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The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed By Rapidly Advancing Technologies Hardcover – February 10, 2001
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
If we are to believe the projections outlined in Damien Broderick's The Spike, the acceleration of change is increasing so sharply that the future is not just unknowable but unrecognizable. Dr. Broderick pulls together his vast learning to expand on Vernor Vinge's notion of the technological Singularity and to share with us his necessarily clouded vision of a posthuman future. Writing with a rare enthusiasm unmuted by years of dystopian fiction and news reports, Broderick peels back the layers of jargon enshrouding recent advances in nanotech, biotech, and all the other tech that's daring us to keep up.
It's hard for the reader to avoid feeling swept up in the rush of novelty, and that of course is the author's point. As we learn to modify even our deepest natures, how can we ever hope to maintain intellectual distance from our technology? Forewarned is forearmed, and Broderick hopes that awareness of the maelstrom will keep us from drowning; this might be the best cure for post-millennial despair. In any case, not everyone believes that the world of 2050 will be incomprehensible to those of us who lived through part of the 20th century. Will the curve spike, as Broderick suggests, or will it plateau? We should know in relatively little time, as we find ourselves either downloaded into space-traveling robots or watching the latest incarnation of holographic Star Trek. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Is technological change advancing so rapidly that we can no longer chart its progress? Are we careening ever closer to the point that scientists have dubbed "the singularity," the moment when the pace of innovation will lead to changes so profound that attempting to envision the future becomes an impossible dream? According to Broderick (The Last Mortal Generation; Theory and Its Discontents), the answer is a resounding and enthusiastic yes. As he points out, the rate of scientific change has increased ("spiked") with exponential rapidity over the past 500 years; everyday machines such as personal computers already have microprocessing capacities that far surpass anything originally predicted when they were first invented. Virtual reality applications are routinely used in the operating room, while cloning has entered our world with astonishing speed. So why not, in the extremely near future, "smart paint" that changes color on command and converts light to electricity when no one is in the room? Some of the changes anticipated by Broderick include science-fiction staples such as uploading and copying one's consciousness; freezing terminally ill bodies for revival in the more medically sophisticated future; and so-called "Santa Claus machines," which can build almost anything "washing machines or teacups or automobiles or starships" out of highly abundant, naturally occurring materials. Broderick's freewheeling analysis of the "spike" a phenomenon already dubiously questioned, he admits, in otherwise sympathetic scientific circles may help bring this debate to a more mainstream audience, although his writing, despite its conversational tone, may still have too specialized a scientific and technological vocabulary for the average general reader. (Mar.)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Thus, it's easy not to take the subject matter very seriously...if I didn't see whispers of the spike in my work and field. The basic premise of the book, and other's like it such as "Age of Spiritual Machines" by Ray Kurzweil, is that technology doesn't just advance linearly, it feeds back upon itself. For example: faster computers let people simulate and explore new computer architectures and new materials which in turn help overcome bottleneck's to developing ever faster computers. Like interest payments on your money, technology lends itself to compound, not just linear growth. We'll, that's spike enough, but the further argument is that the day will come when a computer program will be able to figure out how to make itself function better/smarter and what new hardware changes it needs to run faster. Or once robots can design and build better robots, the compounding will itself compound and the rate of change goes hyper-exponential.
I see this in my own work -- teraflop (T trillion floating point operations per second) machines will be on your lap before the decade is out. These will double for several cycles even if semiconductor technology hits a heat or quantum wall. But cheap 1, 2, 4 teraflop machines on every researcher's desk will cause material breakthroughs or trigger post-silicon computing and then 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 teraflop (T) machines are next...I put the date of 128 teraflops as 2022. Could go faster due to above advancement cycle, could slip 10 years if post-silicon is needed and harder than expected. 128 T is my (not Damien's) magic number because some claim ... that the human brain averages ~4 T, but since we don't understand the nuances of intelligence, I figure we can brute force by approximating at something like the rule of thumb where you can start relying on the law of large numbers in statistical sampling, or a factor of ~30. 4*30 T = 120 T.
If robotic advances keep coming, especially the advent of strong, fast artificial muscle fiber ... we're looking at a very strange world in the 2020's. Take one example: When will the "war on terrorism" end? How about 2025 when we can mass produce robot spies and soldiers in weeks for a ~$2000 a pop while fanatics still take 12-25 years and a minimum of $25K even at 3rd world rates? Yes, they might be able to steal a few, just like they can steal a few airplanes, but techno societies will be able to produce millions.
Downsides of the book:
Spends time showing past attempts at extrapolating curves that failed (speed of transport should essentially be infinite by now, power per person should be 1 sun apiece), but then dismisses the possibility of misreading the curves here. "This time for sure".
Dwells on "minting" where especially nano-robots can make themselves and then turn around and make you anything you want. Everything will be free. Then mentions that things like brewing bear that is already essentially nano (yeast)-engineering of just this sort and last I checked, beer is not free. But...this time it's different.
Little critique of scanning and uploading the brain other than having some moral/emotional qualms if the upload is destructive of the original body. Well, I've got some basic critiques.
(1) You're brain isn't going to be very happy, or at least effective if you are simulated in a computer and not running a robot body well matched to our limitations: 2 legs, 2 arms, basic degrees of freedom in motion, because so much of our brain is built premised on the nature of our body, eyes, senses.
(2) The ability to download other's knowledge is also fundamentally limited. You can train of a pattern recognition machines, but the structure tends to get fixed at which time it can't just incorporate scads of new knowledge without flushing the old. This is a fundamental limitation, not fast hardware. The "you" that is "you" will get washed out in the great accelerated interchange of knowledge and so where's the immortality other than in the general sense that we already have: "not us as individuals, but all of life". Your choice is to stay much unchanged and heavily bored by the eons or to loose/replace the you that is you.
Ah well. End of review:
In actuality, this book better serves as a sort of entertaining reference to the scientists and philosophers working in the field. So I recommend it -- 4 stars, good airplane read, good to have sitting nearby to remember who you want to look up on Google.
Just do it.
Broderick (B) argues that the future is opaque primarily because of the impending Singularity. “I use the term “singularity” in the sense of a place where a model of physical reality fails. … In mathematics, singularities arises when quantities go infinite; in cosmology, a black hole is the physical, literal expression of that relativistic effect .” Trends in the computer & other sciences will converge somewhere between 2030 and 2100 to bring about a future unknown to us. We simply can’t know what’s beyond that time since things will begin to change so radically. And the most important reason for the singularity will be the creation of superhuman intelligences. And then humanity itself will morph into `transhuman’, … and then `posthuman’. B argues “that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” The basic cause of these changes are superintelligences. Soon AIs will arrive and our knowledge will no longer be limited by ape brains and senses. Then change will happen so fast that the upward slope of change will be nearly vertical—a singularity or spike. “The Spike is a kind of black hole in the future, created by runaway change and accelerating computer power.” How might all of this play out? B considers some alternative views of the future:
[A i] No Spike, because the sky is falling - In the late 20th century, people feared nuclear war—now we seem more worried about ozone holes, pollution and killer asteroids. In the longer term, consider the sun’s and our planet’s mortality, and the dynamics that will kill everything on the planet. Eventually, the whole universe will cease to be. But be optimistic. Suppose we survive as a species and even as individuals. That doesn’t mean there must be a Spike since AI and nanotech may prove tougher than we think to make or maybe these techs will be suppressed or their inventors killed. So we may survive but progress halted which leads to option:
[A ii] No Spike, steady as she goes - This … forks into a variety of alternative future histories, including:
[A ii a] Nothing much ever changes ever again – This is what most people assume unless forced to think hard. This belief is comforting—that things will pretty much stay the same—but its also an obvious illusion. Think about it, change isn’t going to just stop. So this leads to another option:
[A ii b] Things change slowly (haven’t they always?) - No. Things change very quickly and the pace of change is increasing. Moreover, human nature itself will increasingly be changed. So maybe:
[A iii] Increasing computer power will lead to human-scale AI, and then stall - Perhaps there is a technical barrier to improvement and natural selection has not led to super-intelligence yet. So AI research might get to human level intelligence and then just hit the barrier. But why should technology run out of steam in this way? Another option:
[A iv] Things go to hell, and if we don’t die we’ll wish we had - Technology contributes to exploiting the planet’s resources and polluting the environment. At present only the rich nations do this but what will happen when the Third World catches up?
B now considers the more likely scenarios:
“I assert that all of these No Spike options are of low probability, unless they are brought forcibly into reality by some Luddite demagogue using our confusions and fears against our own best hopes for local and global prosperity. If I’m right, we are then pretty much on course for an inevitable Spike. We might still ask: what … is the motor that will propel technological culture up its exponential curve?” Here are some paths to the Spike:
[B i] Increasing computer power will lead to human-scale AI, and then will swiftly self-bootstrap to incomprehensible superintelligence.
This is the `classic’ model of the singularity, and it may be the way it happens if we can extrapolate from Moore’s Law as do Kurzweil, Moravec, Kaku … and others. Kurzweilexpects a Spike around 2099, with fusion between human and machine, uploads more numerous than the embodied, immortality, etc. Moravec expects humanlike competence’ in cheap computers around 2039 and a singularity within 50 years after that. The superstring physicist Michio Kaku believes humans will achieve a Type I civilization, “with planetary governance and technology able to control weather” very soon and a Type II civilization with command of the entire solar system in 800 to 2500 years. Ralph Merkle, a pioneer in nanotechnology believes we will need nanotech to get to SI. But “the imperatives of the computer hardware industry will create nanoassemblers by 2020.” After that, the Spike should be immanent. The mathematician Vernor Vinge believes the Singularity could be here in the next 20 years. Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Singularity Institute thinks that “once we have a human-level AI able to understand and redesign its own architecture, there will be a swift escalation into a Spike.”
[B ii] Increasing computer power will lead to direct augmentation of human intelligence and other abilities.
Why not just use the brain we’ve already got? As we learn more about neuroscience, it should be possible to augment the brain. B thinks that “neuroscience and computer science will combine to map the processes and algorithms of the naturally evolved brain, and try to emulate it in machines. Unless there actually is a mysterious non-replicable spiritual component, a soul, we’d then expect to see a rapid transition to self-augmenting machines …”
[B iii] Increasing computer power and advances in neuroscience will lead to rapid uploading of human minds.
If [B ii] turns out to be easier than [B i], then rapid uploading technologies should follow shortly. “Once the brain/mind can be put into a parallel circuit with a machine as complex as a human cortex … we might expect a complete, real-time emulation of the scanned brain to be run inside the machine that’s copied it. Again, unless the `soul’ fails to port over along with the information and topological structure, you’d then find your perfect twin … dwelling inside the device … perhaps your upload twin would inhabit a cyberspace reality …Once personality uploading is shown to be possible and … enjoyable, we can expect … some people to copy themselves into cyberspace.” This looks like a Spike.
[B iv] Increasing connectivity of the Internet will allow individuals or small groups to amplify the effectiveness of their conjoined intelligence.
Routine disseminated software advances will create … ever smarter and more useful support systems for thinking, gathering data, writing new programs–and the outcome will be a … surge into AI. … “ This is the Internet will just wake up scenario and B thinks it unlikely.
[B v] Research and development of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and fullerene-based devices will lead to industrial nanoassembly, and thence to `anything boxes’.
This is the path predicted by Drexler’s Foresight Institute and NASA, as well as by conservative chemists and scientists working in MEMS.
[B vi] Research and development in genomics (the Human Genome Project, etc) will lead to new `wet’ biotechnology, lifespan extension, and ultimately to transhuman enhancements.
“Biology, not computing! is the slogan. After all, bacteria, ribosomes, viruses, cells for that matter, already operate beautifully at the micro- and even the nano-scales. … Exploring those paths will require all the help molecular biologists can get from advanced computers, virtual reality displays, and AI adjuncts. … we can reasonably expect those paths to track right into the foothills of the Spike.” We just discovered DNA 50 years ago and now have the whole genome sequenced. It won’t be long until we have a complete understanding of the way the genes express themselves in tissues, organs, and behavior. Probably in the next 50 years.
[C] The Singularity happens when we go out and make it happen.
“A self-improving seed AI could run glacially slowly on a limited machine substrate. The point is, so long as it has the capacity to improve itself, at some point it will do so convulsively, bursting through any architectural bottlenecks to design its own improved hardware, maybe even build it … what determines the arrival of the Singularity is just the amount of effort invested in getting the original seed software written and debugged …”
In the end B thinks it unlikely we’ll stop progress any time soon. There may be technical obstacles, but history shows humans usually find a way around impediments. But the biggest obstacle may be social protests.
“We’ve seen the start of a new round of protests … aimed at genetically engineered foods and work in cloning and genomics, but not yet targeted at longevity or computing research. It will come, inevitably. We shall see strange bedfellows arrayed against the machineries of major change. The only question is how effective its impact will be…. Cultural objections to AI might emerge, as venomous as yesterday’s and today’s attacks on contraception and abortion rights, or anti-racist struggles. If opposition to the Spike, or any of its contributing factors, gets attached to one or more influential religions, that might set back or divert the current. Alternatively, careful study of the risks of general assemblers and autonomous artificial intelligence might lead to just the kinds of moratoriums that Greens now urge upon genetically engineered crops and herds. … Despite these possible impediments to the arrival of the Spike, I suggest that while it might be delayed, almost certainly it’s not going to be halted. If anything, the surging advances I see every day coming from labs around the world convince me that we already are racing up the lower slopes of its curve into the incomprehensible … The single thing I feel confident of is that one of these trajectories will start its visible run up the right-hand side of the graph within 10 or 20 years, and by 2030 (or 2050 at latest) will have put everything we hold self-evident into question. We will live forever; or we will all perish most horribly; our minds will emigrate to cyberspace, and start the most ferocious overpopulation race ever seen on the planet; or our machines will transcend and take us with them, or leave us in some peaceful backwater where the meek shall inherit the Earth. Or something else, something far weirder and… unimaginable. Don’t blame me. That’s what I promised you.”