Whispers & Screams
And Other Things

If You Can't Beat Em Join Em

Yesterday evening (Pacific Time), while we in Europe were tucked up in our dreams, Elon Musk hosted a press conference for one of his most exciting ventures yet. The organisation is called Neuralink and its stated aim is to develop implantable brain-machine interfaces.

Those who are aware of Mr Musks previous statements in this field will know that he has been a vocal Cassandra when it comes to the fate of mankind against the rise of the machines. Indeed for the imaginative among us it doesn't take too much of a leap to envisage a future where hyper capable and mechanised super intelligences are able to see our flesh and blood existence as nothing more than a primitive curiosity to be regarded perhaps at the level of a pet.

So when I heard about the press conference and the hubbub that its announcement had aroused in the cognoscenti press my own curiosity was thoroughly piqued. You see, since I myself began to muse about this potentially existential threat to mankind I have always seen it as a distraction as I have felt that the process of human augmentation, who's origins can be traced as far back as Long John Silver, would be the future where any 'rise of the machines' would carry us with them. Indeed it is more likely that, if we are to seek out a dystopian slant on this discussion, the horror future would be one where augmented humanity (wealth) and vanilla humanity (poverty) were at odds with each other.

Notwithstanding the philosophical discussions however, the announcement last night, as is so often the case, has proven to be a lot less than the aficionados predicted and a lot more than the sceptics expected. The company (Neuralink) appears to be making solid progress albeit not in human bodies. Indeed Mr Musk himself appeared to blurt out to the chagrin of the scientists around him that they had successfully tested their tech in a monkey. Putting aside my own personal misgivings about trialling these things on unsuspecting lab rats or monkeys, this would appear to be pretty significant news. If we are to take the claims at face value, the technology has now been proven in principle and we should not underplay the significance of this revelation.

Science has been integrating tech with flesh and bone for decades but it is the incursion into the last bastion of the unexplored, the human brain that makes this so important. We need only look at the global attention that has been given to The Human Brain Project to understand the way this captures our attention. Neuroscientists have been studying for years to understand the workings of the supercomputers we all carry around with us and in connecting machines to our brains we would seem to be a whole lot closer to that day. Questions of the nature of consciousness and the existential nature of what we may call our identity or soul fly around the perimeters of this discussion but at its heart lies the notion that our bodies and indeed our brains are chemical machines and when we can understand the systems in action we can begin to harness them and make them work to our greater good (and bad).

Mr Musk has announced that he and his company of pioneering scientists intend to place their systems into a human in 2020 and this if accomplished will indeed be a day that will go down in history for the long term. So we wait and we watch. A world now used to the headlong nature of progress will perhaps be wowed once again as science takes us to new heights. The future is ours to shape and as with any new technology in the hands of us human apes it will not be a question of what the technology CAN do that will be the measure of the science but rather what we as a species CHOOSE to do with it. Lets hope we're up to the challenge.

Neuralink website here

Livestream of event here

Much more here

 

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The Rise Of The Machines

One of the hot topics of the twenty teenies that was totally expected is the examination surrounding the ways in which AI or artificial intelligence will affect our lives and most specifically how AI will affect our jobs. For decades now, celebrated authors from Asimov to Zelazny have used robotics and AI as a key thread around which to weave a story.

That it is prominent in the public consciousness is in no doubt but in recent years as science fiction has slowly begun to become science fact, it is how this technology threatens to directly affect us that has become the core of the discussion. Unsurprisingly the kernel of that discussion has been how it will affect our bank balance and it is here that the real story lies in terms of how the fragile and unweildy human psyche copes against the agile and indefatigable machine.

To properly begin to understand this subject it is important to establish a rather obvious but sometimes surprising baseline. Ever since man discovered the flint and invented the wheel, technology has been changing our lives irrevocably. Its a track we have been travelling for millennia and, as the changes have affected our societies, we've adapted accordingly. Sure there's some tech we'd probably like to have not invented such as the nuke but even that thought is surrounded by controversy as it's by no means certain that we wouldn't still be embroiled in the Second World War if it hadn't been made. Its important therefore to accept that all of the tech in our world today has made the world what it is today and very few of us would seek to go back to a subsistence agrarian and feudal societal model with all its attendant drudgery and disease. Yes we have unemployment in modern society but it is rarely helpless unemployment and by learning new skills, the individual can once again find a foothold in the employment market.

This, in my opinion, is the key fact regarding AI and robots. It's manifest human nature to believe that everything that has gone before was somehow different but the crisis yet to come will change everything because of its uniqueness. The laughable fact that the British during the reign of Queen Victoria believed that they had invented everything testifies to that sentiment.

Looking at more contemporary disruption such as the invention of the tractor and the factory robot, its clear to see that whilst jobs have obviously disappeared, others have emerged. It is probably fair to expect that this model which has been the reality for millennia will continue to apply. As our economies develop increasingly technological foundations the need for unskilled human labour will continue to diminish however will not necessarily end. The slightly disturbing concept of meatware which is used to describe humans doing menial tasks that are not able to be done more economically by robots has come into the dictionary. Notwithstanding this unfortunate niche, society will continue to develop as its technology does. 

The key in all of this is the adaptability and indeed the ability of the individual to adapt and learn new and increasingly complex skills. This, if anywhere is where the drawbridge may be pulled up on certain sections of society. AI may well have already arrived. Of that there is no doubt however autonomous AI which can continue to operate with no intervention from humans for decades or indeed indefinitely is still a long way off. This is where the future human workforce will ply its trade and it was ever thus. 

Another interesting area which opens up as a result of this discussion topic is that of human robotic augmentation. It may well be the destiny of the human race to slowly mechanise using increasingly powerful technological assistance which will gradually find social acceptance in its integration into our bodies. This may present us with enough of an edge that we can continue to compete with advancing technology or to some it may be the thin end of a terrible wedge which will find us all as barely conscious semi automata, trapped in a body that is not really ours and connected to the hive mind forever. 

The future is coming whether we like it or not and we cannot uninvent that which we have invented. Even the heavily regulated field of human embryonic manipulation is never at a standstill but rather is always creeping forward as taboos slowly dissipate over time. The ratchet of progress can go only one way and it never really stops. As a species we are masters of this planet because of our enormous ability to adapt and overcome the most difficult of environments and it is this core human skill which will be our greatest asset in the decades to come. If we cannot then the social upheaval may well become the biggest influencer regarding our future. Discrepancies of wealth and opportunity in societies are rarely allowed to exist for long and usually end explosively and it may well be therefore that the surest way for humanity to survive is to assure a certain minimum living standard for all as we pivot to a new model where ones ability to earn a living becomes less important. There are many possible futures out there and, as has always been the case, many are terrible and many are not. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera...

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