Thursday, January 01, 2009

Edge 2009

This year's Edge question essays offer a wonderful collection of predictions for what game changing scientific and technical advances we expect to see in the coming decades. It's great that so many futurist ideas are entering the mainstream. My contribution is below. (Being able to post an essay to Edge isn't something I would have predicted for myself two years ago. My life still feels surreal.) Thanks to friends on the sifter list for last minute edits. And happy new year!

Changes in the Changers

Human beings have an amazingly flexible sense of self. If we don a pair of high resolution goggles showing the point of view from another body, with feedback and control, we perceive ourselves to be that body. As we use rudimentary or complex tools, these quickly become familiar extensions of our bodies and minds. This flexibility, and our indefatigable drive to learn, invent, have fun, and seek new adventure, will lead us down future paths that will dramatically alter human experience and our very nature.

Because we adapt so quickly, the changes will feel gradual. In the next few years solid state memory will replace hard drives, removing the mechanical barrier to miniaturization of our computational gadgetry. Battery size remains as a barrier to progress, but this will improve, along with increased efficiency of our electronics, and we will live with pervasive computational presence. Privacy will vanish. People will record and share their sensorium feeds with the world, and the world will share experiences. Every physical location will be geo-tagged with an overlay of information. Cities will become more pleasant as the internal combustion engine is replaced with silent electric vehicles that don't belch toxic fumes. We'll be drawn in to the ever evolving and persistently available conversations among our social networks. Primitive EEG's will be replaced by magnetoencephalography and functional MRI backed by the computational power to recognize our active thought patterns and translate them to transmittable words, images, and actions. Our friends and family who wish it, and our entire external and internal world, will be reachable with our thoughts. This augmentation will change what it means to be human. Many people will turn away from their meat existence, to virtual worlds, which they will fill with meaning — spending time working on science, virtual constructions, socializing, or just playing games. And we humans will create others like us, but not.

Synthetic intelligence will arrive, but slowly, and it will be different enough that many won't acknowledge it for what it is. People used to think a computer mastering chess, voice recognition, and automated driving would signal the arrival of artificial intelligence. But these milestones have been achieved, and we now consider them the result of brute force computation and clever coding rather than bellwethers of synthetic intelligence. Similarly, computers are just becoming able to play the game of Go at the dan level, and will soon surpass the best human players. They will pass Turing's test. But this synthetic intelligence, however adaptable, is inhuman and foreign, and many people won't accept it as more than number crunching and good programming. A more interesting sign that synthetic intelligence has arrived will be when captchas and reverse Turing tests appear that exclude humans. The computers will have a good laugh about that. If it doesn't happen earlier, this level of AI will arrive once computers achieve the computational power to run real-time simulations of an entire human brain. Shortly after that, we will no longer be the game changers. But by then, humans may have significantly altered themselves through direct biological manipulation.

The change I expect to see that will most affect human existence will come from biohacking: purposefully altering genomes, tissue engineering, and other advances in biology. Humans are haphazardly assembled biological machines. Our DNA was written by monkeys banging away at... not typewriters, but each other, for millions of years. Imagine how quickly life will transform when DNA and biochemistry are altered with thoughtful intent. Nanotechnology already exists as the machinery within our own biological cells; we're just now learning how these machines work, and how to control them. Pharmaceuticals will be customized to match our personal genome. We're going to be designing and growing organisms to suit our purposes. These organisms will sequester carbon, process raw material, and eventually repair and replace our own bodies.

It may not happen within my lifetime, but the biggest game change will be the ultimate synthesis of computation and biology. Biotech will eventually allow our brains to be scanned at a level sufficient to preserve our memories and reproduce our consciousness when uploaded to a more efficient computational substrate. At this point our mind may be copied, and, if desired, embedded and connected to the somatic helms of designed biological forms. We will become branching selves, following many different paths at once for the adventure, the fun, and the love of it. Life in the real world presents extremely rich experiences, and uploaded intelligences in virtual worlds will come outside where they can fly as a falcon, sprint as a cheetah, love, play, or even just breath — with superhuman consciousness, no lag, and infinite bandwidth. People will dance with nature, in all its possible forms. And we'll kitesurf.

Kitesurfing, you see, is a hell of a lot of fun — and kites are the future of sailing. Even though the sport is only a few years old and kite design is not yet mature, kitesurfers have recently broken the world sailing speed record, reaching over 50 knots. Many in the sailing world are resisting the change, and disputing the record, but kites provide efficient power and lift, and the speed gap will only grow as technology improves. Kitesurfing is a challenging dynamic balance of powerful natural forces. It feels wonderful; and it gets even more fun in waves.

All of these predicted changes are extrapolations from the seeds of present science and technology; the biggest surprises will come from what can't be extrapolated. It is uncertain how many of these changes will happen within our lifetimes, because that timescale is a dependent variable, and life is uncertain. It is both incredibly tragic and fantastically inspiring that our generation may be the last to die of old age. If extending our lives eludes us, cryonics exists as a stopgap gamble — Pascal's wager for singularitarians, with an uncertain future preferable to a certain lack of one. And if I'm wrong about these predictions, death will mean I'll never know.

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