Wednesday, January 27, 2010


“Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.” Aldous Huxley

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.” Edward R. Murrow

Compared with biology, vitological consciousness will arise in a heartbeat. This is because the key elements of consciousness – autonomy and empathy – are amenable to software coding and thousands of software engineers are working on it. By comparison, the neural substrate for autonomy and empathy had to arise in biology via thousands of chance mutations. Furthermore, each such mutation had to materially advance the competitiveness of its recipient or else it had only a slight chance of becoming prevalent.

The differences between vitology and biology in the process of creating consciousness could not be starker. It is intelligent design versus dumb luck. In both cases Natural Selection is at play. However, for conscious vitology, any signs of consciousness get instantly rewarded with lots of copies and intelligent designers swarm to make it better. This is Darwinian Evolution at hyper-speed. With conscious biology, any signs of consciousness get rewarded only to the extent they prove useful in the struggle for biosphere survival. Any further improvements require patiently waiting through eons of gestation cycles for another lucky spin of genetic roulette. This traditional form of Darwinian Evolution is so glacial that it took over three billion years to achieve what vitology is accomplishing in under a century.

The people working hard to give vitology consciousness have a wide variety of motives. First, there are academicians who are deathly curious to see if it can be done. They have programmed elements of autonomy and empathy into computers. They even create artificial software worlds in which they attempt to mimic natural selection. In these artificial worlds software structures compete for resources, undergo mutations and evolve. The experimenters are hopeful that consciousness will evolve in their software as it did in biology, with vastly greater speed. Check out out this vlog that explains why their hopes will almost certainly be fulfilled:

Another group of “human enzymes” aiming to catalyze software consciousness are gamesters. These (mostly) guys are trying to create as exciting a game experience as possible. Over the past several years the opponents at which a gamester aims have evolved from short lines (Pong; Space Invaders) to sophisticated human animations that modify their behavior based upon the attack. The game character that can make up its own mind idiosyncratically (autonomy) and engage in caring communications (empathy) will attract all the attention. Any other type of character will then appear as simplistic as Play Station 2.

Third and fourth groups focused on creating cyber-consciousness are medical and defense technologists. For the military cyberconsciousness solves the problem of engaging the enemy while minimizing casualties. By imbuing robot weapon systems with autonomy they can more effectively deal with the countless uncertainties that arise in a battlefield situation. It is not possible to program into a mobile robot system a specific response to every contingency. Nor is it very effective to control each robot system remotely based on video sent back to a distant headquarters. The ideal situation provides the robot system with a wide range of sensory inputs (audio, video, infrared) and a set of algorithms for making independent judgments as to how to best carry out orders in the face of unknown terrain and hostile forces. The work of one developer in this area has been described as follows:

“Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, is developing a set of rules of engagement for battlefield robots to ensure that their use of lethal force follows the rules of ethics. In other words, he is trying to create an artificial conscience. Dr. Arkin believes that there is another reason for putting robots into battle, which is that they have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot’s judgment in the way it affects a soldier’s.”
The algorithms suitable for a military conscience will not be difficult to adapt to more prosaic civilian requirements. Independent decision-making lies at the heart of Autonomy, one of the two touchstones of consciousness.

Meanwhile, medical cyber-consciousness is being pushed by the skyrocketing need to address Alzheimer’s and other diseases of aging. Alzheimer’s robs a great many older people of their mind while leaving their body intact. The Alzheimer patient could maintain their sense of self if they could off-load their mind onto a computer, while the biotech industry works on a cure. This is analogous to how an artificial heart (such as a left-ventricular assistance device or LVAD) off-loads a patient’s heart until a heart transplant can be found. Ultimately the Alzheimer’s patient will hope to download their mind back into a brain cleansed of amyloid plaques.

Indeed, using cyber-consciousness for mind transplants would be a way to provide any patient facing an end-stage disease a chance to avoid the Grim Reaper. While the patients will surely miss their bodies, the alternative will be to never have a body. At least with a medically provided cyber-conscious existence, the patient can continue to interact with their family, enjoy electronic media and hope for rapid advances in regenerative medicine and neuroscience.

The field of regenerative medicine will ultimately permit ectogenesis, the rapid growth outside of a womb of a fresh, adult-size body in as little as twenty months. This is the time it would take an embryo to grow to adult size if it continued to grow at the rate embryos develop during the first two trimesters. Advances in neuroscience will enable a cyber-conscious mind to be written back into (or implanted and interfaced with) neuronal patterns in a freshly regenerated brain.

Biotechnology companies are well aware that over 90% of an average person’s lifetime medical expenditures are spent during the very last portion of their life. Lives are priceless, and hence we deploy the best technology we can to mechanically keep people alive. Medical cyber-conscious mind support is the next logic step in our efforts to keep end-stage patients alive. The potential profits from such technology (health insurance would pay for it just like any other form of medically-necessary equipment) are an irresistible enticement for companies to allocate top people to the effort.

Health care needs for older people are also driving efforts to develop the empathetic branch of cyber-consciousness. There are not enough people to provide caring attention to the growing legion of senior citizens. As countries grow wealthy their people live longer, their birthrates decline below the replacement rate and, consequently, their senior citizens comprise an ever-larger percentage of the population. Among the OECD group of advanced countries, the dependency ratio, which measures the number of people over 65 to those between 20 and 65, is projected to grow from .2 currently to .5 by 2050. In other words, today there are five younger people to care for each older person, whereas in four decades there will be just two workers to care for each older person. There is a huge health care industry motivation to develop empathetic robots because just a small minority of younger people actually wants to take care of older people.

The seniors won’t want to be manhandled, nor will their offspring want to be guilt-ridden. Other than importing help from developing countries – which only postpones the issue briefly as those countries have gestating dependency ratio problems of their own – there is no solution but for the empathetic, autonomous robot. Grannies need – and deserve – an attentive, caring, interesting person with whom to interact. The only such persons that can be summoned into existence to meet this demand are manufactured software persons, i.e., empathetic, autonomous robots. Not surprisingly, empathetic machines are a focus of software development in the health care industry. Companies are putting expression-filled faces on their robots, and filling their code with the art of conversation.

Finally, the information technology (IT) industry itself is working on cyber-consciousness. The mantra of IT is user-friendly, and there is nothing friendlier than a person. A cyber-conscious house that we could speak to (prepare something I’d like for dinner, turn on a movie that I’d like) is a product for which people will pay a lot of money. A personal digital assistant that was smart, self-aware and servile will out-compete in the marketplace PDAs that are deaf, dumb and demanding. In short, IT companies have immense financial incentives to keep trying to make software as personable as possible. They are responding to these incentives by allocating floors of programmers to the cyberconsciousness task. Note how rapidly these programmers have arrogated into their programs the human pronoun “I”. Until cyberconsciousness began emerging, no one but humans and fictional characters could call themselves “I”. Suddenly, bits and building blocks of vitology are saying “how may I help you?,” “I’m sorry you’re having difficulty,” “I’ll transfer you to a human operator right away.” The programmers will have succeeded in birthing cyberconsciousness when they figure out how to make the human operator totally unnecessary. From their progress to date, this seems to be the goal. Add to this self-replication code, and conscious vitology has arrived.

In summary, humanity is devoting some of its best minds, from a wide diversity of fields, to helping software achieve consciousness. The quest is not especially difficult as it is a capability that can be intelligently designed; there is no need to wait for it to naturally evolve. As a result, cyberconscious will appear immediately on the heels of life-like vitology.

Unnatural Selection is Still Natural Selection.

Natural Selection is the name Darwin gave to Nature’s heartless process of dooming some species and variants of species to extinction, while favoring for a while others. The principal tool of Natural Selection is competition within a niche for scarce food. Losers don’t get enough food to reproduce, and hence they die out. Winners get the food, make the babies and pass on their traits, including the ones that make them superior competitors.

When environmental change eliminates much of the food, such as during an ice age, previously useful traits may become meaningless and former Natural Selection champions may quickly join the mountain of extinct losers. During such times Nature selects for traits that enable food gathering and reproduction in changing, or changed, environments. The cockroach has these traits.

Alternatively a new species may enter a niche, as when hominids entered the environment of the mammoth. In cases like this Nature might simply select the better killer, since it was not the mammoth’s food that interested Man, but the mammoth as food. Plants and animals will not only extinguish other species through starvation, they will also do so through direct extermination. All the while, Nature will carpet bomb all manner of species via environmental changes brought about by geophysics (e.g., volcanism) or astrophysics (e.g., asteroids).

Natural Selection is now acting upon software forms of life. In this case Nature’s tool is neither food nor violence. Instead, ey is using man as a tool, relying upon eir differential favoring of some self-replicating codes over others. Just as Nature started off with viruses in the biological world, ey is also flooding the vitological world with them. This is no doubt because viruses are the simplest types of self-replicating structures – they do nothing but self-replicate and plug themselves in somewhere (sometimes to great harm; other times to significant benefit). Molecular viruses spontaneously self-assembled out of inanimate molecules before anything more complicated did, and hence Natural Selection played with them first. Similarly, software viruses spontaneously man-assembled out of inanimate code before anything more complicated, and hence Natural Selection is playing with them first. As viruses randomly or with man’s help cobble together more functionality, then Natural Selection will play with the resultant complex entities.

Natural Selection is simply a kind of arithmetic for self-replicating entities. It is a tallying up of the results of what happens to self-replicating things in the natural world. Those that self-replicate more successfully are represented by a larger slice of the pie of life. There are many ways to self-replicate more successfully – grab resources better than others, kill others better than they can kill you, adapt to changes better than others. Nature doesn’t really care how one self-replicates more successfully. Ey just keeps track, via Natural Selection, by awarding the winners larger shares of the pie of life.

Since math is math, whether done by people or bees, Nature surely does not care if the agent of selection is human popularity rather than nutritional scarcity. Natural Selection is no less natural for humans being in the middle. Indeed, we have human intermediation to thank for thousands of recombinant DNA sub-species, hundreds of plant types and dozens of animal species. Thank Man for the household dog!

Man is now hard-at-work naturally selecting for the traits that make software more conscious. Humanity cannot resist an overwhelming urge to create unnatural life in the image of natural life. But this effort at Unnatural Selection is still Natural Selection. The end result will still be an arithmetic reordering of pie shapes and pie slices. The overall pie of life will be much larger, for it will now include vitology as well as biology. And within that larger pie, there will be slices accorded to each of the types of vitological life and biological life that successfully self-replicate in a changing environment. Mindclone consciousness will arrive vastly faster than its biological predecessor because Unnatural Selection is Natural Selection at the speed of intentionality.