Monday, August 29, 2016

Brain Food: Chips and Cookies

Artificial Intelligence (AI) coupled with robotics is coming fast, displacing not just old-world working class jobs, but employment among some of our best educated professionals, from medical doctors/surgeons and lawyers to engineers, tech designers and financial analysts. You can look back my past blogs, including my June 6th My Lawyer is Artificially Intelligent, March 25th Universal Basic Income (“UBI”) and my February 1st Well-Educated Professionals and Automation blogs for lots of supporting data.
Our entire socio-economic-political system is built on an assumption that there will be jobs for the skilled, better jobs for the better educated, and that government income support is only for the lowest rungs of our society. But what if AI-supported robotics and automation replaced even the best and the brightest humans, then unable to compete with their electronic replacements? How can they earn money without jobs? What kind of economic system would handle that problem? Those who will make a killing, of course, are those deeply capitalized wealthy corporations (and the individuals who own them) that own these magnificent machines… making virtually all the money that used to be earned by hard-working human beings.
“American author Marshall Brain, in his book Robotic Nation (2003), stated that intelligent robots ‘will eliminate a huge portion of the jobs currently held by human beings.’ He pointed out that there were 114 million employees working for seven million companies in the United States in 2000, according to that year's census. He predicted that more than 50 million jobs would be lost to robots by 2040 or 2050, and over half of the jobs in the US would be done by robots by that time.” The Straits Times, May 2nd. We’re talking about self-teaching machines that learn from experience and adapt and expand capabilities accordingly. And it’s happening today, from the surgical operating room to self-correcting engineering/designing automated processes.
Sooner or later, mere humans will not be remotely as productive or accurate as the AI machines that are replacing and will replace workers at every level, one by one. But what if we could gear our own brains, through mental exercise or ????, to rise to the level necessary to take on those damned robots? OK, mental exercise won’t cut it, but ???? could provide a startling alternative: electronic enhancement to our actual brains!
“Like many in Silicon Valley, technology entrepreneur Bryan Johnson [the PayPal near-billionaire] sees a future in which intelligent machines can do things like drive cars on their own and anticipate our needs before we ask… What’s uncommon is how Johnson wants to respond: find a way to supercharge the human brain so that we can keep up with the machines.
“From an unassuming office in Venice Beach, his science-fiction-meets-science start-up, Kernel, is building a tiny chip that can be implanted in the brain to help people suffering from neurological damage caused by strokes, Alzheimer’s or concussions. Top neuroscientists who are building the chip — they call it a neuroprosthetic — hope that in the longer term, it will be able to boost intelligence, memory and other cognitive tasks…
“‘Human intelligence is landlocked in relationship to artificial intelligence — and the landlock is the degeneration of the body and the brain,’ [Johnson] said in an interview about the company, which he had not discussed publicly before. ‘This is a question of keeping humans front and center as we progress.’” Washington Post, August 15th. Entrepreneurs in the field call such enhancements “bio-hacking” (what the Post describes as “the notion that you can engineer the body the way you would a software program”).
“Kernel is cognitive enhancement of the not-gimmicky variety. The concept is based on the work of Theodore Berger, a pioneering biomedical engineer who directs the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California, and is the start-up’s chief science officer… For over two decades, Berger has been working on building a neuroprosthetic to help people with dementia, strokes, concussions, brain injuries and Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts 1 in 9 adults over 65.
“The implanted devices try to replicate the way brain cells communicate with one another. Let’s say, for example, that you are having a conversation with your boss. A healthy brain will convert that conversation from short-term memory to long-term memory by firing off a set of electrical signals. The signals fire in a specific code that is unique to each person and is a bit like a software command.” The Post. Great stuff for those with brain disorders; scary stuff when the technology is refocused to make us smarter, more efficient and highly competitive.
Johnson sees this path as a social necessity: “[In] an age of AI, he insists that boosting the capacity of our brains is itself an urgent public concern. ‘Whatever endeavor we imagine — flying cars, go to Mars — it all fits downstream from our intelligence,’ he says. ‘It is the most powerful resource in existence. It is the master tool.’” The Post. So much for IQ tests and college admissions!
Bioethicists have to be squirming at the “oh that’s just a movie” technology that could put all kinds of nasties into human brains… or good stuff. But who will be afford to get those implants? Income/brain chip inequality? Who governs the field? And what possibly could go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong…?
I’m Peter Dekom, and is it easier to redesign society and how we pay people in a world of artificial intelligence-driven robots… or redesign the human brain/body instead?

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