Tag: Computing

What should I teach my children to prepare them to race with the robots?

I must prepare my sons to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution but that means sending them to schools that are equipped to exceed the averages

Years ago, as a reporter in Seattle, I watched Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer decry Washington states education system. He said Microsoft couldnt hire enough locals because our schools dont produce the kinds of minds he needed.

At the time, I was angry. He and his cohort, most notably Jeff Bezos of Amazon, contributed serious money to the campaign against a state income tax on the wealthy that would have funneled billions to our schools. Now I feel a pinch deep in my stomach, an emotion so primal I hesitate to name it.

As a mother, my time is come, or nearly done, and my childrens just begun.

Automation will absorb all of the jobs it can reach, whether on the factory floor or in an office. Artificial intelligence has already taken over the corporate earnings analyses I once produced as a business journalist. By the best measures Ive been able to find, machines will displace about half of American jobs by the time my toddlers look for work.

This new era has been called the second machine age, the fourth industrial revolution, the information economy.

From certain angles, Seattle residents seem well positioned to access the highly paid and creative jobs that arise from combining cutting-edge technologies with the exponential powers of computing and big data. My city is now considered a global city not because of the port, which put our state on the maps when they were still being drawn, but because of the presence of Microsoft, Amazon and numerous tech startups.

Amazon occupies one fifth of all office space in downtown Seattle, a short ride from my neighborhood on light rail. Incoming waves of well-educated tech workers have helped double the median home price during the past five years.

Many of these rich young people call themselves progressive. Are they proud to be joining the nations most regressive tax structure? In our state, poor people pay eight times as much of their family income to taxes as the wealthy 1%. Lacking a personal income tax, Washington state relies on sales tax and has long looked to levies to fund schools, parks and other social needs.

When I moved to Seattle in 2004, I marveled that the state didnt take a cut of my income from the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It took me a while to contemplate what it means for an entire society to act against the interests of its children.

College-level tuitions before college

To survive the extinction of an entire class, I must prepare my two- and three-year-old sons to race with the robots, and not against them.

Our kids are going to meet an economy with far fewer entry-level positions and will have to clamber up a receding ladder. That means being in schools equipped to exceed the averages, not rising to meet them.

Washington state has underfunded our schools so long that our governments negligence was deemed unconstitutional by our state supreme court, which fined the state $100,000 a day for failing to provide a future for our children.

Years into this public shaming, the legislature came up with a multibillion-dollar package to fund basic education in our state, though they didnt manage to pass a capital budget before students went back to school after a long, dry summer.

Amazon
Amazon Go opens to Amazon employees in its Beta program in Seattle. Photograph: Paul Gordon/Zuma Press / eyevine

From my porch, I can see the chain-link fence blur into gray around the asphalt playground of our neighborhood public school. On weekday mornings, my closest friends walk to Hawthorne Elementary with their children, ducklings that cluster at crosswalks along streets known for gunfire. A new home just sold for nearly a million dollars at the end of our block, but people keep getting shot and dying at our community playfield.

Despite valiant efforts by its admirable principal, committed educators, engaged parents and resilient students, Hawthorne has been labeled failing since long before my husband and I bought a peeling house from a nice couple who raised their family here.

Less than half of the schools fourth and fifth graders meet the states standards in math, which makes me doubt that our educational system is preparing these kids to thrive in the glittering economy they were born under. Five years ago, the office of the superintendent of public instruction ranked Hawthorne among the bottom 5% of the state, according to test passage rates.

This, in a city known for minting billionaires.

In The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both MIT professors, recommend Montessori programs to prepare children for their future, with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Thats Steam, for those not versed in educational acronyms.

Developed to help poor children realize their own innate potential, Montessori schools practice self-directed learning with tactile materials that encourage the freewheeling creativity that formed tech CEOs such as Bezos and Googles co-founders.

The private bilingual Montessori kindergarten I found 30 minutes away costs $20,000 a year.

Despite college-level tuitions, about one quarter of Seattle students opt out of the public school system to study at private or parochial schools. To send my sons to Seattles best private schools would cost more than $700,000, and thats before they get to college.

A survey of public schools in Seattle shows no Montessori options that my children can access, though a nearby program in Leschi was a success at first, drawing wealthier students into the public school system, bringing with them the engagement of their families.

The Leschi teachers were so distressed by the resulting racial, linguistic and housing disparities between the traditional and Montessori classes that they melded the programs, rather than working to recruit more students of color into the Montessori program, which they could not afford to expand. A taskforce opted against including technology in the curriculum, fearful they would attract too many white families.

I believe in diversity; my own blood is blended. A first generation Latinx, Ive invested years of effort to raise my sons to be bilingual. I also want to work toward equity in a city whose neighborhood schools reflect the segregation compelled by redlining and white flight.

Leschis students are learning hard truths about equity, but theyre improving together. Maybe thats enough. But I worry when well-intentioned people lacking the resources to serve their students equally decide against teaching technology, the lingua franca of our world. Even the state administers student tests by computer.

I sought answers from Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction. The injustice of it all is that we have never seen technology as a core learning, Reykdal said. Do we still consider technology an enrichment, or should it be a more profound part of basic education? The state hasnt made that decision yet.

Washington has hundreds of school districts overseen by elected boards that enact tangled mandates without the resources to see them through. All over the state, schools used levy monies to take care of basics and pay their teachers, rather than acquiring and teaching technology.

Deb Merle is Governor Jay Inslees K-12 education adviser. Merle said that designating technology as part of basic education, which would ensure that the dollars flowed to their purpose, is not a state priority, though she recognized that Reykdals predecessor also advocated for keeping technology funds separate.

I dont think we teach enough science, period. Thats what I spend a lot of time worrying about, not what kind of science, Merle said. Our elementary schools teach less than one hour per week of science.

Steam as a social justice issue

I kept dialing, determined to maintain the education-fueled trajectory of my family.

My kin have lived in dictatorship-induced diaspora since famine swept Spain under Franco; they later fled Batista, who ruled Cuba before Castro. I am not conditioned to expect social stability as a condition of being for any country.

The meeting I most dreaded was closest to home. On the short walk to our neighborhood school, I decided to come right out and tell its principal, Sandra Scott, that I am afraid to send my kids to Hawthorne because the schools test scores, though on the rise, are low enough to make me wince.

Luckily, Scott is a pragmatic visionary, the kind of principal who inspires parents to put down the remote and join the PTA. Since 2009, Scott has led Hawthornes revitalization, winning admiration and awards from Johns Hopkins University for her program of school, family and community partnerships.

Test scores dont define who the students are. Our kids are not a number, Scott said. There were things we needed to do differently or better like improving the academics and the school culture to bring families back into the community.

To
To face the age of automation, it is recommended children are taught a program with a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Photograph: Will Walker / NNP

Recognizing the opportunity that Seattles tech economy presents, Scott retooled Hawthorne to focus on Steam programming. Rather than cluster the high-performing test takers together which has segregated programs within diverse schools Hawthorne distributes them throughout classrooms. If a student excels in math, outstripping peers in that grades curriculum, the teacher walks that child to the next grade for math.

When it comes to fifth-grade science, those efforts more than doubled the test passage rates over three years, from 20% to 46%. I ache upon rereading that last sentence the hope and pride in the increase, the grimace I cant help but make at where they started, and what remains to be accomplished.

Scott and her staff find ways to make progress. But she doesnt have the funds for a technology teacher or trainings, so the lab will be largely unused this year. As a mother who cares about the kids who go to Hawthorne, I cant afford to wait for someone else to find those resources.

The leaders of this school are working to undo the effects of intergenerational poverty that dates back to slavery and other forced migrations. More than half of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunches. A quarter of the students are learning the language theyre taught in. Scores reflect circumstances, which is why Reykdal is refocusing the state on racial gaps, poverty gaps and English language gaps, down to the school level.

Many of the jobs first displaced by automation belong to peoples of color, women and others who depend on a combination of part-time positions. A federal council of economic advisers found an 83% likelihood that, by 2040, automation would displace jobs paying less than $20 per hour.

In Washington, Steam-related jobs pay double the median wage, for starters. The people moving here to work for Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing make much more. When we choose not to provide public schools with the resources needed to provide educational access to those opportunities, we are consigning local students to lesser-paid sectors of the economy, the very same that are vulnerable to automation. In other words, we are allowing our government to consecrate our children to poverty in real time.

Mass unemployment would make American society more violent, our law enforcement more brutal and our peoples more vulnerable to genocide. Automation is a social justice issue, and if history is any teacher, it shows us that vast swaths of disenfranchised peoples are a harbinger of war.

Problems that reflect the world

Whenever I have a problem thats too big to solve, I call my dad, and we argue about what to do. He told me the solution was simple. I should move. The only financially feasible choice would be the suburbs.

Something in me balks at leaving a city I love, and especially our neighborhood, where my children are happy. As a community, we just celebrated our 10th annual block party, a Cuban pig roast that my husband and I organize for our wedding anniversary. Our neighbors come bearing side dishes, canopies and games, and we dance until the DJs stop playing. The conversations we start on that night have lasted a decade. I want to stay.

As native Spanish speakers, my sons could option into the bilingual public schools on the other side of our gridlocked downtown, north of the covenants which kept people of color from buying homes. Those schools wait lists are legendary, but I am uncomfortable with the mostly white and relatively well-off demographics produced by saving only 15% of seats for native speakers. I want my kids to feel at home in a country that contains multitudes, which is why we moved to one of our nations most diverse zip codes.

Computers solve the problems theyre given. And so we must ask ourselves what we value, and whom.

Not every child wants to be a robotics engineer. But without the modes of thought elicited by learning computer science from an early age, many Washington state students will not be competitive for the jobs that remain. I want my own sons to be chosen and better yet, able to choose as I was, though I fell for a profession whose financial structures imploded five years after my college graduation.

I hope my privileged vulnerability encourages you to reflect on those truly trapped by our system. This essay invokes my worries as a mother, and with them, my socioeconomic position. Hawthorne is a happy place with diverse classrooms whose problems reflect the world, but I am glad of the years I have left to decide what my kids truly need to learn.

There can be no denying that I am one of the gentrifiers of this neighborhood, and with the honor of living here comes the responsibility to contribute. Looking at whats coming in the second machine age tremendous opportunities, to be sure, but also massive loss of what weve known as jobs I feel compelled to join those working toward a better future, minds whirring whenever problems arise.

Two nonprofits, FIRST Washington and XBOT Robotics, have offered support and equipment for Hawthorne to start a Lego robotics league after school. Four parents signed up to lead teams during last nights PTA meeting, my very first.

Its a start.

Get involved

To bolster Steam education for students, hybridized systems have sprung up as non-profits seek to prepare our children for the economy we will leave to them.

First Washington: This nonprofit helps start and sustain after-school Lego robotics leagues from K-12.

XBOT Robotics: Operating in one of the nations most diverse zip codes, offering robotics programming K-12.

Code.org: Free online programming for learners at all levels. Work through problems with your kids.

Technology Access Foundation: Helping people of color access Stem-related education in middle school, high school and beyond.

Washington State Opportunity Scholarship: A non-profit that funds thousands of Stem scholarships for Washingtons college-bound high school graduates. More than half of those scholarship recipients are students of color, women and/or the first in their family to access a higher education, if not all three.

Teals (Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools): Matches professionals with teachers to co-teach computer science in classrooms.

Seattle Mesa (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement): Provides scholarships, in-class math and science projects, advanced learning opportunities, tutoring, math camp and teacher trainings.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/18/what-should-i-teach-my-children-to-prepare-them-for-jobs-in-their-era

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Breaking the code: how women in Nigeria are changing the face of tech

Female developers are emerging as influential forces in the countrys booming technology sector but the stigma persists that computing is a male industry

The Nigerian tech scene is booming. Last year, Lagos-based startup Andela received $24m (18.5m) in funding from Mark Zuckerberg. In 2015, financial technology startup Paystack one of the first Nigerian tech companies to be accepted into renowned California-based startup accelerator Y Combinator secured approximately $1.3m in seed investment from international investors.

Within this growth, women are emerging as influential forces, and changing the face of technology in Africa, especially in the fields of agricultural and financial tech. This is despite the fact that, as recently as a decade ago, women were grossly underrepresented in and excluded from the industries they are now helping to shape.

I think those who are joining the tech world today have an easier path to tread, says Nnenna Nwakanma, a Nigerian activist for accessible internet. There were situations where people would refuse to recognise my authority, but would patronise or objectify me, or refuse to fulfil contracts they had willingly entered into all because of my gender. Despite this, Nwakanma co-founded the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) and is now a senior policy manager for the World Wide Web Foundation, where she supports digital equality and promotes the rights of Nigerian women online.

The negative attitude towards womens involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) is starting to change, thanks partly to initiatives such as the Stem outreach and mentoring programmes established by the Working to Advance Science and Technology Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, which operates in 11 countries. There is also Intels programme She Will Connect Africa, which has trained more than 150,000 women in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya in digital literacy since it launched in 2013.

The demand for tech talent is now such that it cannot be met by men alone. Rapid digitalisation in Nigeria is heavily concentrated in the countrys metropolitan megacity, Lagos. Here, the startup culture flourishes, while big business have moved in: in 2015, global tech supplier Bosch opened a subsidiary in Ikeja, the capital of Lagos region, and Microsoft has an office in the affluent Lagos neighbourhood of Ikoyi.

Ire Aderinokun the author of web development blog bitsofco.de, a front-end developer and Nigerias first female Google Developer Expert says her love of tech started as a hobby. I used to play an online game called Neopets, which had some HTML capabilities. From there, I got really interested and continued to learn more. But, despite Aderinokuns enthusiasm, her interest was not always encouraged. Its definitely not what society expected of me. I studied psychology for my undergraduate and law for my masters. When I said I wanted to pursue this, there were many people who told me not to.

Rukayat Sadiq, a software engineer and a technical team leader at Andela, also faced opposition. She chose to study electrical engineering a subject in which a class of 150 students might include only 15 women to the surprise of friends and family, who had expected her to become a doctor.

While women entering and participating equally in the labour market is commonplace in Nigeria, computing and engineering are still industries dominated heavily by men. But many women who work in the tech industry are keen to offer support to those coming up. Aderinokun, for example, is funding full scholarships to five women for online programming nanodegrees. These qualifications do not guarantee employment, but they give those who have earned them a distinct advantage in the workplace and are endorsed by top employers, including Google, AT&T and Amazon. Sadiq also spends time teaching and mentoring newbies.

Removing the stigma and assumption that tech is only supposed to be for men is necessary, and I think we need to start from as early in childrens lives as possible, says Aderinokun. We should work towards eliminating negative statements and mindsets that perpetuate the myth that women cant be involved in Stem.

It is hopeful that we will one day get to a point where tech-related fields are level playing grounds for both sexes.

It is a challenge that continues around the globe, but it is one Nigeria is well equipped to handle.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/14/breaking-the-code-how-women-in-nigeria-are-changing-the-face-of-tech

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Collection of letters by codebreaker Alan Turing found in filing cabinet

The correspondence, dating from 1949 to 1954, was found by an academic in a storeroom at the University of Manchester

A lost collection of nearly 150 letters from the codebreaker Alan Turing has been uncovered in an old filing cabinet at the University of Manchester.

The correspondence, which has not seen the light of day for at least 30 years, contains very little about Turings tortured personal life. It does, however, give an intriguing insight into his views on America.

In response to an invitation to speak at a conference in the US in April 1953, Turing replied that he would rather not attend: I would not like the journey, and I detest America.

The letter, sent to Donald Mackay, a physicist at Kings College London, does not give any further explanation for Turings forthright views on America, nor do these views feature in any of the other 147 letters discovered earlier this year.

The correspondence, dating from early 1949 to Turings death in 1954, was found by chance when an academic cleared out an old filing cabinet in a storeroom at the University of Manchester. Turing was deputy director of the universitys computing laboratory from 1948, after his heroic wartime codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

Turing was a visionary mathematician and is regarded today as the father of modern computing who broke the Nazis second world war Enigma code. While his later life has been overshadowed by his conviction for gross indecency and his death aged 41 from cyanide poisoning, a posthumous pardon was granted by the Queen in 2013. His life was featured in the 2014 film the Imitation Game.

Prof Jim Miles, of the universitys school of computer science, said he was amazed to stumble upon the documents, contained in an ordinary-looking red paper file with Alan Turing scrawled on it.

When I first found it I initially thought: That cant be what I think it is, but a quick inspection showed it was a file of old letters and correspondence by Alan Turing, he said.

I was astonished such a thing had remained hidden out of sight for so long. No one who now works in the school or at the university knew they even existed. It really was an exciting find and it is mystery as to why they had been filed away.

The collection focuses mainly on Turings academic research, including his work on groundbreaking areas in AI, computing and mathematics, and invitations to lecture at some of Americas best-known universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It contains a single letter from GCHQ, for whom Turing worked during the war, asking the mathematician in 1952 if he could supply a photograph of himself for an official history of Bletchley Park that was being compiled by the American cryptographer William Friedman. In his reply to Eric Jones, GCHQs then director, Turing said he would send a picture for the American rogues gallery.

The collection also contains a handwritten draft BBC radio programme on artificial intelligence, titled Can machines think? from July 1951. The documents were sorted, catalogued and stored by the University of Manchester archivist James Peters and are now available to search online.

Peters said: This is a truly unique find. Archive material relating to Turing is extremely scarce, so having some of his academic correspondence is a welcome and important addition to our collection.

There is very little in the way of personal correspondence, and no letters from Turing family members. But this still gives us an extremely interesting account and insight into his working practices and academic life whilst he was at the University of Manchester.

He added: The letters mostly confirm what is already known about Turings work at Manchester, but they do add an extra dimension to our understanding of the man himself and his research.

As there is so little actual archive on this period of his life, this is a very important find in that context. There really is nothing else like it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/27/collection-letters-codebreaker-alan-turing-found-filing-cabinet

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Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun. The road to immortality

In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life by uploading minds to exist separately from the body is only a few years away

Heres what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spiders legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

Youre in pretty deep with this thing; theres no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computers hardware. As thework proceeds, another mechanical appendage less delicate, less careful removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.

This, more or less, is the scenario outlined by Hans Moravec, a professor of cognitive robotics at Carnegie Mellon, in his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. It is Moravecs conviction that the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies, effected by procedures of this kind. Its a belief shared by many transhumanists, a movement whose aim is to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other and better than the animals we are. Ray Kurzweil, for one, is a prominent advocate of the idea of mind-uploading. An emulation of the human brain running on an electronic system, he writes in The Singularity Is Near, would run much faster than our biological brains. Although human brains benefit from massive parallelism (on the order of 100 trillion interneuronal connections, all potentially operating simultaneously), the rest time of the connections is extremely slow compared to contemporary electronics. The technologies required for such an emulation sufficiently powerful and capacious computers and sufficiently advanced brainscanning techniques will be available, he announces, by the early 2030s.

And this, obviously, is no small claim. We are talking about not just radically extended life spans, but also radically expanded cognitive abilities. We are talking about endless copies and iterations of the self. Having undergone a procedure like this, you would exist to the extent you could meaningfully be said to exist at all as an entity of unbounded possibilities.

I was introduced to Randal Koene at a Bay Area transhumanist conference. He wasnt speaking at the conference, but had come along out of personal interest. A cheerfully reserved man in his early 40s, he spoke in the punctilious staccato of a non-native English speaker who had long mastered the language. As we parted, he handed me his business card and much later that evening Iremoved it from my wallet and had a proper look at it. The card was illustrated with a picture of a laptop, on whose screen was displayed a stylised image of a brain. Underneath was printed what seemed to me an attractively mysterious message: Carboncopies: Realistic Routes to Substrate Independent Minds. Randal A Koene, founder.

I took out my laptop and went to the website of Carboncopies, which I learned was a nonprofit organisation with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains, Whole Brain Emulation and development of neuroprostheses that reproduce functions of mind, creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds. This latter term, I read, was the objective to be able to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain. And this, I further learned, was a process analogous to that by which platform independent code can be compiled and run on many different computing platforms.

It seemed that I had met, without realising it, a person who was actively working toward the kind of brain-uploading scenario that Kurzweil had outlined in The Singularity Is Near. And this was a person I needed to get to know.

Randal
Randal Koene: It wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers.

Koene was an affable and precisely eloquent man and his conversation was unusually engaging for someone so forbiddingly intelligent and who worked in so rarefied a field as computational neuroscience; so, in his company, I often found myself momentarily forgetting about the nearly unthinkable implications of the work he was doing, the profound metaphysical weirdness of the things he was explaining to me. Hed be talking about some tangential topic his happily cordial relationship with his ex-wife, say, or the cultural differences between European and American scientific communities and Id remember with a slow, uncanny suffusion of unease that his work, were it to yield the kind of results he is aiming for, would amount to the most significant event since the evolution of Homo sapiens. The odds seemed pretty long from where I was standing, but then again, I reminded myself, the history of science was in many ways an almanac of highly unlikely victories.

One evening in early spring, Koene drove down to San Francisco from the North Bay, where he lived and worked in a rented ranch house surrounded by rabbits, to meet me for dinner in a small Argentinian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The faint trace of an accent turned out to be Dutch. Koene was born in Groningen and had spent most of his early childhood in Haarlem. His father was a particle physicist and there were frequent moves, including a two-year stint in Winnipeg, as he followed his work from one experimental nuclear facility to the next.

Now a boyish 43, he had lived in California only for the past five years, but had come to think of it as home, or the closest thing to home hed encountered in the course of a nomadic life. And much of this had to do with the culture of techno-progressivism that had spread outward from its concentrated origins in Silicon Valley and come to encompass the entire Bay Area, with its historically high turnover of radical ideas. It had been a while now, he said, since hed described his work to someone, only for them to react as though he were making a misjudged joke or simply to walk off mid-conversation.

In his early teens, Koene began to conceive of the major problem with the human brain in computational terms: it was not, like a computer, readable and rewritable. You couldnt get in there and enhance it, make it run more efficiently, like you could with lines of code. You couldnt just speed up a neuron like you could with a computer processor.

Around this time, he read Arthur C Clarkes The City and the Stars, a novel set a billion years from now, in which the enclosed city of Diaspar is ruled by a superintelligent Central Computer, which creates bodies for the citys posthuman citizens and stores their minds in its memory banks at the end of their lives, for purposes of reincarnation. Koene saw nothing in this idea of reducing human beings to data that seemed to him implausible and felt nothing in himself that prevented him from working to bring it about. His parents encouraged him in this peculiar interest and the scientific prospect of preserving human minds in hardware became a regular topic of dinnertime conversation.

Computational neuroscience, which drew its practitioners not from biology but from the fields of mathematics and physics, seemed to offer the most promising approach to the problem of mapping and uploading the mind. It wasnt until he began using the internet in the mid-1990s, though, that he discovered a loose community of people with an interest in the same area.

As a PhD student in computational neuroscience at Montreals McGill University, Koene was initially cautious about revealing the underlying motivation for his studies, for fear of being taken for a fantasist or an eccentric.

I didnt hide it, as such, he said, but it wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers either. Id work with people on some related area, like the encoding of memory, with a view to figuring out how that might fit into an overall road map for whole brain emulation.

Having worked for a while at Halcyon Molecular, a Silicon Valley gene-sequencing and nanotechnology startup funded by Peter Thiel, he decided to stay in the Bay Area and start his own nonprofit company aimed at advancing the cause to which hed long been dedicated: carboncopies

Koenes decision was rooted in the very reason he began pursuing that work in the first place: an anxious awareness of the small and diminishing store of days that remained to him. If hed gone the university route, hed have had to devote most of his time, at least until securing tenure, to projects that were at best tangentially relevant to his central enterprise. The path he had chosen was a difficult one for a scientist and he lived and worked from one small infusion of private funding to the next.

But Silicon Valleys culture of radical techno-optimism had been its own sustaining force for him, and a source of financial backing for a project that took its place within the wildly aspirational ethic of that cultural context. There were people there or thereabouts, wealthy and influential, for whom a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers was one to be actively sought, a problem to be solved, disruptively innovated, by the application of money.

Transcendence
Brainchild of the movies: in Transcendence (2014), scientist Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp, uploads his mind to a computer program with dangerous results.

One such person was Dmitry Itskov, a 36-year-old Russian tech multimillionaire and founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organisationwhose stated aim was to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. One of Itskovs projects was the creation of avatars artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface, technologies that would be complementary with uploaded minds. He had funded Koenes work with Carboncopies and in 2013 they organised a conference in New York called Global Futures 2045, aimed, according to its promotional blurb, at the discussion of a new evolutionary strategy for humanity.

When we spoke, Koene was working with another tech entrepreneur named Bryan Johnson, who had sold his automated payment company to PayPal a couple of years back for $800m and who now controlled a venture capital concern called the OS Fund, which, I learned from its website, invests in entrepreneurs working towards quantum leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life. This language struck me as strange and unsettling in a way that revealed something crucial about the attitude toward human experience that was spreading outward from its Bay Area centre a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasised into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.

And it was the sameessential metaphor that lay at the heart of Koenes project: the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of flesh. When he used the term emulation, he was using it explicitly to evoke the sense in which a PCs operating system could be emulated on a Mac, as what he called platform independent code.

The relevant science for whole brain emulation is, as youd expect, hideously complicated, and its interpretation deeply ambiguous, but if I can risk a gross oversimplification here, I will say that it is possible to conceive of the idea as something like this: first, you scan the pertinent information in a persons brain the neurons, the endlessly ramifying connections between them, the information-processing activity of which consciousness is seen as a byproduct through whatever technology, or combination of technologies, becomes feasible first (nanobots, electron microscopy, etc). That scan then becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of the subject brains neural networks, which is then converted into a computational model. Finally, you emulate all of this on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate: some kind of supercomputer or a humanoid machine designed to reproduce and extend the experience of embodiment something, perhaps, like Natasha Vita-Mores Primo Posthuman.

The whole point of substrate independence, as Koene pointed out to me whenever I asked him what it would be like to exist outside of a human body, and I asked him many times, in various ways was that it would be like no one thing, because there would be no one substrate, no one medium of being. This was the concept transhumanists referred to as morphological freedom the liberty to take any bodily form technology permits.

You can be anything you like, as an article about uploading in Extropy magazine put it in the mid-90s. You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.

What really interested me about this idea was not how strange and far-fetched it seemed (though it ticked those boxes resolutely enough), but rather how fundamentally identifiable it was, how universal. When talking to Koene, I was mostly trying to get to grips with the feasibility of the project and with what it was he envisioned as a desirable outcome. But then we would part company I would hang up the call, or I would take my leave and start walking toward the nearest station and I would find myself feeling strangely affected by the whole project, strangely moved.

Because there was something, in the end, paradoxically and definitively human in this desire for liberation from human form. I found myself thinking often of WB Yeatss Sailing to Byzantium, in which the ageing poet writes of his burning to be free of the weakening body, the sickening heart to abandon the dying animal for the manmade and immortal form of a mechanical bird. Once out of nature, he writes, I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.

One evening, we were sitting outside a combination bar/laundromat/standup comedy venue in Folsom Street a place with the fortuitous name of BrainWash when I confessed that the idea of having my mind uploaded to some technological substrate was deeply unappealing to me, horrifying even. The effects of technology on my life, even now, were something about which I was profoundly ambivalent; for all I had gained in convenience and connectedness, I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.

The content we consumed, the people with whom we had romantic encounters, the news we read about the outside world: all these movements were coming increasingly under the influence of unseen algorithms, the creations of these corporations, whose complicity with government, moreover, had come to seem like the great submerged narrative of our time. Given the world we were living in, where the fragile liberal ideal of the autonomous self was already receding like a half-remembered dream into the doubtful haze of history, wouldnt a radical fusion of ourselves with technology amount, in the end, to a final capitulation of the very idea of personhood?

Koene nodded again and took a sip of his beer.

Hearing you say that, he said, makes it clear that theres a major hurdle there for people. Im more comfortable than you are with the idea, but thats because Ive been exposed to it for so long that Ive just got used to it.

Dmitry
Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov wants to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

In the weeks and months after I returned from San Francisco, I thought obsessively about the idea of whole brain emulation. One morning, I was at home in Dublin, suffering from both a head cold and a hangover. I lay there, idly considering hauling myself out of bed to join my wife and my son, who were in his bedroom next door enjoying a raucous game of Buckaroo. I realised that these conditions (head cold, hangover) had imposed upon me a regime of mild bodily estrangement. As often happens when Im feeling under the weather, I had a sense of myself as an irreducibly biological thing, an assemblage of flesh and blood and gristle. I felt myself to be an organism with blocked nasal passages, a bacteria-ravaged throat, a sorrowful ache deep within its skull, its cephalon. I was aware of my substrate, in short, because my substrate felt like shit.

And I was gripped by a sudden curiosity as to what, precisely, that substrate consisted of, as to what I myself happened, technically speaking, to be. I reached across for the phone on my nightstand and entered into Google the words What is the human… The first three autocomplete suggestions offered What is The Human Centipede about, and then: What is the human body made of, and then: What is the human condition.

It was the second question I wanted answered at this particular time, as perhaps a back door into the third. It turned out that I was 65% oxygen, which is to say that I was mostly air, mostly nothing. After that, I was composed of diminishing quantities of carbon and hydrogen, of calcium and sulphur and chlorine, and so on down the elemental table. I was also mildly surprised to learn that, like the iPhone I was extracting this information from, I also contained trace elements of copper and iron and silicon.

What a piece of work is a man, I thought, what a quintessence of dust.

Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, he was laughing giddily and shouting: Dont buck! Dont buck!

With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, in the saddest and most wonderful sense.

I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realised, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.

To Be a Machine by Mark OConnell is published by Granta (12.99). To order a copy for 11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/25/animal-life-is-over-machine-life-has-begun-road-to-immortality

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Your animal life is over. Machine life has begun. The road to immortality

In California, radical scientists and billionaire backers think the technology to extend life by uploading minds to exist separately from the body is only a few years away

Heres what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spiders legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

Youre in pretty deep with this thing; theres no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computers hardware. As thework proceeds, another mechanical appendage less delicate, less careful removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.

This, more or less, is the scenario outlined by Hans Moravec, a professor of cognitive robotics at Carnegie Mellon, in his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. It is Moravecs conviction that the future of the human species will involve a mass-scale desertion of our biological bodies, effected by procedures of this kind. Its a belief shared by many transhumanists, a movement whose aim is to improve our bodies and minds to the point where we become something other and better than the animals we are. Ray Kurzweil, for one, is a prominent advocate of the idea of mind-uploading. An emulation of the human brain running on an electronic system, he writes in The Singularity Is Near, would run much faster than our biological brains. Although human brains benefit from massive parallelism (on the order of 100 trillion interneuronal connections, all potentially operating simultaneously), the rest time of the connections is extremely slow compared to contemporary electronics. The technologies required for such an emulation sufficiently powerful and capacious computers and sufficiently advanced brainscanning techniques will be available, he announces, by the early 2030s.

And this, obviously, is no small claim. We are talking about not just radically extended life spans, but also radically expanded cognitive abilities. We are talking about endless copies and iterations of the self. Having undergone a procedure like this, you would exist to the extent you could meaningfully be said to exist at all as an entity of unbounded possibilities.

I was introduced to Randal Koene at a Bay Area transhumanist conference. He wasnt speaking at the conference, but had come along out of personal interest. A cheerfully reserved man in his early 40s, he spoke in the punctilious staccato of a non-native English speaker who had long mastered the language. As we parted, he handed me his business card and much later that evening Iremoved it from my wallet and had a proper look at it. The card was illustrated with a picture of a laptop, on whose screen was displayed a stylised image of a brain. Underneath was printed what seemed to me an attractively mysterious message: Carboncopies: Realistic Routes to Substrate Independent Minds. Randal A Koene, founder.

I took out my laptop and went to the website of Carboncopies, which I learned was a nonprofit organisation with a goal of advancing the reverse engineering of neural tissue and complete brains, Whole Brain Emulation and development of neuroprostheses that reproduce functions of mind, creating what we call Substrate Independent Minds. This latter term, I read, was the objective to be able to sustain person-specific functions of mind and experience in many different operational substrates besides the biological brain. And this, I further learned, was a process analogous to that by which platform independent code can be compiled and run on many different computing platforms.

It seemed that I had met, without realising it, a person who was actively working toward the kind of brain-uploading scenario that Kurzweil had outlined in The Singularity Is Near. And this was a person I needed to get to know.

Randal
Randal Koene: It wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers.

Koene was an affable and precisely eloquent man and his conversation was unusually engaging for someone so forbiddingly intelligent and who worked in so rarefied a field as computational neuroscience; so, in his company, I often found myself momentarily forgetting about the nearly unthinkable implications of the work he was doing, the profound metaphysical weirdness of the things he was explaining to me. Hed be talking about some tangential topic his happily cordial relationship with his ex-wife, say, or the cultural differences between European and American scientific communities and Id remember with a slow, uncanny suffusion of unease that his work, were it to yield the kind of results he is aiming for, would amount to the most significant event since the evolution of Homo sapiens. The odds seemed pretty long from where I was standing, but then again, I reminded myself, the history of science was in many ways an almanac of highly unlikely victories.

One evening in early spring, Koene drove down to San Francisco from the North Bay, where he lived and worked in a rented ranch house surrounded by rabbits, to meet me for dinner in a small Argentinian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. The faint trace of an accent turned out to be Dutch. Koene was born in Groningen and had spent most of his early childhood in Haarlem. His father was a particle physicist and there were frequent moves, including a two-year stint in Winnipeg, as he followed his work from one experimental nuclear facility to the next.

Now a boyish 43, he had lived in California only for the past five years, but had come to think of it as home, or the closest thing to home hed encountered in the course of a nomadic life. And much of this had to do with the culture of techno-progressivism that had spread outward from its concentrated origins in Silicon Valley and come to encompass the entire Bay Area, with its historically high turnover of radical ideas. It had been a while now, he said, since hed described his work to someone, only for them to react as though he were making a misjudged joke or simply to walk off mid-conversation.

In his early teens, Koene began to conceive of the major problem with the human brain in computational terms: it was not, like a computer, readable and rewritable. You couldnt get in there and enhance it, make it run more efficiently, like you could with lines of code. You couldnt just speed up a neuron like you could with a computer processor.

Around this time, he read Arthur C Clarkes The City and the Stars, a novel set a billion years from now, in which the enclosed city of Diaspar is ruled by a superintelligent Central Computer, which creates bodies for the citys posthuman citizens and stores their minds in its memory banks at the end of their lives, for purposes of reincarnation. Koene saw nothing in this idea of reducing human beings to data that seemed to him implausible and felt nothing in himself that prevented him from working to bring it about. His parents encouraged him in this peculiar interest and the scientific prospect of preserving human minds in hardware became a regular topic of dinnertime conversation.

Computational neuroscience, which drew its practitioners not from biology but from the fields of mathematics and physics, seemed to offer the most promising approach to the problem of mapping and uploading the mind. It wasnt until he began using the internet in the mid-1990s, though, that he discovered a loose community of people with an interest in the same area.

As a PhD student in computational neuroscience at Montreals McGill University, Koene was initially cautious about revealing the underlying motivation for his studies, for fear of being taken for a fantasist or an eccentric.

I didnt hide it, as such, he said, but it wasnt like I was walking into labs, telling people I wanted to upload human minds to computers either. Id work with people on some related area, like the encoding of memory, with a view to figuring out how that might fit into an overall road map for whole brain emulation.

Having worked for a while at Halcyon Molecular, a Silicon Valley gene-sequencing and nanotechnology startup funded by Peter Thiel, he decided to stay in the Bay Area and start his own nonprofit company aimed at advancing the cause to which hed long been dedicated: carboncopies

Koenes decision was rooted in the very reason he began pursuing that work in the first place: an anxious awareness of the small and diminishing store of days that remained to him. If hed gone the university route, hed have had to devote most of his time, at least until securing tenure, to projects that were at best tangentially relevant to his central enterprise. The path he had chosen was a difficult one for a scientist and he lived and worked from one small infusion of private funding to the next.

But Silicon Valleys culture of radical techno-optimism had been its own sustaining force for him, and a source of financial backing for a project that took its place within the wildly aspirational ethic of that cultural context. There were people there or thereabouts, wealthy and influential, for whom a future in which human minds might be uploaded to computers was one to be actively sought, a problem to be solved, disruptively innovated, by the application of money.

Transcendence
Brainchild of the movies: in Transcendence (2014), scientist Will Caster, played by Johnny Depp, uploads his mind to a computer program with dangerous results.

One such person was Dmitry Itskov, a 36-year-old Russian tech multimillionaire and founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organisationwhose stated aim was to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. One of Itskovs projects was the creation of avatars artificial humanoid bodies that would be controlled through brain-computer interface, technologies that would be complementary with uploaded minds. He had funded Koenes work with Carboncopies and in 2013 they organised a conference in New York called Global Futures 2045, aimed, according to its promotional blurb, at the discussion of a new evolutionary strategy for humanity.

When we spoke, Koene was working with another tech entrepreneur named Bryan Johnson, who had sold his automated payment company to PayPal a couple of years back for $800m and who now controlled a venture capital concern called the OS Fund, which, I learned from its website, invests in entrepreneurs working towards quantum leap discoveries that promise to rewrite the operating systems of life. This language struck me as strange and unsettling in a way that revealed something crucial about the attitude toward human experience that was spreading outward from its Bay Area centre a cluster of software metaphors that had metastasised into a way of thinking about what it meant to be a human being.

And it was the sameessential metaphor that lay at the heart of Koenes project: the mind as a piece of software, an application running on the platform of flesh. When he used the term emulation, he was using it explicitly to evoke the sense in which a PCs operating system could be emulated on a Mac, as what he called platform independent code.

The relevant science for whole brain emulation is, as youd expect, hideously complicated, and its interpretation deeply ambiguous, but if I can risk a gross oversimplification here, I will say that it is possible to conceive of the idea as something like this: first, you scan the pertinent information in a persons brain the neurons, the endlessly ramifying connections between them, the information-processing activity of which consciousness is seen as a byproduct through whatever technology, or combination of technologies, becomes feasible first (nanobots, electron microscopy, etc). That scan then becomes a blueprint for the reconstruction of the subject brains neural networks, which is then converted into a computational model. Finally, you emulate all of this on a third-party non-flesh-based substrate: some kind of supercomputer or a humanoid machine designed to reproduce and extend the experience of embodiment something, perhaps, like Natasha Vita-Mores Primo Posthuman.

The whole point of substrate independence, as Koene pointed out to me whenever I asked him what it would be like to exist outside of a human body, and I asked him many times, in various ways was that it would be like no one thing, because there would be no one substrate, no one medium of being. This was the concept transhumanists referred to as morphological freedom the liberty to take any bodily form technology permits.

You can be anything you like, as an article about uploading in Extropy magazine put it in the mid-90s. You can be big or small; you can be lighter than air and fly; you can teleport and walk through walls. You can be a lion or an antelope, a frog or a fly, a tree, a pool, the coat of paint on a ceiling.

What really interested me about this idea was not how strange and far-fetched it seemed (though it ticked those boxes resolutely enough), but rather how fundamentally identifiable it was, how universal. When talking to Koene, I was mostly trying to get to grips with the feasibility of the project and with what it was he envisioned as a desirable outcome. But then we would part company I would hang up the call, or I would take my leave and start walking toward the nearest station and I would find myself feeling strangely affected by the whole project, strangely moved.

Because there was something, in the end, paradoxically and definitively human in this desire for liberation from human form. I found myself thinking often of WB Yeatss Sailing to Byzantium, in which the ageing poet writes of his burning to be free of the weakening body, the sickening heart to abandon the dying animal for the manmade and immortal form of a mechanical bird. Once out of nature, he writes, I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.

One evening, we were sitting outside a combination bar/laundromat/standup comedy venue in Folsom Street a place with the fortuitous name of BrainWash when I confessed that the idea of having my mind uploaded to some technological substrate was deeply unappealing to me, horrifying even. The effects of technology on my life, even now, were something about which I was profoundly ambivalent; for all I had gained in convenience and connectedness, I was increasingly aware of the extent to which my movements in the world were mediated and circumscribed by corporations whose only real interest was in reducing the lives of human beings to data, as a means to further reducing us to profit.

The content we consumed, the people with whom we had romantic encounters, the news we read about the outside world: all these movements were coming increasingly under the influence of unseen algorithms, the creations of these corporations, whose complicity with government, moreover, had come to seem like the great submerged narrative of our time. Given the world we were living in, where the fragile liberal ideal of the autonomous self was already receding like a half-remembered dream into the doubtful haze of history, wouldnt a radical fusion of ourselves with technology amount, in the end, to a final capitulation of the very idea of personhood?

Koene nodded again and took a sip of his beer.

Hearing you say that, he said, makes it clear that theres a major hurdle there for people. Im more comfortable than you are with the idea, but thats because Ive been exposed to it for so long that Ive just got used to it.

Dmitry
Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov wants to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individuals personality to a more advanced nonbiological carrier. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

In the weeks and months after I returned from San Francisco, I thought obsessively about the idea of whole brain emulation. One morning, I was at home in Dublin, suffering from both a head cold and a hangover. I lay there, idly considering hauling myself out of bed to join my wife and my son, who were in his bedroom next door enjoying a raucous game of Buckaroo. I realised that these conditions (head cold, hangover) had imposed upon me a regime of mild bodily estrangement. As often happens when Im feeling under the weather, I had a sense of myself as an irreducibly biological thing, an assemblage of flesh and blood and gristle. I felt myself to be an organism with blocked nasal passages, a bacteria-ravaged throat, a sorrowful ache deep within its skull, its cephalon. I was aware of my substrate, in short, because my substrate felt like shit.

And I was gripped by a sudden curiosity as to what, precisely, that substrate consisted of, as to what I myself happened, technically speaking, to be. I reached across for the phone on my nightstand and entered into Google the words What is the human… The first three autocomplete suggestions offered What is The Human Centipede about, and then: What is the human body made of, and then: What is the human condition.

It was the second question I wanted answered at this particular time, as perhaps a back door into the third. It turned out that I was 65% oxygen, which is to say that I was mostly air, mostly nothing. After that, I was composed of diminishing quantities of carbon and hydrogen, of calcium and sulphur and chlorine, and so on down the elemental table. I was also mildly surprised to learn that, like the iPhone I was extracting this information from, I also contained trace elements of copper and iron and silicon.

What a piece of work is a man, I thought, what a quintessence of dust.

Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, he was laughing giddily and shouting: Dont buck! Dont buck!

With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense, in the saddest and most wonderful sense.

I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realised, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.

To Be a Machine by Mark OConnell is published by Granta (12.99). To order a copy for 11.04 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/mar/25/animal-life-is-over-machine-life-has-begun-road-to-immortality

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