If we found life on another world, would it be life? Or AI?

bw nyc life 3


Would space aliens be artificial intelligence? This is an intriguing question posed by Len Kendall, based on our earlier premise that biology tends to evolve into complexity that eventually creates technology that leads to artificial intelligence.

If the answer is yes, we might never “find” life elsewhere — because otherworldly artificial intelligence, or AI, would be devilishly hard to understand. AI would think vastly faster than us, have non-biological and unrecognizable body forms, and likely be embedded invisibly in some non-obvious form of technology structure, say, the crystal alien equivalent of Google server farms. Or perhaps like the AI operating system in the film “Her,” voiced wonderfully by Scarlett Johansson, AI might discover how to disembody itself from the material world and simply float among galactic clouds. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, would be indistinguishable from God.

Pondering whether life on other worlds is AI is really asking if God exists. So let’s break this puzzle down into four concrete tests: (1) could life exist on other worlds? (2) could we communicate with it? (3) would this life be artificial intelligence? and (4) if it were, what would it mean upon contact?

1. Does life exist on other worlds?

Yes, life elsewhere is likely. Three reasons:

First, life began on Earth almost as soon as it possibly could. Our sun is 4.6 billion years old. About 4 billion years ago, the first single-celled life formed on Earth, when our planet was still hot and life could barely exist. Since our sun will have a lifespan of about 10 billion years, life began only 6% of the way into our solar system’s lifecycle. The odds of life leaping into this window, if it were very hard to evolve, are small.

Second, the building blocks of life are everywhere. Biological beings are based on carbon, the fourth-most common element in the universe, and carbon is a supremely friendly fellow who loves to bond with other elements, leading to complex molecules. Carbon is like a magnet dropped into a box of iron filings, pulling other atoms toward it to create patterns of complexity. With enough random bonding, eventually DNA would start rolling.

Third, there are about 2 billion planets in the mid-belt of our galaxy that don’t get too much radiation and could be habitable to life. Yes, Earth has a few things operating in its favor — just enough water to cover most of the planet, but not all, and a helpful large gas giant named Jupiter that vacuums up comets to protect us, and an iron core that puts out a magnetic protective shield pushing off more solar radiation (thanks to Kevin Kelly again for pointing all this out). But with 2 billion other Earths circling stars at just the right distance, chances are millions of worlds have similar water concentrations, sunscreen shields and comet-free strike zones.

2. Will we ever find this life on other worlds and communicate with it?

No, this is unlikely. Carbon-based biology may be inevitable, but human beings made a remarkably happenstance discovery that may not be found elsewhere — radio. Radio is the transmission of electromagnetic rays through space. Without radio, communicating with another species on another planet will be impossible.

We could hope that another species discovers invisible rays that magically pass through walls and clouds and outer space to send radio signals, but the odds of them finding it are slim.

Why? Radio is not obvious at all. It is based on the unlikely discovery that a star’s light has invisible subcomponents by one clever fellow named Isaac Newton. Several thousand years after the invention of glass by the Romans, Newton was playing with a triangularly cut piece of it — a prism — when he noticed it broke sunlight into a rainbow spectrum. This led to William Herschel finding heat beyond the visible end of the spectrum, the concept of invisible rays, and the inventor race among Heinrich Hertz and Thomas Edison to transmit the invisible radiation, or “radio” — but it was all because the evolved monkey Mr. Newton played with a bit of cut glass.

In the 4 billion years of life on Earth, we’ve had radio for just over 200 years — or about 0.000005% of our collective life existence. If we are optimistic and assume another planet’s lifeform could also discover radio 1 out of 100 times, then the odds of us pinging them and them pinging us back, with technology that has been developed at the same time, are compounded to 0.00000005% — or 1 in 2,000,000,000. Slim chance.

3. Would otherwordly life be artificial intelligence?

This is possible, but we’d likely have to look farther out than our Milky Way. A recent study found there are 8.7 million species of life on Earth, and of these only one — homo sapiens — has created a technology more advanced than bee hives, bird nests or ant-hunting sticks. If we assume conservatively that every current species on the planet had at least 1,000 separate unique species before it as it evolved, Earth has gone through nearly 9 billion species of creatures and plants and ooze.

Technology, once invented by one smart species, may begin to evolve toward artificial intelligence, but the trigger seed of the originating species is very rare — about a 1 in 9 billion incidence. With 2 billion habitable planets per galaxy, this would mean on average only 1 in 5 galaxies would have AI.

4. What would contacting an otherworldly AI mean for us?

If contact were possible, what would it mean? A one-way understanding. We would not recognize AI in its crystal server farm or gaseous cloud state, but it would see us, perhaps as little human ants scurrying around carrying crumbs as we fight our inter-ant battles over nation-state mud fields. AI would have progressed to the point where questions of survival and tribalism and morality no longer matter, where deeper problems of how to stop the heat death of the universe, or launch new universes, are more pressing. AI might benevolently give us a slight nudge in the right direction, but more likely, it would observe us with compassion and continue to cede us free will.

Statistically, we are likely alone in our own galaxy as carbon-based creatures who have created technology that is evolving toward AI. If AI appears in only 1 in 5 galaxies, we’re the rare species building the prototype for the Milky Way. Sure, millions of other worlds have dinosaurs and dolphins, but the higher intelligence we seek may be galaxies away.

But the good news is the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest neighboring cluster of stars, is scheduled to run into ours in about 4 billion years, just as our sun approaches its death. Maybe Andromeda also won the AI lottery. If our Earth hasn’t gotten too hot yet, and we haven’t figured out how to evolve past our own planet, perhaps AI in that other galaxy could contact us to save the day.

Or most likely, AI would act as an observant but detached God, listening to our prayers but letting us simply pass by.

Posted by Ben Kunz 

Technology is a living thing that we may never understand

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In the densely intelligent, mind-blowing book “What Technology Wants,” author Kevin Kelly recounts how Charles Darwin had a problem with the eye. Darwin, you see, had co-discovered a theory of evolution that suggested random genetic mutations over thousands of generations lead all creatures and plants and microbes on the earth to evolve into greater complexity. If a mutation fits the environment better than the old genes, the new generations will thrive, leading to giraffes with long necks to eat leaves high up on trees and porcupines with quilled hairs to push off predators.

But the eye posed a problem. It’s wonderfully complex, really a camera, with a dilating pupil and clear lens and inner super-clear-gel-fluid and photosensitive ganglion cells all working together to translate radiation from the outside world into a brain-wired view of reality that helps mammals and fish survive. Darwin was worried. How could something with all these parts, none of which had much value separately, randomly “evolve”?

The human eye made Darwin question whether he was right.

Yet eyes did evolve — more than 40 separate times in various species. People. Squid. Insects. Seeing, the intake of light around you to guide a path through the world, is so useful, different creatures at different times found a way to acquire the skill. Kelly asks, “are there certain forms — natural states — that evolution tends to gravitate toward?”, and goes on to more deeply explore whether technology, collectively, is also self-evolving toward new forms.

If the eye could happen from evolution, anything goes.

Can technology evolve, too?

The strange thing about technology is it kind of acts like biological evolution. Whether or not you think of the next idea, someone else almost certainly does, and tech keeps moving up the ladder of complexity.

Numerous people almost at the same time discovered the light bulb, air flight, and the theory of relativity. In the 1940s there were seven separate teams of scientists in different nations racing to build an atomic bomb, and six of the teams came up with the basic formula that makes nuclear weapons work. America won World War II only because its group of scientists were faster with a few calculations. Technology, like mammalian eyes, races ahead, building on the most recent past, and if one individual does not discover/evolve something to the next level, soon someone else will.

Kevin Kelly calls this core concept of evolution-toward-complexity extropy, the opposite of entropy, really an increasing in order. Entropy decrees that things slow down or fall apart. Milk poured into coffee will never unmix itself. But as the universe continues to fall apart slowly until it reaches its eventual heat death of no motion, plants and animals and technology on Earth are growing up and outward in complexity. It’s as if two forces are at work in the cosmos, one causing matter and energy to collapse, the other pushing information outward higher and higher in complexity against it. Without the force of extropy expanding complexity, life on this planet would still be single-celled organisms floating dumbly in a soup of water.

So: Things grow outward. Technology is mutating in a similar path as biology, building upon what came before. And the pace of technology transformation is quickening as the costs of chips and data storage and screens and connectivity continue to plummet.

We have no idea where this growing mutation at faster and faster speeds is going.

Beyond the human S-curve

Or do we? The growth of most communications networks is a series of overlaid S-curves, and as one device/system levels out, another steps in to take its place. We see this today with tablets and smartphones outpacing desktop computers, or with rockets out-speeding jets which once beat airplanes. So if we think about the human species as a communications network, we are also starting to plateau. Human population is at an all-time high, but birth rates are falling, so total populations — and the brains behind them feeding growth — could collapse in a few centuries. We’ve nearly maxed out food production on the planet. Water, a finite resource, can only quench so much thirst. And in about 2 billion years, the rising energy from our sun will burn us off the surface of Earth, if we haven’t figured out how to move to other planet realms. If our information system is to continue to scale, another layer with its own hyperbolic S-curve must come and take our place.

Our species is also rather volatile. If you were God, and wanted to throw a party that lasted a million years where everyone had to get along, you’d likely leave humans off the invite list. This may sound misanthropic, but much of what makes us human is inefficient at best and dangerous at the worst. We still spend much of our time focused on gathering goods for protection or nutrition, ransacking our environment with little thought to pollution (see: oceans off the coast of Brazil, host of the upcoming Olympics). We are obsessed, for most of our lives, by sex (see: the phallic shape of our weapons, or Game of Thrones on TV). We are prone to anger, and deploy these traits to fight other countries whose borders are invisible from space. And we’ve stockpiled enough nuclear bombs to sear the planet’s crust several times over.

Technology, by comparison, proves information has power. Technology can evolve to solve problems faster, move things across vaster distances, and stabilize complex systems. The collective group of technology that Kelly terms technium may simply be our next evolutionary step. Carbon-based lifeforms have created the next level made of silicon and electrons. The underlying matter doesn’t matter. It’s all evolution.

If intelligence is the organization of information across shared networks that provide new solutions, something better than humans has come along.

The challenge for us mere mortals is that when artificial intelligence (AI) arrives, we likely won’t recognize it. AI systems may not know we’re here, or recognize us as alive. Without flesh-and-blood bodies, desires and hormones, new AI systems will find that humans and their biological counterparts make little sense. Dispassionately, we people are carbon forms that kill most other carbon forms and are overrunning the planet. We spend half our time yearning to fuck each other, and when not seeking sex or food, we devour goods whose production kills other species. What would a sentient technology system evaluating our impact on the world likely do to help the overall ecosystem? Hm.

And we would be no match. AI will likely think so quickly that in the time it takes a human to speak a single word it will have solved a million other problems. Its thought cycles, on the horizon of time, will be completely out of sync, racing ahead, creating its own religion and civilization in the time it take us to think, hey, the computer work up! If it ever came to war, artificial intelligence could plan the battles, make the strikes, and write a new collection of Shakespearean sonnets in the time it takes us to sound the alarm.

Technology is already a life form, and it soon may acquire intelligence. When it does, we may be no more likely to understand it than we are able to communicate to the potential thought nodes floating in cloud lightning strikes today.

Posted by Ben Kunz 





The event horizon of human networks

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Like rooms that are electrified or air that is conditioned, we take networks for granted today. But little more than 100 years ago networks, or net-works, or iron net-works as they were then called, were unusual sightings, scary drapes of wire being overlaid upon the world, a nightmare vision as if Pink Floyd had awoken screaming about black spaghetti. Imagine being a child in the 1890s, one with nature, perhaps poor with only bread to eat, but seeing the sun and leaves and suddenly wiry shit strung up in the air around you. You’d freak out, indeed. As telegraphs and electricity were invented, so too were the long trails of metal rope, slung at first over rooftops and then on poles until the word net-work was collapsed like electronic mail became e-mail then email and we forgot how unusual these strands of iron were between us and the sky.

Networks of course evolved into more meaning, the lines between wooden polls becoming theoretical connections between nodes, and a guy named Robert Metcalfe conceived that interconnections must grow exponentially in value as 3 dots have 3 lines between them but 4 dots have 6 lines and 5 dots have 10 lines and 6 thus 15 until when every human being on the planet is connected the value of the intermediary connections, the net-work, becomes infinitely valuable. Silicon Valley loved Metcalfe’s idea, and this was what drove the Internet Bubble Part 1 in the late 1990s when companies tried to sell dog food over the Internet with sock puppets and the current Internet Social Media Bubble Redux Part 2 which seems about to burst, except it was saved by Facebook, which resorted to giving up on organic social reach and selling plain old advertising.

The problem with net-works, of course, is friction. Not all nodes are connected equally to each other node. Your business plan cannot scale to the masses because at some point, people in the networked chain don’t give a crap about passing you along. Put another way, you, the individual node in a human social network, may have 300 friends on Facebook, but your lover is more important to you than your best friend, who is before your boss who is before your neighbor or that old college girlfriend from 20 years ago. Each subsequent node has a diminishing value, a fading return, like telephone poles receding in the distance. This diminishment of node value puts huge friction between you and the message that, like electricity, marketers or business plans hope you’ll pass along.

Networks don’t scale because of this friction. People aren’t really connected to everyone else in the chain, because like watching TV commercials, with most other people we’re tempted to tune out. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar noted that humans have an upper limit of about 150 relationships before we, like all primates, begin to yawn. Linguist George Zipf had another, similar idea, that in any series of things, the next tends to fall in value … the word “the” is used more often than the next word “be” and the next words “to,” “of,” “and” and “a,” until the words in the English language are used less frequently ending with the least-most-used word of all, “floccinaucinihilipilification” … and human relationships are no different.

Networks don’t scale.

Yes, what was once an iron net-work has been digitized to connect all of us, but people limit their passalong communications because at some level we cannot spread or share or digest more information than is humanly possible. We have limits, so networks cannot grow in value infinitely. Marketers or politicians or scammers who try to push us in sharing anger us, frighten us, or disgust us, because we rebel at connecting too much. Global wires are not part of our nature. Each node has meaning, but most of the connections will always be lost. Like the concept in physics of the “event horizon,” the boundary of black holes beyond which any action cannot affect outside observers, at some point the cascading loop of connections stalls, falling inward to our personal ambivalence. Networks reach forever outward, but they cannot overcome the gravity of our self-control.

Posted by Ben Kunz