Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Artificial Intelligence: Part 2--The Invisible Computer

Long-term, the PC and workstation will wither because computing access will be everywhere: in the walls, on wrists, and in ‘scrap computers’ (like scrap paper) lying about to be grabbed as needed — Mark Weiser, Xerox PARK

The Internet is like a twenty-foot tidal wave coming thousands of miles across the Pacific, and we are in kayaks — Andrew Grove, CEO of Intel

...By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time. Rather the rough globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence — Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The House of Seven Gables” (1851)

I'm back from (and survived) "Conversion 23", the SF & F Convention in Calgary, Canada. It was COOL! And a resounding success, not to mention FUN. I'll post more on it shortly (when I get a few choice pics that I'm sure you'll enjoy, if not raise you're eyebrows over...it is a convention, after all.) Meantime, here, as promised, is Part Two of my series on Artificial Intelligence, following my previous post, Part One -- Neural Implants:

In 1997 Michio Kaku wrote the book, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century in which he described the evolution of computer technology in our near future and beyond. Kaku talked about “the invisible computer” and proved to be incredibly prophetic in his predictions of the near future: RFIDs, wearable computers (e.g., shoes, glasses, phones, clothing), surface computing, smart cards, digital money, cyber cash and malls, smart rooms, smart cars, virtual libraries, the merger of TV and the internet, and the disappearance of the PC. In the decade since his predictions were made, most of these have been to some degree or fully realized.

The institute perhaps best known for unifying media, art and technology is the MIT Media Laboratory, founded by Nicholas Negroponte. Its most ambitious and provocative enterprise is the Things That Think project, whose scientists envision a world where most inanimate things around us will think. The motto of the Things That Think lab at the time that Kaku wrote his visionary book was:

In the past, shoes could stink.
In the present, shoes can blink.
In the future, shoes will think.

In early 2005, Adidas came out with a smart “bionic” running shoe that used a sensor, a microprocessor and a motorized cable system to automatically adjust the shoe’s cushioning.

The first commercially available “surface computer” from Microsoft Corp. was released in May 2007 and turns an ordinary tabletop into a vibrant interactive surface. Essentially a multiple touch interface with multi-user ability, the surface recognizes objects and provides effortless interaction with digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects. For instance, you can place your digital camera on the table and a selection of virtual photographs will instantly appear across the table. Users can actually “grab” digital information with their hands and interact with content by touch and gesture, without the use of a mouse or keyboard. As I write this, new technology is rapidly being developed and released into the market. By the time this is published, Microsoft, or likely its competitor, will have produced a further innovation to “surface” computing.

What’s in store for us beyond 2010? Like Hawthorne, Kaku envisions an “Intelligent Plant”, when “intelligent agents” become part of the global network and AIs become capable of reason, common sense, and speech recognition; communication with the Internet as if it were an intelligent being. Of course, we will have talking, thinking robots, perhaps even with a consciousness and self-awareness. Kaku predicts a merging of mind and machine, the emergence of cyborgs (check out Part 3 of my series).

Is there a danger to all this? Kaku considers the laws of bureaucracy being similar to those within a robots brain. Bureaucracies tend to expand, sometimes to the point that they destroy the economic base that made them possible in the first place. A global economy controlled by AI systems, expanding like a bureaucracy, may do a similar thing. Kaku asserts that AI must be safeguarded. “There must be a feed-back loop added to the design of AI systems so that these systems have fail-safe mechanisms and elaborate controls so they do not threaten human society.”

In his brilliant science fiction book, I, Robot, Isaac Asimov envisioned a code of ethics encoded into each robot’s programs that included three laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Despite the well-thought out logic of the three laws, Kaku asserts that, “there is an element that is completely missed by the three laws—that robots may, in properly carrying out their orders, inadvertently threaten humanity...Nowhere in the three laws do we address the threat posed to humanity by well-intentioned robots.” This very thing was explored in the motion picture version of I, Robot. The upshot was that AI was smarter than humans (and knew better), and decided to curtail our ability to be foolish, make mistakes, and act irrationally—and essentially harm ourselves. It had become the benevolent dictator. In his novel, Asimov provides various interpretive dilemmas faced by increasingly self-aware robots to the three laws. Which did drive some of the robots mad eventually. Check out my critical essay on the novel and motion picture for more on this subject (see reference below). Arthur C. Clarke summarized what many working in artificial intelligence may be thinking: “It is possible that we may become pets of the computers, leading pampered existences like lapdogs, but I hope that we will always retain the ability to pull the plug if we feel like it.”

All these technologies aside, I believe that the swelling tide of the Internet will exert the largest influence on our societies, cultures and lifestyles—at least in the near future. This surge of common expression is now actually achieving what visionaries predicted years ago: a global community.

With a new blog being created every 30 seconds, the internet has created a level playing field for the ordinary human being, breaking the barriers of class, economy, culture and even philosophy. The communication and sharing within this true “global society” is astounding. Since I began my interactive blog only months ago, I have shared philosophy with a man in Saudi Arabia, thoughts on life with a woman in Malaysia, ecology with a man in the UK, art with a man from India, gardening and lifestyle with a woman in France, photography with a man in Norway, and writing and politics with a woman in Mexico...The opportunities are endless, as are the possibilities for global communication.

Said Kaku in 1997, long before this current explosion: “...The internet [has] arguably increased...our freedom of expression and access to information. Many have hailed the Internet as an intrinsically democratic and decentralizing force, weakening the bonds of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. Oppressive governments are at a disadvantage if information can be dispersed worldwide to a million people with a single keystroke.”

What Kaku didn’t realize (or at least didn’t mention) was the incredible worldwide communication this phenomenon has generated. The Internet heralds a new integrated zeitgeist that bridges all cultures, philosophies and religions.

Recommended Reading:
Kaku, Michiu. 1997. Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. Anchor Books, Doubleday. New York, N.Y. 403pp. Still relevant because of his long-term predictions and astute overall synthesis.
Kurzweil, Ray. 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin Books. New York, N.Y. 388pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2004. A.I.: Changing Us; Changing Them. Strange Horizons (http://www.strangehorizons.com – archived 23/08/2004).
Munteanu, Nina. 2005. Unexpected Protocol: A Critique of the I, Robot Book and Motion Picture. Strange Horizons (
http://www.strangehorizons.com – archived 21/05/2005). Also provides a synthesis of the AI argument, particularly of AI being self-aware.
The Internet blogging community: certainly the best place to find the most recent information on new technology that is being synthesized at a rate too fast for journals or any other medium to keep up with.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


delmer said...

There are times when I have big hopes for the good that can come out of and Internet-influenced global community.

(Yes, there is plenty of bad, as with anything. I'm aware of it and try to protect my children from it. And having acknowledged the bad, let's move back to the good and fun ...)

This morning I spoke with a friend in England using Skype; I called her landline. We met each other in Philly a month ago at a Backgammon tournament. First contact was when she started reading my blog last year.

Last year I had lunch with a blogger from Seattle (here in Columbus).

The other day I received an e-mail from a guy with a pituitary tumor (much like mine) and he shared the progress he's made (which is much like mine and this somehow makes me feel good). He found my blog when he was looking for info on pituitary tumors and continues to read.

It is all very cool, I think.

by Danie said...

I was trying to send a comment when all I wrote disapeared! are you coming to France soon?

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Welcome back, Nina. Thought-provoking. Loved the part obout shoes in the future.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks for the welcome, Jean-Luc! Glad to be back. Kitem, I will be going to France in May of next year and am already getting excited about it. I hope to send you some material soon. Will email you about it. :) Delmer, I just love what you say. I feel the same. This blogging community is truly wonderful! And so COOL!

Unknown said...

Yes, the internet world does indeed level the playing field... which is a fabulous innovation in and of itself. Bloggers tend to be at the cutting edge of the pack, so I feel we're in good company.

Oh yes, please post incriminating evidence of you having fun at the con!

Paris in the springtime, how lovely...

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! You'll have to wait until Friday for that incriminating evidence!

Unknown said...


MYM said...

Love this post. I've always wondered how do we know that we're not computers gone haywire...we became conscience and destroyed whoever created us...not an original thought I know, but interesting. (and thanks for stopping by my site!) I'm linking you to mine now...I mean, you referenced Hawthorne & Kaku in one post…I luv it! :-)

Nina Munteanu said...

Cool, Drowsey! You're far from drowsey!...okay...I'm bad. I'm still recovering from the convention (someone made the mistake of introducing me to a new mixer at the bar...no, it wasn't Jean-Luc!)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Look forward to that email, Nina.

Scotty said...

There was this really interesting book called "Emperor's new Mind" by Roger Penrose. Reason it is relevant to this post is that book explains why Penrose (one of the most brilliant Mathematical Physicists of our times) thinks AI (as we understand it) is not possible to program (the way we understand it). Some of the reasoning he has presented are, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, proving that it is not possible for to accurately tell the position and the velocity (momentum) of an electron at any given point of time. Goedel's theorem, proving that how any formal system will always have assertions that we know are true but not provable by that formal system , proving the inherent weakness in formal systems. These are few of the things that I remember, but overall the book is full of such revelations about Science and talking about inherent weaknesses in Science, the theory that we all are so used to believing that is so Solid and concrete..... Cheers

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, I'm familiar with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal and I've heard of Penrose's book, though I haven't read it (will have to rectify that. Thanks for the heads up!). While I would tend to agree that formal science as it currently stands can not produce nor measure artificial intelligence as suggested currently in science fiction, I believe that science is itself changing to accomodate just such things...I believe that we are on the cusp of discovering some very new ways of looking at things (chaos theory, though it's been around for a long time already, is only now taking off) and providing new paradigms...there is so much more out there that conventional science doesn't even come close to touching...we are only limited by our imagination...reminds me of a quote in Shakespeare: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than ever dreampt of in your philosophy...science needs to go there...

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