Before when we talked about the future of Man, we talked about higher-order, slower-moving organizations of life. Cities were one clear example. But many think the future lies in other directions. For instance, artificial intelligence.
The human brain, our main example of natural intelligence, is a marvel of connectivity. Roughly ten billion neurons, divided into dozens of architecturally distinct modules, each connected to thousands of others. But, by the standards of modern electronics, it is not a marvel of speed. Neurons can signal one another at most 1000 times a second, and while it is not actually known how these signals convey information, the time for something significant to actually be communicated is probably 10′s of milliseconds. Stack that up against a typical GHz class microprocessor, for example the one in your phone. That’s a billion operations per second, on the order of a million times faster. Of course, this is a single processor; to catch up with the immense parallelism in the brain, you would need 10^10 * 10^3 / 10^6 = 10 million of them. But that’s with general-purpose hardware. With semi-specialized hardware such as is found in a modern graphics card, or GPU, you can knock a factor of 4000 or so off of that, so that only 25,000 or so are needed – in the range of existing supercomputers. With specialized hardware, the requirements would be even lower, but the problem is we don’t understand enough aboout how brains work to build such specialized hardware.
Eventually we will though. Both computing hardware and software / algorithms have been improving at a massive rate over the past few decades. The resources going into space have been absolutely peanuts compared to what has been poured into information technology (IT), because this is where our cultural motivations have lined up. Our society is resource-driven and due to its capitalist structure therefore money-driven. And because IT is able to make so many other money-making activities more efficient, a dollar invested there returns more than one invested anywhere else (not counting financial leverage; see also here and here), and therefore our industrial and intellectual capacities have focused in that direction. IT also enables games (virtual realities, escapes), extends our social experiences, and contributes to the creation of entertainment, all of which tend to motivate us.
So the resources for artificial intelligence are assured, and so, I would argue, is the desire. We, as I have said, are cave men. We work together, we compete and stretch ourselves, and we also raise children. Every one of us has the innate desire to procreate and raise a child; to raise a child who will have a better life than ourself – to raise a child who will be better than ourself. We don’t all achieve this goal, but whether we do or do not, the impulse is there. Just as fire-building and competing manifest in ways far abstracted and beyond these humble concrete origins, so our procreative urges manifest in a creative urge. We have the undeniable drive to create, to breathe life into that creation, and to send it skyward. Given the resources, we will no more be able to restrain ourselves from creating artificial intelligence than we can from breathing.
The only question is whether the future will come to be dominated by pure machine intelligences, or by versions of ourselves transferred or ‘uploaded‘ via simulation to electronic form.
Another interesting idea about the future is that we’ll create not just intelligence, but life. Life that is more intelligent than us, lacks our physical and moral failings, and is perhaps longer-lived. This possible achievement lies at the intersection of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, and again I would argue that it is almost inevitable. Why create life rather than simply raw intelligence? Reproduction for one. Machines constructing other machines will always be a clumsy process, unable to match the elegance and efficiency of self-organizing chemical reactions, molecular patterns sustaining and reproducing themselves on a micro scale. Mortality for another. We may think that destiny lies in immortality, but with immortality comes stagnation, while dying and rebirthing life can evolve more radically. Any immortal intelligence, no matter how impressive, will inevitably be surpassed sooner or later, just like the fastest, most expensive PC of today will become junk some number of years later. Many science fiction authors have explored the idea of human creation of life, most memorably to me Olaf Stapledon (Star Maker) and Gene Wolfe (Book of the New Sun, Fifth Head of Cerberus).
We got up and had breakfast at a local coffeeshop, taking our time so that the temperature would warm as much as possible. Then we both finally put on the last layers that we had been carrying for the entire trip, in case the going got rough – for me it was a set of expedition-weight long-john bottoms, for Päivi a quilted insulating liner for her motorcycle pants. It was around 30 when we woke up and 40 when we set off, but the wind had died down from yesterday, and this ended up making a huge difference. Sixty mph of wind chill is much more benign than ninety mph. The sun was more consistent as well. We were almost too warm for the first part of the ride, but the seeping wind and the sitting still eventually had their effect, and we ended up just comfortable.
We arced above the top of Algonquin Provincial Park, a place I had long heard stories about from friends who had visited, but had so far eluded my own efforts. From the outskirts though it reminded me in some ways of the Adirondacks, so I felt like that Lake Superior hiking trail we saw might still be my first destination in this area.
We stopped for lunch around 1, more from a desire to rest for a while rather than any actual hunger, and then carried on again, finally finishing off the 17 in the funnily-named “Arnsprior” and switching to the smaller 29/15 south towards the Saint Lawrence. We made it more than halfway down and called it a day in Smiths Falls (no apostrophe). Tomorrow, if our bikes would give us one more day, we’d end the trip.