This will be the first of a three-part series on technology—mostly about the current challenges we’re facing with a bit of extrapolation and prediction.

The Power of Technology

Computing power extrapolation

Ever since our ancestors began making tools with stones, we’ve sought to increase our level of technology—and the mantra of the science field has always been “can” we do something, not “should” we pursue such advancements. Since WWII, advancements in computing power has increased at an exponential rate (doubling every 18 months or so), and other fields are gaining ground as well. With strides in organic computing and nanotechnology, there seems little impediment of this accelerating process and what this means for the human race should closely be examined.

Let’s take a quick look at what organic computing actually is. Basically, it’s the field of science that is trying to create adaptive and self-organizing computer systems. Yes, we are currently trying to engineer the AI bogey man of countless “science fiction” stories (the one where machines gain sentience, replicate, and exterminate mankind). One major player in this field is the German Science Foundation that researches topics of adaptivity, re-configurability, the emergence of new properties, and self-organization—a list of characteristics that any cautious person would want to limit in computers/machines.

Back in 2004, Israeli scientists used a computer made of DNA that can eventually be used to diagnose and cure a medical condition by identifying cells of a certain type and then releasing medicine to treat these sick cells automatically. It doesn’t take many more steps along that logical path to see a horrifying version of this computer that is weaponized to attack healthy cells of any particular type and then eradicate them (say one’s liver cells or white blood cells). Add this to the abilities of these computers to adapt and reconfigure themselves (e.g. spread from one host to another), spontaneously create new properties (e.g. make itself deadlier), and self-organize (e.g. make itself more efficient and replicate itself), and we’re well on our way to also engineering an extinction-level plague that will be able to eradicate our species. Fortunately, this computer was the simplest of “machines,” and could barely be called a proper computer by those in the field, so perhaps my fears are decades down the road, right?

Not so much. In 2010, researchers from Japan and Michigan “have succeeded in building a molecular computer that, more than any previous project of its kind, can replicate the inner mechanisms of the human brain, repairing itself and mimicking the massive parallelism that allows our brains to process information like no silicon-based computer can.” In other words, we’ve begun creating computers on a molecular level that can mimic the human brain without the size limitations of our cranium. Imagine what a room-sized computer composed of these molecular components combined with the abilities to self-regenerate–and all of the other characteristics mentioned above–will be able to do.

Nanobot

Or imagine this technology as the functioning brains of nanobots which are tiny robots able to swim through our bloodstream and attack cells they’ve been programmed to destroy. Sound like more science fiction? It’s not: last year (2010), they’ve already successfully deployed these machines in cancer patients. Mark Davis, head of the research team at the California Institute of Technology recites his team’s success: “It sneaks in, evades the immune system, delivers the siRNA [small interfering RNA], and the disassembled components exit out.” Yeah, nothing could possibly go wrong with a programmed machine designed to evade our immune system and insert genetic code into cells to disrupt their functioning, right?

Call me an over-reactive doomsayer if you want, but the combination of advances in these fields is scaring the crap out of me (and not just because I read a lot of sci fi).

The Singularity

The birth of AI

Apparently this convergence of computing power, nanotechnology, and genetics is already being studied by people much smarter than me, and they call the moment machines gain sentience (AI) “the Singularity.”  It may sound like science fiction to a lot of people, but if you look at some of the most influential science fiction literature and what has already occurred, you might not be so quick to dismiss the Singularity on such grounds.

If you do take the idea seriously and think about the consequences of this moment, one will come to the conclusion that the human race/era will be irrevocably changed forever. What exactly those changes will look like is up for debate, but it will be fundamentally different from the current age.

Time had a great article about the Singularity and one of its main researchers Raymond Kurzweil. The same people who are involved in the Singularity field are also looking into life extension, especially through the melding of man and machine. They predict that this could occur in various ways, whether it’s uploading our consciousness into a software program or nanobot repairing the age-damage to our bodies. The piece had a sobering section on how man and machine are already becoming one and functioning side-by-side: “Already 30,000 patients with Parkinson’s disease have neural implants. Google is experimenting with computers that can drive cars. There are more than 2,000 robots fighting in Afghanistan alongside the human troops.” And don’t forget, in our most recent competition (including syntax and actual understanding), the machine Watson trounced our best knowledge-champions on Jeopardy.

Kurzweil puts his date of the Singularity at a conservative 2045 based on the continuing exponential growth of various technological factors.  That’s well within my life time, and certainly within my daughter’s.  Of course, I’m not saying we should all panic due to this gospel-according-to-Kurzweil, but rather that it is worthy of serious thought–and if we do believe this will happen, it deserves appropriate preparation as well.

In the next post I’ll take a look at the other applications of technology (social media and surveillance).

Addendum: 10/19/11: Apparently the government is trying to build an “Eye in the Sky“–a computer system that captures all of the free-flowing data from the internet, cell phones, etc. in order to predict movements of mass-human behavior (political revolutions, economic recessions, pandemics, etc.).  You know, kind of like a big Net in the Sky to capture information about human behavior–what could possibly go wrong?

Addendum: 11/14/11:  Now, the field of science is actually helping robots control human bodies–literally.

Addendum: 3/9/12: Oh, and the navy now has grenade-throwing robots that “fight fires.”  You know, like those pacifist robots in Robopocalypse.

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