Alzheimer’s breakthrough?

The headlines today (10th October) suggest that a cure for Alzheimer's is imminent. Well, not quite.Scientists at the University of Leicester have arrested brain cell death from prion disease in mice.  This is reported to be the first proof that neuro-degeneration can be delayed in any living animal. Many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of "mis-folded" proteins, or prions. In Parkinson's the alpha-synuclein protein goes wrong, in Alzheimer's it's the amyloid and tau proteins, and in Huntington's it's the Huntington protein.  The brain responds by shutting down local protein production for so long that the cells are eventually destroyed.  By targeting the...

The Human Brain Project has officially begun

Today (Monday, October 7), the Human Brain Project (HBP) has officially begun.  Scientists from 135 institutions met at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland to kick off what is described as “the world’s most ambitious neuroscience project”. The HBP was selected as one of the EU's flagship research project a full nine months ago.  I'm guessing that by Brussels standards, this represents quite rapid progress. The Human Brain Project’s initial mission is to develop six research platforms: neuro-informatics, brain simulation, high-performance computing, medical informatics, neuro-morphic computing and neuro-robotics. The neuro-informatics platform will build a map of all the brain’s...

3D printing at an inflection point

3D printing is not directly connected with the development of AI, or conscious machines.  But it is probably one of the wake-up technologies for people outside the bubble that takes an active interest in AGI.  These are the innovations that may alert people to the fact that technology in general is moving increasingly fast, and is going to change our lives dramatically.  The other obvious ones are wearable computing and augmented reality (Google Glass), driverless cars, automation by task-specific AI, and increasingly smart robots in military, industrial and domestic settings. The respected IT research outfit Gartner has just issued a...

What is Calico?

The launch last week of Google's Calico - California Life Company - is an important step in the battle against ageing.  But we still don't know whether it is a head-on charge against death itself, or an incremental approach, tackling individual diseases with Big Data.  The distinction is, well, a matter of life and death. Aubrey de Grey is Chief Science Officer of SENS, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.  He thinks that by repairing seven types of molecular and cellular damage to the body which are caused by our basic metabolic processes, we can halt the ageing...

Robots in agriculture

This cute little chap is Harvey, a robotic shifter of pot plants.  Pot plants need to be moved around a lot within nurseries as they grow, for instance to allow the right spacing between them.  It is tedious, time-consuming work, but Harvey doesn't mind.  Using sophisticated on-board sensors and simple programming, he can reliably shuffle his charges from here to there and back again.  And again...  And with a price tag of $30,000, the manufacturers are confident he will be cost-effective for many growers. The management of pot plants is not the most obvious application of the emerging robotics industry...

Google’s quantum computer

This is a post-script to my recent post on Eric Schmidt saying that the Turing Test would be passed within five years.  An interview with a pioneer in quantum computing suggests that Google just might be hoping to build a human-level AI in that sort of time frame. Google has recently bought a quantum computer from D-Wave, and during a long but fascinating webcast interview on Singularity 1 on 1, Geordie Rose, founder and Chief Technology Officer at D-Wave Computers, talked about how D-Wave is a key partner in Google's programme to develop machine intelligence.  Rose did not commit to any timelines, but when...

Mr Geek goes to Washington?

The Economist claims that technology plutocrats are starting to engage with the US political process in a more comprehensive way than they have previously deigned to do. The paper cites Steve Jobs as typical of the existing attitude.  After hosting a dinner with Barack Obama and some fellow tycoons, he reportedly complained “The president is very smart, but he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.” The Economist argues that earlier interventions in Washington from Silicon Valley have been limited to specific issues, but now an organisation called FWD.us, a campaign for immigration reform (seeking...

The Turing Test to be passed within five years – Eric Schmidt

“Many people in AI believe that we’re close to [a computer passing the Turing Test] within the next five years.”  So said Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, speaking at The Aspen Institute last month. The Turing Test, of course, was proposed in 1950 by brilliant computer pioneer Alan Turing as a way to decide whether a machine could be said to think. The Turing Test has many critics, but it seems to me that if a computer convinces a panel of humans that it has human-level consciousness and intelligence then we will have to accept that it is correct.  After all, that is...

Partial Recall

Total Recall it ain't, but it's a very small step in the same direction. False memories have been implanted into mice, scientists say. A team was able to make the mice wrongly associate a benign environment with a previous unpleasant experience from different surroundings. The researchers conditioned a network of neurons to respond to light, making the mice recall the unpleasant environment. Reporting in Science, they say it could one day shed light into how false memories occur in humans. The brains of genetically engineered mice were implanted with optic fibres in order to deliver pulses of light to their...

Light pollution

During a family holiday (a California road trip) we have been enjoying the stunning beauty of starry nights above the Grand Canyon and elsewhere.  (Not my photo, I hasten to admit.)  This wonderful sight was available to everyone since the dawn of human history up until very recently.  In the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution began to place an umbrella of smog above the minority of humans who lived in cities.  Then, between the world wars, the great blessing of electric light brought light pollution, and now hides the stars from most of us.  It is an extraordinary irony...

Google Glass and different reactions to our cyborg future

Today I went on a tour of the Google campus at Palo Alto, arranged as part of a family holiday in California.  It was, of course, inspiring. (Ray Kurzweil was hired by Google late last year, and we were told that he works in building 42, but I did wonder if that was no more than a jokey reference to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.) When I told Eryka, our charming Google staffer guide, that the first group of Google Glass users are now able to invite their friends to join the second wave, she gasped and reached for her phone...

Brain Preservation

Three senior people at Oxford University's Institute for the Future of Humanity have just announced that they are signing up for cryonic storage after death.  This is a service which flash-freezes your brain when you die, in the hope that future technology will enable you to be defrosted safely.  The Oxford academics think there is a 15% chance the process will work, but they believe it is their only hope of long-term survival.  To coin a phrase, "better fresh than frozen; better frozen than dead." Ken Hayworth and colleagues at the Brain Preservation Foundation are developing an alternative approach to...

Minsky vs Markram

In the previous post, I mentioned that there are, broadly speaking, two main ways for us to build a human-level, conscious AI.  One is to assemble the most advanced AI systems available and have them learn, and the other is to build a model of a human brain which is as precise as we can manage, and see if it appears to exhibit consciousness. Henry Markram is doing exactly that at the Human Brain Project in Lausanne, funded to the tune of €1bn by the EU and others.  But in an interview on the Singularity 1 on 1 website, AI...

Artificial intelligence system has the IQ of a four year-old

A team at the University of Illinois, Chicago, gave one of the world's most advanced AI systems an IQ test.*  They reported its IQ as the level of an average four year-old. This research has to be taken with a pinch of salt.  For a start, many psychologists are sceptical of the value of IQ tests.  The fact that you can improve your test results with practice suggests that they don't test anything more inherent than the ability to pass IQ tests. Also, the system scored very differently on different parts of the test, to the extent that a child...

Meet Atlas, the military’s latest robot

The performance of robots from DARPA-funded Boston Dynamics continues to improve dramatically.  As several commentators on this YouTube clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=zkBnFPBV3f0 (prepare yourself for dubious musical accompaniment) have pointed out, robots like this are likely to be killing people soon.  Human Rights Watch is trying to stop this http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/05/30/prevent-killer-robots-deciding-when-kill-battlefield.  It will be an interesting test of the feasibility of "relinquishment", the idea that research into artificial intelligence (or any of the other new technologies that could bring marvellous benefits or hideous harms) can be stopped on the precautionary principle.  Good luck to them - they'll need it!

Robert Peston warns about Artificial Intelligence

Has Robert Peston, the BBC's high-profile business editor, been reading Ray Kurzweil? He broadcast some intriguing comments in A Dark Magic, a programme about the use of computers in financial trading which aired on 8th July.  Near the start of the programme, an unidentified American interviewee says: "The most interesting thing I've observed is this battle between man and machine.  It's like watching the Terminator movies in the financial markets.  We came that close to being wiped out." Towards the end of the show, Peston himself asks us to: "...remember the fate of world in the film Terminator, when machines...