October 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

We may soon be merging our minds with computers and the internet to create a 'singularity' of consciousness ...


Imagine connecting your brain to the World Wide Web using Wi-Fi. You could shoot off an email, update your Facebook status or check out new posts on Reddit just by thinking about it. Though it may sound like science fiction, this melding of mind and computer has a name: the singularity.

At the heart of the singularity is the idea that computers will suddenly become unimaginably more powerful and more capable than they are now. And according to the enthusiasts known as ‘singularitarians’, if humanity goes far enough down this road, eventually people will be able to pour their consciousness into a computer and live forever.

In 1993 Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist, science fiction writer and retired Professor of Mathematics, popularised the idea in his paper “The Coming Technological Singularity”.

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” he claimed.

Raymond Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google and author of best-selling books on the subject, also believes the unification of man and machine is at hand. According to Kurzweil, humans will soon be able to combine their minds with super-intelligent machines and achieve cybernetic immortality. He even thinks it will happen in his lifetime.

Many scientists are making strides in areas that make Kurzweil’s predictions of a singularity look possible. Take Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, who has become famous in the science world for his work in artificial intelligence, control, robotics and biomedical engineering. In fact, Warwick has been dubbed the first ‘cyborg’.

In August 1998, Warwick had a doctor surgically implant a silicon chip transponder in his forearm that enabled him to operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. In 2002, he took his research one step further and had an electrode array, which he calls a brain gate, implanted into his median nerve fibres. The array could send signals back and forth between Warwick’s nervous system and a computer. It also enabled him to move a robotic hand via the Internet.

“I went to New York, and we plugged my nervous system into the Internet and linked to the robot hand that we had in England,” Warwick said. “My brain signals went across the internet, moved the robot hand and when the robot hand gripped an object, signals were sent back from the fingertips, so I could feel how much force it was applying. It was fantastic realising that your body doesn’t have to be in the same place as your brain as a cyborg.”

Warwick’s wife, Irena, also had an array implanted. Warwick describes this part of the experiment as “profound” because he and Irena could communicate via their nervous systems.

“Every time she moved her hand, my brain received a pulse,” Warwick said. “It was a very basic form of communication. But when it’s brain to brain instead of nervous system to nervous system, then it will be the basis of communicating by thought.”

However, many scientists think Kurzweil’s and Vinge’s timetables for the breakdown of the boundary between man and machine are overly optimistic.

“I don’t object to the possibility of us reaching at some point in the future vastly more capable computers,” said Andrew Nuxoll, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Portland. “It’s just that I object to the idea that it is going to happen in the next 20 years.”

According to Nuxoll, it’s not so much that artificial intelligence techniques have improved – though there is modest improvement there – it’s that we’re putting them on computers that have greater horsepower. “Singularitarians are seeing that we’re getting the computing power to the point where the artificial intelligence algorithms that we already have are going to be successful.”

An example of such advances in computing power can be seen in Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-playing artificial intelligence. Watson is based on learning algorithms that have been around for decades, but it has only been in the last decade that the hardware was able to catch up with software capabilities. In 2011, Watson took on long-reigning Jeopardy champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings and beat them in a $1 million battle of the “brains.” However, Watson did have access to 200 million pages of content including the full text of Wikipedia.

John Horgan, a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, points out several issues with the idea of the singularity. The first is that the singularity ideology comes off more like a religious belief than a scientific notion, especially in the idea of humans living forever through machine interfaces.

Moreover, Horgan says, there simply is not enough science behind the idea. While scientific fields have much room for development, Horgan doesn’t believe these developments will necessarily bring about a singularity.

“The fields that singularitarians think will bring about the singularity, such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, neuroscience and genetic engineering, have lots of room for progress. I find the idea that they’re going to create some kind of superhuman intelligence that’s going to change everything, change the world in some kind of radical evolutionary way within the next few decades completely preposterous.”

He also highlights the fact that neuroscientists have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the brain. There are many intricacies within the system that scientists haven’t even begun to plot.

“Most singularitarians seem to have no grasp of the complexity of the brain and how far science is from having any real understanding of how neuroprocesses produce memory, perception, emotion and consciousness itself,” Horgan says. “We don’t even have a paradigm.”

However, even if neuroscientists can create a paradigm by mapping out the brain’s complexity in its complete form, there is still a part of the brain that is seemingly as mysterious as it was when René Descartes wrote Discourse on the Method in 1637: consciousness.

“Consciousness isn’t easy to define, let alone create in a machine,” Horgan says. “Just having some really detailed 3D map of the brain won’t necessarily lead to the theoretical breakthroughs that you really need to understand how brains work.”

In fact, having all of the workings of the brain may do as little for scientists studying how the brain forms consciousness as having a complete mapping of the human genome has done for genetic therapy. This is because the map may do little to help scientists discover where the action is when it comes to the processing of information in the brain. As Horgan points out, “knowing all the circuitry isn’t necessarily going to accomplish anything.”


IMAGE: Kevin Warwick