Dr. Randal A. Koene
(This article is based on my 2012 TEDx talk in Tallinn, Estonia.)
We are all traveling into the future, as are our children and grandchildren. So it is personally relevant to everyone what that future is like. We call a very good future, a future where our species thrives, a utopia. We call a very bad future a dystopia.
We have some agency in the matter of futures, which sort of future we end up experiencing. Particularly, we have agency at a fortunate time such as this, where we have a global infrastructure, global economy and global science to direct at the problems we choose.
There are many ways in which humanity could be wiped out, anything from a man made environmental disaster, war, plague, and robot uprisings to large meteor impacts. Which scenario you are most worried about depends largely on what you think are the most significant developments or natural threats.
There is an even bigger category to be concerned with. Even if humanity continues to exist, a dystopia can mean the end of civilization. It could be a post-apocalyptic result or simply the outcome of ever increasing methods of control. In a dystopia without civilization we imagine people behaving without compassion. We generally do not want to be treated like objects or resources, to be nothing but a cog in a machine.
This is a very important concept, because selection will shape the future just as it has shaped the past. It is everywhere. Daniel Dennett has described this as Universal Darwinism.
It is not constrained to living things. Selection takes place in every event, everywhere in the universe. Consider a collision between a large porous asteroid and a small dense one. The outcome will select for the small dense objects that continue to exist for a longer period of time in a greater area of space. I will revisit this in a moment, when we have to ask ourselves what sort of long-term selection pressures affect an intelligent species, and why our own choices and developments now will matter.
Our natural evolution enabled us to develop better ways to communicate and to interact. With that, we built societies and cultures. A civilization is a means to support human interests that go beyond raw competition. Those are interests such as our desires to understand more and to create more. Sometimes such creation achieves even greater abilities, yet often we carry it out to enrich our experience in an aesthetic way. Civilization is the catch-all for our ability to harness cooperation. Cooperation at different scales strengthens us in the face of pressures.
Another facet of our evolved communication is empathy. As we continue to improve our empathic abilities, culture and civilization move from cooperation achieved by hierarchical coercion to empathic cooperation. You can can see both in effect now, for example in politics. This is an election year in the U.S. As every time, it allows us to see the support for both modes made explicit. Some will emphasize the importance and value of hard work and competitiveness. Some will emphasize the importance and value of empathy and compassion, which, in its application to those in need, can lift up society as a whole.
Cooperation and empathy together lead to ethics. Ethical constructs in many ways bring about respect for the social and creative value of differences: Different groups, different individuals, different goals.
To an extent, we all seek to belong. We find enjoyment, comfort and strength in things that we have in common with others. It is a major component of how we fall in love, build a family, choose friends, belong to interest groups, even nations. At the same time, we want to be respected for our own backgrounds, insights and creations. We specifically want to protect those minority interests of ours from the tyranny of a uniform majority.
Once again, that which we seek in civilization demonstrates what we would consider a dystopia. A machine world of uniformity, for example. Imagine if we created one system or computer brain that we considered good enough or superior, and if we created millions of copies of that. That is dystopia.
Evolution takes place in an environment and in an epoch. We are the result of natural selection that made us suitable to the environment and challenges of a place and time. Things change.
To be human is to be augmented. What we learned and what we teach all of our children is to use our minds in order to augment our bodies. Consider when you learned to drive a car. It is much faster and stronger than your limbs, but you make it your own and soon it feels entirely normal to delicately control a car in complex traffic situations.
We augmented our bodies in every way possible. So far, our minds made do by sharing burdens. We specialized to different skills, depending on each other ever more.
Culture continues to grow, and its complexity is the beauty of our creative abilities. We now use computing tools and networks such as the Internet to speed up and to add ever more information.
I remember when we used to learn how to carry out calculations and derivations in school. I remember when we used to learn facts and data about our history and society. Now we have to learn how to sift through masses of data, how to ask the right questions by entering the right Google phrases. We off-load most of the computation, the data collectors that add to the databases, and especially we rely on external memory.
What are you? What is a personal identity, a self? And correspondingly, what is everything else? You experience yourself sitting here, reading this. You feel the seat. You see and you hear. But really, those things are all results of something. They are generated, processed results. Everything that you experience, everything that you are thinking, remembering, your concept of what is around you, where and when you are... all of that is generated by mental processing. Without it there is nothing, and that processing is all there is to Being.
Some say the self is an illusion, but everything else is just as much an illusion. It is all a construct, a way of structuring things, labeling them, constraining the patterns of your mental activity. Just as much as we can say that your mind is generating an experience, the same is true at different scales. We can equally say that a society of minds is generating an experience. And similarly, parts of your mind, pieces of activity in your brain are parsing their input and generating output, creating their own experiences.
We need to understand this to be more enlightenment and to strive for better things. We generally do not want to fight or harm our friends, because we know them, feel kinship and understanding. We need to understand that everything we are, everything we experience, our very identities and our experiential universes are simply that which we are processing and generating in our minds. As we learn to understand these foundations of Being our civilization matures.
That removes the constraints of a single environment and opens up the door to new senses and new ways of thinking. Imagine remembering with the precision of a computer database or finding optimal solutions with the comparative ease of a quantum computer.
To understand SIM, consider platform independent computer code. It requires a means of processing, but can run on many different platforms. Almost every religion attempts to address the problem of Being, and most espouse some form of adaptable existence whereby experience can be carried on in another substrate.
This is urgent, because we have a window of opportunity. We can tackle fundamental problems we all face, because civilization is largely intact. We have what it takes to get to the next stage.
If you ask any honest neuroscientist: “Do we understand how the mind allows me to recognize my mother?” “Do we understand the human mind?”
The answer in each case has to be no. We simply do not understand enough about the strategies used by the mind at various levels from the top all the way down to cells, which is really what is being asked when someone asks “do we understand”.
Neuroscience has spent most of the last 100 years learning how to identify elements of brain physiology and how to measure signals and compounds at the level of neurons and synapses.
That is why nearly every serious effort to identify functions of a specific person's mind and ultimately to transfer such to substrate-independent minds is presently seeking to do so through the most conservative means, which we call Whole Brain Emulation.
An emulator re-implements function. You probably know some emulators, such as programs that allow you to run PC software on a Macintosh. Every emulation is achieved by carrying out what is known in engineering circles as System Identification.
We are now talking about a concrete roadmap to SIM based on the requirements for system identification.
FIRST REQUIREMENT: How big can the black box be for which we can reliably identify functions that predict its behavior? The bigger the box, the longer you need to observe it. If we chose the entire brain as the black box then you would probably have to observe its input and output over the entire course of its life-span. What you deduce would still be flawed and likely miss latent functions.
The third implementation combines technologies to produce a microscopic hierarchical system for in-vivo measurements.
The basic component is an agent built in familiar IC technology. Prior work has already shown that you can successfully combine microscopic chips with living cells (e.g. work by Gomez-Martinez et al., 2009).
A chip the size of a red blood cell can contain more transistors than the original Intel i4004 microprocessor. Power can be delivered in a number of ways, from magnetic induction to glucose fuel cells, but most easily through light. There is a wavelength of infrared light between 800 and 1000 nm at which tissue is essentially transparent.
Recording of activity can be done either by detecting voltages over a capacitor or by optical means when operated in combination with voltage sensitive proteins that are used to show activity in neurons.
To conduct brain-wide measurements and to deliver data to the outside, large numbers of microscopic agents need to collaborate, each carrying out specialized roles. They would form a team or a secondary network of computation within and side-by-side with the brain.
Measurements made by agents can be collected, multiplexed and converted into signals that are more readily identified by external imaging methods. Locations of measurements can be obtained by combining direct detection of larger hubs with a protocol for relative triangulated distances between agents.
These machines within the mind are purposely conceived as a combination of presently feasible technology. They are an ambitious next step in neuroscience that once again involves a collaboration with MIT and Harvard laboratories.
Yes, it is clearly very ambitious to try to solve these fundamental problems that Universal Darwinism will throw our way. But that is exactly why now is the time to take it on. Right now, we have the means and the opportunity to bring about advances that open up our understanding of who we are, what it means to exist, to be, and to make us a species that will thrive. It stands to reason that we should grab that opportunity while it is here!
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