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    Tuesday, November 11, 2008

    Outlook 2009 and beyond

    The Futurist has published their top 10 predictions.
    It's a pretty conservative list in my view.
    It doesn't take into account the rapid rate of change we're seeing on so many different fronts. The other night Patrick asked me to come up with a list of my own expectations and I've been thinking about it.

    First the disclaimers:
    All of this is, of course, wild speculation based on the assumption that we don't wipe ourselves out, or push our selves back into another dark age, or suffer some unforeseen natural disaster or ecological meltdown. I know that's a lot of assuming but just play along for now. Also I think it would be useful, and perhaps more entertaining, to use Science Fiction as a kind of short hand for getting some pretty complex and challenging ideas across.

    With all of that said let us speculate.
    In the near future we will see:

    Klingons and Vulcans: (Wait, come back here, I'm serious!) Well not Klingons from Qo'noS, and not Vulcans exactly, but humans who have elected to directly alter and enhance their physical appearance and health. As genetic engineering and bio-enhancement becomes more commercially viable people will no longer be limited to simple steroids. They will begin to use things like myostatin inhibitors and other much more advanced techniques to make themselves stronger, faster, smarter and so on. Some may even begin to splice DNA from other species into their own DNA just as people today experiment with recreational drugs, use steroids, get tattoos or piercings - and probably with about as much forethought. People will likely want stronger, more efficient heart and lung function, greater emotional control, higher metabolism, or enhanced vision or hearing, just for a few examples. Naturally these new changes will, by design, be inheritable in their off spring. Within a single generation, if for practical or aesthetic reasons, one of your parents decided to add a brow ridge or pointed ears . . . guess what? Now ask yourself how many changes we will see in two generations? Needless to say this will lead to whole new types of discrimination. Don't believe people will take these kinds of risk, take another look at the global sales figures for products like Viagra, Xanax, or Enzyte.

    As an aside, one of the complaints about Star Trek aliens has always been that they all look basically human with other parts added. Strangely enough though they may have gotten it right. I do not expect to see bipedal aliens landing on the mall in DC anytime soon. However I do think that we will see more extropians and trans-humans looking more and more like they stepped off of the set of one of any number of our more popular Science Fiction television shows.

    Artificial Life: We're not talking Cylons here, not yet anyway. However we will very shortly see the advent of artificial (designer) life. Built from carefully selected proteins and amino acids to have very specific qualities. These new lifeforms will have vast and dramatic commercial applications. For instance a form of life that can ingest carbon pollution and excrete usable fuel is being designed right now by JCVI right now.

    Star Wars style Droids:
    Robots designed for specific functions are already commercially available. Ask anyone who owns a Roomba.
    In the movie "I, Robot" we saw that there were several levels of AI. The androids had autonomous intelligence that was (for the sake of drama) co-opted and taken over by the central, much more powerful AI. My question is, if you have the central, really powerful AI, why bother with the autonomous android AI at all? Just let the central AI manage all the androids, all the time. All the androids need is the basic mechanics and firmware to manage their own extremities and few simple routines. That and the ability to have their software wirelessly updated and tailored as needed for specific applications (Paint the house, mow the lawn, wash the dishes, whatever). Any droid that fails to function properly can be monitored and shut down remotely using existing military grade GPS applications. Then other droids can even be dispatched to recover, repair or replace it. Robots can be any shape needed for any given function. Robot flying cars for everyone! Droid housekeepers and landscapers for all!

    The Borg: Don't think rows of Borg standing in regeneration chambers in the their Borg cubes here, think more along the lines of Seven of Nine.
    PDA's, and on line social networks are already leading to this. People will have the ability to be as connected as they like to various collectives - like their family, friends or co-workers. We are already moving past glasses and contact lenses that merely correct faulty vision into technology that enhances vision well past human norms or adds data augmentation and a VR overlay. To say nothing of changing the color of your eyes. If that means a few tech looking add-ons like the current bluetooth headsets - so be it! Don't think it will go this way? Consider the fact that, although it is seldom enforced, it is currently illegal to operate a car and a cell phone simultaneously without a bluetooth headset.

    Nanites: Self replicating, really small, machines that can build anything out of everything. Now we're talking! (We've seen these everywhere in Science Fiction from Star Trek to Stargate to Jake 2.0.) We're already on the cusp of a surge in three dimensional printing technology that will revolutionize retail as we know it. (Soon you won't need the item itself, just the file for the item and a 3D printer.) This is the step just after that where anything, (Including things made out of metamaterials and even more Nanites!) can be designed and assembled from the molecular level up. The commercial and medical applications speak for themselves and are already funding advances in this technology at a spectacular rate. Talk about green, imagine physical object that only exist on an as needed basis. Their component elements completely reclaimed and reused again and again. Swarms of nanites swimming through your blood repairing cell damage, hunting down cancer cells or just maintaining muscle tone and flexibility without the need for dieting or exercise.

    True AI: This is the big one as it informs and augments all the others. You want to really make use of all of those droids and nanites? You want to splice or tweak genes without giving yourself cancer? You need to crack this one. Right now we have very specific, simple forms of artificial intelligence that do things like play Chess, play Checkers, monitor the stock market, and so on. I call these types of AI, virtual intelligence or VI to separate them form the true, general or strong, AI that is lurking right around the corner. To look at the progress of VI all you need to do is look at the progress being made in autonomous driving. However that kind of AI is very task specific and,as Dr. Ben Goertzel points out, is notoriously difficult to adapt to anything except what is was originally designed to do. The chess program, for instance, is never going to play Backgammon with you. It has no ability to expand on it's own parameters or adapt what it knows about playing Chess to any other endeavor. True AI will have these abilities and will, very rapidly from a human perspective, redesign itself to solve a number of problems and limitations. Both for itself and for us. Will it be Skynet (like in the Terminator Franchise) and decide to wipe us out. No. There are several very good reasons why this is not the case but they are outside the scope of this article. What is not outside the scope of this article however is another set of observations and they are first, and again from a human perspective, if you have enough VI it has the same effect as True AI and second, it's only a mater of time before the good folks working on true AI design a VI to help them get it done sooner rather than later. Probably much sooner.

    Once we have True AI (or enough VI) all bets are off. Our problems will no longer be driven by concepts such as supply and demand, but rather by the limits of our own imagination and character . . but that's another topic.

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