When Machines Transcend the Mechanical
I've been thinking about Ray Kurzweil's notion of humans transcending biology and what that might mean. Ray seems to be saying that as technological advances explode in an exponential avalanche that humans will adapt themselves to this new technology and transcend their own biology by becoming indistinguishable from machines.
I have a similar but different idea about how this may go down. Right now we have a certain picture of what technology is, and how it works, and what it is capable of. What I would like to suggest is that as technology advances past a certain point it will become more and more indistinguishable from life. The analogy is often made that strong Drexlerian nano-technology must be possible because we see precisely that kind of nano-level construction and computation in living systems. So its not too much of a stretch to think that as nano-technology becomes perfected over the next couple decades that technological systems will begin to more and more resemble life.
At the same time over the next couple of decades we will begin to understand biological systems more and more. The result of this will be the ability to maximize the efficiency of biological systems through nano-reconstruction and genetic engineering. I'm talking about everything from enhanced senses, cognitive ability, better immune systems, better metabolism, stronger bones and muscle, etc.
What this all adds up to, in my estimation, is not that machines overcome life and replace it, but rather that technological systems become indistinguishable from living systems and that living systems can be improved upon through engineering just as easily as machines today can.
So I agree with Ray that by the time the technological singularity has arrived humans and machines will be indistinguishable. What I disagree with is the reason why. Humans will not transcend biology, per se. Rather machines will transcend the mechanical.
UPDATE: Al Fin as an interesting Post on a similar subject.
Although there will be advances in non-biological forms of technology I think the future will remain dominated by biology.
As far as biotech is concerned we're only at the tip of a very big iceberg. Once we understand in detail how the genome works we'll be able to synthesise almost any biological creature imaginable, including ones which never existed before. I don't think people will be able to resist tinkering with their own design, and I think over the next few centuries various new species of human will appear.
I fully agree with you that Ray is focusing too much on non-biological computation power and machines transcending humans. Once we learn how to program and actually engineer biological systems, we will have incredible upgrading power. I see no reason, for example, why we could not increase the computation power of a single neuron by several magnitudes. Considering each neuron has 7,000 dendritic connections, this could result in nearly million fold increase in the computation power of the brains.
We will of course augment ourselves with many non-biological parts as well, but we can do so much more with the flexible biological systems, we will remain mostly biological entities.
Biology is where it is at, for now. Nanotech and Machine Intelligence had both better learn from the biological "proofs of concept." I have a post at my blog about an upcoming meeting of microbiologists who are teaching bacteria to build nanostructures.
Start with what you know will work, then go from there.
I think we'll harness the best of all worlds to do whatever it is that we want to do.
For example, the biological brain is massively parrallel, but each individual neuron is far slower than what could be duplicated with silicon.
Silicon organized in parallel like a biological brain would be much more powerful.
OT: How neat would it be to have an all purpose devise implanted to monitor the body and maximize its efficiency. Micah's might envision this devise as actual brain tissue located somewhere beside the brain sending out orders to a new and improved digestive system (poisons handled, blood sugar maintained better, kept slim regardless of diet), immune system, etc.
There might be a tiny silicon part of this devise that would allow communication with an outside computer.
The best of both.
I think that as the nitty gritty of biology becomes better understood many traditional manufacturing processes will be replaced by biological ones. Parts used to build products could be "grown" rather than made in the usual ways.
If the 20th century was the age of physics (aeroplanes, cars, nuclear physics, electricity, space travel) I think the 21st will be the age of biology, with similarly large breakthroughs in the bio sciences.
Of course there will also be big advances in non-biological areas, as Ray points out, - especially artificial intelligence and simulated forms of biology (brains, and eventually complete organisms) but claims of the demise of biology I think are greatly overstated.
Will mechanics overcome life—or will life overcome mechanics? As we sub-routinize various aspects of our biomechanics, we will gain greater awareness of the demarcation of those aspects of ourselves that are not “mechanical.” A frontier will emerge—an Event Horizon, if you will, between the body and the soul that can be observed by a purely scientific means. Such an event horizon would recede with each new discovery until we finally achieve corporeal transcendence and experience God and the universe face to face.
This may have happened already—on other worlds. Have you stopped to consider, in a universe as vast and old as our own, why were apparently not receiving “communications” from myriad sources? Perhaps we are, but they are super-mechanical. But, perhaps we are not--and our universal extraterrestrial fellows are simply waiting for us on the “other side.” Arthur C Clarke discusses one such a scenario in “Childhood’s End.”
To get there, we need to heed the sage advice of Uma Thurman: “First we must wiggle our big toe.” In this case, the “big toe” is our knowledge and flexibility of imagination. Anything that can promote the expansion of these two human qualities would be welcome in promoting our eventual extra-corporeality. As a great ancient eastern sage once told us, the quest for knowledge is as important for reaching the Divine as is the practice of devotion or service.
Posted by Bill Churchill (January 9, 2006)
By 9/1/06 14:48, at
It seems like more and more, technologists are using biological models to design machines. I think, strangely enough, this was actually predicted by avant-garde artists in the early 20th century, who were using machine metaphors to produce organic works (James Joyce and Kurt Schwitters are two examples). I digress.
There are several books that broach this subject. One is called Biomedia, it's pretty good. I hope that, soon, every researcher in the technology field will have a cope of Self-Organization in Biological Systems. I mean, why can't we design new kinds of nervous systems in labs, why can't we design one of the quantum brain Penrose theorizes about in Shadows of the Mind? This stuff is probably still years or decades away.
It occurs to me that if we were a hundred thousand years into the future, that era's dominant, organic/mechanical life form may view their personal evolution in the same way as we view the last 4 billion years of biological development. Today we look back on the developmental history of living organisms and say to ourselves that it is perfectly reasonable for biology to have started with a mixture of self-replicating chemicals to single celled organisms to multicelled animals and finally into us. I think it would look just as natural to an advanced entity, an entify that is a quintillion times "smarter" than us, to accept the natural progression from today's highly developed multicell biological based organisms to biological/mechanical life forms to the dominant life form of that time (however they may be constructed). In fact, from their quintillion times "smarter" point of view our technological progression today in computers and nano-tech and machine AI would look just like a continuation of the random trial and error approach we attribute to biological improvement. In other words, the rise of "living machines" may in fact be the next major paradigm of evolution.
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