A Host of Variables -- Part I -- Computers, Biotech, and Who Will Transcend First...

From: Ralph Cerchione (figment@boone.net)
Date: Sun Jul 17 2005 - 23:00:50 MDT

And here's one further article, from:


Recently I chimed in while others were debating at exactly what point 
computers will be sophisticated enough to simulate an entire human body at 
an incredibly precise scale... and then run medical trials on their virtual 
human. I commented...
"I haven't looked too closely at the numbers for a credible, molecular-level 
simulation of the human body -- at least, not in quite a while. But I'm 
willing to accept that nano-scale modelling of the human body may be 
possible in the not-too-distant future, even if the task turns out to be 
extraordinarily complex.
"Why? Because no matter the pace of computer hardware development 
post-silicon in 2020 or 2030, it's quite possible that by 2010 someone will 
say 'Hey, let's hook together a million Playstation 5s, and see what kind of 
processing we can do with that setup!'
"In other words, the outer limits of what supercomputers are capable of are 
not completely limited by Moore's Law, but by the willingness of innovators 
and large organizations to put together massive yet efficient computer 
architectures. Such as the massively parallel project I just suggested.
"And if one million Playstation 5s doesn't sound that impressive, imagine 
linking up five million, or fifty. Many massively parallel architectures are 
marked by the fact that no one has spent billions to construct them, and by, 
say, 2015, both our resources and our programming savvy should be much 
greater. Making ridiculously powerful designs possible for even smaller 
governments and less powerful corporations. And thus making possible 
implausibly advanced research in biotech and other key fields.
"And the above option represents only one potential computational 
innovation. Quantum computers, DNA processing, alternative substrates and 
basic nanotech all offer intriguing options -- and at least two of them are 
revolutionary in their potential."
And all of these variables represent only a few of the factors influencing 
just the field of computational hardware design. There are many more major 
variables that could impact the research and development process in this 
particular field. For example, what if the excess talented engineers in 
China and India get involved in this research in a far more substantial way, 
thus broadening the research base and increasing the number of top notch 
innovators working on key problems (as Microsoft started doing years ago in 
software when it located its third global research center in China).
Alternatively, what if there is a war between China and Taiwan? That would 
critically disrupt the international computer fabrication supply chain 
running down the side of East Asia and Southeast Asia. The chain would 
survive, by moving to other countries, but major players in the computer 
industry could be displaced from their positions, with unforeseen 
implications for the tech world, and tech researchers. Or there could be a 
huge government push (by the U.S., the EU, Japan, China, India and/or 
others) to develop nanotech, AI or simply supercomputers optimized for the 
most cutting-edge biotech work. Whether such a push would be wildly 
successful or utterly disastrous is beside the point. Whatever happened, 
enormous financial, human and technical resources would be diverted into a 
particular plan for achieving the desired breakthroughs.
And these are only political scenarios. But remember whenever someone starts 
telling you about the steady progress of Moore's Law over the decades... 
it's not a law of nature. And if political decisions can have a huge 
influence on near-term technological development, the interactions of 
seemingly unrelated fields could have an even greater impact.
Imagine what would happen if you had a computer efficiently sifting through 
medical journals and databases looking for the most ideal drugs, and 
developed an incredibly powerful nootropic (intelligence-boosting) drug... 
which was then taken by biotech and other researchers. Or if a new system of 
rudimentary nano-fabrication made supercomputers many generations smaller 
and more powerful, and enhanced that drug-sifting software, and also put 
immense processing power in the hands of each of those researchers, at a 
trivial price. Or if massively networked/parallel supercomputers using 
millions of processor nodes kicked both gene therapy and germline 
engineering into high gear and made genetic superhumans possible... and 
cheap enough to convert whole populations as desired.
Or if several advanced and developing countries used basic mindtech (such as 
floatation tanks and biofeedback) and accelerated learning and creativity 
enhancement methods to train a few hundred million genius to slightly 
better-than-genius scientists and engineers... and a couple billion 
immensely skilled technicians, entrepreneurs, creative knowledge workers and 
other "willing (and talented) hands" to exploit the fruits of their genius.
Futurists often debate what phenomena could trigger that wave of 
accelerating change called the Singularity -- a point at which change --  
particularly technological change -- is occuring at such a rate that we can 
no longer speak with any degree of certainty about what the future may hold. 
Any of the above items could potentially move us into a Singularity by way 
of what some would call a "soft takeoff." That's the version where things 
are changing at a pretty profound level, but your local state, province or 
country doesn't get rendered down into molecular-scale processors by rogue 
nanoswarms in the next couple of hours, or probably even the next couple of 
months or years. Nor do you suddenly "wake up" inside a virtual utopia, your 
body having been reduced to solid state electronics while your consciousness 
was instantly "uploaded" into a paradise in the Matrix -- because it was a 
far more efficient use of matter to reduce you to software when your body 
was taken.
The "hard takeoff" is the one in which that could happen, but it's probably 
far too prosaic and low-key to be credible. And whatever really happens will 
probably happen sometime in the next ten hours to ten nano-seconds. It was 
nice knowing you.
What's my point? Well, among other things, there's an argument to be made 
that a soft takeoff that leans upon biotech and "cognotech" may be easier to 
manage (not to mention survive) than a hard takeoff dominated by 
superintelligent AI of unknown and possibly alien motivations. What's more, 
whether or not we get an official Singularity, there are several different 
fields of research which could help humanity develop "more-than-human" 
skills and intelligence, thereby transforming civilization forever.
What's more, we're far more likely to make huge strides by pushing several 
major fields simultaneously, especially if those fields are capable of 
nudging us forward even with merely modest, incremental successes. A 
nootropic drug here, a genetic analysis of intelligence there, a nationwide 
retooling of schools... everywhere, and before you know it, all kinds of 
factors enhancing our research base and our ability to exploit new 
technologies are coming into play. Thereby accelerating the rate of 
accelerating change.
In the second half of this article, I will be addressing some basic 
initiatives that could trigger a "soft takeoff" Singularity within about 10 
to 15 years. There are more than you might expect.

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