Good, I thought. Maybe Marcus would demolish the Singularity and leave nothing behind but smoking wreckage.
Marcus, who teaches at New York University, has spent years studying computation. Computers are good at certain kinds of computation such as sorting things into categories. But they're not good at the things we do effortlessly, such as generating rules from experience.
Marcus was annoyed by one of the talks at the Summit, in which a computer scientist promised that humanlike artificial intelligence was nigh. "Figuring this stuff out in ten years—I don't believe it," he said.
I expected some serious curmudgeonliness it came time for Marcus to deliver his own talk the following day. In his 2008 book, Kluge, Marcus explored design flaws in the human brain. Our memory is inevitably faulty, for example, because we don't simply store information on a hard disk. Instead, we embed it in a web of associations. That's why memories may escape us until something—perhaps the taste of a cookie—brings back the right associations. Marcus explains how these quirks are locked into our brains thanks to our evolutionary history. We did not evolve to be computers but animals that could learn to find food and avoid being eaten.
So I imagined Marcus would declare the human brain unimprovable. He came out onto the stage and began to explain the shortfalls of human memory. So far, so good. But then he proceeded to explain why memory's failings meant that it was a good place to start improving the human brain. I had lost another skeptic.
I called Marcus a few days later and told him that he had surprised me. "Human enhancement is a real possibility," he replied. He envisioned a coming age of cognitive prosthetics, implanted devices that would work like a kind of onboard iPhone. The only challenge would be to decipher the human brain's signals well enough to let the iPhone talk to it. Marcus didn't see any reason scientists wouldn't eventually figure that out.
Marcus agreed with Sporns that the true value of whole- brain emulations might turn out to be what they teach us about the nature of intelligence. But that possibility worried Marcus deeply. As we use what we learn about the brain to program new machines, we may succeed too well. We may build a machine with so much intelligence it can start expanding its own intelligence without our help.
"There are going to be machines that are cleverer than we are," Marcus said. It is time, he believed, to start planning for that world. It doesn't matter whether those of us alive today get to see it or not. Even if Fiesta Omelets don't keep us alive for decades, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren may still have to cope with our too-clever creations. We owe it to them to get ready—if not for the Singularity, then at least for a life different from our own.