Logical succession, Part 2.

Last week the topic was Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2030, not only would we send nanobots into our bloodstream by way of the capillaries, but they would target the neocortex, set up shop, connect to our brains and beam our thoughts and other contents into the Cloud (somewhere). Kurzweil is no crackpot. He is a brilliant scientist, inventor and futurist with an 86 percent accuracy rate on his predictions. Nevertheless, and perhaps presumptuously, I took issue with his prediction, but only because there was an absence of a logical succession. According to Coates,

“…the single most important way in which one comes to an understanding of the future, whether that is working alone, in a team, or drawing on other people… is through plausible reasoning, that is, putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time” (Coates 2010, p. 1436).1

Kurzweil’s argument is based heavily on his Law of Accelerating Returns that says (essentially), “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” The rest, in the absence of more detail, must be based on faith. Faith, perhaps in the fact that we are making considerable progress in architecting nanobots or that we see promising breakthroughs in mind-to-computer communication. But what seems to be missing is the connection part. Not so much connecting to the brain, but beaming the contents somewhere. Another question, why, also comes to mind, but I’ll get to that later.

There is something about all of this technological optimism that furrows my brow. A recent article in WIRED helped me to articulate this skepticism. The rather lengthy article chronicled the story of neurologist Phil Kennedy, who like Kurzweil believes that the day is soon approaching when we will connect or transfer our brains to other things. I can’t help but call to mind what one time Fed manager Alan Greenspan called, “irrational exuberance.” The WIRED article tells of how Kennedy nearly lost his mind by experimenting on himself (including rogue brain surgery in Belize) to implant a host of hardware that would transmit his thoughts. This highly invasive method, the article says is going out of style, but the promise seems to be the same for both scientists: our brains will be infinitely more powerful than they are today.

Writing in WIRED columnist Daniel Engber makes an astute statement. During an interview with Dr. Kennedy, they attempted to watch a DVD of Kennedy’s Belize brain surgery. The DVD player and laptop choked for some reason and after repeated attempts they were able to view Dr. Kennedy’s naked brain undergoing surgery. Reflecting on the mundane struggles with technology that preceded the movie, Engber notes, “It seems like technology always finds new and better ways to disappoint us, even as it grows more advanced every year.”

Dr. Kennedy’s saga was all about getting thoughts into text, or even synthetic speech. Today, the invasive method of sticking electrodes into your cerebral putty has been replaced by a kind of electrode mesh that lays on top of the cortex underneath the skull. They call this less invasive. Researchers have managed to get some results from this, albeit snippets with numerous inaccuracies. They say it will be decades, and one of them points out that even Siri still gets it wrong more than 30 years after the debut of speech recognition technology.
So, then it must be Kurzweil’s exponential law that still provides near-term hope for these scientists. As I often quote Tobias Revell, “Someone somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”

There remain a few more nagging questions for me. What is so feeble about our brains that we need them to be infinitely more powerful? When is enough, enough? And, what could possibly go wrong with this scenario?

Next week.


1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
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Logical succession, please.

In this blog, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that of all the people I talk (or rant) about most is Ray Kurzweil. That is not all that surprising to me since he is possibly the most visible and vociferous and visionary proponent of the future. Let me say in advance that I have great respect for Ray. A Big Think article three years ago claimed that
“… of the 147 predictions that Kurzweil has made since the 1990’s, fully 115 of them have turned out to be correct, and another 12 have turned out to be “essentially correct” (off by a year or two), giving his predictions a stunning 86% accuracy rate.”

Last year Kurzweil predicted that
“ In the 2030s… we are going to send nano-robots into the brain (via capillaries) that will provide full immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system and will connect our neocortex to the cloud. Just like how we can wirelessly expand the power of our smartphones 10,000-fold in the cloud today, we’ll be able to expand our neocortex in the cloud.”1

This prediction caught my attention as not only quite unusual but, considering that it is only 15 years away, incredibly ambitious. Since 2030 is right around the corner, I wanted to see if anyone has been able to connect to the neocortex yet. Before I could do that, however, I needed to find out what exactly the neocortex is. According to Science Daily, it is the top layer of the brain (which is made up of six layers). “It is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language.”2 According to Kurzweil, “There is beauty, love and creativity and intelligence in the world, and it all comes from the neocortex.”3

OK, so on to how we connect. Kurzweil predicts nanobots will do this though he doesn’t say how. Nanobots, however, are a reality. Scientists have designed nanorobotic origami, which can fold itself into shapes on the molecular level and molecular vehicles that are drivable. Without additional detail, I can only surmise that once our nano-vehicles have assembled themselves, they will drive to the highest point and set up an antenna and, violå, we will be linked.


Neurons of the Neocortex stained with golgi’s methode - Photograph: Benjamin Bollmann
Neurons of the Neocortex stained with golgi’s methode – Photograph: Benjamin Bollmann

I don’t let my students get away with predictions like that, so why should Kurzweil? Predictions should engage more than just existing technologies (such as nanotech and brain mapping); they need demonstrate plausible breadcrumbs that make such a prediction legitimate. Despite the fact that Ray gives a great TED talk, it still didn’t answer those questions. I’m a big believer that technological convergence can foster all kinds of unpredictable possibilities, but the fact that scientists are working on a dozen different technological breakthroughs in nanoscience, bioengineering, genetics, and even mapping the connections of the neocortex4, doesn’t explain how we will tap into it or transmit it.

If anyone has a theory on this, please join the discussion.

1. http://bigthink.com/endless-innovation/why-ray-kurzweils-predictions-are-right-86-of-the-time
2. http://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neocortex.htm
3. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3257517/Human-2-0-Nanobot-implants-soon-connect-brains-internet-make-super-intelligent-scientist-claims.html#ixzz3xtrHUFKP
4. http://www.neuroscienceblueprint.nih.gov/connectome/

Photo from: http://connectomethebook.com/?portfolio=neurons-of-the-neocortex

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A facebook of a different color.

The tech site Ars Technica recently ran an article on the proliferation of a little-known app called Facewatch. According to the articles writer Sebastian Anthony, “Facewatch is a system that lets retailers, publicans, and restaurateurs easily share private CCTV footage with the police and other Facewatch users. In theory, Facewatch lets you easily report shoplifters to the police, and to share the faces of generally unpleasant clients, drunks, etc. with other Facewatch users.” The idea is that retailers or officials can look out for these folks and either keep an eye on them or just ask them to leave. The system, in use in the UK, appears to have a high rate of success.


The story continues. Of course, all technologies eventually converge, so now you don’t have to “keep and eye out” for ner-do-wells your CCTV can do it for you. NeoFace from NEC works with the Facewatch list to do the scouting for you. According to NECs website: “NEC’s NeoFace Watch solution is specifically designed to integrate with existing surveillance systems by extracting faces in real time… and matching against a watch list of individuals.” In this case, it would be the Facewatch database. Ars’ Anthony, makes this connection: “In the film Minority Report, people are rounded up by the Precrime police agency before they actually commit the crime…with Facewatch, and you pretty much have the same thing: a system that automatically tars people with a criminal brush, irrespective of dozens of important variables.”

Anthony points out that,

“Facewatch lets you share ‘subjects of interest’ with other Facewatch users even if they haven’t been convicted. If you look at the shop owner in a funny way, or ask for the service charge to be removed from your bill, you might find yourself added to the ‘subject of interest’ list.”

The odds of an innocent being added to the watchlist are quite good. Malicious behavior aside, you could be logged as you wander past a government protest, forget your PIN number too many times at the ATM, or simply look too creepy in your Ray Bans and hoody.

The story underscores a couple of my past rants. First, we don’t make laws to protect against things that are impossible, so when the impossible happens, we shouldn’t be surprised that there isn’t a law to protect against it.1 It is another red flag that technology is moving, too fast and as it converges with other technologies it becomes radically unpredictable. Second, that technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics.2

There are a host personal apps, many which are available to our iPhones or Androids that are on the precarious line between legal and illegal, curious and invasive. And there are more to come.


1 Quoting Selinger from Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.
2. Quoting Richards from Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/doj-calls-for-drone-privacy-policy-7-years-after-fbis-first-drone-launched/.
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