Tag Archives: bioengineering

Disruption. Part 2.


Last week I discussed the idea of technological disruption. Essentially, they are innovations that make fundamental changes in the way we work or live. In turn, these changes affect culture and behavior. Issues of design and culture are the stuff that interests me and my research: how easily and quickly our practices change as a result of the way we enfold technology. The advent of the railroad, mass produced automobiles, radio, then television, the Internet, and the smartphone all qualify as disruptions.

Today, technology advances more quickly. Technological development was never a linear idea, but because most of the tech advances of the last century were at the bottom of the exponential curve, we didn’t notice them. New technologies that are under development right now are going to being realized more quickly (especially the ones with big funding), and because of the idea of convergence, (the intermixing of unrelated technologies) their consequences will be less predictable.

One of my favorite futurists is Amy Webb whom I have written about before. In her most recent newsletter, Amy reminds us that the Internet was clunky and vague long before it was disruptive. She states,

“However, our modern Internet was being built without the benefit of some vital voices: journalists, ethicists, economists, philosophers, social scientists. These outside voices would have undoubtedly warned of the probable rise of botnets, Internet trolls and Twitter diplomacy––would the architects of our modern internet have done anything differently if they’d confronted those scenarios?”

Amy inadvertently left out the design profession, though I’m sure she will reconsider after we chat. Indeed, it is the design profession that is a key contributor to transformative tech and design thinkers, along with the ethicists and economists can help to visualize and reframe future visions.

Amy thinks that voice will be the next transformation will be our voice,

“From here forward, you can be expected to talk to machines for the rest of your life.”

Amy is referring to technologies like Alexa, Siri, Google, Cortana, and something coming soon called Bixby. The voices of these technologies are, of course, only the window dressing for artificial intelligence. But she astutely points out that,

“…we also know from our existing research that humans have a few bad habits. We continue to encode bias into our algorithms. And we like to talk smack to our machines. These machines are being trained not just to listen to us, but to learn from what we’re telling them.”

Such a merger might just be the mix of any technology (name one) with human nature or the human condition: AI meets Mike who lives across the hall. AI becoming acquainted with Mike may have been inevitable, but the fact that Mike happens to be a jerk was less predictable and so the outcome less so. The most significant disruptions of the future are going to come from the convergence of seemingly unrelated technologies. Sometimes innovation depends on convergence, like building an artificial human that will have to master a lot of different functions. Other times, convergence is accidental or at least unplanned. The engineers over at Boston Dynamics who are building those intimidating walking robots are focused a narrower set of criteria than someone creating an artificial human. Perhaps power and agility are their primary concern. Then, in another lab, there are technologists working on voice stress analysis, and in another setting, researchers are looking to create an AI that can choose your wardrobe. Somewhere else we are working on facial recognition or Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality or bio-engineering, medical procedures, autonomous vehicles or autonomous weapons. So it’s a lot like Harry meets Sally, you’re not sure what you’re going to get or how it’s going to work.

Digital visionary Kevin Kelly thinks that AI will be at the core of the next industrial revolution. Place the prefix “smart” in front of anything, and you have a new application for AI: a smart car, a smart house, a smart pump. These seem like universally useful additions, so far. But now let’s add the same prefix to the jobs you and I do, like a doctor, lawyer, judge, designer, teacher, or policeman. (Here’s a possible use for that ominous walking robot.) And what happens when AI writes better code than coders and decides to rewrite itself?

Hopefully, you’re getting the picture. All of this underscores Amy Webb’s earlier concerns. The ‘journalists, ethicists, economists, philosophers, social scientists’ and designers are rarely in the labs where the future is taking place. Should we be doing something fundamentally differently in our plans for innovative futures?

Side note: Convergence can happen in a lot of ways. The parent corporation of Boston Dynamics is X. I’ll use Wikipedia’s definition of X: “X, an American semi-secret research-and-development facility founded by Google in January 2010 as Google X, operates as a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.”

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Logical succession, the final installment.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been discussing the idea posited by Ray Kurzweil, that we will have linked our neocortex to the Cloud by 2030. That’s less than 15 years, so I have been asking how that could come to pass with so many technological obstacles in the way. When you make a prediction of that sort, I believe you need a bit more than faith in the exponential curve of “accelerating returns.”

This week I’m not going to take issue with an enormous leap forward in the nanobot technology to accomplish such a feat. Nor am I going to question the vastly complicated tasks of connecting to the neocortex and extracting anything coherent, but also assembling memories, and consciousness and in turn, beaming it to the Cloud. Instead, I’m going to pose the question of, “Why we would want to do this in the first place?”

According to Kurzweil, in a talk last year at Singularity University,

“We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment…” 1

Another brilliant futurist, and friend of Ray, Peter Diamandis includes these additional benefits:

• Brain to Brain Communication – aka Telepathy
• Instant Knowledge – download anything, complex math, how to fly a plane, or speak another language
• Access More Powerful Computing – through the Cloud
• Tap Into Any Virtual World – no visor, no controls. Your neocortex thinks you are there.
• And more, including and extended immune system, expandable and searchable memories, and “higher-order existence.”2

As Kurzweil explains,

“So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world — it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”1

The future sounds quite remarkable. My issue lies with Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” or what I call humankind’s uncanny ability to foul things up. Diamandis’ list could easily spin this way:

  • Brain-To-Brain hacking – reading others thoughts
  • Instant Knowledge – to deceive, to steal, to subvert, or hijack.
  • Access to More Powerful Computing – to gain the advantage or any of the previous list.
  • Tap Into Any Virtual World – experience the criminal, the evil, the debauched and not go to jail for it.

You get the idea. Diamandis concludes, “If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.”

Nevertheless, we race forward. We discovered this week that “A British researcher has received permission to use a powerful new genome-editing technique on human embryos, even though researchers throughout the world are observing a voluntary moratorium on making changes to DNA that could be passed down to subsequent generations.”3 That would be CrisprCas9.

It was way back in 1968 that Stewart Brand introduced The Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Which lab is working on that?


1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2
2. http://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/crispr-gene-editing-human-embryos-kathy-niakan-britain.html?_r=0
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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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