Author Archives: timeandillusion2012

A Difference in Space

Whether I like it or not, it seems to me that the world is presented to me a certain way. In general, this ‘way’ is of a world extending far out in space and time beyond my own immediate experience. It includes stars, planets, dust, galaxies containing them, clusters containing galaxies, voids between clusters, and possibly even other physical spaces (alternative physical universes).

It seems to me that my own society’s cosmology, the predominantly English- and other-European-language- speaking West, has a history of successive theories, each one proposing a larger universe than the last.

An early picture of the universe is as a region of space that surrounds but is predominated by the Earth. The world is a ball in space and everything else spins around it; the earth is the centre.
Bartolomeu Velho 1568
Strictly speaking, it is not obvious how large the rest of this universe needs to be. It could be mountain-high or infinite but a little thinking makes it reasonable to assume it is on the scale of the world. The world, in these imaginings, is not a speck of dust in a infinite void thronged with other, larger things. In this picture, every individual celestial thing is smaller than the world itself. Parsimony makes the question of space beyond its occupants as metaphysical as the question is now (as interesting as that is for metaphysicians, of course).

And this world is a human-traversable one; given the technologies at the time, people can get around it. Given the celestial things in this universe are visible, these things and the space between the world and them is on a similar worldly scale. Perhaps, even, in some mythologies, heaven and hell, and all the other strange worlds, can be travelled to.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch High Resolution.jpg
By Hieronymus Bosch – The Prado in Google Earth: Home – scaled down from 8 level of zoom, JPEG compression quality: Photoshop 10., Public Domain, Link

They can be travelled to, except … they are dangerous, deluding, or a person can only enter them with sufficient faith, wit, or luck. The afterlives accessible to you are determined by your character (usually); entering other worlds (such as faery realms) can also be limited this way — or not (again, faery realms are often accidentally entered, or due to hidden folk mischief). You get to heaven or Nirvana in a state of grace; you get to the faery realms by magic or misteps. If you leave, you may be cursed or lost.

The modern physical world is not accessible this way. It is not human-traversible; one cannot simply walk into the Andromeda Galaxy.
Andromeda Galaxy (with h-alpha)

Instead, to get to physical places, we need barely imaginable amounts of energy, time, or both. The best example in this Universe Today article, a laser sail of about 1000 km diameter would get us to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, in 9 years.

In the modern physicalist world, instead of faith, there is fuel. The boundaries of the physical world are not drawn along psychological lines. All we need to do to get to Mars — or possibly even travel through time — is have power.

I think this is the fundamental difference between ourselves now and many — if not all — pre-industrial cultures. When we look out at the world, we don’t see something bound or grounded in the psychological or moral. The boundaries are physical. There isn’t something or -one we must negotiate with, prove ourselves to, or trick so that we can reach the limits of this gigantic universe.

Perhaps AI and similar things might change this difference between our physically-traversible world and the previously psychologically-traversible one. One psychological boundary implied by large physical boundaries is the level of cognitive sophistication — of wit — needed to cross them. Generating sufficient energy and negotiating a vast physical landscape requires a significant amount of careful, thorough, and inspired thought. Most of us humans don’t have the capacity for that kind of thought as individuals; those that do seem rare, unpredictable and, depending on the society they find themselves, not necessarily positioned to do they thinking (e.g., they have to mind the kids).

If we humans are to think sufficiently that we can more fully explore the universe, we need to work together. However, I’m not sure we can easily work together anymore; such careful, thorough, and inspired collaborative thought needs from each collaborator generosity, sincerity, transparency, and a willingness to engage with anyone and everyone. Yet, the current culture of human-human competition encourages tribalism and individual-level self-protection; human-human competition undermines a thorough human-human collaboration.

There can be a secondary collaboration on a project, of course. By secondary collaboration, I mean individuals work together on a project’s goals but not because they ultimately want those goals to be met. Two people may work together to get a report done because one of them promises the other they’ll help them with another report next week; one of them, a primary collaborator, just wants the report to be done; the other, a secondary collaborator, wants the report done because they want help on their own work.

Lots of work in the world is done by secondary collaboration. And you can encourage secondary collaboration even amongst the competitive, self-interested, and (let’s call it) other-wary by promising personal rewards (‘free lobster lunch!’) and protection from exploitation (‘we won’t let Reznick horde your lunch vouchers for himself!’).

One thought: that will only work so long as they trust you. Given they’re working in a competitive environment, where everyone is out for themselves, why would they trust you?  Are you outside the system, like a referee? Perhaps that is possible in an artificially competitive environment such as a sport or game. But this is not a sport or game I’m talking about here.

Furthermore, everyone in that kind of personal-reward/protection collaborative project is not primarily interested in the project’s purpose; they are not primary collaborators. That’s a secondary interest; they are secondary collaborators; their primary interest is in the project’s personal rewards for them. Or, if someone is primarily interested, they are not in a position to commit to it, to treat it as a primary collaboration. The success of the project requires everyone committed to it. These projects need primary collaboration, not merely help. It isn’t that one person can be careful, thorough, inspired. Everyone must. If one person is — given no-one else has the same committment, they’ll be helped until the other’s primary interests are met (“I’m off – Time for lobster”). As such, so long as what motivates collaborators is something selfish, the care, thoroughness, and inspiration required for such a project is a by-product of other attitudes. It’s not what keeps it going. It’ll fail once the lobster runs out.

Why do we need primary collaboration on such activities? We need it because what we’re engsging with, what we’re trying to overcome, has no interest in our social structures. It is not human, does not understand typical or personal human motivation or, even if it does, it isn’t interested. It doesn’t reward you with personal gain. It doesn’t adjust its timescale or (let’s call them) revelatory opportunities to suit your daily schedule

A physical and non-human world is this isn’t a group of your emotionally distant relatives. It isn’t going to reward you for showing you’ve learned something. It also isn’t your boss. It isn’t going to promote you, respect you, or soften over time. It also isn’t your university or your university’s examination process. Whatever challenges it throws at you aren’t separated by a calendar year and don’t fit neatly into targets for a quarterly report. They also won’t be designed to make you money or encourage innovation.

It is absurd to timeline actual research (it is not student projects or promotion-worthy training). It is also why survival-level science – such as climate change solutions – needs to be done early and unchained (and why incidentally I find its subject terrifying). Discovery and basic invention has no timescale or growth projection. If you’re serious about, say, getting to another planet or, maybe a better example, preserving this one, the only thing to do is to clear away space and time for it and keep at it until it’s done (if it can be done). If someone wants to encourage that activity, they have to give anyone doing it time and space, then — don’t even wait for results. Because nothing  may come of it.

The problem with serious research is researchers have to be trusted. These days, it seems, researchers are not trusted, especially for big funds. Public funders don’t trust them, I think, because they need to tell the public what they’re doing with money and they don’t understand what researchers are doing. Private funders of big projects are inevitably profit-driven companies; this is fine — there are markets and people should make money. But they don’t trust researchers because researchers like thjs are not driven by PR or profit; these are not the primary interests of researchers on such projects; they are the primary interests of companies (this is why I find ‘working with’ misleading when companies say it of basic research). Whatever a company rep says to the researchers, their target as a company is profitability.

If companies do it for PR, the results have to fit the PR (inevitable silence and muttering doesn’t seem to be good PR). If it’s for money, then, what’s funded is an investment; again, that is fine — people with lots of money should be encouraged to give money to people with ideas. The problem is that difficult research isn’t necessarily profitable, especially not for anyone in particular who invests. What if the discovery allows anyone at all to do something, such as personal teleportation in Bester’s The Stars My Destination? Or to come up with solutions that undermine the investor’s basic business? Or come up with tiny bits of results promising an outcome that will take several hundred years.

Such private funding imposes a timeline where the funding ends, and so the research stops, that is at odds with the actual timeline of the research. It pressures researchers to alter their goals, making the actual research a secondary interest.

It seems as if the vastness of the physical universe only presents a physical boundary. However, because of what people are like, there is a psychologyical boundary: it is the boundary caused by our own relationships.

Instead of turning to other people, we might turn to AI and AI processes. These will commit to a project, be thorough and careful and, who knows? be inspired.

In doing so, we may get something that can generate the right energy and make the right moves to make this universe accessible again. But it isn’t clear, yet, that doing so won’t create a new challenge: in creating entities that do this kind of work, we can’t be sure we won’t create new psychological and moral entities in the world. These entities may decide to prevent us reaching out into the world unless we demonstrate some kind of psychological or moral character. Future AI’s active role in society may return us to the days of praying or tricking faeries.

Maybe we could restart the humanistic project. We could try to treat each other compassionately and carefully, pursue non-competitive projects, and work together on something to which we all willingly commit our care, thought, and inspiration. Maybe we can fund basic research with trust in researchersl. Perhaps we can proactively draw in people into such research. Maybe we could risk over-spending to allow researchers time and space to figure things out. If they get nowhere, take that as a feature, not a bug. It’s what happens a lot when trying to figure out things that are not at all obvious, not even in their intrinisc worth; all that’s obvious is that these things are worth investigating.

Anyway, if we don’t do this, and remain clawing at each other — sorry, “being competitive” amongst ourselves, I don’t know if I give a damn about us going anywhere. What unites us is only our hunger, our ‘what’s in it for me’, and our willingness to turn this hunger on each other. There’s no ‘us’, really.

Who cares about filling the universe with that horrible nonsense?

Better the Borg. Better unfeeling viruses, feeding on each other. Better the unlived silence of vinegar and stars.

I guess if I were some creature, a faery or a demon, with the power to grant access to this universe, I wouldn’t grant it to this current competitive society. I’d put a big wall across the sky, to keep out these things yearning to spread out for their own personal gain.


They Might be Aliens

[Reprinted from Hackcircus #4, 2014.]


How would we know that we have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI)? What would distinguish ETI from unintelligent aliens (like the parasite in Alien) and intelligent terrestrials (us)?

It may seem obvious that we can come up with an answer. We know of some intelligent things – ourselves. And we know about extraterrestrial things – planets, stars, interstellar clouds of vinegar.[1] One kind of ETI could be a combination of the two together: things like us, but from space. Consider the tall waving alien at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But it is not enough to give an easy example. We cannot assume the first ETIs we meet shall be just like us. How they might not be like us makes it hard to identify them at all.

1 Does It Matter that We Recognise Extraterrestrial Intelligence?

Say we encounter something extraterrestrial which has something we want, such as a mineral. If it is not living, e.g., an asteroid, there seems to be no moral obstacle to simply taking it. Even if it is alive, e.g., extraterrestrial bacteria, there is no immediately obvious obstacle. We take something essential to another living thing every time we eat. But there are ethical issues if ET is in any way intelligent. If something has the capacity for self-awareness, it looks safe to assume that it can suffer and there is some moral obligation toward it.

Of course, we might not care about that. Even if it suffers or is self-conscious, we may decide to take from it anyhow. But this assumes the situation is one in which we are the ones taking. The more likely situation is one in which ETI can take something from us. If intelligence only evolved in this Solar System on Earth, it’s more likely that we’ll encounter ETI which travels to us. It survives well enough in space, an environment in which we have barely touched. If it can also enter our atmosphere, then it also can survive somewhat on Earth.

You can’t reason with unintelligent things. An asteroid rushing toward the Earth is not slowed by arguing for your rights. Alien bacteria chemically synthesizing flesh is not moved by suffering. But if you can make yourself understood, you can at least ask an intelligent alien to stop what it is doing – to slow down; to eat something else.

If it recognises you. In his short story ‘The Things’, Peter Watts narrates Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ from the perspective of the alien.[2] It is a compassionate, intelligent being which does not understand humans at all. It is horrified by us. Sees us as empty and blind, lacking sentience, self or feeling.

2 Language

Perhaps there is one feature unique to intelligent beings. Like us, ETIs use language. If we encounter an extraterrestrial language, then we know that there is intelligence behind it.

Here are three ways we might encounter an ETI language:

(a)  Communication aimed at us by something that understands us.

(b)  Communication aimed at us by something that does not understand us.

(c) Communication not aimed at us at all (and which we only coincidentally encounter).

(a) is relatively easy to identify, as easy as a broadcast in a familiar human language. (b) is a common target of SETI and relatively simple as well. Intended for us (the aliens to the communicating ETIs), it should include patterns strongly indicative of intelligence, patterns which do not naturally occur but which all intelligent beings should know, e.g., sequences of primes.

These sequences make sense if ETIs tries to communicate with us. Yet, it’s reasonable to think that most ETI signals we pick up, aware of it or not, are (c): they are messages ETI is sending to itself. Human-directed broadcasts by humans (e.g., TV broadcasts) far outweigh ETI-directed ones (e.g., the Voyager probes). This is something we should assume is true of ETI as well. We are more likely to be eavesdropping than be involved in the first ETI we hear.

Whether or not we recognise it. Given an influential theory of language development, we may not be able to tell eavesdropped ETI conversations from noise.

According to Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition, the available linguistic data surrounding an infant (e.g., parents’ speech) is insufficient for the infant to learn that language. Yet nearly every infant learns the language which surrounds them. Chomsky posits what Kukla[3] calls the Innateness Hypothesis: An infant is born with something, an innate module, to supplement the environmental data. And, as infants can typically learn any language, this module uses a ‘universal grammar’.

The psychologist Kukla argues that this raises a problem with communicating with ETI. Chomsky’s universal grammar applies only to human languages. It is not evidence that any language shares the grammar. If the grammar is only ‘universal’ for humans, one lacking the innate module can’t learn it the way one who possesses it can. If the module is necessary to learn it, those without it cannot learn it.

If our innate language modules evolved, then ETI and we are unlikely to share the same innate modules. We do not share the same evolutionary history.

One way out of this is convergent evolution. Perhaps the same module and grammar evolves under similar environments. Perhaps those environments exist in other places than Earth. If so, then we may encounter ETI which we can understand and which can understand us.

This still leaves out all the other possible environments in which ETI may have evolved. If those other environments are more numerous than those like ours, then we are more likely to encounter an ETI from them. We are more likely to pick up their signals. If Chomsky is right, we will not be able to comprehend them.

3 Technology

Perhaps we can avoid using language to detect ETI. Perhaps ETI does non-linguistic things that indicate intelligence. Especially if we have a close encounter with ETI — on its own world, in deep space, on Earth.

Here is one non-linguistic possibility: ETI exhibits awareness of mathematical, chemical, biological and physical principles. They are more technologically advanced than us. They turn up in gigantic starships hanging effortlessly in the sky. Their hulls are constructed of complex difficult-to-comprehend chemical alloys. When one of them is injured, they heal using advanced medical procedures.

Such traits may convince us that the extraterrestrial before us is ETI. Advanced technology seems inconceivable without engineering plans, invention, devised and tested theories of physics, chemistry, an understanding of the body.

Yet, only recently did we grasp how bees fly: their flight was once thought impossible.[4]  As the philosopher Dupré notes, not humans but microbes are “the most versatile and effective chemists in the biosphere” (Dupré, p.37[5]). And next time you cut yourself, look at the scar. Your body is repairing itself in a way no current doctor can.

All of these processes occur due to natural evolution — by definition, an unintelligent blind process. They are far more advanced than anything we can do now.

The complex giant ship hanging over your city may be the extraterrestrial equivalent of lichen.

4 Scale

There is one significant difference between lichen and that ship. Size. Lichen doesn’t grow that big or spread across space.

One of the main reasons Earth life does not grow so huge is because of gravity and heat. The different sizes and shapes regulate body temperature, allow movement, and allow creatures to eat. Elephants do not look like mice. Humans have soft tissue on the outside. Without it, when we move we would easily break. Insects, which are smaller, have no need of that tissue. A real Godzilla could not walk or even breath; he couldn’t even cool down.[6]

Yet, ET does not need to be so restricted. It did not evolve here on Earth. If an ET evolved, say, in the depths of an interstellar cloud, it is not clear what size or shape it could be. The morphology and scale of extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life, could vary as widely as extraterrestrial environments allow.

The only reason to deny this possibility for intelligent aliens is if intelligence can only survive for any significant time in Earth-like environments. But if intelligence can only survive in Earth-like environments, then no ETI has crossed space to arrive here. Nor shall we ourselves ever make it to meet them on their own world, or anywhere in-between.

There is a final way that size and shape might indicate intelligence. If ETI turns out to be the same scale as us, then, given the wide range of options, this would be so much a coincidence that it may be better to think it is intentional. The ET is copying us. It’s difficult to understand how this could be possible through natural selection. They didn’t evolve with us to mimic us. They would have to do it on arrival. The better explanation is they have studied us. These human-sized things may be like costumes worn to raise whooping cranes.[7]

That an ETI copies us, then, may tell us that it is intelligent. But it does not mean that it recognises our intelligence. That may be the more important challenge: how to convince ETI that there is terrestrial intelligence.

Just ask the ‘Thing’.