The Singularity: What It Means for Us

I was recently asked to write a short article for kids, that will explain what is “The Singularity”. So – here’s my shot at it. Let me know what you think!

 

Here’s an experiment that fits all ages: approach your mother and father (if they’re asleep, use caution). Ask them gently about that time before you were born, and whether they dared think at that time that one day everybody will post and share their images on a social network called “Facebook”. Or that they will receive answers to every question from a mysterious entity called “Google”. Or enjoy the services of a digital adviser called “Waze” that guides you everywhere on the road. If they say they figured all of the above will happen, kindly refer those people to me. We’re always in need of good futurists.

The truth is that very few thought, in those olden days of yore, that technologies like supercomputers, wireless network or artificial intelligence will make their way to the general public in the future. Even those who figured that these technologies will become cheaper and more widespread, failed in imagining the uses they will be put to, and how they will change society. And here we are today, when you’re posting your naked pictures on Facebook. Thanks again, technology.

History is full of cases in which a new and groundbreaking technology, or a collection of such technologies, completely changes people’s lives. The change is often so dramatic that people who’ve lived before the technological leap have a very hard time understanding how the subsequent generations think. To the people before the change, the new generation may as well be aliens in their way of thinking and seeing the world.

These kinds of dramatic shifts in thinking are called Singularity – a phrase that is originally derived from mathematics and describes a point which we are incapable of deciphering its exact properties. It’s that place where the equations basically go nuts and make no sense any longer.

The singularity has risen to fame in the last two decades largely because of two thinkers. The first is the scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who wrote in 1993 that –

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

The other prominent prophet of the Singularity is Ray Kurzweil. In his book The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil basically agrees with Vinge but believes the later has been too optimistic in his view of technological progress. Kurzweil believes that by the year 2045 we will experience the greatest technological singularity in the history of mankind: the kind that could, in just a few years, overturn the institutes and pillars of society and completely change the way we view ourselves as human beings. Just like Vinge, Kurzweil believes that we’ll get to the Singularity by creating a super-human artificial intelligence (AI). An AI of that level could conceive of ideas that no human being has thought about in the past, and will invent technological tools that will be more sophisticated and advanced than anything we have today.

Since one of the roles of this AI would be to improve itself and perform better, it seems pretty obvious that once we have a super-intelligent AI, it will be able to create a better version of itself. And guess what the new generation of AI would then do? That’s right – improve itself even further. This kind of a race would lead to an intelligence explosion and will leave old poor us – simple, biological machines that we are – far behind.

If this notion scares you, you’re in good company. A few of the most widely regarded scientists, thinkers and inventors, like Steven Hawking and Elon Musk, have already expressed their concerns that super-intelligent AI could escape our control and move against us. Others focus on the great opportunities that such a singularity holds for us. They believe that a super-intelligent AI, if kept on a tight leash, could analyze and expose many of the wonders of the world for us. Einstein, after all, was a remarkable genius who has revolutionized our understanding of physics. Well, how would the world change if we enjoyed tens, hundreds and millions ‘Einsteins’ that could’ve analyzed every problem and find a solution for it?

Similarly, how would things look like if each of us could enjoy his very own “Doctor House”, that constantly analyzed his medical state and provided ongoing recommendations? And which new ideas and revelations would those super-intelligences come up with, when they go over humanity’s history and holy books?

Already we see how AI is starting to change the ways in which we think about ourselves. The computer “Deep Blue” managed to beat Gary Kasparov in chess in 1997. Today, after nearly twenty years of further development, human chess masters can no longer beat on their own even an AI running on a laptop computer. But after his defeat, Kasparov has created a new kind of chess contests: ones in which humanoid and computerized players collaborate, and together reach greater successes and accomplishments than each would’ve gotten on their own. In this sort of a collaboration, the computer provides rapid computations of possible moves, and suggests several to the human player. Its human compatriot needs to pick the best option, to understand their opponents and to throw them off balance.

Together, the two create a centaur: a mythical creature that combines the best traits of two different species. We see, then that AI has already forced chess players to reconsider their humanity and their game.

In the next few decades we can expect a similar singularity to occur in many other games, professions and other fields that were previously conserved for human beings only. Some humans will struggle against the AI. Others will ignore it. Both these approaches will prove disastrous, since when the AI will become capable than human beings, both the strugglers and the ignorant will remain behind. Others will realize that the only way to success lies in collaboration with the computers. They will help computers learn and will direct their growth and learning. Those people will be the centaurs of the future. And this realization – that man can no longer rely only on himself and his brain, but instead must collaborate and unite with sophisticated computers to beat tomorrow’s challenges – well, isn’t that a singularity all by itself?

 

 

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Want to have Better Memory? Marry More People!

“So let me get this straight,” I said to one of the mothers in my son’s preschool. “You want to have a parent meeting, where we’ll demand that all the kids in the preschool will only receive vegan organic food cooked in the school perimeter?”

She nodded in affirmation.

“Well, this sounds like a meeting I just can’t miss.” I decided. “Give me a second to check my cellphone number. I just don’t remember it anymore.”

Her mouth twisted as I took out my smartphone and opened my contact book. “You really must rid yourself of this device.” She sniffed. “It’s ruining everyone’s memories.”

“Oh, certainly.” I smiled back at her. “First, just get a divorce from your husband. Then I’ll divorce my smartphone.”

“Excuse me?” Her eyes widened.

“It’s pretty simple.” I explained. “The smartphone is a piece of technology. It’s a tool that serves us and aids our memory. You could easily say that marriage is a similar technology – a social tool that evolved to augment and enhance our cognitive functions. This is what psychologist Daniel Wagner and his colleagues discovered in the 80s, when they noticed that married couples tend to share the burden of memories between each other. The husband, for example, remembered when they should take the cat to the vet, while the wife remembered her mother in law’s date of birth. You remember the date of your mother in law’s birthday, don’t you?”

“No, and I have no intention to.” She chillingly said. “Now, I would ask you to – “

“Maybe you should have better communication with your husband.” I tried to offer advice. “Wagner found out that memory sharing between couples happens naturally when the live and communicate with each other. Instead of opening an encyclopedia to find the answers to certain questions, the husband can just ask his wife. Wagner called this phenomenon transactive memory, since both husband and wife share memories because they are so accessible to each other. Together, they are smarter than each of them. And who knows? This may be one reason for the durability of the marriage institution in human culture – it has served us throughout history and enabled couples to make better and more efficient choices. For example, you and your husband probably discussed with each other about the best ways to take a mortgage on your house, didn’t you?”

“We didn’t need any mortgage.” She let me know in no uncertain terms. “And I must say that I’m shocked by your – “

“ – by my knowledge?” I completed the sentence for her. “I am too. All this information, and much more, appears in Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, which I’m currently reading. Highly recommended, by the way. Do you want me to loan it to you when I finish?”

“I would not.” She shot back. “What I want is for you to – “

“ – to give you more advice. I would love to!” I smiled. “Well, for starters, if you want an even better memory then you should probably add a few more partners to marry. Research has shown that transactive memory works extremely well in large groups. For example, when people learned complicated tasks like putting together a radio, and were later tested to see what they’ve learned, the results were clear: if you learned in a group and were tested as part of a group, then you had better success than those who learned alone. Students can also use transactive memory: they divide memory tasks between the members of the learning group, and as a result they can analyze the subject in a deeper and more meaningful manner. So maybe you should find a few more husbands. Or wives. Whatever you like. We don’t judge others, here in America.”

“Or maybe – “ And here I paused for a second, as her face rapidly changed colors. “Maybe I can keep my smartphone with me. Which would you prefer?”

She opened her mouth, thought better of it, turned around and got out of the door.

“You forgot to take my number!” I called after her. When she failed to reply, I crouched down to my kid.

“I’ve got a lot to tell her about organic food, too.” I told him. “Please ask her son for their phone number, and tell it to me tomorrow, OK?”

He promised to do so, and I stroked his hair affectionately. Transactive memory really is a wonderful thing to have.

 

Bionic Ears and Microphone Fingernails – Oh My!

Everywhere you go, you can find scientists and engineers doing 3-D printing. They may be using it to print bridges over water, or buildings and houses, or even hearts and livers and skull parts. In fact, we’re hearing so much about 3-D printers creating the normal and ordinary stuff all over again, that it’s becoming pretty boring.

This, of course, is how technology makes progress: slowly, and with iterative changes being added all the time. We’re currently using 3-D printers just to create all the old stuff, which we’re used to. The makers and creators are mainly interested today in demonstrating the capabilities of the printers, and put less emphasis on actually innovating and creating items that have never existed before, and of course, the clients and customers don’t want anything too extraordinary as well. That’s the reason we’re 3-D printing a prosthetic ear which looks just like a normal ear, instead of printing a Vulcan ear.

What happens if we let go of the ordinary and customary, and begin rethinking and reimagining the items and organs we currently have? That’s just what Manu S. Mannoor, Michael C. McAlpine and their groups did in Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. They made use of a 3-D printer to create a cartilage tissue the shape of a human hear, along with a conductive polymer with infused silver nano-particles. The end result? A bionic ear that should look and feel just like an ordinary ear, but has increased radio frequency reception. It is not far-fetched to say that Mannoor and McAlpine have printed the first biological ear that could also double as a radio receiver.

Mannoor, McAlpine and team's 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities. Originally from paper "3D Printed Bionic Ears"
Mannoor, McAlpine and team’s 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities.
Originally from paper “3D Printed Bionic Ears

Where else may we see such a combination between the biological and the synthetic? This is a fascinating thought experiment, that could help us generate a few forecasts about the future. If I had to guess, I would venture a few combinations for the next twenty years –

  • Radio-conductive bones: have you come for a hip replacement, and also happen to have a pacemaker or some other implant? The researchers will supply you with a hip-bone printed specifically for you, which will also contain conductive elements that will aid radio waves go deeper into the body, so that the implants can receive energy more easily from the outside by radio waves or induction of some kind.
  • Drug delivering tattoos: this item is not 3-D printed, but it’s still an intriguing combination of a few different concepts. Tattoos are essentially the result of an injection of nano- and micro-particles under the skin. Why not use specific particles for added purposes? You can create beautiful tattoos of dragons and princesses and butterflies that can also deliver medicine and insulin to the bloodstream, or even deliver adrenaline when pressed or when experiencing a certain electrical field that makes the particles release their load. Now here’s a tattoo that army generals are going to wish their soldiers had!
  • Exquisite fingernails: the most modern 3-D printers come with a camera and A.I. built-in, so that they can print straight on existing items that the user places in the printer. Why don’t we make a 3-D printer that can print directly on fingernails with certain kinds of materials? The fingernails of the future – which will be printed anew every day – might contain tiny batteries that will power smartphones by touch, or microphones that could record everything that happens around the user.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.

These are obviously just three rudimentary ideas, but they serve to show what we could gain by leaving behind the idea that new manufacturing technologies should adhere to the “old and proven”, and advance ahead to novel utilities.

In the end, the future is never just “same old same old”, but is all about shedding off the customs of the past and creating new ones. And so, if I had to guess, I would wager that such a unification of concepts into new and bizarre devices would give us a much more accurate view of the future than the one we gain in the present by showing how 3-D printers can build yet another house and another human organ.

What are your ideas for future combinations of biological and synthetic components? Write them down in the comments section!

First Human Undergoes a Genetic Engineering Treatment to Reverse Aging

Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.

BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.

I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.

I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. Image originally from BioViva.

Are They for Real?

After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?

While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.

The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.

That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.

“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.

The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.

In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”

And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?

“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”

The Future of Aging

So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.

“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”

This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.

Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”

This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.

Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”

As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”

Conclusion

It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.

The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”

Smarter, stronger, faster… and younger?

Sign me in.

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Featured image at top of article is originally from Flickr user Arileu 

A School Is Engineering Children’s Brains with Electrical Current

Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”

After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?

Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.

The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.

Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.jpg
An illustration depicting the magnetic field being operated on a human brain.

But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).

You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.

 

This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.

A child using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Is this the new form of learning? Image originally from a blog post in Scientific American, by Gary Stix.

The Age of Brain Engineering

There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?

The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)

Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?

Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?

You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.