Monthly Archives: December 2013

We could have a conscious machine by end-of-play 2015

I made xmas dinner this year, as I always do. It was pretty easy.

I had a basic plan, made up a menu suited to my family and my limited ability, ensured its legality, including license to serve and consume alcohol to my family on my premises, made sure I had all the ingredients I needed, checked I had recipes and instructions where necessary. I had the tools, equipment and working space I needed, and started early enough to do it all in time for the planned delivery. It was successful.

That is pretty much what you have to do to make anything, from a cup of tea to a space station, though complexity, cost and timings may vary.

With conscious machines, it is still basically the same list. When I check through it to see whether we are ready to make a start I conclude that we are. If we make the decision now at the end of 2013 to make a machine which is conscious and self-aware by the end of 2015, we could do it.

Every time machine consciousness is raised as a goal, a lot of people start screaming for a definition of consciousness. I am conscious, and I know how it feels. So are you. Neither of us can write down a definition that everyone would agree on. I don’t care. It simply isn’t an engineering barrier. Let’s simply aim for a machine that can make either of us believe that it is conscious and self aware in much the same way as we are. We don’t need weasel words to help pass an abacus off as Commander Data.

Basic plan: actually, there are several in development.

One approach is essentially reverse engineering the human brain, mapping out the neurons and replicating them. That would work, (Markram’s team) but would take too long.  It doesn’t need us to understand how consciousness works, it is rather like  methodically taking a television apart and making an exact replica using identical purchased or manufactured components.  It has the advantage of existing backing and if nobody tries a better technique early enough, it could win. More comment on this approach: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/reverse-engineering-the-brain-is-a-very-slow-way-to-make-a-smart-computer/

Another is to use a large bank of powerful digital computers with access to large pool of data and knowledge. That can produce a very capable machine that can answer difficult questions or do various things well that traditionally need smart people , but as far as creating a conscious machine, it won’t work. It will happen anyway for various reasons, and may produce some valuable outputs, but it won’t result in a conscious machine..

Another is to use accelerate guided evolution within an electronic equivalent of the ‘primordial soup’. That takes the process used by nature, which clearly worked, then improves and accelerates it using whatever insights and analysis we can add via advanced starting points, subsequent guidance, archiving, cataloging and smart filtering and pruning. That also would work. If we can make the accelerated evolution powerful enough it can be achieved quickly. This is my favoured approach because it is the only one capable of succeeding by the end of 2015. So that is the basic plan, and we’ll develop detailed instructions as we go.

Menu suited to audience and ability: a machine we agree is conscious and self aware, that we can make using know-how we already have or can reasonably develop within the project time-frame.

Legality: it isn’t illegal to make a conscious machine yet. It should be; it most definitely should be, but it isn’t. The guards are fast asleep and by the time they wake up, notice that we’re up to something, and start taking us seriously, agree on what to do about it, and start writing new laws, we’ll have finished ages ago.

Ingredients:

substantial scientific and engineering knowledge base, reconfigurable analog and digital electronics, assorted structures, 15nm feature size, self organisation, evolutionary engines, sensors, lasers, LEDs, optoelectronics, HDWDM, transparent gel, inductive power, power supply, cloud storage, data mining, P2P, open source community

Recipe & instructions

I’ve written often on this from different angles:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/how-to-make-a-conscious-computer/ summarises the key points and adds insight on core component structure – especially symmetry. I believe that consciousness can be achieved by applying similar sensory structures to  internal processes as those used to sense external stimuli. Both should have a feedback loop symmetrical to the main structure. Essentially what I’m saying is that sensing that you are sensing something is key to consciousness and that is the means of converting detection into sensing and sensing into awareness, awareness into consciousness.

Once a mainstream lab finally recognises that symmetry of external sensory and internally directed sensory structures, with symmetrical sensory feedback loops (as I describe in this link) is fundamental to achieving consciousness, progress will occur quickly. I’d expect MIT or Google to claim they have just invented this concept soon, then hopefully it will be taken seriously and progress will start.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/gel-computing/

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/man-machine-equivalence-by-2015/

Tools, equipment, working space: any of many large company, government or military labs could do this.

Starting early enough: it is very disappointing that work hasn’t already conspicuouslessly begun on this approach, though of course it may be happening in secret somewhere. The slower alternative being pursued by Markram et al is apparently quite well funded and publicised. Nevertheless, if work starts at the beginning of 2014, it could achieve the required result by the end of 2015. The vast bulk of the time would be creating the sensory and feedback processes to direct the evolution of electronics within the gel.

It is possible that ethics issues are slowing progress. It should be illegal to do this without proper prior discussion and effective safeguards. Possibly some of the labs capable of doing it are avoiding doing so for ethical reasons. However, I doubt that. There are potential benefits that could be presented in such a way as to offset potential risks and it would be quite a prize for any brand to claim the first conscious machine. So I suspect the reason for the delay to date is failure of imagination.

The early days of evolutionary design were held back by teams wanting to stick too closely to nature, rather than simply drawing biomimetic idea stimulation and building on it. An entire generation of electronic and computer engineers has been crippled by being locked into digital thinking but the key processes and structures within a conscious computer will come from the analog domain.

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Machiavelli and the coming Great Western War

In the 16th century, Machiavelli set in motion the Great Civil War that will start in Europe and spread to the USA and will happen towards the end of this century.

The problem behind it is increasingly skilled manipulation of the sequential processes of presentation, perception, interpretation, deduction and consequent behaviour. Machiavelli is often cited for his great skill in manipulating people via these processes. Centuries on, this manifests in modern society most conspicuously in the twin fields of marketing and politics. Sadly, both have forgotten their proper places.

Professional politics has been replacing vocational service for some time already, and this trend still has far to run. Politicians are less interested in genuinely serving society than furthering their own interests and maximising and holding on to power, often regardless of cost to the electorate. They treat the electorate not as a customer but as a resource to be exploited.

Marketing as a capitalist tool harnesses the most powerful tools available from psychological science and technological capability. It has migrated steadily from the useful purpose of making society aware of new things they may want towards the far less benign manipulation of the customer in favour of those products. Marketing no longer contributes to society, it now treats customers as prey and siphons off valuable resources to maintain itself. It has become a vampire.

Separately, these are already problems, but they are no longer separate. As politics has developed in the last couple of decades, the convergence of marketing and politics has matured a great deal. We call it spin and spin has become far more important than what could be considered in everyday thinking as truth. Un-spun delivery of important information to the electorate so that they can make free and informed decisions has become a rarity.

As we are becoming all too familiar, modern politicians have become highly adept at avoiding answering questions, deflecting them, answering different questions than they are asked, disguising and burying real information that they can’t avoid revealing under heaps of irrelevance and behind thick walls of weasel words. We expect now that they are will only be reasonably open and  honest with us when they are revealing good news and even then they will try to exaggerate their own part in it.

This is a dangerous trend that may eventually lead to civil war. In the everyday world, two reasonable people with different value sets can learn to live alongside peacefully. They will usually broadly agree on the raw facts in front of them. They will interpret them slightly differently, i.e. extract different meanings from those facts because they have learned to look at things differently. Due to their internal thinking processes and prejudices they will draw significantly different conclusions from those interpretations and will initiate very different behaviours as a result. In the political/marketing world we are experiencing now, the differences at each of these stages are subject to some deliberate amplification as well as some that emerges non-deliberately from complex interactions within the socio-economic-techno environment. Because of this combined amplification of otherwise minor differences, the gulf between people on the left and right of the political spectrum has been increasing for decades and will likely continue to increase for several more. It may become less and less easy for them to agree to live peacefully side by side and accept their differences. They may increasingly see each other as enemies rather than neighbours. So today, we witness clash of ideology in the Middle East, in a few decades, it will be our turn.

Reinforcement of attitudes is already being caused by technology that shows us what we are already prone to search for. People who read right wing media have right wing attitudes reinforced and affirmed. Those who read left wing media have left wing attitudes reinforced and affirmed. Neither side is routinely exposed to opposing ideology except filtered through their own media which has an interest in reinforcing their attitudes and demonising the other. They see all of the negatives and few of the positives of the other’s point of view.

Although there will remain a centre ground where differences between people are small, amplification of small differences and subsequent reinforcement means that many will be drawn to the extremes and have their positions there entrenched. With many people on either side, with a strongly opposing set of interests, and competition over resources, ideology and control, eventually conflict may result. I believe this may well be the source of a widespread civil war starting in Europe and spreading to the USA, that will take place in the second half of this century. After a long and bitter conflict, the Great Western War, I believe dual democracy will result throughout the West, where two self-governing communities peacefully share the same countries, with some shared and negotiated systems, services and infrastructure and some that are restricted to each community. People will decide which community to belong to, pay taxes and receive benefits accordingly, and have different sets of rules governing their behaviors. Migrating between the communities will be possible, but will incur large costs. We may see a large-state left with lots of services and welfare, and lots of rules, but high taxes to pay for it, and a small state right with increased personal freedom and lower taxes, but less generous welfare and services.

We already see some of this friction emerging today. Demonisation of the opposing ideology is far greater than it was 20 years ago. It is becoming tribalism built large. Each political party uses the best marketing know-how in their spin machines, making sure their supporters see the right facts, are taught to perceive them in the right way, interpret their causation in the right way, do the analysis on the remedial possibilities in the right way and therefore choose and back the right policies. Each side can’t understand how the other side can possibly end up with their viewpoints or policies, except by labelling them as demons.

How often have you heard terms like ‘the nasty party’? How often do the right portray the left as spendthrift incompetents who want someone else to pay for their lack of responsibility, while the left portrays the right as greedy, selfish judgmental people who want to exploit the poor rather then help them. I read left and right papers every day and I’d say I see those attitudes presented as indisputable fact pretty much every day. We see the arguments in welfare, education, health care, support for overseas military intervention, even environmental care. When we can only have one government in power, we ensure that half the population always feels angry.

We see frequent demonstration and even riots as the left moans about spending cuts while right wing groups moan about immigration. We see fierce arguments regularly on every area of policy – privacy erosion, crime control, renewable energy subsidies, public transport provision, health care. There often seems little room for compromise, it is one getting their way and the other suffering. It seems inevitable that if the polarisation continues to increase along current lines, that we will see each side want to go their own way. The left will want the state to remain in control and grow in power, the right will demand a degree of independence and to be rid of a community that expects them to pay for everything but appears wasteful. With a single flavoured government in each country, civil war would erupt and spread as each country realises it has the same problems and the same potential solution. Just like the American Civil War, it will be fiercely fought, and it will eventually come to an end. But with two irreconcilable policies it wont end with a structure as we have now. Democracy in it current form, where each part of the community seems only to want to further its own interests at the expense of the other, will have failed. The left and the right will have to settle with going their own way, with their own resources financing their own spending. Those who want to pay high taxes but receive high welfare and a guaranteed high service provision by the state will be able to choose it. Those who prefer a small state that interferes little with their lives, to keep their earnings and finance their own services will be able to choose that. The two communities will have their own governments, their own presidents of prime ministers, or any future governing structure they choose. Some things have to be done geographically, such as defence, roads and policing. Governments covering the same areas will simply have to negotiate until they agree on the provision levels. Above that they could add whatever they want from their own resources.

In future blogs, I will write about some of the forces of amplification that I referred to. These ultimately are the engine that drives the system towards ultimate conflict, and need to be examined. But for now, it is sufficient to raise the issue.

 

Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

One of my first ever futurology articles explained why Digital Compact Cassette wouldn’t succeed in the marketplace and I was proved right. It should have been obvious from the outset that it wouldn’t fly well, but it was still designed, manufactured and shipped to a few customers.

Decades on, I had a good laugh yesterday reading about the Amazon drone delivery service. Yes, you can buy drones; yes, they can carry packages, and yes, you can make them gently place a package on someone’s doorstep. No, it won’t work in the marketplace. I was asked by the BBC Radio 4 to explain on air, but the BBC is far more worried about audio quality than content quality and I could only do the interview from home, so they decided not to use me after all (not entirely fair – I didn’t check who they actually used and it might have been someone far better).

Anyway, here’s what I would have said:

The benefits are obvious. Many of the dangers are also obvious, and Amazon isn’t a company I normally associate with stupidity, so they can’t really be planning to go all the way. Therefore, this must be a simple PR stunt, and the media shouldn’t be such easy prey for free advertising.

Very many packages are delivered to homes and offices every day. If even a small percentage were drone-delivered, the skies will be full of drones. Amazon would only control some of them. There would be mid-air collisions between drones, between drones and kites and balloons, with new wind turbines, model aeroplanes and helicopters, even with real emergency helicopters. Drones with spinning blades would be dropping out of the sky frequently, injuring people, damaging houses and gardens, onto roads, causing accidents. People would die.

Drones are not silent. A lot of drones would make a lot of extra ambient noise in an environment where noise pollution is already too high. They are also visible, creating another nuisance visual disturbance.

Kids are mischievous. Some adults are mischievous, some criminal, some nosey, some terrorists. I can’t help wonder what the life expectancy of a drone would be if it is delivering to a housing estate full of kids like the one I was. If I was still a kid, I’d be donning a mask (don’t want Amazon giving my photo to the police) and catching them, making nets to bring them down and stringing wires between buildings on their normal routes, throwing stones at them, shooting them with bows and arrows, Nerf guns, water pistols, flying other toy drones into their paths. I’d be tying all sorts of other things onto them for their ongoing journey. I’d be having a lot of fun on the black market with all the intercepted goods too.

If I were a terrorist, and if drones were becoming common delivery tools, I’d buy some and put Amazon labels on them, or if I’m short of cash, I’d hijack a few, pay kids pocket money to capture them, and after suitable mods, start using them to deliver very nasty packages precisely onto doorsteps or spray lethal concoctions into the air above specific locations.

If I were just criminal, I’d make use of the abundance of drones to make my own less conspicuous, so that I could case homes for burglaries, spy on businesses with cameras and intercept their wireless signals, check that an area is free of police, or get interesting videos for my voyeur websites. Maybe I’d add a blinding laser into them to attack any police coming into the scene of my crime, giving valuable extra time without giving my location away.

There are also social implications: jobs in Amazon, delivery and logistics companies would trade against drone manufacturing and management. Neighbours might fall out if a house frequently gets noisy deliveries from a drone while people are entering and leaving an adjacent door or relaxing in the garden, or their kids are playing innocently in the front garden as a drone lands very close by. Drone delivery would be especially problematic when doorways are close together, as they often are in cities.

Drones are good fun as toys and for hobbies, in low numbers. They are also useful for some utility and emergency service tasks, under supervision. They are really not a good solution for home delivery, even if technically it can be done. Amazon knows that as well as I do, and this whole thing can only be a publicity stunt. And if it is, well, I don’t mind, I had a lot of fun with it anyway.