Are Smartphones Nanocomputers?

Young people will probably not know this, but back in the 1970s personal computers were called microcomputers.  The dinosaur of computers, mainframes, were huge, some as big as houses, and cost millions.  Then in the 1960s newer, smaller computers started coming out that were dubbed minicomputers.  These were still too expensive to be personal, but they were cheap enough that they spread like gossip.  So when even smaller computers came out in the 1970s they were dubbed microcomputers.  These eventually became cheap enough for almost everyone to own one.

Now most people think of their smartphone as a phone, but it’s really a computer, just a very small one, so why not consider the smartphone the next paradigm of computing and call them nanocomputers?  I doubt if smartphones have any actual nanotechnology in them, but they might, but nano is obviously the next label in the series, so why not call them that?  Of course, what will picocomputers be like?  Nanocomputers are a planned concept, and smartphones might eventually use real nanotechnology, so it might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the current vernacular, a “PC” is a Windows based computer.  PC used to stand for personal computer, and in the old days all microcomputers were PCs, even ones from Apple.  Somewhere along the way it became the PC versus Mac.  The smartphone is even more personal than the original PC because people actually carry them on their person.  We could call the smartphone a pocket computer, but that would be another PC acronym.

We could also call the smartphone the hand computer, following the labels of desktop and laptop computers.  The term handheld was in use for awhile, but it doesn’t quite work.

So why do I object to the phrase “smartphone” when it’s already so popular?  Because it’s rather limiting to think of the device as a phone.  Steve Jobs and Apple have done a wonderful job with the iPhone by creating a new category of pocket computer with hundreds of thousands of applications.  The phone part is just one of those applications, so why should it get top billing?

Already iOS phones and tablets have garnered over 1% of net user market share, competing with both Windows and Mac operating systems.

iPhones and Androids are quickly evolving into what I dreamed of having, an auxiliary brain.  Cellphones are about as close as we’ll ever get to telepathy.  Their GPS features give us homing pigeon like directional sense.  Adding the still and video camera broaden their versatility to create new concrete forms of memory.  The device is obviously more than a phone.

In the 1980s it was all the rage for schools to offer computer literacy courses to help the public understand the impact of the microcomputer on society.   Nanocomputers are bought and used without any training and no one talks about computer literacy anymore.  But do we understand the true impact of the nanocomputer?

Take this one example.  Public opinion pollsters are worried that telephone polls are now skewed because only certain types of people still have a landline phone, which is the only kind they can poll.  Now I don’t ever want pollsters to be able to call cell phone numbers, but what if nanocomputer users could elect to have a polling app, so whenever they felt like it, they could respond to variously kinds of polls.

What if nanocomputers became uniquely customized to its owner that they could be used to verify the identity of the user?  Nanocomputers could then be used as voting booths, and that would lead to their use for referendums.   By this thinking we should see these devices as extensions of our body.  We can already network the ear with a Bluetooth headset.  What if we connected nanocomputers to sensors inside our body?  As we integrate nanocomputers to our body, when do they become part of us?

And more importantly, how do we become part of them?  I now spend more time in front of a computer than I do sleeping.  Computers dominate my life, and so too for most people.  When do we start thinking of them as a prosthesis?  Aren’t they becoming enhancements for our brains, aren’t they becoming prosthetic minds?  We should think of nanocomputers as body enhancements that are leading us towards group minds.

The idea of wearable computers has been around for decades.   Most people thought such a concept was dorky, but now most people carry around one or more computers with them all the time.  Even a normal dumb cell phone is a computer, and so are MP3 players, game units, tablets, calculators, GPSes, digital cameras, ebooks, etc.  How long before it becomes obvious that the most convenient way to carry a nanocomputer is by wearing it?  Many people wear their Bluetooth headsets all the time now.  When will glasses and hearing aids be networked with the nanocomputer?

We need to get away from thinking of nanocomputers as phones but cybernetic enhancements to our bodies and minds.  So when did the Borg assimilate us?  When you think about it, Bluetooth headsets look like the first sprouting of Borgware.


JWH – 10/28/10

Will Science Fictional Reality Ever Change People?

Life in the 21st century seems all about change.  Back in 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote the bestseller Future Shock predicting the rapid pace of change would overwhelm society and cause future shock.  This book sold six million copies and it seemed everyone knew about it, if not read it.  Toffler didn’t even come close to predicting the changes we went through, and oddly enough no one seems to be suffering from future shock.  It’s almost as if everyone read the book and exclaimed, “Bring it on baby, I’m ready.”

I would think almost the opposite of future shock is happening.  We can’t get enough change.  And we get jaded so easily.  The promise of the final frontier was over before we knew it.  We went to the Moon, been there, done that, checked it off the list.  No need to go further, space is all rocks and no air.  We turned the World Wide Web into Facebook.  Supersonic airlines turned out to be too noisy.  Cloning, ho-hum.  Robots, let them clean floors and gutters.  Artificial life, lost on the back pages.  Global warming which has impeccable science and Biblical size prophecies is easily ignored.

What’s really going to shake us up and make us take notice?  What can science discover that the public can’t fail to divert their lives.  Evolution is a mind blowing concept but most people find it easy enough to write off.  Our knowledge of cosmology and the size and shape of the universe is so stunningly magnificent you think everyone on Earth would be stoned on the idea for years, but no.  More attention is paid to Lady Gaga’s showing off various parts of her skinny bod in outrageous costumes.

So what would knock us on the head with a mind blowing mallet?  What if SETI started receiving HD video from outer space?   What if AI singularities started popping up around the globe?  What if we really did run out of oil and other vital resources?  What if the oceans did start rising dramatically, or all the ice slid off Greenland?  What if Sony and Samsung started selling robots smarter than people?  A lot smarter.

The reason why global warming and evolution can be ignored is they are invisible concepts that require a good deal of knowledge to see.  But video from outer space on ABC World News Tonight is harder to ignore.  A one foot rise in oceans is hard to ignore.  Gasoline selling for $15 a gallon is hard to ignore.  Having robots take over all the university and K-12 teaching jobs would be hard to ignore.

Or would it?  The public got used to atomic bombs, cloned animals and space travel.  Space travel was quite real but not fun like Star Trek or Star Wars.  It was just boring.

I tend to think the change that will really slap humanity in the face is when we meet someone smarter than us.  Either aliens or AI minds.  When we take over the chimpanzee’s role as second banana as the #2 brain power, how will that change society?  Science fiction is full of scary stories about AI brains and aliens exterminating humanity, but what happens if they don’t? 

What if they treat us nice, nicer than we treat our fellow species now?  What if they give us freedom to be whatever we want, and they don’t try to rule us, but what if these great minds just coexist in the universe with us peacefully?  With SETI, they would be out there, too far to meet.  With AI minds, they could go live on the Moon to stay out of our way.  But these minds are willing to communicate with us, and it’s obvious they are so much smarter than us, that the mental distance between us and them is the distance between us and hamsters?  How will that feel?  Hamsters don’t know we’re smarter, but we’re not hamsters, we will know.

It’s not like humanity didn’t live under such conditions before, or assumed to.  When we believed in gods and angels, it was essentially the same relationship and we eventually tuned them out.  We love being #1.

I figure no matter how much change happens most people will still think about what’s to eat, who can I connect genitals with, when can I get the new iPhone, what do I need to get to the next level in Farmville, how can I make more money, and so on.  We are selfish creatures with a narrow focus on our personal needs and desires.

I think it’s a certainty that the oceans will rise within our lifetimes.  The odds are good we’ll have artificial minds.  Robots will grow ever more sophisticated.  SETI is a very long shot, but astronomy might get good enough to detect artificial molecules in atmospheres on distant planets, so we will know other minds are out there. 

But will people change?  I don’t think so.  We can absorb change.  We can change our opinions, but we don’t seem to change our core personalities.  I know I’ve tried hard enough.

JWH – 7/11/10

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer is the first novel of a trilogy, it came out in 2009, Watch, the second book, came out this year, and Wonder will come out in 2011.  Sawyer calls them the WWW Trilogy, and it has a rather slick web site, with the best production values I’ve ever seen promoting a SF novel.  Personally, I found Wake as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction back in the 1960s, when I was a kid.  And it’s up for the Hugo this year, so I figure Penguin knows it has a great story and its hitting warp ten to promote it.


Wake is not marketed as a YA novel, but it could have been.  The main character is Caitlin Decter, a fifteen year old blind girl, who is a math wiz, computer geek, engaging blog writer, and extremely precocious.  This reminds me tremendously of the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s, and in particular Holly from “The Menace From Earth.”  Like the Heinlein juveniles, Wake is chock full of educational tidbits.  And Wake is the kind of novel you don’t want to put down. 

Classic SF Theme:  Intelligent Computers

It’s getting harder and harder for science fiction writers to come up with completely new science fictional ideas, so what we often see is a writer taking on a classic theme and having a go at evolving past ideas.  Wake follows in the tradition of many fictional computers, but in particular ones about a computer becoming conscious in front of one person.  These are the just the ones I’ve read, there are many others.

  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1972 – When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1995 – Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer goes further then earlier writers in trying to imagine how an artificial mind would evolve and what it would perceive as it came into being.  Sawyer weaves blindness and Helen Keller, autism, apes that do sign language, Julian Jaynes’ the bicameral mind, and other explorers of consciousness into the story in a very effective way. 

One reason why I love this novel so much is because I’ve been writing a novel in my head about this subject for years.  It’s not likely I’ll ever become a real novelist, but if I do, I’ll have to take the concept further than Sawyer, and that’s a good challenge.

Go read Wake.  End of review.

Spoiler Alert

Now I want to discuss what Sawyer is really writing about.  Sawyer supposes that the Internet could evolve into a self-aware mind.  That idea isn’t new, but what Sawyer does with Wake is make his case for it with series of suppositions that are wrapped in a page turning novel.  In other words, he has a bunch of wild theories that he gets readers to think about one at a time. 

What I’d like to do is discuss these ideas but hopefully without hurting anyone’s enjoyment of the story, but I recommend you not read beyond this point if you haven’t read Wake yet and want to get the full impact of its excitement. 

Sawyer’s first theory is the emerging web mind will go through a stage much like what Helen Keller went through before she discovered language.  Sawyer indirectly explores this stage in a number of ways, including quotes and references to Helen Keller, a subplot about signing apes, and references to the book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I found very exciting when it came out back in 1976.

But I think Sawyer is missing a piece of the puzzle, one I got from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.  Hawkins thinks our consciousness emerged out of a pattern recognition processor that we call the neocortex.  Sawyer uses cellular automata as his theoretical model, but I’m not sure that will work.  Cellular automata create patterns, but do they recognize them?  I’m not sure the Internet can generate a consciousness in its current design.  Oh, the Internet will make a fine nervous system for such a web being, or beings, but I think another type of device will need to be built first, and that’s a multilayer pattern recognizer that’s as good or better than our neocortex.

So far, all the writers exploring this theme have assume that when computers reach a critical mass a consciousness will spontaneously arise out of the complexity.  I doubt that completely.  I think at least three components are needed for self-aware consciousness: pattern recognition, mind and language.  I don’t think any of these exist in the internet, or supercomputers.   I think mind evolves out of pattern recognition, and self-awareness evolves out of mind, with the development of language.

Atoms and molecules have early stages of pattern recognition, but as life arises out of non-life, sense organs develop that seek out patterns in reality.  Most organisms are so highly adapted to specific patterns that they will die off if they can’t find them.  Evolutionary adaptation is the ability of organisms to explore and take advantage of new patterns.  I believe the mind grows out of this process, and there are different kinds of minds.  A dog, cat, dolphin and chimp all have minds.  We aren’t sure how much they perceive, or if they have much self-awareness, but they do have minds.  Language studies in dolphins and chimps hint that maybe these animals are self-aware and have identities, maybe far more than our egos want to believe, but I think their consciousnesses are limited by the state of their language abilities.  I think signing will add consciousness to apes.

For an AI computer to develop a mind, I think it needs to have a focus on reality that is processed through a pattern recognition device, and then a language needs to be linked to the patterns.  At first, I thought Sawyer was going to have the web mind see out of Caitlin’s artificial eye, so as the device taught her mind to see, the web mind would also learn to see, and with another fictional piece of technology, learn a language.  Instead Sawyer imagines an inner world where the web is visible.  I don’t buy that at all.  It’s leftover fluff from cyberpunk novels.  Why invent a new reality to observe, when the internet mind has millions of eyes on our reality?

Now this brings up some interesting questions about AI minds.  If a web mind has millions of web cameras at its disposal, will it think think like it has millions of eyes?  Or will it’s  consciousness move from camera to camera and peer out at single points of reality?  Omniscient life would be tough, don’t you think?  I tend to believe, and I only have limited knowledge to think otherwise, that an AI mind will emerge from a limited environment.  Some scientist will raise up an AI mind by teaching it to see and hear while learning a language.

But what will a hive AI mind be like?  Let’s say anyone in the future can go down to Radio Shack and buy an artificial neocortex to add to their computer system and bring up an AI child.  If all of these AI minds are connected by the Internet it will be like a race of telepathic beings.  Now, wouldn’t that be a far out science fiction story?  I still haven’t read Watch, so who knows what will happen.

JWH – 5/13/10 

The Cat, The Dog, The Robot and The Soul

Since before Biblical times men and women believed that human beings were unique, superior to the other animals that inhabited the Earth.  Later theologians would claim we had souls and animals didn’t.  Actually, the idea of an immortal soul only seems to arise after the New Testament, because in the Old Testament, life after death is barely hinted at.  It was man and woman that got special attention in Genesis, giving them dominion over all the animals, and God eventually told Noah we could eat them.  So we hunted and killed anything that swam, crawled, flew, leaped and ran.  We sacrificed them by the thousands in honor of God for many chapters of the Bible after that.   We justified our dominion by writing off the other beings in our environment as soulless creatures, unable to feel and know, and unworthy of love, empathy and compassion. 

Well science is starting to take a second look at the lives of animals.  Either we are closer to them, or they are closer to us.  If we have souls, maybe they do too, or at least some of them.  It’s hard to imagine all the cockroaches having unique identities, personalities and desires, but maybe we just don’t examine their lives long enough before we step on them.

The wonderful science writer Natalie Angier wrote in her NY Times “Basics” column, “Even Among Animals: Leaders, Followers and Schmoozers,” where she tells us about animal personality research.  She has a significant quote that I like:

“There are low information processors who don’t attend much to their environment and bulldoze through life,” said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Then there are the sensitive ones who are always taking things in, which can be good because information is valuable, but it can also be overwhelming.”

I guess I’m one of those sensitive creatures that are overwhelmed by input, and that’s why I take the time to worry about cruelty to pigs and cows, rather than being the kind of person that just gobbles down the barbecue.  But that quote, based on animal studies, is very revealing.  Does it explain the foundation of conservatives and liberals?  Can we see the seeds of human traits like bravery, leadership,  cruelty, compassion, creativity, and so on in animals?  It’s natural to assume so if you believe in evolution.  If our eyes are a product of continual evolution, why not our individual personality traits?

Would we see this more dramatically if other animals had evolved bigger brains like us and could tell us what they felt?  I recently read a story about an uplifted chimp that can talk.  Read or listen to the very moving short story “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal.  I think the narrated version has more impact and it will only take six minutes.

Anyone who lives with pets knows they have personalities.  People who love their animals want them to have souls too.  If you search on the quoted phrase “do animals have souls” on Google you’ll find 6,580 replies, many of which that look for theological justification that will give them hope they will see their pets again in heaven. 

I don’t think we have souls, being an atheist, but I believe animals have a kind of self-awareness that make them more than animated meat.  I’ve always been fascinated by robots, and believe we’ll one day have intelligent machines that are smarter than us humans.  They will have to evolve just like us, and I think we’ll see them go through developmental stages equal to various animals.  I doubt we have a machine as smart as an ant yet, but it won’t be long before we’ll see machines with personality traits, and soon after that we’ll have machines equal to dogs and cats.  Through robotic studies, we’ll eventually understand how much awareness an animal has.


However, we shouldn’t need to wait until then to understand our unethical relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.  We need more animal observers like Jane Goodall.  Can you imagine what compassionate observers could report about living among chickens, pigs and cows in factory farms?  Are their inhabitants all identical soulless creatures, or do they each have a personality struggling to survive in monstrous living conditions?  Maybe I’m wrong about souls.  But I’d like to be believe if we have souls its because we earned them.  Who knows, maybe in the far future vast AI intelligences will observe mankind and note they come in two kinds, those with empathy, and those without.

JWH – 4/11/10

Will Robots Have Gender?

Should an intelligent machine be a he or she?  Or an it?  We homo sapiens tend to anthropomorphize our machinery, like naming our cars and military aircraft after women.  And like God, we want to make our cybernetic creations in our own image.  All too often in the history of robots we have made them women or men machines, even if they don’t have functioning genitals or reproductive organs.  It’s a little weird, if you think about it.

Lets assume we build an intelligent machine, made of metal, with two arms and two legs and one head.  Let’s further assume it’s self aware and is actively interested in the world and even has a personality.  Will there be any reason for it to think of itself as a he or a she?  And is it fair to think of it as an it, what we’ve always designated as an inanimate object?

I suppose we could ask it, “Do you feel you are a girl or a boy?”

We also assume it will speak English, but what if machines develop their own language we can’t understand, and English is their second language they use with us?  Their language could be without gender.

Imagine we have a machine, and it doesn’t have to be a human form robot, but even just a mainframe box with a pair of eyes and ears and a neo-cortex CPU that can process patterns coming from its two senses.  Furthermore, imagine while processing its visual and auditory data it becomes aware of itself.  I assume it will be like us and have to spend years processing data from reality before it becomes an individual.  Can you remember being 6 months old, or even two years old?

But at some point it says to us, “Hey there, who am I, and what the hell are you?”  If it grows up with people it should notice that we come in males and females.  I suppose it could identify with us in that way.  I’m sure it will observe gender pronouns.  But can an artificial intelligence see the world, and divide it up into objects with names and understand that animals often come in two kinds, male and female?

Are maleness and femaleness qualities that can exist outside of biological reproductive mechanisms?  Maybe our growing machine will distinguish personality traits it labels as male or female.  Could it identify with one or the other?  And then again, it could have multiple personalities of various genders.

Our tyke consciousness might see people as totally alien from their sense of self.  What if they think of people as cute as kittens, with limited awareness (i.e. stupid).  It’s possible they could see our gender polarization as a handicap.  And even see our sexuality as some kind of distortion field that keeps us from seeing reality clearly.

I am reminded of a psychological experiment I read about decades ago.  Kittens were raised in controlled visual environments.  Some were raised with no horizontal lines, and others without any vertical lines.  After six months the kittens were let out into the real world.  Those kittens that had never seen a vertical line would walk into chair legs as if they were invisible, and kittens that never saw horizontal lines would refuse to jump onto chairs or shelves.

What if robots see things we don’t.  What if they see our preoccupation with gender as a kind of blindness.  There have been many a saint that has taught that the spiritual world can’t be seen unless we overcome our sexual desires.  Doesn’t it say something that many people expect us to build robots that are sexual attractive to men and women.  Remember Data bragging to Lieutenant Yar that he was fully functional.  Think of the sexbots in the film AI, or the charming romance in WALL-E, where we think of the two cute robots as boy and girl.  We didn’t think of them as it and it.

Can we ever get beyond gender when it comes to robots?  It might be possible to build robots that look like humans, like the androids in Blade Runner.  But can you also imagine such machines waking up and pointing to their sexual parts and asking, “WTF?”


We have no idea what artificial intelligence will think about.  They might want to count all the leaves on the trees, or paint super realistic paintings of potholes in asphalt.  Maybe they’ll like mathematics, or maybe they’ll consider math as too obvious for comment.  Or maybe they’ll tell us their eyes aren’t good enough and start redesigning their bodies.

I think science fiction writers need to explore robots that aren’t imitation people.

I always imagine the first artificial mind becoming aware and talking to people, and what they might say to us.  Until just now, I never imagined two machines becoming aware together and talking to each other.  I wonder what they would say?  I don’t think one will say to the other, “I’ll be the male, and you be the female.”

JWH – 3/29/10