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Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

Review of Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

Gennady Stolyarov II


How to Create a Mind (2012) by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sets forth a case for engineering minds that are able to emulate the complexity of human thought (and exceed it) without the need to reverse-engineer every detail of the human brain or of the plethora of content with which the brain operates. Kurzweil persuasively describes the human conscious mind as based on hierarchies of pattern-recognition algorithms which, even when based on relatively simple rules and heuristics, combine to give rise to the extremely sophisticated emergent properties of conscious awareness and reasoning about the world. How to Create a Mind takes readers through an integrated tour of key historical advances in computer science, physics, mathematics, and neuroscience – among other disciplines – and describes the incremental evolution of computers and artificial-intelligence algorithms toward increasing capabilities – leading toward the not-too-distant future (the late 2020s, according to Kurzweil) during which computers would be able to emulate human minds.

Kurzweil’s fundamental claim is that there is nothing which a biological mind is able to do, of which an artificial mind would be incapable in principle, and that those who posit that the extreme complexity of biological minds is insurmountable are missing the metaphorical forest for the trees. Analogously, although a fractal or a procedurally generated world may be extraordinarily intricate and complex in their details, they can arise on the basis of carrying out simple and conceptually fathomable rules. If appropriate rules are used to construct a system that takes in information about the world and processes and analyzes it in ways conceptually analogous to a human mind, Kurzweil holds that the rest is a matter of having adequate computational and other information-technology resources to carry out the implementation. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the workings of the human mind, the functions of the various parts of the brain, and the hierarchical pattern recognition in which they engage. Kurzweil also discusses existing “narrow” artificial-intelligence systems, such as IBM’s Watson, language-translation programs, and the mobile-phone “assistants” that have been released in recent years by companies such as Apple and Google. Kurzweil observes that, thus far, the most effective AIs have been developed using a combination of approaches, having some aspects of prescribed rule-following alongside the ability to engage in open-ended “learning” and extrapolation upon the information which they encounter. Kurzweil draws parallels to the more creative or even “transcendent” human abilities – such as those of musical prodigies – and observes that the manner in which those abilities are made possible is not too dissimilar in principle.

With regard to some of Kurzweil’s characterizations, however, I question whether they are universally applicable to all human minds – particularly where he mentions certain limitations – or whether they only pertain to some observed subset of human minds. For instance, Kurzweil describes the ostensible impossibility of reciting the English alphabet backwards without error (absent explicit study of the reverse order), because of the sequential nature in which memories are formed. Yet, upon reading the passage in question, I was able to recite the alphabet backwards without error upon my first attempt. It is true that this occurred more slowly than the forward recitation, but I am aware of why I was able to do it; I perceive larger conceptual structures or bodies of knowledge as mental “objects” of a sort – and these objects possess “landscapes” on which it is possible to move in various directions; the memory is not “hard-coded” in a particular sequence. One particular order of movement does not preclude others, even if those others are less familiar – but the key to successfully reciting the alphabet backwards is to hold it in one’s awareness as a single mental object and move along its “landscape” in the desired direction. (I once memorized how to pronounce ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ as a single continuous word; any other order is slower, but it is quite doable as long as one fully knows the contents of the “object” and keeps it in focus.) This is also possible to do with other bodies of knowledge that one encounters frequently – such as dates of historical events: one visualizes them along the mental object of a timeline, visualizes the entire object, and then moves along it or drops in at various points using whatever sequences are necessary to draw comparisons or identify parallels (e.g., which events happened contemporaneously, or which events influenced which others). I do not know what fraction of the human population carries out these techniques – as the ability to recall facts and dates has always seemed rather straightforward to me, even as it challenged many others. Yet there is no reason why the approaches for more flexible operation with common elements of our awareness cannot be taught to large numbers of people, as these techniques are a matter of how the mind chooses to process, model, and ultimately recombine the data which it encounters. The more general point in relation to Kurzweil’s characterization of human minds is that there may be a greater diversity of human conceptual frameworks and approaches toward cognition than Kurzweil has described. Can an artificially intelligent system be devised to encompass this diversity? This is certainly possible, since the architecture of AI systems would be more flexible than the biological structures of the human brain. Yet it would be necessary for true artificial general intelligences to be able not only to learn using particular predetermined methods, but also to teach themselves new techniques for learning and conceptualization altogether – just as humans are capable of today.

The latter portion of the book is more explicitly philosophical and devoted to thought experiments regarding the nature of the mind, consciousness, identity, free will, and the kinds of transformations that may or may not preserve identity. Many of these discussions are fascinating and erudite – and Kurzweil often transcends fashionable dogmas by bringing in perspectives such as the compatibilist case for free will and the idea that the experiments performed by Benjamin Libet (that showed the existence of certain signals in the brain prior to the conscious decision to perform an activity) do not rule out free will or human agency. It is possible to conceive of such signals as “preparatory work” within the brain to present a decision that could then be accepted or rejected by the conscious mind. Kurzweil draws an analogy to government officials preparing a course of action for the president to either approve or disapprove. “Since the ‘brain’ represented by this analogy involves the unconscious processes of the neocortex (that is, the officials under the president) as well as the conscious processes (the president), we would see neural activity as well as actual actions taking place prior to the official decision’s being made” (p. 231). Kurzweil’s thoughtfulness is an important antidote to commonplace glib assertions that “Experiment X proved that Y [some regularly experienced attribute of humans] is an illusion” – assertions which frequently tend toward cynicism and nihilism if widely adopted and extrapolated upon. It is far more productive to deploy both science and philosophy toward seeking to understand more directly apparent phenomena of human awareness, sensation, and decision-making – instead of rejecting the existence of such phenomena contrary to the evidence of direct experience. Especially if the task is to engineer a mind that has at least the faculties of the human brain, then Kurzweil is wise not to dismiss aspects such as consciousness, free will, and the more elevated emotions, which have been known to philosophers and ordinary people for millennia, and which only predominantly in the 20th century has it become fashionable to disparage in some circles. Kurzweil’s only vulnerability in this area is that he often resorts to statements that he accepts the existence of these aspects “on faith” (although it does not appear to be a particularly religious faith; it is, rather, more analogous to “leaps of faith” in the sense that Albert Einstein referred to them). Kurzweil does not need to do this, as he himself outlines sufficient logical arguments to be able to rationally conclude that attributes such as awareness, free will, and agency upon the world – which have been recognized across predominant historical and colloquial understandings, irrespective of particular religious or philosophical flavors – indeed actually exist and should not be neglected when modeling the human mind or developing artificial minds.

One of the thought experiments presented by Kurzweil is vital to consider, because the process by which an individual’s mind and body might become “upgraded” through future technologies would determine whether that individual is actually preserved – in terms of the aspects of that individual that enable one to conclude that that particular person, and not merely a copy, is still alive and conscious:

Consider this thought experiment: You are in the future with technologies more advanced than today’s. While you are sleeping, some group scans your brain and picks up every salient detail. Perhaps they do this with blood-cell-sized scanning machines traveling in the capillaries of your brain or with some other suitable noninvasive technology, but they have all of the information about your brain at a particular point in time. They also pick up and record any bodily details that might reflect on your state of mind, such as the endocrine system. They instantiate this “mind file” in a morphological body that looks and moves like you and has the requisite subtlety and suppleness to pass for you. In the morning you are informed about this transfer and you watch (perhaps without being noticed) your mind clone, whom we’ll call You 2. You 2 is talking about his or he life as if s/he were you, and relating how s/he discovered that very morning that s/he had been given a much more durable new version 2.0 body. […] The first question to consider is: Is You 2 conscious? Well, s/he certainly seems to be. S/he passes the test I articulated earlier, in that s/he has the subtle cues of becoming a feeling, conscious person. If you are conscious, then so too is You 2.

So if you were to, uh, disappear, no one would notice. You 2 would go around claiming to be you. All of your friends and loved ones would be content with the situation and perhaps pleased that you now have a more durable body and mental substrate than you used to have. Perhaps your more philosophically minded friends would express concerns, but for the most party, everybody would be happy, including you, or at least the person who is convincingly claiming to be you.

So we don’t need your old body and brain anymore, right? Okay if we dispose of it?

You’re probably not going to go along with this. I indicated that the scan was noninvasive, so you are still around and still conscious. Moreover your sense of identity is still with you, not with You 2, even though You 2 thinks s/he is a continuation of you. You 2 might not even be aware that you exist or ever existed. In fact you would not be aware of the existence of You 2 either, if we hadn’t told you about it.

Our conclusion? You 2 is conscious but is a different person than you – You 2 has a different identity. S/he is extremely similar, much more so than a mere genetic clone, because s/he also shares all of your neocortical patterns and connections. Or should I say s/he shared those patterns at the moment s/he was created. At that point, the two of you started to go your own ways, neocortically speaking. You are still around. You are not having the same experiences as You 2. Bottom line: You 2 is not you.  (How to Create a Mind, pp. 243-244)

This thought experiment is essentially the same one as I independently posited in my 2010 essay “How Can I Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”:

Consider what would happen if a scientist discovered a way to reconstruct, atom by atom, an identical copy of my body, with all of its physical structures and their interrelationships exactly replicating my present condition. If, thereafter, I continued to exist alongside this new individual – call him GSII-2 – it would be clear that he and I would not be the same person. While he would have memories of my past as I experienced it, if he chose to recall those memories, I would not be experiencing his recollection. Moreover, going forward, he would be able to think different thoughts and undertake different actions than the ones I might choose to pursue. I would not be able to directly experience whatever he choose to experience (or experiences involuntarily). He would not have my ‘I-ness’ – which would remain mine only.

Thus, Kurzweil and I agree, at least preliminarily, that an identically constructed copy of oneself does not somehow obtain the identity of the original. Kurzweil and I also agree that a sufficiently gradual replacement of an individual’s cells and perhaps other larger functional units of the organism, including a replacement with non-biological components that are integrated into the body’s processes, would not destroy an individual’s identity (assuming it can be done without collateral damage to other components of the body). Then, however, Kurzweil posits the scenario where one, over time, transforms into an entity that is materially identical to the “You 2” as posited above. He writes:

But we come back to the dilemma I introduced earlier. You, after a period of gradual replacement, are equivalent to You 2 in the scan-and-instantiate scenario, but we decided that You 2 in that scenario does not have the same identity as you. So where does that leave us? (How to Create a Mind, p. 247)

Kurzweil and I are still in agreement that “You 2” in the gradual-replacement scenario could legitimately be a continuation of “You” – but our views diverge when Kurzweil states, “My resolution of the dilemma is this: It is not true that You 2 is not you – it is you. It is just that there are now two of you. That’s not so bad – if you think you are a good thing, then two of you is even better” (p. 247). I disagree. If I (via a continuation of my present vantage point) cannot have the direct, immediate experiences and sensations of GSII-2, then GSII-2 is not me, but rather an individual with a high degree of similarity to me, but with a separate vantage point and separate physical processes, including consciousness. I might not mind the existence of GSII-2 per se, but I would mind if that existence were posited as a sufficient reason to be comfortable with my present instantiation ceasing to exist.  Although Kurzweil correctly reasons through many of the initial hypotheses and intermediate steps leading from them, he ultimately arrives at a “pattern” view of identity, with which I differ. I hold, rather, a “process” view of identity, where a person’s “I-ness” remains the same if “the continuity of bodily processes is preserved even as their physical components are constantly circulating into and out of the body. The mind is essentially a process made possible by the interactions of the brain and the remainder of nervous system with the rest of the body. One’s ‘I-ness’, being a product of the mind, is therefore reliant on the physical continuity of bodily processes, though not necessarily an unbroken continuity of higher consciousness.” (“How Can I Live Forever?: What Does and Does Not Preserve the Self”) If only a pattern of one’s mind were preserved and re-instantiated, the result may be potentially indistinguishable from the original person to an external observer, but the original individual would not directly experience the re-instantiation. It is not the content of one’s experiences or personality that is definitive of “I-ness” – but rather the more basic fact that one experiences anything as oneself and not from the vantage point of another individual; this requires the same bodily processes that give rise to the conscious mind to operate without complete interruption. (The extent of permissible partial interruption is difficult to determine precisely and open to debate; general anesthesia is not sufficient to disrupt I-ness, but what about cryonics or shorter-term “suspended animation?). For this reason, the pursuit of biological life extension of one’s present organism remains crucial; one cannot rely merely on one’s “mindfile” being re-instantiated in a hypothetical future after one’s demise. The future of medical care and life extension may certainly involve non-biological enhancements and upgrades, but in the context of augmenting an existing organism, not disposing of that organism.

How to Create a Mind is highly informative for artificial-intelligence researchers and laypersons alike, and it merits revisiting a reference for useful ideas regarding how (at least some) minds operate. It facilitates thoughtful consideration of both the practical methods and more fundamental philosophical implications of the quest to improve the flexibility and autonomy with which our technologies interact with the external world and augment our capabilities. At the same time, as Kurzweil acknowledges, those technologies often lead us to “outsource” many of our own functions to them – as is the case, for instance, with vast amounts of human memories and creations residing on smartphones and in the “cloud”. If the timeframes of arrival of human-like AI capabilities match those described by Kurzweil in his characterization of the “law of accelerating returns”, then questions regarding what constitutes a mind sufficiently like our own – and how we will treat those minds – will become ever more salient in the proximate future. It is important, however, for interest in advancing this field to become more widespread, and for political, cultural, and attitudinal barriers to its advancement to be lifted – for, unlike Kurzweil, I do not consider the advances of technology to be inevitable or unstoppable. We humans maintain the responsibility of persuading enough other humans that the pursuit of these advances is worthwhile and will greatly improve the length and quality of our lives, while enhancing our capabilities and attainable outcomes. Every movement along an exponential growth curve is due to a deliberate push upward by the efforts of the minds of the creators of progress and using the machines they have built.

Gennady Stolyarov II is Chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party. Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here

This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). 

Is the Soul Digital or Analogue? – Article by C. H. Antony

Is the Soul Digital or Analogue? – Article by C. H. Antony

logo_bgC. H. Antony


I am probably not the ideal Transhumanist; I do believe that I have a soul, that it is more the essence of me than the sum of my neurons and how they interact with each other to create my thoughts, and that it is an extremely fragile thing. Should I die and preserve myself to be revived at a later date, I fear that I would never know of the success or failure of that endeavor. That a living breathing thinking person who acts like me and reasons like me will rejoin society is not in question; I only wonder that I might miss it as my essence passes on into some other form of existence… or worse – not. I do not believe that a digital substrate will, in fact, carry my soul on uninterrupted.

I want to explore the question of the soul for a moment. In The Singularity is Near (2005), Ray Kurzweil stated that the Calculations Per Second of the human brain are in the vicinity of 10 to the 14th power, based on the assumption, and rightly so, that each neuron in the brain could be considered a digital on/off or 1/0. Around six years ago, we began seeing articles describing microtubules in the axons of the neuronal cells that seemed to have quantum properties I freely admit to not understanding. I cheerfully invite anyone to correct me on this, but it seems that while the neuron either fires or doesn’t as it communicates with the neighboring cell, the microtubule seems to exist in a sort Schrödinger-like state of possibilities – like a multiplexing wire that might convey one piece of information by doing so at a particular combination of wattage, voltage, and resistance, then convey a completely different set of instructions with another combination of the same. It seems to me that if every neuron is operating in a digital on/off state, then 1014  computations per second (CPS) are likely given the average number of neuronal cells in the human brain, and if that number might be horribly wrong because of what we now know of the activity within the axon – then this suggests that superposition state of neural activity might very well be the essence of our consciousness and, if interrupted, could be lost and what remains would be something else only a comfort to those we would have left behind.

I agree that an entirely biological existence is not only a seriously limiting factor in our future development, but also something we are destined to outgrow and will do so. However, I would say that my ideal manifestation of this is a seamless combination of man and machine. Medical technology could eliminate all the senescence we suffer to the point where the next logical step is enhancement over a timeless organic form. I, for one, would hate to live for hundreds of years and gather all the knowledge and experience of those times only to die because of some future equivalent of a drunk driver. That in itself is good enough reason to fortify my existence any way I can. If that means that my body must be replaced with an artificial one, so be it. But, I want to keep my squishy, limited, fragile brain! I want my cake and to eat it, gleefully, with a nearly indestructible form that doesn’t need the cake, won’t get fat from it, and still let’s me enjoy the flavors and textures as I do now. I want to enjoy all the many hedonistic joys freely and with only greater precision than my limited biological form can experience.

I believe we’re seeing this very trend emerge and that the collective instinct of man is far more ready to accept an enhanced human/cyborg than uploading oneself to a purely artificial substrate. Evidence of this can be seen in the amazing promise of Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, the recent X-Prize challenge for a robot avatar, and the many amazing advancements in prosthetic limbs and organs. As I previously stated, medical technology will soon overcome senescence, allowing our tissues to go on indefinitely, so to essentially cure our brain of degeneration, enhance it with a neural mesh, and go about our lives in a perfected cybernetic body akin to Ghost in the Shell: Altered Architecture is probably a pretty good direction to be steering ourselves as Transhumanists. It’s also the most likely Next Step, if you will, considering how well society is conditioned for these themes. I would certainly feel more comfortable with my own enhanced mind in a perfect and durable body that can be easily upgraded and modified as the centuries pass.

So now I ask the members of this community to bring their thoughts here. What is your ideal existence?

C. H. Antony is a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. He may be contacted here

Will We Build the Future, or Will the Future Build Us? – Article by Arin Vahanian

Will We Build the Future, or Will the Future Build Us? – Article by Arin Vahanian

Arin Vahanian


There is an idea or perception bandied about the general public that unstoppable technological forces are already upon us like a runaway train, threatening to derail our way of life and everything we have ever known, and that there is nothing we can do about it.

However, I would like to offer some hope and at the same time dispel this seemingly apocalyptic scenario.

There appear to be two main schools of thought when we discuss the future; the Ray Kurzweil school of thought, which states that the future will evolve as it will and that we will reach Singularity by a certain date, and the Peter Thiel school of thought, which says that the future won’t be built unless we build it.

I would like to add upon Mr. Thiel’s idea by saying that the future will indeed be built, but unless we, as a society, a human race, and a world, join forces to build a future we would like to live in and which reflects our values, we will indeed have a future, but perhaps not one we are completely comfortable with.

Thus, this is a call to action for not only those who are actively involved in the fields of technology, science, and engineering, but all people around the world, because the sum of our collective actions will decide the fate of the world, and the future we live in. Whether we want to admit it, all of us are, on some level, responsible for how the world develops every day.

I urge those of you who may have resigned yourselves to the idea that there is nothing you can do to help change the trajectory of the world to take a look with new eyes. There is always something all of us can do, because every day we are interacting with others, building relationships, helping to create products, working on resolving problems that affect humanity, contributing to the success of an organization, company, or family, and performing actions that help the world develop, no matter on how small a scale that might be.

Everyone on Earth has a role to play in the creation of our future. That is what you are here for – to help fulfill your personal vision and mission while also contributing to the development of the world. That is how important you are.  

So the next time someone remarks that the writing is on the wall and that we should just accept that we have no say in how the world evolves, please remember that we are all architects of our own future, which hasn’t even been written yet. How it will be written depends on the actions every one of us takes every day. Therefore, the question we should be asking ourselves every day is, what kind of future will we build? And then, of course, after answering this question, we should not waste any time in building that future we have envisioned.

Arin Vahanian is Director of Marketing for the U.S. Transhumanist Party.

Beginners’ Explanation of Transhumanism – Bobby Ridge and Gennady Stolyarov II

Beginners’ Explanation of Transhumanism – Bobby Ridge and Gennady Stolyarov II

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Bobby Ridge
Gennady Stolyarov II


Bobby Ridge, Secretary-Treasurer of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, and Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, provide a broad “big-picture” overview of transhumanism and major ongoing and future developments in emerging technologies that present the potential to revolutionize the human condition and resolve the age-old perils and limitations that have plagued humankind.

This is a beginners’ overview of transhumanism – which means that it is for everyone, including those who are new to transhumanism and the life-extension movement, as well as those who have been involved in it for many years – since, when it comes to dramatically expanding human longevity and potential, we are all beginners at the beginning of what could be our species’ next great era.

Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free, no matter where you reside.

See Mr. Stolyarov’s presentation, “The U.S. Transhumanist Party: Pursuing a Peaceful Political Revolution for Longevity“.

In the background of some of the video segments is a painting now owned by Mr. Stolyarov, from “The Singularity is Here” series by artist Leah Montalto.

Discussion on Life-Extension Advocacy – Gennady Stolyarov II Answers Audience Questions

Discussion on Life-Extension Advocacy – Gennady Stolyarov II Answers Audience Questions

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Gennady Stolyarov II


 

Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, answers audience questions regarding life-extension advocacy and possibilities for broadening the reach of transhumanist and life-extensionist ideas.

While we were unable to get into contact with our intended guest, Chris Monteiro, we were nonetheless able to have a productive, wide-ranging discussion that addressed many areas of emerging technologies, as well as trends in societal attitudes towards them and related issues of cosmopolitanism, ideology, and the need for a new comprehensive philosophical paradigm of transmodernism or hypermodernism that would build off of the legacy of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment.

Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free. Apply here.

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