The Utopia of the Machines

What would a society and economy look like if it was comprised, not of flesh and blood humans, but of disembodied emulations of human minds, some occupying robots of all speeds, shapes and sizes, others completely disembodied, running in simulations of virtual reality in city-size cloud computing facilities? This is the premise of a sustained exercise in futurology by the economist Robin Hanson, in his recently published book “The Age of Em”.

This vision is underpinned by Hanson’s confidence that economic growth is destined to accelerate, driven by technological progress in computer power and nanotechnology, together with his transhumanist conviction that technology will bring about irreversible and far-reaching changes in the human condition.

But his vision, radical though it may seem, is tempered by conservatism in two respects. Unlike many transhumanists and singularitarians, he is deeply sceptical about the possibilities of creating artificial general intelligence. This is interesting, given that Hanson’s technical expertise, before becoming an academic economist, was in the field of AI. Secondly, he is remarkably confident about the applicability of his current understanding of social science to the dramatically changed circumstances of his vision of the future, which implies a degree of constancy of human nature even in the face of dramatic changes in its material circumstances.

While Hanson may be sceptical about the possibility of hand-coded artificial general intelligence, he is not sceptical enough about the idea of mind uploading. I’ve described at length why I think, with some confidence, that it will not be possible any time soon to simulate the operation of a human brain with enough fidelity to constitute a meaningful emulation of the mind (in my e-book Against Transhumanism, v1.0, PDF 650 kB – the most relevant chapter of which appeared on this blog as “Your mind will not be uploaded”). Rather than summarising a long argument I’ve made elsewhere, here I’ll just pick out a few key points.

The first is to stress that the basic unit of computation of the brain is not the neuron, or even the synapse, it is the molecule. This means that Ray Kurzweil style back-of-the-envelope comparisons of the numbers of neurons in brains with the future numbers of transistors in microprocessors, as extrapolated from Moore’s Law, are wrong by multiple orders of magnitude.

The second concerns the question of the correct level of coarse-graining at which it is sufficient to simulate the brain’s operation. To faithfully simulate the operation of a microprocessor, one doesn’t need to worry about what its individual atoms and electrons are doing, because there is a clean separation of the underlying solid state physics from the operation of the higher level components of the circuits, the transistors. It is this separation of levels that allows us to model the operations of the circuit at a level of digital abstraction, in terms of ones and zeros and the operation of logic gates. This doesn’t happen by accident; it is a product of how we design integrated circuits. The brain, however, is not the product of design, it is the product of evolution, and for this reason we can’t expect there to be such a digital abstraction layer.

A final point that is worth stressing arises from Hanson’s description of his “ems” – mind emulations – as fully formed individual consciousnesses capable of learning and changing. This means that the process of “uploading” a consciousness from a flesh and blood brain to a digital simulation needs to involve not just creating a snapshot of the brain in molecular detail at the time of “uploading”, difficult enough though that is to envisage. Because in the operations of the brain, there are no firm distinctions between hardware and software – the processes of learning and development involve physical changes at both the molecular and physiological levels. So constructing our our emulation would not just need a map of the connectivity of neurons and synapses and details of their molecular configurations at the moment of “upload”; it would need to incorporate a molecularly accurate model of brain development and plasticity, a task on an even greater scale.

The other strong claim of Hanson’s book concerns the predictive power of current social science. His argument is that our understanding of human nature and the operations of human societies – based largely on economics and evolutionary psychology – is now sufficiently robust that, even given the radical changes implied by human minds becoming unshackled from their fleshly bodies, meaningful predictions can be made about the character of the resulting post-human societies. I don’t find this enormously convincing.

One issue is that Hanson often is simply unable to make firm predictions; this is commendably even-handed, but somewhat undermines his broader argument. For example, he asks whether “ems” will be more or less religious than fleshly humans. It depends, it would seem, on how much importance em society attaches to innovation. “So if the innovation effect is important enough, ems will be less religious; otherwise, they’ll be more religious.” I imagine he’s not able to rule out the possibility that their degree of religiosity remains about the same, either.

One argument that Hanson makes considerable play of is a dichotomy in value systems associated with forager communities and farmer communities. He argues that modern societies have moved away from the communitarian values of farming societies back towards the more individualistic values that he believes characterised forager societies. On this basis, having argued that, for many ems, farmer-like values will once again be more favoured, he predicts that these ems will tend to prioritise self-sacrifice, patriotism and hard-work.

This general line of argument has a long pedigree, essentially following the Marxist principle that it is a society’s mode of production which determines the superstructure of its institutions and values, with a more recent gloss from evolutionary psychology. The specific farmer/forager dichotomy will seem problematic to many on empirical grounds, though. How do we know what forager values actually were? Very few forager societies survived in any form into historical times, that handful that did may have been influenced by surrounding farmer communities, and what we know about their values is mediated by the biases of the anthropologists and ethnographers that recorded them. Most of what we know about foragers and hunter-gatherers necessarily comes from archaeology, which unavoidably deals in the material remains of vanished cultures. The archaeological study of prehistoric mentalities is fascinating and current, but methodologically difficult. The early tendency was to argue on the basis of analogies with historical forager communities, now recognised to be problematic for the reasons we’ve just seen, while the nature of what remains to be studied naturally and inevitably biases archaeologists towards materialist explanations.

Even if one accepts a correlation between a society’s mode of production and the character of its predominant social institutions and values, it’s not at all clear in which direction causality runs. There’s a fashionable (and to me pretty convincing) line of argument from economists like Daron Acemoglu that the quality of a society’s institutions is a prime determinant of their economic success. Meanwhile a dominant strain of thinking about the origins of the historical transition to an industrial economy puts ideals and values ahead of materialist explanations such as the availability of fossil fuels. In the latter argument I’m personally much more in the materialist camp, but I find it difficult to reject the idea that the economic base of a society and its values and institutions must co-develop, rather than one simply being determined by the other.

If the empirical underpinnings of the forager/farmer polarity are dubious, its applicability to Hanson’s hypothetical future seems even more difficult to justify. The question that has to arise here is why one should believe that the opposition is strictly binary. There’ve been many different ways in which economies have been organised in the past – the slave economies of antiquity, feudal systems, nomadic pastoralism, capitalist industrial societies, state socialist economies, and so on – and it’s easy to argue that each has been accompanied by its own particular package of institutions and values. Given the massive scale of change Hanson is anticipating in his post-human economy, it’s difficult to see why we shouldn’t expect the emergence an entirely new package of values, which to us would probably seem very alien, rather than a reversion to a set of values supposed to be appropriate to some previous historical state.

So how should one read “The Age of Em” – what genre of writing should it be ascribed to? In my opinion it doesn’t succeed as a straight work of non-fiction; the technical underpinnings of its premise are not credible, and the social science bases of its speculations, interesting though they are, are not, to my mind, robust enough to sustain the weight of argument erected on them. On the other hand, it is clearly not by itself science fiction. It’s certainly an impressive exercise in world-building, which, with the addition of plot and character, would have the potential to make a spectacular series of novels.

But it occurs to me that the book might best be thought of as a Utopia, in the sense of Thomas More’s original. Stylistically, one can see the relationship, in the travelogue-like tone of the writing, dispassionate but not at all unsympathetic to the inhabitants of the strange world he’s describing. And there’s an ambiguity about what a reader might take to be the purpose of the exercise. What is described is a world which to some readers, perhaps, might seem admirable and enviable. It’s a world in which the vicissitudes and distractions of the flesh are absent, and as described by Hanson it’s a competitive world, meritocratic on the basis of pure intellect and character. Since the basic social unit consists of multiple emulations of a successful individual, readers who identify themselves with one of the “uploads” can imagine themselves surrounded by people just like them.

Or perhaps we should read it, as some have read More’s Utopia, as a satire on current society. What, we might ask, would a description of an economy completely decoupled from the needs and desires of flesh-and-blood human beings tell us about our world today?

Even more debate on transhumanism

Following on from my short e-book “Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence” (available free for download: Against Transhumanism, v1.0, PDF 650 kB), I have a long interview on the Singularity Weblog available as a podcast or video – “Richard Jones on Against Transhumanism”.

To quote my interviewer, Nikola Danaylov, “During our 75 min discussion with Prof. Richard Jones we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: his general work in nanotechnology, his book and blog on the topic; whether technological progress is accelerating or not; transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil and technological determinism; physics, Platonism and Frank J. Tipler‘s claim that “the singularity is inevitable”; the strange ideological routes of transhumanism; Eric Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology as reducing the material world to software; the over-representation of physicists on both sides of the transhumanism and AI debate; mind uploading and the importance of molecules as the most fundamental units of biological processing; Aubrey de Grey‘s quest for indefinite life extension; the importance of ethics and politics…”

For an earlier round-up of other reactions to the e-book, see here.

Against Transhumanism – the e-book

Transhumanism: technically wrong, ideologically suspect, and damaging to the way we talk about technology…

As an experiment, I’ve brought together a number of the pieces I’ve written here and elsewhere about molecular nanotechnology, mind-uploading, and the origins and wider implications of transhumanism, to make, after some light editing, a 54-page e-book with the title “Against Transhumanism: the delusion of technological transcendence”.

It can be downloaded as a PDF here:
Against Transhumanism, v1.0 (PDF 7.1 MB).

On Singularities, mathematical and metaphorical

Transhumanists look forward to a technological singularity, which we should expect to take place on or around 2045, if Ray Kurzweil is to be relied on. The technological singularity is described as something akin to an event horizon, a date at which technological growth becomes so rapid that to look beyond it becomes quite unknowable to us mere cis-humans. In some versions this is correlated with the time when, due to the inexorable advance of Moore’s Law, machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence and goes into a recursive cycle of self-improvement.

The original idea of the technological singularity is usually credited to the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, though earlier antecedents can be found, for example in the writing of the British Marxist scientist J.D. Bernal. Even amongst transhumanists and singularitarianists there are different views about what might be meant by the singularity, but I don’t want to explore those here. Instead, I note this – when we talk of the technological singularity we’re using a metaphor, a metaphor borrowed from mathematics and physics. It’s the Singularity as a metaphor that I want to probe in this post.

A real singularity happens in a mathematical function, where for some value of the argument the result of the function is undefined. Continue reading “On Singularities, mathematical and metaphorical”

Your mind will not be uploaded

The recent movie “Transcendence” will not be troubling the sci-fi canon of classics, if the reviews are anything to go by. But its central plot device – “uploading” a human consciousness to a computer – remains both a central aspiration of transhumanists, and a source of queasy fascination to the rest of us. The idea is that someone’s mind is simply a computer programme, that in the future could be run on a much more powerful computer than a brain, just as one might run an old arcade game on a modern PC in emulation mode. “Mind uploading” has a clear appeal for people who wish to escape the constraints of our flesh and blood existence, notably the constraint of our inevitable mortality.

In this post I want to consider two questions about mind uploading, from my perspective as a scientist. I’m going to use as an operational definition of “uploading a mind” the requirement that we can carry out a computer simulation of the activity of the brain in question that is indistinguishable in its outputs from the brain itself. For this, we would need to be able to determine the state of an individual’s brain to sufficient accuracy that it would be possible to run a simulation that accurately predicted the future behaviour of that individual and would convince an external observer that it faithfully captured the individual’s identity. I’m entirely aware that this operational definition already glosses over some deep conceptual questions, but it’s a good concrete starting point. My first question is whether it will be possible to upload the mind of anyone reading this now. My answer to this is no, with a high degree of probability, given what we know now about how the brain works, what we can do now technologically, and what technological advances are likely in our lifetimes. My second question is whether it will ever be possible to upload a mind, or whether there is some point of principle that will always make this impossible. I’m obviously much less certain about this, but I remain sceptical.

This will be a long post, going into some technical detail. To summarise my argument, I start by asking whether or when it will be possible to map out the “wiring diagram” of an individual’s brain – the map of all the connections between its 100 billion or so neurons. We’ll probably be able to achieve this mapping in the coming decades, but only for a dead and sectioned brain; the challenges for mapping out a living brain at sub-micron scales look very hard. Then we’ll ask some fundamental questions about what it means to simulate a brain. Simulating brains at the levels of neurons and synapses requires the input of phenomenological equations, whose parameters vary across the components of the brain and change with time, and are inaccessible to in-vivo experiment. Unlike artificial computers, there is no clean digital abstraction layer in the brain; given the biological history of nervous systems as evolved, rather than designed, systems, there’s no reason to expect one. The fundamental unit of biological information processing is the molecule, rather than any higher level structure like a neuron or a synapse; molecular level information processing evolved very early in the history of life. Living organisms sense their environment, they react to what they are sensing by changing the way they behave, and if they are able to, by changing the environment too. This kind of information processing, unsurprisingly, remains central to all organisms, humans included, and this means that a true simulation of the brain would need to be carried out at the molecular scale, rather than the cellular scale. The scale of the necessary simulation is out of reach of any currently foreseeable advance in computing power. Finally I will conclude with some much more speculative thoughts about the central role of randomness in biological information processing. I’ll ask where this randomness comes from, finding an ultimate origin in quantum mechanical fluctuations, and speculate about what in-principle implications that might have on the simulation of consciousness.

Why would people think mind uploading will be possible in our lifetimes, given the scientific implausibility of this suggestion? I ascribe this to a combination of over-literal interpretation of some prevalent metaphors about the brain, over-optimistic projections of the speed of technological advance, a lack of clear thinking about the difference between evolved and designed systems, and above all wishful thinking arising from people’s obvious aversion to death and oblivion.

On science and metaphors

I need to make a couple of preliminary comments to begin with. First, while I’m sure there’s a great deal more biology to learn about how the brain works, I don’t see yet that there’s any cause to suppose we need fundamentally new physics to understand it. Continue reading “Your mind will not be uploaded”

Transhumanism has never been modern

Transhumanists are surely futurists, if they are nothing else. Excited by the latest developments in nanotechnology, robotics and computer science, they fearlessly look ahead, projecting consequences from technology that are more transformative, more far-reaching, than the pedestrian imaginations of the mainstream. And yet, their ideas, their motivations, do not come from nowhere. They have deep roots, perhaps surprising roots, and following those intellectual trails can give us some important insights into the nature of transhumanism now. From antecedents in the views of the early 20th century British scientific left-wing, and in the early Russian ideologues of space exploration, we’re led back, not to rationalism, but to a particular strand of religious apocalyptic thinking that’s been a persistent feature of Western thought since the middle ages.

Transhumanism is an ideology, a movement, or a belief system, which predicts and looks forward to a future in which an increasing integration of technology with human beings leads to a qualititative, and positive, change in human nature. Continue reading “Transhumanism has never been modern”

New Dawn Fades?

Before K. Eric Drexler devised and proselytised for his particular, visionary, version of nanotechnology, he was an enthusiast for space colonisation, closely associated with another, older, visionary for a that hypothetical technology – the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill. A recent book by historian Patrick McCray – The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future – follows this story, setting its origins in the context of its times, and argues that O’Neill and Drexler are archetypes of a distinctive type of actor at the interface between science and public policy – the “Visioneers” of the title. McCray’s visioneers are scientifically credentialed and frame their arguments in technical terms, but they stand at some distance from the science and engineering mainstream, and attract widespread, enthusiastic – and sometimes adulatory – support from broader mass movements, which sometimes take their ideas in directions that the visioneers themselves may not always endorse or welcome.

It’s an attractive and sympathetic book, with many insights about the driving forces which led people to construct these optimistic visions of the future. Continue reading “New Dawn Fades?”

Going soft on nano

An interview between me and the writer Eddie Germino has just been published on the transhumanist website/magazine H+, with the title Going Soft on Nanotech. In it I discuss what I mean by “Soft Machines”, and make some comments on the feasibility of some of Drexler’s proposals for radical nanotechnology. I also make some more general points about how I see the future of technology, and say something about the Transhumanist and Singularitarian movements.

Any visitors from H+ magazine wishing to find out more about my thoughts on K. Eric Drexler’s views on nanotechnology will find this recent post – Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me – a good starting point.

Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me

Next week – on the 26th March – I’m participating in a discussion event sponsored by the thinktank Policy Exchange at NESTA, in London. Also on the panel is K. Eric Drexler, the originator of the idea of nanotechnology in its most expansive form, as an emerging technology which, when fully developed, will have truly transformational effects. It will, in this view, allow us to make pretty much any material, device or artefact for little or no cost, we will be able to extend human lifespans almost indefinitely using cell-by-cell surgery, and we will create computers so powerful that they will host artificial intelligences greatly superior to those of humans. Drexler has a new book coming out in May – Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. I think this view overstates the potential of the technology, and (it shocks me to realise), I have been arguing this in some technical detail for nearly ten years. Although I have met Drexler, and corresponded with him, this is the first time I will have shared a platform with him. To mark this occasion I have gone through my blog’s archives to make this anthology of my writings about Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology and my arguments with some of its adherents (who should not, of course, automatically be assumed to speak for Drexler himself). Continue reading “Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me”

Feynman, Drexler, and the National Nanotechnology Initiative

It’s fifty years since Richard Feynman delivered his famous lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, and this has been the signal for a number of articles reflecting on its significance. This lecture has achieved mythic importance in discussions of nanotechnology; to many, it is nothing less than the foundation of the field. This myth has been critically examined by Chris Tuomey (see this earlier post), who finds that the significance of the lecture is something that’s been attached retrospectively, rather than being apparent as serious efforts in nanotechnology got underway.

There’s another narrative, though, that is popular with followers of Eric Drexler. According to this story, Feynman laid out in his lecture a coherent vision of a radical new technology; Drexler popularised this vision and gave it the name “nanotechnology”. Then, inspired by Drexler’s vision, the US government launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This was then hijacked by chemists and materials scientists, whose work had nothing to do with the radical vision. In this way, funding which had been obtained on the basis of the expansive promises of “molecular manufacturing”, the Feynman vision as popularized by Drexler, has been used to research useful but essentially mundane products like stain resistant trousers and germicidal washing machines. To add insult to injury, the material scientists who had so successfully hijacked the funds then went on to belittle and ridicule Drexler and his theories. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal – “Feynman and the Futurists” – by Adam Keiper, is written from this standpoint, in a piece that Drexler himself has expressed satisfaction with on his own blog. I think this account is misleading at almost every point; the reality is both more complex and more interesting.

To begin with, Feynman’s lecture didn’t present a coherent vision at all; instead it was an imaginative but disparate set of ideas linked only by the idea of control on a small scale. I discussed this in my article in the December issue of Nature Nanotechnology – Feynman’s unfinished business (subscription required), and for more details see this series of earlier posts on Soft Machines (Re-reading Feynman Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

Of the ideas dealt with in “Plenty of Room”, some have already come to pass and have indeed proved economically and societally transformative. These include the idea of writing on very small scales, which underlies modern IT, and the idea of making layered materials with precisely controlled layer thicknesses on the atomic scale, which was realised in techniques like molecular beam epitaxy and CVD, whose results you see every time you use a white light emitting diode or a solid state laser of the kind your DVD contains. I think there were two ideas in the lecture that did contribute to the vision popularized by Drexler – the idea of “a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously, drilling holes, stamping parts, and so on”, and, linked to this, the idea of doing chemical synthesis by physical processes. The latter idea has been realised at proof of principle level by the idea of doing chemical reactions using a scanning tunnelling microscope; there’s been a lot of work in this direction since Don Eigler’s demonstration of STM control of single atoms, no doubt some of it funded by the much-maligned NNI, but so far I think it’s fair to say this approach has turned out so far to be more technically difficult and less useful (on foreseeable timescales) than people anticipated.

Strangely, the second part of the fable, which talks about Drexler popularising the Feynman vision, I think actually underestimates the originality of Drexler’s own contribution. The arguments that Drexler made in support of his radical vision of nanotechnology drew extensively on biology, an area that Feynman had touched on only very superficially. What’s striking if one re-reads Drexler’s original PNAS article and indeed Engines of Creation is how biologically inspired the vision is – the models he looks to are the protein and nucleic acid based machines of cell biology, like the ribosome. In Drexler’s writing now (see, for example, this recent entry on his blog), this biological inspiration is very much to the fore; he’s looking to the DNA-based nanotechnology of Ned Seeman, Paul Rothemund and others as the exemplar of the way forward to fully functional, atomic scale machines and devices. This work is building on the self-assembly paradigm that has been such a big part of academic work in nanotechnology around the world.

There’s an important missing link between the biological inspiration of ribosomes and molecular motors and the vision of “tiny factories”- the scaled down mechanical engineering familiar from the simulations of atom-based cogs and gears from Drexler and his followers. What wasn’t fully recognised until after Drexler’s original work, was that the fundamental operating principles of biological machines are quite different from the rules that govern macroscopic machines, simply because the way physics works in water at the nanoscale is quite different to the way it works in our familiar macroworld. I’ve argued at length on this blog, in my book “Soft Machines”, and elsewhere (see, for example, “Right and Wrong Lessons from Biology”) that this means the lessons one should draw from biological machines should be rather different to the ones Drexler originally drew.

There is one final point that’s worth making. From the perspective of Washington-based writers like Kepier, one can understand that there is a focus on the interactions between academic scientists and business people in the USA, Drexler and his followers, and the machinations of the US Congress. But, from the point of view of the wider world, this is a rather parochial perspective. I’d estimate that somewhere between a quarter and a third of the nanotechnology in the world is being done in the USA. Perhaps for the first time in recent years a major new technology is largely being developed outside the USA, in Europe to some extent, but with an unprecedented leading role being taken in places like China, Korea and Japan. In these places the “nanotech schism” that seems so important in the USA simply isn’t relevant; people are just pressing on to where the technology leads them.