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Something that I realized this year is that I like pondering the future -- looking way out and imagining how the world will be different, what things people will be doing, etc. This probably stems from my interest in technology.

SkyTran: Very interesting concept
November 10, 2015

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.

Tech Wishlist
January 21, 2011

Some ramblings on a day in the future from the perspective of my tech wishlist.

I wake up to a gentle, peaceful sound and an initially gentle light coming from my smartphone, which is sitting in a dock on my bedside table. The sound gets a bit louder as I continue to ignore it. After a few seconds, my bedside light starts to turn on gently, and I turn over and touch the screen of my smartphone. When I do, the smartphone starts to talk. The voice is indistinguishable from that of a professional voice actor. It says "Good morning", but the exact wording varies a bit from day to day. I'm reminded of the date, any appointments I have today, both personal and professional. I'm also reminded of any family birthdays, or anything I've asked to be reminded about today, such as the distance I've decided I want to run today to train for the marathon I want to run.

The hall light outside of our bedroom has turned on, as have the lights in the kitchen downstairs. I get out of bed and put on my running pants and shirt, and head downstairs. When I get there, the kitchen computer in the corner of the room is displaying what I'll eat for breakfast, knowing that I'm planning to head out on a 2 hour run. It is a breakfast that has been chosen for me based on what I'm trying to optimize in my meals: Taste, nutrition, ease of preparation, cost, etc. The breakfast consists of things we have in the kitchen, and what we have in the kitchen was pre-planned by the system. In fact, the last time we got groceries, the system was what came up with our grocery list. When we gave it the "ok", it went ahead and ordered the groceries via

While I'm eating breakfast at the island, the computer sees me there, knows what I'm doing, and so it plays a 120 second snippet from my favorite news provider about what's going on in the world. The HD video has been produced by the company for people just like me who want to watch something brief but informative. There isn't any advertising that I have to sit through because I've setup my account to instead bill me 50 cents. I'm intrigued by the mention of a particular story, so when the clip is done, I ask verbally to hear more about that story, and in a few seconds I'm watching a 60 second clip that goes into more detail about that story. Again, the news provider has created the media in such a way so that people can dig in to stories to see more. It's akin to how Internet news sites work, where people read summaries and decide on which articles they want to dig into, but married with traditional video media.

Ready for my run, I head outside. Everything is being tracked: Where I am, how fast I'm running, my stride length, my heart rate, my breathing rate, the impact force on my shoes, etc, and all of that data is being stored in the cloud for me to analyze later, if I want. And the critical information is visible on my smart watch, at 600 DPI in rich contrast and vibrant color. If I start running abnormally slow or quick based on my intended workout, the watch indicates that via a chirp, and I can use the watch to find out more if I want, or to shut up if I don't care. My route is available via the watch if I need to check. I'm listening to my favorite tunes, which are beamed to my wireless ear buds, and whenever I need to make a turn, that's spoken into my ears as well.

Meredith needs to check with me on something, so she phones me and because I'm just running with my ear buds in, the connection is made automatically and I hear her voice. All I have to do is talk back, and microphones inside of the ear buds pick up my voice and relay that back to her with crystal clear audio.

During the run, it is detected that my heart is working abnormally hard given the physical effort I'm exerting. But I didn't sleep that well last night, and the system knows this because I wear a device that monitors my brain waves and knows when I'm sleeping, how deeply, and for how long. It mentions this to me, but also warns that the elevated heart rate could be due to something else and that it would be prudent to cut the workout short incase I'm coming down with something, etc. I agree, and so the closest route home is used.

Once home and showered, my watch chirps. I read a message indicating that now my temperature indicates that I am running a very slight fever. I am directed to take a throat swab and place the swab in diagnostic device which will analyze it for bacteria and viruses. In 15 minutes, my watch chirps again. Looking down, the results of the throat swab are in: I am coming down with a flu virus. I am directed to take a cocktail of supplements and antiviral medications that should eradicate the flu virus within 6 hours. But because of the virus, it is common practice to stay home for the day to prevent the spread of the virus to coworkers or others in the community. Meredith and the kids are directed to also take a cocktail of supplements and antiviral medications incase they come in contact with the virus, and they each take throat swabs to see if there are any sights they too are coming down with it.

The next day, I'm feeling back to normal and resume my marathon training. I leave for work at 7:30 AM in my electric vehicle, but I'm not driving. The vehicle knows where I'm going and expertly drives me along, reducing my risk of serious accident by 90% while increasing driving speeds by 40% and reducing wait times at intersections by 70%. Once at the nearest short runway, 4 km from our house, the vehicle comes to a stop behind the next car in the collector lane. Over the course of 2 minutes, the vehicle slowly moves forward as vehicles ahead of me circle on to the runway and take off. Before long, I'm airborne. All this while, I've been getting ready for my day reading work email and reviewing projects that I'm working on. The 20 minute flight gets me to downtown Toronto, where the vehicle lands on its own and drives 3 km through town to the parking garage. The whole trip has taken me 35 minutes, just enough time to get caught up on email and get ready for the day. Best of all, I can bill for those 35 minutes.

I always enjoy the high speed elevator ride up to the 20th floor. It accelerates at 0.5 Gs, and takes under 7 seconds if there aren't any other stops on the way. The view from the 20th floor is spectacular: The exterior of the building is curved glass with little obstruction from the support structure of the building, looking out onto Lake Ontario and the 300 metres of beach and park that borders the lake.

My computer runs at 300 GHz, with 1024 cores, 100 TB of RAM and 2 PB of storage. The monitor packs 600 DPI of detail and is 3 feet wide. Everything is synchronized seamlessly whether I'm working from home, viewing data on my ride to work, or anywhere else for that matter. Data is transferred at 10 Gbps along fiber optic cables, or at 2 Gbps over the air.

I spend the day working on software that will be used by the United States' next major spacecraft, which is destined for Mars. Key aspects of the software have been outsourced to the Canadian company I work for, and working on the project has been a thrill. I'm fine tuning aspects of the natural language interface to the system's computer.

On the weekend, we're finally taking the kids on a brief trip to the new space hotel opened up last year. The trip will be pricey, but it isn't more than a two week trip to Europe, and hey, it's space! We'll be in orbit for two days and I'm looking forward to playing a couple of the sports that are all the rage in zero G.

In January, we're taking a trip to Australia with the kids, and it will be my first time riding one of the new suborbital fights that can do the trip in 70 minutes.

This Mars project I'm working on will be the second manned trip to the planet, this time with the intention of establishing a permanent presence on the ground. The crew will be going for a 4 year mission and then will be replaced by a new incoming crew. The first of 4 unmanned trips to Mars landed last month. These unmanned mission are delivering the equipment and living quarters. It has been fun watching video of the just-delivered digging machines going to work. Their job primarily is to dig down to allow the settlement to rest mostly underground when it arrives, which should provide some safety from the high winds on Mars. In 6 months, more critical equipment will arrive that will ultimately scrub oxygen from the atmosphere. So far things have been progressing as planned, but there are many things that could go wrong, making the whole project very complex.

At home we just had a new solar array installed on the roof which collects enough electricity in the winter to run our home and keep it heated. It stores excess energy by converting water to hydrogen and then uses that hydrogen over night to keep the house warm and to generate electricity via fuel cells. It has been fun to go "off grid" in a sense, although we are still technically connected to the grid if there's ever a time when we need additional power. We share a cottage with a couple of other families in remote northern Ontario and this summer we're planning on installing a similar setup there since it's not connected to the grid at all. It takes three hours to fly there, but it's a neat feeling to be so far from civilization, and we're on a beautiful lake.

I've been having fun with this new sport involving human-powered aircraft. There are all sorts of fun aspects to it: You can try getting as much altitude as possible (I've gotten to 4,000 feet), or speed at level, or doing acrobatics. It's a tough sport though, because you have to be able to produce about 200 watts of power with your legs to make a go it, and people who are really good at it are usually around 350 watts. Incredibly one guy in Waterloo has made it to 12,000 feet, but at that altitude, the air gets too thin to go any further realistically, although some people acclimatize to 20,000 feet and then go down to sea level to set records... the world record is 15,000 feet I think, and the guy furthered the stunt by skydiving out of his aircraft, letting autopilot land the craft.

Google released a major update to Street View this year which is pretty amazing. There have been many improvements over the years, but this one is notable. The detail of the geometry is high enough now to make touring new cities pretty fun. Some people are getting these spherical screens in their homes which you have to duck to crawl into. You sit on a little chair and an image is projected onto the sphere, giving you a very full field of view, and you can control where you are with an analog control pad. Paired with Street View, it's very immersive, allowing you to walk down streets, peer in shop windows, etc. It's also cool to be able to go airborne to checkout monuments up close or see something from a vantage point that you never see in real life. People are starting to build games on top of Street View such as hide and go seek, capture the flag, etc., and some buildings have published their internal layout as well allowing you to tour buildings. For example, many art galleries can be entered virtually.

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