Category Archives: Futurism

Futurism Remembering the 1950-60’s USA ‘Futurists’ – What Went Wrong?

Moore’s law is an example of futures studies; it is a statistical collection of past and present trends with the goal of accurately extrapolating future trends.

(Alan Brooks, one of my regular readers, penned this essay about the history of futurism. I reprint it here, slightly edited for brevity, with his permission.)

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Futurism in the United States properly began during the late 1950s and then took off in the 1960s with the Gemini space program and its ten manned flights. Then came Apollo which made futurism respectable. Unfortunately, with the prospect of landing on the Moon, futurist heads become giddy. It wasn’t hubris necessarily, it was more akin to being slightly intoxicated, tipsy, with anticipation; futurists knew if there were no more major accidents after Apollo 1 men would land on the Moon and space would rapidly be colonized. They were correct on the former but mistaken concerning the latter. The public lost interest after a few lunar landings and the Apollo program was soon canceled to concentrate on Skylab.

Concurrently the ‘back to nature’ movement was in large part a reaction to pollution in modern cities. Thus a new word was coined, “smog”—the haze of gasses floating over an urban area. Water and noise pollution also played a part. Such worries were new, as previously people worried about being poor and hungry, while a haze of gasses over a city was often looked upon as a symbol of vibrant industry and economic activity. How much better to enjoy modern life to its fullest, rather than fret about urban gases; dying of cancer at age 75 was preferable to death at age 40 …

Of all the manifestations of ‘back to nature’, the most practical was and still is an interest in ‘health foods.’  Of course, at the time many practitioners simply confused the natural for the healthy and taken to its ad absurdum il-logic, toadstools in one’s backyard are healthy. But while the majority of food additives are unnecessary, it is erroneous to think preservatives, for instance, should be dispensed with altogether or that we shouldn’t add chlorine to public water supplies. The fact is that some preservatives are required to keep food from spoiling and the addition of chlorine to water supplies is necessary for disinfection purposes. The notion of ‘health food’ was a new one as previously most people lived by the truism “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be no more.” …

Another manifestation of ‘back to nature’ was an emphasis on rural living. While some hardy souls did persevere in the rustic life, the majority of ‘back to nature’ enthusiasts eventually became bored with living on farms and would-be vegetarians would run to the nearest diner to purchase hamburgers when the craving for meat became unbearable.

This author remembers this 1970s Vandervogel movement, this time to the farm rather than to the countryside hike. Predictably, ‘70s rustic would-be vegetarian living did not last long. Although the idea of returning to rural simplicity was not new (more than a century before, romantics celebrated the rustic) no one has ever seriously returned to the rustic on a mass scale in modern times. Previous to the 1970s, most wanted to strike it rich, move to large homes, and eat at high-class restaurants, not live on poor farms eating tofu and alfalfa sprouts in a shack. It was ‘new’ in that in the past, rural living had been perceived as a necessity, while during the ‘back to nature’ era rural living was seen as a luxury—the luxury of escaping from polluted, hectic cities and conformist suburbs …

One common thread among today’s futurists is knowing the lure of conservatism is flawed
—we all move on in one way or another, via sickness, age, death, and so forth. Eventually, conservative values are altered beyond all recognition. You Can’t Go Home Again, as in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s book—there is no return to the status quo.

Even the meaning of beautiful art, often considered an exemplar of permanence, changes. For instance, when Michelangelo and Botticelli painted scenes in the Sistine Chapel, those images had a more powerful hold on human imagination than they do in today’s secular world. “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving”, wrote Goethe.

Well, perhaps… but let’s not take Goethe’s word for it.

Summary of Ray Kurzweil’s: “The Age of Spiritual Machines:  When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence”


The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

(I first read this book almost 20 years ago and it profoundly affected my thinking. Here is my summary of the book that I used in my classes in the CS department at UT-Austin.)

“The Inexorable Emergence”

Sometime in the next 100 years, machines will surpass human intelligence. Computers today already surpass humans in activities like playing chess, diagnosing some medical conditions, buying and selling stocks, and guiding missiles. Still, human intelligence is far more flexible than machine intelligence. Computers can’t describe objects on a table, write a term paper, tie shoes, distinguish a dog and a cat, appreciate humor, etc. One reason for this is that computers are simpler than the human brain, about a million times simpler. But this difference will go away. Computers are doubling in speed every twelve months, and they will achieve the memory capacity and computing speed of the human brain around 2020.

Still, this won’t allow computers to match the flexibility of human intelligence. And that’s because the software of intelligence is as important as the hardware. One way to mirror the brain’s software is by reverse engineering–scanning a human brain (which will be achievable in this century) and copying its neural circuitry into a neural computer of sufficient capacity. We might be able to train a system of parallel neural nets to understand language and model knowledge, to read and understand written materials. Although the ability of today’s computers to do this is quite limited, their abilities are improving. Computers will be able to read, understanding what they read, in this century. Computers can then read all the world’s literature and gather knowledge on their own.

After computers reach a human level of intelligence, they will go beyond it. They already remember and process information better than we do. Computers remember trillions of facts perfectly, while we have a tough time with a few phone numbers. A computer can search a huge database in fractions of a second, and share their knowledge bases. The combination of human-level intelligence and the speed, accuracy, and memory capabilities will move computers past human intelligence. While our neurons are marvelous, they are hardly optimal. Most of their complexity supports of life processes, not computation and information analysis. And neurons are slow compared to electronic circuits which are a million times faster. Once computers reach a human level of ability in understanding abstract concepts, recognizing patterns,  and more, they will apply their abilities “to a knowledge base of all human-acquired knowledge.”

Most of us think of evolution as a billion-year drama that leads to human intelligence. But the creation of greater than human intelligence will dispel the notion that we are the most intelligent creatures. And this realization will have profound effects on our thinking, lives, and selves. A variety of philosophical questions will be asked.  Are computers thinking, or just calculating? Are humans thinking or just calculating? Are there any important differences between human thinking and machine thinking? Will we ever consider our machines conscious? For example, if someone scans their brain through a “noninvasive scanning technology” … and downloads their brain to their personal computer,” are the people who come out of the machine the same ones that entered?

Summary of Chap 1 – Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines

In the first few moments of the universe, important events and paradigm shifts happened very fast. As the universe aged, cosmologically significant events took eons of time. So time, thought of as the interval between significant events, has been moving very slowly for most of cosmic evolution—but it has slowly been moving faster and is about to begin to move exponentially faster. [What K calls “the knee of the curve,” the spot at which exponential growth is about to take off, basically describes the same phenomena that futurists call “the singularity” or “the spike.”] We can see this in the pace of cosmic evolution: 10 billions years until the earth’s formation; a few billion more for life to evolve, hundreds of millions of years till the emergence of primates, millions of years till the emergence of humanoids, the emergence of Homo sapiens a mere ½ million years ago, etc. In short, time is speeding up by which K means that the intervals between salient (important) events are shrinking, i.e., there is an exponential curve which plots the nature of change.

Technology—fashioning and using tools ever more sophisticated tools—is “evolution by other means.” Just as DNA records the information of biology, technology records its own records in books, libraries, and computer databases.

[If you are interested in this idea, explore the concept of memes. Memes, like genes, preserve and transfer information only much faster because, while genes go from one body to another, memes spread from one brain to another. And you can spread a meme—an idea or belief for example—very quickly. I just spread the “meme” meme to all the people who read this. And the meme could be a meme for any idea: immortality, evolution, a god, patriotism, etc. Many contemporary thinkers believe that memes infect brains which then spread them; some think of people as memebots. For more see the work of Richard Dawkins, who introduced the term in his book, The Selfish Gene. In addition, there is an entire literature on memes.]

And technology has expedited the process of evolution considerably. Consider that Homo sapiens sapiens (as opposed to Neanderthals) appeared only 90,000 years ago (a mere moment in cosmic time) and become the lone hominoids a mere 40,000 years ago. Still, it took tens of thousands of years to figure out how to sharpen both ends of stones to make them effective! (Let’s hope things are evolving faster than this now.) And the pace of technological change has accelerated remarkably since then. For example, the 19th century saw technology increase at a dramatic rate compared to the 18th century and increased unbelievably fast compared to the 12th century! In the 20th century, major shifts in technology began to happen in decades or in some cases in a few years. A hundred years ago there was no flight or radio. When I was born there were no wireless phones and not many color TVs. When you were born there were no cell phones or WWW.

[K’s discussion of technology in the grey box on pages 16-17 is interesting. Tech is the use of tools and especially recording the knowledge that fashions better tools—from oral to written to computer databases—to control the environment. And technology is a means of transcending—of putting pieces of matter together to create sound and then…music, which itself expresses feelings, emotions, etc. In short, we use tech to, in addition to other purposes, communicate. And language plays the key role in human communication. (What a marvelous thing language is. Where would we be without it?) Other species communicate but we record our communication.]

Technology has enabled our species to dominate the earth, exercise some control over our environment, and survive. A noteworthy technological innovation has been computation “the ability to remember and solve problems…” The machines created by our technology do more than merely increase our strength, increasingly they solve a vast array of problems. Computers are at the cutting edge of this and governed by Moore’s law: every 2 years or so the surface area of a transistor is reduced by 50% and thus you can put twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. The implication is that every 2 years you get twice the computing power for the same amount of money. This trend should continue for another 15 years or so after which it will break down since by that time transistor insulators will be but a few atoms wide. K makes the point—and backs it up with statistics, pictures, and graphs—that this trend of doubling of computing power goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. To really understand what will happen in the 21st century and beyond we need to more closely look at the exponential growth of technology that will bring about vast changes in the near future.

Crucial to K’s argument is what he calls “the law of time and chaos.” (See illustrations on pgs. 26-7) He asks you to consider why some processes start out fast and then slow down—salient events in cosmic evolution or in the biological development of an organism—and why others start slow and then speed up—the evolution of life forms or technology. The answer is that the law of t & c shows a relationship between the speed of time and chaos. If there is a lot of chaos or disorder in a system, the time between salient events is great and thus time can be said to slow down. As the chaos decreases, in other words as order increases, the time between salient events gets smaller and time can be said to speed up. The “law of increasing chaos” denotes the former while the “law of accelerating returns” denotes the latter. The law of AR is what most interests K. While the universe increases in disorder or entropy, evolution leads to increasing order (information for the purpose of survival) and usually complexity. Technology is evolution by other means than biology. [It is part of cultural evolution which, unlike biological evolution, is now moving extraordinarily fast. Cultural evolution is now the whole ballgame.] And technological evolution speeds up because “it builds on its own increasing order.” In other words, technological evolution, like other forms of evolution, “builds on itself.” What this all leads to is the following:

a) evolution builds on itself, thus
b) in an evolutionary process order increases exponentially, thus
c) time speeds up exponentially, thus
d) the returns accelerate.

This law of accelerating returns is what drives cultural, and notable technological, evolution forward. And the rate of these returns, which then build on themselves to create higher returns, is growing exponentially. Thus technology is most significant as it provided the means to store the information from previous brains. And all of this means that, like the moral of the story of the inventor of chess and the Emperor of China, change is increasing exponentially. And this means that the near future will be radically different from the present.

Summary Chap 6 “Building New Brains”

The Hardware of Intelligence – To build intelligent machines we need: 1)formulas (recursive search, self-organizing networks, and evolutionary improvement); 2) knowledge (for a process to achieve results); and 3) computation. Here the human brain is strong because of its parallel processing but weak in terms of its slow computational speed. “For this reason, DNA-based evolution will eventually have to be abandoned. DNA-based evolution is good at tinkering with and extending its designs, but it is unable to scrap an entire design and start over. Organisms created through DNA-based evolution are stuck with an extremely plodding type of circuitry.”101

“But the Law of Accelerating Returns tells us that evolution will not remain stuck at a dead-end for very long. And indeed, evolution has found a way around the computational limitations of neural circuitry. Cleverly, it has created organisms that in turn invented a computational technology a million times faster than carbon-based neurons (which are continuing to get faster). Ultimately, the computing conducted on extremely slow mammalian neural circuits will be ported to a far more versatile and speedier electronic (and photonic) equivalent.” 101-02

Achieving the Hardware Capacity of the Human Brain – To summarize: K’s argues (with good evidence and inferences from that evidence) that computers will equal the computing speed of a human brain by about 2020. (the brain only calculates at a rate of 200 per second, but there are about 100 trillion neural connections—massive parallel processing.) The memory capacity of the human brain should also be equaled at about that time. “Taking all of this into consideration, it is reasonable to estimate that a $1,000 personal computer will match the computing speed and capacity of the human brain by around the year 2020…” 105 A single personal computer will have the CS & MC of a small village by 2030, the population of the US by 2048, and a trillion human brains by 2060. “If we estimate the human Earth population at 10 billion persons, one penny’s worth of computing circa 2099 will have a billion times greater computing capacity than all humans on Earth.” 105

Computing Substrates of the 21st Century – K knows that Moore’s law cannot hold forever: “For the immediate future, Moore’s Law will continue with ever smaller component geometries packing greater numbers of yet faster transistors on each chip. But as circuit dimensions reach near atomic sizes, undesirable quantum effects such as unwanted electron tunneling will produce unreliable results.” 106 He offers a number of scenarios to deal with this issue: 1) 3-dimensional computing – “Already, venture-backed companies … are competing to build chips with dozens and ultimately thousands of layers of circuitry.”106 2) computing with light – “Optical computing uses streams of photons (particles of light) rather than electrons. A laser can produce billions of coherent streams of photons, with each stream performing its own independent series of calculations.” 106 3) computing with the machinery of life – “A new field called molecular computing has sprung up to harness the DNA molecule itself as a practical computing device. DNA is nature’s own nanoengineered computer and it is well suited for solving combinatorial problems. … Applying actual DNA to practical computing applications got its start when Leonard Adleman, a University of Southern California mathematician, coaxed a test tube full of DNA molecules …to solve the well-known “traveling salesperson” problem. …. It is an ideal problem for a recursive algorithm, although if the number of cities is too large, even a very fast recursive search will take far too long. Professor Adleman and other scientists in the molecular-computing field have identified a set of enzyme reactions that correspond to the logical and arithmetic operations needed to solve a variety of computing problems. Although DNA molecular operations produce occasional errors, the number of DNA strands being used is so large that any molecular errors become statistically insignificant. Thus, despite the inherent error rate in DNA’s computing and copying processes, a DNA computer can be highly reliable if properly designed.” 107

There are other possibilities including a) the brain in the crystal, b) the nanotube, and c) quantum computing. Of all the technological possibilities to replace digital computing, this is the one with the most promise and the one K discusses most. Unlike digital computing which relies on bits of info which are either on or off, “Quantum computing, … is based on qu-bits … which essentially are zero and one at the same time. The qu-bit is based on the fundamental ambiguity inherent in quantum mechanics. The position, momentum, or other states of a fundamental particle remains “ambiguous” until a process of disambiguation causes that particle to “decide” where it is, where it has been, and what properties it has …In a quantum computer, the qu-bits would be represented by a property–nuclear spin is a popular choice–of individual electrons. If set up in the proper way, the electrons will not have decided the direction of their nuclear spin (up or down) and thus will be in both states at the same time. The process of conscious observation of the electrons’ spin states–or any subsequent phenomena dependent on a determination of these states–causes the ambiguity to be resolved. …The key to the quantum computer is that we would present it with a problem, along with a way to test the answer. We would set up the quantum decoherence of the qu-bits in such a way that only an answer that passes the test survives the decoherence. The failing answers essentially cancel each other out.” 110-11

The next few pages argue that QC is feasible, it difficulties can be overcome, and it will provide encryption that cannot be broken. Most importantly, he argues against those who say conscious machines are impossible. This all brings us to the main point of the chapter: how we can and will reverse engineer the human brain. K suggests that we might begin the process of understanding how to reverse engineer a human brain by “freezing a recently deceased one.” 121 We could examine one layer at a time to scan every neural connection. We would proceed a layer at a time until we have a 3 dimensional model of the brain. Even better we could examine living brains of persons who are about to die and consent to the procedure. And with “emerging noninvasive means of scanning our brains,” 122 we will eventually be able to scan living brains completely, the way we scan our bodies with MRIs.

Ultimately, we would want to map the entire brain, including mapping it synapse by synapse, a capability that will result from the continual increase in scanning ability. After scanning the brain we should be in a position to understand it, at least its overall pattern, thus slowing unpeeling the onion. And the next step is downloading our minds into computers. After understanding the important algorithms of each brain region we should, in theory, be able to accomplish this. We don’t need complete understanding but we do need the ability to copy a brain’s pattern. The tech will be bad at first but should improve gradually.

And what will we find when we do this? To objective observers, the new “person” will appear to be identical to the person originally scanned. From the subjective point of view, this issue is more difficult and arguments can be made on both sides. If we are basically the pattern of our consciousness, then it seems the new person is the same as the original. If our essence is our body, then the person doesn’t survive. This is complicated if both the original and copy are around, for then the original will think he is the real person and may not want the clone to carry on for him. But then again for the new person across the divide, she will think she is the original person and won’t believe she committed suicide by surviving in this way. And even if she wonders if she is the same person she’ll still be glad she exists since without taking the plunge she wouldn’t. K believes that in the second ½ of the 21st century the process of taking the leap will begin.

“Initially there will be partial porting—replacing aging memory circuits, extending pattern-recognition and reasoning circuits through neural implants. Ultimately, and well before the 21st century is complete, people will port their entire mind files to the new thinking technology.” 126 While nostalgic for our carbon-based bodies, we will quickly get over it as we find that porting ourselves allows us to extend our minds. “Remember that $1000 of computing in 2060 will have the computational capacity of a trillion human brains. So we might as well multiply memory a trillion fold, greatly extend recognition and reasoning abilities, and plug ourselves into the pervasive wireless-communications network. And while we are at it, we can add all human knowledge—as a readily accessible internal database as well as already processed and learned knowledge using the human type of distributed understanding.” 126-28

And this means that if you use this technology your software is no longer dependent on your hardware. And your evolving mind file won’t be stuck with the circuitry of the brain but can evolve well beyond that. Your mind file can be transferred from one medium to another just as files are transferred from one computer to another. And “our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups. If we’re careless about this, we’ll have to load an old backup copy and be doomed to repeat our recent past.” 129

Chap 7 – … And Bodies

Chapter 6 was about building new brains. Chapter 7 is about building new bodies. Will we want to download our personal evolving mind files into our original bodies, upgraded bodies, nanoengineered bodies, or virtual bodies? K starts by claiming that body and brain will like evolve and be enhanced together—gradually. We are already further along with body transformation than with brain transformation with titanium devices, artificial skin, heart valves, pacemakers, etc. So we might want to re-build our bodies completely. Of course, most of us are attached to the warmth and softness of our bodies. We might start by enhancing our bodies cell by cell using genetic therapies of some kind. But we can only go so far with this,  and that’s because of the limitations of DNA-based cells that depend on protein synthesis. (stable under narrow temperature and pressure ranges, sensitive to radiation, etc.) So K agrees with Moravec that such bodies—however well they were enhanced—would just be second-rate robots.

Instead lets us nanotechnology to rebuild the world, atom by atom. While our machines of today are marvelous and precise compared to stone blades, they are primitive when viewed from the atomic level; our mechanisms “moved atoms in great thundering statistical herds. … Nanotechnology is technology is technology built at the atomic level: building machines one atom at a time. … We have … proof of the feasibility of nanotechnology: life on Earth. Little machines in our cells called ribosomes build organisms such as humans one molecule at a time … Life on Earth has mastered the ultimate goal of nanotechnology, which is self-replication.” 137 But life on earth is limited by the molecular building blocks it uses. And just as human-created computation will exceed natural computation, 21st-century physical technology will exceed the capabilities of amino acid-based nanotechnology of nature.

The holy grail of NT is that nanomachines would be intelligent, able to manipulate things at the nano level and be able to replicate. Important theorist like Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle have shown the feasibility of self-replicating nanobots. (And there is currently a ton of money being invested in NT.) The possibilities for NT to transform the world are endless: they could build inexpensive solar cells to replace fossil fuels; be launched in our bloodstream to improve the immune system, destroy pathogens, cancer cells, rebuild diseased organs (the inspiration for the cryonics movement. Ralph Merkle, formerly of XeroxPark, inventor of encryption technology, and on the board of directors at Alcor Life Extension told me in personal correspondence that if NT works, cryonics almost certainly will. The point is that these are not fringe persons who are talking about this stuff, but respectable engineers, computer scientists, and others.) And more possibilities: reconstruction of bodily organs and systems, reverse engineering of human neurons and any cell in the human body. Moreover: “Food, clothing, diamond rings, buildings could all assemble themselves molecule by molecule. Any sort of product could be instantly created when and where we need it. Indeed the world could continually reassemble itself to meet our changing needs, desires, and fantasies. … NT will permit objects such as furniture, buildings, clothing, even people to change their appearance and other characteristics—essentially to change into something else—in a split second.” 140

Will we want to do this? “There is a clear incentive to go down this path. Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, their life systems strong and vital. Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and NT enhance bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling. It is another one of those slippery slopes—there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.” 141 K admits there are dangers from NT, especially self-replication run amok and the intentional hostile use of the tech. He tries to defend the development of NT nonetheless.

Of course, we don’t need real bodies; in a VR a virtual body would do fine. Next, K traces the development of VR from the primitive computer games of the 60s to the state of the art VR today. But in the next decade, faster computers will continue to make VR more realistic and he goes into detail about how this will be done. And later in the 21st century, we won’t need to enter a booth to experience VR. “Your neural implants will provide the simulated sensory inputs of the virtual environment—and your virtual body—directly in your brain.” 144

And that’s not all. By the late 21st century “the real world will take on many of the characteristics of the VW through the means of NT “swarms.” 145 Intelligent nanobots can merge and create something called Utility Fog. Spaces filled with UF go unnoticed but are able to “simulate any environment by creating all sorts of structures.” A Fog environment can be anything you want. UF creates a VR in the real physical world. Other minds can be simulated in the UF as “Fog people.” Furthermore, “there are a variety of proposals for NT swarms, in which the real environment is constructed from the interacting multitudes of nanomachines.” 145 What this all leads to is a situation in the last 21st century when “we will have to select our body, our personality, [and] our environment …” 146

The next section deals with virtual sex, sexbots (sexual robots), neural implant sex, and the great sex inside UF. K then delves into spiritual experiences which we already know has a physiological basis. When we completely understand their neurological correlates we can have them at will, if that is what we want. (Instead of sex I suppose.) A K company has already created a device which creates brain generated music which elicits the relaxation response. And he reports on the well-known work of neuroscientists from UCSD who have found “what they call the God module, a tiny locus of nerve cells in the frontal lobes that appear to be activated during religious experiences.” 152 This “neurological basis for spiritual experience has long been postulated by evolutionary biologists because of the social utility of religious belief.” 153 At any rate, a full understanding of this research would allow us to augment it. “Twenty-first-century machines … will do as their human progenitors have done …[and] connect with their spiritual dimension.” 153

“Epilogue: The Rest of the Universe Revisited”

K has argued that “the emergence of machine intelligence that exceeds human intelligence  … is inevitable.” 253 This results from the Law of Accelerating Returns which also applies to the rest of the universe. But in what way?

To begin to answer this question K speculates that life is both “rare and plentiful” in the universe. That is, very rare compared to the immensity of the universe but very plentiful in an absolute sense since the universe is immense. Since life probably exists on other planets, K gives us a sense of the kinds of thresholds they would go thru. [I don’t think he needs this extraterrestrial life argument. He could just say these are the stages that life went thru on earth.] He thinks the evolution of life forms could be thought of as one threshold, the evolution of intelligence as the next, then the evolution of technology, followed by the evolution of computation, followed by the merger of a species with the tech it has created. “At this stage … the computers are themselves based at least in part on the designs of the brains … of the species that originally created them and in turn, the computers become embedded in and integrated into the species’ bodies and brains.” 255-56

But there are many possible ways that this prediction might fail: nuclear war, self-replicating nanobots, and software viruses. K guesses that we have “a better than even chance of making it through.” But he adds: “I have always been accused of being an optimist. [In truth I don’t know how to figure the odds of us making it thru at all, much less thru to the age of spiritual machines.]

K next turns to considering what visitors from faraway places would be like. Such visitors wouldn’t be much like they are portrayed in science fiction, [or by Bubba’s report] but would probably be microscopic and interested only in information. [I have always found this section a bit puzzling. My best guess is that K includes it so as to answer those who would ask why we haven’t been visited by all these civilizations that have survived.]

K concludes his book with a dramatic section concerning the relevance of intelligence for the universe. While the common view is that intelligence is impotent when compared to the mighty forces of the universe, K disagrees. Intelligence does affect physical forces; our intelligence thwarts gravity and manipulates physical forces in other ways. And yet, the density of intelligence is very small. [If you don’t believe this travel out West and look at a mountain—one large, dumb, although maybe beautiful rock.] If you imagine that intelligence will increase exponentially with time, then it will eventually become a worthy competitor for the big universal forces.

Thus he concludes: “The laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence.” What then of the fate of the universe? K concludes: “the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”

Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

Recent discussion about the effect of technology on employment reminded me of Marshall Brain‘s prescient essays of almost 20 years ago. (“Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom“) Here is a summary of the main theses in each essay.

Robotic Nation


Tip of the Iceberg – Technology transforms employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated soon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

In the next 15 years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear, and by 2025 we may have AI equipped machines  that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, and mow the lawn. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter, and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, airports, construction, hospitals, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. These robots will last for years, and need no vacation or sick time.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will bring catastrophic changes, analogous to the changes brought about by the Wright brothers. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks, activities that waste human potential.

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes.  At that time many thought heavier than air flight was impossible, and predictions to the contrary were often ridiculed. Thus the employment world is changing dramatically and rapidly. Why?

The basic answer is Moore’s Law—CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: cheap computers with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

The new employment landscape isn’t so different from the one of 100 years ago, but it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, airports, factories, restaurants, and construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed, and the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work, people won’t be able to earn money. What then? Brain argues that we should then provide free housing and a guaranteed income. But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015” 


We Will Replace the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which implies
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of a robotic nation, where half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. Initially we’ll feel sorry for the pilots, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Other jobs will follow suit. What about new jobs creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots, and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Even now our economy creates few high paying jobs. (For which there is intense competition.) Instead, there will be a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. How then do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating Goals – to increase human freedom using
Capitalism Supersized – an economy that provides for all and has
The Advantages of Economic Security – which is better for
Everybody – because even high-skilled jobs are vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lane, and the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth—the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all corporate income will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative. So why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work to eat. Consider that Linux and Wikipedia were created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity, one where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain argues that robots give us a chance to transform the human condition.

He also argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states these goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What need to completely re-think our economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose their own creative projects, and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week, which is “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers suggestions (supersize capitalism, guarantee economic security) as to how we would fund a society in which people are free to actualize their potential to be creative without the burden of wage slavery. Now if all this seems unrealistic consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that populated much of human history. Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation, so we should think about a different world. Hopefully it will be one where robotic workers give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030, and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the automobile or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—but this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As the abilities of this new species improves, they will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work, but today worker wages are stagnant. Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases, but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – Brain responds that he is a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books—he is pro-market. Socialism is the view that centralized governmental planning produces and distributes goods. But Brain argues that by giving consumers a share of the wealth—which they won’t be able to earn with work—we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending,” and at the same time provide economic security to all citizens. Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas Brain wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer – Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that redistribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003, is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so a stipend in that range is feasible.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are low. For every citizen benefit from the robotic nation, we must distribute the wealth.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to do hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. But he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many receive free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! 

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that—a cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics if we provide people with enough to live decent lives.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – Because of economic coercion. This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. Better to have a universal basic income.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals—why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.


1. These articles in their entirety can be found here.

Summary of Marshall Brain’s, “The Day You Discard Your Body”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 21, 2016.)

Marshall Brain (1961 – ) is an author, public speaker, and entrepreneur. He earned an MS in computer science from North Carolina State University where he taught for many years, and is the founder of the website HowStuffWorks, which was sold in 2007 to Discovery Communications for $250,000,000. He also maintains a website where his essays on transhumanism, robotics, and naturalism can be found. His essay, “The Day You Discard Our Bodies,” presents a compelling case that sometime in this century the technology will be available to discard our bodies.[i] And when the time comes, most of us will do so.

Why would we want to discard our bodies? The answer is that by doing so we would achieve an unimaginable level of freedom and longevity. Consider how vulnerable your body is. If you fall off a horse or dive into a too-shallow pool of water, your body will become completely useless. If this happened to you, you would gladly discard your body. But this happens to all of us as we age—our bodies generally kill our brains—creating a tragic loss of knowledge and experience. Our brains die because our bodies do.

Consider also how few of us are judged to have beautiful bodies, and how the beauty we do have declines with age. If you could have a more beautiful body, you would gladly discard your body. Additionally, your body has to go to the bathroom, it smells, it becomes obese easily, it takes time for it to travel through space, it cannot fly or swim underwater for long, and it cannot perform telekinesis. As for the aging of our bodies, most would happily dispense with it, discarding their bodies if they could.

Why would the healthy discard their bodies? Consider that healthy people play video games in staggering numbers. As these games become more realistic, we can imagine people wanting to live and be immersed in them. Eventually you would want to connect your biological brain to your virtual body inside the virtual reality. And your virtual body could be so much better than your biological body—it could be perfect. Your girlfriend or boyfriend who made the jump to the virtual world would have a perfect body. They would ask you to join them. All you would have to do is undergo a painless surgery to connect your brain to its new body in the virtual reality. There you could see anything in the world without having to take the plane ride (or go through security.) You could visit the Rome or Greece of two thousand years ago, fight in the battle of Stalingrad, talk to Charles Darwin, or live the life of Superman. You could be at any time and any place, you can overcome all limitations, you could have great sex!  When your virtual body would be better in every respect from your biological body, you would discard the latter.

Initially your natural brain may still be housed in your natural body, but eventually your brain will be disconnected from your body and housed in a safe brain storage facility. Your transfer will be complete—you will live in a perfect virtual reality without your cumbersome physical body, and the limitations it imposes.

Summary – We will be able to discard our bodies and live in a much better virtual reality relatively soon. We should do so.


[i] Marshall Brain, “The Day You Discard Your Body”

Summary of Hans Moravec’s, Robot: Mere Machine To Transcendent Mind

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 15, 2016.)

Hans Moravec (1948 – ) is a faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University and the chief scientist at Seegrid Corporation. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in 1980 and is known for his work on robotics, artificial intelligence, and writings on the impact of technology, as well as his many of publications and predictions focusing on transhumanism.

Moravec set forth his futuristic ideas most clearly in his 1998 book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. He notes that by almost any measure society is changing faster than ever before, primarily because the products of technology keep speeding up the process. The radical future that awaits us can be understood by thinking of technology as soon reaching an escape velocity. In the same way that rubbing sticks together in the proper manner will produce ignition, or powering a rocket correctly will allow it to escape the earth’s gravity, our machines will soon escape their previous boundaries. At that time the old rules will no longer apply; robots will have achieved their own escape velocity.

For many of us, this is hard to imagine because we are like riders in an elevator who forget how high we are until we get an occasional glimpse of the ground—as when we meet cultures frozen in time. Then we see how different the world we live in today is compared to the one we adapted to biologically. For all of human history culture was secondary to biology, but about five thousand years ago things changed, as cultural evolution became the most important means of human evolution. It is the technology created by a culture that is exponentially speeding up the process of change. Today we are reaching the escape velocity from our biology.

Not that building intelligent machines will be easy—Moravec constantly reminds us how difficult robotics is. He outlines the history of cybernetics, from its beginnings with Alan Turing and John von Neumann, to the first working artificial intelligence programs which proved many mathematical theorems. He admits that most of these programs were not very good and proved theorems no better or faster than a college freshman. So reaching escape velocity will require hard work.

One of the most difficult issues in robotics/artificial intelligence is the disparity between programs that calculate and reason, versus programs that interact with the world. Robots still don’t perform as well behaviorally as infants or non-human animals but play chess superbly. So the order of difficulty for machines from easier to harder is: calculating; reasoning; perceiving; and acting. For humans, the order is exactly the reverse. The explanation for this probably lays in the fact that perceiving and acting was beneficial for survival in a way that calculation and abstract reasoning was not. Machines are way behind in many areas yet catching up, and Moravec predicts that in less than fifty years inexpensive computers will exceed the processing power of a human brain. Can we then program them to intuit and perceive like humans? Moravec thinks there is reason to answer in the affirmative, and much of his book cites the evolution of robotics as evidence for this claim.

He also supports his case with a clever analogy to topography. The human landscape of consciousness has high mountains like hand-eye coordination, locomotion, and social interaction; foothills like theorem proving and chess playing; and lowlands like arithmetic and memorization. Computers/robots are analogous to a flood which has drowned the lowlands; has just reached the foothills, and well eventually submerge the peaks.

Robots will advance through generational change as technology advances: from lizard-like robots to mouse-like, primate-like, and human-like ones. Eventually, they will be smart enough to design their own successors —without help from us! So a few generations of robots will mimic the four hundred million year evolution marked by the brain stem, cerebellum, midbrain, and neocortex. Will our machines be conscious? Moravec says yes. Just as the terrestrial and celestial was once a sacred distinction, so today is the animate/inanimate distinction. Of course, if the animating principle is a supernatural soul, then the distinction remains, but our current knowledge suggests that complex organization provides animation. This means that our technology is doing what it took evolution billions of years to do—animating dead matter.

Moravec argues that robots will slowly come to have a conscious, internal life as they advance. Fear, shame, and joy may be emotions valuable to robots to help them retreat from danger, reduce the probability of bad decisions, or reinforce good ones. He even thinks there would be good reasons for robots to care about their owners or get angry, but surmises that generally, they will be nicer than humans, since robots don’t have to be selfish to guarantee their survival. He recognizes that many reject the view that dead matter can give rise to consciousness. The philosopher Herbert Dreyfus has argued that computers cannot experience subjective consciousness, his colleague John Searle says, as we have already seen, that computers will never think, and the mathematician Roger Penrose argues that consciousness is achieved through certain quantum phenomena in the brain, something unavailable to robots. But Moravec points to the accumulating evidence from neuroscience to disagree. Mind is something that runs on a physical substrate and we will eventually accept sufficiently complex robots as conscious.

Moravec sees these developments as the natural consequence of humans using one of their two channels of heredity. Not the slower biological means utilizing DNA, but the faster culture channel utilizing  books, language, databases, and machines. For most of human history there was more info in our genes than in our culture, but now libraries alone hold thousands of times more information than genes. “Given fully intelligent robots, culture becomes completely independent of biology. Intelligent machines, which will grow from us, learn our skills, and initially share our goals and values, will be the children of our minds.”[i]

To get a better understanding of the coming age of robots consider our history as it relates to technology. A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were supported by, what Moravec calls, a fully automated nature. With agriculture we increased production but added work and, until recently, production of food was the chief occupation of humankind. Farmers lost their jobs to machines and moved to manufacturing, but more advanced machines displaced farmers out of factories and into offices—where machines have put them out of work again. Soon machines will do all the work. Tractors and combines amplify farmers; computer workstations amplify engineers; layers of management and clerical help slowly disappear; and the scribe, priest, seer and chief are no longer repositories of wisdom—printing and mass communication ended that. Automation and robots will displace gradually replace labor as never before; just consider how much physical and mental labor has already been replaced by machines. In the short run, this will cause panic and the scramble to earn a living in new ways. In the medium run, it will provide the opportunity to have a more leisurely lifestyle. In the long run, “it marks the end of the dominance of biological humans and the beginning of the age of robots.”[ii]

Moravec is optimistic that robotic labor will make life more pleasant for humanity, but inevitably evolution will lead beyond humans to a world of “ex-humans” or “exes.” These post-biological beings will populate a galaxy which is as benign for them as it is hostile for biological beings. “We marvel at the Earth’s biodiversity … but the diversity and range of the post-biological world will be astronomically greater. Imagination balks at the challenge of guessing what it could be like.”[iii] Still, he is willing to hazard a guess: “…Exes trapped in neutron stars may become the most powerful minds in the galaxy … But, in the fast-evolving world of superminds, nothing lasts forever …. Exes, [will] become obsolete.”[iv]

In that far future, Moravec speculates that exes will “be transformed into intelligence-boosting computing elements … physical activity will gradually transform itself into a web of increasingly pure thought, here every smallest interaction represents a meaningful computation.”[v] Exes may learn to arrange space-time and energy into forms of computation, with the result that “the inhabited portions of the universe will be rapidly transformed into a cyberspace, where overt physical activity is imperceptible, but the world inside the computation is astronomically rich.”[vi] Beings won’t be defined by physical location but will be patterns of information in cyberspace. Minds, pure software, will interact with other minds. The wave of physical migration into space will have long given way to “a bubble of Mind expanding at near lightspeed.”[vii] Eventually, the expanding bubble of cyberspace will recreate all it encounters “memorizing the old universe as it consumes it.”[viii]

For the moment our small minds cannot give meaning to the universe, but a future universal mind might be able to do so when that cosmic mind is infinitely subjective, self-conscious, and powerful. At that point, our descendants will be capable of traversing in and through other possible worlds. Unfortunately, those of us alive today are governed by the laws of the universe, at least until we die when our ties to physical reality will be cut. It is possible we will then be reconstituted in the minds of our super intelligent successors or in simulated realities. But for the moment this is still fantasy, all we have for now is Shakespeare’s lament:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil …

Summary – Our robotic descendants will be our mind children and they will live in realities now unimaginable to us. For now, though, we die.


[i] Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.
[ii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 131.
[iii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 145.
[iv] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 162.
[v] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vi] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 165.
[viii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 167