Wednesday, July 4, 2012
At Paulaner im Tal
with Fabien, James, Jana, Jyothis, Kellya, Nicholas, Sheema
Main focus this evening was whether human-level AI is possible, and if so, when will it arrive. Kellya and Jana both said no, it's not possible. Jyothis said we'll have very intelligent robots, but they'll never be quite human like. Fabien said yes, but it would take 100 to 200 years. Sheema said yes, in 500 years. Nicholas said possibly in 50 years, more likely 100 years. James said yes, in the 2030s, possibly late 2020s.
We talked about feelings and emotion and whether these are essential for human-level AI. Is consciousness dependent on these things or are the two separate. Kellya thought we can upgrade our brains, increase our memory capacity and levels of sensory perception, but some part of the original biological brain is always needed for self-awareness - the whole brain can't be replaced.
We discussed why we want to know all this. What is the drive? What are we trying to answer? And we discussed what consciousness is. Jana asked if a body is needed or if consciousness can occur inside a computer program. We asked Fabien about the robots he is building at work and whether they can learn and whether they're generally adaptable. We also discussed the ultimate nature of reality and whether we are all in fact living inside a simulation.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
with Carlo, David, George, James, Libby, Sheema
We started with introductions, David and George were first-timers at the meet. David talked about his studies in cognitive science, maths, and now evolutionary psychology. This lead into discussions about the evolutionary reasons for jealousy and homosexuality - what benefits do those behaviours give, if any? Then we asked whether average intelligence of people is increasing. Apparently this was the case last century, but has stopped in the last decade in the Western world. Differences in intelligence between most normal, healthy people is not genetic. Instead it depends on education and stimulus from the environment, from the TV and internet etc. Sheema remembered out loud how she'd been taught maths by her dad. Nuture not nature. Now that everyone in the West is educated and has access to media, the intelligence levels have plateaued. Third world countries are now catching up.
George is multilingual. Actually, we all are, but George more so. We discussed what limits there are to how many languages a human can learn. Is the human brain limitless? Carlo mentioned a condition, possibly a kind of autism, where people remember everything they see, they can't ever forget, and it's a problem for them. Carlo also mentioned the genius of Tesla, as prompted by the famous cartoon from The Oatmeal that was published and went viral this week.
We did a survey of when each of us first heard about the singularity. Sheema and Libby heard of it first last time we met, a few weeks ago. Carlo from reading the book Accelerando which was published in 2005. David, about 18 months ago, and George a few months ago. James heard about it at one of these meetups in 2001. We asked whether technology is really accelerating, as opposed to improving linearly, and what evidence there is for this in our daily lives. We stumbled a bit here. Did 1980 to 1990 change as much as 2000 to 2010? We couldn't answer. We concluded we need a more definitive way to measure change, but couldn't think how. We speculated on how change goes in spurts. Manned space technology blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s then seemed to stagnate. Processor clock speeds have stagnated, although their processing power has increased via other means. Carlo said that although technology wants to accelerate other forces slow it down, e.g. politics, human resistance to change, business interests. DNA sequencing is one area that is clearly accelerating.
We surveyed who thinks it's theoretically possible that machines can think. James - yes, Carlo - yes, David - yes, by 2075 with 90% highest probability. George - hadn't thought about it before but agreed that yes, they will. Sheema - wasn't sure last time we met, but has come to think this time yes. Libby - no, she has strong reservations. Thinks there's some unknown essence, a spark that is missing. Not religious, but something else. She'll reevaluate if we can create a living cell from raw base elements. Living cells have been manufactured with synthetic DNA, but synthetic cell walls and functional cytoplasm have yet to be done. This lead to asking if we made an atom-by-atom copy of a person, would it be alive? We'd probably need a defibrilator to start the heart, but what about the brain - how can that be jump started?
Other topics: Plane crashes. For some reason this comes up almost every week. Why are people more afraid of flying than driving, even though it's statistically safer? Libby talked about the new astronauts who arrived at the ISS that week, and why there are no more tourists flying there at the moment (lack of launch seats). George didn't know the ISS is still flying, he thought it stopped with the shuttle. Libby said that many people think the same. And lastly: diet. I mentioned having given up all processed sugar. George said he was trying to stick to foods with a low glycemic index.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
with James, Jana, Jarek, Libby, Rodolphe, Sheema
Someone asked, if time travel were possible, where in time would you go? Jarek said he'd go back to the time of Alexander the Great. Jana to the Age of Enlightenment. Rodolphe would go back to the time of his birth, but wouldn't talk to his parents or give advice to his younger self. Sheema would go forward 500 years - enough to see major change but not enough to be scared or greeted by complete desolate destruction. She wondered whether civilisations in the future would greet her as a primitive, or whether she'd be superior in that she has emotions in an otherwise robotic and sterile world. She might be viewed as an old-style romantic and this would be cool. James would go forward to the year 2150 - just enough to be sure of being post technological singularity.
Libby then told us about her job as a flight director for the Columbus module of the International Space Station. She talks to Don Pettit and the other astronauts up there every day. Apparently they work an 8-hour day, 5 days a week, just like any other regular job. She also talked about how some astronauts get bored of "life in a tin can" and you can hear it in their voices after a few months in orbit. We discussed the ISS science demos we've all seen on YouTube, then how the real science performed on the ISS is very limited and mostly pointless. The main purposes of the station are: political, to act as an inspiration for humanity, and to gain technology experience for living in space. We talked about who would like to travel into space and what level of risk we'd be prepared to take.
We then moved onto neuroscience. Rodolphe and Jana talked about books by Oliver Sacks and a TED talk by a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke and was able to directly observe her own brain doing wierd stuff. This lead into talk of a global consciousness emerging from the world's network of computers and what this means exactly. Sheema was wondering whether a glass of beer was conscious of itself. I then tried to explain Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory of conciousness but failed. I don't yet understand it well enough myself to explain it to others. "Skynet waking up" brought us back to the singularity. We then did a survey of whether machines can ever be conscious. James and Rodolphe said yes. Libby, Jana, and Jarek said no. Sheema was a maybe. Interestingly, a similar survey on whether a spider is conscious produced almost the exact opposite answers. Rodolphe said no. Libby and Jarek said yes. James and Sheema said a little. Jana wanted a better definition of consciousness but was leaning towards no.
Jarek asked if anyone in the group was religious, we all said no. He then wondered if religion is a control mechanism to keep the general public in line. Others, notably Libby, argued that it was a way for the general public to explain the unknown. This lead to us wondering whether people from under-developed nations would be able to follow our conversations. And what about religious extremists such as the Taliban? Transplant a tribal warlord instantly into a Munich beer hall and would they be able to hold down a rational conversation about consciousness and the singularity? Language barriers notwithstanding.
Also discussed: Rodolphe's work with plasma physics, the Stuxnet virus, the beauty of the Australian countryside and how it somehow feels different to anywhere else in the world, Australian mineral mining, and a whole lot more.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
At Der Pschorr
with Carlo, Fabien, James, Jana, Joythis, Kellya, Simon
Among the many things we discussed were: aircraft auto-pilots and safety. Namely, would you be willing to fly transcontinental in a plane without any human pilots? Most agreed that yes, it would be safer. That lead into the safety of self-driving cars. We then drifted into Facebook vs. Google+. Unanimous agreement there on which is better. We talked about open-protocol social networks and whether they'll ever be widely adopted. Most agreed that no, they wouldn't work in practice. We then surveyed who thought consciousness/sentience could be reproduced in a man-made machine, i.e. the crux of the singularity issue. Most agreed it is possible. This lead to discussion of what would become of the economy once robots do all the work, will it even be meaningful to talk of an economy? Also discussed was space tourism. Surprisingly, some of us were not too bothered about flying into space, although some will go a the very first opportunity. This tied back into safety and reliance on machines.
There occured here a ten-year hiatus in meet-ups.
Tuesday, July 23, 2002
At Atlas Cafe
with Eugen, James, John, Josef, Nic
This evening we didn't stick to any specific topic. There was lots of vaguely futurist related stuff, as well as lots of very
non-futurist discussion. Amongst the discussions I can remember were: the reliability of GPS systems;
the probability of randomly bumping into someone you know in a place far removed from either of your respective home towns;
I think this developed from a discussion of the probability of random events in general, which in turn developed from the
probability of two planes colliding in mid-air; once again the Fermi paradox - where are the space aliens, why don't we see
them, and do we really care anyway? The space aliens are almost certainly not here, we can't see or talk to them, so let's
not bother with them and get on with our own lives and developing our own technology first.
Tuesday, July 16, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Andrew, Eugen, James, John
At this week's meeting of the futurists we talked about the future of sex. Apparently the increasing concentrations of oestrogen in the environment, together with certain chemicals which are exuded by man-made plastics, are causing the average sperm-count in the male population to decline. If this decline is extrapolated then we'll all be infertile within 3 or 4 generations. The question is, will only the first-world population be rendered sterile leaving the population from developing countries free to take our place? Or will HIV kill off the developing countries first?
This argument is academic anyway, because in the future reproduction won't occur by conventional means. In vitro fertilisation is already routine. It will not be long before a pregnancy is carried to term entirely outside of a human body. Instead artificial wombs will be used. This will have the advantage of returning equality to the sexes. Neither sex will be obliged to go though pregnancy in order to reproduce. And sex will become even more of a game that it is already, pursued for pure entertainment. These ideas have a very high shock level and are dismissed by most people. But they will come true!
The above is just a snippet of what was discussed. We also covered: how mobile phone text messaging has had a radical impact on the dating game, how mobile phones will soon be equiped with the technology to inform you when a suitable potential partner is in close proximity. Also: synthesising biological life from scratch - taking bottles of sugar, amino acids, and lipids and mixing them together to create a living, reproducing, organism. The best way to educate children for success in life. The cultural differences between a German and a British, or American, upbringing. And lots of other random stuff too.
Tuesday, July 2, 2002
with Andrew, Eugen, James, Kemal, Kuros
This evening's discussion began with nanotechnology and the possible threat to mankind by self-replicating grey goo. We also discussed weapons grade black goo and how this can be combatted with blue goo. How big is the threat of grey goo compared to all out nuclear war, or an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the western world? Some people see grey goo as a the biggest threat of all, others see it as purely fantastic scare-mongering.
We then moved on to consider how best to survive an armageddon scenario. Would it be possible to survive a full scale nuclear war? Would it be possible to survive if the entire biosphere was eradicated? If this was the case, would anyone even want to survive? Would the only way to survive be to go it alone and live as a hermit in a cave, or is it better to join a gang which violently competes for the limited resources with other gangs? This last question is reminiscent of the "Mad Max" films.
Next up: if a modern day, intelligent, and educated human was miraculously transported back in time, would he or she be able to radically change the world in that previous time? Say, if Einstein was transported back thousands of years to the time of the Greek philosophers, would he be able to convince the ancient Greeks of his theories of relativity? Or would the Greeks be totally incapable, or unwilling, to understand him? Would he be heralded as a genius from the future or as a dangerous madman from some unknown universe? A similar question can be applied to your average Joe Bloggs being transported back 10 years, or 200 years, or back to the 7th century. Would an amateur astronomer from the 20th century be burned at the stake if he were to travel back 700 years and suggest that the Earth is not actually the center of the universe?
Other discusssions in brief: is childhood necessary? Has childhood become longer in modern times? Are our children being over-protected? Privacy in the information age - a favourite topic of ours. Is Hushmail really secure, does Echelon exist, do we trust Verisign? How difficult is it for a smoker to quit and is it worthwhile? How tobacco companies have chemically altered their products so as to make them more addictive and increase revenue. Why are there so few women interested in futurism? They will gladly use new technology, but why do they have no interest in understanding how it works or how it will develop in the future?
Tuesday, June 18, 2002
At Cafe am Nordbad
with Andrew, David, Eugen, Felix, James, Kemal, Richard
There were two major topics of discussion this week: "Bionics" and "living in a virtual world".
Under the bionics topic we speculated what kind of brain implants might be possible, or desirable, for enhancing our quality of life. One idea was a mobile phone and GPS tracking system embedded in the brain which can be operated by thought alone. This would allow the user to intuitively know where his/her friends are located at any time and to be able to communicate with them through what would appear to be telepathy. Also useful might be a video recorder to record your entire visual memory, or a hard disk for easy mental access to large sets of data.
In the second half of the evening we considered whether or not an individual can lead a fulfilling life by spending all of his/her time exisiting in a virtual world, without physical contact to other human beings. Many people spend vast amounts of time in online games. Can these games provide all the social interaction that a person needs? We also discussed again how the virtual economy is becoming very real. Objects and characters from online games are gaining real-world value and are being bought and sold on eBay.
Tuesday, June 4, 2002
At Cafe Ohne Worte
with Andrew, Eugen, Felix, James, John, Karsten
This week's topics of discussion were: what is the purpose of this group, and is it possible to use our transhumanist ideas for commercial progress?
Currently the world transhumanist movement seems to be all talk and no action. Much discussion at the WTA isn't even transhumanist. They are bogged down with organisation and internal politics. So our Stammtisch will focus on discussing real transhumanist issues. We can't hope to achieve more than discussion. Our purpose is simply to exchange news, and to incubate leading edge ideas. We don't need to be activists. Our mere existence is enough to raise awareness in a spiritual kind of global consciousness type way. It was suggested we should do more to build a community. Perhaps audio recordings of our discussions should be placed on the web.
How can Transhumanism be turned into a commercial venture? Our ideas were: a transhumanist tax to fund research, selling a mutual fund which invests only in transhumanist friendly companies, or an insurance scheme whereby upon death your brain is preserved using the best technology of the time. Life-extension and anti-aging schemes which have been successful in the past include: vitamin mixes for increased longevity, anti-wrinkle creams and treatments, impotency drugs. These latter schemes are not really tranhumanist. And some of them are just pure fraud. But they are successful in business terms.
The best known transhumanist related business is cryonics. This, however, is not a growth industry. Cryonics is a hard sell. Who is interested in buying into death? Who wants to spend $40k on being turned into a frozen hamburger when the money could be better spent on schooling your kids or paying off the mortgage? Cryonics salesmen are more often seen as angels of death rather than bearers of eternal life. Apparently only a few hundred people have signed up for cryonic preservation. There are also severe technical problems. The freezing process is not dissimilar to placing your brain in a blender - at least from the point of view of trying to preserve the information stored. Can the information be repaired? An assisted shutdown of the brain using drugs should result in a better preservation than if the brain is frozen hours, or days, after a natural death. For "assisted shutdown" read "murder".
Other stuff discussed: definition of death - when the heart stops, or when the information contained in the brain is permanently lost?
Stopping and starting the stream of consciousness, beaming your consciousness into space.
The Everquest suicide: a depressed kid addicted to an internet gaming community blows his brains out whilst online. The parents are sueing Sony for deliberately engineering the game to be dangerously addictive.
Peer pressure and the group mentality: despite the 20th Century trend towards empowerment of the individual, humans are still instinctively influenced by the group. People will go with the group, even if that means walking straight into death. A topical example of group behaviour is the current mania surrounding the World Cup Football.
Publication of Stephen Wolfram's book, "A New Kind of Science". Brief discussion of the universe as one giant computer.
Calory restriction is a proven form of life extension, it can offer an extra 20 years. But it has the disadvantage that nobody talks to you because you look like an emaciated freak.
Is transhumanism a good name, or is it too easily confused with humanism?
Raising public awareness of transhumanism through Hollywood films. Were A.I. and Blade Runner useful, or did the general public treat them as pure fiction?
Tuesday, May 28, 2002
with Andrew, Felix, James, John, Karsten, Kemal
Building an alternative reality. Currently cyberspace is mainly text based and is inhabited almost exclusively by geeks. Cyberspace needs to go multi-media before it hits the big time. This requires a critical mass of people to be connected with sufficient bandwidth. Simple text mode chat will then be augmented with video, speech, and virtual reality. This is starting to happen with stuff like teleconferencing.
Online and virtual reality gaming. The question of scripted games versus unscripted. Do you follow a story which has already been plotted by someone else or does the world develop as the inhabitants wish it to? Probably both: unscripted "real" virtual reality, which is an extension of reality, and then games and entertainment within virtual reality. Virtual beings will sit around in a virtual room watching a virtual TV. Really? What rules should govern the virtual world, and to what extent? How to distinguish the virtual world from the real one? Is a game really a game when it spills over in to reality? I.e. like the Michael Douglas film - The Game.
Philosophy: life is a game. How far can you take this? Cheating in games is justified, what about real life, what are consequences if you break the rules? What are the rules? In VR all events can be logged - a record of what really happened is always available. But the log can be tampered with. The media industry is a log of reality. But provides only an edit. BBC News is different to Wired for example. Futurists are leading edge news junkies. The internet is interactive, unlike newspapers. You can drill down into information you find interesting.
And finally: what has Transhumanism (H+) ever done for you? Most H+ is very high level and far into the future. Extropian, Singularitarian, and Transhumanist principles are vapourware. What can we do which will make a difference today? No conclusions reached.
Tuesday, May 21, 2002
At Cafe Oase
with Andrew, Eugen, Felix, Hans-Georg, John, Josef, Karsten, Kemal, Sylvia
Denial-of-service internet attacks, fastest route to an artificial conciousness, etc.
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
At Cafe am Nordbad
with Andrew, Eugen, Felix, John, Karsten, Sylvia
Strange quark nuggets, femto-scale computronium, Earth annihilation, etc.
Tuesday, May 7, 2002
At Stadtmuseum Cafe
with Daniela, David, Felix, James, Josef, Karsten, Ralph, Richard
Virtual reality economy, conciousness theory, philosophy of murder, other stuff.
Tuesday, April 30, 2002
At Cafe Lara
with Ahmed, Chris, Claudio, Eugen, Felix, Frank, Hans-Georg, James, Kuros, Richard, Simon
The major topic of discussion this week was the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is a question first put forward by the physicist Enrico Fermi in the early 20th century. He asked, "if the Universe is so big, and there are so many billions of stars capable of harbouring Earth-like planets, why don't we see any compelling evidence of extra-terrestrial life? Surely we cannot be alone in the Universe, so where are the others?".
There are many possible answers to this question. Of course, nobody really knows the truth. But we had fun speculating. Perhaps we don't see any space aliens because advanced civilisations always end up destroying themselves. Or perhaps we are all living in a computer simulation and it is by design that we are the only life-form we know of. Or perhaps the Universe is simply too big for remote civilisations to communicate. Maybe the speed of light really is a universal limiting factor.
This lead us into some, perhaps ill-informed, discussion about quantum entanglement. And the expansion of the universe - is the speed of expansion superluminal? And is there a limit to how far technology can advance? Is there a ceiling to technological advancement? If so then all advanced civilisations must be at the same level.
The second major topic of the evening was the Transhumanist philosophy. We asked, "what is the purpose of the Transhumanism movement?". One suggestion was that it's purpose is to accelerate the onset of the Singularity. Another suggestion was that our purpose is to educate the public. The main purpose, however, seems to be that it is simply a very good personal philosophy of life. It is a set of ideas which can do more to explain the purpose of our existence than any other philosophy or religion. Transhumanism is fundamentally different from religion because it is based on the truth. It is also free to evolve as our understanding of the Universe develops.
Tuesday, April 23, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Andrew, David, Eugen, Felix, James, Kuros, Richard
The evening started off with the topic of cryonics. This is the term used to describe freezing brain immediately after death in the hope that a future technology will be able to bring it back to life. We discussed the current state-of-the-art in this field and whether or not it is currently worthwhile preserving your brain. Apparently there is only any hope of preserving the information in the brain if it is frozen immediately after death, or even just before. Seeing as the brain is a holographic device, and it is possible to survive with half the brain removed, it was suggested that one hemisphere could be "donated" to the freezer whilst still alive and healthy. Would you be prepared to do this?
Next up, how do we define intelligence? One suggestion was that it can be defined by measuring the behavioural diversity of the intelligent entity. For example, a human is demonstrably more intelligent than a computer because a human has a greater repertoire of behaviours. An alternative suggestion was that intelligence is something which can't be defined. We all know what intelligence is, but none of us can fully define it in a sentence or two. Do we need a concise definition before we can build a higher theoretical framework? Or is it satisfactory to accept that intelligence is beyond definition? Why do we even need a definition anyway? Does lack of a definition hinder us in our quest to create artificial intelligence?
Beyond intelligence, we also pondered the definition of consciousness. This is an eternal problem which has been deliberated upon since the days of the ancient Greeks. So obviously it was unlikely that we'd come up with the solution in a couple of hours on a Tuesday evening. Roger Penrose discusses consciousness in his book "The Emperor's New Mind". A commonly quoted précis of this book (albeit a somewhat supercilious one) is this: "Quantum Mechanics is inexplicable. The human mind is inexplicable. So the two must be related". This led us to observe that women are inexplicable too, so perhaps they are also related to the mind-body problem. The merest mention of the word "women" caused many a furrowed brow and uncomfortable fidgeting. So we agreed not to progress any further down that particular avenue of conversation.
What is the best way to create real artificial intelligence? By mimicking biology? Or can intelligence be simulated inside of Windows 2000? What amount is computing power is really needed in order to accurately simulate a living human brain? Is the amount of processing power required so great that it'd be easier to build the real thing rather than a simulation? And what happens when digital evolution takes off? Who is really in control then? The artificially intelligent simulants living inside their cyberspace, or the entities who live in the physical world? The physical beings can pull the power plug on the cyberspace dudes at any time, so surely they are in control?
Also discussed in brief: life extension. How to prolong your life by 20 years through eating less and exercising more. Do we wish to see true A.I. within our lifetimes? Should we accelerate A.I. research even more? Or is a slower and more controlled evolutionary development safer for humanity? Levels of complexity and emergence - networks of interacting stuff. Educating our kids - to specialise or generalise? To teach them what to think or to teach them how to think?
Tuesday, April 16, 2002
At James Cafe
with Andrea, Daniela, David, Felix, Hans-Georg, James, Karin, Kuros, Richard
The focus of this evening's discussion was the technological singularity. What is the singularity, and do we believe that it will really happen? The aim of this review, as always, is not to give any answers, but to report on the questions that we asked.
The females in this group were more sceptical of the singularity than the males. Everyone is in agreement that technology is progressing at an ever accelerating pace. But can any amount of technological progress create a machine which is truly intelligent and self-conscious? Maybe females tend to be sceptical because they are more feeling driven and AI is counter-intuitive. Society will no doubt be quick to accept AI as soon as robots start swarming everywhere. On the other hand, it was suggested that A.I. is merely the male form of penis envy. This psychological theory says that females are jealous of the superior male intelligence. Maybe males are jealous of the potential for superhuman intelligence.
We also considered whether or not singularities have occurred in the past. Evolution does tend to progress in spurts, not continuously. Would a prehistoric human be fundamentally incapable of following our conversations? And will there be more singularities in the future. Maybe future singularities will continue to converge into one large super-singularity?
What will life be like post-singularity? Are there fundamental limits to how intelligent an intelligence can be? Can a brain the size of a large planet (a Jupiter Brain) be more intelligent than us, or just faster? Or is it not worth considering post-singularity because it will be beyond anything we are capable of imagining?
Is it possible to exist in a state of pure conscious intelligence without any human or animal drives and instincts. What drives will a transhuman have? There will certainly be no need for sex. Or thirst or hunger. Will there be a drive to expand, to continue to evolve?
To what extent is each of us prepared to meddle with our own brains? Would we take a pill if it would increase our IQ by 10 points? Would we be prepared to upload our own minds into a computer? Is this equivalent to dying?
Tuesday, April 2, 2002
At Blaues Haus
with Eugen, James, Richard
Just a small group this week. The topics of discussion were: transhumanism and transhumanist politics. We are afraid that some branches of the transhumanist movement are becoming too religious and fanatical. The singularitarians, in particular, are building up a large following whilst promoting ideas which are mostly just nonsense. Is transhumanism, or singularitarianism, in danger of becoming the new scientology? We considered what transhumanism really is and how it relates to humanism.
Also discussed: the future of gadgets - your mobile phone, digital camera, and GPS will all become one. It will be possible to know exactly where your friends are and to see what they are up to at anytime (provided you have each other in your "trusted friends list"). Nanobots: how realistic is it to expect that in the future we will inject into our blood streams nanotech robots which mechanically clear cholesterol from the arteries?
Other topics in brief: how the internet has become an essential commodity, much like running water or electricity. Will the future be electronic or genetically re-engineered biology?
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
At Blaues Haus
with Eugen, James, Richard
This evening our discussion focussed on computer simulations of biology. Simulation is a very useful tool for understanding how things work. We started off discussing simulations of single proteins. There is lots of research going on in this field as it is helpful in discovering new medicines. We then talked about the simulation of complete living cells. We considered whether or not a simulation has just as much right to be called "real". Is a simulated cell still a cell? Does a simulated cell really exist? This is quite a deep philosophical question and I don't think we came to any definate conclusions. Then we moved on to the question of simulating an entire human mind. Could a simulation of a human mind be considered a real human mind? What is the difference between reality and simulation? Would a simulated human, contained within a simulated world, know that he/she was a simulation? How do we know that we ourselves are not simulations right now? This, of course, is very reminiscent of sci-fi films such as The Matrix and The 13th Floor.
We again pondered what level of simulation is required to recreate a mind. Do we need to simulate every single atom, or would a simulation at the level of neurons suffice? And once we do manage to simulate an entire mind, what comes next? A simulation can be frozen, and the data transmitted across vast distances (inter-galactic), and then recreated at its destination. This could be a means of transporting a mind across the universe. Another thing we considered: a simulation can be set to run much faster than reality - provided sufficient computing power is available. If a simulated human experiences time 1 million times faster than us real humans, then the simulated population will also be able to evolve much faster than us. Thus it will take no time at all before the simulated population becomes smarter than us and they break out of their boxes and over-run us. We will become as unimportant to the advanced simulants, as worms are unimportant to us.
Later discussions involved artificial-life software, cellular automata, and intelligent software agents. As usual, this was just my interpretation of the evenings discussion. I was very tired that night, so I probably missed loads of stuff, or interpreted it wrong.
Tuesday, March 19, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Christoph, Daniela, Eugen, James, Karsten, Michael
This week's discussion started off on the topic of Nanotechnology. What is nanotech, how advanced is the technology right now, and what will be its applications in the future? Karsten described his vision of dust-eating nanomachines which will keep our houses clean. Is such a vision practical? How do we stop the nanobots from eating the furniture aswell as the dust? We also questioned the wisdom of building nanomachines which are capable of self-replication - the doomsday slime scenario.
It was generally agreed that the main benefit of nanotech will be as an enabling technology. It will enable us to build smaller, cheaper, and less power-hungry computers. This, in turn, is one enabling factor the development of true artificial intelligence. Also discussed was the possiblity of scanning the location of every atom in a Ceasar Salad, or a living brain, and saving this data to a file. The data could then be used by some kind of nanotech "printer" which would print out an exact copy of the original salad/brain. It was noted that salads and brains are dynamic systems, so scanning and printing them is akin to pressing the "Stop" and "Play" buttons on reality.
We spent a lot of time discussing what level of detail is required in order to make an exact copy of a living brain. Do we need to scan the location and energy level of every single atom, or would it sufice just to analyse the size and shape of each neuron and its synapses? At what level is the crucial information stored? The conversation then developed into one of our recurring themes - namely, layers of complexity and how they emerge from one another.
Roughly the second half of the evening was spent with the topic of privacy and the threat from "Big Brother". In Germany it is a legal requirement that all people should carry ID when outside of their own home. Is this an infringment of freedom and human rights? Of course it is. Also, why should travel between first world countries be restricted? Why does an Englishman or a German require a visa to travel to America or Australia? Each of us is a citizen of planet Earth, not just one particular country. We also considered what information is being collected as we go about our daily lives. And to what extent should this information be shared? Should we allow video footage from spy cameras in the railway station to be shared and combined with footage from inside a department store? Should we allow this recording of our physical movements be cross-referenced with our medical history and bank details? And does all this really matter anyway?
Tuesday, March 12, 2002
At Blaues Haus
with Andrew, Eugen, James, Karsten, Vera
The discussion this evening focussed on the possible threat of a rogue Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) taking over the world. There exists a small group of people who call themselves "The Singularitarians". They are working to create a smarter-than-human intelligence. They believe that human-level A.I. will arrive within our lifetimes. If it does arrive, what threat will this technology pose to humanity? Do we need rules and regulations to keep this research in check? Human cloning and genetic research is stringently controlled, can similar laws be enforced on A.I.? Or is A.I. beyond our powers of control, in the same way that digital copyright is practically un-enforcable.
There is the danger that a highly intelligent A.I. may run amok, much like a computer virus, but in a physical form. It could replicate exponentially and devour all matter around it - including buildings, plants, humans, and the very earth itself. This is the doomsday scenario. Alternatively, compassion and empathy may be fundamental requirements of any entity before it can be classed as intelligent. We discussed, "what are the fundamental components of intelligence and consciousness?".
The second half of our evening was spent considering what life will be like post-transhuman singularity. Humans have come through the Stone Age and the Industrial Revolution. We are currently in the beginning of the Information Age. What comes next? The Intelligence/Consciousness Age? Is it possible to be more conscious than we already are?
Another angle: Molecules of DNA are more complex than single atoms. Our brains are more complex than the single biological cells from which they are made. What is the next level of complexity beyond our brains and our consciousness? Has this next level already evolved? We considered that there may already be another level, but one that we're unaware of. In much the same way as individual cells in our bodies are not aware of the body as a whole. Maybe humans are already a part of some kind of global super-intelligence.
Towards the end of the evening, as alcohol took effect, we considered other topics: what is the future of the male/female polarity? As we enter the singularity males and females will become indistinguishable - that is the definition of "singularity", afterall. Post-singularity there will be a diversification once more. Also discussed: the wisdom of marrying someone not of the same nationality. And the differences in social behaviour between Americans and Europeans.
Tuesday, March 5, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Andrea, Caroline, Eugen, Hans-Georg, James, Karsten, Kuros, Susan, Veronique
There were quite a few newcomers this week. Welcome to everyone! So much of the evening was spent on introductions and explaining the philosophy of the group. Unfortunately this meant that the actual discussions were less focussed and more fragmented than usual.
Some of the more interesting topics covered were as follows: Should mankind pour its money and effort into space exploration or should we prefer to fight wars? This week a group of scientists claimed to have used sonoluminescence to trigger nuclear fusion - is this just another cold fusion hoax, or is it this time a reality? What is the likelyhood of a devastating asteroid impact on Earth? Will this happen within our lifetimes and should we worry about it? Is America right to believe that they are the most important country in the world? Can Europe compete as a dominant force in world politics?
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
At Stadt Cafe
with Andrea, Christian, Daniela, Eugen, James, Karsten, Kuros
Eugen and Kuros started off discussing the latest developments in femtosecond optoelectronic switching and crystaline computing substrates. Daniela then arrived and posed the question, "what is this group trying to achieve?". A very good question. Do we know the answer yet? I think the concensus view is that we simply aim to exist. And whilst we're existing we're also going to have some fun. Another aim, at least for me personally, is to raise awareness that humanity is currently undergoing some very profound changes.
The biggest change to this century will be the realisation of true artificial intelligence. We then discussed how this will allow individuals to live forever. It will be possible to preserve and copy human minds just as if they were files on a computer. Daniela noted that all cells in the human body are recycled once every 7 years (or something like that). This demonstrates the point that we, including our brains and minds, are not the physical matter of which we are made. Instead we are simply "patterns" of matter. The matter is in constant flux, but the pattern it forms is steady. This pattern can be analysed and reproduced - i.e. a mind can be copied.
We then worried about whether the future will be good or bad. Karsten pointed out that popular sci-fi films usually portray humanoid/cyborgs as being disgusting Frankenstein-type creatures. This is unlikely to be the case in reality. Kuros and Daniela seem to fear that robots will take over and destroy us. I disagree (see previous discussions).
Other topics in brief: Surveillance cameras are evil. Kuros and James discovered that they both habitually avoid the ATM cameras by putting their hand over the lens or looking away whilst withdrawing cash. Kuros was also very alarmed recently to find that he was being filmed whilst travelling inside a bus. Television is evil (the death of a nation etc.). Exactly half of us present in this group don't have a TV. This is undoubtedly not representive of the general population. The death penalty is evil. How can modern and supposedly civilised countries still have state-sponsored murder? A quick survey revealed that nobody in this group supports capital punishment. Biometrics are evil. Why should I have to endure an iris or fingerprint scan simply in order to board a plane? September 11th or no September 11th, biometrics pose a very serious threat to civil liberties.
As usual, there's probably loads of other stuff which I've forgotten.
Tuesday, February 12, 2002
with James, Karsten, Kuros
The evening started off discussing the relationship between mathematics and reality. Which came first? Is the universe built out of pure mathematics or is mathematics simply a tool used by humans to describe the universe? Related to this was also a dicussion about Goedels famous incompleteness theorems.
The general theme of the evening was that everything that will happen in the future has already been predicted by Stanislaw Lem. Karsten brought a copy of Lem's book "Summa Technologiae" to the meeting and proceeded to demonstrate that all predictions have indeed already been made. Apparently Lem even predicted the internet back in 1964. Although now, at the age of 80 (or so), he doesn't approve of the way the internet has developed - what with pornography and over-commercialisation, etc. This led us into a discussion of the good versus the evil of the internet. Which then developed into a discussion about evolution (as our discussions always do).
Finally, we ended up talking about the philosophy of economics and the relationship between monetary value and real value. I've probably forgotten loads of other stuff - the beer and cocktails went to my head a bit.
Tuesday, February 5, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with James, John, Karsten
Evolution - a common theme in our discussions.
The conversation this week was prompted by the recent news that human evolution has ceased.
Apparently there are no selective
pressures any more and modern medicine allows even the unfittest of people to survive.
At least this is the view of
biologists at the University of Washington.
We, however, unanimously disagreed with this sentiment. The human genome is still subject to random mutations,
and there are still selective pressures in place to weed out the least successful. Anyway, even if
biological evolution is slowing, we are now moving into an age where our evolution is technological,
biology is playing an ever minor role. Future humans
will merge with non-biological machines as well as incorporating genetically engineered
customisations which will make us not only a non-human species, but an indistinct,
highly diverse society of loosely defined intelligent beings. Those that refuse to adapt
will suffer the consequences of irrelevance.
Another looney prediction this week came from Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, at the
World Economic Forum in New York. He claims that the future is grim and that humans will be taken
over by robots. Of course, we unanimously disagreed with this opinion too. What Sir Martin completely
fails to realise is that humans will not be taken over, instead humans will *become* the robots.
It's just a process of evolution. The future will be neither good nor bad, it will just be. Maybe
the astronomer should stick to peering down his telescopes rather than scare-mongering the general
public with half-baked ideas.
Other topics this week: will it ever be possible to produce a decent scotch whisky without having to age
it in an oak barrel for at least 10 years? Answer: probably not. Ideas for the next big dot.com startup
- lastminuteparties.com - for people in Munich (and indeed any city) to organise last minute
nights out. I'm sure there was some other stuff too that I forgot.
Tuesday, January 29, 2002
At Schwabing Augustiner
with Eugen, James, John
Eugen and James started off discussing the lastest status of the C. Elegans brain uploading project (minduploading.org). Apparently significant process is being made in setting up the infrastructure - there is now a good source of micrographs and the software tools for the mapping of neurons are being developed.
John then joined us and we switched to his area of professional expertise which is voice recognition and natural language processing. It is likely that within only 3 to 5 years or so all call-center human operators will be replaced with artificially intelligent answering machines.
Eugen moved us back to his favourite topic of the moment which is using self-replicating space probes to dissassemble planets and create a distributed cloud of energy harvesters around a star. These probes continue to replicate throughout the galaxy, just like bacteria in a petri-dish. Far-fetched, but an interesting idea and worth bearing in mind.
The tail end of the evening was spent on less heavy-weight questions such as the origin of the Australian accent and the most common causes of airplane crashes.
Tuesday, January 22, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Eugen, Karsten, Lars
Discussion started off as a kind of continuation from last week. Questions asked were: is there life out there, has the universe already been engineered, have the galaxies perhaps been modified by intelligent beings? These ideas are termed "astroengineering".
The observation was then made that the 20th century can be divided into two parts: the first half consisting linear technological development, the second half becoming exponential. Obviously the 21st century is very exponential and there's no stopping it. Are you holding on? Because we're in for a ride! In the future, war and diseases will be of minor importance in comparison to the accelerating pace of technology.
The discussion finished with the topic of mind-uploading. In the future your personality will be immortal because it will be possible to upload it to a computer. It will be backed up and copied just like files on a computer.
Tuesday, January 15, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Frank, Eugen, James, Karsten, Lars
The first part of the evening was again spent discussing the purpose of this group. We've been meeting for 4 months and still don't know exactly why. There is a purpose, and we all know what it is, but we've yet to articulate the exact philosophy. This will take time and still requires the input from a more diverse array of people. The most obvious bias in the group is it's all maleness. This needs to be remedied before we can be accepted as something more than a cult for oddball geeks - which we are definately not. We're open to all newcomers, but particularly internationally minded people who care for the future of humankind.
The core of the evening was devoted to Lars' main area of professional expertise, namely space exploration. We talked about the economic value of space exploration. Is there a real purpose in sending a man to Mars, or will we go there "just because it's there"? The conversation then progressed into Eugen's area of interest which is "panspermea" (is that the right word?). This basically means colonising the galaxy, and indeed the Universe, though small self-replicating probes. These probes act as seeds and pave the way for long range colonisation of space by transhumanly evolved life forms.
Tuesday, January 8, 2002
At Schwabinger Augustiner
with Eugen, James, Karsten, Lars
This week Eugen, James, Karsten and Lars met in the Schwabinger Braustuben - a beer hall in the center of Schwabing. The early part of the evening was spent discussing the lack of females in this little group of ours - i.e. why are there none? We theorised that there are probably just ten women in the whole world who are followers of transhumanism. So proportionally the number of transhumanist women in Munich should be zero. Is this an accurate estimate? Can anyone out there prove us wrong?
Eugen brought along this week's copy of Science journal. We were generally agreed that Science's choice for the most significant acheivement of 2001 was correct. They chose carbon nanotube electronics. There's little doubt that in the near future nano-scale electronics are going to be big.
Karsten then dominated the converstation with his favourite topic of the moment. He is still trying to understand the general laws which govern edge-of-chaos ermergent phenomenon. Eugen again pointed to Stephen Wolfram and said that these laws probably exist but no-one has discovered them yet. Personally I don't see any urgent need for laws governing complex emergence. As far as I am concerned objects in the real world behave according to a few simple rules. The interaction of these rules upon zillions of objects causes patterns of behaviour. These patterns, in turn, interact according to other simple rules. You can't predict the exact details of what will happen in the world, but you can observe the patterns and use them to make estimations.
The latter half of the evening was spent discussing the potential for Transhumanist politics. Would the world be a better place if todays politicians were educated in the ways of Transhumanism? We like to think so. Lars wasn't particularly impressed with this idea. But the rest of us were, and we believe it will happen. Eventually.
The final topic covered was Swiss politics. However, by this stage of the evening I was drunk and tired and had lost interest. So the log will have to end here.
Tuesday, December 18, 2001
with Eugen, James, Karsten, Frank, Hans-Georg
This week Eugen, Frank, Hans-Georg, Karsten, and James met at Hofer - a traditional German beer hall just off Marienhof. Sabine, a journalist from the Frankfurter Allgemeine was also present and listened in on our discussions. It seems that Sabine's presence motivated everybody to try and sound intelligent.
Hans-Georg, being a newbie to the group, spent the first part of the evening filling us in on his background. He fascinated us all with stories of his 1977 East German escape and subsequent airborne safari travels through the African sub-continent. Welcome to Hans-Georg!
Most of the evening was then spent in argument over how true artificial intelligence will be achieved. Without trying to sound disparaging of his views, it seems that Hans-Georg is a member of the AI old skool. He believes that human-level AI will naturally emerge as soon as computers achieve a processing power equivalent to the human brain. He suspects that this level will be reached in 10 years. Once computers have the requisit processing power they will be able to emulate intelligence through brute-force computation, including natural language. Eugen and James countered this by claiming that an increase in computational power alone is not enough. Instead a whole new computational paradigm is required. This computational paradigm will involve the building of hardware with a physical structure modelled on natural nervous systems. As is often the case in philosophical debate, boths sides of the argument have elements of truth.
Motivated by his discovery this week of Edward Fredkin's new website (digitalphilosophy.org)
Eugen then steered the conversation in the direction of digital philosophy. This is a philosophy championed by the afore mentioned Fredkin, and separately by Stephen Wolfram (stephenwolfram.com). I got the impression that, fascinating as it is, nobody in this group is particularly impressed with this philosophy - I know that I'm not (although I reserve the right to change my mind at any moment). The trouble seems to be that digital philosophy is nothing more than a theory. Each of us is more interested in real experimental results which can be used to improve our quality of life (we're talking transhumanism here, by the way).
Out of the digital philosophy conversation grew a discussion about complexity and emergence. It sounds like these topics are still troubling our Karsten. He suspects that there is something missing in our understanding of emergence. As an engineer by training, I think he is searching for a way to engineer emergence.
Frank has mentioned that he'd like to discuss two topics, namely the Segway scooter and the rebirth of the World Transhumanist Association. I'm not sure whether these topics were covered this evening. If so then I missed them. Otherwise we should schedule them for the next meeting which will be in the new year.
That's all for 2001 folks!
Tuesday, December 11, 2001
At Red Sax
with Eugen, James, Karsten
This week Eugen, James, and Karsten met in Red Sax, a music bar just off Marienhof. Despite looking quite enticing from the outside this is actually quite a low class joint. The drinks card only has one single malt whisky (no guesses, yes, it's Glenfiddich). So we shan't be going there again, except perhaps in an emergency.
Although this little group of ours has been meeting regularly since September, it was only this week that we decided to discuss what we actually want to achieve together. We concluded that the purpose of the group is simply to exist, and to keep existing.
How's that for an anthropic principle? We also decided that we should timebox the topics of discussion. This is so that we can cover a few topics in depth rather than ping-pong balling across the surface of many topics in quick succession. From now on we will try to contain the meetings within the following general structure: ~half-an-hour - weekly news exchange; ~one hour - one or two topics in depth; remainder - free for all.
One member of the group will act as moderator to ensure this structure is maintained. A weblog of the discussions will also be created. Welcome to the Weblog! Finally, it was agreed that we should stick with the name "Munich Futurists". At least until we think of something better. In the meantime, we'll just have to hope that nobody confuses us for early 20th century Italian artists.
The second main topic this week was one introduced by Karsten. He has been reading the book "Complexity" (Mitchell Waldrop, 1992), and he is now a hardcore advocate of the theory of increasing returns. Apparently everything in the world can be explained by exponentially evolving snowballs. Of course, an evening could not be complete without at least a few musical references, so he then went on to praise the Morpheus file-sharing network and allmusic.com's artist cross-referencing.
Other topics covered included: cat poop coffee (apparently the most expensive coffee in the world), the potential dangers of taking/manufacturing/supplying MDMA, Karsten's get-rich-quick database-enabled real-estate scheme, and YETI@HOME. Finally, the discussion descended into a drunken argument over the relative merits of the open-source movement. I could discern no point or conclusion to this argument.