Thursday, September 22, 2011

Deus ex Machina

"This is the first time in history that we have been able to decode brain activity and reconstruct motion pictures into a computer screen. The path that this research opens boggles the mind. It reminds me of Brainstorm, the cult movie in which a group of scientists lead by Christopher Walken develop a machine capable of recording the five senses of a human being and then play them back. This new development brings us closer to that goal which, I have no doubt, will happen. And, given the exponential increase in computing power, this all will arrive sooner than most mortals expect. [UC Berkeley]"

How this was done was fascinating to say the least.


"They used three different subjects for the experiments, which were part of the research team because it requires to be inside a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging system for hours at time. Inside the machine, they were exposed to two different groups of Hollywood movie trailers as the fMRI machine recorded the brain's blood flow through their brains' visual cortex.


The readings were fed into the computer program, in which they were divided into three-dimensional pixels units called voxels (volumetric pixels). This process effectively decodes the brain signals generated by moving pictures, connecting the shape and motion information in the movie to the brain activity. As the session progressed, the computer kept learning about how the visual patterns presented on the screen corresponded to the brain activity.


After recording this information, the activity from the second group of clips was used to reconstruct the videos on the screen. The computer then analyzed 18 million seconds of random YouTube video and built a database of potential brain activity for each clip. From all these videos, the software picked 100 clips that looked more similar to the ones that subject watched, combining them into the final movie. Although the movie is low res and blurry, it clearly matches the actual video the subjects were watching.

Taken in context, it's obvious the acceleration of tech is truly double exponential, a concept put forth by Ray Kurzweil in describing Vernor Vinge's notion of a technological  singularity whereby the future (2020?) cannot be predicted due to the ever quickening pace of computer hardware/software, the engine that drives all things digital in the world. While I don't agree with everything Kurzweil says, (reality tends to alter grand visions in ways only quantum theory, initial conditions and chaos can understand) this Gizmodo article graphically shows how man is touching aspects of reality not even dreamed of just two years ago.


Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in the middle '60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.


And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected -- perhaps even to the researchers involved. ("But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters....") If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.


And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism, sometimes I think I'd be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years remove ... instead of twenty."

Note that Vinge's visionary yet cautionary comments were written just when Mosaic brought the Net to the world, an event forever changing how man conducts business on planet earth. Since then, the web's 24/7 connect to us has only gotten more pervasive and more powerful, the one essential ingredient able to make the Singularity valid, a notion both frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Food for thought if you ask me.

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