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    Pin-Yin Shi Shi Zao Ying Xiong! (part 5)
    This is the fifth of a series of articles jointly written by Wildcat and Spaceweaver, summing our techno-optimistic view of 2008. This fifth part of our on-going survey and vision deals primarily with the advent of the information age, computation, the rise of robotics and the first steps towards a true Artificial Intelligence.

    Information reshapes civilization

    Information and computing, the processing of information that is, are perhaps amongst the most powerful and influential concepts ever conceived by a human. They are so powerful that they have become a metaphor to almost everything we know or think we know, from the very fabric of the cosmos down to the intricate workings of our own brains and the very roots of intelligence.

    Being able to describe something in terms of information flow and computing has become synonymous with understanding. When we hear about information we immediately think about numbers, formulas, graphs, tables and diagrams, we think of our laptops, cellular devices, digital cameras, we think of machines and robots and we cannot miss the internet of course, the largest known man-made information machine. All these are products of information and computing, but all these cannot even begin to hint how profoundly these concepts are reshaping our minds, our perception and experience of the world and of ourselves. A decade or so ago, a movie named The Matrix stirred our imagination depicting a future humanity imprisoned within a digital universe virtually indistinguishable from our immediate physical reality. Well, we need not wait for the future because our informational future is already here engulfing us in more subtle ways than we currently see or understand. Information and computing are figures of our collective mind and being so powerful, we project them into and unto everything. We shape our world and our perception of it into information flows; we shape ourselves, our bodies, our brains, our behavior and the very understanding of intelligence into informational entities.

    Metaphorically and conceptually we turn everything into information, and the universe into a vast computer. Is there a real world out there? Yes, of course there is, and it is progressively being transformed into an information flow, a matrix with no inside or outside, the making of our own collective mind. Some may see it as a prison; some may see it as an evolutionary horizon. We shall see about that… but then again, what is seeing if not processing information?

    It is said that technological progress is already becoming the single most influential factor in shaping human civilization. There is no doubt today, that the power that drives technological progress is the capacity to process information. This capacity is achieved by and depends on building increasingly more powerful computer systems which are in themselves products of technology. If we have to condense into a simple formula the process that drives the great transformation presently taking place on this planet, it would be the mutually quickening influence of technological progress on computing and of computing on technological progress. This positive feedback relation is the root of technological acceleration.

    To complete the picture, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near noted that in many technological and scientific fields, advancement is directly correlated to the available capacity of information processing that is specific to these fields. Or, in other words, the more powerful the computers, the faster is the progress. A list of these fields include, but is not confined to, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, genomics, neuroscience, communication, medicine, electronics, economy, complex systems, science, general engineering and many more. Given that technological progress and computing are relating in a mutually reinforcing manner, Kurzweill concludes that all such computing dependent technologies will enjoy accelerating progress as long as this positive feedback relation exists. It is as if computing is a miracle catalyst, the steroid of technological and scientific endeavor. What is so powerful in Kurzweill's assertion is that it is independent from any specific implementation or technological paradigm. It is a systemic view about progress.

    It is in this light that we should relate to the field of computing and information technology. Year 2008 has brought quite an avalanche of breakthroughs in a number of fields. The number of significant innovations and new technologies is so big we couldn’t even compile a fair shortlist. Instead, here are a number of achievements and inventions that caught our eyes as the most interesting and most potential to greatly influence the future of computing and information technology.

    2008 was the first year of Graphene. Graphene is a special form of graphite, consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms packed in honeycomb lattice, similar to an atomic scale chicken wire. Besides being an extremely strong material with many promising applications in material technologies and nanotechnology, Graphene is surely the new protagonist of micro and nano electronics ensuring the continuation of Moore’s law for at least a couple more decades. Graphene has attracted immense worldwide attention and activities because its unusual electronic properties may eventually lead to vastly faster transistors than any transistors achieved so far. Lately, IBM demonstrated Graphene field-effect transistors at GHz frequencies, making the first steps to putting this novel material to become a primary power house of future computing technology.

    The story of the year in electronics is with no doubt the story of the Memristor.
    As its name implies, the Memristor can "remember" how much current has passed through it. And by alternating the amount of current that passes through it, a Memristor can also become a one-element circuit component with unique properties. Most notably, it can save its electronic state even when the current is turned off, making it a great candidate to replace today's flash memory. The Memristor’s existence was theoretically postulated in a 1971 paper, and was discovered and engineered in HP labs in what can be called an exemplary combination of a brilliant scientific and engineering collaboration.

    But the memristor’s potential goes far beyond instant-on computers to embrace one of the grandest technology challenges: mimicking the functions of the brain. Within a decade, memristors could let us emulate, instead of merely simulate, networks of neurons and synapses. Many research groups have been working toward a brain in silico: IBM’s Blue Brain project, Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm, and Harvard’s Center for Brain Science are just three. However, even a mouse brain simulation in real time involves solving an astronomical number of coupled partial differential equations. A digital computer capable of coping with this staggering workload would need to be the size of a small city, and powering it would require several dedicated nuclear power plants. Memristors can be made extremely small, and they function like synapses. Using them, we will be able to build analog electronic circuits that could fit in a shoebox and function according to the same physical principles as a brain.

    A short eye opening account about the future directions in ‘Brain like’ cognitive oriented computing can be found in a BBC News report here. More than ever before it is apparent that the convergence of brain science and computing technology is well on its way and is about to yield some extremely interesting results within less than a decade. This is only a precursor to a yet deeper level of convergence of brains and machines. About that, in a moment.

    On a more exotic note, Dwave’s 128 qubit quantum processor, is not the general kind of quantum computer which is still many years away, but the fact that it is already manufactured represents metaphorically and literally a quantum leap in solving some very tough and highly complex optimization problems among which are visual pattern recognition and other cognitive related tasks. Read about this innovative quantum computing technology here. Do not miss the excellent video presentation: Does an explanation of higher brain functions requires reference to quantum mechanics? The emerging pattern of brain and computer convergence was never so clear.

    On a different plane altogether, on the ‘big picture’ of information processing something utterly fascinating is taking place, something that makes even the most outreaching science fiction look a bit obsolete at moments. According to writer Chris Anderson, the author of ‘The End of Theory’ in Edge website, we are at "the end of science", that is, science as we know it."The quest for knowledge used to begin with grand theories. Now it begins with massive amounts of data. Welcome to the Petabyte Age." He Writes:
    "At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics. It calls for an entirely different approach, one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality. It forces us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later." For instance, Google conquered the advertising world with nothing more than applied mathematics. It didn't pretend to know anything about the culture and conventions of advertising — it just assumed that better data, with better analytical tools, would win the day. And Google was right.

    Google's founding philosophy is that we don't know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that's good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required. That's why Google can translate languages without actually "knowing" them (given equal corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can translate French into German). And why it can match ads to content without any knowledge or assumptions about the ads or the content.

    Speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference this past March, Peter Norvig, Google's research director, offered an update to George Box's maxim: "All models are wrong, and increasingly you can succeed without them."

    Absorbing vast amounts of raw information and making sense of them without any preliminary assumptions, seems to be a primary aspect of intelligence. This trend of information technology is already gaining prominence in a diverse variety of research fields. It is almost sure to become a corner stone of a future Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is one paradigm changing technology to carefully watch in the future.

    Robots, Robots, everywhere

    The rise of the information age, with its vast amounts of computing power and technological prowess influences our planet in ways never thought of before our times, the sheer result is that many species are endangered and becoming extinct while new species are joining the game of life. Possibly the most interesting species to rise are robots, a new species amongst us, born of us.

    Human kind has been playing with the idea of robots since at least the fourth century BC. The Iliad illustrates the concept of robotics by stating that the god Hephaestus made talking mechanical handmaidens out of gold. Around 400 BC, Archytas of Tarentum is reputed to have built a mechanical pigeon, possibly powered by steam, capable of flying. Not only representing one of the earliest works in the field of robotics, the wooden pigeon was also an early study of flight. Philosophers (notably Aristotle in 322 BC) have also dreamed of automatons and tools capable of working independently of people as an idea of bringing about equality.” (History of robots)

    The word robot was popularized by Czech author Karel Capek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). According to Karel, his brother Josef was the actual inventor of the word “robot”, creating the word from the Czech word “robota”, meaning servitude. In 1926, Fritz Lang's Metropolis was released; Maria (a main character) was the first robot seen on film. The world's first robot, a humanoid named Televox operated through the telephone system, was constructed in the United States in 1927. In 1928, Makoto Nishimura produced Japan's first robot, Gakutensoku ("learning from the laws of nature" in Japanese).

    Just writing about robots and robotics is a thrill in and of itself, so many stories, so many fictional characters, and so many dreams, some meant to be nice and gentle, like R2D2 from Star Wars, others meant to be frightening and horrific like The Terminator. Robots in movies have assailed us to such an extant that most still think about them via the dubious agency of Hollywood et al. Through stories and fiction, we are preparing ourselves to meet the robot species, our future intelligent companions. Accommodating the reality of future human-like intelligent machines is not easy for us humans. Here is a small excerpt from the 2004 successful movie 'I,robot', based on Asimov’s amazingly insightful book from 1950 by the same name, that makes the point:

    Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith): Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a... canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
    Sonny (the robot): Can *you*?

    The Robot Hall of Fame was created by Carnegie Mellon University in April 2003 to call attention to the increasing contributions from robots to human society. The Robot Hall of Fame recognizes excellence in robotics technology worldwide and honors the fictional and real robots that have inspired and made breakthrough accomplishments in robotics. The Robot Hall of Fame inducted four robots on April 9, 2008 that represent the best of both real and fictional robots.
    Amongst which were: Marc Raibert's Hopper which explored principles of dynamic balance that are central to agile movement by bipedal and quadrapedal robots, the LEGO® MINDSTORMS® which is a robotics kit that made robots accessible to the masses and the lone fictional robot Lt. Cmdr. Data, an android with super strength and a super memory that was portrayed by actor Brent Spiner during the 1987-1994 run of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

    Though the hall of fame is a fantastic project and gives us both a view and a vision of what has been and what will be, the actual reality of robots and the field of robotics in 2008 are literally in a state of an on going supernova.

    Exciting advances in the fields of mechanical engineering and visual recognition systems as well as object identification, object recognition, categorization, form and function have allowed the magicians of science and advanced technology to bring about astonishing progress in this almost invisible field. We say almost invisible, for the real numbers of robots working in our modern civilization is tantalizing to say the least.

    So according to World Robotics there were at the end of 2008, about 6.5 million robots operating in our civilization, amongst us. Have we noticed them?

    “The World Robotics study divides robots into two main categories: industrial robots and service robots. The first category includes welding systems, assembly manipulators, silicon-wafer handlers—you know that kind of heavy, expensive, several-degrees-of-freedom stuff. The second category is divided into two subcategories: professional service robots (things like bomb-disposal bots, surgical systems, milking robots etc.) and personal service robots (vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, all sorts of robot hobby kits and toys).”

    The most obvious function of robots is replacing humans in performing everyday hard and boring service chores. 2008 has seen a steep incline in selling house hold service robots: Irobot, a company specializing in house service robots, sells the Roomba, the Scooba, the Verro, the Dirt Dog and the Looj. As of January 2008, over 2.5 million units have been sold.

    Many robots are designed to augment and enhance our welfare services, healing and medical needs: “new research at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering studying interactions of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) with bubble-blowing robots. The preliminary studies, by Professor Maja Mataric and PhD student David Feil-Seifer of the USC Interaction Laboratory, confirm what has been widely reported anecdotally: that ASD children in many cases interact more easily with mechanical devices than with humans. (Robot Playmates May Help Children With Autism)

    Health practitioners are striving to make doctors lives easier with tiny robots that aid surgical procedures and medical checkups, these currently are the focus of intense research and study. In fact, some of these small-scale devices already are in practical use.
    Biomedical robots performed less invasive and more complex experimental surgeries, and researchers began work on robots that may even be able to travel through the blood to zap a tumor. (The Year in Robotics-Technology Review)

    Robots, equipped with arms less than 1 centimeter long, can move around inside the human body and treat affected areas, echoing ideas first set out in science fiction. The small devices are able to repeat subtle movements precisely, making doctors' lives easier. Furthermore, due to the size of the robots, patients need only small incisions to undergo major surgery. (Tiny robots used in surgical procedures)

    Robotics also attracts the attention of the military for their huge potential in replacing humans as the soldiers of the future. The Pentagon aims to develop 'ethical' robot soldiers, unlike the indiscriminate T-800 killers from the Terminator films, and Boston Dynamics demoed their amazingly agile, ‘Big Dog’, an all terrain equipment carrier.

    Most intriguing and fascinating are no doubt robots that are designed for human interaction, companionship and entertainment. A robotic face capable to accurately mimic facial expression and their associated emotions is perhaps the highlight of 2008: “Robotics engineers at the University of Bristol, UK, have been grimacing a lot recently, thanks to their copycat robotic head, Jules, which can mimic the facial expressions and lip movements of a human being. Jules is an animatronic head produced by US roboticist David Hanson, who builds uniquely expressive, disembodied heads with flexible rubber skin that is moved by 34 servo motors.”
    (New Scientist: Mummy, that robot is making faces at me)

    Toyota has presented a humanoid robot playing the violin:

    While Honda is making her humanoid robots Asimo collaborate in dancing:

    For people looking for a dance partner that doesn't step on toes, toymakers Sega and Hasbro unveiled a new two-wheeled dancing robot with stereo sound.

    The remote control A.M.P Automated Music Personality, or Ampbot, can be hooked up to an MP3 player or iPod on its back. The 73cm tall black robot can bob its head and dance while LED lights on its head flash red. (New dancing robot is wired for sound)

    And if you are Still looking for that special something for the friend who has everything, A Canadian robotics enthusiast may have solved your problem with his invention of a life-sized female robot named Aiko that can read newspapers and maps, recognize faces and even clean your ears.

    News reports have dubbed the android ‘the perfect wife’(we are sure that ‘a perfect husband’ will follow shortly), but the inventor insists there is nothing strange going on:
    “She may not be the best conversationalist, but Aiko the Android is pretty flexible when it comes to chores and making company”. Made of silicon and electronics, the life-size robot with soft Asian features and shiny, dark, shoulder length hair can recognize faces and objects.” (Inventor unveils anatomically correct fem-bot)

    Robotics and the realm of robots, whether for medicine, for space exploration, for edutainment or for the military are here to stay and will become ubiquitous in the coming years. We have a mixed relation with this new kind of life form (no typo here) and indeed the newly emergent Robosphere creates a new kind of pressure upon us, pushing our contextual envelope into realms that are as embryonic as they are futuristic.We envision the coming future as a reality in which humans and robots coexist, co-mingle and co-evolve.

    The future of intelligence

    We started with information and computing being two of the most powerful concepts ever conceived by a human. But these concepts are only precursors in the human quest to understand intelligence. What is intelligence is perhaps the highest challenge ever tackled by the human intellect. No matter how far we have already reached in understanding intelligence, it always seems to be as far from grasp and mysterious as it ever was. Not complete mystery though, since a huge amount of knowledge has already been accumulated about intelligence in dozens of different fields. What is quite clear to us, is that intelligence is perhaps the most powerful force in the known universe. Gravitation perhaps holds the universe together, nuclear forces are responsible for the fire that lights the stars but none of these can be compared to the profundity, versatility, and the sheer effect of intelligence. If we look around, whatever makes this planet interesting is intelligence. Starting from the intricacy of microscopic life forms capable of proliferating in a surprisingly wide spectrum of physical conditions, the magnificent complexity of the biosphere, to the greatest achievements of human civilization, all these are manifestations of intelligence.

    More than two decades ago Vernor Vinge wrote: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” The quest of creating a super human artificial intelligence is both a quest of self discovery, ultimately understanding what is special about being human, and simultaneously it is a quest to push evolution beyond our own horizons. It goes far beyond our Neolithic drives to survive and proliferate, even beyond the desire to merely understand the world. Yet, its emergence will first affect our immediate lives. At the beginning of 2009, Kevin Kelly writes about the potential of Artificial intelligence:

    It is hard to imagine anything that would "change everything" as much as a cheap, powerful, ubiquitous artificial intelligence—the kind of synthetic mind that learns and improves itself. A very small amount of real intelligence embedded into an existing process would boost its effectiveness to another level. We could apply mindfulness wherever we now apply electricity. The ensuing change would be hundreds of times more disruptive to our lives than even the transforming power of electrification. We'd use artificial intelligence the same way we've exploited previous powers—by wasting it on seemingly silly things. Of course we'd plan to apply AI to tough research problems like curing cancer, or solving intractable math problems, but the real disruption will come from inserting wily mindfulness into vending machines, our shoes, books, tax returns, automobiles, email, and pulse meters.

    …Ideally this additional intelligence should not be just cheap, but free. A free AI, like the free commons of the web, would feed commerce and science like no other force I can imagine, and would pay for itself in no time.

    (From Edge’s question for 2009: What will change everything).

    The reign of computers and information systems, the coming of the robots, and even the hyperconnected reality of the web we are already absorbed in, are indeed the marks and signs of an emerging intelligent future, the clues of our interesting times:" Pin-Yin Shi Shi Zao Ying Xiong! (we are living in interesting times indeed).

    To be continued in part 6 (and don't worry folks we are almost there..;-)

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