Saturday, June 16, 2012

On Dmitry Itskov's Dream of transplanting human brains to robots.

Russian mogul, Dmitry Itskov envisions a future where human brains can be transplanted into robotic bodies.  Read more about him here.

I was asked to comment on this article by a writer for the German publication Die Zeit online

Here is my take:

First, I would suggest people read the book "Mind Children" by Hans Moravac. It is a 20 year old book, but I think he describes a similar future.

Regarding the state of the art in synthetic humans: We are on the verge of a huge breakthrough in this area.  Researchers have worked diligently for 20 years building brain-like computers. Progress was initially very slow. But, researchers at IBM, HRL Laboratories, MIT, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere under DARPA funded projects are posed to demonstrate impressive new results in brain-like computing.

I think we will see a huge leap forward in demonstrated capability within the next 24 months.

As for robot bodies, I think we are beginning to understand how to build humanoids  that act like real humans. The key is to mimic not only the form of a human but the biomechanics of a human. In an article to be published shortly, (Klein and Lewis, Journal of Neural Engineering), we demonstrate what I think is the first step in thisdirection: A robot with biomechanics like a human and incorporating a simple artificial neural network that mimics human walking very well. This paper is already generating excitement and it has yet to be published. I think it is important at a theoretical level.

The Boston Dynamics PetMan robot is a very practical and compelling demonstration of good engineering. I do not know what kind of "brain" it has, but DARPA is planning to fund a number of researchers to create the intelligence needed to make PetMan a "super robot" with science fiction like capability. They are offering a reward of $2,000,000 US for the group that can first demonstrate this intelligence.

So, will we have robots with computing power and ability similar to a human being by 2045?: I think why not?  The pathway is available today. Yes we can do it with near 100% certainty, in my opinion, based on what I see coming in the next few months.
The question of interfacing the  a person to an avatar: That is doable. Yes, but currently I think this would require so much invasive surgery that the benefit to the patient would need to be very, very clear since invasive recordings can damage the soft tissue in the brain. Perhaps this problem will be solved, but, I think, it will take a much longer time that building the actual body.

The question: can we transfer a persons intelligence?  I think that question comes down to playing with definitions. By analogy, consider art.  I can make a stick figure drawing of a human. That I can say represents the basic characteristic of a human. But no one would confuse that drawing with a human being. Likewise we will initially be able to create intelligence that is similar in personality to a particular human, and may even make gestures and statements like a stereotypical person.

If you are familiar with the famous American Billionaire, Donald Trump, I think we could mimic his "on screen" personality fairly quickly. I think that his "public face" is very strongly stereotyped, and people would recognize a "donald" humanoid very quickly.  We may be able to create an android that would fool people for a short periodof time into thinking they are talking to Donald Trump. I think that could happen within 10 years.  But that would be like a stick figure drawing.

How would we transfer intelligence?  One way is to mimic the neural structure of an individuals brain. But, mimicking the neural structure of a brain is a little like coping all the streets of a city and saying "I have created a duplicate of New York" say. It may look the  same, but it will be functionally very different. I cannot envision how that would be done at a neural level using the tools we have today.

At the same time, in the sci-fi series "caprica" the premise is that massive amounts of data being collected about people from the day they are born could be used to create an imitation of a particular human  being.  I think a base-line human intelligence could be shaped to resemble a particular human being in the future, particularly as our lives become  more and more digital and more of our life is archived away in storage.

From that point, to create more subtle and nuanced models of humans will be a gradual process. By 2045, we will certainly have robots that behave similar to a particular person. But that robot will never *be that person.  Think of the Magritte painting "Ceci n'est pas un pipe."

We will NOT duplicate persons, but rather artificial creatures that have personality, and a level of intelligence en par with their human counter-parts at some point in my lifetime.

This will not be a pathway to immortality in the normal sense. The human prototype will die, but their artificial self may be immortal. So, one day children may have 'recreated' grandfathers and grandmothers that they can get to know even if the original prototypes died before they were born.

The main question for the success of this project is:

Who is Itskov's "master architect"? 

It has been famously said that getting a group of  really smart people to go in the same direction is like "herding cats." This project willneed the smartest people possible, and will need to be lead by the right person.
Itskov must find the right master architect who can pull this off. When we know who that is, we will know if this is possible. Secondly, does he really have the billions of dollars needed to pull this off?This will not be an inexpensive project.