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The Information Age is Coming to an End, the Age of Artificial Life IS BEGINNING


The information age is coming to an end, while the age of artificial life is beginning, says Dmitry Galkin, cultural studies expert, Ph.D. philosopher, and associate professor at the Institute of Art and Culture and at the Department of Philosophy in Tomsk State University. Professor Galkin gave an interview to "2045" Initiative about what kinds of capabilities artificial intelligence might impart to humanity, what the human brain is capable of, and how art can assist in the project of creating an artificial body.


2045: A social initiative called "2045" has been founded in Russia that has the goal of creating an artificial body in order to improve and prolong human life. Would you be interested in participating in this project? And what do you think about the movement's predictions that an artificial body might be built within the next 20 years?

Dmitry Galkin: I believe that the information age is essentially coming to an end. The age of artificial life is beginning. And we must actively take up work in this field right now. We are aware of the work that scientific centers in other countries have done in the fields of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and the modeling of artificial life. The "2045" Initiative is an example of similar beginnings in our country. The project will most certainly produce promising results. I would be extremely interested in taking part in this work. What is most important at the moment is to bring together a strong interdisciplinary team of scientists and to attract top specialists. And there are such people both in Russia and abroad. I believe that such projects should really be international, because, after all, science by definition cannot be strictly local. In Russia we have a wonderful opportunity and indisputable potential to implement cutting-edge scientific technologies. 

As for the project's predictions, I believe that its ideas will become a reality, but most likely only partially. I believe in what I call technological creationism—that it is possible to artificially create a living thing. The question is why would we do that? For what purpose? In order to achieve immortality? In my view, the founders of the "2045" Initiative are using these ideas as a method of prediction. They are consciously raising the bar a little bit to high. So you can't really say that the prediction will completely meet the expectations. In the world of medicine, for example, within 30 years, it will be possible to replace diseased organs by artificially grown ones. 


2045: One of the first tasks facing "2045" is the creation of an "Avatar"  by the year 2020—an artificial human body that can be controlled remotely by a person's thoughts. What do you think about that idea? In your opinion, how could the Avatar help human beings and make their lives easier?

D.G.: I regard such projects first and foremost as a means of creating a platform for research and innovation. This year we began working with an interesting model of a humanoid robot. NAO was created specifically as a platform for experimentation. We can't precisely say now what the result will be in the end. Similarly, creating an artificial body should, first of all, be a platform for doing research and creating models, as well as for reflecting upon the ethics and social impact of such work, since without the latter all the other problems and plans are senseless.


2045: What do you think is the likelihood of being able to transfer human consciousness into an artificial body?

D.G.: I think that on the level of modeling of individual cognitive structures and systems, we will see some results in this area in the foreseeable future. The goal is apparently achievable, at least in part. It's unlikely that we will be able to digitalize consciousness completely in order to transfer it into another body. I'm skeptical in this respect. In a recent article I wrote, I attempted to demonstrate that "strong" criteria for artificial life are not fulfillable, just as "strong" criteria for artificial intelligence are not.


2045: What are your predictions regarding artificial intelligence?

D.G.: As for artificial intelligence, from a philosophical perspective, you can divide it into "strong" and "weak".  Strong artificial intelligence has to pass the Turing test. This means that the intelligence both functions technically and is completely identical to human intelligence. At present this criterion cannot to be fulfilled, but attempts to achieve this goal have led to the appearance of weak artificial intelligence, for example speech recognition devices, roboticized industrial aggregates, etc. But these are all methodological questions of analyzing the development of technology. New devices and solutions of various kinds will of course appear in the field of artificial intelligence, but not nearly as quickly as many believe. I would repeat that the method by which you raise the bar very high and announce that it will soon be possible to grow all tissues and organs, including the brain—that method itself is sound. And the PR is excellent as well.

Artificial intelligence has already surpassed human intelligence, but only in certain functional areas. Let us recall the victory of the computer chess program over Kasparov. Or, for instance, robotic systems in manufacturing that work much more effectively than people. Or let's take expert systems that make decisions in the management of atomic facilities—that, after all, is also that very same artificial intelligence. It functions in very complex technical systems, as much as possible guarding us against mistakes made by human intelligence. It operates more quickly and uses far more parameters. Artificial intelligence is also used to control machinery in space. It must be acknowledged that human intelligence is incapable of processing the amount of complex data present in modern post-industrial society. As a result, it is partially replaced by artificial intelligence, which turns out to be more effective than human intelligence. The creation of intelligence that is similar to that of humans is a kind of trick, a conceptual approach. By and large, there is no sense in making it a reality. I think that the artificial intelligence that will be gradually developing, taking baby steps, will be different—it will not resemble human intelligence. It will be more interesting and surprisingly more powerful.

For instance, let us imagine artificial intelligence as a kind of collective intelligence that functions through networks. To put it simply, the power of intelligent agents that sit behind millions of computers can make decisions based on a volume of information that a single human being is not at all capable of processing. And such an artificial intelligence does not resemble human intelligence at all—it's different. Of course, it would be interesting to look at the capabilities of artificial replication of various integral human functions, for instance, brain activity. But I don't think that that is a very promising path from a purely technological point of view—it is rather simply interesting.


2045: Are you not afraid that artificial intelligence will be able to inflict harm on humanity at some point?

D.G.: Judging by what artificial intelligence is doing at the moment, we would be thrilled if it were able to do that. I'm just kidding. In fact, it protects us from ourselves. People are afraid of it out of ignorance. What we see in Hollywood movies, in which artificial intelligence destroys an entire civilization—that is fantasy and nothing more.


2045: Getting back to the medical side of the issue: do you think that artificial organs will be able to expand human capabilities?

D.G.: Yes, without any doubt. And the use of neurointerfaces controlled by one’s thoughts, practical applications for which are already being identified, will also lead to the appearance of superpowers.

Active work on developing prosthetic systems based on artificial organs is currently underway. For example, let’s say a person loses his vision. But it’s not the eye that sees—it’s the occipital lobe in the brain. You can implant a nanomatrix in the occipital lobe and activate the visual system through it. A different issue is how that matrix will become integrated into the biological system, but that can be resolved. And then, a person can see through a video camera that uses an artificial intelligence system, without eyes. Now, imagine that that video signal can be taken from any place: from YouTube, a TV set, whatever you have. That means that you can project any image you want directly into the brain. This makes it so that you perceive what is actually around you at any given moment as well as this entire cyberspace inside your head, the entire informational world.


2045: And will the human brain be able to handle such a large array of data? Won't a person just "lose his mind"?

D.G.: We don't know. But studies have demonstrated that we are utilizing only about 20% of our brain's capabilities, at most. So I think that our brain has enough resources. Moreover, we will be able to track the evolution of the human brain. That is, by using such non-biological systems, we will provide an impetus for the further development of the brain and will be able to observe how it evolves.


2045: What do you think will be required, both of individuals and of the mankind in general, in addition to financial resources, to accomplish the project of creating an artificial body and artificial intelligence? Which kinds of specialists need to be engaged? What exactly should the inner workings of the project look like?

D.G.: There is lot of different models. The first... let us call it the military model. In this model, the armed forces declare certain defensive or offensive goals. For them, everything is clear and simple. For example, perhaps they want cyborg soldiers to fight terrorism, or artificially grown tissues and organs for military hospitals. Then they begin to create teams and build centers in order to develop new weaponry and security systems, etc. That model has demonstrated its effectiveness and will continue to do so. It is completely viable. Let us recall the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the history of the Internet. In order to implement this model, you can create various special institutes and use the resources of universities and research centers that will carry out research and development work in this field. Everything will be top secret, of course.

A different model could be similar to what is done in the U.S., at professor Craig Venter's institute. Mr. Venter has been able to model an absolutely new form of artificial life—a new form of bacteria with certain programmed attributes. He's doing that in order to create a mechanism which can be used to help find an effective method of fighting viruses. So, we could create a kind of interdisciplinary center, a laboratory, bringing together specialists from a range of fields: bioengineering, physics, chemistry, and so on. This would be the non-military, open model. Its aim would be to formulate solutions to problems in the world of medicine, not to grow killer bacteria. The Ministry of Health could do this, as could pharmacological companies, philanthropists, etc. But who will decide what the research targets will be? On the one hand, this issue becomes political, while on the other hand, it's an issue of creating healthy competition. Can zealous scientists or crazy militarists be found who will be able to implement these models? It's hard for me to say. But I am in favor of the non-military model, that's for sure.


2045: You mentioned the idea of an interdisciplinary center. Would you want to work at such a center?

D.G.: Yes, absolutely.


2045: Does Russia have a chance of becoming the leader in the "race" for artificial intelligence and an artificial body?

D.G.: Given the current state of infrastructure in Russian science, no. But we do have one national advantage: Russian inventiveness and unorthodox thinking. How many ingenious inventions have been created by Russians? Inventions in the fields of aviation, television, aerospace. . . . Take our systems of artificial intelligence for use in space—automatization of control of aerospace vehicles. There is, for example, the "Buran", which was a completely pilotless drone. Yes, we always lost in the area of electronics, but we were successful when it came to simple, interesting, elegant mathematical solutions; when it came to unorthodox reasoning, solutions, and perspectives. Our best resource is our mother wit; a different issue is how we make use of it.


2045: Perhaps Russia needs to combine its efforts with countries that have better scientific infrastructures?

D.G.: In the world of science, it's difficult to do anything worthwhile without combining one's efforts. But in my opinion, we are not trying very hard to come together with other countries because we are afraid that our people with mother wit might simply leave. That is a real problem. I don't know what to do about that. Russia's social structure is not compatible with a culture of inventiveness. We need a team of real enthusiasts that could put together a set of principles and make clear what it is they need in order to be successful. And someone would in good faith provide them with that opportunity. That's one option; otherwise, all this will turn into a bureaucratic scheme that will alienate any innovator.

And we must combine our efforts in any case—I don't believe in provincial science. Science is a global intellectual process. It exists for that very reason. It is an exchange of ideas: at conferences, in publications, in joint projects.


2045: Could art help to promote the project of creating an artificial body?

D.G.: I think that in essence it really is an artistic project—a creationist and super-creative project. I already said that I call it technological creationism. So art most definitely fits in here. The idea of an artificial living thing is in fact historically and conceptually something more familiar for artists than for scientists. Here you can view art in two guises—contemporary art in general and art that works with technology. I see the purpose of contemporary art being the generation of meaning and ideas. It doesn't matter what kind of ideas they are—critical, fantastical, ironic. They could be any kind at all. Artists must be mobilized as generators of ideas—as people who migh expand our imaginations. It could manifest itself in various artistic formats: in the theater, in music, in choreography. For such innovative technology projects as the creation of an artificial body, you need strong humanizing support. That's one aspect.

Another part of the equation is how artists experiment with technology. There is an avant-garde school of art called "science art". And here as an example I would like to mention the work of Steve Potter, a scientist from the U.S. (from the neuroengineering laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology). Incidentally, this is a purely non-military project. Potter deals with developing of neurointerfaces and collaborates with the Australian science art group Simbiotica. He details his scientific ideas to the artists, who then do creative work based on them. Their famous MEART project is a half-living robot artist. What exactly do the artists do? They take technologies and play with them; they create an additional space for experimentation.

And by doing this, the artists help to advance science. I'll give you an example: when they hooked the robot-artist up to rat neurons grown by Potter's group and observed what kind of feedback is possible, they received a huge trove of useful data that clarified how exactly this new artificial life form is functioning. But all that became possible thanks to the artists who conjured up an unorthodox task for this technology.

Art stimulates the appearance of new scientific ideas, problems, and concepts. The practice exists even in some serious companies. They have the position of "artist in residence"—that is, artists whose task it is to think up unorthodox ways of applying this or that technology.

Art is a unique resource for fostering the creation of innovations. Only in the world of art is creative power so closely tied to the production of ideas and to the humanization of technology.

Dmitry V.

“Art is a unique resource for fostering the creation of innovations. Only in the world of art creative power is so closely tied to the generation of ideas and to the humanization of technology . . .”

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