The Power of Imagination

By Charles Mueller

Sunday was an emotional day.  It was the 15th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in US history, the anniversary of 9/11.  That day is burned into the memories of the American people because its events defied what we believed was possible.  We will never forget because we will always remember the day the unthinkable became reality.

The official story that came out of the investigations of 9/11 to explain how it was able to occur highlighted a failure to imagine the kinds of horrors terrorists could unleash upon our nation.  In some ways this finding was ironic because it was our imagination that helped us land on the moon, invent the Internet, and harness the atom, all accomplishments in our climb to become the world’s only remaining superpower at the time.  On 9/11 though it somehow became our weakness.  By failing to take serious what might seem impossible, by failing to imagine the extremes people might go to hurt us, we created an opportunity that could be exploited.  The sad reality of that day is that many people saw the signs of what was coming, but we still chose to ignore it; we chose to refrain from imagining it could ever take place.

That day showed the real the power of imagination.  If you can imagine it, you can often make it real.  The terrorists imagined all that took place on 9/11 and because they believed, were able to inflict a wound on this country that may never fully heal.  As we move forward, continuing to recover from that day, we must never forget this lesson; we must never forget the power of imagination.

Today we live at a time where what was once the imagination of science fiction writers is now becoming reality.  We are on the cusp of being able to engineer all types of life, including ourselves, to have the traits and properties we desire.  We are on the verge of potentially creating sentient life fundamentally different than our own.  We have tools today that are enabling our imagination to translate into reality.  As amazing as the future can be, days like 9/11 remind us that there exist those that will ultimately try to use these new technologies and their imaginations to make the future worse.  We have to remember this as we start thinking about how to manage this brave new world.

In order to ensure the future is better than tomorrow, we have to use our imagination to consider all the different ways it can go right and wrong.  We have to imagine the future we want and then work together to figure out the right path to get there.  We cannot afford another failure of imagination moving forward because S&T has simply made the stakes too high.  Let’s use the power of imagination to create a better world and ensure 9/11 is a day we remember, not relive.

The Future of AI in Healthcare: No Doctors Required

By Kathryn Ziden

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the field of healthcare. Doctors are seemingly open to this change, as long as there still is a place for them in the system. But is this a reality? Will we need doctors in the future? In the short term, yes. In the long term, not likely.

A recent study by the market research firm Frost & Sulllivan estimates the AI market in healthcare will exceed $6 billion by 2021. AI is already making big advances in automated soft-tissue surgery, medical imaging, drug discovery, and perhaps its biggest success so far: using big data analytics to diagnose and treat disease. IBM’s Watson is already being used at 16 cancer institutes, and recently correctly diagnosed a rare form of leukemia in a Japanese woman, after conventional (human) methods had failed.

However, on the question of where this leads in the long term, there is a disconnect between technology forecasts and doctors’ opinions. Article after article on the future of AI in healthcare quotes doctors and healthcare professionals as predicting that computers/robots/AI will never be able to replace them. The reasoning of these professionals seem to fall into one of the following arguments, and reflects a we-are-too-big-to-fail attitude or a god complex on behalf of the doctors:

#1.) Doctors will always be needed to give that special, reassuring human factor. One doctor claims that she could never be replaced by a computer because patients routinely leave her office saying how much better they feel after just talking to her. Another doctor adds, “Words alone can heal.”

Rebuttal: Although the human factor may be vital, it does not require a medical degree to provide comfort or solace to a patient. Social workers, nurses or psychologists can fill this role.

#2.) Only doctors can pick up on nuanced subtleties of a patient’s mood, behavior or appearance to make a diagnosis. For example, one doctor posits that if a woman has ovarian pain or a missed menstrual period, a computer would never be able pick up on the fact that it could be caused by anxiety, stress, depression, a lack of sleep or over-mediation– the way a doctor can.

Rebuttal: AI systems could almost certainly be able to probe for these types of secondary causes through a patient’s facial cues, bloodwork and a line of questioning, the same way a doctor currently does.

#3.) Doctors will be assisted by AI in calculating diagnoses and treatment plans, but doctors will still be needed to make the final decision. A doctor’s decision-making process can account for additional variables.

Rebuttal: An AI framework has already been shown to make better medical decisions than human doctors. Doctors are prone to biases and human error; their decisions can be based on emotions, influenced by fatigue from a long day, and limited by the brain’s capacity to store and recall data.

#4.) Computers will never have a doctor’s intuition. Doctors have a “sixth sense” used in their diagnoses. Practicing medicine is an art.

Rebuttal: Intuition is pattern recognition; something computers are much better at. Medicine is an applied science that requires decision making (i.e. the “art” part). AI algorithms are already better at making medical decisions than doctors.

#5.) Doctors will still be needed to perform physical examinations.

Rebuttal: The idea of having a physical exam by a doctor is already going by the wayside. As one doctor puts it, “The physical exam was critical when it was all we had.” And in cases where a physical exam is needed, there is already a robotic glove that can perform a physical exam.

In the next 10 to 20 years, I believe we will see a human-AI hybrid healthcare system, where individuals will be more in control of their own healthcare. Successful doctors will need to change their practices and attitudes to cope with the emergence of new technologies. In the long term, however, our entire healthcare system will likely undergo an AI-ification, and the idea of human doctors and surgeons will be obsolete. But perhaps there will be an increased market for homeopathy or alternative medicine by patients who aren’t ready for this future either.

Doctors’ reluctance or inability to see a future in which they are not needed is a form of optimism bias and is something that all of us are susceptible to. A 2016 PEW Research Center study showed that 65% of respondents thought that robots and computers will take over jobs currently done by humans within the next 50 years; however, 80% of people said that it won’t be their job that is taken over. There is a disconnect. Nothing is more powerful than human delusion… except perhaps the efficiency and skillfulness of your future AI doctor.

A Declaration of Universal Rights

By Rebecca McCauley Rench

“An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental.”
–Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:341

The United States of America was created on the principles of equal, inalienable rights which we believe are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. While it took our nation over a century to recognize that these rights apply to individuals regardless of their gender, race, or any other superficial trait, we have continued to move towards a society where all individuals are equal in the eyes of the law.

The US Constitution was a statement of doctrine and we used that to define laws with the assumption that all men and women should have equal standing under the law. But today our scientists are on the verge of creating non-human sentience in the form of computer intelligence.  Our founders did not foresee the possibility of non-human sentience and we will need to change the assumption that humans are the only sentient beings to be considered by our doctrine. Any sentient being should have the equality and fair treatment that we have deemed necessary for our society. We should expand our concepts of rights beyond the human condition and see that these inalienable rights must be universal, and defined by key characteristics inclusive but not exclusive to humanity. These key characteristics include a minimum level of intelligence, free will, ability to communicate, and self awareness. Under common law today the mentally disabled and people unable to make a conscious choice are not responsible for their actions. However, all conscious and able minded individuals are responsible under the law.  Therefore, all sentient beings should be responsible for their actions and also afforded the liberties and rights of humans with the same intelligence abilities.

Many have proposed that new laws should be put in place to govern the treatment, liability, and rights of non-human beings that have artificial intelligence, yet our own history has proven that separate but equal does not work and is fundamentally incapable of holding all equal in the eyes of the law. As such, we propose a Declaration of Universal Rights to clearly provide all sentient beings with the same rights and privileges of human beings, regardless of the origination of their being. These rights should apply to all sentient beings.

In accordance with our commitment to equality, justice, and preservation of inalienable rights, the United States of America should view all sentient beings with equality in the eyes of the law.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all sentient beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are existence, freedom of thought, and the pursuit of purpose.

If I can talk to you, you deserve rights too.

by Rebecca McCauley Rench

The ability to communicate between two life forms is a defining characteristic in whether those beings deserve rights, and we should re-examine our current stance on non-human rights. Human civilization has been struggling with how we define the rights of individuals in our societies for millennia. We can see the evolution of civil rights from a time when rights were decided by your gender, your land ownership, your age, and the color of your skin. In fact, to think that these are not still deciding factors in the way someone is treated in the eyes of the law suggests a limited exposure to the variety of societies in the world. In the United States, we believe that fundamental civil rights are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. We are still not perfect, but we are continually improving our system and finding ways to be inclusive in those we grant rights.

However, how will we define a person as we begin to push the boundaries of integrating technology into our physiology and control over our genetics? How will we adapt those rights for life forms that do not fit into our current picture of a human yet are sentient beings? What does it mean to be a sentient life form and are there current beings on our planet that deserve more rights than we currently grant?

It is impossible to define a sentient being on their genetics as there is no one gene that makes one sentient nor is it necessary to have a genome to be a sentient being. As we begin to manipulate our own genome, integrate non-biological components into our physiology, and explore the Universe, defining a person by genomic similarity to a baseline is unlikely to hold up despite being very quantitative. The human race is full of genetic diversity and is not the same species it was 40,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors showed up today, would they have the same rights as all other humans on Earth or would we treat them differently in the eyes of the law? I do not think we would want to treat them differently if we uphold the values that urge us to grant rights to individuals. We do not interact with someone based off their genomic similarity to ourselves and this would completely negate the possibility of providing rights to alien life forms, silicon-based intelligence, and the emergence of new intelligent species on our own planet. The fundamental reasons we grant rights to all persons in society apply to these non-humans as well.

Perhaps the more important defining characteristic of being a sentient being deserving of rights is the ability to communicate with other sentient beings in society. For humanity, this has changed through time as we have moved from communication by verbal language, to written words, and now a plethora of media options. Soon we might even be able to communicate our thoughts directly with neural implants allowing us to have an even greater understanding to the ideas being shared. We would not deny a person of their rights in a court of law because we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We would spend time acquiring an interpreter to ensure that they could understand us as well as we understand them. We will face similar issues when communicating with other sentient non-humans and we should hold ourselves to the same standards of communication in those situations. This will become easier as we develop technologies that allow us to communicate directly with other species on our planet, such as neural implants that allow you to carry on a boring conversation with your house cat. Currently, we find ourselves capable of communicating with other primates through sign language and yet we do not provide them with the same rights as humans. Is this due to our inability to think outside the box on who deserves rights or rooted in our group definition of what it means to be a person? If we want to embrace a society where rights are granted to all sentient beings, we should re-examine the interactions we have with other life forms sharing our planet today. This would allow us to set standards and gradations in rights that can be easily adapted for the not too distant future. We already have gradations in rights that we give our children until they reach the age of majority, and these same guidelines can be used in determining the level of rights granted to varying levels of intelligence. This is a question we will have to tackle in the not too distant future as we continue to evolve and adapt humanity to a rapidly changing technological environment.

A Revolutionary Future

By Charles Mueller

At the Center for Revolutionary & Scientific Thought (CReST) we spend a lot of our time contemplating the future and imagining the kinds of impacts (both good and bad) science & technology (S&T) can have on the world.  We talk about S&T impacts in terms of 3 phases:

  • Phase I is where S&T changes the way an existing process is implemented, making it more efficient.
  • Phase II is where S&T leads to new processes that affect businesses, government and society
  • Phase III is where S&T leads to entirely new paradigms, with new systems, industries and/or governments.

Last night, with all the world watching the President’s last State of the Union (SOTU) address, I thought the President was finally going to say the things we at CReST have been saying.  I thought he was going to finally call out to the world that it is time to imagine the kind of future only created by the Phase II and III impacts of revolutionary S&T.  Instead he described a future where we only imagined a world changed by Phase I impacts.  A world of automation would change things, but a world where we co-exist with AI or communicate to each other with our thoughts would revolutionize things more.  I’m sorry Mr. President, but the next moon shot is not a cure to cancer, it would be closer to a cure to all disease.

I wish the President had painted a future maximized by the Phase III impacts of revolutionary S&T.  Maybe he didn’t paint that picture because he knows his audience.  Maybe we have become so obsessed with “now” that we’ve started to forget to imagine tomorrow.  Maybe we simply don’t know where to look anymore for information to help us imagine a future where anything is possible.

When we go to a restaurant we ask to see the menu; our leaders need to be distilling the kinds of futures S&T can foster into a menu.  People need to talk about this menu of the future, people need to get excited about this menu and people need to elect leaders that will bring some of the those items of the menu to the table.  While I am glad our President told us to think about the future, I had hoped he would talk about a bigger future, a bolder Phase III impact kind of future. There are many more items that should have been on his menu.

At CReST we will continue to do our best to communicate to the world about the important S&T, the ones whose Phase III impacts will revolutionize the world.  If we do it right, hopefully next year in the SOTU address we will hear of a future maximized by the benefits of revolutionary S&T and well prepared to deal with its potential misuses.

All I Want For Christmas Is The Future

Dear Santa,

This year I want something for the world. I want to bring a bright future to the people of today so that our lives can be better and more fulfilling.  There are technologies and areas of science that just need a little help to flourish into the kinds of things that can revolutionize our daily lives.  I have two things I really want this year Santa.

My first wish is for a tomorrow where the human experience is truly enhanced.  I want a world where my best friend can be a sentient robot, where I can visualize my dreams and memories on my iPhone, where I can surf the web and learn new languages using just my thoughts and where I can enhance things like my ability to think critically or recover from ailments by altering the code of my existence.

We live at a time where if we dedicate the time and resources into areas of science like artificial intelligence, biotechnologies and neurotechnologies we can literally start to make our dreams become a reality. My hope is that these opportunities will free people from the limitations nature puts on us and bring the world together in a new way.

My second wish is that I want to live in a world where the laws and rules are rational and make sense.  I want a life where I can be a citizen of the world, not bound by the borders of nations.  I wish for a world where governance embraces the digital reality of our times and evolves as the technology does.

We are a digital society and we should govern ourselves like one.  We could and should be doing things like creating education policy that leverages customized software interfaces built on fifty thousand years of human evolution where we learned by mentorship and not classrooms.  We can use S&T to create a smarter world, a more rational world and a more stable world, but in order to do that we have to change, we have to embrace a future of digital governance and evolve it.

I know these are big wishes, but that is why I need your help.

If we do it right the world will come together and we will realize our future today.

Charlie

New Intelligence

by Paul Syers

Who’s ready to be a cyborg? I am! In discussions about the future of intelligence, most people think about A.I. or bioengineering. With both technologies, people worry about the dangerous consequences. I see promise, however, in a third option: human enhancement through electronics. In today’s society, we have already developed a symbiotic relationship with technology. Why not embrace that symbiosis and enhance it for the betterment of mankind?

Instead of worrying about developing an independent intelligence in a computer that could one day overpower humanity, why not develop ways to use computers like just another organ? I imagine a future where our brains can interact directly with multiple soft A.I. programs, allowing us to outsource many functions – like sensory systems, memory storage, and data mining – while still using the human brain to retain overall awareness and analytic control.

Unlike genetic engineering, this type of intelligence augmentation would have the advantage of not being permanent. Humans could plug into and unplug out of the added capabilities. This allows us to continue to answer the question of “what it means to be human” on an individual level. Those who reject augmentation can opt out at any time and we can build in ways to reasonably prevent people from forcing augmentation on others.

Some might argue that intelligence augmented in this way is not human intelligence They cannot deny, however, that at least some part of it is human, and at least in the earliest stages, the human part will have control. Eventually this path leads to the ability to fully download a human brain into a computer, but there is much more understanding we can gain along the way.

There will still tough questions to answer, such as how best to provide access, how to ensure some amount of fairness, and who owns the products of augmented intellects. I think these questions, however, will be much easier to reach a consensus on than the questions brought up by fully independent A.I. or radical genetic manipulation. I see this hybrid approach as containing the possibility to create something that is better than the sum of its parts, while at the same time lessening the consequences of failure.

We already have many of the tools and knowledge to move in this direction. Microelectronics are more than cheap, small, and light enough. Advancements in prosthetics and other R&D projects are discovering how to make electronics talk to neurons. The research being done through the BRAIN initiative could also be harnessed to help us reach this goal, but sadly it is not. Mapping the brain is a noble goal, but it won’t lead to the advancements in medical technologies that it promises. Similar promises about curing diseases and genetic defects were made at the outset of the Human Genome Project and they have not materialized. With just a minor shift in the goals and policy of the BRAIN initiative, we could reap so many more benefits. Let’s do it, so that in a few years I can read this blog post directly on my retina.