Monday, April 4, 2011

The Future of Science and Technology (or The Future of Humankind)

This is a slightly expanded version of a speech I gave to the Felloship of Reason on April 3, 2011.

The Future of Science and Technology

There is a fable involving the game of chess. The story goes that chess was invented in India by one of the wise men employed by the king. The king was so pleased at this new game of chess that he allowed the wise man to choose his own reward.

The wise man said he only wanted some grains of rice - some versions of the legend say it was grains of wheat, but the result is the same - the wise man said he wanted one grain of rice on the corner square of a chessboard, two grains of rice on the next square, four grains on the third square, eight grains on the fourth square, and so on, with the number of grains doubling on each successive square of the chessboard, until all sixty four squares of the chessboard have their alloted amount of rice.

The king thought this was a most reasonable request, perhaps even an insultingly low reward. However, the king agreed to it, and called on his accountant to calculate out the rice and give it to the wise man.

Days later the king asks the accountant what the delay is, and the accountant explained how the number of grains the king owed the wise man was a huge amount - it was much more rice than was grown in the whole kingdom. Mathematically, the result is two to the sixty fourth power minus one, which in decimal is a number with twenty digits. The amount is truly astronomical. If all these grains of rice were laid end to end they would reach to the second nearest star - not the Sun, but Alpha Centauri and back. Needless to say, the king was very unhappy with this. Legend is unclear on what happened next, except that it was surely bad for the wise man.

The point of telling this fable is to demonstrate the mathematical concept of exponential growth. A function whose output doubles with a linear increase in input is an exponential. Im the cases I'll desribe, the input of the exponential function is time, with the output being various things we've found to grow as an exponetial function over time.

Perhaps the first notice of exponential growth outside of mathematics is in biology, with reproduction of an organism. In the Thirteenth Century the mathematician Fibbonacci is credited with discovering a number sequence allegedly based on the reproduction rate of rabbits. This number sequence is starts with one and one, and each subsequent number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two, so the third number is 2. The fourth is the third plus the second, or 2+1, which is three. The fifth is 3+2, which is five. The sequence continues with the numbers 8, 13, 21, 34, and on. This sequence does not double every step, and not even every other step. But if you take any number in the sequence and double it, that new number will be between the second and third numbers past the original number in the sequence, so the Fibonacci sequence doubles approximately every two and a half steps.

An actual biological population increases much like this. A dish of food seeded with batcteria will show exponential growth until the available food runs low. This brings up the idea that there's always a practical limit to exponential growth.

In the year 1959, noted scientist Richard Feynman gave a talk titled "There's Plenty of Room At The Bottom." He discussed the possibility of making very small devices. He claimed that with the technology of the time it was possible to write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin, and read it with a microscope. He conjectured that it should be possible to take the twenty-two volume Encyclopaedia Brittanica, reduce its size to the head of a pin, and each dot in a halftone image would be still 32 atoms across, and it would be readable through an electron microscope.

Feynman ended his talk with a challenge of miniaturization: He offered one thousand dollars to the first person to make an operating electric motor that fits in the volume of a cube 1/64th of an inch on a side. Feynman's purpose in offering the challenge was to spur on new manufacturing techniques to make extremeny small devices. Within a few years someone did make a motor of the specified size, but he made the motor painstakingly by hand using traditional techniques. Feynman paid up, as he saw he failed to specify how the device was made. From a historical perspective he may have had the right idea, he was just ahead of his time.

John Von Neumann was famous as the designer of the first electronic digital computer. His basic design of using the same memory storage for both data and program instructions remains in common use today. In 1958 he noticed the increase of technoligy in his lifetime, and is credited with saying: "The ever-accelerating process of technology ... gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity on the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." I'll come back to this idea of a technological singularity.

In 1965 an article titled "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits" was published in Electronics, an industry trade publication. Integrated circuits were first invented in the 1950's when it was realized that a transistor is small enough that two of them could be made on the same piece of silicon or germanium, the basic substrate instead of just one. The package would be the same size, except it would have six leads coming out of it instead of three. Transistor designers went on to make internal connections between these transistors, and add even more of them to the same substrate, thus the modern integrated circuit was born. The modern name for an integrated circuir, or IC as it was abbreviated at the time, is now a microchip, or even just achip. The author if this article came to the realization that the number of transistors on a chip was doubling about every year and a half. He further observed that there is nothing theoretically stopping this trend from continuing. This article was written by Gordon Moore, then head of R&D at Fairchild Semiconductor, and it is the source of what was later named Moore's Law. A few years after the article, Moore quit Fairchild and cofounded a very successful semiconductor company named Intel.

In 1986 a book was published expanding on the ideas of Richard Feynman's 1959 talk, named Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, by K. Eric Drexler. Drexler wrote of building new products and materials, not by the physical and chemical means done for centuries, but on the atomic scale, moving atomes together one by one to build up new molecules and materials.

Manipulations of atoms are already being done naturally on a massive scale. Atoms combine chemically to form molecules, but these are generally some of the simplest combinations. Biology is both the cause and result of more complicated molecules. Whenever a cell divides, its DNA splits into two strands, and the appropriate amino acids attach along the newly disconnected sites on each strand, making a perfect copy of a very long and complicated molecule. Many other biological processes take place where atoms are moved into specific places to cause specific effects, to process energy in a cell or to transmit a nerve impulse.

Scientists are studying both non-biological and biological molecules with great interest, in order to harness them to make artificial molecules to do things previously unimaginable. When basic computing elements become as small as molecules and as easily reproduced as a clump of reproducing cells, the massive parallelism may generate a computer with the power of a human brain.

About ten years ago in my online studies I came across the word transhumanism. It is a philosophy derived from humanism in that humanist ideals are considered good, but it goes beyond traditional humanism in that technology is seen as powerfully enabling tool whose power will continue to grow and enhance humanity. The great emergence of technology in the 20th Century will only continue at an ever quickening rate. There are articles related to nanotechnology as Drexler had described it, and talk of creating molecular factories to put on on every desktop, much as computers were appearing on every desktop in the 1980's. There was also talk of something called the technological singularity, as first mentioned by John Von Neumann.

The name Verner Vinge was mentioned in this context. Vinge is a now-retired professor of mathematics and computer science, but is better known as an author of science fiction. He also wrote an essay in 1993 for which he is moderately famous. The title is "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era." In it he makes this prediction: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." The thirty year mark from his prediction is the year 2023, just twelve years from now.

How much progress can be made in the fields of computer learning and artificial intelligence in the next twelve years? Let's look at where we're been recently and where we are now. In 1997 a conputer beat the world champion in a chess match. Less than two months ago, a computer beat the two top champion winners on Jeopardy.

So what's the definition of the word singularity? In mathematics, it is a point in a function where the denominator of a division is zero, and thus undefined. The term is also used in physics to describe the point at the center of a black hole, where the density of matter allegedly becomes infinite.

As applied to the human endeavors of science an technology, the Singularity refers to a point in time where technology, information and knowledge expand at a rate too fast for any one person to keep up, or even too fast for all humanity to keep up. When one can buy a computer for less than the cost of a good used car that is smarter than the buyer, not just in playing chess and Jeopardy, but in virtually any mental endeaver that we would call intelligence, including emotional intelligence, it's bound to make a substantial change in society.

In 2005 a popular book came out that that made similarly astounding predictions. The title is "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil. He's a scientist and inventer, and has written several books previously with dramatic preductions such as a computer beating the world chess champion, but this book was more popular than his previous ones, and has garnered much more attention. He makes similar predictions as Vinge, but he makes further predictions and goes to great extents to explain and justify them. Specifically, he claims that in the year 2025, a computer will be made that has the same thinking and reasoning power as a human, and this computer will sell for a thousand dollars. He claims that in the year 2045, a computer will be made that has the same thinking and reasoning power as all of humanity combined, and THIS computer will sell for a thousand dollars.

Filmmaker Barry Ptolemy read an early review of "The Singularity is Near," ran to the bookstore to buy it, and by the end of the first chapter, decided to make a film about Ray Kurzweil, his life and the concepts in the book. Ptolemy contacted Kurzweil who agreed, even though Kurzweil is also working on his own film based on the book. Ptolemy followed Kurzweil around for two years, filming all the while, and the result is the movie "Transcendent Man," recently available on iTunes and DVD.

Kurzweil talks about his father in the movie. He wants to bring his father back to life, and he seriously believes there will come a time when he can do this. It may not actually be his father's consciousness, but it will be his father's appearance from his DNA, and his mannerisms and personality from how Kurzweil and others remember him.

I've yet to see the movie "Transcendent Man," though I've watched the three-minute trailer, read many reviews, and seen many interviews with both Kurzweil and Ptolemy in the past month or two as they have gone around the country promoting the movie.

I have references below with the some of the weblinks and books I've based this talk on. If you don't want to go through them all, I suggest starting with the ones at the end. I haven't even touched Kurzweil's interest in longevity and life extension, and his desire to and belief that he can live forever. He apparently practices caloric restriction, a method proven in lab animal studies to give a healthier and substantially longer life, though it requires a strict dietary regimen. He does this to help him live to times in the near future when future medical breakthroughs will help people live even longer, until "escape velocity" in which every year medical advances extend the average human by one year. I could write a whole separate talk on caloric restriction and life extension.

So, what if or when this Singularity comes to pass, what will become of us humans? What will become of humanity?

I'll sum that up with Ray Kurzweil's own words, his last words spoken in the film "Transcendent Man." I don't think I'm giving anything away or spoiling the movie, as at least two reviews also quote this line. It's very much something one might expect him to say, the words sound pompous, yet Kurzweil always speaks with a modest tone of voice.

Ray says, "People ask me if there is a God. I say, not yet."

Notes and References

The Wheat and Chessboard Problem

The Fibbonacci Number sequence

The Technological Singularity including John Von Neumann's 1950's quote

Richard Feynman's 1959 speech on microminiaturization: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom"

Gordon Moore, "Cramming morre components onto integrated circuits" Electronics, April 19, 1965

(1986) Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler
Online text at:

Verner Vinge's 30-year Singularity prediction, written in 1993
"The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era"

Futurist books by Ray Kurzweil
(1990) The Age of Intelligent Machines
(1999) The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence
(2005) The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

Books specific to health and life extension by Ray Kurzweil
(1992) The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life: How to Reduce Fat in Your Diet and Eliminate Virtually All Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer
(2004) Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (with Terry Grossman, MD)
(2009) Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (with Terry Grossman, MD)
by Roy Walford
(2000) Beyond the 120 Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years
Website and Society dedicated to Life Extension by Caloric Restriction

(2009) online news article "Four Singularity Movies - The World Wants The Future"

Transcendent Man (Motion Picture - Trailer, 2:59)

Transcendent Man (Barry Ptolemy) on Twitter featuring many online text, audio and video interviews with Kurzweil and Ptolemy

(2011) Scientific American, Feb. 11 The Immortal Ambitions of Ray Kurzweil: A Review of Transcendent Man

The Singularity (Motion Picture, as yet unreleased - Trailer, 3:47)