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The question of whether an artificial general intelligence will be developed in the future—and, if so, when it might arrive—is controversial. One (very uncertain) estimate suggests 2070 might be the earliest we could expect to see such technology.
Some futurists point to Moore’s Law and the increasing capacity of machine learning algorithms to suggest that a more general breakthrough is just around the corner. Others suggest that extrapolating exponential improvements in hardware is unwise, and that creating narrow algorithms that can beat humans at specialized tasks brings us no closer to a “general intelligence.”
But evolution has produced minds like the human mind at least once. Surely we could create artificial intelligence simply by copying nature, either by guided evolution of simple algorithms or wholesale emulation of the human brain.
Both of these ideas are far easier to conceive of than they are to achieve. The 302 neurons of the nematode worm’s brain are still an extremely difficult engineering challenge, let alone the 86 billion in a human brain.
Leaving aside these caveats, though, many people are worried about artificial general intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s influential book on superintelligence imagines it will be an agent—an intelligence with a specific goal. Once such an agent reaches a human level of intelligence, it will improve itself—increasingly rapidly as it gets smarter—in pursuit of whatever goal it has, and this “recursive self-improvement” will lead it to become superintelligent.
This “intelligence explosion” could catch humans off guard. If the initial goal is poorly specified or malicious, or if improper safety features are in place, or if the AI decides it would prefer to do something else instead, humans may be unable to control our own creation. Bostrom gives examples of how a seemingly innocuous goal, such as “Make everyone happy,” could be misinterpreted; perhaps the AI decides to drug humanity into a happy stupor, or convert most of the world into computing infrastructure to pursue its goal.
Drexler and Comprehensive AI Services
These are increasingly familiar concerns for an AI that behaves like an agent, seeking to achieve its goal. There are dissenters to this picture of how artificial general intelligence might arise. One notable alternative point of view comes from Eric Drexler, famous for his work on molecular nanotechnology and Engines of Creation, the book that popularized it.
With respect to AI, Drexler believes our view of an artificial intelligence as a single “agent” that acts to maximize a specific goal is too narrow, almost anthropomorphizing AI, or modeling it as a more realistic route towards general intelligence. Instead, he proposes “Comprehensive AI Services” (CAIS) as an alternative route to artificial general intelligence.
What does this mean? Drexler’s argument is that we should look more closely at how machine learning and AI algorithms are actually being developed in the real world. The optimization effort is going into producing algorithms that can provide services and perform tasks like translation, music recommendations, classification, medical diagnoses, and so forth.
AI-driven improvements in technology, argues Drexler, will lead to a proliferation of different algorithms: technology and software improvement, which can automate increasingly more complicated tasks. Recursive improvement in this regime is already occurring—take the newer versions of AlphaGo, which can learn to improve themselves by playing against previous versions.
Many Smart Arms, No Smart Brain
Instead of relying on some unforeseen breakthrough, the CAIS model of AI just assumes that specialized, narrow AI will continue to improve at performing each of its tasks, and the range of tasks that machine learning algorithms will be able to perform will become wider. Ultimately, once a sufficient number of tasks have been automated, the services that an AI will provide will be so comprehensive that they will resemble a general intelligence.
One could then imagine a “general” intelligence as simply an algorithm that is extremely good at matching the task you ask it to perform to the specialized service algorithm that can perform that task. Rather than acting like a single brain that strives to achieve a particular goal, the central AI would be more like a search engine, looking through the tasks it can perform to find the closest match and calling upon a series of subroutines to achieve the goal.
For Drexler, this is inherently a safety feature. Rather than Bostrom’s single, impenetrable, conscious and superintelligent brain (which we must try to psychoanalyze in advance without really knowing what it will look like), we have a network of capabilities. If you don’t want your system to perform certain tasks, you can simply cut it off from access to those services. There is no superintelligent consciousness to outwit or “trap”: more like an extremely high-level programming language that can respond to complicated commands by calling upon one of the myriad specialized algorithms that have been developed by different groups.
This skirts the complex problem of consciousness and all of the sticky moral quandaries that arise in making minds that might be like ours. After all, if you could simulate a human mind, you could simulate it experiencing unimaginable pain. Black Mirror-esque dystopias where emulated minds have no rights and are regularly “erased” or forced to labor in dull and repetitive tasks, hove into view.
Drexler argues that, in this world, there is no need to ever build a conscious algorithm. Yet it seems likely that, at some point, humans will attempt to simulate our own brains, if only in the vain attempt to pursue immortality. This model cannot hold forever. Yet its proponents argue that any world in which we could develop general AI would probably also have developed superintelligent capabilities in a huge range of different tasks, such as computer programming, natural language understanding, and so on. In other words, CAIS arrives first.
The Future In Our Hands?
Drexler argues that his model already incorporates many of the ideas from general AI development. In the marketplace, algorithms compete all the time to perform these services: they undergo the same evolutionary pressures that lead to “higher intelligence,” but the behavior that’s considered superior is chosen by humans, and the nature of the “general intelligence” is far more shaped by human decision-making and human programmers. Development in AI services could still be rapid and disruptive.
But in Drexler’s case, the research and development capacity comes from humans and organizations driven by the desire to improve algorithms that are performing individualized and useful tasks, rather than from a conscious AI recursively reprogramming and improving itself.
In other words, this vision does not absolve us of the responsibility of making our AI safe; if anything, it gives us a greater degree of responsibility. As more and more complex “services” are automated, performing what used to be human jobs at superhuman speed, the economic disruption will be severe.
Equally, as machine learning is trusted to carry out more complex decisions, avoiding algorithmic bias becomes crucial. Shaping each of these individual decision-makers—and trying to predict the complex ways they might interact with each other—is no less daunting a task than specifying the goal for a hypothetical, superintelligent, God-like AI. Arguably, the consequences of the “misalignment” of these services algorithms are already multiplying around us.
The CAIS model bridges the gap between real-world AI, machine learning developments, and real-world safety considerations, as well as the speculative world of superintelligent agents and the safety considerations involved with controlling their behavior. We should keep our minds open as to what form AI and machine learning will take, and how it will influence our societies—and we must take care to ensure that the systems we create don’t end up forcing us all to live in a world of unintended consequences.
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Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.
Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.
That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.
The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.
Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.
“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.
Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.
The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.
The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)
Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.
The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.
Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.
Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.
“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”
Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.
Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.
Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.
For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.
Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.
Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.
“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.
That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.
“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”
And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.
Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.
“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.
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