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#432036 The Power to Upgrade Our Own Biology Is ...

Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.

In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.

What’s New?
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.

One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.

However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.

Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. 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 neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.

One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.

But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.

For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?

For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?

Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.

Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.

As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.

Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.

Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.

Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.

Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.

A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.

Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.

Image Credit: GrAl/ Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#432021 Unleashing Some of the Most Ambitious ...

At Singularity University, we are unleashing a generation of women who are smashing through barriers and starting some of the most ambitious technology companies on the planet.

Singularity University was founded in 2008 to empower leaders to use exponential technologies to solve our world’s biggest challenges. Our flagship program, the Global Solutions Program, has historically brought 80 entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley for 10 weeks to learn about exponential technologies and create moonshot startups that improve the lives of a billion people within a decade.

After nearly 10 years of running this program, we can say that about 70 percent of our successful startups have been founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs (see below for inspiring examples of their work). This is in sharp contrast to the typical 10–20 percent of venture-backed tech companies that have a female founder, as reported by TechCrunch.

How are we so dramatically changing the game? While 100 percent of the credit goes to these courageous women, as both an alumna of the Global Solutions Program and our current vice chair of Global Grand Challenges, I want to share my reflections on what has worked.

At the most basic level, it is essential to deeply believe in the inherent worth, intellectual genius, and profound entrepreneurial caliber of women. While this may seem obvious, this is not the way our world currently thinks—we live in a world that sees women’s ideas, contributions, work, and existence as inherently less valuable than men’s.

For example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article noted that even when women engage in the same behaviors and work as men, their work is considered less valuable simply because a woman did the job. An additional 2017 Harvard Business Review article showed that venture capitalists are significantly less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs and are more likely to ask men questions about the potential success of their companies while grilling women about the potential downfalls of their companies.

This doubt and lack of recognition of the genius and caliber of women is also why women are still paid less than men for completing identical work. Further, it’s why women’s work often gets buried in “number two” support roles of men in leadership roles and why women are expected to take on second shifts at home managing tedious household chores in addition to their careers. I would also argue these views as well as the rampant sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women that exists today stems from stubborn, historical, patriarchal views of women as living for the benefit of men, rather than for their own sovereignty and inherent value.

As with any other business, Singularity University has not been immune to these biases but is resolutely focused on helping women achieve intellectual genius and global entrepreneurial caliber by harnessing powerful exponential technologies.

We create an environment where women can physically and intellectually thrive free of harassment to reach their full potential, and we are building a broader ecosystem of alumni and partners around the world who not only support our female entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial journeys, but who are also sparking and leading systemic change in their own countries and communities.

Respecting the Intellectual Genius and Entrepreneurial Caliber of Women
The entrepreneurial legends of our time—Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are men who have all built their empires using exponential technologies. Exponential technologies helped these men succeed faster and with greater impact due to Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns which states that any digital technology (such as computing, software, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc.) will become more sophisticated while dramatically falling in price, enabling rapid scaling.

Knowing this, an entrepreneur can plot her way to an ambitious global solution over time, releasing new applications just as the technology and market are ready. Furthermore, these rapidly advancing technologies often converge to create new tools and opportunities for innovators to come up with novel solutions to challenges that were previously impossible to solve in the past.

For various reasons, women have not pursued exponential technologies as aggressively as men (or were prevented or discouraged from doing so).

While more women are founding firms at a higher rate than ever in wealthy countries like the United States, the majority are small businesses in linear industries that have been around for hundreds of years, such as social assistance, health, education, administrative, or consulting services. In lower-income countries, international aid agencies and nonprofits often encourage women to pursue careers in traditional handicrafts, micro-enterprise, and micro-finance. While these jobs have historically helped women escape poverty and gain financial independence, they have done little to help women realize the enormous power, influence, wealth, and ability to transform the world for the better that comes from building companies, nonprofits, and solutions grounded in exponential technologies.

We need women to be working with exponential technologies today in order to be powerful leaders in the future.

Participants who enroll in our Global Solutions Program spend the first few weeks of the program learning about exponential technologies from the world’s experts and the final weeks launching new companies or nonprofits in their area of interest. We require that women (as well as men) utilize exponential technologies as a condition of the program.

In this sense, at Singularity University women start their endeavors with all of us believing and behaving in a way that assumes they can achieve global impact at the level of our world’s most legendary entrepreneurs.

Creating an Environment Where Woman Can Thrive
While challenging women to embrace exponential technologies is essential, it is also important to create an environment where women can thrive. In particular, this means ensuring women feel at home on our campus by ensuring gender diversity, aggressively addressing sexual harassment, and flipping the traditional culture from one that penalizes women, to one that values and supports them.

While women were initially only a small minority of our Global Solutions Program, in 2014, we achieved around 50% female attendance—a statistic that has since held over the years.

This is not due to a quota—every year we turn away extremely qualified women from our program (and are working on reformulating the program to allow more people to participate in the future.) While part of our recruiting success is due to the efforts of our marketing team, we also benefited from the efforts of some of our early female founders, staff, faculty, and alumnae including Susan Fonseca, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Kathryn Myronuk, Lajuanda Asemota, Chiara Giovenzana, and Barbara Silva Tronseca.

As early champions of Singularity University these women not only launched diversity initiatives and personally reached out to women, but were crucial role models holding leadership roles in our community. In addition, Fonseca and Silva also both created multiple organizations and initiatives outside of (or in conjunction with) the university that produced additional pipelines of female candidates. In particular, Fonseca founded Women@TheFrontier as well as other organizations focusing on women, technology and innovation, and Silva founded BestInnovation (a woman’s accelerator in Latin America), as well as led Singularity University’s Chilean Chapter and founded the first SingularityU Summit in Latin America.

These women’s efforts in globally scaling Singularity University have been critical in ensuring woman around the world now see Singularity University as a place where they can lead and shape the future.

Also, thanks to Google (Alphabet) and many of our alumni and partners, we were able to provide full scholarships to any woman (or man) to attend our program regardless of their economic status. Google committed significant funding for full scholarships while our partners around the world also hosted numerous Global Impact Competitions, where entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to their local communities with the winners earning a full scholarship funded by our partners to attend the Global Solution Program as their prize.

Google and our partners’ support helped individuals attend our program and created a wider buzz around exponential technology and social change around the world in local communities. It led to the founding of 110 SU chapters in 55 countries.

Another vital aspect of our work in supporting women has been trying to create a harassment-free environment. Throughout the Silicon Valley, more than 60% of women convey that while they are trying to build their companies or get their work done, they are also dealing with physical and sexual harassment while being demeaned and excluded in other ways in the workplace. We have taken actions to educate and train our staff on how to deal with situations should they occur. All staff receives training on harassment when they join Singularity University, and all Global Solutions Program participants attend mandatory trainings on sexual harassment when they first arrive on campus. We also have male and female wellness counselors available that can offer support to both individuals and teams of entrepreneurs throughout the entire program.

While at a minimum our campus must be physically safe for women, we also strive to create a culture that values women and supports them in the additional challenges and expectations they face. For example, one of our 2016 female participants, Van Duesterberg, was pregnant during the program and said that instead of having people doubt her commitment to her startup or make her prove she could handle having a child and running a start-up at the same time, people went out of their way to help her.

“I was the epitome of a person not supposed to be doing a startup,” she said. “I was pregnant and would need to take care of my child. But Singularity University was supportive and encouraging. They made me feel super-included and that it was possible to do both. I continue to come back to campus even though the program is over because the network welcomes me and supports me rather than shuts me out because of my physical limitations. Rather than making me feel I had to prove myself, everyone just understood me and supported me, whether it was bringing me healthy food or recommending funders.”

Another strength that we have in supporting women is that after the Global Solutions Program, entrepreneurs have access to a much larger ecosystem.

Many entrepreneurs partake in SU Ventures, which can provide further support to startups as they develop, and we now have a larger community of over 200,000 people in almost every country. These members have often attended other Singularity University programs, events and are committed to our vision of the future. These women and men consist of business executives, Fortune 500 companies, investors, nonprofit and government leaders, technologists, members of the media, and other movers and shakers in the world. They have made introductions for our founders, collaborated with them on business ventures, invested in them and showcased their work at high profile events around the world.

Building for the Future
While our Global Solutions Program is making great strides in supporting female entrepreneurs, there is always more work to do. We are now focused on achieving the same degree of female participation across all of our programs and actively working to recruit and feature more female faculty and speakers on stage. As our community grows and scales around the world, we are also intent at how to best uphold our values and policies around sexual harassment across diverse locations and cultures. And like all businesses everywhere, we are focused on recruiting more women to serve at senior leadership levels within SU. As we make our way forward, we hope that you will join us in boldly leading this change and recognizing the genius and power of female entrepreneurs.

Meet Some of Our Female Moonshots
While we have many remarkable female entrepreneurs in the Singularity University community, the list below features a few of the women who have founded or co-founded companies at the Global Solutions Program that have launched new industries and are on their way to changing the way our world works for millions if not billions of people.

Jessica Scorpio co-founded Getaround in 2009. Getaround was one of the first car-sharing service platforms allowing anyone to rent out their car using a smartphone app. GetAround was a revolutionary idea in 2009, not only because smartphones and apps were still in their infancy, but because it was unthinkable that a technology startup could disrupt the major entrenched car, transport, and logistics companies. Scorpio’s early insights and pioneering entrepreneurial work brought to life new ways that humans relate to car sharing and the future self-driving car industry. Scorpio and Getaround have won numerous awards, and Getaround now serves over 200,000 members.

Paola Santana co-founded Matternet in 2011, which pioneered the commercial drone transport industry. In 2011, only military, hobbyists or the film industry used drones. Matternet demonstrated that drones could be used for commercial transport in short point-to-point deliveries for high-value goods laying the groundwork for drone transport around the world as well as some of the early thinking behind the future flying car industry. Santana was also instrumental in shaping regulations for the use of commercial drones around the world, making the industry possible.

Sara Naseri co-founded Qurasense in 2014, a life sciences start-up that analyzes women’s health through menstrual blood allowing women to track their health every month. Naseri is shifting our understanding of women’s menstrual blood as a waste product and something “not to be talked about,” to a rich, non-invasive, abundant source of information about women’s health.

Abi Ramanan co-founded ImpactVision in 2015, a software company that rapidly analyzes the quality and characteristics of food through hyperspectral images. Her long-term vision is to digitize food supply chains to reduce waste and fraud, given that one-third of all food is currently wasted before it reaches our plates. Ramanan is also helping the world understand that hyperspectral technology can be used in many industries to help us “see the unseen” and augment our ability to sense and understand what is happening around us in a much more sophisticated way.

Anita Schjøll Brede and Maria Ritola co-founded Iris AI in 2015, an artificial intelligence company that is building an AI research assistant that drastically improves the efficiency of R&D research and breaks down silos between different industries. Their long-term vision is for Iris AI to become smart enough that she will become a scientist herself. Fast Company named Iris AI one of the 10 most innovative artificial intelligence companies for 2017.

Hla Hla Win co-founded 360ed in 2016, a startup that conducts teacher training and student education through virtual reality and augmented reality in Myanmar. They have already connected teachers from 128 private schools in Myanmar with schools teaching 21st-century skills in Silicon Valley and around the world. Their moonshot is to build a platform where any teacher in the world can share best practices in teachers’ training. As they succeed, millions of children in some of the poorest parts of the world will have access to a 21st-century education.

Min FitzGerald and Van Duesterberg cofounded Nutrigene in 2017, a startup that ships freshly formulated, tailor-made supplement elixirs directly to consumers. Their long-term vision is to help people optimize their health using actionable data insights, so people can take a guided, tailored approaching to thriving into longevity.

Anna Skaya co-founded Basepaws in 2016, which created the first genetic test for cats and is building a community of citizen scientist pet owners. They are creating personalized pet products such as supplements, therapeutics, treats, and toys while also developing a database of genetic data for future research that will help both humans and pets over the long term.

Olivia Ramos co-founded Deep Blocks in 2016, a startup using artificial intelligence to integrate and streamline the processes of architecture, pre-construction, and real estate. As digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics advance, it no longer makes sense for these industries to exist separately. Ramos recognized the tremendous value and efficiency that it is now possible to unlock with exponential technologies and creating an integrated industry in the future.

Please also visit our website to learn more about other female entrepreneurs, staff and faculty who are pioneering the future through exponential technologies. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431999 Brain-Like Chips Now Beat the Human ...

Move over, deep learning. Neuromorphic computing—the next big thing in artificial intelligence—is on fire.

Just last week, two studies individually unveiled computer chips modeled after information processing in the human brain.

The first, published in Nature Materials, found a perfect solution to deal with unpredictability at synapses—the gap between two neurons that transmit and store information. The second, published in Science Advances, further amped up the system’s computational power, filling synapses with nanoclusters of supermagnetic material to bolster information encoding.

The result? Brain-like hardware systems that compute faster—and more efficiently—than the human brain.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” said Dr. Jeehwan Kim, who led the first study at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Experts are hopeful.

“The field’s full of hype, and it’s nice to see quality work presented in an objective way,” said Dr. Carver Mead, an engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena not involved in the work.

Software to Hardware
The human brain is the ultimate computational wizard. With roughly 100 billion neurons densely packed into the size of a small football, the brain can deftly handle complex computation at lightning speed using very little energy.

AI experts have taken note. The past few years saw brain-inspired algorithms that can identify faces, falsify voices, and play a variety of games at—and often above—human capability.

But software is only part of the equation. Our current computers, with their transistors and binary digital systems, aren’t equipped to run these powerful algorithms.

That’s where neuromorphic computing comes in. The idea is simple: fabricate a computer chip that mimics the brain at the hardware level. Here, data is both processed and stored within the chip in an analog manner. Each artificial synapse can accumulate and integrate small bits of information from multiple sources and fire only when it reaches a threshold—much like its biological counterpart.

Experts believe the speed and efficiency gains will be enormous.

For one, the chips will no longer have to transfer data between the central processing unit (CPU) and storage blocks, which wastes both time and energy. For another, like biological neural networks, neuromorphic devices can support neurons that run millions of streams of parallel computation.

A “Brain-on-a-chip”
Optimism aside, reproducing the biological synapse in hardware form hasn’t been as easy as anticipated.

Neuromorphic chips exist in many forms, but often look like a nanoscale metal sandwich. The “bread” pieces are generally made of conductive plates surrounding a switching medium—a conductive material of sorts that acts like the gap in a biological synapse.

When a voltage is applied, as in the case of data input, ions move within the switching medium, which then creates conductive streams to stimulate the downstream plate. This change in conductivity mimics the way biological neurons change their “weight,” or the strength of connectivity between two adjacent neurons.

But so far, neuromorphic synapses have been rather unpredictable. According to Kim, that’s because the switching medium is often comprised of material that can’t channel ions to exact locations on the downstream plate.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” explains Kim. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects.”

In his new study, Kim and colleagues swapped the jelly-like switching medium for silicon, a material with only a single line of defects that acts like a channel to guide ions.

The chip starts with a thin wafer of silicon etched with a honeycomb-like pattern. On top is a layer of silicon germanium—something often present in transistors—in the same pattern. This creates a funnel-like dislocation, a kind of Grand Canal that perfectly shuttles ions across the artificial synapse.

The researchers then made a neuromorphic chip containing these synapses and shot an electrical zap through them. Incredibly, the synapses’ response varied by only four percent—much higher than any neuromorphic device made with an amorphous switching medium.

In a computer simulation, the team built a multi-layer artificial neural network using parameters measured from their device. After tens of thousands of training examples, their neural network correctly recognized samples 95 percent of the time, just 2 percent lower than state-of-the-art software algorithms.

The upside? The neuromorphic chip requires much less space than the hardware that runs deep learning algorithms. Forget supercomputers—these chips could one day run complex computations right on our handheld devices.

A Magnetic Boost
Meanwhile, in Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Michael Schneider at the National Institute of Standards and Technology also realized that the standard switching medium had to go.

“There must be a better way to do this, because nature has figured out a better way to do this,” he says.

His solution? Nanoclusters of magnetic manganese.

Schneider’s chip contained two slices of superconducting electrodes made out of niobium, which channel electricity with no resistance. When researchers applied different magnetic fields to the synapse, they could control the alignment of the manganese “filling.”

The switch gave the chip a double boost. For one, by aligning the switching medium, the team could predict the ion flow and boost uniformity. For another, the magnetic manganese itself adds computational power. The chip can now encode data in both the level of electrical input and the direction of the magnetisms without bulking up the synapse.

It seriously worked. At one billion times per second, the chips fired several orders of magnitude faster than human neurons. Plus, the chips required just one ten-thousandth of the energy used by their biological counterparts, all the while synthesizing input from nine different sources in an analog manner.

The Road Ahead
These studies show that we may be nearing a benchmark where artificial synapses match—or even outperform—their human inspiration.

But to Dr. Steven Furber, an expert in neuromorphic computing, we still have a ways before the chips go mainstream.

Many of the special materials used in these chips require specific temperatures, he says. Magnetic manganese chips, for example, require temperatures around absolute zero to operate, meaning they come with the need for giant cooling tanks filled with liquid helium—obviously not practical for everyday use.

Another is scalability. Millions of synapses are necessary before a neuromorphic device can be used to tackle everyday problems such as facial recognition. So far, no deal.

But these problems may in fact be a driving force for the entire field. Intense competition could push teams into exploring different ideas and solutions to similar problems, much like these two studies.

If so, future chips may come in diverse flavors. Similar to our vast array of deep learning algorithms and operating systems, the computer chips of the future may also vary depending on specific requirements and needs.

It is worth developing as many different technological approaches as possible, says Furber, especially as neuroscientists increasingly understand what makes our biological synapses—the ultimate inspiration—so amazingly efficient.

Image Credit: arakio / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431900 Artificial muscles power up with new ...

Scientists are one step closer to artificial muscles. Orthotics have come a long way since their initial wood and strap designs, yet innovation lapsed when it came to compensating for muscle power—until now. A collaborative research team has designed a wearable robot to support a person's hip joint while walking. The team, led by Minoru Hashimoto, a professor of textile science and technology at Shinshu University in Japan, published the details of their prototype in Smart Materials and Structures, a journal published by the Institute of Physics. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431385 Here’s How to Get to Conscious ...

“We cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” – Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Unlike the director leads you to believe, the protagonist of Ex Machina, Andrew Garland’s 2015 masterpiece, isn’t Caleb, a young programmer tasked with evaluating machine consciousness. Rather, it’s his target Ava, a breathtaking humanoid AI with a seemingly child-like naïveté and an enigmatic mind.
Like most cerebral movies, Ex Machina leaves the conclusion up to the viewer: was Ava actually conscious? In doing so, it also cleverly avoids a thorny question that has challenged most AI-centric movies to date: what is consciousness, and can machines have it?
Hollywood producers aren’t the only people stumped. As machine intelligence barrels forward at breakneck speed—not only exceeding human performance on games such as DOTA and Go, but doing so without the need for human expertise—the question has once more entered the scientific mainstream.
Are machines on the verge of consciousness?
This week, in a review published in the prestigious journal Science, cognitive scientists Drs. Stanislas Dehaene, Hakwan Lau and Sid Kouider of the Collège de France, University of California, Los Angeles and PSL Research University, respectively, argue: not yet, but there is a clear path forward.
The reason? Consciousness is “resolutely computational,” the authors say, in that it results from specific types of information processing, made possible by the hardware of the brain.
There is no magic juice, no extra spark—in fact, an experiential component (“what is it like to be conscious?”) isn’t even necessary to implement consciousness.
If consciousness results purely from the computations within our three-pound organ, then endowing machines with a similar quality is just a matter of translating biology to code.
Much like the way current powerful machine learning techniques heavily borrow from neurobiology, the authors write, we may be able to achieve artificial consciousness by studying the structures in our own brains that generate consciousness and implementing those insights as computer algorithms.
From Brain to Bot
Without doubt, the field of AI has greatly benefited from insights into our own minds, both in form and function.
For example, deep neural networks, the architecture of algorithms that underlie AlphaGo’s breathtaking sweep against its human competitors, are loosely based on the multi-layered biological neural networks that our brain cells self-organize into.
Reinforcement learning, a type of “training” that teaches AIs to learn from millions of examples, has roots in a centuries-old technique familiar to anyone with a dog: if it moves toward the right response (or result), give a reward; otherwise ask it to try again.
In this sense, translating the architecture of human consciousness to machines seems like a no-brainer towards artificial consciousness. There’s just one big problem.
“Nobody in AI is working on building conscious machines because we just have nothing to go on. We just don’t have a clue about what to do,” said Dr. Stuart Russell, the author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach in a 2015 interview with Science.
Multilayered consciousness
The hard part, long before we can consider coding machine consciousness, is figuring out what consciousness actually is.
To Dehaene and colleagues, consciousness is a multilayered construct with two “dimensions:” C1, the information readily in mind, and C2, the ability to obtain and monitor information about oneself. Both are essential to consciousness, but one can exist without the other.
Say you’re driving a car and the low fuel light comes on. Here, the perception of the fuel-tank light is C1—a mental representation that we can play with: we notice it, act upon it (refill the gas tank) and recall and speak about it at a later date (“I ran out of gas in the boonies!”).
“The first meaning we want to separate (from consciousness) is the notion of global availability,” explains Dehaene in an interview with Science. When you’re conscious of a word, your whole brain is aware of it, in a sense that you can use the information across modalities, he adds.
But C1 is not just a “mental sketchpad.” It represents an entire architecture that allows the brain to draw multiple modalities of information from our senses or from memories of related events, for example.
Unlike subconscious processing, which often relies on specific “modules” competent at a defined set of tasks, C1 is a global workspace that allows the brain to integrate information, decide on an action, and follow through until the end.
Like The Hunger Games, what we call “conscious” is whatever representation, at one point in time, wins the competition to access this mental workspace. The winners are shared among different brain computation circuits and are kept in the spotlight for the duration of decision-making to guide behavior.
Because of these features, C1 consciousness is highly stable and global—all related brain circuits are triggered, the authors explain.
For a complex machine such as an intelligent car, C1 is a first step towards addressing an impending problem, such as a low fuel light. In this example, the light itself is a type of subconscious signal: when it flashes, all of the other processes in the machine remain uninformed, and the car—even if equipped with state-of-the-art visual processing networks—passes by gas stations without hesitation.
With C1 in place, the fuel tank would alert the car computer (allowing the light to enter the car’s “conscious mind”), which in turn checks the built-in GPS to search for the next gas station.
“We think in a machine this would translate into a system that takes information out of whatever processing module it’s encapsulated in, and make it available to any of the other processing modules so they can use the information,” says Dehaene. “It’s a first sense of consciousness.”
In a way, C1 reflects the mind’s capacity to access outside information. C2 goes introspective.
The authors define the second facet of consciousness, C2, as “meta-cognition:” reflecting on whether you know or perceive something, or whether you just made an error (“I think I may have filled my tank at the last gas station, but I forgot to keep a receipt to make sure”). This dimension reflects the link between consciousness and sense of self.
C2 is the level of consciousness that allows you to feel more or less confident about a decision when making a choice. In computational terms, it’s an algorithm that spews out the probability that a decision (or computation) is correct, even if it’s often experienced as a “gut feeling.”
C2 also has its claws in memory and curiosity. These self-monitoring algorithms allow us to know what we know or don’t know—so-called “meta-memory,” responsible for that feeling of having something at the tip of your tongue. Monitoring what we know (or don’t know) is particularly important for children, says Dehaene.
“Young children absolutely need to monitor what they know in order to…inquire and become curious and learn more,” he explains.
The two aspects of consciousness synergize to our benefit: C1 pulls relevant information into our mental workspace (while discarding other “probable” ideas or solutions), while C2 helps with long-term reflection on whether the conscious thought led to a helpful response.
Going back to the low fuel light example, C1 allows the car to solve the problem in the moment—these algorithms globalize the information, so that the car becomes aware of the problem.
But to solve the problem, the car would need a “catalog of its cognitive abilities”—a self-awareness of what resources it has readily available, for example, a GPS map of gas stations.
“A car with this sort of self-knowledge is what we call having C2,” says Dehaene. Because the signal is globally available and because it’s being monitored in a way that the machine is looking at itself, the car would care about the low gas light and behave like humans do—lower fuel consumption and find a gas station.
“Most present-day machine learning systems are devoid of any self-monitoring,” the authors note.
But their theory seems to be on the right track. The few examples whereby a self-monitoring system was implemented—either within the structure of the algorithm or as a separate network—the AI has generated “internal models that are meta-cognitive in nature, making it possible for an agent to develop a (limited, implicit, practical) understanding of itself.”
Towards conscious machines
Would a machine endowed with C1 and C2 behave as if it were conscious? Very likely: a smartcar would “know” that it’s seeing something, express confidence in it, report it to others, and find the best solutions for problems. If its self-monitoring mechanisms break down, it may also suffer “hallucinations” or even experience visual illusions similar to humans.
Thanks to C1 it would be able to use the information it has and use it flexibly, and because of C2 it would know the limit of what it knows, says Dehaene. “I think (the machine) would be conscious,” and not just merely appearing so to humans.
If you’re left with a feeling that consciousness is far more than global information sharing and self-monitoring, you’re not alone.
“Such a purely functional definition of consciousness may leave some readers unsatisfied,” the authors acknowledge.
“But we’re trying to take a radical stance, maybe simplifying the problem. Consciousness is a functional property, and when we keep adding functions to machines, at some point these properties will characterize what we mean by consciousness,” Dehaene concludes.
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