The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question:
Us: “Why are we here?”
Earth: “Plastic … asshole.”
I just finished Ray Kurzweil’s How To Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. The book is technical enough for the nerdy, but plainspoken enough for everyone else. It got me thinking or, as Kurzweil would have it, pattern matching.
Kurzweil expands on his decades-long thesis that the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR as he’s coined it) drives the exponential increase in price/performance of computing. By 2029, this growth in hardware/software will create an intelligence that rivals our brain’s wetware. The LOAR is based on five key concepts that underly all computing:
- Arbitrarily accurate communication, based on Claude Shannon’s noisy channel coding theorem;
- Universal computation, based on the Turing Machine;
- Von Neumann’s architecture of the modern computer;
- Artificial, brain-like intelligence that passes the Turing Test; and
- Moore’s Law which says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.
You may argue with Kurzweil’s timing, but it’s hard to argue with his logic. Whether we like it or not, we are on a collision course with an artificial brain that will encode more than 300 million patterns on a massively parallel architecture. Even with today’s scant cloud computing, we are already expanding our memories (Google/Bing) and traversing time/distance across social networks (Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn).
Kurzweil not only argues the technology, but tries to address the consciousness, free will, and identity challenges posed by an artificial, sentient being. With respect to free will, Kurzweil cites some interesting research that our motor cortex starts to initiate an action about a fraction of a second before we’ve made the actual decision to take the action. If true, where’s the free will? It turns out that we exercise more free won’t than free will — that is, our decisions often stop actions that are more automatic than we realize.
Although Kurzweil starts the ethics discussion, he hardly finishes it. The ethical challenges of creating another life form are profound, especially those surrounding a life form that is at least as intelligent as us.
As a species, humans have a pretty poor track record of social and interspecies justice. I’m skeptical on how we’ll act in a world of replicants given our spotty history on racism, xenophobia, animal experimentation, etc. We Homo sapiens have sweated our way to the top of the food chain over the last 200,000 years. I don’t think we’ll give up that perch so easily. Technology may grow exponentially but wisdom grows linearly.
Kurzweil’s escape hatch from the existential dilemma of a world filled with replicants is disarmingly clever. We become the replicants, assimilating our newly created, artificial minds into our own.
After all, who wouldn’t mind a shiny new mind with limitless capabilities. A world of technology-assimilating humans dodges the whole replicant identity dilemma for two reasons. First, and formost, there are no replicants. Second, using tools to extend our grasp has been the human M.O. since the first billy club was forged from an animal femur. Consider last night’s 60 Minutes piece on brain-grafted, robotic limbs that can be moved with the mind. No ethical dilemma here, folks. Please move along.
Assimilation could actually work if medical science moves quickly enough. As Kurzweil points out, information technologies move at an exponential pace but medical technologies, anchored by biophysics, do not. The good news is that medicine is using more artificial intelligence and, thus, will benefit from greater exponential growth and the LOAR.
But, in the event that medicine doesn’t keep pace, we can expect our brilliant replicant overlords to make their debut later this century.
And maybe that’s our fate. Maybe the universe, as Carlin prophesied, is just using humans to create a scalable intelligence with enough plasticity to grow beyond our meager quart-sized brain cases. Maybe that’s how the universe will find the intelligence to push wisdom out of its linear growth curve and onto a LOAR.
Us: “And maybe, just maybe, could that be why we are here?”
Universe: “Plastic (intelligence) … asshole.”