What is SIAI?

SIAI stands for “Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence”, a educational and research group centered around the concept of the “Singularity”. The term Singularity is used to describe a distinct event – the creation of an intelligence smarter than Homo sapiens. Basically, an intelligence significantly smarter than any human genius, past or present. The Singularity Institute is attempting to trigger this event by serving as a magnet for people interested in contributing money to pay people to work full-time on the task of constructing a true Artificial Intelligence capable of improving its own source code in an open-ended way, without help from programmers.

All humans are members of the same species, with the same basic mental hardware. Our panhuman set of mental hardware is comparable to the panhuman set of physical hardware – arms, legs, muscles, organs, etc. These pieces of hardware may be larger or smaller, slightly faster or slightly slower, but share the same basic features and characteristics. Our ability to imagine and solve problems is fundamentally limited by our mental hardware. For example, it is impossible to …

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The Opportunity Cost of Undeveloped Technology

The Haber-Bosch process, mastered in the First World War, is a chemical method for the mass synthesis of fixed nitrogen – the kind plants can use as fertilizer – from the nitrogen in the air and readily available hydrogen. Before this technique was developed, massive amounts of nitrate (mostly bat dung) from Chile was shipped to farms everywhere in the world to meet fertilizer demand. As demand overwhelmed supply, scientists began to search for a way to mass produce fixed nitrogen, and the Haber-Bosch process was invented. Today, the Haber-Bosch process is used to produce more than 500 million tons (453 billion kilograms) of artificial fertilizer per year; roughly 1% of the world’s energy is used for it, and it sustains about 40% of Earth’s population.

Without the Haber-Bosch process, over a billion people, the vast majority presumably leading lives worth living, would simply not exist. Food would be too expensive. This process, however, enabled the mass production of cheap food which is foundational for population growth and health, which in turn leads to economic development. If …

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Superskycrapers – Burj Dubai

The above is an artists’ rendering of Burj Dubai, a tower that will measure 700 – 900m in height (the tallest on Earth) upon its completion in 2008. Its location is the city of Dubai in United Arab Emirates, home to several other artificial wonders. Construction began only recently, with around 20 floors completed so far. The exact height is being kept a secret by developers. The cost is approximately $8 billion.

Why build towers so tall? Because we have the technology! The top will sway back and forth up to about a dozen feet, which is typical for buildings of this size, but unnoticeable because it’s so gradual. Not only will Burj Dubai will be the tallest occupied building on Earth, it will be the tallest manmade structure of any kind (including radio towers). It will not even be beaten by the proposal for a Solar Tower in Australia, because recent developments have reduced its planned height from 1000m to 650m.

700m above the ground, the distance to the horizon is approximately …

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The Future Might Look Like the Past… at First.

As humanity moves into the future, our ability to control our surroundings tends to increase. Unless we blow ourselves up first, this trend is likely to continue. Eventually we shall even obtain control of processes and structures on the atomic level, through nanotechnology. Artificial Intelligence and Brain-Computer Interfacing will permit our thoughts to be instantiated as reality rapidly (within certain bounds, hopefully). The shape of the world will closely reflect our deepest desires. And what are those desires?

99% of human evolution occurred on the African savannas. Our genetically inborn preferences are those which contributed the most to survival in this context. As our technology and culture evolved, our preferences did as well – but in ways pre-established by our basic genetic template. For example, humans like flowers. That’s because flowers signified a lush environment, with ample quantities of fresh water and fruit. When humanity discovered watercolors and printing, one of the first things we created were images flowers. So we like it when we see paintings of flowers, or girls wearing dresses …

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Putting Your Eggs in Multiple Baskets

An organization that has been displaying some activity lately is the Lifeboat Foundation. I’ve been asked to join their advisory board. My reply was yes, because I think it’s a good cause, the niche was bound to be filled eventually, and I’d like to be involved. The main focus of the organization, which is currently run part-time by a single individual supported by dozens of big names, is to build a space ark as an insurance policy against global technological disaster. The idea is to start with an orbital space station, then create improved versions incrementally more distant from the source of potential trouble (orbiting the Earth, then the Moon, then Mars).

My perspective on the issue is that most disasters can be avoided by simply going underground in an isolated area. Going into space seems somewhat too excessive and expensive to be realistically attainable in the short term (5-10 years). However, the organization will sponsor research in self-sustaining habitats, a technology with useful applications for underground living as well. But if …

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What is SENS?

SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, a detailed plan for reversing human aging. It is an engineering approach that seeks to slow and then halt aging processes that are the side effects of our body’s metabolic cycles. The proposal originates with Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge biogerontologist who has appeared in CNN, the New York Times, New Scientist, Popular Science, MIT’s Technology Review, Fortune magazine, BBC News, etc. De Grey’s Methuselah Institute has raised $3M in donation committments towards the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which rewards researchers who achieve breakthroughs in substantially extending the lifespan of middle-aged laboratory mice. After reliable life extension is achieved with mice, therapies for humans would follow.

The SENS website lists the seven causes of pathogenic damage underlying aging:

1) cell depletion 2) chromosomal mutations (cancer) 3) mitochrondrial mutations 4) unwanted cells that won’t die 5) extracellular crosslinks 6) extracellular junk 7) intracellular junk

These seven sources of damage are treated …

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What are Productive Nanosystems?

Nanotechnology is a hypothesized future manufacturing technology which would employ tremendous numbers of tiny robotic arms working together to construct human-scale products. This would come about via planar assembly, where each tiny nanorobot (consisting of perhaps a few million atoms) manufactures a tiny piece of the product, adding it to a main body bit by bit, until something macro-scale is created (for example, a laptop). For a visual example, see the film Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts (warning: file is 86.1MB in size).

How can we make huge numbers of nanorobotic arms? We’d need a reprogrammable nanorobotic arm capable of self-replicating using readily available materials. This will be difficult – at the macro-scale, we’ve made limited progress with such robotic arms. But if we could create such a self-replicator successfully, then we could instruct it to produce many trillions of copies of itself, and then reprogram those copies to work together to make human-sized products. A full “nanofactory” would require quite a bit of internal complexity. As listed by Eric Drexler, parts required would include:

a …

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Researchers Model Salience and Attention

Working from first principles in Bayesian probability theory and Shannon’s theory of communication, two Southern California researchers have developed a mathematical theory of surprise – and how the brain perceives novelty, importance, or noteworthiness. Pierre Baldi of UC Irvine and Laurent Itti of the University of Southern California developed the theory working with agents in a digital environment, and confirmed their findings with eye-tracking experiments using human subjects viewing dynamic stimuli in a variety of contexts.

The theory was so successful that Baldi and Itti were recently awarded a $600,000 NSF grant to test its validity further.

Itti hails from a computational neuroscience lab which seeks not only to model the human brain (specifically, how it delegates attention), but develop mathematically optimal algorithms with problem-solving applications in “automatic target detection in cluttered natural scenes, video compression, autonomous robotic nagivation on land or under water, or animation of virtual agents”. The result are algorithms that give a better bang-for-your-bit on certain attention tasks than the human brain does. Applied to …

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The Self-Sampling Assumption

The self-sampling assumption (SSA) is a philosophical tool which follows from basic principles. It suggests that we should reason as if we are typical observers in a suitable reference class. The SSA is part of a larger class of phenomena known as observer selection effects.

For example, say you’re participating in a psychology experiment where there is a reward for guessing the correct answer to a given problem posed to you by an experimenter. The scenario is this – you join 99 other people in front of a large building. All 100 persons, including yourself, are blindfolded and equipped with noise-cancelling headphones. You are all led inside the building. The 100 persons are split into two different groups. 95 persons are led into room A, 5 persons are led into room B (everyone is informed this). Without removing the blindfold or headphones, it is your task to guess whether you have been led into room A or B. If you guess correctly, you are rewarded $100, otherwise nothing. Given no other information, which room should …

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Aliens – There Are None

People have been talking about the extraterrestrials again. The former Canadian minister of defense is arguing for public hearings on “exopolitics” and a “Decade of Contact”, delegating public monies to education regarding our unearthly bretheren. Meanwhile, a particle physicist at the US Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is worried that alien signals received by SETI could contain viruses bent on taking over the world’s computer networks.

The latter speculation is original thinking, I must admit. Thinking “outside the box” in this way is helpful in recognizing and addressing genuine future risks, even though I think this particular concern is off-base. It’s also consoling that the mainstream media is willing to cover it, because some of the most truly serious risks to our well-being as a civilization will indeed sound “fringe” before they make headlines (nuclear weapons, chimera virii, others you haven’t heard of).

But there are no aliens. Not around here, anyway. Why not? Because if there were, they’d already be here by now.

Radio has been in use for almost a hundred years. The …

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138th Cryonics Patient Suspended

Early last August, the 138th cryonics patient in history underwent cryogenic suspension, thanks to the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. The patient was pronounced dead at 6AM on August 12, 2005. By that evening the patient had arrived in Michigan and was intravenously administered a vitrification solution which would allow the patient to be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen without fear of damage to the neurons. After 105 hours of cooling at the Cryonics Institute facility, the patient was transferred to a cryostat where she will remain indefinitely, along with 68 others who have been preserved the same way.

Our memories, personality, likes, dislikes, loves, and dreams are all encoded in the neural network of our brain. When our heart stops beating, the flow of oxygen to the brain is cut off, and neurological deterioration begins to occur. The information that constitutes who we are begins to be lost. But complete loss is not certain. If the body is quickly transferred to a cryonics facility and cooled to very low temperatures, the connections between the brain’s neurons …

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