Why Utilitarians Should Focus on Technology

Classes on utilitarianism rarely include encouragements to keep up with the latest in science and technology, or study it specifically. But they definitely should. Our society is in the midst of a technology-dominated era, where new inventions have a much bigger impact on human welfare than newly elected politicians.

Our minds are programmed to overfocus on politics, and underfocus on technology. The reason why is that our ancestors evolved in an environment where the political scene was constantly changing while technology stayed roughly static. Today, both areas change rapidly, but technology has a greater impact.

The classical example (it should be, anyway), is the Haber-Bosch process, the chemical process by which we manufacture fertilizer from nitrogen in the atmosphere. Without it, billions of people would never have been born, because food would be more expensive and scarce. Starvation would be rampant and fewer people would choose to have children. The agricultural industry would be reliant upon acquiring natural nitrate deposits, such as Argentinian guano, to provide fertilizer for food. If it weren’t for …

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A Brief History of Self-Replicating Machines

We know that reprogrammable self-replicating systems are possible because they’re swarming all around us. Every living thing is a reprogrammable self-replicating system. DNA is the program, asexual or sexual reproduction is the means of replication. But there’s still more work to be done before we can create artificial self-replicating systems. Let’s take a look at the history of the concept in recent times.

The concept of self-replicating automata was first formalized by John von Neumann, one of the greatest computer scientists and mathematicians of the 20th century. His Universal Constructor was virtual rather than physical, and can be seen as history’s first computer virus. Von Neumann proved that the most effective way of performing massive mining operations such as mining an entire moon or asteroid belt would be by using self-replicating machines, taking advantage of their exponential growth. His magnum opus on the topic, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, was published in 1966.

After von Neumann’s work, the field of self-replicating systems was dormant for a decade and a half. It was revived in …

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Denying Superintelligence

There are quite a few individuals that react to the idea of qualitatively smarter-than-human intelligence, AI or otherwise, with extreme skepticism and derision. My guess is that there are four possible reasons for this, which different people display in different combinations and intensity levels.

The first is the folk theory that intelligence is a light bulb – either it’s on, or it’s off. No in between. If you have it, it only varies to a matter of degree, not qualitatively. Humans have intelligence and animals don’t, which is why it’s okay to raise animals for food, for instance. Intelligence and subjective consciousness go hand in hand.

The second is the argument from divine privilege. Man, being made in God’s image, has been given the gift of reason. We cannot magnify this gift on our own any more than we can engineer a machine that turns us into angels. This “gift of reason” argument is what I was taught by my parents as a child.

The third is technological skepticism. For example, my grandfather, who is an atheist, believes it will …

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What Smartness Means

Bacterial cells have little organelles in them called mesosomes. According to the Wikipedia article, “Mesosomes may play a role in cell wall formation during cell division and/or chromosome replication and distribution and/or electron transfer systems of respiration. Electron transport chains are found within the mesosome producing 32-34ATP. They act as an anchor to bind and pull apart daughter chromosomes during cell division.” Various subscription-required articles, though some free, go on and on about the possible functions of these small organelles in the bacterial division, respiration, etc. Mesosomes were originally discovered in 1960.

Small problem. Sometime in the mid-70s, scientists realized that mesosomes weren’t even real. They were just artifacts caused by freeze-fractures in the chemical fixation process for electron microscopy. Little intrusions produced where the plasma membrane and cell wall came apart from the stress of the fixation process. So much for that idea.

If you figure that biologists get paid something like $60,000 per year, and it takes a couple months …

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Closing the Loop

I made the above image while idly listening to the podcast mentioned previously. It describes the Singularity idea pretty straightforwardly. If technology can be used to improve intelligence, even a little bit, then that will lead to further advances in intelligence enhancement technology, and so on, until there are superintelligent gods, right there on our front porch. Thus, it’s counterproductive to work on the really big projects ourselves, when we can ‘simply’ invent intelligence enhancement technology, use it to make ourselves smarter, and then use our superintelligence to much more effectively pursue them.

Skepticism around the idea, explicitly or implicitly, generally takes the form that human beings are pretty much the smartest and fastest thinkers that can possibly exist, therefore intelligence enhancement technology will only provide tiny gains. Considering how far intelligence has come since the beginning of life on Earth, I think it’s pretty bold to suggest that we’re the endpoint of the process of intelligence improvement. Some also think it’s “betraying humanity” to advocate superintelligence, but really, I personally love humanity a lot, but think we should …

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Publicity and Such

My interview with RU Sirius has been made into a transcript and posted online, for your skimming pleasure. This was the first time I got to meet RU in the flesh, after having bought his 1992 book, Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge, at a garage sale when I was 16. I think he is pretty cool and I like the way he is giving numerous transhumanists and intelligent futurists publicity nowadays.

In other news, Eliezer Yudkowsky was interviewed recently by Cameron Reilly, an Australian podcast mogul. He’s also interviewed other familiar people you may have heard of, like Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, etc. You can find the links to those other interviews right there on the page.

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Possible Views on the Future of AGI

Obviously, different people have different views on the future of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) and its policy consequences for us in the here and now. They depend primarily on two variables: the power and controllability of advanced AGI. This produces four rough domains of opinion:

Low power, low controllability Low power, significant controllability Great power, low controllability Great power, significant controllability

The low power, low controllability group are the human exceptionalists, AI denialists, and technology skeptics. They don’t believe powerful AI can be created because there’s something special about humans that can’t be duplicated in machines. Furthermore, software (including AI) is unwieldy and difficult to get a handle on. This group emphasizes we should not rely too much on technology and need to maintain a low-tech infrastructure to cover our asses in case the technology base somehow falls out from under us. You might think this the view of the old lady you see at the supermarket, or the survivalist stockpiling his shack in the woods with handguns, but actual philosophers believe it too.

The low power, significant controllability group …

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What Will the First Nanotechnology Products Be?

This is a question of some interest, which gets kicked around in the Drexlerian nanotechnology community from time to time. The Nanofactory Product Catalog is one attempt at making a list. This CRN blog post has some comments that scratch the surface of a bit. Let me know in the comments if you can find anything else.

The first assumption is that the nanofactory in question can only build carbon-based structures. So, for example, conventional PV solar cells wouldn’t be allowed, because they require silicon to be built. Anything using amorphous carbon, graphite, diamond, carbon aerogel, glassy carbon, or carbon fiber is fair game. For simplicity and to avoid arguments, I do not assume the availability of carbon nanotubes or other fullerenes. The products listed below are a combination of those suggested at the linked sources and my own ideas. As always, I invite comments and additions.

Keeping these requirements in mind, I put future MNT products into three categories: 1) products or structures composed …

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Michael Vassar on RPOP ‘Slaves’, AI vs. Human Uploads

While browsing the SL4 mailing list archives, as I am wont to do, I ran across this post by Michael Vassar that I thought made a lot of good points in a small space. It was in response to a couple people voicing ethical concerns that the AI boxing (sandboxing an AI from the outside world for testing purposes) is always unfair to the AI. Vassar, myself, and many others, believe that it should be entirely feasible to create an AI that is a self-improving optimization process in a general sense – something that manipulates matter into a target state – not requiring consciousness, the experience of pleasure or pain, or the like. In this same sense, evolution is one particular optimization process, without anthropomorphic qualities. In the future, it may be worthwhile to create AIs that are consciousness and human-like, but the point here is that they don’t need to be.

Onto the post:


Robin and Phil: I know it feels liberal, reasonable, …

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Radical Discontinuity Does Not Follow from Hard Takeoff

From Nick Bostrom’s “Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence”:

Emergence of superintelligence may be sudden.

It appears much harder to get from where we are now to human-level artificial intelligence than to get from there to superintelligence. While it may thus take quite a while before we get superintelligence, the final stage may happen swiftly. That is, the transition from a state where we have a roughly human-level artificial intelligence to a state where we have full-blown superintelligence, with revolutionary applications, may be very rapid, perhaps a matter of days rather than years. This possibility of a sudden emergence of superintelligence is referred to as the singularity hypothesis.

I don’t think “singularity hypothesis” is the best phrase to describe this, because of the dozens of meanings associated with the word “Singularity” already, and this particular meaning being a narrow slice of those. The classic term, and the one which I prefer, is hard takeoff.

Many people believe a hard takeoff is likely because a ‘human-equivalent AI’ would in fact …

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Visualization: Blog Mapping by Domain

An interesting blog mapping experiment from Mike Love over at Institute for the Future:

The blue dots are blogs and the tan dots are domains they link to. Clockwise from the top left, they are Accelerating Future, FuturePundit, Minding the Planet, Jon Udell, Science Library Pad, Future of the Book, Future Feeder, Open the Future, and FutureNow. Visit the above link and you can download a version with rollover URLs.

An interesting project by Mike Love is The Genealogy of Influence, a project to document and visualize the creative influences of great thinkers, scientists and artists. Cool stuff!

Unsurprisingly, it looks like Jamais and I are side by side in the futurist blogosphere.

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