Posted: Thu, November 15, 2012 | By:
By James Miller
We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. —Vernor Vinge
Economic prosperity comes from human intelligence. Consider some of the most basic human inventions—the wheel, the alphabet, the printing press—and later, more complex and advanced inventions such as indoor plumbing, automobiles, radio, television, and vaccines. All are products of the human brain. Had our species been a bit less bright, these inventions might have escaped us. Yet we can only begin to imagine the many additional wondrous technologies we might now possess had evolution made us even smarter.
In the past, human intelligence was a gift of evolution. No more. We are now using our intelligence to figure out ways of increasing our brainpower. The rapidly falling cost of gene sequencing will soon let us unlock the genetic basis of intelligence. Combining this knowledge with already existing fertility treatments will allow parents to raise the average intelligence of their children, while merging this genetic data with future reproductive technologies might yield children smarter than have ever existed. Even if democratic countries reject these biotechnologies, the historically pro-eugenic Chinese probably won’t. As I predicted in 2007, China has already embarked on a program to identify some of the genes behind genius.
Artificial intelligence (AI) offers another path to expanding the sum of intelligence available to mankind. Over the coming decades, scientists may take advantage of continuous exponential improvements in computing hardware either to create stand-alone, general-purpose machine intelligences or to integrate AI into our own brains.
Vast increases in biological and machine intelligences will create what’s being called the Singularity—a threshold of time at which AIs that are at least as smart as humans, and/or augmented human intelligence, radically remake civilization.
A belief in a coming Singularity is slowly gaining traction among the technological elite. As the New York Times reported in 2010, “Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity.” These early adopters include two self-made billionaires: Peter Thiel, a financial backer of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Larry Page, who helped found Singularity University. Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal, and after selling the site to eBay, he used some of his money to become the key early investor in Facebook. Larry Page cofounded Google. Thiel and Page obtained their riches by successfully betting on technology.
Famed physicist Stephen Hawking is so concerned about a bad Singularitylike event that he warned that computers might become so intelligent that they could “take over the world.” Hawking also told the president of the United States that “unless we have a totalitarian world order, someone will design improved humans somewhere.”
Five undisputed facts that support the likelihood of the Singularity:
1. Rocks exist!
Strange as it seems, the existence of rocks actually provides us with evidence that it is possible to build computers powerful enough to take us to a Singularity. There are around 10 trillion trillion atoms in a 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) rock, and as inventor and leading Singularity scholar Ray Kurzweil writes:
Despite the apparent solidity of the object, the atoms are all in motion, sharing electrons back and forth, changing particle spins, and generating rapidly moving electromagnetic fields. All of this activity represents computation, even if not very meaningfully organized.
Although we don’t yet have the technology to do this, Kurzweil says that if the particles in the rock were organized in a more “purposeful manner,” it would be possible to create a computer trillions of times more computationally powerful than all the human brains on Earth combined. Our eventual capacity to accomplish this is established by our second fact.
2. Biological cells exist!
The human body makes use of tiny biological machines to create and repair cells. Once mankind masters a similar kind of nanotechnology, we will be able to cheaply create powerful molecular computers. Our third fact proves that these computers could be turned into generalpurpose thinking machines.
3. Human brains exist!
Suppose this book claimed that scientists would soon build a human teleportation device. Given that many past predictions of scientific miracles—such as cheap fusion power, flying cars, or a cure for cancer— have come up short, you would rightly be suspicious of my teleportation prediction. But my credibility would jump if I discovered a species of apes that had the inborn ability to instantly transport themselves across great distances.
In some alternate universe that had different laws of physics, it’s perfectly possible that intelligent machines couldn’t be created. But human brains provide absolute proof that our universe allows the construction of intelligent, self-aware machines. And, because the brain exists already, scientists can probe, dissect, scan, and interrogate it. We’re even beginning to understand the brain’s DNA- and protein-based “source code.” Also, many of the tools used to study the brain have been getting exponentially more powerful, which explains why engineers might be within a couple of decades of building a working digital model of the brain, even though today we seem far from understanding all of the brain’s operations. Would-be creators of AI are already using neuroscience research to help them create machine-learning software.
Our fourth fact shows the fantastic potential of AI.
4. John von Neumann existed!
It’s extremely unlikely that the chaotic forces of evolution just happened to stumble on the best possible recipe for intelligence when they created our brains, especially since our brains have many constraints imposed on them by biology: they must run on energy obtained from mere food, must fit in a small space, and can’t use useful materials, such as metals and plastics, that engineers employ all the time.
We share about 98 percent of our genes with some primates, but that 2 percent difference was enough to produce creatures that can assemble spaceships, sequence genes, and build hydrogen bombs. What happens when mankind takes its next step, and births lifeforms who have a 2 percent genetic distance from us?
But even if people such as Albert Einstein and his almost-as theoretically- brilliant contemporary John von Neumann had close to the highest possible level of intelligence allowed by the laws of physics, creating a few million people or machines possessing these men’s brainpower would still change the world far more than the Industrial Revolution did. To understand why, let me tell you a bit about von Neumann.
Although a fantastic scientist, a pathbreaking economist, and one of the best mathematicians of the twentieth century, von Neumann also possessed fierce practical skills. He was, arguably, the creator of the modern digital computer. The computer architecture he developed, now called “von Neumann architecture,” lies at the heart of most computers. Von Neumann’s brains took him to the centers of corporate power, and he did high-level consulting work for many private businesses, including Standard Oil, for which he helped to extract more resources from dried-out wells. Johnny (as his biographer often calls him in tribute to von Neumann’s unpretentious nature) was described as having “the invaluable faculty of being able to take the most difficult problem, separate it into its components, whereupon everything looked brilliantly simple. . . .”
During World War II, von Neumann became the world’s leading expert on explosives and used this knowledge to help build better conventional bombs, thwart German sea mines, and determine the optimal altitude for airborne detonations. Johnny functioned as a human computer as a part of the Manhattan Project’s efforts to create fission bombs. Whereas atomic weapons developers today use computers to decipher the many mathematical equations that challenge their trade, the Manhattan Project’s scientists had to rely on human intellect alone. Fortunately for them (although not for the Japanese), they had access to Johnny, perhaps the best person on Earth at doing mathematical operations quickly.
Unlike many scientists, Johnny had tremendous people skills, and he put them to use after World War II, when he coordinated American defense policy among nuclear weapons scientists and the military. Johnny became an especially important advisor to President Eisenhower, and for a while he was “clearly the dominant advisory figure in nuclear missilery.”
Johnny developed a reputation as an advocate of “first strike” attack and preemptive war because he advocated that the United States should try to stop the Soviet Union from occupying Eastern Europe. When critics pointed out that such resistance might cause a war, Johnny said, “If we are going to have to risk war, it will be better to risk it while we have the A-bomb and they don’t.”
After Stalin acquired atomic weapons, Johnny helped put deadly deterrents in place to prevent Stalin from wanting to start another war. By the dawn of the atomic age, Stalin had demonstrated through his purges and terror campaigns that he placed little value on the lives of ordinary Russians. Von Neumann made Stalin unwilling to risk war because von Neumann shaped U.S. weapons policy—in part by pushing the United States to develop hydrogen bombs—to let Stalin know that the only human life Stalin actually valued would almost certainly perish in World War III.
Johnny helped develop a superweapon, played a key role in integrating it into his nation’s military, advocated that it be used, and then made sure that his nation’s enemies knew that in a nuclear war they would be personally struck by this superweapon. John von Neumann could himself reasonably be considered the most powerful weapon ever to rest on American soil.
Now consider the strategic implications if the Chinese hightech sector and military acquired a million computers with the brilliance of John von Neumann, or if, through genetic manipulation, they produced a few thousand von Neumann-ish minds every year.
Contemplate the magnitude of the resources the US military would pour into artificial intelligence if it thought that a multitude of digital or biological von Neumanns would someday power the Chinese economy and military. The economic and martial advantages of having a von Neumann–or-above-level intellect are so enormous that if it proves practical to mass-produce them, they will be mass-produced. A biographer of John von Neumann wrote, “The cheapest way to make the world richer would be to get lots of his like.”
A world with a million Johnnies, cooperating and competing with each other, has a reasonable chance of giving us something spectacular, beyond what even science fiction authors can imagine—at least if mankind survives the experience. Von Neumann’s existence highlights the tremendous variance in human intelligence, and so illuminates the minimum potential gains of simply raising a new generation’s intelligence to the maximum of what our species’ current phenotype can sustain.
John von Neumann and a few other Hungarian scientists who immigrated to the United States were jokingly called “Martians” because of their strange accents and seemingly superhuman intelligence. If von Neumann really did have an extraterrestrial parent, whose genes arose, say, out of an advanced eugenics program that Earth couldn’t hope to replicate for a million years, then I wouldn’t infer from his existence that we could get many of him. But since von Neumann was (almost certainly) human, we have a good chance of making a lot more Johnnies.
One Possible Path to the Singularity: Lots of von Neumann–Level Minds
Before he died in 1957, von Neumann foresaw the possibility of a Singularity. Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam wrote, in reference to a conversation that he had with von Neumann:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Von Neumann was not a modest man; he knew that he could accomplish great things, especially compared to the average mortal. I bet that when he contemplated the future destiny of mankind, von Neumann tried to think through what would happen if machines even smarter than he started shaping our species’affairs—which leads us to our fifth fact in support of a Singularity.
5. If we were smarter, we would be smarter!
Becoming smarter enhances our ability to do everything, including our ability to figure out ways of becoming even smarter—because our intelligence is a reflective superpower, able to turn on itself to decipher its own workings. Consider, for example, a college student taking a focus-improving drug such as Adderall, Ritalin, or modafinil, to….
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Footnotes are copiously provided in the book.