natural selection of ideas. With each pass through the data, equations are generated describing relationships in the dataset. Initially, all the equations are wrong, but some are less wrong than others. The computer retains the less wrong equations as a subset to work on, and in successive generations, arrives at equations that are fully correct.

The article ends with a quote form cognitive scientist Michael Atherton that indicates there is still a long way to go before humans are not needed in the process. I think he was trying to be comforting.

These examples of various types of robotics and alternative intelligence endeavor are a very few of the almost innumerable ways in which we are pushing on the boundaries of what intelligence, indeed, what being is.

Not long after the New York Times Article started me down the path of this talk, I stumbled across an article by Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, published in Wired magazine in April of 2000. Bill Joy is a lifelong believer in the power of computational technology and has made a very good living out of it. The article is entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us.” The lead in to the article is as follows:

“Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”

In the article Joy marks his first encounter with inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil as the moment his healthy concern for the ethical implications of new technology turned into a realization of how great the dangers we are facing in the 21st century are.

It was a quotation from Kurzweil’s book, The Age of the Spiritual Machine, which troubled him most deeply. Let me share it with you:

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

On the other hand it is possible that human control over the machines may be retained. In that case the average man may have control over certain private machines of his own, such as his car or his personal computer, but control over large systems of machines will be in the hands of a tiny elite – just as it is today, but with two differences. Due to improved techniques the elite will have greater control over the masses; and because human work will no longer be necessary the masses will be superfluous, a useless burden on the system. If the elite is ruthless they may simply decide to exterminate the mass of humanity. If they are humane they may use propaganda or other psychological or biological techniques to reduce the birth rate until the mass of humanity becomes extinct, leaving the world to the elite. Or, if the elite consists of soft-hearted liberals, they may decide to play the role of good shepherds to the rest of the human race. They will see to it that everyone’s physical needs are satisfied, that all children are raised under psychologically hygienic conditions, that everyone has a wholesome hobby to keep him busy, and that anyone who may become dissatisfied undergoes “treatment” to cure his “problem.” Of course, life will be so purposeless that people will have to be biologically or psychologically engineered either to remove their need for the power process or make them “sublimate” their drive for power into some harmless hobby. These engineered human beings may be happy in such a society, but they will most certainly not be free. They will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”

From the Unabomber Manifesto, by Theodor Kaczynski

Joy did not in any way condone the actions of Kaczynski whose bombs had hit as close to home as gravely injuring his friend David Gelernter, but he could not dismiss the argument.

Joy goes on to cite Hans Moravec’s book Robot : mere machine to transcendent mind, which presents a future for the human race of being supplanted by the intelligent technologies they have created. Moravec is a robotics technology expert who founded the robotics research program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Moravec speculates that eventually, and sooner than we all think, robotic technology will guide its own design and production. He believes our main job in this century will be to ensure the cooperation of these intelligent machines.

Perhaps now is a good time to step back and think about a few distinctions we are fond of making that may not be as useful as they once were. You will note that in the published description of this talk I use the term “alternative” intelligence as opposed to the far more common “artificial” intelligence. This is because I do not believe that the distinction between natural and artificial is useful when it comes to intelligent technologies. I also do not believe that the distinction between natural and unnatural is useful most of the time. Everything we have knowledge of and everything we create is part of the same universal system obeying the same universal laws with results that cannot in any way be determined to be unnatural or artificial. We certainly can have causes and effects that are unconstructive or unpleasant from our point of view. The possibility of that is part of what we are talking about today. However, it is not accurate to think of any of them as unnatural or artificial. Any result we see or can produce is a result of what is possible in the universe.

It is important to make this distinction because, accuracy aside, I believe that humankind has indulged a myth of the separation of human endeavor and production from the constructions of nature to our own great confusion and detriment. In this way we are able to justify acts of incredible violence within nature and mollify ourselves about the potential consequences of our technological progress. So let’s be frank and honest. Alternative intelligences of superior stature to our own, should they come about, will be an entirely natural extension of, evoloution of, intelligence in the universe.

When I begin to remove these distinctions and view these developments as part of a continuum, certain things start to make more sense. For example, let me extend the idea of “alternative” intelligence to include the idea of “alternative vessels of intelligence.” Until not so long ago I was enamored of the idea of human space travel. I’ve even done a couple of peer reviewed papers on the subject. More recently though, I have lost my enthusiasm for human space exploration largely because I cannot figure out where there is for flesh and blood to go. There is no destination reachable within current human life span that is hospitable as far as I know. There may well be earthlike planets elsewhere in the universe, but for the time being we are walled off from them by distance and the time it will take to travel that distance unless we find some version of Star Trek warp drive. Space tourism is the best future I can paint for humans in space at the moment.

Far more reasonable and likely to me, based on my limited knowledge of what is going on, is that completely alternative forms of intelligence will do the work of exploring the solar system and beyond. It makes much more sense to design vessels of intelligence that are suited to the environments in which they will be placed.

I suppose this could be a highly engineered version of human flesh and blood as imagined in the movie Blade Runner. Kurtzweil for example, believes that our robotic technologies will begin to merge with our bodies with a complete merger scheduled for the end of this century.

Of course Medical science has been replacing parts of us with engineered alternatives for some time now. However, the circumstances under which this technology is being deployed are shifting. Individuals are starting to tailor their bodies through surgery to gain a competitive advantage over their fellow humans. For example, special ops military personnel are surgically enhancing their vision to be better than 20/20. Again, there is nothing too surprising here except when you begin to extend the implications of all this engineering to its logical conclusions.

Computer scientists project that by 2020 we will achieve a computational device with a capacity that is equivalent to the human brain. By 2025, they say, such a device will be available for our home office. Such an achievement would not be human like intelligence, but it is the next threshold we pass on the way to an intelligent being composed of something other than flesh and blood. Hans Moravec projects such a being by the middle of this century.

Of course, the information super highway is littered with the road kill of prognostications and prognosticators who have been wide of the mark, though it is worth noting that this is true both in terms of overly optimistic projections as well as undully pessimistic ones. Moravec himself describes in detail the painfully slow development of a technology that can drive a car down a road without human assistance. Way back in the 60’s he and his colleagues felt it should be possible in the near term to create such technology, but what they learned is that one of the things the human mind is very good at, spatial perception and the ability to distinguish what is important to the task at hand from what is not is, or at least was, incredibly difficult to replicate in machine perceptive intelligence.

It has taken over 40 years to arrive at a place where we are beginning to hear about tests of practical vehicles that will navigate highways by themselves. Indeed, we already have vehicles on the market that can park themselves. What needed to happen is the exponential increase in computational power that we have experienced in the last 20 years. Some have predicted that by 2015 or 2020 we will reach the limits of Moore’s law, which is that the number of transistors that can be economically placed on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months. New technologies are coming to the front, however, that most experts believe will extend the pace of Moore’s law out to the middle of the century.
What we have then, is all the bits and pieces of a new kind of perceptive, mobile and interactive intelligence. Where is all this heading?

Science fiction authors and scientists have been speculating about this for a long time. The more optimistic, or perhaps human centric, believe we will merge with these technologies and become a form of super humanity with greatly extended lifespan and cognitive capabilities. Others conjecture that we will cohabitate with them for a while and enjoy a kind of species retirement phase before passing away into the annals of evolutionary history. Still others are worried that the arrival of this intelligence will be so sudden and swift that we will not be able to cope.

In 1963, Dr. I J Good described what he called the technological singularity. Dr. Good played an important role in cryptoanalysis during WWII, was a professor at Trinity College in Oxford England and worked in the Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England.  He also worked on the University of Manchester Mark I, which was the first computational device to resemble what we call a computer today.

Dr. Good wrote:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

This past September my wife Holly and I learned to channel our inner Julia Childs into wonderful Boufe Burganion at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. The week before the class was scheduled, my good friend Lee Stuart suggested that while we were there we should visit the grave of Tielhard De Chardin. Mon Dieu! I said, you mean to tell me that he is buried in Hyde Park a mere 20 minutes north of where I am living?

Tielhard de Chardin was a Jesuit monk, a philosopher, geologist and paleontologist who assisted in the discovery of Peking Man. His seminal work, one of my favorite books, is The Phenomenon of Man written in the early 1930’s, about the same time as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because his ideas were at odds with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church at the time, he was not allowed to publish the book. It was not until after his death in April of 1955 that it finally saw the light of day. It was just this past summer that Pope Benedict XVI publically embraced his work.

The Phenomenon of Man is not a long read, but it requires concentration and re-reading to be sure one has grasped all the ideas. At least for me it does. In this book de Chardin traces the rise of life and then intelligence on the planet earth and discusses its evolution into a layer, called the Noosphere, wrapping around the surface of our planet, and its eventual arrival at what he called the Omega Point.

It is an interesting lineage of thinking that the Phenomenon of Man builds on and that in turn gets built upon it. The concept of the Noosphere was originated by the Russian and Soviet mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, “who is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and of radiogeology,” according to Wikipedia. Vernadsky’s most noted work is a book entitled The Biosphere, published in 1926, which popularized Eduard Suess’ biosphere concept.

The noosphere, according to Vernadsky, represents the latest phase of the development of Earth. It was preceded by the development of the geosphere and then the biosphere. The earth formed, life emerged and now human cognition. With the arrival of human cognition there is a fundamental transformation of the geosphere. For Vernadsky the noosphere becomes a reality at the point that humankind masters nuclear processes and creates resources through a transmutation of elements. This sounds remarkably like what some describe as the powers of nanotechnology.

I have barely mentioned nanotechnology today. In a nut shell, it is a technology of ultraminiaturization that envisions molecular sized machines that can manipulate individual molecules and atoms into constructions of all kinds. Developers of this technology promise extremely efficient and very inexpensive manufacture, for example. One author I read speculated that it would be possible for such machines to pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and manufacture useful products from it.
Teilhard’s noosphere is a little different as it is the result of the aggregation and interaction of human minds, folded in on one another by the curvature of the earth’s surface and as such it is a collective being. As humankind organizes itself into ever more complex social networks this aggregation of minds develops awareness. For Teilhard, this culminates in the Omega Point, or the goal of history which is an apex of thought and consciousness. Teilhard’s concept has led many to think of him as a predictor of the Internet and cyberspace.

An important aspect of the concept of noosphere is the idea that evolution cannot be explained through Darwinian natural selection alone. It was Henry Bergson who first proposed the idea that evolution is “creative,” and in 1923 C. Lloyd Morgan, described an “emergent evolution” as explanation for increasing complexity. Morgan based this on his observation that the most interesting changes in living things were often largely discontinuous with past evolution and not the result of a gradual natural selection process. There are instead jumps in complexity like the emergence of the noosphere and a self reflective universe.

Ray Kurtzweil and Hans Moravec both imagine futures in which intelligence explodes across the solar system and out into the universe, and where being becomes something altogether different and more remarkable than it is today. Moravec goes so far as to suggest that such intelligence will be capable of holding worlds, solar systems, galaxies, even the known universe in its mind, and that there is no way of knowing that we aren’t the thoughts or memories of such an intelligence from some other place and time.

The scientific and engineering communities are both enthusiastic and apprehensive about all of this. There are, if the emergence of this leap of intelligence can be managed at all, enormous benefits to be expected in terms of human longevity and/or enhancement. Future technological breakthroughs will make goods production radically more efficient and environmentally benign. Medical treatments, especially those involving surgical intrusion into the body, will become far more effective and far less invasive. We may well be able to hook ourselves up with this intelligence and have thought capabilities beyond anything we experience today. Our bodies, should we want them to, will live far longer. It is precisely this promise of ever more and ever better that draws us down this tunnel of technological innovation and evolution.

According to most of the reading I have done, it will be futile to resist. This is a genie that once set free, as inevitably it seems it will be, will never go back in the bottle. This is a truth of nature and evolution that might be especially difficult to confront.

If we suppose for a moment that any of these scenarios are possible, that the more benign of them is what becomes our reality, and that we don’t find some other way to do ourselves in, which is by no means a given, then many questions arise as to what the transition will be like.

Kurtzweil paints a picture of an economic world where the bottom rung of the ladder of required skills and knowledge is lifted continuously and ever further out of reach for an ever greater part of humanity. We will spend increasing amounts of our lives refreshing and augmenting our skills to keep up. Relentlessly, the machines will get continuously better at doing what we know how to do.

At some point we will have to deal with the fact that these machines have become sentient and we will have to decide what rights they have or struugle to protect our own, hoping that they are as thoughtful about this as we strive to be.

In scenarios where we merge with this technology the ethical and moral issues will become thick and thorny. The advantages of the best of this technology will, initially at least, be available to an elite few. Class divides could become directly linked to our ability to enhance the hardware and software of ourselves and become increasingly hard to cross. To mitigate that, we will need a healthcare system that can provide equitable access to these enhancing technologies. And you thought the current healthcare debate was difficult!

And we won’t get into the implications of the fact that militaries will get to these technologies before the general public does.

I have to confess, I am on the one hand deeply concerned about the possibility that this could get away from us with really unpleasant results and on the other, I am fascinated and excited by it. I can imagine intelligence in alternative vessels and forms without a lot of trouble. I think it is entirely possible. I think there are a ton of pointers pointing at it. I think a lot of things start to make sense with the possibility of it. I think dreams of exploring the solar system and beyond become reasonable in the light of it. And most of all, I think it offers the possibility that all of this has a goal, that there is meaning to the unfolding of life on this planet.

It promises to be a brave new world with experiences we can barely imagine. Navigating the transition will be fraught with peril. Our understandable desire that there not be anything better than being human, except possibly an enhanced form of being human, will challenge us mightily. It is what causes us to distinguish between artificial and natural. What keeps us believing that there is and never will be anything more significant than the love of another human being.

A while ago we were at a friend’s apartment, enjoying some Chinese food and watching the documentary film “Man on Wire,” which tells the story of the planning and execution of Philippe Petite’s wire walk between the two towers of the world trade center. It is a story of the hubris of human kind and the beauty and precariousness of life. The film has significance for our friend who was downtown when the towers were struck and fell and who herself walks a tightrope of existence every day.

I think about the difficulty that computer and robotic scientists had creating a machine that could do something as simple as navigate its way down a corridor in a building, or along a road with ambiguous edges. These are things we all can do with ease and don’t even think about. And I wonder how much harder still it will be to create a machine that can not only spend 40 minutes hovering on a wire between two buildings, but also have the imagination and the hubris to conceive of such an act and execute it?
I think of the hubris that built the towers and the incredible failings of mind and society that unleashed the terror of 911. I think of the hubris that continuously moves us down the tracks of alternative intelligence.

There may yet be something about human consciousness that is not replicable in silicon or nano technology systems, but many are betting not.

I wonder whether such an ascendant form of intelligence would be capable of the same heights of creative fancy and the same depths of human depravity embodied in the life and death of the trade towers and brought into poignant relief by the very first terrorist act, benign as it was, perpetrated on them by Philippe Petite. Are these things necessary to the unfolding of intelligent being? Or is the worst part of ourselves an evolutionary left over that can be excised without the loss of the best as we make the transition?

I am on the wire, so to speak, about the good or bad of this. And I think all of humanity is on this wire in ways too numerous to count. Whether this brave new world is something to be desired or feared is hard to know. I can imagine it being either, or, both, and…