Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Just Some Dude"


" 'SUP "

This is the second time in as many years that one of Michael Anissimov's postings has prompted a response from me. The first was Does Enhanced Human = Transhuman, which became my most popular post (though this seems to have more to do with the fact that the second half of it is mostly about Doctor Manhattan).

In Anissimov's most recent post, he makes a statement which does not appear to be deliberately provocative, but nonetheless struck me as rather odd. This statement is "A man with tentacles and wings who can fly and breathe underwater is still just some dude." Granted, wings and tentacles alone do not an Eldritch Abomination make. Still, it's hard to imagine such an individual existing as an otherwise unremarkable person. The sentiment Anissimov is actually trying to express is that physical enhancement is mundane compared to cognitive enhancement, and here I must agree with him.

I think it is fairly likely that by the middle of the century, at the latest, neuro-prosthetics will have advanced to the point that they exceed the functionality of natural limbs, and there will be individuals who adopt them voluntarily. Considering that the military is one of the largest funders of Human enhancement, super soldiers will probably be one of the most common applications of this technology. Anything that's truly superhuman will be highly expensive, and thus limited to a select few. It is a sad scientific fact that most Humans are easily and quickly corrupted by power, so I envision a future where an elite minority of physically superhuman cyborgs tyrannize Human beings. It's actually the premise of my screenplay. Despite the havoc that physical superhumans could cause, it is a cognitive superhuman that would be a real game changer.

The definition of the Singularity that I prefer is simply the creation of superhuman intelligence. We cannot predict what a superhuman intellect would be capable of, or would want to do, and that is what makes it a Singularity. In his post, Anissimov lists three possibilities for uplifting Humans to a superhuman intellect, and comes to the conclusion that none of these are feasible in the foreseeable future. Again, I agree.

Straight up neurosurgery is his first suggestion. Expense, high risk, and long recovery periods make elective brain surgery a bad idea. However, ever if this were not the case, we completely lack the advanced neuro-biological understanding of intelligence necessary to surgically rewire our brains to be 'smarter'. I personally think that the Human brain is already pretty much as smart as a purely biological brain can be. There are many species of animals (mostly cetaceans) that have brains much larger than Human beings, but they clearly do not possess superhuman intelligence. According to a Scientific American article called The Physics of Intelligence , increased brain size produces diminishing returns, since big brains are hungry brains. Increasing synaptic efficiency or density would also consume more energy and take up a disproportionate amount of space, cancelling out any advantage. The article also says " Making wires (synapses) thinner would hit thermodynamic limitations similar to those that affect transistors in computer chips: communication would get noisy." It would seem that if we want to achieve superhuman intelligence, we will have to Borg it up.

Anissimov's second suggestion is optogenentics, which he dismisses for two main reasons, the first is that it requires gene therapy. Gene therapy is indeed too high risk for any one to use effectively at the moment. Chromallocytes, which as far as I can tell are nanites used as gene delivery vectors, will have to replace current viral vectors before elective Human genetic modification becomes viable. Even so, I suspect that any genetic alterations, no matter what delivery vector is used, will always carry the risk of unfortunate side affects. The more radical the alterations, the more radical the side affects. For this reason I doubt that genetic engineering alone will be able to turn a Human into a Transhuman, physically or mentally. It may be able to boost the average IQ, but due to the aforementioned limits of biological intelligence, it could never create a cognitive superhuman.

Anissimov's second reason for dismissing optogenetics is that it still requires brain surgery. This should also be a barrier to any other form of 'wireheading' or brain implants. Anyone familiar with the Borg of Star Trek will know that they inject their victims with nanoprobes which actually construct most of their cybernetics from inside their bodies, largely (but not entirely) eliminating the need for surgery. This is the kind of far-future technology that will be needed for any kind of brain implants to become widely adopted. Until then, I think most people will stick with their iPhones.


Nanites happen to be Anissimov's final suggestion for making the intellectual superman. I don't really have anything to add to his critique. Nanite swarms capable of safely rewiring the brain or constructing internal cybernetics from scratch are not in the foreseeable future. What I would like to add is that an exo-cortex would not technically enhance a Human being's intelligence. Any 'web-chip' that may may be developed in the foreseeable future would interface with the brain in the same manner as a neuro-prosthetic or a cochlear implant. The web-chip may allow the user to surf the Internet inside their own head, or control electronics telepathically, but all this is just an exchange of sensory information. The web-chip is no more a part of its user's brain or mind than their eyeball. It's still googling, only with a different interface. In order to truly enhance a Human's intelligence, the upgrade would have to interface with the brain on the synaptic level, communicating with it in its neural code, and become a fully integrated component of their neural net, as much a part of the brain as its biological components. I don't see this happening anytime soon.
 
So, uplifting a Human being to superhuman intelligence levels seems unlikely. If a true cognitive superhuman is ever created, they will likely be an AI, assuming we ever get that figured out.  However, as I explained in my post Twilight of the Singularity, this may not be all that probable either. Wouldn't it be something if instead of ushering in the Singularity, the first supposed Superhuman AI turned out to be 'just some dude'?

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