Transhumanism… The Shape of Things to Come?

“Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

-Eclipse Phrase

A lot of terms are thrown around these days that allude to the possible shape of our future. Words like Technological Singularity, extropianism, postmortal, posthuman, and Transhuman. What do these words mean? What kind of future do they point to? Though they remain part of a school of thought that is still very much theoretical and speculative, this future appears to be becoming more likely every day.

Ultimately, the concept is pretty simple, in a complex, mind-bending sort of way. The theory has it that at some point in this or the next century, humanity will overcome death, scarcity, and all other limitations imposed on us by nature. The means vary, but it is believed that progress in any one or more of the following areas will make such a leap inevitable:

Artificial Intelligence:
The gradual evolution of computers, from punch cards to integrated circuits to networking, shows an exponential trend upwards. With the concordant growth of memory capacity and processing speed, it is believed that it is only a matter of time before computers are capable of independent reasoning. Progress is already being made in this domain, with the Google X Labs Neural Net that has a connectome of a billion connections.

As such, it is seen as inevitable that a machine will one day exist that is capable of surpassing a human being. This sort of machinery could even be merged with a human’s own mind, enhancing their natural thought patterns, memory, and augmenting their intelligence to the point where their intelligence is immeasurable by modern standards.

Just think of the things we could think up once that’s possible. Well… you can’t exactly, but we can certainly postulate. For starters, such things as the Grand Unifying Theory, the nature of time and space, quantum mechanics, and other mind-bendingly complex fields could suddenly make sense to us. What’s more, this would make further technological leaps that much easier.

Biology:
Here we have an area of development which can fall into one of three categories. On the one hand, advancements in medical science could very well lead to the elimination of disease and the creation of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. On the other, there’s the eventual development of things like biotechnology, machinery that is grown rather than built, composed of DNA strands or other “programmable” material.

Lastly, there is the potential for cybernetics, a man-machine interface where organic is merged with the artificial, either in the form of implants, prosthetic limbs, and artificial organs. All of these, alone or in combination, would enhance a human beings strength, mental capacity, and prolong their life.

This is the meaning behind the word postmortal. If human beings could live to the point where life could be considered indefinite (at least by current standards), the amount we could accomplish in a single lifetime could very well be immeasurable.

Nanotechnology:
The concept of machines so small that anything will be accessible, even the smallest components of matter, has been around for over half a century. However, it was not until the development of microcircuits and miniaturization that the concept graduated from pure speculation and became a scientific possibility.

Here again, the concept is simple, assuming you can wrap your head around the staggering technical aspects and implications. For starters, we are talking about machines that are measurable only on the nanoscale, meaning one to one-hundred billionths of a meter (1 x 10-9 m). At this size, these machines would be capable of manipulating matter at the cellular or even atomic level. This is where the staggering implications come in, when you realize that this kinds of machinery could make just about anything possible.

For starters, all forms of disease would be conquerable, precious metals could be synthesized, seamless, self-regenerating structures could be made, and any and all consumer products could be created out of base matter. We’d be living in a world in which scarcity would be a thing of the past, our current system of values and exchange would become meaningless, buildings could build themselves, and out of raw matter (like dirt and pure scrap) no less, societies would become garbage free, pollution could be eliminated, and manufactured goods could be made of materials that are both extra-light and near-indestructible.

Summary:
All of this progress, either alone or in combination, will add to a future that we can’t even begin to fathom. This is where the concept of the Technological Singularity comes in. If human beings were truly postmortal (evolved beyond death), society was postscarce (meaning food, water, fuel and other necessities would never be in short supply), and machines would be capable of handling all our basic needs.

For Futurists and self-professed Singularitarians, this trend is as desirable as it is inevitable. Citing such things as Moore’s Law (which measures the rate of computing progress) or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns – which postulates that the rate of progress increases exponentially with each development – these voices claim that it is humanity’s destiny to conquer death and its inherent limitations. If one looks at the full range of human history – from the Neolithic Revolution to the Digital – the trend seems clear and obvious.

For others, this prospect is both frightening and something to be avoided. When it comes right down to it, transhumanity means leaving behind all the things that make us human. And whereas some people think the Singularity will solve all human problems, others see it as merely an extension of a trend whereby our lives become increasingly complicated and dependent on machinery. And supposing that we do cross some kind of existential barrier, will we ever be able to turn back?

And of course, the more dystopian predictions warn against the cataclysmic possibilities of entrusting so much of our lives to automata, or worse, intelligent machines. Virtually every apocalyptic and dystopian scenario devised in the last sixty years has predicted that doom will result from the development of AI, cybernetics and other advanced technology. The most technophobic claim that the machinery will turn on humanity, while the more moderate warn against increased dependency, since we will be all the more vulnerable if and when the technology fails.

Naturally, there are many who fall somewhere in between and question both outlooks. In recent decades, scientists and speculative fiction writers have emerged who challenge the idea that technological progress will automatically lead to the rise of dystopia. Citing the undeniable trend towards greater and greater levels of material prosperity caused by the industrial revolution and the post-war era – something which is often ignored by people who choose to emphasize the down sides – these voices believe that the future will be neither utopian or dystopian. It will simply be…

Where do you fall?

Of Mechanical Minds

A few weeks back, a friend of mine, Nicola Higgins, directed me to an article about Google’s new neural net. Not only did she provide me with a damn interesting read, she also challenged me to write an article about the different types of robot brains. Well, Nicola, as Barny Stintson would say “Challenge Accepted!”And I got to say, it was a fun topic to get into.

After much research and plugging away at the lovely thing known as the internet (which was predicted by Vannevar Bush with his proposed Memor-Index system (aka. Memex) 50 years ago, btw) I managed to compile a list of the most historically relevant examples of mechanical minds, culminating in the development of Google’s Neural Net. Here we go..

Earliest Examples:
Even in ancient times, the concept of automata and arithmetic machinery can be found in certain cultures. In the Near East, the Arab World, and as far East as China, historians have found examples of primitive machinery that was designed to perform one task or another. And even though few specimens survive, there are even examples of machines that could perform complex mathematical calculations…

Antikythera mechanism:
Invented in ancient Greece, and recovered in 1901 on the ship that bears the same name, the Antikythera is the world’s oldest known analog calculator, invented to calculate the positions of the heavens for ancient astronomers. However, it was not until a century later that its true complexity and significance would be fully understood. Having been built in the 1st century BCE, it would not be until the 14th century CE that machines of its complexity would be built again.

Although it is widely theorized that this “clock of the heavens” must have had several predecessors during the Hellenistic Period, it remains the oldest surviving analog computer in existence. After collecting all the surviving pieces, scientists were able to reconstruct the design (pictured at right), which essentially amounted to a large box of interconnecting gears.

Pascaline:
Otherwise known as the Arithmetic Machine and Pascale Calculator, this device was invented by French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1642 and is the first known example of a mechanized mathematical calculator. Apparently, Pascale invented this device to help his father reorganize the tax revenues of the French province of Haute-Normandie, and went on to create 50 prototypes before he was satisfied.

Of those 50, nine survive and are currently on display in various European museums. In addition to giving his father a helping hand, its introduction launched the development of mechanical calculators all over Europe and then the world. It’s invention is also directly linked to the development of the microprocessing circuit roughly three centuries later, which in turn is what led to the development of PC’s and embedded systems.

The Industrial Revolution:
With the rise of machine production, computational technology would see a number of developments. Key to all of this was the emergence of the concept of automation and the rationalization of society. Between the 18th and late 19th centuries, as every aspect of western society came to be organized and regimented based on the idea of regular production, machines needed to be developed that could handle this task of crunching numbers and storing the results.

Jacquard Loom:
Invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French weaver and merchant, in 1801, the Loom that bears his name is the first programmable machine in history, which relied on punch cards to input orders and turn out textiles of various patterns. Thought it was based on earlier inventions by Basile Bouchon (1725), Jean Baptiste Falcon (1728) and Jacques Vaucanson (1740), it remains the most well-known example of a programmable loom and the earliest machine that was controlled through punch cards.

Though the Loom was did not perform computations, the design was nevertheless an important step in the development of computer hardware. Charles Babbage would use many of its features to design his Analytical Engine (see next example) and the use of punch cards would remain a stable in the computing industry well into the 20th century until the development of the microprocessor.

Analytical Engine:
Also known as the “Difference Engine”, this concept was originally proposed by English Mathematician Charles Babbage. Beginning in 1822 Babbage began contemplating designs for a machine that would be capable of automating the process of creating error free tables, which arose out of difficulties encountered by teams of mathematicians who were attempting to do it by hand.

Though he was never able to complete construction of a finished product, due to apparent difficulties with the chief engineer and funding shortages, his proposed engine incorporated an arithmetical unit, control flow in the form of conditional branching and loops, and integrated memory, making it the first Turing-complete design for a general-purpose computer. His various trial models (like that featured at left) are currently on display in the Science Museum in London, England.

The Birth of Modern Computing:
The early 20th century saw the rise of several new developments, many of which would play a key role in the development of modern computers. The use of electricity for industrial applications was foremost, with all computers from this point forward being powered by Alternating and/or Direct Current and even using it to store information. At the same time, older ideas would be remain in use but become refined, most notably the use of punch cards and tape to read instructions and store results.

Tabulating Machine:
The next development in computation came roughly 70 years later when Herman Hollerith, an American statistician, developed a “tabulator” to help him process information from the 1890 US Census. In addition to being the first electronic computational device designed to assist in summarizing information (and later, accounting), it also went on to spawn the entire data processing industry.

Six years after the 1890 Census, Hollerith formed his own company known as the Tabulating Machine Company that was responsible for creating machines that could tabulate info based on punch cards. In 1924, after several mergers and consolidations, Hollerith’c company was renamed International Business Machines (IBM), which would go on to build the first “supercomputer” for Columbia University in 1931.

Atanasoff–Berry Computer:
Next, we have the ABC, the first electronic digital computing device in the world. Conceived in 1937, the ABC shares several characteristics with its predecessors, not the least of which is the fact that it is electrically powered and relied on punch cards to store data. However, unlike its predecessors, it was the first machine to use digital symbols to compute and was the first computer to use vacuum tube technology

These additions allowed the ABC to acheive computational speeds that were previously thought impossible for a mechanical computer. However, the machine was limited in that it could only solve systems of linear equations, and its punch card system of storage was deemed unreliable. Work on the machine also stopped when it’s inventor John Vincent Atanasoff was called off to assist in World War II cryptographic assignments. Nevertheless, the machine remains an important milestone in the development of modern computers.

Colossus:
There’s something to be said about war being the engine of innovation. The Colossus is certainly no stranger to this rule, the machine used to break German codes in the Second World War. Due to the secrecy surrounding it, it would not have much of an influence on computing and would not be rediscovered until the 1990’s. Still, it represents a step in the development of computing, as it relied on vacuum tube technology and punch tape in order to perform calculations, and proved most adept at solving complex mathematical computations.

Originally conceived by Max Newman, the British mathematician who was chiefly responsible fore breaking German codes in Bletchley Park during the war, the machine was a proposed means of combatting the German Lorenz machine, which the Nazis used to encode all of their wireless transmissions. With the first model built in 1943, ten variants of the machine for the Allies before war’s end and were intrinsic in bringing down the Nazi war machine.

Harvard Mark I:
Also known as the “IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)”, the Mark I was an electro-mechanical computer that was devised by Howard H. Aiken, built by IBM, and officially presented to Harvard University in 1944. Due to its success at performing long, complex calculations, it inspired several successors, most of which were used by the US Navy and Air Force for the purpose of running computations.

According to IBM’s own archives, the Mark I was the first computer that could execute long computations automatically. Built within a steel frame 51 feet (16 m) long and eight feet high, and using 500 miles (800 km) of wire with three million connections, it was the industry’s largest electromechanical calculator and the largest computer of its day.

Manchester SSEM:
Nicknamed “Baby”, the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) was developed in 1948 and was the world’s first computer to incorporate stored-program architecture.Whereas previous computers relied on punch tape or cards to store calculations and results, “Baby” was able to do this electronically.

Although its abilities were still modest – with a 32-bit word length, a memory of 32 words, and only capable of performing subtraction and negation without additional software – it was still revolutionary for its time. In addition, the SSEM also had the distinction of being the result of Alan Turing’s own work – another British crytographer who’s theories on the “Turing Machine” and development of the algorithm would form the basis of modern computer technology.

The Nuclear Age to the Digital Age:
With the end of World War II and the birth of the Nuclear Age, technology once again took several explosive leaps forward. This could be seen in the realm of computer technology as well, where wartime developments and commercial applications grew by leaps and bounds. In addition to processor speeds and stored memory multiplying expontentially every few years, the overall size of computers got smaller and smaller. This, some theorized would lead to the development of computers that were perfectly portable and smart enough to pass the “Turing Test”. Imagine!

IBM 7090:
The 7090 model which was released in 1959, is often referred to as a third generation computer because, unlike its predecessors which were either electormechanical  or used vacuum tubes, this machine relied transistors to conduct its computations. In addition, it was an improvement on earlier models in that it used a 36-bit word length and could store up to 32K (32,768) words, a modest increase in processing over the SSEM, but a ten thousand-fold increase in terms of storage capacity.

And of course, these improvements were mirrored in the fact the 7090 series were also significantly smaller than previous versions, being about the size of a desk rather than an entire room. They were also cheaper and were quite popular with NASA, Caltech and MIT.

PDP-8:
In keeping with the trend towards miniaturization, 1965 saw the development of the first commercial minicomputer by the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Though large by modern standards (about the size of a minibar) the PDP-8, also known as the “Straight-8”, was a major improvement over previous models, and therefore a commercial success.

In addition, later models also incorporated advanced concepts like the Real-Time Operating System and preemptive multitasking. Unfortunately, early models still relied on paper tape in order to process information. It was not until later that the computer was upgraded to take advantage of controlling language  such as FORTRAN, BASIC, and DIBOL.

Intel 4004:
Founded in California in 1968, the Intel Corporation quickly moved to the forefront of computational hardware development with the creation of the 4004, the worlds first Central Processing Unit, in 1971. Continuing the trend towards smaller computers, the development of this internal processor paved the way for personal computers, desktops, and laptops.

Incorporating the then-new silicon gate technology, Intel was able to create a processor that allowed for a higher number of transistors and therefore a faster processing speed than ever possible before. On top of all that, they were able to pack in into a much smaller frame, which ensured that computers built with the new CPU would be smaller, cheaper and more ergonomic. Thereafter, Intel would be a leading designer of integrated circuits and processors, supplanting even giants like IBM.

Apple I:
The 60’s and 70’s seemed to be a time for the birthing of future giants. Less than a decade after the first CPU was created, another upstart came along with an equally significant development. Named Apple and started by three men in 1976 – Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne – the first product to be marketed was a “personal computer” (PC) which Wozniak built himself.

One of the most distinctive features of the Apple I was the fact that it had a built-in keyboard. Competing models of the day, such as the Altair 8800, required a hardware extension to allow connection to a computer terminal or a teletypewriter machine. The company quickly took off and began introducing an upgraded version (the Apple II) just a year later. As a result, Apple I’s remain a scarce commodity and very valuable collector’s item.

The Future:
The last two decades of the 20th century also saw far more than its fair of developments. From the CPU and the PC came desktop computers, laptop computers, PDA’s, tablet PC’s, and networked computers. This last creation, aka. the Internet, was the greatest leap by far, allowing computers from all over the world to be networked together and share information. And with the exponential increase in information sharing that occurred as a result, many believe that it’s only a matter of time before wearable computers, fully portable computers, and artificial intelligences are possible. Ah, which brings me to the last entry in this list…

The Google Neural Network:
googleneuralnetworkFrom mechanical dials to vacuum tubes, from CPU’s to PC’s and laptops, computer’s have come a hell of a long way since the days of Ancient Greece. Hell, even within the last century, the growth in this one area of technology has been explosive, leading some to conclude that it was just a matter of time before we created a machine that was capable of thinking all on its own.

Well, my friends, that day appears to have dawned. Already, Nicola and myself blogged about this development, so I shan’t waste time going over it again. Suffice it to say, this new program, which thus far has been able to identify pictures of cats at random, contains the necessary neural capacity to acheive 1/1000th of what the human brain is capable of. Sounds small, but given the exponential growth in computing, it won’t be long before that gap is narrowed substantially.

Who knows what else the future will hold?  Optical computers that use not electrons but photons to move information about? Quantum computers, capable of connecting machines not only across space, but also time? Biocomputers that can be encoded directly into our bodies through our mitochondrial DNA? Oh, the possibilities…

Creating machines in the likeness of the human mind. Oh Brave New World that hath such machinery in it. Cool… yet scary!