Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Brains and Machines

It's Singularity TIME
Hooking brains to machines is the focus of an upcoming book (Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines) by Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis excerpted in the February 2011 Scientific American.
   The piece is a rhapsodic forecast of the not-too-far-off day,  Nicolelis says, when brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) bring about "the liberation of the human brain from the physical constraints imposed by the body."
   He maps the way forward, as he sees it, through the brain-wave-controlled prosthetic devices his lab  develops, then mind-controlled software and on-body neural apps, to a day, still perhaps a few decades off, when we may be participating in "a conscious network of brains, a collectively thinking true brain net," that may not only allow us to "communicate back and forth with one another just by thinking, but also to vividly experience what (our) counterparts feel and perceive..." (Don't we kind of do that already?)
   We will wake up one morning, he says, and realize that we have "given birth to a new species altogether." This new animal would be able to "explore remote environments through avatars and artificial tools controlled by thought alone." The environments he's talking about include "the depths of the oceans to the confines of supernovae, even to the tiny cracks of intracellular space inside our own bodies."
   Fun, right?! And potentially profitable, too. The movement's Thomas Edison will be the guy (possibly Nicolelis himself, he suggests) who safely and reliably links, with a two-way in-out connection, the machine world with the neural one: a USB port for the brain. Invest now!

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   Meanwhile, the cover story of this week's Time Magazine, looks at Ray Kurzweil's prediction of the "singularity," an event that makes Nicolelis's look pedestrian. The singularity is that future moment when machines become intelligent, adept, and fast enough to create ever more intelligent, adept, and fast machines causing a kind of screaming feedback loop of "progress."  After that, says Kurzweil, all bets are off;  the only thing he can say for sure is that the post-singularity word won't resemble this one. Not at all.
  The article is exhilarating as a thought experiment, but way out there as science journalism goes, despite the fact that the author of the piece, Lev Grossman, writes blithely that, though the inevitability of the singularity sounds like science fiction (and Yes it does!), it isn't. At least, Grossman says, "no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It's not a fringe idea."
  It may or may not be an accurate prediction, but it is most certainly fringe. That's why it's fun to read about and, for the moment anyway, not simply terrifying.


MaoClare said...

But do the machines have to wake up in the Singularity for them to radically change our lives? We're already merging with our machines - physically and symbolically. This trend will only continue with our without an A.I. awakening. And that is enough to give us pause (if you're like me and wish for less technology, not more).

The Author said...

Thanks, MaoClare. You are tuned in! I suspect humans have long had a special identity-merge-type love affair with our machines. The first wheel, or spear, must have turned everything human on its head. It's true, as Marx said, that you become what you do. But the closer our machines get to our minds (let alone our brains) the more directly hey're going to influence us, not just by changing what we do but by directly changing what we are.

benjamin aldes wurgaft said...

Mr. Slack,

Did you see the TR review of Transcendent Man? I was shocked, shocked to note such a mainstream (and rather bio-conservative) publication responding positively to Kurzweil. That, if nothing else, may be a sign of the mainstreaming of the singularity concept, regardless of its veracity. Plus some of my students are convinced its going to happen... for what it's worth.

The Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Author said...

Dear Dr. Wurgaft,
I did see the rapturous TR review, though I haven't yet seen the film itself. Speaking of rapture, does the singularity strike you as kind of secular science-tinted version of the Christian rapture? The specific-moment-when-everything-changes aspect? The excited fear and trembling it inspires. The insiders/believers vs the skeptics/losers? Maybe, since you know more than I about the H+ movement, you can tell me what its version of repentance is. What do those who hope to ascend in the Rapture, I mean the Singularity, need to do to please their deity? Buy lots of Apple and Cryogenics stock? Engineering PhD from MIT? I want in. Just tell me how to pray in 1GL.
PS: Urge your students to get outside.

benjamin aldes wurgaft said...

I haven't seen the film myself, either, nor am I much good at predicting how best to get in on the mythical singularity - not being a singularitarian myself, I share the view I think you're hinting at, that's its a form of Rapture-thinking. Last year a young friend of mine finished a Reed senior religion thesis on the subject. There was a NYTimes article, "The Rapture for Nerds," which for my money got the story mostly right. Except that the story is really much more complex - there's something valuable to learn from the Kurzweil Kase (as opposed to from Kurzweil himself) about what bad predictors we are of the technological future. He's doing much, much better than most past futurists, and he STILL is getting many things wrong. He's just in a tough line of work. But to your specific question, people who want in on the Singularity are typically trying to keep themselves in the best health possible while amassing fortunes. There's a fascinating libertarian dimension to the whole project, having to do with a anti-nomian hatred of all laws, both regulatory (markets) and natural (biological and physical).