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When we think of wisdom, we often think of ancient philosophers, mystics, or spiritual leaders. Wisdom is associated with the past. Yet some intellectual leaders are challenging us to reconsider wisdom in the context of the technological evolution of the future.
With the rise of exponential technologies like virtual reality, big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics, people are gaining access to increasingly powerful tools. These tools are neither malevolent nor benevolent on their own; human values and decision-making influence how they are used.
In future-themed discussions we often focus on technological progress far more than on intellectual and moral advancements. In reality, the virtuous insights that future humans possess will be even more powerful than their technological tools.
Tom Lombardo and Ray Todd Blackwood are advocating for exactly this. In their interdisciplinary paper “Educating the Wise Cyborg of the Future,” they propose a new definition of wisdom—one that is relevant in the context of the future of humanity.
We Are Already Cyborgs
The core purpose of Lombardo and Blackwood’s paper is to explore revolutionary educational models that will prepare humans, soon-to-be-cyborgs, for the future. The idea of educating such “cyborgs” may sound like science fiction, but if you pay attention to yourself and the world around you, cyborgs came into being a long time ago.
Techno-philosophers like Jason Silva point out that our tech devices are an abstract form of brain-machine interfaces. We use smartphones to store and retrieve information, perform calculations, and communicate with each other. Our devices are an extension of our minds.
According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of the extended mind, we use this technology to expand the boundaries of our minds. We use tools like machine learning to enhance our cognitive skills or powerful telescopes to enhance our visual reach. Such is how technology has become a part of our exoskeletons, allowing us to push beyond our biological limitations.
In other words, you are already a cyborg. You have been all along.
Such an abstract definition of cyborgs is both relevant and thought-provoking. But it won’t stay abstract for much longer. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret the neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing people to communicate purely through brainwaves. Technologists like Ray Kurzweil believe that by 2030 we will connect the neocortex of our brains to the cloud via nanobots.
Given these trends, humans will continue to be increasingly cyborg-like. Our future schools may not necessarily educate people as we are today, but rather will be educating a new species of human-machine hybrid.
Whether you take an abstract or literal definition of a cyborg, we need to completely revamp our educational models. Even if you don’t buy into the scenario where humans integrate powerful brain-machine interfaces into our minds, there is still a desperate need for wisdom-based education to equip current generations to tackle 21st-century issues.
With an emphasis on isolated subjects, standardized assessments, and content knowledge, our current educational models were designed for the industrial era, with the intended goal of creating masses of efficient factory workers—not to empower critical thinkers, innovators, or wise cyborgs.
Currently, the goal of higher education is to provide students with the degree that society tells them they need, and ostensibly to prepare them for the workforce. In contrast, Lombardo and Blackwood argue that wisdom should be the central goal of higher education, and they elaborate on how we can practically make this happen. Lombardo has developed a comprehensive two-year foundational education program for incoming university students aimed at the development of wisdom.
What does such an educational model look like? Lombardo and Blackwood break wisdom down into individual traits and capacities, each of which can be developed and measured independently or in combination with others. The authors lay out an expansive list of traits that can influence our decision-making as we strive to tackle global challenges and pave a more exciting future. These include big-picture thinking, curiosity, wonder, compassion, self-transcendence, love of learning, optimism, and courage.
As the authors point out, “given the complex and transforming nature of the world we live in, the development of wisdom provides a holistic, perspicacious, and ethically informed foundation for understanding the world, identifying its critical problems and positive opportunities, and constructively addressing its challenges.”
After all, many of the challenges we see in our world today boil down to out-dated ways of thinking, be they regressive mindsets, superficial value systems, or egocentric mindsets. The development of wisdom would immunize future societies against such debilitating values; imagine what our world would be like if wisdom was ingrained in all leaders and participating members of society.
The Wise Cyborg
Lombardo and Blackwood invite us to imagine how the wise cyborgs of the future would live their lives. What would happen if the powerful human-machine hybrids of tomorrow were also purpose-driven, compassionate, and ethical?
They would perceive the evolving digital world through a lens of wonder, awe, and curiosity. They would use digital information as a tool for problem-solving and a source of infinite knowledge. They would leverage immersive mediums like virtual reality to enhance creative expression and experimentation. They would continue to adapt and thrive in an unpredictable world of accelerating change.
Our media often depict a dystopian future for our species. It is worth considering a radically positive yet plausible scenario where instead of the machines taking over, we converge with them into wise cyborgs. This is just a glimpse of what is possible if we combine transcendent wisdom with powerful exponential technologies.
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We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.
The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.
That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.
The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.
In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.
The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.
By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.
Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.
Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.
The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.
And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.
That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.
This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.
But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.
At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.
For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.
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