But in the last two weeks people have started sending me links to stories about the crazy near future that are, like, totally blowing their minds, man.
First, everyone is writing about the rise of artificial intelligence. Then there are "one step beyond" stories, like Bill Gates talking about taxing robots and using the proceeds to support the people they've thrown out of work, or Elon Musk's "neural lace" startup (which has catapulted into the popular press speculation about smartphones evolving hard-wired connections to your brain).
Suddenly, people are even looking at Ray Kurzweil like maybe he's not so crazy, after all. I'm happy to be a lifelong Kurzweil fan -- he did the closing PC Expo keynote for me in 2001 when I was running content programming for that now-defunct event. His talk, and accompanying charts, painstakingly -- and compellingly -- explained technology evolution as a direct linear extension of human evolution, noting that it makes perfect sense for the two to merge in the very near future.
In fact, Kurzweil consumes his own special cocktail of vitamins and other supplements in an effort to live long enough to make it to the "singularity," when he can download his consciousness into a computer and become "vastened" (as Frederik Pohl put it in his Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning Heechee novels -- see my post "Chatbots RIsing"). Kurzweil turned 69 in February, and he expects to make it.
The problem with all this popular coverage is ignorance. The authors are not familiar with the relevant literature — or science. It's like trying to write a great tragedy without ever having heard of Shakespeare. Or trying to write a great comedy without ever having heard of, well, Shakespeare.
For example, Musk's neural-lace is not so “out there.” It’s what author (and cyborg) Michael Chorost would call a "fiction" -- not a "lie." That means you can't quite do it today, but it's perfectly plausible and perhaps even likely, soon. Lies are things that violate the laws of physics as we understand them, and so are highly unlikely, to say the least.
But actually, I lied — and that's the point. You CAN do neural links today, you just can't do them repeatedly, predictably, and safely. Laboratories all over the world have figured out the basics, or the world's real-life Tony Stark wouldn't be starting the company needed to popularize them. I learned these facts about the state of the art in brain-computer interface (BCI) research from Chorost's superb book, "World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet." And yes, BCI is already a real discipline.
Chorost is a veteran science journalist and cyborg because of his cochlear implants, tiny machines countersunk into his skull with electrodes attached to his auditory nerve. He was born hearing-impaired, and his ears later totally failed. He describes in the book how he had to relearn how to interpret sound the way the implants conveyed it, because they stimulate the nerve differently than the cilia in the ears of a person with DNA-based hearing. At first, the signals that reached his brain “sounded” like gibberish. But his brain adapted, and now he can hear.
Talk about mind-blowing. "World Wide Mind will blow yours (despite being about five years old). Chorost takes care to separate fact from fancy, and stuff taking place back in 2010 and 2011, and what that implies, will likely astonish you, too. Besides BCI technology being done in labs or in commercial businesses (BCI for video game controllers, for example), the book shows what scientists are doing on the leading edge and what, therefore, can be easily imagined to arrive in the near future.
Ultimately, Chorost imagines various potential, farther-out "fictions" -- like the very real possibility of humanity evolving Borg-like hive minds, and how such a future scenario might come about. Combining what I learned from Chorost, what I know of people, and what I see happening around me, I have no doubt that’s the path we’re on.
The book is an enjoyable read. Chorost’s prose is personal and compelling, and he weaves into the story of his research a parallel story of romance with a sign language professor he meets along the way.
So, if you’re serious about understanding the potential for human augmentation, whether through something as mundane as cochlear implants or as exotic as AI-enhanced creativity, you’d better get reading.
Kurzweil’s canon, beginning with “The Age of Intelligent Machines,” is a must (don’t skip that first book -- it provides a terrific history of AI development), as is “World Wide Mind.”
Don’t neglect science fiction, either -- its practitioners appear to be eerily on target. Asimov may be a little too old-school for modern readers, though of course he set the standard and wrote the Three Laws of Robotics, introduced in a 1942 short story, that all subsequent authors (and many, if not most, AI developers) study and follow even today.
The aforementioned Heechee novels, starting with "Gateway," are wonderful stories. They get the science right, they feature human consciousnesses downloaded into computers, and the trio of subtly brilliant AI executive assistants described in my "Chatbots Rising" column linked to above. However, my current top recommendations for comprehending the scary near future rushing your way are William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and Neal Stephenson's “Snow Crash.”
There is an alternative if you can’t quite summon your inner Neo to help find the courage to look at that future. You can opt for the blue pill.