Sunday, July 3, 2016

Falling Down Short of the Singularity

Somewhere around 35,000 years ago an unknown artist or shaman recorded his, or her, existence by leaving a handprint inside Chauvet Cave located in France. That handprint along with a multitude spectacular paintings depicting animals of that age mark one of the earliest examples of humans creating something tangible that didn't directly aid their constant struggle for survival. In other words, it's not wrong to think that handprint and those paintings mark the beginning of when humans start to define themselves as something more than an overly intelligent animal.

That was in no way meant as a disparaging remark directed towards our ancestors living in those prehistoric times. Their brains were quite occupied learning such nontrivial things like how to create complex stone tools and learn hunting techniques that took years to master. Failure to pass on this knowledge would almost certainly mean the death of the family or tribe. Then there were things most people of our age don't even begin to consider, such as how to tell the difference between two similar looking plants because one could cure things like a sick stomach whereas the other would kill a person who mistakenly ate it. Throw in other items like knowing the stalking habits of animals, such as the local sabertooth cat that had developed a taste for naked primates since it ate Uncle Oog down by the stream last winter. Given the horrendous struggle to survive, it doesn't take much in the way of imagination to think there might have been members of that tribe that considered painting pretty animals on cave walls as a huge waste of time and effort.

As much as those cave painting signified the beginnings of human progress, there was little to else to talk about until about 12,000 years ago when bright boys and girls in different locations around the globe figured out the basics of agriculture. The pace of change picked up after that as more readily available food meant a larger population, which in turn helped create more complex societies requiring increasing levels of cooperation and organization among people. The end result was human civilization that manifested itself in the form of cities, politics, empires, wars, nations, religions, money, laws, science, literature, art, and a growing level of technological knowledge that would seem like magic to those early humans that used Chauvet Cave for their paintings.

The two common factors linking all the progress associated with civilization through the ages is the creativity of the human mind and the hard work of millions of individuals. Without either the human species would still be restricted to small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the planet literally looking for their next meal.

For better or worse, those of us alive today live at the edge of a new age completely different from what any of our ancestors could have conceived. No, I'm not talking about some megalomaniacal A-hole destroying civilization or even the outright extinction of the human species through the use of nuclear or biological weapons. What we are possibly on the verge of seeing is the reduction or possible total removal of the human mind as the main creative element to further spur the advancement of civilization. As for the human workers, they are already feeling the impact of this new age with technology making many jobs obsolete.

As much as it might be damn difficult to fathom, progress in both computer hardware and artificial intelligence (AI) software opens up the possibility that in our lifetime we could see emergence of computers that equal or even surpass the intelligence of us puny humans. The general idea is that once a certain level of computer intelligence is reached, these silicon based go-getters could then take over the design process and over the course of an extremely short time, create such a massive intelligence chasm between them and us Homo sapiens, that we'd be lucky if they decided to keep us as pets.

No, this isn't another example of irrational twenty-first century American societal angst, tangible and testable advances in computer systems are regularly pushing the envelope on what computers can accomplish. Now whether of not this Technological Singularity could even happen is a subject of intense debate among computer and biological scientists. But respectable experts such as futurist, Ray Kurzweil and computer scientist and science fiction author, Vernon Verge have predicted this event to happen sometime between five to one-hundred years from now. That is enough of a difference to suggest to some this is just another example of over educated eggheads going the route of medieval theologians who liked to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

However, when you add up, then average the predicted dates from multiple sources, you come up with a median value of around the year 2040. Soon enough that a fifty-one year old slacker such as myself, might live to see a group of super intelligent computer-based entities decide they have had enough of humanity's collective tantrums and get rid of us. Quite frankly, given the current Republican presidential nominee, and the vast majority of the members of that party, I would happily turn over the running of the United States to a sentient computer. Because an inhuman, silicon-based intelligence scares me less than a megalomaniac and the semi-moronic hordes showing disturbing proto-fascist tendencies.

So yeah, while I have all the respect in the world for Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking and their warnings about the dangers of AI, without a doubt I would gleefully choose a possible Skynet over a man who actually talked about the size of his penis during a televised political debate. Given humanity's bizarre and self destructive neuroses, should the option present itself, I can't say I wouldn't actively campaign to elect a silicon-based intelligence because the situation here on Earth is so screwed up.

Political nightmares aside, given the pace of hardware and software advancement, the concept that the human race could wake one morning and find itself superseded in the intelligence department is something we need to take seriously. Furthermore, the possibility that a basic sentient AI system that could over the space of a few months design an ever increasingly intelligent series of more advanced models, it's a good question whether such god-like entities would even register the existence of several billion naked primates.

Could this be all wild, science fiction speculation that will soon join countless other failed predictions that both futurists and crazed college professors have been talking about for decades? Sure, in real terms the human brain is still a huge unknown and there are scientists that scoff at the idea it could ever be superseded by anything like current or near-term hardware or software. There is one huge problem with that shortsighted and casual dismissal, you don't need a sentient super computer to up end the global socioeconomic system. Advances in general robotics and software-bots threaten not just low skilled minimum wage jobs but skilled and white collar professions.

The best example about how robotic systems are fast encroaching on area of work once thought safe is Baxter the robot. We're not talking about the usual single-use industrial robots that have done monotonous work like welding for decades, Baxter learns new things by watching someone do them first, for the most part it can see and pretty much can do any task within reach of its arms. Baxter's industrial applications range from knitting, packaging, loading and unloading, machine tending, and material handling. I once worked in the manufacturing industry and that list of abilities would pretty much empty out a factory of most human costs. While Baxter is slow moving, the big saving associated with using him comes in the fact that he costs only pennies worth of electricity to run along with a small amount for maintenance and upkeep.

The biggest disturbance that has made the numerous appearance on the media are driver-less cars and trucks. Sorry folks, this is not something coming, its here now and only going to get better and, unfortunately take more jobs. Driver-less vehicles have already logged hundreds of thousands of miles in California and all without an accident until very recently. No, it is clear driver-less cars are not perfect but that is not the point, with over 40,000 people killed each year in car accidents with humans in command all they have to do is be better to make them more economical. Simple liability costs will eventually force humans to nothing better than a glorified co-pilot in their own cars. That says nothing about the trucking industry using them for short haul loads, which in some settings is already happening.

White collar professionals shouldn't feel safe, while the image of a C3PO-like robot being used as attorneys or doctors is still something for the rather distant future software-bots already exist in several disturbing forms. Truthfully, much of legal work is sifting through tons of paperwork looking for what can seem microscopic inconsistencies. Legal software now regularly scans and analyze millions of pages of documents and duly notifies waiting humans who can decided if the discovered item is relevant. No, humans haven't been taken totally out of the equation, just greatly reduced, which still results in piles of money being saved that would have otherwise gone to salaries. Yes, you are free to imagine a bunch of senior law partners relaxing in the Caribbean sun as yet another software-bot sends them a message saying that the one or two underlings at the office have made a break in the case.

Doctors will also feel the displacing power of software-bots since they can easily analyze the interaction of thousand of different drugs and how they would impact their patients. That function by itself certainly saves lives but software-bots are also breaking into the realm of diagnosing illnesses and diseases since they have the ability. You may remember IBM's “Watson”, who while crushing the puny humans on Jeopardy being his hobby, is actually designed to be a doctor. Something Watson is already doing at Sloan-Kettering Hospital with lung cancer patients.

Crazy but possible predictions or sentient computers aside, it is clear our society, and the world, will be seeing incredible changes from both advances in robotics and software happening right now. These creations are slowly taking over the burden of maintaining both our society and economic way of life as well as advancing civilization in general. Because of this many jobs people depend on will either be greatly reduced or outright eliminated because, just like the free-market types love to say, the laws of economic always win. Of course, that was fine with them as long as it was lowly fast food worker types demanding a livable wage. You've got to love the irony in the fact that even skilled and professional types will see their sanctimonious positions be assaulted by the same technology that could make your local Burger King or McDonald's automated factories of unhealthy crap.

The thing our leaders should do right now is start coming up with ways to keep these displaced individuals if not employable at least integrated into our society. Americans have an all too ingrained habit of either ignoring our poor and homeless or pretending their situation is the result of some character flaw. Whatever the case, if our nation even wants to pay lip service to the basic principles upon which it was founded our society is going to have to evolve rapidly, and quite possibly in ways that seem that most Americans readily ridicule. Below you will find a You Tube video that explains the situation far better than I can, I HIGHLY recommend it be watched along with others that respond to it.


Pixel Peeper said...

OK, so I watched the video. Now I'm not sure if I should be excited, curious, scared, or depressed.

Coincidentally, our local paper has a column in Saturday's paper about computer gadgets and related stuff. Yesterday's topic touched a bit on this...and mentioned that Maybe computers can't do it all. Humans still do better at writing poetry.

Not sure if the link will work; newspapers these days are notorious for not letting you get to the article in the link. If so, apologies.

So I considered becoming a poet...LOL. And then, towards the end of your video clip, I got the reminder that, of course, we can't be a society of creative artists. Dangit.

Ranch Chimp said...

This is an excellent posting for your readers Bum and good food for thought. As far as our leaders coming up anything/ ideas of what to do? ... well, I dont know that they care about nothing more than appeasing and kissing the asses of those who line their pockets, or even have anything of value to people for most of them, we can start with displacing them ... since many are nothing but well educated mouthpieces that are worthless to us. Buy yes, I am counting on real big changes to come, and that is one of the reasons that I say the very top of the wealth is draining us financially in all you see currently happening, they know that they even are obsolete, and only accumulating/ ratholing all they can, because they expect what we have now as far as capitalism, economy, etc, etc ... will soon collapse, the same reason they dont care about climate change or the ecosystem, or use all our tax money and labour to explore new horizons in space. This system of capitalism even will change and be worthless in time, and the need to populate at the rate we do now will be pointless, but I also see the new technologies as a positive for near future humanity and a co- existence ... I cant find words to explain what I think, because I dont have those literary skills ... but I'll leave it there ... hope you and your familia have a nice 4th of July.

Nasreen Iqbal said...

This made me think about a couple things that old hippies have said.

The first was a drug guru named Terrence McKenna, who died about 15 years ago. He talked about the "rate of novelty," which was a little like the singularity thing. Basically, he claimed to be able to figure out the rate at which the amount of new information in a culture doubled (keep in mind, he was probably always on drugs). It used to take a thousand years, then 400, and the time needed for a doubling of information was going down quickly.

He was convinced that by 2012 (December 21, I suspect), that this doubling was going to be coming at such a fast rate that it would basically reach a critical threshold where it would be a constant doubling, or... I don't know. Singularity.

The other thought was one that Alan Watts had in the Sixties. he was convinced we were unnecessarily hurting our people through automation. He believed that when automation took a job off the table, there ought to be some kind of social credit set up wherein we'd all get the benefits. That would be money, I guess. He was probably on drugs, too.

I'm more skeptical. I was in Houston a few years back when a hurricane knocked everything out. Electricity, phones, internet. People were helpless. They went and stood in front of closed grocery stores hoping that the stores would open eventually. We're one hacker, storm, or terrorist away from having everything fall apart.