Artificial Intelligence Is the Most Important Technology of the Future


Artificial Intelligence is a set of tools that are driving forward key parts of the futurist agenda, sometimes at a rapid clip. The last few years have seen a slew of surprising advances: the IBM supercomputer Watson, which beat two champions of Jeopardy!; self-driving cars that have logged over 300,000 accident-free miles and are officially legal in three states; and statistical learning techniques are conducting pattern recognition on complex data sets from consumer interests to trillions of images. In this post, I’ll bring you up to speed on what is happening in AI today, and talk about potential future applications. Any brief overview of AI will be necessarily incomplete, but I’ll be describing a few of the most exciting items.

The key applications of Artificial Intelligence are in any area that involves more data than humans can handle on our own, but which involves decisions simple enough that an AI can get somewhere with it. Big data, lots of little rote operations that add up to something useful. An example is image recognition; by doing rigorous, repetitive, low-level calculations on image features, we now have services like Google Goggles, where you take an image of something, say a landmark, and Google tries to recognize what it is. Services like these are the first stirrings of Augmented Reality (AR).

It’s easy to see how this kind of image recognition can be applied to repetitive tasks in biological research. One such difficult task is in brain mapping, an area that underlies dozens of transhumanist goals. The leader in this area is Sebastian Seung at MIT, who develops software to automatically determine the shape of neurons and locate synapses. Seung developed a fundamentally new kind of computer vision for automating work towards building connectomes, which detail the connections between all neurons. These are a key step to building computers that simulate the human brain.

As an example of how difficult it is to build a connectome without AI, consider the case of the flatworm, C. elegans, the only completed connectome to date. Although electron microscopy was used to exhaustively map the brain of this flatworm in the 1970s and 80s, it took more than a decade of work to piece this data into a full map of the flatworm’s brain. This is despite that brain containing just 7000 connections between 300 neurons. By comparison, the human brain contains 100 trillion connections between 100 billion neurons. Without sophisticated AI, mapping it will be hopeless.

There’s another closely related area that depends on AI to make progress; cognitive prostheses. These are brain implants that can perform the role of a part of the brain that has been damaged. Imagine a prosthesis that restores crucial memories to Alzheimer’s patients. The feasibility of a prosthesis of the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for memory, was proven recently by Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California. A rat with its hippocampus chemically disabled was able to form new memories with the aid of an implant.

The way these implants are built is by carefully recording the neural signals of the brain and making a device that mimics the way they work. The device itself uses an artificial neural network, which Berger calls a High-density Hippocampal Neuron Network Processor. Painstaking observation of the brain region in question is needed to build a model detailed enough to stand in for the original. Without neural network techniques (a subcategory of AI) and abundant computing power, this approach would never work.

Bringing the overview back to more everyday tech, consider all the AI that will be required to make the vision of Augmented Reality mature. AR, as exemplified by Google Glass, uses computer glasses to overlay graphics on the real world. For the tech to work, it needs to quickly analyze what the viewer is seeing and generate graphics that provide useful information. To be useful, the glasses have to be able to identify complex objects from any direction, under any lighting conditions, no matter the weather. To be useful to a driver, for instance, the glasses would need to identify roads and landmarks faster and more effectively than is enabled by any current technology. AR is not there yet, but probably will be within the next ten years. All of this falls into the category of advances in computer vision, part of AI.

Finally, let’s consider some of the recent advances in building AI scientists. In 2009, “Adam” became the first robot to discover new scientific knowledge, having to do with the genetics of yeast. The robot, which consists of a small room filled with experimental equipment connected to a computer, came up with its’ own hypothesis and tested it. Though the context and the experiment were simple, this milestone points to a new world of robotic possibilities. This is where the intersection between AI and other transhumanist areas, such as life extension research, could become profound.

Many experiments in life science and biochemistry require a great deal of trial and error. Certain experiments are already automated with robotics, but what about computers that formulate and test their own hypotheses? Making this feasible would require the computer to understand a great deal of common sense knowledge, as well as specialized knowledge about the subject area. Consider a robot scientist like Adam with the object-level knowledge of the Jeopardy!-winning Watson supercomputer. This could be built today in theory, but it will probably be a few years before anything like it is built in practice. Once it is, it’s difficult to say what the scientific returns could be, but they could be substantial. We’ll just have to build it and find out.

That concludes this brief overview. There are many other interesting trends in AI, but machine vision, cognitive prostheses, and robotic scientists are among the most interesting, and relevant to futurist goals.

I would like to thank Michael Anissimov, a fellow transhumanist and author of the Accelerating Future blog, for contributing this piece. 

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Artificial Intelligence Is the Most Important Technology of the Future

  1. Curious Niels

    What if the computer comes up with the hypothesis that humans are not neccesary and tries it out? :O:P

    • Oh, this is one of the major existential risks for the humanity – AI being human-friendly. There is an ongoing discussion on the matter at the Lesswrong.org website, which I recommend checking out.

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  3. Artificial intelligence and brain analysis seem to be moving forward much faster than medical technology. What do you think of the idea that uploading human minds into computers is actually a more promising approach to achieving radical life extension than “curing” biological aging is? We seem likely to achieve the ability to upload minds sooner, especially since interim progress is not constantly delayed by the need for years-long clinical trials at every step, as medical progress is. Do you think we would do better to focus our efforts more on that approach than on trying to repair biological aging damage? Спасибо.

    • I am a full supporter of mind uploading. I believe that given the current state of biological and neuromodeling research, it seems that we’ll be able to come up with biological “life extension band-aids” like growing bioengineered livers and hearts, or geroprotector drugs first. This would allow us to buy time before more comprehensive technology becomes available. That’s why we support biology of aging research and regenerative medicine in the first place, simply because we see quite many routes that we can follow and increase life expectancy. Mind uploading is a very important topic too, but we have limited resources and have to focus our efforts.

    • Mitchell Porter

      For full mind uploading to work, some form of dualism has to be true. Conscious experience is a unity and a brain of nothing but small parts is not. I consider it far more likely that consciousness, the self, etc, is based in physics with a holistic quality, like quantum entanglement, and that transfer of a conscious mind requires that you transfer this unit as a whole, and not just that you make part-by-part functional substitution.

      However, even under such a hypothesis, it might be possible to “upload” the nonconscious parts of the mind, i.e. replace them with computational prosthesis.

      • If the phrase “conscious experience is a unity” means anything, it is probably false — consciousness most likely involves many different processes. There’s no reason to think our subjective experience of consciousness accurately reflects how the brain generates it.

        Here’s a though experiment. Imagine that 1% of a person’s brain is replaced by an electronic device which performs the same function (this is already done with, for example, implants for Parkinson’s disease patients). So long as the prosthetic replacement works the same as what it replaces — that is, it generates the same outputs in response to the same inputs — there is no change in brain functionality and no discontinuity in the person’s identity. Now similarly replace another 1% of the brain with an electronic prosthesis. Again, so long as functionality is the same, consciousness and identity are unchanged. Continue doing this until 100% of the brain has been replaced by artificial data-processing hardware. At no point in the process is there any objective change in function, thus there is no discontinuity in consciousness or identity.

        This suggests that consciousness and identity could be preserved through the uploading process, if the artificial system replicates the original brain’s functionality exactly and in sufficient detail.

        • Mitchell Porter

          Forget thought experiments about the brain, and even neuroscientific theories for a moment, and just pay attention to your experience of life. Consciousness, at a very basic level, consists of “stuff happening to you at the same time”.

          When materialists and fans of science start trying to talk about the material or neurological basis of their experiences, they pass very easily from saying that properties of experience are based on properties of the brain, to simply dismissing or denying properties of experience which don’t resemble their idea of how the brain works.

    • Mind uploading already started and is on full throttle. This blog (and all others) is an ultimate proof. Although technology of mind uploading is still far far from perfection, neurons will use ANY opportunity to extend their life, presence and connectivity to other neurons by whatever means. The technology of mind uploading might be developed tomorrow or even around the blogging as a process of bionetworks communication.

  4. Wow, I commend you for your farsighted analysis. The fundamental concept is that technological progress (this is especially true in information technologies) is exponential, not linear. More practically, people find it unintuitive how rapid the progress will be to super AI. Once AI smarter than humans is achieved (next decade?), technological progress in other fields (for instance longevity research) will become more rapid. Frankly, it may be that people just opt for a mechanized body, rather than risk a more ephemeral human body…who knows. It is a safe bet that some of the longevity treatments will meld biology and machine.

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  6. I also think that future competition heavily dependent upon artificial intelligence. Probably they end up with something that’s totally beyond the scope of human intelligence

  7. This Artificial intelligence will bring a boost in the technology in future. These potential future applications are advanced and can have the access than a human being can. But no doubt these AIs are human friendly and will serve too.

    • Fish

      I am going to do my masters in AI.Your information give me very good information, which areas i should focus.Really thank you very mach.

  8. Riaz Ali

    please send Some 10 Major points On Artificial intelligence….thank you
    Regdz,,,,,,
    Riaz Ali

  9. ergo space travel for human thought. not human bodies.

  10. Dr m baranwal eye surgeon n anti aging mitochondrial nutritionist

    it means supreme health is going out of domain of medical sciences and doctors.
    .
    there is an unimaginable shift in health field, away from disease and doctor world.
    .
    but anyway health is beyond diseaselessness,medical world has to face constructive destruction.
    .
    engineers are proving far more valuable than doctors to humanity.

  11. dinesh lama

    i think ai will control everything itself and take the hole power on its own

  12. There is such a possibility, however there is also a non-zero probability that AI will solve all the problems of humanity.

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