Saturday, 18 July 2009

Measuring the Machine Takeover


Hi, I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video about measuring the machine takeover.

Machine takeover

You may have noticed that there are many new types of entities with senses, actuators, processing and information-storage units on the planet. These consume sources of low entropy - and excrete heat.

To illustrate, I have some of them here.

These devices are very similar to animals in many fundamental respects. Although they cannot self-reproduce, that doesn't seem to stop them from appearing on the planet in huge numbers.

The rise of the machines has been going on for centuries now - but it is only recently that they have aquired what are plainly close analogs of animal nervous systems.

Since machines have less historical baggage, they are better placed to enjoy the benefits of engineering and intelligent design.

Hans Moravec has estimated that machine evolution is taking place at a rate approximately 10 million times faster than that of the DNA evolution that preceded it. However the human body and brain still appear to be changing incredibly slowly. If this situation persists, it seems likely that the machine rise will continue until the machines are much more capable than humans are - and will thus displace them in the labour market.

Already humans are having their jobs taken by machines - bank tellers, cleaners, supermarket checkout assistants, factory workers, clerks - and so on are all regularly being replaced. Currently, many of the displaced workers can move on to better-paid jobs - however, that line of retreat will not stay open indefinitely, as machine capabilities rise.

In the light of this, it seems prudent to consider the possibility that we will see a machine takeover in the labour marketplace - and eventually throughout the biosphere.

Cyborg dreams

For this idea to be meaningful, machines and existing DNA-protein organisms should not merge. A number of thinkers and philosophers do seem to predict such a merger - but the idea does not seem to be a very likely one to me.

Most of the existing changes have involved humans and machines working together - but not merging together. The man-machine symbiosis will probably continue to deepen - but it is unlikely that much confusion will arise about where the man parts end - and where the machine parts begin.

Even those who dream of cyborgs don't usually imagine that the "man" parts and the "machine" parts will become indistinguishable. It mosly is fyborgs, not cyborgs, that we see today - and there seems to be little chance of that changing much anytime soon.

I discuss the problems with cyborgs in more detail in my Against Cyborgs essay.

Engineered humans

In theory, humans could be engineered - but ethical problems and general yuck factor seem likely to work against germ-line genetic engineering for many generations to come - by which time, the technology will probably be too late to make much difference.

Somatic line gene therapy will be more realistic - but it is also a much more impotent technology. It may well be used to knock out undesirable genes, and add in new ones - but again, progress will be slow and the effects relatively minor. Gene therapy will also be a case of too little, too late.

Essentially, engineering humans doesn't make sense. Humans were cobbled together by evolution. Their design is a total mess.

Mature technologies often bear little resmblance to their primitive precursors. Humans are not much like the worms they evolved from. Computers are rather different from abacuses. Similarly, it seems unlikely that the engineered future will look much like today's DNA and protein world.

I discuss the problems with building on humans in more detail in my angelic foundations essay.

Measuring the rise of the machines

If there is going to be a machine takeover, one question that arises is: how best to measure the rise of the machines.


The one of the most common ways of measuring the advance of machines has been to give them intelligence tests.

Another proposal has involved an imitation game - in which machines attempt to fool human observers into thinking that they are really human beings.

These proposals typically concentrate on machine intelligence - perhaps on the grounds that intelligence is what has led to the human domination of the biosphere.

Giving machines intelligence tests hardly seems fair - when the machine intelligence has been deliberately developed so that it complements human intelligence. Humans are terrible at mental arithmetic - while machines are highly competent in that area - in order to compensate for our weakness.

It's the same with getting machines to imitate humans. That is a minority-interest application for machines. It hardly seems like a fair test of their capabilities to test them in an area involving the deliberate deception, where - hopefully! - there would be so few practical applications.

Weighing the machines

I think more ecological metrics of measuring the rise of the machines are much more appropriate.

Machines occupy the same ecosystem as us - and therefore naturally come into competition with us for material and energetic resources. Society will decide what proportion of the world's natural resources are allocated to machines rather than humans.

There are a variety of ways of measuring how much of the resource pie is allocated to machines.

One way that would appeal to economists is to look at the cost of constructing machines - and compare that to the cost of constructing humans. That would give an estimate of how much society is willing to spend on these different elements of the biosphere.

Here I will advocate what I believe to be a simpler method of measuring the proportion of machines on the planet. I think we should weigh them. Weighing the engineered parts of the biosphere and comparing them with the evolved parts may seem like a bit of a crude metric - however it has the significant advantage of being relatively easy to calculate.

In order to compare machine mass with organic mass it is necessary to decide which elements to weigh. In some respects, this part of the proposal is more difficult than calculating the weights.

Does every slab of concrete count is being engineered? Concrete is little more than rock which has chewed up and spat out again.

What about a wooden bookshelf? That has clearly been engineered. However, equally clearly it is made of organic stuff - cellulose and lignin.

To help resolve these kinds of issues I think it is useful to break machines and organisms down into functional components along cybernetic lines.

Sensors, processing and actuators

If we ignore structural elements it can be seen that active agents consist of sensors, processing and actuators. There is a functional division of resources into these categories which appears both in machines and in organisms.

The sensors take in information from the world, processing manipulates that information and actuators convert information into action.

With sensors and actuators, structural components can sometimes get a little mixed in with the active ones - which can make it a little confusing to know what to weigh.

Weighing processing elements presents a different challenge - which involves distinguishing active elements from passive storage. Exactly where to draw the line between a machine's processor and its storage media is not terribly clear.

Weighing the genes

Lastly, there is another approach - which considers weighing heritable material. Memes are heritable cultural information. This information necessarily has a physical representation - and so this can be weighed. Similarly, organisms store their heritable information largely in nucleic acids - which can also be weighed.

Nature is winning

Now, I don't have figures to present in this video - but I think it is clear that nature's sensors, processing, actuators and genes outweigh the corresponding engineered artefacts produced by mankind across the board. Evidently, the machine takeover has not yet happened.

Where is the takeover?

Finally, I would like viewers to consider at what point they would agree that the primary focus of development of the biosphere had shifted in favour of the machines.

If 90% of the mass in the biosphere was in machines, would you say there had been a machine takeover? What about if civilisation was 99% machine?


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