Screenwriter Jack Paglen has an intriguing interpretation of nanotechnology, one he (along with the director) shares in an April 13, 2014 article by Larry Getlen for the NY Post and in his movie, Transcendence. which is opening in the US and Canada on April 18, 2014. First, here are a few of the more general ideas underlying his screenplay,
In “Transcendence” — out Friday [April 18, 2014] and directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight”) — Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has spent his career trying to design a sentient computer that can hold, and even exceed, the world’s collective intelligence.
After he’s shot by antitechnology activists, his consciousness is uploaded to a computer network just before his body dies.
“The theories associated with the film say that when a strong artificial intelligence wakes up, it will quickly become more intelligent than a human being,” screenwriter Jack Paglen says, referring to a concept known as “the singularity.”
It should be noted that there are anti-technology terrorists. I don’t think I’ve covered that topic in a while so an Aug. 31, 2012 posting is the most recent and, despite the title, “In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico” provides an overview of sorts. For a more up-to-date view, you can read Eric Markowitz’s April 9, 2014 article for Vocative.com. I do have one observation about the article where Markowitz has linked some recent protests in San Francisco to the bombings in Mexico. Those protests in San Francisco seem more like a ‘poor vs. the rich’ situation where the rich happen to come from the technology sector.
Getting back to “Transcendence” and singularity, there’s a good Wikipedia entry describing the ideas and some of the thinkers behind the notion of a singularity or technological singularity, as it’s sometimes called (Note: Links have been removed),
The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature. Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be difficult for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.
The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958, regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam described “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”. The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. Futurist Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.
Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an “intelligence explosion”, where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent’s cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.
Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045 whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial generalized intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. His own prediction on reviewing the data is that there is an 80% probability that the singularity will occur between 2017 and 2112.
The ‘technological singularity’ is controversial and contested (from the Wikipedia entry).
In addition to general criticisms of the singularity concept, several critics have raised issues with Kurzweil’s iconic chart. One line of criticism is that a log-log chart of this nature is inherently biased toward a straight-line result. Others identify selection bias in the points that Kurzweil chooses to use. For example, biologist PZ Myers points out that many of the early evolutionary “events” were picked arbitrarily. Kurzweil has rebutted this by charting evolutionary events from 15 neutral sources, and showing that they fit a straight line on a log-log chart. The Economist mocked the concept with a graph extrapolating that the number of blades on a razor, which has increased over the years from one to as many as five, will increase ever-faster to infinity.
By the way, this movie is mentioned briefly in the pop culture portion of the Wikipedia entry.
Getting back to Paglen and his screenplay, here’s more from Getlen’s article,
… as Will’s powers grow, he begins to pull off fantastic achievements, including giving a blind man sight, regenerating his own body and spreading his power to the water and the air.
This conjecture was influenced by nanotechnology, the field of manipulating matter at the scale of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. (By comparison, a human hair is around 70,000-100,000 nanometers wide.)
“In some circles, nanotechnology is the holy grail,” says Paglen, “where we could have microscopic, networked machines [emphasis mine] that would be capable of miracles.”
The potential uses of, and implications for, nanotechnology are vast and widely debated, but many believe the effects could be life-changing.
“When I visited MIT,” says Pfister, “I visited a cancer research institute. They’re talking about the ability of nanotechnology to be injected inside a human body, travel immediately to a cancer cell, and deliver a payload of medicine directly to that cell, eliminating [the need to] poison the whole body with chemo.”
“Nanotechnology could help us live longer, move faster and be stronger. It can possibly cure cancer, and help with all human ailments.”
I find the ‘golly gee wizness’ of Paglen’s and Pfister’s take on nanotechnology disconcerting but they can’t be dismissed. There are projects where people are testing retinal implants which allow them to see again. There is a lot of work in the field of medicine designed to make therapeutic procedures that are gentler on the body by making their actions specific to diseased tissue while ignoring healthy tissue (sadly, this is still not possible). As for human enhancement, I have so many pieces that it has its own category on this blog. I first wrote about it in a four-part series starting with this one: Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 1, (You can read the series by scrolling past the end of the posting and clicking on the next part or search the category and pick through the more recent pieces.)
I’m not sure if this error is Paglen’s or Getlen’s but nanotechnology is not “microscopic, networked machines” as Paglen’s quote strongly suggests. Some nanoscale devices could be described as machines (often called nanobots) but there are also nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanowires, and more that cannot be described as machines or devices, for that matter. More importantly, it seems Paglen’s main concern is this,
“One of [science-fiction author] Arthur C. Clarke’s laws is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That very quickly would become the case if this happened, because this artificial intelligence would be evolving technologies that we do not understand, and it would be capable of miracles by that definition,” says Paglen. [emphasis mine]
This notion of “evolving technologies that we do not understand” brings to mind a project that was announced at the University of Cambridge (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting),
The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,
While I do have some reservations about how Paglen and Pfister describe the science, I appreciate their interest in communicating the scientific ideas, particularly those underlying Paglen’s screenplay.
For anyone who may be concerned about the likelihood of emulating a human brain and uploading it to a computer, there’s an April 13, 2014 article by Luke Muehlhauser and Stuart Armstrong for Slate discussing that very possibility (Note 1: Links have been removed; Note 2: Armstrong is mentioned in this posting’s excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Technological Singularity),
Today scientists can’t even emulate the brain of a tiny worm called C. elegans, which has 302 neurons, compared with the human brain’s 86 billion neurons. Using models of expected technological progress on the three key problems, we’d estimate that we wouldn’t be able to emulate human brains until at least 2070 (though this estimate is very uncertain).
But would an emulation of your brain be you, and would it be conscious? Such questions quickly get us into thorny philosophical territory, so we’ll sidestep them for now. For many purposes—estimating the economic impact of brain emulations, for instance—it suffices to know that the brain emulations would have humanlike functionality, regardless of whether the brain emulation would also be conscious.
Paglen/Pfister seem to be equating intelligence (brain power) with consciousness while Muehlhauser/Armstrong simply sidestep the issue. As they (Muehlhauser/Armstrong) note, it’s “thorny.”
If you consider thinkers like David Chalmers who suggest everything has consciousness, then it follows that computers/robots/etc. may not appreciate having a human brain emulation which takes us back into Battlestar Galactica territory. From my March 19, 2014 posting (one of the postings where I recounted various TED 2014 talks in Vancouver), here’s more about David Chalmers,
Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,
In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.
David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.
Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.
Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.
Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).
Have a great time at the movie!