05 July 2010

The Singularity: new experiences

Discussions of the Technological Singularity usually emphasize the prospect of a dramatic increase of human intelligence, but in a somewhat abstract way; to the uninitiated it can sound rather arid. For some reason the popular mind associates enhanced intelligence with emotional coldness. Of course the reality is just the opposite; from the animal world we can see that the higher the intelligence of a given species, the richer and more complex its emotional life, with that of humans being the richest and most complex of all. Emotional sophistication, like intelligence, is a manifestation of the processing power of the brain; and like intelligence, it will grow vastly in the future as we learn to enhance the brain's capacity and ultimately upload human minds into nanocircuitry, giving them access to unlimited processing power (more on uploading here).

What I want to talk about here, though, is the richness of sensory experience. The ability to see in color, for example, enhances our quality of life; a color-blind person can function perfectly well, but the rest of us naturally feel that he is missing out on a lot. Yet my recent readings on evolutionary biology have brought home to me just how limited our sensory world actually is. Some flowers which appear quite drab to our eyes, for example, actually have patterns which are only visible in ultraviolet light; the insects that pollinate them can see ultraviolet wavelengths which are invisible to us. That is, they can see extra colors which we can't see. In fact, mammals generally have poorer eyesight than other vertebrates; most mammals other than primates cannot see in color at all. Some reptiles have "tetrachromatic" retinas, with four types of color-sensitive cone cells to our three; human-built TV or computer screens, which use pixels in three primary colors to create pictures which seem realistic to us, would look pitifully inadequate to the eye of a turtle, if it had enough intelligence to grasp the concept of a picture at all. Aside from color, some animals, especially birds, have eyes with far higher resolution than ours -- they can see much smaller objects at a given distance than we can.

Once the flow of data from eye to brain and the processes within the brain which interpret the data are fully decoded, understood, and replicated, it will be possible to give ourselves any kind of enhanced vision we want -- ultraviolet, infrared, tetrachromatic, high-resolution, or anything else, along with the necessary brain functionality.

Beyond vision, some other animals have senses utterly different from ours. The sonar of dolphins and the echo-location of bats, for example, are long-distance senses which provide a surprisingly detailed "picture" of the world (a dolphin, for example, can tell by sonar which of two objects twenty feet away is nearer, when the separation between them is only an inch). It's probably a bit like vision and a bit like touch, but not really much like either. The "bill" of the platypus is an electrical-field sensor which can detect the tiny electrical currents produced by the muscles of the small animals it seeks to eat. Again, we can't imagine what this sensory experience "looks" or "feels" or "sounds" like (we don't even have the right word for it) to the platypus. But when we can scan and replicate our own brains, we can similarly scan and replicate those parts of those animals' brains which interpret their alien senses, not only incorporating those senses into our own repertoire if we choose, but even experiencing them the same way the dolphin or platypus does.

I was reminded of another range of possibilities when reading this post by blogger "Sunny Insomniac", which includes a summary of a novel in progress:

What if you woke one day to find yourself the same in your mind, but completely altered on the outside? How would you retain your identity? Who would you turn to? Family? They don't recognize you. Friends? They don't believe you. God? If He's listening, then He's not talking. What has happened to you isn't possible anyway. And yet, you look in the mirror and that reflection tells you it is reality.

Finding oneself in an unfamiliar body is an occasional theme in fiction, but as in this case, it is almost always involuntary and unwelcome (Kafka's Gregor Samsa comes to mind). When life is lived mostly in virtual reality, however, body type will be a matter of choice. Most discussions of virtual reality focus on the great experiential variety that will be available -- all the things people will be able to experience and do, in environments which may or may not resemble anything that the physical world has to offer, according to taste. At most, one assumes that one's virtual "body" will be permanently young and healthy, since there will be no reason to choose otherwise. But why stop there? Why not choose an entirely different type of body, from time to time, for variety? (For example, I have long thought that it would be interesting to experience life as a woman for a couple of weeks, just to see what it was like.) I doubt many people will be interested in trying out Gregor Samsa's transformation, but the form and sensory world of any animal, real or imaginary, will be available.

Ultimately the Singularity is about transcending limitations: the limitations on our intelligence imposed by the capacities of the organic brain, the limitation of a finite life span imposed by the aging and fragility of the organic body, the limitation to only a single physical location at any given time, the limitation of the intractable laws of the physical, non-virtual-reality universe. But it will also free us from the limitations imposed by the range of senses which evolution happened to bestow upon us, and the limitation of being a person of a fixed gender, race, or even species. All things will be a matter of choice.

13 Comments:

Blogger Sunny Insomniac said...

Infidel,

What a fascinating read--as always. And thank you for the mention of my blog and novel! I am currently sitting here at B & N working on it and catching up in the blogosphere.

This line really struck home for me.

For some reason the popular mind associates enhanced intelligence with emotional coldness.

I love your rebuttal to this form of thinking. Of course emotional complexity would be viewed in such a way by the majority of people...simply because they cannot understand what that being/person is feeling. Most people confuse passion and anger with emotional complexity. That would be like saying a primary color (i.e. red), because of it's brightness, is more complex than the color brown. This is ridiculous because, as all artists know, brown is a mixture of all the primary colors, and therefore is far more complex.

Thanks for great read.

~Sunny Insomniac

P.S.
I have read that dolphins are considered by some to be the most intelligent creatures on earth besides humans. In your readings have you found this to be true or simply another case of conjecture?

05 July, 2010 13:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks! Glad to hear you're still working on the book. It does sound like an intriguing concept.

I suspect that the popular association of high intelligence with unemotionality is partly based on the character of Mr. Spock on Star Trek. It's become a staple of bad science fiction, though.

Rage can be the most powerful emotion, but it is probably the least complex.

My impression from my own readings is that the second most intelligent species on Earth, after ourselves, is the orangutan. They are not as good at learning to communicate in sign language as chimpanzees or gorillas are, probably because in nature they're not social creatures and thus probably have less interest in communication generally. But orangutans have learned to imitate surprisingly-complex forms of human behavior, such as stringing up a hammock, doing laundry, and even attempting to make fire, just by observing humans, without anyone trying to teach them. I do admit, though, that my knowledge of dolphins is rather limited and I don't know much about what the claims for their high intelligence are based on. Elephants, too, seem to be far more intelligent than most animals.

05 July, 2010 15:46  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Greeting's Mr. Infidel ... nice and interesting piece.

Thank You ....

05 July, 2010 17:18  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I love reading this sort of material. Here are a few of my thoughts:

"...just by observing humans..."

Just read an interesting piece in the science section of the NYTimes yesterday about squirrels. Pretty intelligent rodents. They apparently learn by observing humans as well:

"In their book 'Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide,' Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell of the Smithsonian Institution described the safe-pedestrian approach of a gray squirrel eager to traverse a busy avenue near the White House. The squirrel waited on the grass near a crosswalk until people began to cross the street, said the authors, 'and then it crossed the street behind them.'”

Source

When you spoke of what is visible to insects and other species, I was reminded of this creature that captured my imagination:

The mantis shrimp, or stomatopod

"The midband region of the mantis shrimp‘s eye is made up of six rows of specialized ommatidia. Four rows carry 16 differing sorts of photoreceptor pigments, 12 for colour sensitivity, others for colour filtering. The mantis shrimp has such good eyes it can perceive both polarized light, and hyperspectral colour vision. Their eyes (both mounted on mobile stalks and constantly moving about independently of each other) are similarly variably coloured, and are considered to be the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. They permit both serial and parallel analysis of visual stimuli.

1–4 of the midband are specialised for colour vision, from ultra-violet to infra-red."

Pretty amazing for a shrimp, eh?

07 July, 2010 10:42  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

SK: Thanks. Yes, pretty much all mammals seem to have learning ability, often more than we realize. Makes me wonder what mice have been picking up from all the experiments we do on them.

There are lots of squirrels where I live. They must be avoiding the cars somehow, or there wouldn't be so many of them around (although I did see a squirrel get run over once -- very unpleasant).

Most of what I've learned recently about the senses of other animals comes from Dawkins's books. Even some arthropods (like bees or shrimp) have remarkable color perception. The fact that most mammals have relatively poor vision probably goes back to the age of dinosaurs, when the ancestors of today's mammals were nocturnal shrew-like things -- color vision isn't much good to an animal that's only active at night. Color vision seems to have evolved in primates because they're primarily fruit-eaters (fruit can often be spotted by its color, and color also tells an animal whether it's ripe).

07 July, 2010 11:38  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

One thing I hardly ever hear about are dog's and cat's .... I mean .... we teach them to really do some stuff .... sometime's they act so civilised even.

07 July, 2010 17:33  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

“But orangutans have learned to imitate surprisingly-complex forms of human behavior, such as stringing up a hammock, doing laundry, and even attempting to make fire, just by observing humans…”

I love reading about subjects like this. Tuesday’s NYTimes science section had an article about squirrels and how they imitate certain forms of human behavior, and live longer as a result:

"In their book “Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide,” Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell of the Smithsonian Institution described the safe-pedestrian approach of a gray squirrel eager to traverse a busy avenue near the White House. The squirrel waited on the grass near a crosswalk until people began to cross the street, said the authors, “and then it crossed the street behind them.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/science/06angi.html?_r=1&ref=science

“...the insects that pollinate them can see ultraviolet wavelengths which are invisible to us…”

The creature that is endlessly fascinating to me is the “mantis shrimp” the stomatopod, which is neither a shrimp nor a mantis, but a crustacean.

Here’s what is so amazing about this creature, and it relates to your post:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mantis_shrimp

"The midband region of the mantis shrimp‘s eye is made up of six rows of specialized ommatidia. Four rows carry 16 differing sorts of photoreceptor pigments, 12 for colour sensitivity, others for colour filtering. The mantis shrimp has such good eyes it can perceive both polarized light, and hyperspectral colour vision. Their eyes (both mounted on mobile stalks and constantly moving about independently of each other) are similarly variably coloured, and are considered to be the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom.


Rows 1–4 of the midband are specialised for colour vision, from ultra-violet to infra-red."

Such complexity for a rather obscure creature most people have never heard of! And in addition to his amazing eyesight, the creature has “fists” of iron!

"They are notoriously difficult to catch when established in a well-stocked tank and although there are accounts of them breaking and destroying glass tanks, such incidents are very rare."

07 July, 2010 18:33  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Infidel, I apologize for multiple comments. When I posted the first comment this am, blogger threw me off of your comment page and it did not record the comment as it usually does.

I came back and did a repost, and the same thing happened twice.

Then I looked at the comment section and found the original one was here afterall.

Blogger's been having comment probs. I've had them over at my blog as well.

07 July, 2010 18:37  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Hi, Shaw -- I did post the newer version of the comment because of the extra two paragraphs at the end. I've been seeing those comment problems for a couple of days, on this blog and elsewhere. Hope they get it fixed soon!

08 July, 2010 02:18  
Anonymous Tim said...

I loved this piece. It was thought provoking and gave me a chance to ponder. I was thinking of people, who are void of emotion. Who perhaps can kill or injure someone without any thought what so ever. Is that part of their brain not developed...If not could it be stimulated enough to change the person's empathy towards others...
Could we use it on teabaggers?? I had to throw that in,,sorry...

09 July, 2010 06:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks, Tim. That's an interesting question. I do think that some people are born without natural empathy or a sense of right and wrong, and that this is a kind of birth defect, just as in cases where people are born deaf or missing a finger or hand. It's probably traceable to some physical defect in the brain, which we could see if we only knew what to look for.

When the brain is thoroughly understood, such defects will probably be repairable, but to make such modifications to a brain without the person's consent would raise very dangerous ethical issues -- in fact, I wouldn't want to see it allowed. You can imagine the dangers which such authority and power would pose in the wrong hands (such as "curing" people who are not sociopaths but merely have different opinions, like teabaggers -- and remember, we cannot know what kind of political tendency will be dominant 20-30 years from now when such technology becomes widely available).

Some sociopaths might recognize that they are defective and consent to have their brains repaired. For those who don't, I would rather see them stay locked up but sick than violate their free will -- for the sake of the security of my own free will.

09 July, 2010 06:21  
Blogger Veronica Stetter said...

Your blog is extremely interesting...I'm not sure how much I can agree with you on your views regarding technology, but I definitely share your awe of the beauty and mystery of our unaided senses.

I think you may be more spiritual than you think...for some amazing further research I would highly suggest LSD, if you haven't already tried. Really puts you in touch with the absolute rawest of your senses and for many people completely trumps any notion of materialism/technology, at least for a day. I understand if you're opposed but just a suggestion!

I will definitely be back to read future posts.

09 July, 2010 10:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Hi Veronica, thanks for visiting. I hope you'll continue to find it interesting -- I cover a lot of topics.

I absolutely am not "spiritual", but of course that word means different things to different people.

I wouldn't trust the veracity of any conclusion I reached while under the influence of LSD (I've had enough experience of how even alcohol can distort one's judgment), and from what little I know about it, it doesn't sound particularly safe. I suspect that the LSD experience will be safely replicatable in a couple of decades, though -- using the very kind of technology I'm talking about here.

Thanks again.

09 July, 2010 12:07  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home