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Monday, October 29, 2007

On Becoming a Neuron

I was amused and delighted to read the following rather transhumanistic article in the New York Times recently.

The writer, who does not appear to be a futurist or transhumanist or Singularitarian or anything like that, is observing the extent to which he has lost his autonomy and outsourced a variety of his cognitive functions to various devices with which he interacts. And he feels he has become stronger rather than weaker because of this -- and not any less of an individual.

This ties in deeply with the theme of the Global Brain

which is a concept dear to my heart ... I wrote about it extensively in my 2001 book "Creating Internet Intelligence" and (together with Francis Heylighen) co-organized the 2001 Global Brain 0 workshop in Brussels.

I have had similar thoughts to the above New York Times article many times recently... I can feel myself subjectively becoming far more part of the Global Brain than I was even 5 years ago, let alone 10...

As a prosaic example: Via making extensive use of task lists as described in the "Getting Things Done" methodology

I've externalized much of my medium-term memory about my work-life.

And via using Google Calendar extensively I have externalized my long-term memory... I use the calendar not only to record events but also to record information about what I should think about in the future (e.g. "Dec. 10 -- you should have time to start thinking about systems theory in connection to developmental psychology again...")

And, so much of my scientific work these days consists of reading little snippets of things that my colleagues on the Novamente project (or other intellectual collaborators) wrote, and then responding to them.... It's not that common these days that I undertake a large project myself, because I can always think of someone to collaborate with, and then the project becomes in significant part a matter of online back-and-forth....

And the process of doing computer science research is so different now than it was a decade or two ago, due to the ready availability and easy findability of so many research ideas, algorithms, code snippets etc. produced by other people.

Does this mean that I'm no longer an individual? It's certainly different than if I were sitting on a mountain for 10 years with my eagle and my lion like Nietzsche's Zarathustra.

But yet I don't feel like I've lost my distinctiveness and become somehow homogenized --
the way I interface with the synergetic network of machines and people is unique in complexly patterned ways, and constitutes my individuality.

Just as a neuron in the brain does not particularly manifest its individuality any less than a neuron floating by itself in a solution. In fact, the neuron in the brain may manifest its
individuality more greatly, due to having a richer, more complex variety of stimuli to which it may respond individually.

None of these observations are at all surprising from a Global Brain theory perspective. But, they're significant as real-time, subjectively-perceived and objectively-observed inklings of the accelerating emergence of a more and more powerful and coordinated Global Brain, of which we are parts.

And I think this ties in with Ray Kurzweil's point that by the time we have human-level AGI, it may not be "us versus them", it may be a case where it's impossible to draw the line between us and them...

-- Ben


As a post-script, I think it's interesting to tie this Global Brain meme in with the possibility of a "controlled ascent" approach to the Singularity and the advent of the transhuman condition.

Looking forward to the stage at which we've created human-leve AGI's -- if these AGI's become smarter and smarter at an intentionally-controlled rate (say a factor of 1.2 per year, just to throw a number out there), and if humans are intimately interlinked with these AGI's in a Global Brain like fashion (as does seem to be occurring, at an accelerating rate), then we have a quite interesting scenario.

Of course I realize that guaranteeing this sort of controlled ascent is a hard problem. And I realize there are ethical issues involved in making sure a controlled ascent like this respects the rights of individuals who choose not to ascend at all. And I realize that those who want to ascend faster may get irritated at the slow pace. All these points need addressing in great detail by an informed and intelligent and relevantly educated community, but they aren't my point right now -- my point in this postcript is the synergetic interrelation of the Global Brain meme with the controlled-ascent meme.

The synergy here is that as the global brain gets smarter and smarter, and we get more and more richly integrated into it, and the AGI's that will increasingly drive the development of the global brain get smarter and smarter -- there is a possibility that we will become more and more richly integrated with a greater whole, while at the same time having greater capability to exercise our uniqueness and individually.

O Brave New Meta-mind, etc. etc. ;-)


Ian said...

Hi Ben, I agree an interesting article. Also, hadn't noticed your connection with Francis Heylighen before; someone whose work I've linked to many times.

Tell me what would a "Human Level AGI" look like ?

Personally I've never felt like I've outsourced all those memory / knowledge devices beyond my ability to recognise that I've done so - treat them as "decision support" rather than decision replacement. ie never so reliant that I've lost understanding of the decision being made, even if the efficiency of gathering and oprganising the knowledge is ehnanced by the device, impaired if the service is lost.

Ray Kurzweil's predicted timescales always seemed exagerated to me - ie the theoretically possible pace of growth of intelligent capability in the technology is surely offset by the take-up and acceptance of loss of autonomy of humans, as well as the human (memetic) evolution of how to deal with the advancing technology ?

G-man said...

Keep on, Ben!

Always good to hear your refreshing take on the progress of events, even as we spiral ever higher in the yin-yang dance of regression towards a feudal past (politically) and progression into an enlightened future (scientifically) ... which one will win the race?