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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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We all have scars, and each one tells a story. Tales of tomfoolery, tales of haphazardness, or in my case, tales of stupidity.
Whether the cause of your scar was a push-bike accident, a lack of concentration while cutting onions, or simply the byproduct of an active lifestyle, the experience was likely extremely painful and distressing. Not to mention the long and vexatious recovery period, stretching out for weeks and months after the actual event!
Cast your minds back to that time. How you longed for instant relief from your discomfort! How you longed to have your capabilities restored in an instant!
Well, materials that can heal themselves in an instant may not be far from becoming a reality—and a family of them known as elastomers holds the key.
“Elastomer” is essentially a big, fancy word for rubber. However, elastomers have one unique property—they are capable of returning to their original form after being vigorously stretched and deformed.
This unique property of elastomers has caught the eye of many scientists around the world, particularly those working in the field of robotics. The reason? Elastomer can be encouraged to return to its original shape, in many cases by simply applying heat. The implication of this is the quick and cost-effective repair of “wounds”—cuts, tears, and punctures to the soft, elastomer-based appendages of a robot’s exoskeleton.
Researchers from Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium have been toying with the technique, and with remarkable success. The team built a robotic hand with fingers made of a type of elastomer. They found that cuts and punctures were indeed able to repair themselves simply by applying heat to the affected area.
How long does the healing process take? In this instance, about a day. Now that’s a lot shorter than the weeks and months of recovery time we typically need for a flesh wound, during which we are unable to write, play the guitar, or do the dishes. If you consider the latter to be a bad thing…
However, it’s not the first time scientists have played around with elastomers and examined their self-healing properties. Another team of scientists, headed up by Cheng-Hui Li and Chao Wang, discovered another type of elastomer that exhibited autonomous self-healing properties. Just to help you picture this stuff, the material closely resembles animal muscle— strong, flexible, and elastic. With autogenetic restorative powers to boot.
Advancements in the world of self-healing elastomers, or rubbers, may also affect the lives of everyday motorists. Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a self-healing rubber material that could be used to make tires that repair their own punctures.
This time the mechanism of self-healing doesn’t involve heat. Rather, it is related to a physical phenomenon associated with the rubber’s unique structure. Normally, when a large enough stress is applied to a typical rubber, there is catastrophic failure at the focal point of that stress. The self-healing rubber the researchers created, on the other hand, distributes that same stress evenly over a network of “crazes”—which are like cracks connected by strands of fiber.
Here’s the interesting part. Not only does this unique physical characteristic of the rubber prevent catastrophic failure, it facilitates self-repair. According to Harvard researchers, when the stress is released, the material snaps back to its original form and the crazes heal.
This wonder material could be used in any number of rubber-based products.
Professor Jinrong Wu, of Sichuan University, China, and co-author of the study, happened to single out tires: “Imagine that we could use this material as one of the components to make a rubber tire… If you have a cut through the tire, this tire wouldn’t have to be replaced right away. Instead, it would self-heal while driving, enough to give you leeway to avoid dramatic damage,” said Wu.
So where to from here? Well, self-healing elastomers could have a number of different applications. According to the article published by Quartz, cited earlier, the material could be used on artificial limbs. Perhaps it will provide some measure of structural integrity without looking like a tattered mess after years of regular use.
Or perhaps a sort of elastomer-based hybrid skin is on the horizon. A skin in which wounds heal instantly. And recovery time, unlike your regular old human skin of yesteryear, is significantly slashed. Furthermore, this future skin might eliminate those little reminders we call scars.
For those with poor judgment skills, this spells an end to disquieting reminders of our own stupidity.
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The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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