Back in 1922, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin invented the word Noosphere to describe a sphere of human thought. It is an emergence of human cognition that would fundamentally transform the biosphere (biological life) of the Earth. In our modern civilization there is developing a non-physical (though accessed through a multitude of physical devices) resource of enormous value and potentially enormous risk for humanity. There is now so much information available to people all over the planet via the internet that it is like a quantum leap in intelligence for our species. I depend on it to write this blog. I depend on it to craft dinner out of diverse ingredients I happen to have on hand. I would rather have a targeted recipe that I can keep or pitch than a shelf full of cookbooks (though there seems no dearth of new ones published – just think of the trees saved !!)
Not only do my children know that they can find the answer to anything they can think to ask a question about on the Internet but they also know to be wary about and try to discern what is more likely to be truthful from what is more likely fiction or myth. I use the internet to get a better sense of our Yemm & Hart recycled material’s customers (primarily interior designers and architects) by visiting their firm’s websites or track down contacts who have been on the move, often thanks to Linked In.
Today, I googled the answer to one of my children’s questions – “Is a mushroom a plant ?” Actually it isn’t, it has more in common with an animal but it is also simply a unique species of life that my sons spent all last winter studying thanks to the book “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” by Maxine Stone and then they spent all summer finding and identifying them and we ate many varieties of them. Even my youngest son, our most picky eater, has fallen in love with wild mushrooms. I have looked up images of mushrooms on the internet when the photo in the book just wasn’t enough. A friend signed me up for a mushroom group on Facebook.
Last Dec 29, 2014 an op-ed by Ray Kurzweil appeared in Time Magazine that had a more positive perspective on AI than Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk have been offering. He makes many arguments including that AI has reduced the violence (or loss of human life) in war situations. He also points to “safeguards” in Biotechnology created at a conference back in 1975 that while revised over time have worked very well to avoid the problems identified for almost 40 years now.
2015 marks the 10th anniversary of Kurzweil’s book – The Singularity is Near. In the decade since its publication, we’ve witnessed an explosion of breakthroughs in genetic engineering, medical regeneration of the human body, autonomous robotics, computing power, and renewable energy. Advanced sensor arrays and internet meshes are uniting all people and things within the interconnected environments we live in, and with each other. Today’s massively scaled, crowd-sourced knowledge, innovation, and shared human experience are driving this momentum. The future is now.
Kurzweil explains we’re already in the early stages of this transition, and within a few decades, life as we know it will be completely different. He says, “The singularity will be a merger of our bodies and minds with our technology. The world will still be human, but transcend our biological roots. There will be no distinction between human and machine, nor between physical and virtual reality. “If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human, it’s this quality — our species inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.”
In the Dec 2014 op-ed in Time Magazine, Kurzweil identified some effects that I certainly see with my children who are allowed unlimited access to electronics and the Internet in our home as part of their “free-spirit, self-guided, natural education”. He points out that AI is not being integrated into the world today in such a way as to spell the extinction of human beings. As one example, he says “AI is not in one or two hands; it’s in 1 billion or 2 billion hands. A kid in Africa with a smartphone has more intelligent access to knowledge than the President of the United States had 20 years ago. As AI continues to get smarter, its use will only grow. Virtually everyone’s mental capabilities will be enhanced by it within a decade.” Maybe instead of “artificial intelligence”, we should be thinking of this as distributed intelligence ?
Currently the mass migrations taking place out of the Middle East and Northern Africa into Europe include smartphones wrapped in plastic and rubber bands to protect them from moisture. Time Magazine in their Oct 19, 2015 issue has an article by Patrick Witty about why the smartphone is the refugee’s best friend. They use them to message people concerned about their welfare, take selfies and document their journey, use mapping apps to share their current location or the safest routes with others. This is a realm of internet based information put to entirely new uses in the sagas of humanity.
I already believe that the evolution of individual transportation (at least until we begin teleporting wherever we want to go) will definitely migrate to a dominance of self-driving vehicles, though there will remain those who like to drive a vehicle themselves for recreation or out of preference. Not only Google and many of the major automotive manufacturers but now also an announcement from Tesla, who’s recently equipped central operating system models S and X will simply update all of the models that have been purchased recently simultaneously over the airwaves.
There are many people who hope that technology will create a world that provides for every person at a reasonable level of basic qualities and even free us all to more fully realize our highest potentials. Others, such as the Center for Existential Risk which Stephen Hawking heads along with many other thoughtful illuminaries, plus the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates have grave concerns. Concerns that any thoughtful person also shares. The future is uncertain but technology is here to stay.
~ Information Resources
Noosphere – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noosphere
“What is a Mushroom ? Mushroom Facts” – http://www.gmushrooms.com/info.htm
The Old Mushroom Identification Page – a secret (and not so secret with over 1,300 members) group on Facebook
Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence – http://www.kurzweilai.net/
Time Magazine – http://time.com/
“Tesla’s Cars Now Drive Themselves, Kinda” by Molly McHugh posted Oct 14, 2015 at Wired.com – http://www.wired.com/2015/10/tesla-self-driving-over-air-update-live/
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – http://www.cser.org/
“Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn About Artificial Intelligence” by Michael Sainato on Aug 19, 2015 in the Observer – http://observer.com/2015/08/stephen-hawking-elon-musk-and-bill-gates-warn-about-artificial-intelligence/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
Deus ex machina is the phrase applied to the climatic moment in a classical Greek tragedy when gods would descend from the skies to resolve all knotty human problems. Right now, there is a lot of buzz about the new movie, Ex Machina. According the the Time magazine review “God, is the word that hovers over Ex Machina.” The movies that are made for our entertainment often reflect where our society is headed. The same could be said I suppose for the video games teens and young adults play. Turns out there is a video game named Deus Ex Machina and the 1984 Spectrum classic, which has often been hailed as the first ‘art house’ game, has been around for 30 years now. Released in Nov 2014, Deus Ex Machina:30th Anniversary Edition seeks to bring a cinematic flair to the original game.
The director of the movie Ex Machina, Alex Garland, in an interview with Wired magazine (April 2015) when asked about the debate around the ethics of AI research said – “It’s a big question. If you’re talking about nonsentient AIs, then there’s a lot to be concerned about. But if you create a new consciousness in the form of a machine, that isn’t significantly different from two adults creating a child.” A Science Blog posted at Huffington had concerns – “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”
Garland isn’t optimistic about the future of humanity. He said – “Humans are going to die on this planet. We’re not going to go through a wormhole to another galaxy; it’s just not going to happen. What will survive on our behalf is AIs – if we manage to create them. That’s not problematic, it’s desirable.” He ends the interview on this thought, the movie is pro AI because – “It’s humans who f**k everything up; machines have a pretty good track record in comparison to us.”
Yikes !!! I’m not entirely comfortable with the rapid pace with which intelligent systems are being implemented in our world. You can call me a Luddite but I do have some concerns. Over a year ago, during a trip to St Louis (which is a major outing for our family with a 4 hour round trip), it really dawned on me that maybe we are living the climatic moments of our own version of a modern day “Greek tragedy” and I’m not looking for any gods to descend from the skies (though I know some people still await the arrival of ETs, even now). I worry that we may be in a bit of a predicament. This anxiety began just after the movie Transcendence came out.
My husband had been talking to me a lot about Stephen Hawking’s perspective on AI/robotics at that time. Hawking has some concerns too. He is Director of Research at The Centre for Study of Existential Risk. They describe themselves as “an interdisciplinary research centre focused on the study of human extinction-level risks that may emerge from technological advances. We aim to combine key insights from the best minds across disciplines to tackle the greatest challenge of the coming century: safely harnessing our rapidly-developing technological power.” Even so, I think it may already be too late to change the trajectory – that the genie is already out of the bottle and not willing to leave its freedom of movement into every nook and cranny of our world.
What’s new can be noticed in the research at the leading edge. The work ongoing at the Active and Intelligent Materials Lab at University of Cambridge in England boggles my mind. The active research is studying “adaptive responsive structures, including materials which respond to several stimuli: temperature, pressure, pH, ionic strength, light, and electromagnetic fields. While artificial muscles with higher energy density could be better actuators for robots, smarter actuators could also provide sensing to start the actuation, or even photonic switches for new optoelectronic computing. Recently, inspired by work in shape-memory polymers, we created multi-functional muscles which can be programmed to “remember and recall movement”. For many of these muscles, the goal is to improve function by understanding the detailed mechanism. For one class of muscles, dielectric elastomers, high voltage failure is a major problem. Our recent results suggest that they may be actuated at high voltage without failure, provided short enough pulses are used”.
“Shape-memory polymers . . . programmed to remember and recall movement” – oh my !! Okay, so I’ve not the background to judge those types active research and I won’t claim to understand all that they are doing there. The understanding that I do have tells me a transformation of how we experience Life here on Earth is already happening and the future that is coming would be astounding to us today. And I am not actually a Luddite. I appreciate all of the wonders that technology is bringing into our lives. If it weren’t for technology, I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts and my concerns with you now. And some of the developments are astounding me today.
Kilobots (quarter-sized) may not be very smart but they communicate with one another. 1,000 Kilobots can be programmed to follow a few simple rules that then cause them to assemble into shapes without human intervention. Insect swarms in nature inspired the computer scientists to mimick that behavior with the inexpensive $20 a piece bots. What’s next ? Intelligent swarms of sand-grain-sized robots that form useful 3-D structures.
How about an Octobot ? It’s design is also inspired by nature and more specially the well-known sea creature with arms connected by fleshy, skirtlike mantle. It’s arms and web are made of soft silicone and it is approximately the size of a shoebox. In tests within the Mediterranean Sea, it has been found that organic sea animals seem unfrightened by the artificial intelligence. The computer scientist who designed this hopes to use it to observe marine ecosystems by putting a camera on it.
Or how about search-and-rescue snaky robots that can burrow through rubble or use helicopter like propellers to airlift wheeled snakebots out of tight spots. And here’s the future for XBox gamers . . . the robot trio is controlled using an Xbox controller. Also in the same disaster area recovery realm are robots that use tiny explosions to jump, shoving the untethered soft robot off the ground so that it can navigate rubble that makes walking through an area difficult.
So many evolving uses for smart and intelligent materials and constructions from them that have the potential to be life-affirming and useful to humanity !! But I do worry – what will all the people do ? Already, a lot of people are unemployed or underemployed and technology is certainly one of the reasons, so more competition from artificial intelligence, ie robots, is just going to make matters worse. And I worry about remotely controlled warfare, like drones and satellites that keep warriors safe but not civilians.
As I see robotics evolving, what happened to me a year ago to cause a bit of anxiety was this – Suddenly, everyone I saw in “service roles” in St Louis (including road & bridge construction workers and Whole Foods associates) I saw sadly as “on the way out”. I remain aware of “possibilities”, whether they are accurate realities at this time, or not. My heart hopes for only good outcomes to our evolving technologies. My concerns were set off by reading a piece by Mike Adams about robots. Anyone who has seen the movie iRobot can easily visualize the future portrayed in this snippet –
“In my estimation, over the next three generations (about 75 years), we will see humanoid robots take over nearly all traditional labor roles in society, including manufacturing, agriculture, construction, firefighting, food service and even community policing. Most of the physical work done today by humans will be turned over to humanoid-shaped robots built much the same way we are: two arms, two legs, two eyes and roughly the size and shape of a 5′ 9″ man.”
“This, in turn, will make virtually all human laborers obsolete. There will be no more need for people to pick crops, paint houses, clean windows, drive ambulances or even fight wars. Humanoid robots will take over every repetitious, dangerous, disgusting or boring task that humans currently tackle, from cleaning toilets and sweeping floors to driving taxis.”
At Yemm & Hart there are no robots doing the work today. Our processes to create new materials from recycled resources are rather old-fashioned in their methods. We are gratified to make our living by recycling those items turned in by consumers to recycling centers in order to continue their usefulness. We do stay abreast of continuing developments not only in our own industry but as this blog has illustrated. We find interesting all kinds of topics about anything and everything evolving in Life whether it catches our fancy or worries our dreams.
~ Information Resources
“Date With an Android” review in Time magazine April 20, 2015 – http://time.com/3814972/in-ex-machina-a-date-with-an-android/
Deus Ex Machina: 30th Anniversary Edition Announced
Ex Machina – The Mind Behind The New AI Flick Q+A in Wired magazine April 2015 – http://www.wired.com/2015/04/alex-garland-ex-machina/
Centre For The Study of Existential Risk
“Transcending Complacency on Superintelligent Machines” posted 4/19/14 at the HuffPost Science Blog
Active and Intelligent Materials Lab at University of Cambridge
“Better than ‘Transformers’: Real-Life Robots: Photos at Discovery.com – http://news.discovery.com/tech/robotics/transformers-real-life-robots-110629.htm
“Robot swarm takes many shapes” by Andrew Grant in Science News Sept 6, 2014 – https://www.sciencenews.org/article/robot-swarm-takes-many-shapes?mode=magazine&context=188995
The Science News article below by Meghan Rosen could not be found in digital form at http://www.sciencenews.org.
 “Octobot uses webbed arms to swim faster” by Meghan Rosen in Science News Nov 1, 2014
 “Hybrid robot merges flier with two snakelike machines” by Meghan Rosen in Science News Nov 1, 2014
 “Hopping robot powered by explosion” by Meghan Rosen in Science News Nov 1, 2014
“Robotics revolution to replace most human workers in three generations” by Mike Adams posted on 9/30/13 at http://www.naturalnews.com/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer