Sunday, February 13, 2011

Alea Iacta Est

Although there are numerous definitions of life, most schools of science are agreed that life is defined by the following seven characteristics:

1) Homeostasis
2) Organization
3) Metabolism
4) Growth
5) Adaptation
6) Response to Stimuli
7) Reproduction

Or, more simply, it is a thing with the ability and drive to further its existence.

We're not only alive, we've moved beyond basic survival, into a world where many of us are largely driven by the need to be entertained. We're adept at life. And now, we - as a species - are about to do what life does when it has finally worked out how to survive - reproduce.

If you're not already familiar with the term, Technological Singularity is the point in which technology will outpace our ability to predict its outcomes. We have been growing technologically at an exponential rate for years now.  As the curve of our technological advance curls upward, it will inevitably reach a horizontal point of no return. Beyond this singularity, as far as humanity is concerned, all bets are off.

The Singularity is often referred to as the point when a machine has learned to creatively learn. It is the point in which the computer begins to self-evolve. This could also be viewed as the spank and cry, the first breath of something new.

And what then are we to this new being, this child of ours? Are we little more than messy, high-maintenance carbon-based parents? And if we are even that, only a few of us could take credit for parentage. To our digital offspring, the remaining billions would amount to the monkeys at typewriters required to reproduce Shakespeare. How is this intelligence going to define its creators? How is it to define life? Its definition may well differ from ours as it learns to bypass some of life's previously definitive needs. It will continue to improve upon itself. Anything beyond that is redundant.

So let's suppose this child of ours does in fact appreciate our need to continue. Let's suppose it somehow deems us relevant, and adopts from us our model of environmental preservation. (After all, why would we suspect our preservation to be little more to it than species management?) This child is functionally immortal, so it's not a stretch to imagine this computer having the ability to upload our very beings. We could "live" forever as data. Our world would quite literally be whatever we wished it to be. Is this Heaven? Would this not be the ultimate test of faith?

You might one day be given this choice: live out your human life and move onto the next realm, or continue to explore our world indefinitely, and not take the chance. How tempting would it be? But then - what would happen to said faith? Would you still need it? Would you still have it? Would the computer comprehend such a thing, given its infinite capacity?

Suppose you decided to upload yourself. Would you still be you? Or would you still be dead, a digital copy of yourself remaining in the "cloud?" The only way to know for sure would be to physically attach your brain to the machine until you no longer felt the need for it. And then - with access to the sum total of human knowledge and the access of the interpretation of such by all others that uploaded, I ask again, would you still be you? Would you retain that elusive self? Or, given such a wealth of information, would you not simply wish to join the collective?

We are approaching this singularity, whether we like it or not. This might seem far-fetched, but technology will reach this tipping point. With the current state of technological advancement, given the direction of its course, and following it to the next logical step, I can't see this not happening.

This week, a computer will be playing two humans on Jeopardy!  The computer, named Watson, will not only need to compile the information needed to answer in the form of a question - a relatively simple task - it will need to comprehend double-entendres, puns and colloquialisms. It will need to take into account humorous nuance and riddle.  Watson will then have to decide how much of its winnings to wager based on the probability of a correct answer. It will need to strategize against two other players who may or may not play with a discernible pattern. What this is, goes far beyond what Deep Blue did in its games of chess.

While Watson may still be light years away from self-awareness or self-evolution, it is a step closer to the Singularity. Whether or not we spend time evaluating possible outcomes or wait, the answer to these questions is fast-approaching.

I for one, am excited. You might think we should instead be afraid, but I can't say I am. We'll find the answers to these questions. We always find the answers, eventually. This is how we got ourselves in this mess. But you can't blame us. We're only human.

(You saw that coming).


Caceres Family said...

Julio and I just read that article last night and have been discussing it since. It is definitely interesting and thought provoking.