Thursday, June 19, 2008

AGI in Xiamen ... and some rambling on the "creativity economy"

I just returned from 2.5 weeks in the Orient ... a week in Japan, doing biz meetings, going to a virtual worlds conference, seeing an awesome guitarist at a weird bar called BarTube, visiting an old friend, and hanging out w/ my son who is staying there for a month studying Japanese and playing Go ... a day or so in Seoul (visiting a humanoid robotics research group and a virtual pets company) ... a few days in Hong Kong giving a talk at WCCI's Human-Level AI session (on how to make a human-level NLP system by partly cheating, see the paper at ... and a week in Xiamen, which is in China right across the water from Taiwan ... here's the beautifully situated Xiamen University ...

My friend Hugo de Garis (inventor of evolvable computing, prophet of the Artilect War and all around creative thinker)

(there's me and Hugo and his wife) ... is now a prof at Xiamen University and he's pulling together a humanoid robotics team, whose goal is to spend 4 years making an intelligent computer brain for a Nao humanoid robot:

Hugo and I have been plotting a way to make a clever Nao via using his evolved neural nets for perception and action, and the OpenCog system for cognition and overall system control. The Xiamen folks seem to like the plan and we're discussing the possibility of me spending a couple months there each summer to collaborate, and them funding some students to work on the OpenCog side of the project. If someone follows ahead with the idea I've been selling, of integrating a robot simulator (like Gazebo) with a virtual world (like OpenSim), this could synergize really nicely with Novamente's AI-in-virtual-worlds stuff....

And Xiamen would be a very nice place to spend summers...

I've been fascinated by China since youth, probably due to my mother doing grad work in Chinese history and philosophy back then. She gave me a bunch of Chinese history books and stories and poetry to read, which made me fascinated with the culture. When I was 17, halfway thru my 3rd year of university, I applied for a scholarship to go to China for a year and do research relating non-well-founded sets (hypersets) to Buddhist cognitive philosophy. But the scholarship required me to know Chinese and I didn't, so I didn't go.... (I've never been able to put much energy into learning languages... too much other interesting stuff to study and think about ... and I find it hard to pick up languages via immersion because of my habit of not paying attention to what anyone is saying or doing around me ... so I'm rarely actually immersed in anything but my own thoughts ;-O ) ...

ANYWAYS ... I met F2F Novamente & OpenCog's Chinese contributors, which was very nice... here we have (back: Lian Ruiting, Guo Junfei, Chen Shuo, Rui Liu, me)

Very smart, interested, ambitious people!

Hugo is convinced that China is the country of the future and America is already obsolete. He foresees a coming century of reverse brain drain, where China recruits smart scientists and engineers from Western nations....

It might happen -- I don't rule it out. Of course, unlike Hugo, I think some sort of technological Singularity is very likely by mid-century and maybe sooner -- but let's ignore that for the moment ... talking just in conventional political/cultural terms, it's not obvious to me that he's right.

No doubt China has very many very smart and ambitious and hardworking people (like the ones pictured above!) ... but the cultural differences w/ the West are profound and I don't think any of us understands what they mean in terms of the future of science and engineering.

One observation I like to make is as follows. People talk about the knowledge economy ... where manual work has long been outsourced to 3rd world countries, leaving 1st world countries increasingly consumed w/ knowledge work.

And more and more so, the US becomes a pragmatic knowledge integration economy -- specialized knowledge like programming and science gets farmed out to 3rd world countries, but the task of integrating together various pieces of knowledge for practical purposes is still done in America. Even in Novamente, which is a damn international company, we do programming and science and project management overseas, but the figuring-out of what programming and science needs to be done to serve business goals, is largely done in the US. Because the US is where our customer companies are -- even if their work is largely done overseas, the high-level staff defining their vision are mostly here. The matching-up of technology and business, where Novamente is concerned, occurs mainly within the arena of US culture. (We do have overseas customers, but they are either run by Americans or following business models that closely copy American ones.)

The next step, I think, is the creativity economy. Even integrative knowledge will become commoditized. Creation of new ideas will be the LAST thing to get commoditized. But this is exactly where America excels. No nation on Earth fosters creativity as well as the USA. And for this reason, I'm not so sure that America's period of dramatic success is over. The more science and technology accelerate, the more critical creativity becomes -- and, lame as American culture and institutions are, they seem better than most alternatives at fostering wide-ranging creativity. (The only cultures I've known that seemed maybe more creativity-friendly were Australia, New Zealand and Hungary. But those are small places, population-wise.)

There is loads of creativity in China, for instance, on a personal level. Very creative people. But I'm not sure the culture fosters creativity in the way that US culture does. Oriental culture seems to favor obedience a lot more than US culture, and creativity is often not compatible with obedience.... The US is probably the most anarchic major developed country -- which has its downsides, especially for those below the poverty line in the US -- but, it seems that anarchy and creativity are inextricably entwined.

If China evolves a culture of creativity, then Hugo will be proved right and this will become the Chinese century ... and maybe the Singularity will get launched in China (hey, maybe it will get launched there anyway via Hugo's and my collaboration!!!)..... But that's a big "if", I suppose. Yet one feature of Chinese history is its tendency toward sudden, radical changes of one sort or another. Time will tell.

Anyway I look forward to returning to Xiamen and other parts of China when my schedule permits (hopefully for a couple months next summer, and a couple weeks in the fall or winter) ... there is a definite energy there that I don't find in developed countries these days, nor in 3rd world countries ... there is a feeling of "waking up" and progress that is exciting...

And, more importantly, there is a possibility of creating a thinking machine and doing other amazing technology projects there more rapidly than in other parts of the world, due to the availability of brilliant scientists and engineers at a relatively low cost (esp. outside the tier 1 cities). Whether or not China develops a culture of creativity allowing it to "own" the next century, there are loads of opportunities for international collaboration ... like what Hugo and I are trying to set up....

But anyway. Enough rambling. I've been sleep-deprived since returning from China, due to jet lag issues ... tonight I'll go to sleep "early" (i.e. maybe by 1AM) and hopefully actually get a full night of sleep.. (yah right...)


G-man said...

Well... China does have that nasty authoritarian political system; here's another thinker with some reasons 'why the US will still be the only superpower in 2030'

Anonymous said...

I studied in China for a year, at one of the top 3 universities. Lots of smart, motivated kids. Born anywhere else, they'd have a really bright future.

Mr. de Garis, while obviously quite intelligent, seems to be oblivious to the reality of the situation in China.

China's economy will continue to grow in leaps and bounds for about another decade or so, but that's where it stops. Here in the US, in Europe, in Japan... lots of countries are moving toward a baby boom crisis. It will hurt the US economy like nothing in recent memory (much worse than crazy oil prices), and will accomplish much the same in other countries.

What everyone seems to be missing (when making predictions about the coming decades) is that China is going to suffer a much worse economic disaster when the baby boom problem hits. Decades of a one-child policy (which, granted, was not always enforced) will do that to a country.

Unfortunately for all of us, the baby boom problem many countries are facing is now inevitable. Unless I can find $10 Billion of funding sometime before the end of next year, there is nothing that can be done to avoid this disaster.

You want prophecy? India's strength will grow suddenly and exponentially as the rest of the major world powers stumble (and China falls). This will be the century of India, barring a $10 Billion miracle.

I agree that the US system encourages creativity and individuality... but it seems that in recent decades it hasn't been encouraging foresight or personal accountability. I love America, and I have no doubt that we will eventually bounce back from this impending disaster. I do hope we learn something, however, and do a better job of keeping tabs on our elected leaders in the future.

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