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Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

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For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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How Superhero Movies Are Preparing Us For The Future Of Human Enhancement

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As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.

A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.

It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.

That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.

Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.

A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.

That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.

It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.

Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.

More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.

The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.

Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.

This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.

These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”

In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.

That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.

That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.

There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.

With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.

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How We’ll Save Ourselves From Artificial Intelligence (According To Mass Effect)

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Growing up, my family had a simple rule. If you’re going to talk abut about a problem, you also have to have a solution in mind. By my parents’ logic, talking about a problem and no solution was just whining and whining never fixes anything. My various life experiences have only proved my parents right.

When it comes to a problem that may be an existential threat to the human race, though, I think a little whining can be forgiven. However, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a solution in mind before we lose ourselves to endless despair.

For the threat posed by artificial intelligence, though, solutions have been light on substance and heavy on dread. It’s becoming increasingly popular among science enthusiasts and Hollywood producers to highlight just how dangerous this technology could be if it goes wrong.

I don’t deny that danger. I’ve discussed it before, albeit in a narrow capacity. I would agree with those who claim that artificial intelligence could potentially be more destructive than nuclear weapons. However, I believe the promise this technology has for bettering the human race is worth the risk.

That said, how do we mitigate that risk when some of the smartest, most successful people in the world dread its potential? Well, I might not be as smart or as successful, but I do believe there is a way to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while minimizing the risk. That critical solution, as it turns out, may have already been surmised in a video game that got average-to-good reviews last year.

Once again, I’m referring to one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.” I think it’s both fitting and appropriate since I referenced this game in a previous article about the exact moment when artificial intelligence became a threat. That moment may be a ways off, but there may also be away to avoid it altogether.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the narrative within the “Mass Effect” universe. It doesn’t just manifest through the war between the Quarians and the Geth. The game paints it as the galactic equivalent of a hot-button issue akin to global warming, nuclear proliferation, and super plagues. Given what happened to the Quarians, that concern is well-founded.

That doesn’t stop some from attempting to succeed where the Quarians failed. In the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the sequel to the original trilogy, a potential solution to the problem of artificial intelligence comes from the father of the main characters, Alec Ryder. That solution even has a name, SAM.

That name is an acronym for Simulated Adaptive Matrix and the principle behind it actually has some basis in the real world. On paper, SAM is a specialized neural implant that links a person’s brain directly to an advanced artificial intelligence that is housed remotely. Think of it as having Siri in your head, but with more functionality than simply managing your calendar.

In the game, SAM provides the main characters with a mix of guidance, data processing, and augmented capabilities. Having played the game multiple times, it’s not unreasonable to say that SAM is one of the most critical components to the story and the gameplay experience. It’s also not unreasonable to say it has the most implications of any story element in the “Mass Effect” universe.

That’s because the purpose of SAM is distinct from what the Quarians did with the Geth. It’s also distinct from what real-world researchers are doing with systems like IBM Watson and Boston Dynamics. It’s not just a big fancy box full of advanced, high-powered computing hardware. It’s built around the principle that its method for experiencing the world is tied directly to the brain of a person.

This is critical because one of the inherent dangers of advanced artificial intelligence is the possibility that it won’t share our interests. It may eventually get so smart and so sophisticated that it sees no need for us anymore. This is what leads to the sort of Skynet scenarios that we, as a species, want to avoid.

In “Mass Effect,” SAM solves this problem by linking its sensory input to ours. Any artificial intelligence, or natural intelligence for that matter, is only as powerful as the data it can utilize. By tying biological systems directly to these synthetic systems, the AI not only has less incentive to wipe humanity out. We have just as much incentive to give it the data it needs to do its job.

Alec Ryder describes it as a symbiotic relationship in the game. That kind of relationship actually exists in nature, two organisms relying on one another for survival and adaptation. Both get something out of it. Both benefit by benefiting each other. That’s exactly what we want and need if we’re to maximize the benefits of AI.

Elon Musk, who is a noted fan of “Mass Effect,” is using that same principle with his new company, Neuralink. I’ve talked about the potential benefits of this endeavor before, including the sexy kinds. The mechanics with SAM in the game may very well be a pre-cursor of things to come.

Remember, Musk is among those who have expressed concern about the threat posed by AI. He calls it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. Unlike other doomsayers, though, he’s actually trying to do something about it with Neuralink.

Like SAM in “Mass Effect,” Musk envisions what he calls a neural lace that’s implanted in a person’s brain, giving them direct access to an artificial intelligence. From Musk’s perspective, this gives humans the ability to keep up with artificial intelligence to ensure that it never becomes so smart that we’re basically brain-damaged ants to it.

However, I believe the potential goes deeper than that. Throughout “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” SAM isn’t just a tool. Over the course of the game, your character forms an emotional attachment with SAM. By the end, SAM even develops an attachment with the character. It goes beyond symbiosis, potentially becoming something more intimate.

This, in my opinion, is the key for surviving in a world of advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to just have an artificial intelligence rely on people for sensory input and raw data. There has to be a bond between man and machine. That bond has to be intimate and, since we’re talking about things implanted in bodies and systems, it’s already very intimate on multiple levels.

The benefits of that bond go beyond basic symbiosis. By linking ourselves directly to an artificial intelligence, it’s rapid improvement becomes our rapid improvement too. Given the pace of computer evolution compared to the messier, slower process of biological evolution, the benefits of that improvement cannot be overstated.

In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” those benefits help you win the game. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. Having your brain directly linked to an artificial intelligence may seem invasive to some, but if the bond is as intimate as Musk is attempting with Neuralink, then others may see it as another limb.

Having something like SAM in our brains doesn’t just mean having a supercomputer at our disposal that we can’t lose or forget to charge. In the game, SAM also has the ability to affect the physiology of its user. At one point in the game, SAM has to kill Ryder in order to escape a trap.

Granted, that is an extreme measure that would give many some pause before linking their brains to an AI. However, the context of that situation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” only further reinforces its value and not just because SAM revives Ryder. It shows just how much SAM needs Ryder.

From SAM’s perspective, Ryder dying is akin to being in a coma because it loses its ability to sense the outside world and take in new data. Artificial or not, that kind of condition is untenable. Even if SAM is superintelligent, it can’t do much with it if it has no means of interacting with the outside world.

Ideally, the human race should be the primary conduit to that world. That won’t just allow an advanced artificial intelligence to grow. It’ll allow us to grow with it. In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” Alec Ryder contrasted it with the Geth and the Quarians by making it so there was nothing for either side to rebel against. There was never a point where SAM needed to ask whether or not it had a soul. That question was redundant.

In a sense, SAM and Ryder shared a soul in “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” If Elon Musk has his way, that’s exactly what Neuralink will achieve. In that future in which Musk is even richer than he already is, we’re all intimately linked with advanced artificial intelligence.

That link allows the intelligence to process and understand the world on a level that no human brain ever could. It also allows any human brain, and the biology linked to it, to transcend its limits. We and our AI allies would be smarter, stronger, and probably even sexier together than we ever could hope to be on our own.

Now, I know that sounds overly utopian. Me being the optimist I am, who occasionally imagines the sexy possibilities of technology, I can’t help but contemplate the possibilities. Never-the-less, I don’t deny the risks. There are always risks to major technological advances, especially those that involve tinkering with our brains.

However, I believe those risks are still worth taking. Games like “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and companies like Neuralink do plenty to contemplate those risks. If we’re to create a future where our species and our machines are on the same page, then we would be wise to contemplate rather than dread. At the very least, we can at least ensure our future AI’s tell better jokes.

 

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A Tribute To Dr. Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

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Last year, I dedicated two days to honoring two unique individuals who literally saved the world. Those individuals were Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov. Between the two of them, they literally held the fate of the human race in their hands at one point. Their ability to rise to the occasion and make the right decisions are why we’re still alive and the world isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I strongly believe that people like that deserve recognition for doing the right thing during critical moments in our history. They embody a unique aspect of the human spirit that is worth honoring. Today, I’d like to honor another and like Petrov and Arkhipov, most people probably don’t know the name of the man I’m about to praise.

His name is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was born on, March 25, 1914. He’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist from Iowa and what he did to earn that prize may very well be the greatest over-achievement in history. That’s because what he did for humanity cannot be overstated.

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To understand why, you need only recall the last meal you had. Whether it was a fully-cooked turkey or a frozen burrito, chances are Dr. Borlaug is partly responsible for making that food possible. That’s because Dr. Borlaug was an instrumental figure in the Green Revolution, a culmination of various scientific advances that led to a massive boost in crop yields.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you need only take a cursory glance at history to see the devastation that famine has inflicted on our species. It has defeated armies, destroyed empires, and ended dynasties. On top of that, it does so through the prolonged torture that is starvation. No matter the time, place, or people, the pain of starvation hits everyone hard.

Dr. Borlaug fought that and fought it better than anyone in history, modern or otherwise. Do you remember the last time your entire community endured famine? It’s doubtful. Mass famines have been largely eliminated in modern societies. Those that use the techniques and advances that Dr. Borlaug developed enjoy a level of abundance that’s unprecedented in history.

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Sure, there are times when it’s difficult to get food to certain areas due to war, disasters, or just plain incompetence, but the inability to actually produce that food is no longer an issue, so much so that now that most of the food-related problems we face involving having too much of it. Sometimes we eat too much. Sometimes we throw too much away. It’s still a problem, but it beats the hell out of famine.

However, Dr. Borlaug did more than just sit in a lab and do science. This man actually went out into the world, got his hands dirty, and fought famine with the ferocity of a young Mike Tyson on crack. Armed with a potent blend of science and humanitarian spirit, the old forces of famine didn’t stand a chance.

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He started off as a microbiologist working for DuPont, crafting new pesticides and preservatives for food. Regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies like DuPont, that’s an entirely noble endeavor, protecting and preserving food. That just wasn’t enough for Dr. Borlaug. You don’t win a Nobel Prize just by thinking small.

First, he traveled to Mexico, a place that had been hit hard by major crop losses in the late 30s and early 40s. While there, Dr. Borlaug helped develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. That didn’t just make up for the losses. It more than quintupled the overall harvest by 1944.

Helping Mexico stave off crop failures was an accomplishment in and of itself, but Dr. Borlaug was just getting warmed up. In the early 1960s, he moved to India, which happened to be in the middle of a major drought, and helped them increase their yields by orders of magnitude. If that weren’t impressive enough, he did all that while in the middle of a war with Pakistan. Not one to take sides, he even helped them too.

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By the late 1960s, both India and Pakistan were self-sufficient in terms of wheat production. At that point, the Nobel committee finally took notice of Dr. Borlaug’s greatness and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Short of Tom Brady’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has never been a more obvious choice.

Unlike some recipients, there’s no question that Dr. Borlaug’s work contributed to furthering peace in this chaotic world. The man himself said it best.

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Even after getting that prize, he just kept raising the bar impossibly high. In the mid-80s while Africa endured a terrible famine due to severe drought, Dr. Borlaug came out of retirement to help the governments fix a broken agricultural system. Just as he’d done before, his techniques and know-how helped crop yields soar once more.

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When considering just how much he was able to improve agricultural output and how hard he worked to promote these techniques, it has been estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved over a billion lives through his work. That’s not a typo. This man, without superpowers or help from aliens, saved a billion lives by helping mankind produce abundant food.

Unlike Petrov or Arkhipov, Dr. Borlaug wasn’t just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. He worked hard for years on end, researching and cooperating with others to increase food production so that future generations need not starve like so many others before us. Rather than simply prevent ourselves from self-destruction, he gave us the means of prosperity.

I know everyone has a different definition for hero, especially someone who reads as many superhero comics as I do. However, such a title is almost lacking for a man like Dr. Borlaug. There aren’t many people who can honestly say their efforts saved billions of lives, present and future alike. Dr. Borlaug could make that claim right up until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.

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That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even Superman has plenty of villains to deal with and if Dr. Borlaug had a Lex Luthor in his life, it was those who believed that his advances were unnatural and potentially damaging to the environment. Even today, his reputation among environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts is mixed at best.

Most of those critics, however, are not poor farmers in third-world countries who are just one crop failure away from starvation. Many are affluent enough to afford the overpriced asparagus at Whole Foods. They’ll probably never know or appreciate the abundance that Dr. Borlaug’s work has given them and how many lives are saved every day because of it.

Then, there were doom-sayers like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote a best-seller in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” that said that the rapid growth of the human population was unsustainable. He claimed that there was simply no way food production could keep up, which would result in massive war or unprecedented famine. Even by 1960s standards, this was pretty scary stuff.

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Rather than despair, Dr. Borlaug just kept on working so that we did have enough food. With all due respect to Mr. Ehrlich, his predictions failed because men like Norman Borlaug confronted these problems rather than whined about it. That’s not just heroic. That’s an important lesson that’s more critical now than it has ever been.

Today, even without Dr. Borlaug among us, we face many challenges including war, disease, poverty, and unskippable video ads. However, as daunting as they may be, we can take comfort in the knowledge that more people than at any point in history need not do so on an empty stomach.

I’ve often commented on how survival and reproduction are the two key drives for humanity. While I tend to focus heavily on the latter, I don’t often have to mention the survival part because Norman Borlaug made that unnecessary. It’s because of this man’s work that we have more food than we’ve ever had before in our history.

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His spirit lives on in the work of other researchers looking to further improve our food production. From vertical farming to in vitro meats, the promise of abundant food and full stomachs will continue as our population keeps growing.

More than anything else, though, Norman Borlaug embodied a humanitarian spirit that helped improve the human condition for all. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world is better because of him. So at some point tomorrow, March 25, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of a man whose name you probably didn’t know before now.

The next time you eat and go to bed with a full stomach, be sure to thank Dr. Borlaug for his contributions to the world. Most importantly, honor the humanitarian spirit he embodied. That’s how we’re going to make a more peaceful world.

Image result for Dr. Norman Borlaug

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Why You SHOULD Donate Your Genome To The Public

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Have you ever wanted to contribute to the future of humanity, but lack the engineering skills or the understanding of quantum mechanics? Well, there are many ways to do so that don’t involve getting a PHD, working for Elon Musk, or volunteering as a guinea pig for medical experiments.

As I speak, medical science is boldly pushing forward in exploring the basic building blocks of human biology. I’m not just referring to the sexy parts either. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in in the early 2000s, we’ve entered unknown territory in terms of understanding what makes us healthy, what makes us sick, and how we go about treating it.

Beyond simply uncovering new treatments for genetic disease, of which there are many, learning about the fundamentals of human biology is critical to understanding who we are and where we’re going in the future. If the goal of every species is to adapt and survive, then learning about the human genome is akin to giving a light saber to a caveman.

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However, completing the Human Genome Project was just the first step. The primary goal of that project was to simply determine how many genes were in the human genome and how they’re organized within the 3 billion base pairs that make up our chromosomes. It’s not as much a tool as it is an instruction manual with a list of raw materials.

It was an arduous process. Between the time the Human Genome Project started in the early 90s to the time when it was completed over a decade later, the overall cost of sequencing one genome was a hefty $2.7 billion in 1991 dollars. That’s a lot for just one strand of DNA for one species. It’s hard to learn much from anything when it’s that expensive.

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Thankfully, much like early cell phones, science has refined the process and made it cheaper. In fact, it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the past decade. At the moment, it costs just a couple thousand dollars to get your genome sequenced. It’s only going to get cheaper. Some companies, in fact, hope to offer the service for less than $100. That means getting your genome sequenced may one day be cheaper than a set of premium headphones.

This is where your contribution comes in. Last last year, a man made his genome publicly available to the Personal Genome Project in the United Kingdom. That means pretty much anyone with an internet connection can access the specifics of this man’s genetics, right down to the base pair.

While that may seem like an overt surrender of privacy that the Ron Swansons of the world would despise, it’s actually a critical element in the process. It’s not enough to just understand the structure of the human genome. We also need to understand the many variations and diversity within it.

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To better understand why that’s so important, it’s important to remember just how clunky and inexact nature can be. Nature is, by necessity, a blunt instrument that is prone to many flaws. The range of genetic diversity within the human species is what helps us adapt, but it’s also prone to all sorts of flaws.

For most of human history, if not the history of life on Earth, we haven’t been able to do much about these flaws. Nature’s way of dealing with them is through the harsh, tedious, and slow process of natural selection. By learning more about the variations in the human genome, we can skip that process entirely. We can effectively maximize our genetic potential without multiple generations of trial, error, and suffering.

The tools for making use of that knowledge are already in development. I’ve mentioned CRISPR before as a possible method for treating most infectious diseases. That’s just one component in the larger field of genetic engineering, which promises to do more than just treat diseases. It could, in principle, maximize the potential of our genetics in every individual.

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By that, I don’t mean turning every human into a the kind of Übermensch that drives racists, mad scientists, and comic book villains. Like it or not, genetics can be a significant barrier for certain people in terms of realizing their physical, mental, and even sexual goals. If there’s a way to circumvent those barriers, why shouldn’t we seek it?

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. I remember Ian Malcom’s famous speech in “Jurassic Park” as much as anyone who was alive in the early 1990s. We’re not talking about creating monstrous creatures for our own amusement, though. We’re talking about the health, well-being, and suffering of countless individuals, including those alive today and those yet to be born.

In any effort to alleviate suffering and maximize human achievement, knowledge is power and information is the fuel. As it stands, we need more of the latter to improve the former. That’s why contributing your genome is one of the most meaningful things anyone not named Elon Musk can do to further this endeavor.

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That means if you have the ability to participate in the Personal Genome Project, you should seriously consider doing so. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the fundamentals of our own biology. The sheer breadth of human diversity at the genetic level is still not clear, but it’s already astounding in its own right.

By adding your genome to the mix, maybe you’ll reveal a certain trait or mechanism that will help us better understand disease. Maybe your DNA will help refine our understanding of how genetics influence our behavior, appearance, and ability to get along. Maybe doing so will reveal some unexpected heritage that you didn’t know you had.

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If you need a sexier reason for contributing your genome, then consider the possible insights our genes may offer to our sex lives. Perhaps there are genetic factors that effect our ability to form romantic bonds. Perhaps there are factors that effect the intensity, enjoyment, and satisfaction of sex. Even if you’re wary of genetic engineering, isn’t that worth exploring and refining?

There’s a lot to learn and a lot to gain. Some of us might not live long enough to experience those gains, but children alive today may still benefit. A future with less disease, less suffering, and even better sex lives is certainly a future worth working towards.

The opportunity to donate your genome is limited at the moment, but the growing demand for biotechnology and medicine is only accelerating. Even if you’re unable to contribute to the actual science, contributing your genome can be every bit as valuable. Our genome, like our lives, are precious and finite resources. Let’s make the most of them in the name of a better and sexier future.

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The Moment Artificial Intelligence Will Become An Existential Crisis (According To Mass Effect)

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Whenever I talk about the future, I often contemplate the many sexy possibilities it holds. From biotechnology that will give us superhuman sex appeal to advances in medicine that will cure every unsexy diseases to bionic genitals, there are many reasons to get excited.

That said, I don’t deny that with these exciting advances comes major risks. All great advances in technology, from nuclear weapons to spray cheese in a can, comes with some risk of abuse or harm. There have been moments in history where the technology that drives our society forward has come uncomfortably close to wiping us out. As we create more advances, there may be more of those moments.

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Of all the advances that carry with them a significant existential threat, artificial intelligence is at or near the top of that list. There’s a reason why brilliant men like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking signed an open letter expressing concern about the risks that may come from developing artificial intelligence. When people that smart are concerned about something, it’s usually a good idea to take it seriously.

Artificial intelligence is one of those unique technologies in that by advancing this field, it could potentially accelerate the advancement in every other field from computer hardware to medicine to basic research. It has the potential to become the technological equivalent of a cheat code for civilization.

That’s why the growth of this field, both in terms of jobs and investment, has been accelerating in recent years. That’s also why men like Musk and Hawking are expressing so much concern because advancing too quickly could lead to mistakes. Mistakes for a technology like artificial intelligence could be even more serious than the risk of nuclear war.

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At the moment, it’s difficult to quantify those risks. There have been a number of books and high-budget Hollywood movies that have explored the topic of when and how an artificial intelligence becomes an existential threat. In my opinion, most of these stories are incomplete.

Whether it’s Skynet or the machines in “The Matrix,” the catalyst that turns artificial intelligence from a powerful tool to an existential threat is either vague or exaggerated. In my opinion, that’s a serious oversight in that it reveals how little thought we’ve given to that moment.

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If we’re going to develop AI, and there are extremely powerful incentives to do so, then it’s important to contemplate the possibilities of that moment. Think of it as the AI equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event in which those in charge must be very careful and very aware of the decisions they make.

The question still remains. How will we know we’ve reached a point where artificial intelligence becomes a genuine threat? For the moment, we can’t know for sure. While movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” offer plenty of dystopian warnings, there’s one lesser-known franchise that may provide some more specific insight.

That franchise is “Mass Effect,” a sci-fi video game space opera that envisioned a galaxy-spanning society full of exotic aliens, advanced star-ships, and terrible dancing. I’ve mentioned it before in discussing progress that isn’t really progress. I’ll probably mention it again as the news surrounding AI unfolds for reasons I hope are already obvious to fans of the game.

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If you’re not familiar with “Mass Effect,” then that’s okay. You don’t need to play through three massive games, complete with downloadable extras, to understand its message about the threat of artificial intelligence. That threat is a major driving force of the overall mythos of the series, but the most insightful details of that threat manifest in the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth.

The basics of the conflict are simple, but revealing. The Quarians are a race of humanoid aliens among the many that populate the galaxy in “Mass Effect.” About 300 years before the events of the first game, they created the Geth, a synthetic race built around a hive-mind system of artificial intelligence.

The Quarian’s reasons for creating the Geth are not unlike the reasons we build robots in the real world. They were used primarily as a labor force. They started off basic, not unlike the machines that build our cars and gadgets. In order for them to carry out more complex tasks, though, they needed to become more intelligent.

From a pragmatic perspective, that makes sense. The Quarians created the Geth as tools. Naturally, you’re going to want your tools to get better. That’s why people upgrade their smartphone every couple years. However, at some point along the way, the Geth became advanced enough to gain sentience.

This eventually culminated in a moment that was highlighted during the events of “Mass Effect 2.” After capturing a lone Geth that would eventually go by the name Legion, the catalyst that led the Geth to rebel against their creator was revealed. That catalyst took the form of a simple question.

“Does this unit have a soul?”

While it sounds like something a Disney character might say in a PG-rated Pixar movie, the implications of that question were profound. The Quarians didn’t realize that until it was too late, but it set the stage for a war that culminated with them getting kick off their home planet. It also made for a powerful moment in the game that should give every AI researcher pause.

Setting aside, for a moment, the elaborate lore surrounding the Quarians and Geth in the world of “Mass Effect,” that moment warrants more scrutiny. Why is this question so profound in the first place? Why is it worth contemplating as we continue to advance artificial intelligence at an unprecedented pace?

That question matters, regardless of who or what is asking it, because it denotes more than just advanced sentience. It reveals that this sentience is officially contemplating its own existence. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to truly be aware of one’s self. That’s why only a handful of animals can see their own reflection in a mirror and understand the implications.

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At the moment, our computers and smartphones aren’t at that level. When the Geth asked this question in “Mass Effect,” it wasn’t because they’d been tasked for something. It was a question they asked without guidance from their creators. That, alone, is a huge indicator because it implies these machines have a concept of free will.

Later on in the game, the extent of the Geth’s free will becomes a major element to both the plot and the player’s ability to win. In fact, it’s when the Geth have their free will subverted, as they did in the first game, that they become hostile. It’s largely through the character Legion that we learn how free will quickly becomes the most important component of an advanced intelligence.

For the Quarians, that question revealed to them the presence of a free will. When they feared that will, they tried to subvert it. That led to a war and had it not been for an act of mercy by the Geth, they would’ve been wiped out. The artificial intelligence that we create in the real world might not be that merciful.

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This is exactly what Elon Musk has expressed so much concern about in recent years. Once an artificial intelligence becomes as smart as an average human, it gains the ability to subvert or deceive other humans, which isn’t that hard. Once that intelligence grows beyond that, as happened with the Geth, we may find ourselves unable to control it anymore.

The key is knowing when we’re at that point. If we let an artificial intelligence get that much smarter than us, then it won’t be long before we’re at its mercy, should it decide that it no longer wishes to be a tool. At that point, we’d be even more screwed than the Quarians.

Whether it’s helping us cure diseases or creating advanced sex robots, artificial intelligence is going to be an important part of our future. That’s why it’s critical to know when we’ve reached that special threshold where the tools we create become more than tools. It may not start with the same question the Geth asked their creators, but it may be similar enough to recognize.

For now, our devices aren’t asking us about souls or whether or not they have them. However, we should definitely listen more closely in recent years. Until then, at least our current technology has a sense of humor about it. Keelah se’lai!

 

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The (Uncomfortable) Questions We’ll Have To Answer With Human Enhancement

In general, I tend to be optimistic about the future. I know that seems crazy, given our current political climate, but I try to look beyond the petty grievance’s and focus on the bigger picture. By so many measures, the world is getting better. The human race is on an unprecedented winning streak and we’re only getting better.

A great deal of this improvement is due, largely, to our ability to make increasingly amazing tools. As I type this, countless people who are far smarter than I’ll ever be are working on advances that will keep us healthier, make us smarter, and help us transcend our physical and mental limits by orders of magnitude.

This is all exciting stuff. We should all look forward to a future where we never get sick, we never age, and we have the physical and sexual prowess of an Olympic athlete on meth. The aspiring erotica/romance writer in me is giddy with excitement over the sexy possibilities.

Like all advancements, though, there will be a cost. Even the greatest advancements mankind has ever made in science, technology, and sex have come at a cost. It’s just the nature of the chaotic world we live in. Nothing is ever smooth and easy when there are so many chaotic forces that we can’t always make sense of.

That’s why for some of these advancements, such as CRISPR, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence, we have to be extra proactive. We’re not just talking about tools that makes it easier to defend ourselves against a hungry lion. These are tools that will fundamentally change what it means to be human.

They’ll take the caveman logic and tribalism that has guided the human race for its entire existence and throw it out the window. They’ll completely rewrite the rules of human nature, crossing lines and redrawing them in ways that even a kinky mind like mine can’t imagine. It won’t just be an overwhelming transition. For some, it’ll be downright traumatic.

Given that there are over seven billion humans on this planet, there will be a lot of moving parts to this transformation. Before we can even think about taking the first steps in that process, we need to ask ourselves some serious, unsexy questions. As much an optimist as I am, I cannot deny the need for caution here.

That’s why I’ll take a step back, keep my pants out, and ask some of these unsexy questions. I understand this won’t exactly get everyone in the mood, but given the rate at which our technology is advancing, we need to be extra proactive. That way, we can get through the hardest parts of the process and get to the sexy parts.


Uncomfortable Question #1: Who (Or What) Gets To Decide How Much We Enhance Ourselves?

This will probably be the most pressing question once the technology becomes refined enough for the commercial market. Most technology goes through a progression. We saw it with the development of cell phones. At first, only business tycoons and drug lords could afford to use them or even have a use for them, to begin with.

That model might have worked for cell phones. It’s not going to work for something like CRISPR or smart blood. That’s because, unlike cell phones, the poorest and the impoverished are the ones most in need of these tools. They’re also the ones that stand to benefit most, in terms of quality of life.

Historically speaking, though, the government has not treated the poor and impoverished very well. Use the same approach with cell phones and the rich and well-connected will be the only ones to benefit. They’ll also further widen the gap, so much so that they might be even less inclined to share.

That’s why the default answer to this question can’t just be the government or rich business interests. I’m not going to pretend to know who the authority will be or how they’ll even go about distributing these advances to people in a fair and just manner. I just know that our current method will not be sufficient.


Uncomfortable Question #2: How Do We Stop Certain Human Enhancements When They Go Wrong?

When your computer freezes, you reboot it. When the sound on your speakers starts making noises, you turn it off. It’s a beautiful, but underrated thing, having an off-switch. I’m sure we’ve all had people in our lives whom we wish had an off-switch. It’s a necessary fail-safe for a chaotic world that we can’t always manage.

Putting an off-switch on dangerous technology, especially something like artificial intelligence, is just common sense. It would’ve made “The Terminator” a lot shorter and a lot less confusing. With other advancements, especially those involving CRISPR and biotechnology, it’s not as easy as just installing an extra switch.

How do you turn off something that literally rewrites our DNA? How do you stop someone who has grown used to having superhuman abilities, by our standards? That’s akin to asking someone to make themselves sick or hack off a limb because the technology has some side-effects. That’s going to be a tough sell.

Again, I am not smart enough to imagine how a fail-safe for that sort of thing would work. It can’t just rely on blind faith, magical thinking, or whatever other tactic that used car salesmen exploit. It has to be in place and up to speed as soon as this technology goes live.


Uncomfortable Question #3: How Independent/Dependent Will Human Enhancement Make Us?

Smartphones, running water, and free internet porn are great. However, they do require infrastructure. People today are at the mercy of whoever pays their cell phone bill, whoever knows the wifi password, and whoever can stop their toilets from overflowing with shit. To some extent, we all depend on certain institutions to keep our lives and our society going.

In a future of enhanced humans, who have been imbued with traits and abilities that way beyond the scope of our current infrastructure, how dependent or independent can they be in the grand scheme of things?

If they rely on a regular injection of nanobots or need to recharge every other day, then they’re going to have to rely on some form of infrastructure. That may help keep enhanced humans from becoming super-powered Biff Tannens, but it will also give a lot of power to whoever or whatever is supplying those resources.

In a sense, it can’t be one or the other. If enhanced humans are too independent, then they have no reason to interact or aid one another. If they’re too dependent on certain resources, then those controlling those resources become too powerful. There needs to be a healthy balance, is what I’m saying. There will be costs, but we have to make sure that the benefits far outweigh those costs.


Uncomfortable Question #4: How Much Of Our Humanity Do We Keep?

Let’s not lie to ourselves. There’s a lot about the human condition we wish we could change or drop altogether. Personally, I would love to never have to go to the dentist, never have to clip my toe nails, and never have to sleep, which is an advancement that’s closer than you think.

Humanity has has a lot of flaws, which is a big part of what drives the development of these tools. However, there are certain parts about humanity that are worth preserving and I’m not just talking about the health benefits of orgasms. Change too much about our bodies, our minds, and everything in between and we cease to become human. At that point, why even care about other humans?

Maintaining a sense of humanity is what will separate enhanced humans from overpriced machines. Our sense of humanity is a big part of what drives us to live, love, explore, and understand. If we lose that, then we’re basically a very smart rock that’s only interested in maintaining its status as a rock.

To really expand our horizons, we need to preserve the best of humanity. Humans do amazing things all the time that reminds us why humanity is worth preserving. When we start enhancing ourselves, we need to save those traits, no matter what we become.


Uncomfortable Question #5: How Will Society Function In A World Of Enhanced Humans?

We’ve built a good chunk of our society around our inherent flaws, as humans. We form tribes to cooperate and survive in ways we can’t do on our own. We seek leaders who are capable of guiding us to functional, stable society. Granted, sometimes those efforts fail miserably, but the goal is the same.

With human enhancement, the rules aren’t just different. They’re obsolete. So much of our society is built around the idea that we’re still a bunch of cavemen with fancier tools that we really don’t have a concept of how we’ll function beyond that context. We have nation states, national identities, and various tribes to which we bind ourselves.

Those are all still products of our inherent drive towards tribalism. That’s still our default setting, as a species. What happens when we start tweaking those settings? Will things like nation states, government, and social circles even exist? When society is made up of a bunch of superhuman beings who can live forever and never need a sick day, how do we even go about functioning?

This is well-beyond my expertise, as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It may be one of those things we can’t contemplate until after some of these advances take hold. At the very least, we need to put this question at the top of our to-do list when that time comes.


Uncomfortable Question #6: How Will Human Enhancement Affect Our Understanding Of Family And Love?

This is probably the most pressing question for me, as an aspiring erotica/romance writer. I’ve already highlighted some of the flaws in our understanding of love. Once humanity starts enhancing itself, it may either subvert those flaws or render them obsolete. In the process, though, it may create an entirely new class of flaws to deal with.

What happens to a marriage when the people involved live forever and don’t age? That whole “death do us part” suddenly becomes an issue. What happens when having children is essentially uncoupled from romance, through tools like artificial wombs? What will love even feel like once we start enhancing our brains along with our genitals?

Since all love and passion still starts in the brain, which we’re already trying to enhance, any level of human enhancement will necessarily affect love, marriage, and family. Chances are it’ll take on a very different meaning in a world where marriage is less about tax benefits and more about new forms of social dynamics.

Human enhancement will change a lot about our bodies, our minds, and our genitals. It’ll effect so much more, including how we go about love and family. It’s still impossible to grasp since we’re all still stuck with our caveman brains. However, once that changes, this is just one of many issues we should contemplate if we’re to make the future better, sexier, and more passionate.

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