H+ Summit @ Harvard: The Rise of the Citizen Scientist

July 4, 2010 by Ben Goertzel

On June 12-13 of this year, Harvard University hosted the H+ Summit, organized by the nonprofit Humanity+ and loosely focused on the theme, Rise of the Citizen Scientist.

I attended and spoke at the Summit and enjoyed it very much; nearly every speaker had something interesting to say, and one came away from the conference with an excited feeling that the Singularity is, indeed, drawing palpably nearer each year. Ray Kurzweil’s keynote struck familiar and important themes about the near-inexorability of the drastic technological acceleration we’re now experiencing.

Stephen Wolfram connected the Singularity to deeper issues related to the nature of complexity and meaning — a critical perspective, in my view. In the bigger picture, all this technological acceleration is just another phase in the self-organization of complex form that’s been going on for billions of years, and will very likely continue long after humans are no longer top dog on this planet.

In its simplest, purest form “Citizen Science” connotes science being done by the “scientific amateur” — the notion that anyone can make a contribution to science or engineering, regardless of their formal background, simply by studying available information and applying their minds. This pure form of Citizen Science is important, but it’s not the only interesting case.

Beginner’s mind

Actually, many professional scientists these days are manifesting the spirit of Citizen Science — looking at the world from their own perspective, trying their best to understand it, and carrying out their own science or engineering in a proactive, individualistic way, independent of the main streams of research imposed by the leading journals or funding agencies. And this spirit, to me, is the important point. The key point isn’t whether you have a PhD or an established scientific reputation or not — it’s the attitude with which you approach the world, and your own scientific work.

Shoshin character

Shoshin character

In Zen Buddhism there is the concept of Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind. This refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject — an attitude that can be manifested even when studying at an advanced level, if one looks at the subject with “new eyes,” just as a beginner in that subject would. The phrase became famous when Zen master Shunryu Suzuki used it in the title of his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, reflecting his aphorism: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

“No matter how carefully we study the available data and extrapolate from the past and present, we can’t read the fine print on the label of the Singularity — because we’re writing that fine print now, all together.”

This is the crux of Citizen Science: many possibilities. Beginner’s mind — even if you’ve been at it for decades. Seeing always with new eyes. At no time in human history has this attitude been more important. Because now is precisely the time when more and more possibilities are unfolding — and it behooves us to do our best to see them.

The path to radical change may be nearly inexorable — but the nature of this radical change is far from determined. The change is being collectively created by us — by the things we do, and ultimately by the way we see the world, and the way we see each other.

The Singularity is almost surely near — but what kind of Singularity?  No matter how carefully we study the available data and extrapolate from the past and present, we can’t read the fine print on the label of the Singularity — because we’re writing that fine print now, all together.

Better brains

Ken Hayworth asked in his H+ Summit talk, “Can we extract a mind from a plastic-embedded brain?” His collaborator John Smart hit the same theme — and spent most of the conference sitting in the lobby at a table raising money to pay a summer intern to help with the research. With a PhD from USC and a post-doc at Harvard, Ken isn’t exactly an amateur — but he’s looking at his field with new eyes. Plastination of body tissues was developed for other purposes (did you see the beautiful Body Worlds art exhibit?), but it may well obsolete cryopreservation, posing a lower-cost and more effective way to preserve the minds of the deceased till the Singularity when they can potentially be reanimated.

Ken isn’t exploring this possibility because some funding agency told him to or because it’s the trend in his field; he’s exploring it, alongside his other research, because it’s his passion and his vision. I look forward to the results from this research: before long we should understand whether or not plastinated brain slices contain enough information to reconstruct the neurochemical networks that (according to current neuropsychological theories) underlie intelligence.

Alexandra Elbakayan, a recent college graduate from Kazakhstan with commercial experience working on neural interfaces for video games, gave a talk pushing forward her vision of using brain-computer interfacing to give people the capability to see into each others’ minds, so we can think, feel and act with more coordination and understanding. Her goal: nothing less than world peace, to enable a smoother path to the Singularity. She hopes to gather together other young people with appropriate skills to help her realize her vision.

NaoBOT robot

NaoBOT humanoid robot (photo: Aldebaran Robotics)

Heather Knight gave a fantastic talk and showed off a Nao humanoid robot — a little plastic robo-person with nifty dance moves. As it happens, we’re also using 3 Naos in our AI research lab at Xiamen University in China, for our work on embodied artificial general intelligence. Heather’s company Marilyn Monrobot is focused on entertaining, charismatic machine performances — but she also does serious robotics research, and is about to begin her PhD at Carnegie-Mellon University. Citizen science, citizen art and entrepreneurship — all at the start of a professional scientific career.

How refreshingly different from the “Big Science” approach, in which the young scientist works as a cog in the machine of a large laboratory until, if they’re lucky, they eventually become a Principal Investigator and get to help operate the machine. While I have great respect for the wonderful results that Big Science has produced, I’m also thrilled to see it complemented by more of an individualist, anarchic, Citizen Science type approach.

Over the last few years, Aubrey de Grey has transformed the public face of longevity research with his book Ending Aging, his Methuselah Mouse Prize, and his tireless proselytization of his SENS (Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence) project. He has gone from working as a computational biologist in a Cambridge lab to being a driving force for humanity’s future wellbeing — simply by seeing what needed to be done, and taking the initiative to do it.

His talk at the Summit focused on his vision of the Methuselarity — an analogue to the Singularity but in the specific domain of aging — defined as the year when anti-aging has progressed far enough that everybody alive at that point is reasonably likely to avoid aging due to ongoing, accelerating biomedical advances.

Aubrey has proposed a host of different strategies and tactics for combating different aspects of aging and age-associated disease, and I have little idea which of these will prove most fruitful. My own current work toward longevity is taking a somewhat different course: I’m working with Genescient to understand the lessons that the genetics of their long-lived fruit flies (5x the lifespan of normal fruit flies!) may have for the development of drugs to combat age-associated disease and increase human healthspan.

But the main point I want to make here is that, while Big Pharma and Big Gerontology chug along in their own research directions — largely using a 20th century drug discovery methodology, whose weaknesses are well documented — there is a host of individuals and groups taking more of a Beginner’s Mind approach to longevity research, looking at the problem from the perspective of the ideas and tools available now and plowing innovative paths forward.

DIY Singularity

My own Summit talk touched two themes: the future of Artificial General Intelligence “From Here to Singularity,” and the OpenCog open-source AGI project which I co-founded in 2008, which has now attracted AI software developers all around the globe. In Bulgaria, a French scientist is collaborating with engineers in India and the US to apply OpenCog to analyze smart electricity grids; at Xiamen University in China a team of graduate students are using OpenCog to make humanoid robots navigate and converse.

My involvement in open-source has definitely increased my enthusiasm for Citizen Science, broadly speaking. OpenCog is ultimately founded on the design for artificial general intelligence (AGI) that I created over decades of academic and industry research — but we’re getting both code and conceptual contributions from all sorts of people, with all sorts of ideas, visions and motivations. Professional academic researchers, university freshmen, moonlighting software engineers and anyone else who’s interested and knows C++ and a bit of AI can contribute. What matters are your code and your ideas, not your formal background.

DWave system

A D-Wave quantum computing system (photo: D-Wave)

Geordie Rose from D-Wave gave one of the more intriguing talks, describing the work his company has been doing with their novel adiabatic quantum computing architecture. Deviating wildly from the standard approaches in the quantum computing world, theirs is a specialized rather than general-purpose quantum computer. It’s aimed at solving certain kinds of optimization problems that pop up frequently in all sorts of applications, and Google has already been using it for some prototype experiments in image classification. Again, here we have an upstart methodology — most quantum computing experts were skeptical of the D-Wave approach, but there were enough maverick experts backing the approach to enable D-Wave to get funded and build their machine.

The jury is out on whether this is going to be the ultimately most successful approach to quantum computing, but it’s almost sure to teach us quite a lot. I was also pleased to find that Geordie has an interest in AGI — and especially in deep learning approaches, such as those Itamar Arel discussed in his H+ Summit talk. It’s a bit early for practical cross-pollination between quantum computing and AGI work, but there seems little doubt that as the century unfolds, we’re going to see the eventual unveiling of Quantum Artificial Minds.

What one sees in the H+ Summit talks I’ve mentioned — and many of the others — is precisely the Beginner’s Mind, peeking out from the heart of the collective mind of science. It’s the attitude of openness — of seeing many possibilities — of looking at the present and the future and trying to envision what might be done to make the world better and the path to Singularity more plausible.

Many perils await us in the years ahead — as has often been pointed out, the same advanced technologies with the potential to drastically improve our lives also have the potential to exterminate us, via engineered pathogens, nanoweapons, malicious AGIs, and so forth. “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future, ” as Niels Bohr put it. But if one thing gives me optimism that we may collectively navigate the subtle times ahead, it’s the innovative, curious, gutsy “Citizen Science” Beginner’s Mind attitude that I saw shining out from so many of the faces at the podium and the audience at the H+ Summit at Harvard.

We live in fascinating times!  And as all these H+ technologies unfold and the Singularity approaches, they promise to get more intriguing still…

The next H+ Summit will be held from November 5 to 7 in Los Angeles, California: http://hplussummit2010west.eventbrite.com.