Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Quagmire on Mendips! The Singularity. WICS

On Saturday we walked around Cheddar for a bit, trying to find where the Cheddar Gorge walk starts and ends in the tourist mish-mash of caves; the Cheddar Cheese factory; fish and chip shops; trade outlets and cafes. We had an hour on our parking and just managed a very short walk where Clare got to see a slow worm (below).

 Clare at Cheddar Gorge with Slow Worm 

Today I walked from the woods of Stockhill up the Monarch's Way to the hills above East Harptree, returning via the Castle of Comfort (the fact you can't walk on the course of the old Roman Road means too much on-road coming back).

After days of rain, footpaths were a quagmire: in East Harptree woods the uphill path had become a fully paid-up stream which I tried to straddle rather than wade.

 Stockhill today (Mendips) 

 East Harptree Woods today 

I have been thinking a bit about The Singularity. This is the (US West Coast) idea that technological progress is accelerating, particularly in respect of our intellectual tools such as artifical intelligence systems. At some point positive feedback sets in, our tools are better at improving themselves than we are, and our civilisation suddenly sublimes into something unimaginable (even by Iain M. Banks). Thus The Singularity.

You're right to be skeptical. Where's the evidence? Fancy theorem-provers running on ever-faster machines soon hit an exponential wall and don't produce much of value; IBM's "Watson" won't take over the world.

But maybe we're looking in the wrong place. Consider the combination of neuron-system modelling on computers plus the genetic/neurological untangling of the structure and functioning of animal and human brains. This will give us the ability to engineer artificial brains which capture our detailed understanding of real ones. Once we get this right there's no reason not to build brains which are "better" (or at least different) than those we've met naturally. The Singularity is back on the agenda - but sadly not in my lifetime.

An ongoing and whimsical theme I have is that if I had lots of cash I would like to found the Wells Institute for Theoretical Physics. Like that BlackBerry guy did in Canada with the Perimeter Institute. Around 100 million ought to do it.

WITP is not, however, a good acronym and the Wells Institute for Mathematics and Physics is even worse. It's ironic - I can't get the project started because I can't get an acronym which works!

But now, on reflection, I see that theoretical physics has reached the point of diminishing returns, as theories outrun the possibilities of experimental support or refutation. In the light of the discussion of The Singularity above I have decided to refocus on the Wells Institute of Cognitive Science - which still needs some fine-tuning on the acronym front. Anyone got ten million to get the ball rolling?