I arrive in New York after a long and slow train from Boston to Penn Station (surely a place specifically designed to confuse foreign travelers?) The constant rains have hit the trains hard and I was lucky to make it. (The rain kept coming putting large parts of the east coast under water and the service was later suspended due to flooding.) The delays mean I hit the New York rush hour carrying my luggage, which is about as much fun as gallstones. I make it to Lounge 47 in Long Island City to meet gent and scholar Adrian Mukasa, the wise-cracking videographer I met in this bar during my last visit and who has generously found me an apartment in Queens for my stay. We catch up over some beers before I head to the apartment. It’s blissfully quiet, which is just about the most important thing anywhere I sleep needs to be (and completely unlike my flat in London which is assailed from all sides by the lives and loves of my neighbours).
Today I meet my editor at Penguin Avery, the quietly formidable Rachel Holtzman. We have lunch at the swanky Marea restaurant bordering Central Park. Rachel has a kind of steely-softness that New York specialises in. She’s got a kind heart, but I suspect suffers fools about as gladly as the Vatican would respond to public conversion to catholicism by Gary Glitter right now. I’m glad to hear she’s happy with the four chapters I’ve delivered so far, and that the publicity and sales people at Penguin have responded well to the book (indeed, I’m to meet them, and the publisher Bill next Tuesday). Talking to Rachel also helps me begin to pull together some ideas about how the book’s narrative will play out. Most exciting however is that she’s brought a mock up of a front cover, and it’s brilliant. It’s simple but has a New Yorker kind of vibe. As soon as it’s finalised (we discussed a few tweaks) I hope to post it up here.
I spend the afternoon in the main branch of the New York public library preparing for tomorrow’s interview with Chris Anderson, CEO of the mighty TED talks. I’m hoping Chris will help me pull together some of the threads and trends I’ve been battling with, in short, to help me make sense of everything. Given that the TED talks are a nexus for the presentation and discussion of new ideas and ways of seeing the world Chris is probably in the top ten people assailed by the most new ideas on a regular basis on the planet – and so, I hope, has managed to develop a way of bringing them all together into a coherent world view, or (more likely), a coherent attitude to approaching the future.
After all, on one side you have James Lovelock who says, there’s no way to save the planet and on the other you have Ray Kurzweil who, as I reported in a recent post, says ‘Malthusian concerns’ about us using up the world’s resources are facile because they assume nothing in technology changes (i.e. we can engineer ourselves out of the climate crisis – and indeed just about anything else we care to think of). Meanwhile, in the middle you have eco-pragmatists like Stewart Brand (who I hope to interview in a couple of weeks) whose Whole Earth Discipline is described as ‘an eco-pragmatist manifesto’. (You can see Stewart talk about ‘four environmental heresis’ here.
I had hoped to pop in to see Cleveland Cutler at Boston University today to discuss the ‘nuclear renaissance’ but despite agreeing to an interview and numerous phone calls and e-mails to chase (including several chats to his administrator who assures me Cleveland will ‘call me back’) there has been a deathly, and let’s be honest, outrageously rude silence from the professor, not even a simple “I’m sorry, I need to cancel”. Having extended my stay in Boston (and my imposition on Tracy’s hospitality) to make time for this meeting I find this, well, just a bit arsey and disappointing. I must think of a suitably cutting joke about baldy geographers.
Instead I head into Cambridge and say hello to the personal robotics lab. Sadly both arch-enemy of lazy writers Polly Guggenhiem and uber-robotics pioneer Cynthia Breazeal aren’t there, but the ever-friendly Dan Stiehl who I met last time is on hand and I do get to see Nexi (the lab’s latest sociable robot in action). In tune with the lab’s focus on human-robot relationship Nexi is interacting with a young boy, no older than eight who finds Nexi’s human-like tracking of his movements as he dances in front of her enthralling. Despite being made of moulded white plastic Nexi’s face can express a whole gamut of emotions – her big eyes blinking, her white plastic ‘eyebrows’ moving, her mouth expressing slack jaw boredom (when not much is happening) to tight lipped interest (if the boy is doing something intriguing) or annoyance (if the boy gets too close). It’s startling to see how quickly all of us just accept Nexi as somehow sentient.
I give Nexi a personality. In fact, I can’t help myself, because this is a robot that acts in a, well, recognisably human way (and is therefore the exact opposite of Keanu Reeves). This is no accident. This is exactly what the Personal Robotics lab wants you to do.
“We put people at the core of what we’re trying to do,” explained Cynthia last time I was here. “A lot of work in robotics is still very focused on technology but in our lab we put these robots in front of real people so we can understand their impact. My group takes the relationship between social robots and people seriously and are trying to design for both sides. It’s not just about having the robot understand people, we’re trying to make people understand the robot so you’re naturally able to use your own way of thinking about the world to understand what must be going on in the mind, so to speak, of the robot.”
Mind of the robot? Let’s not get into that here, I have two chapters that address the subject of Artificial Intelligence in the book…
In the meantime, check out this animation of Nexi that demonstrates her range of facial expressiveness.
Last time I was in Boston it was gloriously sunny. This time Boston is alternatively a nipple hardening freeze-fest, or worse-than-London-in-February festival of rain. Still, a weekend in Boston is not to be sniffed at. This weekend I’ll see a performance and then be in one.
I head to the Boston Public Library, a fantastic edifice to erudition and, conveniently, next to the half price theatre tickets booth in Copley Square where I randomly pick my evening’s entertainment – a play called ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’ by British playwright Joe Orton. I was hoping to see how an American cast would handle the peculiarly English quirks of Orton’s dark humour (and the accents). It turns out the cast is all British, which is no doubt good for the play, but ruins some of my fun.
The library is one of those beautiful, old school, vaulted ceiling places and I feel all proper and Bostonian as I write. My pre-theatre dinner is jollied by a conversation about technology and faith with the sociable Ellis, a Methodist preacher in a sharp suit, with an easy laugh who laments his church’s inability to keep pace with modern means of communication.
Today I stay at Tracy’s flat to read. Tracy herself is out an about for most of the day, including a trip to church with her mum who is aggressively intrigued by me. “Hello,” I say. “I’m staying with Tracy for a few days.” “I can see that!” she exclaims “But who are you?!” I get the impression she thinks I may be some decidedly unsavoury love interest of her daughter’s and when I tell her I’m in Boston researching a book this is met with suspicion but, ultimately, a request for a free copy. Tracy later tells me that her mother is a selfless servant of others and has “difficulty chilling out”.
That evening Tracy has arranged for a group of her (sociable and likeable) friends to see me do a brief set at Harvard’s Comedy Studio, arguable the most intelligent crowd, well, anywhere. It’s the sort of crowd that tends to heckle with technical points, rather than disdain. I don’t get any heckles, but after my set (which, I have to say, went rather well) one medical researcher did approach me to question my reading of a neuro-anatomy paper that forms the basis of one of my routines. Only in Harvard.
As is the tradition at the Comedy Studio after the show the comics and Rick Jenkins (the owner, and tonight’s generous compere) descend to the Karaoke Bar below to listen to drunk students ruin soft rock hits from the eighties (as if those weren’t bad enough already). Tracy takes a rather brilliant photo that juxtaposes Rick and the Karaoke lyrics to a diVinyls hit.
It’s amazing how quickly you can accept international travel as work-a-day. When I started my journey a flight heralded a feeling of adventure in me. Now, it’s like getting in a car. Another thing that’s changed is my attitude to my interviewees. When I first secured an interview with my quarry in Boston I was slightly intimidated. ‘How do you talk to someone like that?’ I asked myself, the ‘that’ in question being Ray Kurzweil. Now, as I come to end of my journey and try to tie it all together I find less trepidation in myself. I’ve spent the last year meeting extraordinary people, and I’ve got used to it. Turns out extraordinary people have plenty enough ordinary about them to get hold of.
I arrive in Boston, deal with the ever rude and superior immigration staff and am picked up by Tracy Wemett, who you may remember as Konarka’s PR woman and driver of some, shall we say, reckless enthusiasm. Tracy, on hearing of my return to Boston has generously offered me her basement for the week, which makes a welcome change from hotels. Still, we’ve got to get to her apartment alive which, given her driving, is not a certainty.
Since I saw Tracy last it seems I haven’t been the only one to notice her maverick approach to the road. One speeding ticket too many and she’s been required to take a driving education course by the state of Massachusetts. The results are reassuring. She tells me, “I was told I’m the sort of person who will make a road where there isn’t one.” She pauses. “Apparently that’s not good.”
I spend the next day preparing for my interview with Ray. (I also take a visit to meet genius-entrepreneur Howard Berke at Konarka, who was, like many genius-entrepreneurs, a mixture of enthralling, socially odd and genuinely entertaining. More on him in my chapter on Solar).
Ray Kurzweil is variously an inventor, guru, madman, prophet or genius depending on who you listen to. One indisputable truth is that Ray is a very good inventor. He invented the first machine that could scan text in any font and convert it into a computer document, a technology he applied to building a reading machine for the blind (which led to him, on the side, inventing the flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer too). Stevie Wonder was the first customer – and this in turn led to Ray inventing a new breed of electronic synthesizers that captured the nuances of traditional ones. (In a former life as a musician I coveted the ‘Kurzweil K2000’ but not being very successful musician I could never afford one). Our interview opens in much the same way as Ray’s last book The Singularity is Near (hereafter referred to as TSIN). “The philosophy of my family, the religion, was the power of human ideas and it was personalised,” he says. “My parents told me, ‘you Ray can find the ideas to overcome challenges whether they’re grand challenges of humanity, or personal challenges’ ”.
Ray’s journey to visionary genius/ techno-prophet/ crazy person (delete as appropriate depending on your prejudices) had its genesis in his attempt to work out a way to time his inventions for maximum impact. “I realized that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can’t get them to work but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment,” he writes on page three of TSIN. So Ray started looking at technology trends and he saw something extraordinary – a clear, unmistakable pattern of exponential innovation, something he calls ‘the law of accelerating returns’ – a phenomenon centred around the idea that technology regularly doubles in efficiency. Such doubling is seen, for instance, in the increasing processing power of computers. Reality has kept pace with the predictions of ‘Moore’s law’ with almost unwavering allegiance, with performance per dollar doubling about every 18 months. But Ray says the effects of the law can be found, well, nearly everywhere, that the law of accelerating returns is the governing law of all creation.
To understand the implications of Ray’s idea you have to get your head around how potent a force it is if something has the propensity to double. Think of it this way. Let’s say you travel a metre with each step you take. If you take ten steps you’ll have covered ten metres. Now imagine that instead of each step progressing one metre, it somehow doubles the distance you covered with the last one. So while your first step covers one metre, your second covers two and by your third your stride is four metres. The difference between ‘normal stepping’ you and ‘doubling stepping’ you is extreme and gets ever more so. As a doubling stepper your first ten steps will cover not ten metres, but one thousand and twenty four. Instead of covering the equivalent of about 1/10th of a football field you’ve covered over ten. And with your next step you’ll cover ten more – with the step after that covering another twenty whole pitches.
By the time you’ve done just 27 steps you’ve traversed 67 million metres, or to put it another way, you’ve gone one and a half times round the world. Your next step? You double that distance and do another 67 million metres. At this rate you could walk to the sun and back (and be 85% of the way to Mars) in 38 steps (your last step having covered 137,438,953,000 metres). One can only imagine the trousers you’d need. Meanwhile, normal stepping you is about a third of the way down a football pitch. Now, of course, you can’t step like that but technology, says Ray, can. And he’s not wrong.
Certainly on my trip I’ve seen other examples of mankind’s exponential adventure, in the plummeting cost of genome sequencing, or the ‘cost per watt’ performance of solar technologies for example. Ray cites these examples and others. The first hundred pages of TSIN almost bludgeons the reader with graph after graph, based on historical data showing exponential growth in the number of phone calls per day, cell phone subscriptions, wireless network price-performance, computers connected to the internet, internet bandwidth and so on. These all have a computing flavour, but Ray sees exponential growth of knowledge too, citing exponential growth in nanotechnology patents as an example. What about the economy? Ray plots exponential growth in the value of output per hour (measured in dollars) in private manufacturing and in the per-capita GDP of the US. Ray quotes example after example because he want us to get past what he sees as an inherit prejudice in our human thinking.
“Our intuition is linear and I believe that’s hard-wired in our brains. I have debates with sophisticated scientists all the time, including Nobel prize winners that take a linear projection and say “it’s going to be centuries before we…” and “we know so little about…” and here you can fill in the blank depending on their field of research. They just love to say that. But they’re completely oblivious to the exponential growth of information technology and how it’s invading one field after another, health and medicine being just the latest.”
You can’t get to Mars in 39 steps wearing linear trousers (like the one’s most of our minds wear). You need exponential ones (like technology has). But because we’re hard-wired to think in linear, rather than exponential terms we fail to see when things are coming, argues Ray. We’ll be far further than we think, far quicker than we expect. Ray predicts for instance that by the middle of the century we’ll have artificial intelligence that exceeds human cognition, a game-changing explosion of intelligence that we will merge with to usher in the next stage in our evolution – a human-machine hybrid, enhanced with similar exponential bounty brought to us by entwined revolutions in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Aging will be ‘cured’ and we’ll be able to move onto a more stable platform than our frail biology. At the same time we’ll have solved the energy crisis and dealt conclusively with climate change.
“All these Malthusian concerns that we’re running out of resources are absolutely true if it were the case that the law of accelerating returns didn’t exist,” he says. “For instance, people take current trends in the use of energy and just assume nothing’s going to change, ignoring the fact that we have 10,000 times more energy that falls on the Earth from the Sun every day than we are using. So if we restrict ourselves to 19th Century technologies, these Malthusian concerns would be correct.” In other words, the law of accelerating returns in solar energy will soon see a green energy revolution, as the technology keeps doubling its efficiency. Ray reckons five years from now solar will be taking coal to the cleaners when it comes to cost per watt. We won’t be switching to solar because we want to save the planet, we’ll be doing it to save our bank accounts.
“I just had a debate this week at a conference held by The Economist with Jared Diamond who basically sees our civilization going to hell in a hand-basket and points out various trends and makes this assumption that technology is a disaster and only creates problems and he has really no data to point to, it’s just aphorisms and scoffing at technology with no analysis. But he’s got a bestselling book because people love to read about how we’re heading to disaster.”
Part of understanding what Ray is getting at requires you to understand that he sees all creation as an exercise in information processing. Everything can be expressed as data coming in, some kind of manipulation or interaction, and some data goes out. So, two atoms collide (data in), they interact in some way (data processing) and emit light and heat (data out). This is the most boring way ever to describe fire, but it doesn’t take away from the essential premise that everything can be viewed as a manipulation of information. In other words, everything (including you) is an ‘information technology’ and therefore the law of accelerating returns becomes the fundamental law that governs all creation.
In 1999 Ray published a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines in which he applied this law to make predictions, and handily he made a bunch for the decade from 2009. Critics and advocates alike have lept on these, loudly proclaiming “Ray was right!” or “Ray was wrong!” depending, it seems, on how they view the world – and all ignoring the fact that Ray didn’t say his predictions were for one year, but for the period beginning 2009. “Most of Kurzweil’s predictions are actually astoundingly accurate,” writes one blogger, while another asserts his forecasts are “ludicrously inaccurate.” Oh dear.
My own analysis is that, with the odd caveat, Ray seems to be on the right track with his predictions and many seem extremely prescient. According to Ray 89 are correct, 13 are “essentially correct”, three are partially correct, two are ten years off, and just one is wrong (but he claims it was tongue in cheek anyway). Certainly there is some pride in Kurzweil’s response to his critics and you could argue he’s stretching the point a bit when he defends some of his predictions, massaging the semantics of the prediction to match the current situation, but, all that aside, he’s still been right more often than he hasn’t. By anybody’s reckoning that’s prediction nirvana, and a skill any investor would love to have (oh, Ray’s latest venture? A hedge fund.)
But part of the problem with Ray Kurzweil, or rather part of the problem in talking about Ray Kurzweil is that he raises strong emotions. Trying to separate reasoned debate from the howl of emotion that his work provokes is hard. Take the view of Douglas R. Hofstadter, now a cognitive scientist at Indiana University, but more famously the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – an attempt to explain how consciousness can arise from a system, even though the system’s component parts aren’t individually conscious. (This is a key area of study for Ray too, because it is through reverse engineering the human brain that he believes we’ll be able to unlock the mechanisms of mind, replicate them in machines and so free ourselves from the biological limitations of our brain). Here’s what Hofstader has to say about Ray’s ideas:
“I find is that it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad. It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two…”
That’s like Stevie Wonder saying, “I can’t work out if Paul McCartney is a genius or a wanker”. Such is the trouble with talking about Ray. (You can see the full text of the interview this comes from here)
As I comment throughout An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the advance of new technologies, particularly biotechnology, make many people (including me) uncomfortable – and then Ray comes along and says, ‘belt up, things are going way faster than you thought, and by the way, that means I’m not going to die. Would you like to transcend your biology with me? Hurry now’. It’s no wonder our linear-trousered brains are stretched to the limit, no wonder some people find Ray just too difficult to engage with. And on the other side of the coin are those who do see Ray as some kind of prophet, whose ideas save them from the sticky issue of their mortality. Ray’s ‘Singularity’ – the moment at which ‘strong AI’ arrives and we merge with it – has been called “the Rapture of the nerds” (a phrase coined by science fiction author Ken MacLeod). These Utopian-techno-nerds don’t really help Ray’s cause. I advocate the approach of Juan Enriquez, the founder of Harvard Business Schools’ Life Science Project, and another Boston resident, who told me, “Do I always agree with Ray? No. Does he make me think? Always.”
It seems to me (from my linear trousered perspective) that progress in robotics, AI, synthetic biology and genomics brings philosophical questions such as “what does it mean to be human?” into your living room, and not in an ‘interesting-debate-over-a-glass-of-wine’ sort of way, but in a ‘right-in-your-face-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it?’ sort of way.
When the possibility that the hand your mate Robin lost to cancer three years ago can be replaced by a robotic one with a sense of touch becomes a real option we begin to ask ourselves, ‘Is that hand really part of Robin? If I shake that hand am I really shaking Robert’s hand? Gee I don’t know. I feel kinda weird’. (By the way, Robin isn’t fictional, he’s Robin af Ekenstam and you can watch a video of his new hand being attached here). And just as we can start to engineer robot hands and merge them with humans, we will soon, thanks to the law of accelerating returns, be able to engineer to genuine robot intelligence and merge it with our brains, argues Ray.
“The basic principles of intelligence are not that complicated, and we understand some of them, but we don’t fully understand them yet. When we understand them we’ll be able to amplify them, focus on them – we won’t be limited to a neo-cortex that fits into a less than one cubic foot skull and we certainly won’t run it on a chemical substrate that sends information at a few hundred feet per second, which is a million times slower than electronics. We can take those principles and re-engineer them and we’re going to merge them with our own brains”.
It’s statements like this that bring Ray into conflict with many scientists who think he’s not so much running before he can walk, as getting in jet fighter straight out of the crib. Although, for Ray, that’s kind of the point. Crib to jet fighter is really just a few doublings after all, the law of accelerating returns in action. But for some, Ray is a bit like Tracy. He makes a road where there isn’t one, they say.
One thing is certain. If a conscious human-like intelligence is ‘computable’ (i.e. it can be run on a machine substrate) the processing power to compute it will be within reach of the even your desktop very soon. Hans Moravec wondered, “what processing rate would be necessary to yield performance on par with the human brain?” and came up with the gargantuan figure of 100 trillion instructions per second, which is one of those numbers that generally makes most of us go “hmmm, I think I’ll make a cup of tea now.” To put this number in context, as I was ushered into the world in the early seventies IBM introduced a computer that could perform one million instructions per second. This is onemillionth of Moravec’s figure. By the dawn of the millennium chip-maker, AMD, were selling a microprocessor over three and half thousand times quicker (testament to a technological journey that had been populated with continual exponential leaps in processing power throughout the intervening period). This yielded a chip that is still 280 times less powerful than the brain’s computational prowess (by Moravec’s reckoning) but is a staggering upswing in power nonetheless. Intel have just released their ‘Core i7 Extreme’ chip which is forty times faster than the AMD device from 2000 and computes at the mind-numbing speed of 147,600,000,000 instructions per second – or about one seventh of Moravec’s figure. At this rate your new laptop will achieve the same computational speed as the human brain before the decade is out. Soon after that, if the exponential trend continues, your laptop (or whatever replaces it) will have more hard processing muscle than all human brains put together. This will happen sometime around the middle of the century according to Kurzweil.
Supercomputers have passed Moravec’s milestone and it’s therefore no surprise to find various projects using them to try to simulate parts of animal and human brains, merging neuroscience and computer science in an attempt to get to the bottom of what’s really going on in that skull of yours. It’s important to realise that simulating something often takes more computing power than being something (aircraft simulators have more computers than actual aircraft for instance) and a complete simulation of an entire human brain running in real-time is still beyond the reach of even the most powerful computers. But not for long. Henry Markram’s Blue Brain project (which works by simulating individual brain cells on different processors and then linking them together) believes “It is not impossible to build a brain, and we can do it in ten years.” He’s even joked (or not, depending on how seriously you take the claim) he’ll bring the result to talk at conferences. Markram has similarly upset more conservative voices in the AI field. Even Ray thinks he’s over-optimistic. (The prediction falls outside the curve predicted by Ray’s graphs by a hefty margin).
You can see Markram’s TED talk (where he suggests he’ll be bringing the Blue Brain back to the conference as a speaker within a decade) below.
I find myself thinking back to my talk with George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. If you accept evolution as an explanation of how humanity came to be, that the common genetic code of all living things is proof that you, I and Paris Hilton all, at some point, evolved from the same source (that source being a collection of molecules that became the first cell) then one way of looking at the human being (and therefore the human brain) is ‘simply’ as a collection of unthinking tiny bio-machines computing away – reading genetic code, and spewing out ‘computed’ proteins and the rest. We’re machines too, just wet biological ones. You are an information technology.
Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks makes this argument as well. “The body, this mass of biomolecules, is a machine that acts according to a set of specified rules,” he writes in Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines
Needless to say, many people bristle at the use of the word “machine”. They will accept some description of themselves as collections of components that are governed by rules of interaction, and with no component beyond what can be understood with mathematics, physics and chemistry. But that to me is the essence of what a machine is, and I have chosen to use that word to perhaps brutalize the reader a little.
In short, intelligence and consciousness are computable, because you and I are computing it right now. I compute, therefore I am. George Church was less brutal in his take on the ‘human machine’. “I think of us more and more as mechanisms,” he told me. “We’re starting to see more and more of the mechanism exposed and it just makes it more impressive to me, not less. If someone showed me a really intricate clock or computer that had emotions and self awareness and spirituality and so forth I’d be very, very impressed and I think that’s where we are heading, were we can be impressed by the mechanism.”
But something’s not sitting right with me, and it’s not that I don’t like being called a ‘machine’ (believe me, that’s nothing compared to some of the heckles I’ve had). In fact, the machine metaphor makes a kind of sense given what I found out at Harvard.
It was Cynthia Breazeal, head of the personal Robotics lab who I met last time I was in Boston that expressed it best. “The bottom line is there’s still a long way to go before we can have a simulation actually doanything. I mean they can run the simulation but what is it doing that can be seen as being intelligent? How does that grind out into real behaviour, where you show it something and have it respond to it? I still think there’s a lot of understanding that needs to be done. I do, I really do. I think we’re making fantastic strides but I think,” (she dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, smiling) “there’s a lot we still don’t know!”
Cynthia nailed the root of my discomfort. Someone can give you the best calculator in the shop, but if you’ve never learned any maths, it’s largely useless to you. If the brain is computable, it’s not that we won’t have the processing power to recreate its mechanisms, but that we’re still a long way off working out how to drive that simulation. If you’d never learned to read your eyes could take in the shape of every letter on this page, but it’d mean nothing to you, and printing it out photocopying it a hundred times (or even inventing the printer and photocopying machine in order to do so) wouldn’t help you either. Just as you had to learn to read, AI and neuroscience research, collectively, have to tease out not only what it is they’re looking at, but what it means.
Sure, there’s exponential growth in processing power, but the jury is out as to whether there is an equivalent growth in understanding how to use that power more ‘intelligently’, to create (to paraphrase one of Henry Markram’s analogies) a concerto of the mind by playing the grand piano of the brain. If there had been, maybe your new laptop would be one-seventh as smart as you are. But it isn’t. This is where the strength of projects like the Blue Brain (and Cynthia’s work) really lie – as tools to slowly help us to pose the right questions that will lead to a better understanding of intelligence, emotion and consciousness.
This is what I really want to ask Ray. “Have you got any graphs that clearly show an exponential growth in understanding? or in the ability of us to collectively make sense of the great philosophical questions, the intractable questions – ‘What is life?’, ‘What is consciousness?’” I ask. “Have we seen the law of accelerating returns in our understanding of these questions? Is our knowledge, our wisdom also keeping pace?”
“Well, I’m actually working on that in connection with my next book which is called How the mind works and how to build one,”says Ray.
Well he would be, wouldn’t he?
More of my interview with Ray will, of course, be in the book…
I’m about to set off on the road again – heading to the US to interview singulatarian Ray Kurzweil, eco-nuclear advocate Cleveland Cutler, Google Vice President and ‘father of the internet’ Vint Cerf, TED conferences CEO Chris Anderson, Google environment honcho Dan Reicher, Stuart Witt – the general manage of Mojave Spaceport, the good people of XCOR spaceplanes and, if all goes well, nanotech genius Eric Drexler and ‘eco-pragmatist’ Steward Brand… I’ll also be fitting in a short gig Harvard’s Comedy Studio (arguably the nicest room on the East Coast).
Those who follow this blog will know it’s been in hiatus as I’ve got down to actually writing the book, and to prove I’ve been working I thought I post up a taster – to whit, the first sections of the first three chapters. Naturally these will change before publication, but I hope they whet your appetite and I’ll be blogging as I hit the US.
“The World’s Most Dangerous Idea”
Getting older is no problem. You just have to live long enough. – Groucho Marx
I’m on a train to Oxford wondering how long I am going to live.
This isn’t because I think we’re about to crash, nor is it a reaction to the sandwich First Great Western have just sold me. It’s because a few weeks ago the stalking horse of Mortality popped into my head and, without invitation, asked, “what are you going to do with the rest of your life then?” (Mortality, it turns out, sounds a lot like my father). Whatever the answer, one thing I do know is that my future will play out in a world different to the one we’ve all grown up in.
The times they are a-changin’ sang Bob Dylan as the sixties got into the full flow of social revolution. Fifty years later there’s another revolution going on. Population is rocketing, the planet is becoming urban (over half us now live in cities), medicine is curing the previously incurable and ninety year olds take parachute jumps[i], spaceships are owned by businessmen, the climate is changing and the world’s knowledge is available to anyone with an internet connection.
So I’m setting out on a journey that I hope will tell me what the world of my future will look like, and help me answer the most personal and yet the biggest of questions. A question all of us ask.
But first I need to work out how much ‘next’ I’m likely to see. Or, to put it another way – how long have I got? How long is my future?
The answer I’ll find in Oxford challenges everything.
Life is rather like a tin of sardines – we’re all of us looking for the key. – Alan Bennett
On the 26th June 2000, approximately 22.5 kilograms of carbon, 70 kilograms of water, 2.5 kilograms of nitrogen, 1.4 kilograms of calcium, and a half-kilogram mix of 54 other elements (including just over a tenth of a milligram of uranium and enough phosphorous to make 2,500 cigar-lighting matches) walked into the East Room of the White House.
“Nearly two centuries ago, in this room, on this floor, Thomas Jefferson and a trusted aide spread out a magnificent map,” said then US president Bill Clinton. The map in question was the result of the first coast-to-coast overland exploration of the United States and the ‘trusted aide’ was Meriwether Lewis. But Bill had come to talk about another map. “Without a doubt the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by human kind.” Was it true? Had they finally found a guide to the location of Rupert Murdoch’s soul?
Seventeen years earlier a man called George Church and a handful of his peers suggested making the map Bill was actually referring to; a completed ‘human genome’ – a writing down of the genetic cookbook from which each human is uniquely baked. It’s a cookbook small enough to be stored in nearly every one of your cells but contains enough information to explain why one bag of mostly oxygen, hydrogen and carbon is Bill Clinton, while a similar quantity of exactly the same stuff is you.
The accolade for sequencing the human genome was grudgingly shared by Celera Genomics (co-founded by Craig Venter) and a publicly funded international effort led by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Actually Venter’s team did it better, faster and over ten times cheaper[i]. They also tried to patent much of the knowledge.
Subsequent outcry from press, public and many scientists, along with some hastily prepared legislation put the kibosh on such capitalistic ambitions. Celera’s stock price plummeted. Venter got fired and he ruefully remarked later, “my greatest success is that I managed to get hated by both worlds.”[ii] But he had birthed a new era.
Even though you can’t read the cookbook, your cells (and now technology) can – and getting hold of a copy (otherwise known as ‘having your genome sequenced’) could one day play a part in saving your life, as well as changing the normal experience of going to the doctor after you get ill, to hardly having to visit them because you didn’t get ill in the first place.
[i] Private vs. Public Sequencing Effort, page 110, As The Future Catches You, Juan Enriquez, first paperback edition, Three Rivers Press
My momma always said ‘life was like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get’. – Forrest Gump
The biotech revolution goes way beyond the realm of human medicine – making it without doubt one of the most important stories of our age. Every living organism has a genome, cookbooks we’re now learning how to edit – the ‘genetic modification’ that occupies so many headlines. The twin sibling of personal genomics is synthetic biology – the tools, techniques and knowledge that today allow us to recode cells and (within “a year or two” thinks George) enable us to fabricate entirely new ones to our own designs.
Such things, not unreasonably, give a lot of people pause for thought. Fiddling with life is something many of us believe should be reserved for more divine engineers than ourselves, the argument being that biology isn’t a tool to be re-programmed in the same way we load software into our iPhones. Others echo the view of biologist (and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) James Watson who said, “If we don’t play God, who will?”
One man – who, some critics argue, already thinks he is God – is Craig Venter. As the CEO and Chairman of Synthetic Genomics he has stated (with only a smidgen of irony) that he has the “modest goal” of using synthetic biology “to replace the whole petrochemical industry”. One way he hopes to do this is by genetically engineering algae to excrete diesel. He’s not joking, and to prove it he did a deal with every environmentalist’s favourite bad boy Exxon Mobil, who are ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into the idea.[i] This kind of investment isn’t an isolated event. San Francisco based LS9 (co-founder: one George MacDonald Church) have modified the genetics of E. Coli bacteria so that if you feed them sugar they make petroleum – attracting the attentions (and the money) of oil giant Chevron.
This isn’t science fiction. You can visit LS9’s pilot plant in San Francisco, pour a gallon of their bacterially produced gasoline into your car and drive off. A plant with 2.5 million gallons of annual capacity is underway[ii]. Want more? Venter has a life form on the drawing board that makes fuel after eating carbon dioxide – a potential ‘one stop’ solution to both the climate and energy crises. Elsewhere, Joule Biotechnology are already using genetically altered photosynthesizing bacteria to take in waste CO2, mix it with sunlight, and make petrol. (Joule’s scientific advisor? Er, G.M. Church). When Newsweek asked Venter if his fuels would work in today’s cars and energy systems he replied, “Basically everything we’re making will work in the existing infrastructure.”[iii] He calls it ‘fourth generation biofuels’. You call it petrol.
Having just got my head around the idea that we can read our code (and the code of everything else) it now seems that there’s plenty of people working on the idea of re-writing it – combining code from different organisms to make them do exciting and novel things. And with every organism on the planet being inexorably sequenced there’s one hell of a master cookbook of gene-recipes to choose from and combine.
How about a bacterium that makes biodegradable plastic?[iv] Or one that pumps out components for anti-malarial drugs?[v] Well, both already exist (both versions of E. Coli again). If you’re diabetic it’s almost certain your insulin supply is also produced by E. Coli bacteria whose genome has been tinkered with, and soon genetically modified plants will be producing it too[vi].
It’s not a short leap of the imagination (or, some argue, the technology) to design and breed a mosquito that immunizes you against malaria rather than giving it to you (a bug you actually want to get bitten by) or to recode diseased cells to make them healthy (like re-booting your computer, or upgrading its software).
But as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Spiderman both knew, with great power comes great responsibility.
 So does every virus. In fact the first genome to be sequenced was that of the snappily titled and bijou-genomed Bacteriophage MS2 virus, back in 1976.
 Watson has lost quite a lot of friends of late with overtly sexist and racist remarks. If anyone’s going to play God, I hope it’s not Watson.
E. Coli, I find out, is a family of bacteria that are a workhorse species in genetics. That’s because they have a ‘simple’, and therefore an easily fiddled-with, genetic make-up. Despite the bad reputation the bacteria get from a few black sheep in the family it’s generally a benign bug. You have a whole bunch in your gut right now generating Vitamin K2 (a vitamin also found in lots of those uber-healthy dark green vegetables like spinach).
[v]http://www.springerlink.com/content/h0461211537185u0/ – Expression of a synthetic Artemesia annua amorphadiene synthase in Aspergillus nidulans yields altered product distribution – David Lubertozzi and Jay D. Keasling – Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology – July 24th,2008