Arkuat gives you the inside scoop on the "Spiritual
Machines" panel and conclave. Wacky excitement ensues!
[Last Saturday (4/1/2000) a group of people at Stanford University came
together to discuss a recent article by
Bill Joy in W I R E D magazine ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us", April 2000).
The article discusses some of the difficult ethical questions that new
technology is bringing. And by "new technology," I don't mean computers and
cell phones: they're talking about nanotech, AI, and all the other crazy sci-fi
stuff that is bringing us to "The Singularity."
Pigdoggers Arkuat and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine headed to the conference,
and Arkuat submits this excellent report. Beaujolais! --Mr. Bad]
Okay, apparently Doug Hofstadter
set this whole thing up, and he did a great job moderating. He invited a bunch
of prickly egomaniacs, and managed to extract some useful information from them
in public without allowing any murder or mayhem to be committed.
I think Ray
Kurzweil opened. I don't really understand Kurzweil very well, to tell you
the truth, but he seemed to be trying to soothe people into comfortable
acceptance of the notion of using prostheses that are your intellectual
("spiritual", even!) equals or superiors. "How to Keep and Hire Ueberdaemon
Godlings for your Domestic Help without getting Eaten by Cthulhu" or something.
Hans Moravec got up and tried to
soothe people likewise, mostly be telling them how in ten years there would be
a robot to do their vacuuming, and one to load and unload the dishwasher just
five years after that. Gene kept muttering "Heil Hans! Heil Hans!" in my ears,
excitedly, throughout Moravec's presentation.
got up and explained how back when he was busy trying to keep tabs on the moves
of the research departments of Oracle and Microsoft and IBM, he didn't worry
about this stuff because he assumed Moore's Law would hit a ceiling at about
three or four atoms per transistor. With computational performance stuck
there, he didn't think biotech/nanotech/robotics would get out of control. But
a physicist friend of his apparently informed him in detail of a technique
(which I don't yet have even the vaguest understanding of, myself) that would
extend the progress of Moore's law one-million-fold (yes, six orders of
magnitude) beyond where Joy had pegged the ceiling. This, he claims, suddenly
made the prospect of full-speed development of biotech/nanotech/robotics far
too frightening leading him and his buddies to call for an application of the
brakes. He even called for a "relinquishment" of nanotechnological
Ralph Merkle got up and pointed out that
you could relinquish published research in democratic societies all you wanted
to, but that wouldn't do much to prevent secret research, and particularly
secret research in undemocratic nations, going forward full speed ahead. It
started looking like a classic Teller vs. Oppenheimer moment (mostly because
Joy had commented on Oppenheimer's career at length). Merkle also claimed that
in order to make informed and effective public policy decisions, policymakers
should be exposed to as many results of early research in nanotechnology as
possible, to minimize the chances of their making disastrous mistakes. Merkle
did a good job of presenting the Foresight
Institute party line in this one... forewarned is forearmed, if this stuff
is dangerous, then the more we learn about it in advance, the better, etc etc
Holland and his student John Koza, the initial
genetic-algorithms, or genetic-synaptic-weighting of artificial neural network
"synapses" (which is probably how the golems will be grown, ultimately, yes)
seemed to be the token conservatives. They kept emphasizing how remarkable and
poorly understood and incredibly powerful animal nervous systems (including
human brains) are, and tried to soothe the audience by denying that
human-equivalent machines were going to be available anytime before 2100 at
showed some nice slides about the most economical designs for very-large
ground-based radio telescopes. Don't even ask me what this has to do
with spiritual robots, but I guess Hofstadter had the idea that the only thing
that could compete with spiritual robots in the Materialist Weirdness front
would be Ay-leenZ, and so they had to be worked in there somewhere for extra
color or something.
Kevin Kelley also did an
"upbeat" piece, asserting that "replacement" was just the wrong way to think
about this stuff, and that we would rather be "symbiotic" with the pheared new
challengers. Stewart Brand later
fed him a few softball questions from the audience. It made me wonder why these
people, who have done some brilliant work, are wasting their time on their
current "Clock of the Long Now"
masturbatory shenanigans. I suspect that the orbits of the Earth, Moon, Mars,
etc will continue to be keeping good time long after their vaunted clock has
fallen into disrepair, though I'm still not sure where they are planning to
locate the thing. Even after we disassemble the various large bodies of the
solar system for spare parts (and probably the Clock with them), the nearby
pulsars will still provide excellent time for gigayears. But this is all beside
the point, and has nothing to do with Spiritual Robots either. I just wanted to
comment yet again on my continuing incredulity on the vagaries that age-related
mental decline can induce in members of my species.
A couple of times someone in the audience tried to ask why there were no
non-materialists on the panel (though they usually asked this much less
succinctly, rambling about God and summarizing a few idealistic metaphysical
theories instead or asking why the Dalai Lama or the Pope wasn't up there too).
Hofstadter's reply (paraphrased rather brutally) was "Yeah, there are no
non-materialists on this panel because I planned it that way. Next question?"
After Moravec and Kurzweil and Merkle had combined to make Bill Joy extremely
uncomfortable and upset (Merkle seemed to think that Joy was dangerously insane
and irresponsible, and Joy seemd to think that Merkle was dangerously insane
and irresponsible), Hofstadter closed by posing a question to Moravec about
whether it would be so terrible if human beings really were replaced by their
memetic offspring, and then read a quote from a Moravec interview (I wish I had
it handy, because it was beautifully phrased, but I don't... perhaps Gene can
find it?) to the effect that getting replaced by the progeny of your mind would
be much less of an evolutionary failure than stagnating as an unchanging,
"stuck" species for billions of years would. The latter, he said, would be the
real failure. Moravec just said that he still stood by his earlier reply, and
the crowd broke out into vigourous applause while Bill Joy looked slightly
puzzled and very indignant.