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The Intelligence Revolution
August 16, 2015

The world has been revolutionized many times by the winds of change. In the 1700s and 1800s, the industrial revolution represented a massive shift. In the 1900s, we witnessed the computer revolution. By 1994, the Internet revolution was upon us. So what’s next?

In 2005, the DARPA grand challenge saw its first relatively successful autonomous car race, marking a symbolic if not significant upward shift in the proven ability of computers to interact with the physical world in a profound way. This inflection point was followed in 2007 with an urban version of the DARPA grand challenge, in 2009 with the launch of Wolfram Alpha, in 2010 with the launch of Siri, and in 2011 with Watson winning at Jeopardy. Since then, so-called “deep learning” has raised eyebrows at its impressive abilities to push the boundaries in all sorts of challenging areas, from facial recognition, to learning to play video games.

What is unfolding in front of our eyes is the beginnings of the intelligence revolution. Of note is that it has been a long time in coming. Some people in the 1960s thought it was just around the corner, but as it turns out, more computational power was needed, and more time was needed for researches to start to hone in on intelligence’s secrets.

The next 50-100 years are shaping up to be a fascinating period of history. At its core, the intelligence revolution will make it possible for computational systems to do things that previously only human beings could do. Beyond the philosophical intrigue, this is functionally significant for a three primary reasons.

The first reason is that human workers are extremely expensive, and so society currently must limit the application of intelligence. But imagine a world where there were the equivalent of 1 trillion people’s intellects to work on problems and yet still only 10 billion people’s needs to be met. Suddenly all of those areas of your life where you just don’t have enough time and energy to properly manage become neat and orderly. Anything from meal planning to weed picking to vacation planning.

The second reason the intelligence revolution will be profound is that the fusion of computers with intelligence will produce something with abilities quite unique from our own. Recall that computers can do math millions of times faster than we can, they can remember almost perfectly, they can do an operation millions of times exactly the same, they never get tired, and they can be perfectly copied extremely quickly to produce millions or billions of copies. In the 2030s, tens of thousands of lives will be saved by autonomous vehicles that are watching every angle around your vehicle with perfect concentration, and behaving using best practices. Such an example illustrates how the intelligence revolution will not only make intelligence more ubiquitous, but also apply it in ways that produce a significantly better end product.

Before we look at reason number three for why the intelligence revolution will be so profound, let’s pause for a moment and consider what the above two reasons imply about life beyond 2070. To do this, we’ll consider two more areas where the intelligence revolution will make significant impacts to society.

Consider the world’s energy issues in 2015. Now imagine that solar panels can be produced and deployed without any human labor. A computer system identifies geographic areas ideal for panels, gets human approval, and then goes ahead covering the land with solar panels and connecting them to the electricity grid. If and when a panel fails, it is fixed or replaced autonomously. Even the mining operations that find and harvest the raw materials needed from the ground are almost entirely autonomous. In such a world, it’s hard to imagine that there would be a scarcity of energy. Stop and think about that for a moment. Energy is perhaps humanity’s most basic and profound material requirement, and the intelligence revolution seems likely to eliminate its relative scarcity.

Next, consider the impacts on the physical construction and maintenance of infrastructure. We live in a world where our infrastructure is crumbling. Meanwhile, we’d love to have high speed rail connecting major cities, but the costs are astronomical. Now imagine that roads can be repaved by autonomous systems that can monitor the roads and repair them as needed, 24 hours a day. Want high speed rail between cities?  Done.  Want a hyperloop system between cities?  Done.  Even the air transportation industry is set to be transformed.  Autonomous air taxis one day will shuttle people around in a more granular manner than air travel today.  All of these things are possible in theory today, but constrained by the relative scarcity (and cost) of human intelligence and human labor.  Even housing will be dramatically affected, allowing new houses and buildings to be constructed for a fraction of the current cost.

The above societal changes are significant, and this leads us to now consider the third reason why the intelligence revolution will be profound. And that reason is that a world with a trillion intelligent agents will be able to more rapidly progress towards constructing what might be called “superintelligence”. Unlike other thinkers, I am not convinced that a dramatic superintelligence is a for sure thing. It may happen, it may not.  If it does happen, I think it’s very unlikely that it will happen quickly.  But I do highly suspect that, given enough time, the intelligence revolution will birth intelligent systems that leave us humans in the dust.  As we have already considered, the fusion of computers with intelligence will already come with valuable synergies. To review, recall that computers can do math millions of times faster than we can, they can remember almost perfectly, they can do an operation millions of times exactly the same, they never get tired, and they can be perfectly copied extremely quickly to produce millions or billions of copies.  If it comes to pass that we build intelligent systems that far surpass our intelligence abilities, those synergies, especially the ability to reproduce perfectly and very quickly, are reason to pause and think.

Imagine a world with a trillion intelligent agents, each of which makes a human being in comparison seem like a serious dimwit. That is a profound thing, but what might it actually look like?  Here are a few possibilities…

The first possibility is a revolution in science. In a few hundred years, a relatively small collection of scientists have made a wealth of discoveries in the areas of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. On one hand, we feel amazed on how much is now known about the universe and how it works. And yet we also sense that there are significant pieces to the puzzle that are missing. We wouldn’t be shocked if 300 years from now, people look back at 2015 and smirk at how little we understood. It’s quite possible that superintelligence will be an important part of that continuing story of discovery, and coincidentally, those discoveries are likely to feed right back into allowing yet more intelligent systems.

The second possibility is a revolution in management, governance and justice.  Let’s look at the governance piece.  Currently, we elect leaders, hoping that their intelligence, experience, and character will be good predictors of their ability to govern our city/state/country.  But in a world of superintelligence, we would need to face the question of who should be leading the country.  And this is where we get into some uncomfortable territory.  But I’d argue that our discomfort, while perfectly rational, is based on our vantage point.  We’ve never seen a superintelligence.  We have no experience with one. Any system of trust must be earned.  The real question is this: If and when superintelligences earn a strong degree of trust, will be put them in positions of leadership, subject to democratic vote?  I’m not sure, but I suspect that at least some humans would, and I wouldn’t be surprised if doing so led to stronger decision making as judged by what we typically call rationality.  What would the societal, philosophical, and religious fallout of being led at a national, state, and city level, by a superintelligent system?

A third possibility is the expansion of human beings onto other planets and solar systems.  If labor were “free” relative to what it is today, and we had superintelligences to design very complex systems very rapidly, it seems highly unlikely that enterprising people wouldn’t want to seek the adventure of populating Mars.  Even without superintelligence, this seems likely.  But with the scientific gains that a superintelligence would possibly bring, it becomes more likely/possible that it would be uncovered how to travel faster than light. Or failing that, it might become possible to send a probe on a hundreds-of-years journey to another solar system with human DNA on board and the ability to gestate and care for humans on the new planet.  While very fantastical, there’s nothing about a long distance probe and gestational system that seems absurdly difficult given a world where intelligence is super-ubiquitous. (I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen pictures on the Internet of animals being gestated outside of a biological womb)

A fourth possibility, and the one that makes me most squeamish, is the altering of human DNA. It seems almost for certain that at some point, people will want to eliminate genetic disease by altering DNA, and I’m all for that, but beyond that, there are many possibilities. Quite possibly, having good outcomes here is beyond human intelligence, but it might not be beyond the limits of a superintelligence to made modifications, simulate the outcome computationally, and then once a high enough certainty is obtained, gestate people with those modifications, or modify already-existing people’s genomes. And what might be modified? All sorts of things… aging characteristics, intelligence, appearance, personality, etc. My spiritual sensibilities are very uncomfortable with this possibility, but it seems like something humanity is bound to crash into.

One final note in conclusion: It should be recognized that the revolutionary changes we’ve been observing in the last few hundred years tend not to “end” so much as they allow subsequent revolutions to begin. It could be argued that the industrial revolution is very much still alive and progressing, just as the computer revolution is very much alive and progressing, just as the Internet revolution is very much alive and progressing. Likewise, it seems likely that the intelligence revolution will be a long process, spanning many decades, and if we’re around long enough, many centuries.

So what comes after the intelligence revolution?  The answers may lay in the above paragraphs… the energy revolution, the infrastructure revolution, the DNA revolution, the superintelligence revolution, the governance revolution, the superintelligence scientific revolution, the Mars revolution, and the interstellar revolution.  There’s lots of uncertainty in all of this, but make no mistake, this computational intelligence thing is going to make for an interesting story.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is to consider how all of this intersects God's plan for planet Earth and for the universe as a whole. If the intelligence revolution ramps up quickly in this century, I will be fascinated to see how Christians navigate such a rapidly changing world.

Consciousness Thoughts
February 6, 2011


Life is a busy endeavour, so perhaps it's not surprising that we don't often stop and take the time to think about our own existence.  I have had a few moments in my life, however, when I am struck with an incredible sense of self-awareness.  The sensation is unlike anything else I've experienced and usually lasts for a minute or two.  It comes on without warning and has sometimes been accompanied by a surge of sensation along the nerves in my body, not unlike a tingling sensation down one's spine. What is most notable about it isn't any physically sensation, though.  It is the mental realization, or perhaps comprehension, of my conscious existence. It is like the feeling of epiphany, where suddenly one's mind is able to see some truth that it has been unaware of previously.  It is like pulling back a veil or curtain and seeing something surprising, amazing.

Now that I have had this experience several times, I am able to bring myself back to this state of mind to a degree simply by thinking on those feelings. In addition to the feelings of epiphany, some of the other under riding feelings this causes are along the lines of "where am I", "how did I get here", "what am I", "what is going on"? Not in the sense of explicit thoughts, but as vague subconscious feelings. While these feelings are notable, they are not as strong or profound as the root sensation of epiphany. In fact, these feelings are perhaps part of the epiphany, or flow from it.

During my university days, I spent some time thinking on this subject and quickly realized that this feeling of epiphany was simply "seeing" my consciousness, being able to focus on it, without being distracted by other things. To use an analogy, consider what happens when you enter a stinky barn. After 30 minutes, you probably don't notice the smell much at all. Your mind has become so accustom to it being there, that it has tuned it out.  Likewise, I think we can go through our days without being awestruck by the sensation of consciousness because it is a constant in our lives. It is always there.

Say What?

Something that I have found surprising is that many people have a hard time relating to my experiences with the epiphany of consciousness. Many people simply don't know what I mean by "the experience of consciousness", and trying to explain myself seems to do little to help.

What is Consciousness

It fascinating to consider what consciousness is. Sure, we know what it feels like, but what is it?


Can the experience of consciousness be explained by physics or a cousin of physics? The issue here is that consciousness seems distinct from the normal dimensions we think of in our universe: The tree dimensions of space, and the "dimension" of time. Comparing consciousness to these dimensions is like comparing apples and oranges. Consciousness doesn't seem to fit. It is novel. It suggests that there is something far more profound about the universe then we've currently been able to sense using our experimental and theoretical results of physics.


How does consciousness relate to the soul? Our spirituality?

Behavior / Information Processing

Interestingly there are strong correlations between consciousness and information processing / behavior. Any robot or computer program that is programmed to be intelligent must decide what sensations it will focus on and what information it will choose to ignore. So consciousness has an information processing element, but that information processing element is orthogonal (at a 90 degree angle to) the experiential element.

The 20-second nap
October 19, 2010

Something that I've discovered this year is that you can achieve an impressive state of rest by "concentrating". What I mean by that is focusing on making your body as relaxed as possible. The second part of this is thoughts -- often if I close my eyes to relax, my mind starts processing all of the things of life -- things I have to do, etc, etc. But by counting in your head, those thoughts seem to be averted, leading to better rest.

So it goes like this: Closing your eyes, getting into a comfortable position, and slowly counting backwards from a number like 20 or 40, making your body as limp as possible. Sometimes I'm so relaxed doing this that I stop breathing for 10 seconds simply because my mind is telling all of my muscles to "stop".

I like this for a few reasons:

There are many times in a day where you have a moment that you have to wait for something.

I find it intriguing that one can "concentrate" on being restful. That seems like an oxymoron to me.

Unlike longer "naps", I don't find this makes you any less alert/awake.

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