Biological brains will be a sideshow: Prediction from the Royal Astonomer

Richard Rees, the UK’s Royal Astronomer finished a recent article in the Telegraph with the following paragraph:

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity – spanning tens of millennia at most – will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the inorganic post-human era. So, in the far future, it won’t be the minds of humans, but those of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos – and it will be the actions of autonomous machines that will most drastically change our world, and perhaps what lies beyond.

To summarise: Biological brains … will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects … of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos.

That’s a big statement and consistent with the thinking of other prominent futurologists like Ray Kurzweil. What’s interesting is to see it so close to the heart of the establishment here in the UK.

Rees puts this vision of the world in the “far future”, but that far future isn’t too far away. He cites expert estimates for the arrival of general human level are 25 years at the optimistic end and 50 years on average (AI expert Nick Bostrom’s recent poll of experts found a 60 year average prediction). Then, immediately after human level AI we will get an intelligence explosion as the AIs work at light-speed to improve themselves.

Try to imagine a world with other intelligences infinitely smarter than us.

I’m 42, so if these experts are right and I’m lucky with my health (or science takes care of me) then I have at least a 50-50 chance of seeing super-intelligence in my lifetime. It’s coming.

As a society I think we have a long way to go in wrapping our heads around what that means. It’s hard to over-estimate how much change will come.

  • petermain

    Great book i’ve been reading on this, just this month:

    The Singularity is Near by Raymond Kurzweil

  • Hi Pete – good to hear from you. The Singularity is Near shaped my thinking more than perhaps any other book I’ve read. It’s hard work, but worth it. Hope all is well.

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  • Paul Smith

    I asked Nick Jennings the same question last week. He’s the Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government on National Security, and also one of the world’s leading authorities on AI. He doesn’t think we’ll see AI in his lifetime, or for at least another generation. There are exciting advances but true AI is still a lifetime away, likely beyond the 60 year timeframe. And the Astronomer Royal, like Stephen Hawking, is an incredibly intelligent individual, but holds no position of experience to provide meaningful commentary on AI 🙂

  • There is definitely a range of opinions out there. I think we should start preparing ourselves now in case human level AI comes sooner rather than later.

  • Hi Nic, this is an area of much controversy and fascination. IMHO, I do not think biological brains will be surpassed by machines, as computing right now is linear. However with advances in DNA computing and quantum computing, we can ultimately know more about the human brain- by replicating the functions of the biological brain enhanced by machines, as Ray Kurzweil believes. You might be interested in this article- in which CalTech had developed an artificial neural network from human DNA molecules back in 2011. I can extrapolate that the UK is very advanced in this sector as well although mired in secrecy- as Google tends to acquire Oxford startups working in AI with increasing frequency.

  • We def have some strengths here. Thanks Sierra.