8 April 2010

Video: The case for Artificial General Intelligence

Filed under: AGI, flight, Humanity Plus, Moore's Law, presentation, YouTube — David Wood @ 11:19 am

Here’s another short (<10 minute) video from me, building on one of the topics I’ve listed in the Humanity+ Agenda: the case for artificial general intelligence (AGI).

The discipline of having to fit a set of thoughts into a ten minute video is a good one!

Further reading: I’ve covered some of the same topics, in more depth, in previous blogposts, including:

For anyone who prefers to read the material as text, I append an approximate transcript.

My name is David Wood.  I’m going to cover some reasons for paying more attention to Artificial General Intelligence, AGI, – also known as super-human machine intelligence.  This field deserves significantly more analysis, resourcing, and funding, over the coming decade.

Machines with super-human levels of general intelligence will include hardware and software, as part of a network of connected intelligence.  Their task will be to analyse huge amounts of data, review hypotheses about this data, discern patterns, propose new hypotheses, propose experiments which will provide valuable new data, and in this way, recommend actions to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities.

If that sounds too general, I’ll have some specific examples in a moment, but the point is to create a reasoning system that is, indeed, applicable to a wide range of problems.  That’s why it’s called Artificial General Intelligence.

In this way, these machines will provide a powerful supplement to existing human reasoning.

Here are some of the deep human problems that could benefit from the assistance of enormous silicon super-brains:

  • What uses of nanotechnology can be recommended, to safely boost the creation of healthy food?
  • What are the causes of different diseases – and how can we cure them?
  • Can we predict earthquakes– and even prevent them?
  • Are there safe geo-engineering methods that will head off the threat of global warming, without nasty side effects?
  • What changes, if any, should be made to the systems of regulating the international economy, to prevent dreadful market failures?
  • Which existential risks – risks that could drastically impact human civilisation – deserve the most attention?

You get the idea.  I’m sure you could add some of your own favourite questions to this list.

Some people may say that this is an unrealistic vision.  So, in answer, let me spell out the factors I see as enabling this kind of super-intelligence within the next few decades.  First is the accelerating pace of improvements in computer hardware.

This chart is from University of London researcher Shane Legg.  On a log-axis, it shows the exponentially increasing power of super-computers, all the way from 1960 to the present day and beyond.  It shows FLOPS – the number of floating point operations per second that a computer can do.  It goes all the way from kiloflops through megaflops, gigaflops, teraflops, petaflops, and is pointing towards exaflops.  If this trend continues, we’ll soon have supercomputers with at least as much computational power as a human brain.  Perhaps within less than 20 years.

But will this trend continue?  Of course, there are often slowdowns in technological progress.  Skyscraper heights and the speeds of passenger airlines are two examples.  The slowdown can sometimes be for intrinsic technical difficulties, but is more often because of lack of sufficient customer interest or public interest in even bigger or faster products.  After all, the technical skills that took mankind to the moon in 1969 could have taken us to Mars long before now, if there had been sufficient continuing public interest.

Specifically, in the case of Moore’s Law for exponentially increasing hardware power, industry experts from companies like Intel state that they can foresee at least 10 more years’ continuation of this trend, and there have plenty of ideas for innovative techniques to extend it even further.  It comes down to two things:

  • Is there sufficient public motivation in continuing this work?
  • And can some associated system integration issues be solved?

Mention of system issues brings me back to the list of factors enabling major progress with super-intelligence.  Next is improvement with software.  There’s lots of scope here.  There’s also additional power from networking ever larger numbers of computer together.  Another factor is the ever-increasing number of people with engineering skills, around the world, who are able to contribute to this area.  We have more and more graduates in relevant topics all the time.  Provided they can work together constructively, the rate of progress should increase.  We can also learn more about the structure of intelligence by analysing biological brains at ever finer levels of detail – by scanning and model-building.  Last, but not least, we have the question of motivation.

As an example of the difference that a big surge in motivation can make, consider the example of progress with another grand, historical engineering challenge – powered flight.

This example comes from Artificial Intelligence researcher J Storr Halls in his book “Beyond AI”.  People who had ideas about powered flight were, for centuries, regarded as cranks and madmen – a bit like people who, in our present day, have ideas about superhuman machine intelligence.  Finally, after many false starts, the Wright brothers made the necessary engineering breakthroughs at the start of the last century.  But even after they first flew, the field of aircraft engineering remained a sleepy backwater for five more years, while the Wright brothers kept quiet about their work and secured patent protection.  They did some sensational public demos in 1908, in Paris and in America.  Overnight, aviation went from a screwball hobby to the rage of the age and kept that status for decades.  Huge public interest drove remarkable developments.  It will be the same with demonstrated breakthroughs with artificial general intelligence.

Indeed, the motivation for studying artificial intelligence is growing all the time.  In addition to the deep human problems I mentioned earlier, we have a range of commercially-significant motivations that will drive business interest in this area.  This includes ongoing improvements in search, language translation, intelligent user interfaces, games design, and spam detection systems – where there’s already a rapid “arms race” between writers of ever more intelligent “bots” and people who seek to detect and neutralise these bots.

AGI is also commercially important to reduce costs from support call systems, and to make robots more appealing in a wide variety of contexts.  Some people will be motivated to study AGI for more philosophical reasons, such as to research ideas about minds and consciousness, to explore the possibility of uploading human consciousness into computer systems, and for the sheer joy of creating new life forms.  Last, there’s also the powerful driver that if you think a competitor may be near to a breakthrough in this area, you’re more likely to redouble your efforts.  That adds up to a lot of motivation.

To put this on a diagram:

  • We have increasing awareness of human-level reasons for developing AGI.
  • We also have maturing sub-components for AGI, including improved algorithms, improved models of the mind, and improved hardware.
  • With the Internet and open collaboration, we have an improved support infrastructure for AGI research.
  • Then, as mentioned before, we have powerful commercial motivations.
  • Adding everything up, we should see more and more people working in this space.
  • And it should see rapid progress in the coming decade.

An increased focus on Artificial General Intelligence is part of what I’m calling the Humanity+ Agenda.  This is a set of 20 inter-linked priority areas for the next decade, spread over five themes: Health+, Education+, Technology+, Society+, and Humanity+.  Progress in the various areas should reinforce and support progress in other areas.

I’ve listed Artificial General Intelligence as part of the project to substantially improve our ability to reason and learn: Education+.  One factor that strongly feeds into AGI is improvements with ICT – including improvements in both ongoing hardware and software.  If you’re not sure what to study or which field to work in, ICT should be high on your list of fields to consider.  You can also consider the broader topic of helping to publicise information about accelerating technology – so that more and more people become aware of the associated opportunities, risks, context, and options.  To be clear, there are risks as well as opportunities in all these areas.  Artificial General Intelligence could have huge downsides as well as huge upsides, if not managed wisely.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to working with AGIs to help address all of the top priorities listed as part of the Humanity+ Agenda.

19 February 2010

Silent drama on flight BA487

Filed under: flight, risks — David Wood @ 12:36 pm

Can the senior member of the cabin staff please come to the cockpit immediately.

I hadn’t heard that announcement on an airplane before, and I hope I don’t hear it again.

About 20 minutes after take off from Barcelona, the pilot of the BA487 clearly had something that needed attention in a hurry.

I was seated quite far back in the plane, so I couldn’t see whether any cabin staff actually ran up the aisle.  Indeed, there was nothing to see at all – everything seemed to be progressing smoothly.  I had my head in a book; someone nearby was watching a movie on his laptop; many other people were sleeping.  It seemed as if nothing had happened.

But about five minutes later, an air stewardess leaned over to the person near me watching the movie, and gently instructed:

Please turn off the laptop – the captain hasn’t switched off the fasten-seatbelts sign.

Other passengers were asked to straighten the backs of their seats.  I overheard one air stewardess say to another “I think the pilot will make an announcement”.

For a moment, I wondered to myself if my own laptop could, somehow, be the cause of this as yet unknown issue.  It was in my laptop bag, in the locker above the seats.  I know that, occasionally, the laptop seems to switch itself on (perhaps to run an auto-timed virus scan) and then fails to close down again.  On these occasions, the laptop can become hotter and hotter, with the airconditioning fan going at full speed.  Perhaps – I speculated – it might be running at frantic speed at this very moment, above my head, emitting some kind of dangerous wireless rays, which were influencing cockit equipment.  Should I own up to this remote possibility, open my seatbelt, stand up, look inside my laptop bag, and check?  Probably not.

Then an air stewardess said quietly, in a reassuring voice:

We’re going back.  The pilot’s turning round.  There’s nothing to be worried about.

A few moments later, the pilot confirmed the same information via a cockpit announcement.  There was a strange smell in the cockpit, he said.  As a precaution, we would be returning to Barcelona.

I thought to myself: things can’t be too bad.  Otherwise we’d be diverting as quickly as possible to some other nearby airport, closer than Barcelona.

However, I found myself unable to concentrate on my book.  I read the same few paragraphs time and again, losing track of where I’d reached.  My mind was racing elsewhere.

Then all the cabin lights went out – apart from the low-level emergency lighting.  My mind jumped ahead again – hmm, the captain is accustomising everyone’s eyes to the darkness, in case the plane crashes and we all need to be able to see things clearly in the midst of nighttime chaos.  But the cabin as a whole seemed calm.  The British stiff upper lip was in play.  Or perhaps it was just that we were all tired – we’d had a long, hard week of meetings, meetings, meetings at the Mobile World Congress.

In the near-darkness, I half wondered about switching on my phone to compose a text message to my loved ones.  What would I say? Then the captain announced:

Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing

which had the happy side effect of calming me down.  But I couldn’t help noticing that someone a few rows away appeared to be praying.

The lights of Barcelona were, by now, visible outside the window.  We seemed an awfully long way up in the air.  Could we really descend all that way in just ten minutes?

Psychologically, those ten minutes lasted an age.  Chronologically, they lasted 12 minutes (according to my watch) – until the airplane wheels touched down on the runway.  A few people nervously clapped their hands, but the applause was muted, and failed to catch.

The potentially heart-stopping drama was over.  161 passengers (according to Telegraph.co.uk) had survived without any physical injury.  But another, lesser, drama was starting.  161 travel plans had been disrupted, and it was not at all clear how the plans would be re-made.  Most British Airways ground staff had gone home for the evening.  A few Iberian staff were, a few hours later, still processing a long line of passengers.  The lucky first few in the queue got seats on a mid-morning flight.  Those of us further back in the queue were assigned to increasingly late flights.  Too bad – it will mean I miss my early evening engagement in London.  But at least we’re all in one piece.

At around 1.30am in the morning, a minibus took a group of us to a hotel in Barcelona town centre.  We drove past the main FIRA location of the Mobile World Congress, which we had all been attending earlier in the week.  At last, the silence and stiff upper lip vanished.  Laughter broke out, with lots of black humour.  Momentarily, it seemed that the bus was stopping at the FIRA itself, and we joked that we needed to get out and start arranging more business meetings.

Postscript 1: There was at least one journalist on the flight, and he used mobile technology to file a report which appeared on Sky News while we were still in the airport arrival hall awaiting our luggage delivery: BA Flight Makes Emergency Landing.  (That story contains exaggerations.  For example, there was no announcement that there was going to be an emergency landing.  Don’t believe everything you read on news sites!)

The story was picked up by The Aviation Herald in its report, “Incident: British Airways B752 near Barcelona on Feb 18th 2010, strange odour in cockpit“.  Some of the reader comments there are interesting:

  • There is often a strange odour in the cockpit when I fly.
  • Tried a shower lately? Then use a different shampoo. [This one is a joke, by the way.]
  • Same aircraft had a similar problem on the 12th Feb. I guess they didn’t find the root cause yet.

The last comment is particularly interesting.  I wonder if the cause lies in software – the same as with the Toyota car recalls?

Postscript 2: By chance I found myself standing next to the pilot and co-pilot in the check-in area next day.  After thanking them for getting the flight down safely, I asked about the report of a similar incident the previous week.  They confirmed it had happened.  Indeed, they had been in the cockpit on that occasion too.  On that occasion, the fumes had caused them feelings of illness and lack of concentration – not something you want in the flight cockpit!  On this occasion, they had reacted quicker, putting on oxygen masks as soon as they smelt the fumes.  Better safe than sorry.

Postscript 3: My thanks to Jorgen Behrens for drawing my attention to a 2006 Guardian article by Antony Barnett which seems highly relevant: “Toxic cockpit fumes that bring danger to the skies“.  Here’s the beginning of that article:

Dozens of pilots have flown while dizzy, nauseous and suffering double vision on crowded passenger flights. The cause is contaminated air and it can strike without warning – but the cases have been kept from the public.

Three weeks ago the pilot of a FlyBe flight from Belfast international airport to Gatwick was preparing his passenger jet for take-off . He had just received clearance from air traffic control and released the aircraft’s brakes, pushing forward on the power levers in the cockpit to open the throttle.

As the plane began to accelerate down the runway at more than 100mph, he began to smell a strange odour described as similar to a ‘central heating boiler’. His throat became very dry and his eyes began to burn. Such was his discomfort that he was forced to hand control of the plane to his co-pilot. His fingers were tingling and his shirt soaked in sweat. He was confused, talking incoherently and unable to answer questions from his co-pilot. He could not accurately do safety checks. An emergency was declared and the flight returned to Belfast…


3 August 2008

Human obstacles to audacious technical advances

Filed under: cryonics, flight, leadership, UKTA — David Wood @ 7:11 pm

[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

Throughout history, individual humans have from time to time dared to dream that technological advances could free us from some of the limitations of our current existence. Fantastic tales of people soaring into the air, like birds, go back at least as far as Icarus. Fantastic tales of people with lifespans exceeding the biblical “three score years and ten” go back at least as far as, well, the Bible. The French noblewoman mentioned above, in a quote taken from Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis, made the not implausible connection that technology’s progress in solving the first challenge was a sign that, in time, technology might solve the second challenge too.

Mike Darwin made the same connection at an utterly engrossing UKTA meeting this weekend. Since the age of 16 (he’s now 53), Mike has been trying to develop technological techniques to significantly lower the temperature of animal tissue, and then to warm up the tissue again so that it can resume its previous function. The idea, of course, is to enable the cryo-preservation of people who have terminal diseases (and who have nominally died of these diseases) until reviving them at such time in the future when science now has a cure for that disease.

Mike compared progress with the technology of cryonics to progress with the technology of powered manned flight. Renowned physicist Lord Kelvin had said as late as 1896 that “I do not have the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning“. Kelvin was not the only person with such a viewpoint. Even the Wright brothers themselves, after some disappointing setbacks in their experiments in 1901, “predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime“. There were a host of detailed, difficult engineering problems that needed to be solved, by painstakingly analysis. These included three kinds of balance and stability (roll, pitch, and yaw) as well as lift, power, and thrust. Perhaps it is no surprise that it was the Wright brothers, as accomplished bicycle engineers, that first sufficiently understood and solved this nexus of problems. Eventually, in 1903, they did manage one small powered flight, lasting just 12 seconds. Later that day, a flight lasted 59 seconds. That was enough to stimulate much more progress. Only 16 years later, John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. And the rest is history.

For this reason, Mike is particularly keen to demonstrate incremental progress with suspension and revival techniques. For example, there is the work done by Brian Wowk and Gregory Fahy and others on the vitrification and then reanimation of rabbit kidneys.

However, the majority of Mike’s remarks were on topics different from the technical feasibility of cryonics. He spoke for over two hours, and continued in a formal Q&A session for another 30 minutes. After that, informal discussion continued for at least another 45 minutes, at which time I had to make my excuses and leave (in order to keep my date to watch Dark Knight that evening). It was a tour-de-force. It’s hard to summarise such a lengthy passionate yet articulate presentation, but let me try:

  1. Cryonics is morally good
  2. Cryonics is technically feasible
  3. By 1968, Cryonics was a booming enterprise, with many conferences, journals, and TV appearances
  4. However, Cryonics has significantly failed in its ambitions
  5. Unless we understand the real reasons for these failures, we can’t realise the potential benefits of this program
  6. The failures primarily involve people issues rather than technical issues
  7. In any case, we should anticipate fierce opposition to cryonics, since it significantly disrupts many core elements of the way society currently operates.

The most poignant part was the description of the people issues during the history of cryonics:

  • People who had (shall we say) unclear ethical propriety (“con-men, frauds, and incompetents”)
  • People who failed to carry out the procedures they had designed – yet still told the world that they had followed the book (with the result that patients’ bodies suffered grievous damage during the cryopreservation process, or during subsequent storage)
  • People who were technically savvy and emotionally very committed yet who lacked sufficient professional and managerial acumen to run a larger organisation
  • People who lacked skills in raising and handling funding
  • People who lacked sufficient skills in market communications – they appeared as cranks rather than credible advocates.

This rang a lot of bells for me. The technology industry as a whole (including the smartphone industry) often struggles with similar issues. The individuals who initially come up with a great technical idea, and who are its first champions, are often not the people best placed to manage the later stages of development and implementation of that idea. The transition between early stage management and any subsequent phase is tough. But it is frequently essential. (And it may need to happen more than once!) You sometimes have to gently ease aside people (ideally at the same time finding a great new role for them) who are your personal friends, and who are deeply talented, but who are no longer the right people to lead a program through its next stage. Programs often grow faster than people do.

I don’t see any easy answers in general. I do agree with Mike on the following points:

  • A step-by-step process, with measurable feedback, is much preferable to reliance on (in essence) a future miracle that can undo big mistakes made by imprecise processes today(this is what Mike called “the fallacy of our friends in the future“);
  • Feedback on experiments is particularly important. If you monitor more data on what happens during the cryopreservation process, you’ll discover more quickly whether your assumptions are correct. Think again about the comparable experiences of the Wright brothers. Think also of the importance of carrying out retrospectives at regular intervals during a project;
  • Practice is essential. Otherwise it’s like learning to drive by just studying a book for six months, and then trying to drive all the way across the country the first time you sit in the drivers seat;
  • The quality of the key individuals in the organisations is of paramount importance, so that sufficient energies can be unleashed from the latent support both in the organisation and in wider society. Leadership matters greatly.

Footnote: I first came across the reference to the tale of the venerable French duchess in the commentary to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s evocative online reminiscences regarding the death of his 19-year old brother Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky.

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