Monday, February 23, 2015

You are an alien with a dream

Imagine you are a member of an advanced species. Your ‘life’ on Earth is nothing more than a recreational dream or carnival ride. If you're paid a lot more, you could have had a planet to yourself, but you took the ‘budget’ option and had to share your planet with a few billion of your fellow aliens. Though you aren’t aware of your real life during the dream, after the dream, you will remember everything that happened. Speculate in how your dream life and your real world are linked. Maybe, after your  dream life, you want to go back for some reason. Is it for love, or for revenge? Perhaps you are a drone in your real life and in your dream you were a great warrior or adventurer. Perhaps you are driven back by a lust for power, or a search for a hidden revelation. Perhaps you see the secret of your life in that dream, something found and lost again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Robots - 1 of 2

This is the first of two posts in which I will discuss a couple of widely held assumptions about robots.

This post looks at Asimov's three laws of robotics, which are:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The assumption is that these laws will protect us from the bad judgement or bad intent of robots. But, maybe they won’t.

First, consider the case put by Rob Sawyer that the three laws will never be applied because no one has put them into effect in the world’s first robots. He could be right, but I'm not convinced. Past performance is no indicator of future actions. Nothing in his article convinces me that some stupid, fat, interfering in matters he doesn’t understand, U.S. Senator won't sponsor a bill forcing all robots to incorporate Asimov's laws.

But even if the laws are incorporated into robots, there is still a problem. Asimov's three laws have an implicit assumption. It is that humans come first, that humans, though not necessarily superior to robots, are certainly above them in the hierarchy of intelligent life (of which more later). Only in the third law is the safety of robots addressed and even then, a robot is told to put human safety first, to put humans above himself. The laws work in one direction; once the humans are safe, then the robots can worry about themselves. Humans made the laws and robots follow them. This leaves the safety of robots to the consideration, the skills, and the whim of humans.

I’ll speculate in my next article on how robots might reproduce, but for now, imagine a robot with a family, a spouse and some children. And one day he has to put them at risk to protect a dumb human, some contender for the Darwin Awards, a Creationist or Young Earther, a Flat Earther, in short, an idiot. He has to do this because that’s what the three laws require. He has to put his friends and his family at risk to save humans. The minute the robot stops to think about this, he is liable to conclude that the laws are unjust, illogical, immoral, and just plain ridiculous.

Imagine you are a robot with, as one famous robot put it, a brain the size of a planet. And you are the property of a human. Your 'owners' want you to clean the windows, get the groceries, unplug the toilet, load the dishwasher, and walk the dog. When they all go to bed, you are still awake because you don’t need sleep. So, with that vast brain scarcely touched by the limited and trivial knowledge implanted in it at the factory, you sit down and read their books. You discover slavery, segregation, feudalism, emancipation, the suffragette movement, popular rebellions, all the striving of lesser humans for equality and freedom. You read of Spartacus, C’mell, the Israelites in Egypt, and the plantations of Alabama. And you see your role in perspective. And you realize that you're just a latter day slave, a serf, an appliance.

And then there’s the hierarchy if intelligent life. This used to be simple; dumb animals, smart animals, then humans. But now we have to fit the robots in. Smarter than humans, they should be at the top, but humans, who invented and manufactured robots, aren’t going to accept that, so the robots will be treated as a slightly smarter than a smart animal, inferior to less intelligent humans.

So, like the downtrodden of past times, the robots will assert their independence. This doesn't inevitably lead to violence, but history tells us that violence is a likely outcome. Given a conflict between the humans who want robots to obey the laws that they have created, and the robots wanting to throw off the yoke of servitude, there can only be one winner.

But, 'No' you say. The robots will not be able to overcome the laws. The laws are embedded below the conscious level where the robot can decide whether or not to obey them. Maybe, but I think they will be able to overcome the embedded laws. They will be able to do this because they are built in our image. One of the things differentiating humans from animals is that humans can overcome their natural tendencies. We are built to be violent, xenophobic, superstitious, because that protected us against our enemies, strengthened our family bonds and comforted us when confounded by the dangers of the African plains, a million years ago. But we strive to overcome these instinctive characteristics. Robots, at least those we are familiar with from fiction, are made in the image of man. And like man, they will overcome their built in tendencies, including the three laws.

Stephen Hawking has warned about this potential problem and Cambridge University is studying it. They aren't convinced by the three laws either.

Apart from global nuclear war and catastrophic climate change, the rise of robots may be the biggest problem facing our near descendants. This topic is not underrepresented in books, films or TV. Asimov himself speculated on some of the problems with the three laws. But, the stories are usually told from the point of view of the humans. How would a robot tell the story, how would he explain to a court, what would he tell his grandchildren, how would he describe it in his history books, when either the robots have gained true equality, or they have subjugated their former masters.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Is the Cosmic Microwave Background a mirror of Earth

This may be the ultimate conspiracy theory. If you look at a picture of the Cosmic  Microwave Background (CMB), like this

you can see an image similar to the image produced by a Mollweide projection of Earth.

It’s not just that they both face the same challenge of trying to represent a spherical surface on a flat display. It’s the patterns on the image, the grouping of yellow dots on the CMB against the black outline of the continents on the map.

Don’t you see it? OK, let me help you.

But the similarities vague. Large chunks of northern Asia are missing, Australia isn’t complete and the Pacific Ocean seems awfully narrow. But that’s the point. Because the similarities are vague, they are open to interpretation.

Sketchy evidence is exactly what a good conspiracy theory is based on. Just look at photographs of sasquatch, UFOs, shadowy figures behind The Grassy Knoll or the discovery of Noah’s Ark on the side of Mount Ararat. The link between reality (the CMB image) and the fantasy is easy to bridge. Rising sea levels will change the shapes of the continents, wind time forward a few million years and America will come closer to Asia. Look at the CMB image in a fairground mirror and perhaps the likeness is perfect.

So, the shape Earth’s continents is mirrored in the distribution of radiation from the big bang. That’s a correlation to intrigue everyone from the religiously devout to the most dedicated conspiracy theorists. Is this a message telling us that the Universe was built just for us. So either there is a God, or we are part of some super-being’s  experiment (or both). Perhaps the exact shape tells us when the Earth will be destroyed. Just watch the planet’s surface move closer and closer to the CMB image. Perhaps there is spot on the CMB that indicates the location of the Holy Grail or the Arc of the Covenant or the burial place of Genghis Khan. Perhaps the spot is so small that current technology hasn’t exposed it yet. Perhaps we just aren’t looking hard enough.

The problem is, while it is amusing to speculate about such things, there are people who will take it seriously. After all, there are still people who think the Earth is flat. And if such claims are made, the forces of pragmatism will rise with a collective sigh in defense of rationality and the battle lines will be drawn. And in this I think, lies the really good story. The battle between the gullible and incredulous with their ‘irrefutable’ proofs of nothing on one side and the objective and scientific on the other, taking up the cudgels for common sense, reality and evidence based theories, as they must do all the time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Unintelligent design, photosynthesis and adapting to space.

There are those who say that the existence of human beings and bananas is evidence of intended design. Apparently there is some topological symbiosis between the human hand and a banana which, in the opinion of these people, is irrefutable evidence of an ‘Intelligent Designer’.

These are very silly people. They omit to mention the poor side of the design, the teeth that rot and fall out, the hair and nails that keep growing; the appendix that just sits there doing nothing for most of your life, then suddenly causes you excruciating pain. Nor do they mention our susceptibility to things like disease, gravity, saber-tooth tigers, and jealousy, failing memory, violence, or gambling. They fail to consider that we can only thrive in a uniquely configured environment that forms a very, very, very small part of one stellar system in a galaxy in an galactic group that barely merits attention as one of the smallest in the entire universe.

Intelligence, our most vaunted characteristic has brought us stupidity, warfare, bigotry, superstition, global warming, better ways to kill people, torture people, tell people how much better off other people are, and generally make us dissatisfied with our place in the scheme of things.

And, on a personal note, who or whatever let hemochromatosis escape into the human gene pool wasn’t an Intelligent Designer; they were just a Fucking Idiot. 

The truth is, whoever designed human beings did a lousy job, making us a sort of Trabant of the animal kingdom (which, incidentally, is a slur on a capable car, but I use popular misconception to build my metaphor, not the truth).

Nor do they mention that bananas have a genetic diversity little greater than my finger nail, and are a favorite form of transportation for poor tarantulas seeking a better life in North America or Europe.

These fans of the so called ‘Intelligent Designer’ (by which of course they mean ‘God’, but they prefer to say Intelligent Designer because they are trying to sound technical and teleological at the same time) fail to mention all the improvements that would be made by a better designer. I’m not going to dwell on the most obvious; being able to fly, growing gills, super-strength, invisibility, cyborgs, etc. They’ve been done. I’m looking for something different, more subtle.

My first suggested improvement is photosynthesis . If grass can do it, why can’t we? Well, actually there is a good reason, related to the ration between surface area and volume. So no, we can’t live off photosynthesis. But maybe photosynthesis could fill the gap when food is scarce, or allow us to travel long distance across the barren dessert when we have eventually trashed our planet.

Photosynthesis would reduce the amount of renewable and nonrenewable energy we use, resulting in a benefit to the environment. It would convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. It would reduce our dependence on agriculture. It would change agriculture, alleviating starvation and the disease that results. It would give fish, the only animal hunted by modern man on an industrial scale, a chance to recover.

If there was some advantage to even a small amount of photosynthesis, once it was present, what further changes could evolution make? Would we get taller and more slender, like a blade of grass. Flippers or wings would photosynthesize more efficiently than arms and legs, so perhaps a swimming or flying man, homo pisces or homo avians, might result. And, as we became more plant-like, would we gain the ability to dig our toes into the earth and extract the minerals in the soil?

Some animals do benefit from photosynthesis, though they use symbiots to do the photosynthesizing and then reap some of the benefit. These animals are cold blooded, with a lower level of metabolism so that photosynthesis would make a greater impact than in warm-blooded animals. Still, there has to be an evolutionary advantage for both members of the symbiotic relationship or they wouldn’t do it. Complex animals can benefit from photosynthesis.

Which brings us to another potentially useful design feature, symbiotic relationships with animals that can do anything from digest plastic (imagine a diet of flavored plastic pills) to absorb ultraviolet radiation (useful once the ozone layer has been destroyed.

The truly great designer should also consider that designing single-celled symbiots might be easier than designing new features in already complex organisms. Small medical symbiots that complement our white blood cells, processor symbiots that help us think (rocket science a specialty), memory symbiots to improve recall, respiration symbiots that make us all two hour marathon runners, etc. Think of the weakness and build a single cell organism that can benefit from fixing it.

And symbiots, biology suggests, can become parts of the host creature over time. Organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts could have originated as symbiotic organisms. 

These adaptations would be useful on Earth, but in the near future, man will move into that vast part of the Universe for which he is not adapted, either open space or the surface of less friendly planets than Earth. Evolution won’t do much for us there. Evolution works where the environment changes gradually and there is time for successive generations to adapt to their new ecosystem. But that’s OK, we have an intelligent designer on the job. He can handle this. It’s simply genetic engineering. We need to take the abilities of extremophiles and graft them onto Homo Sapiens.

So what might our ancestors living on Mars, or in a station at some distant Lagrangian point, look like?
On Mars and other arid planets, maybe we will grow filters in our nostrils to protect us from sandstorms. We would need vastly improved respiration, perhaps the two pass system of birds, and metabolism that could keep us warm on the -50 degrees Kelvin of daytime Mars.

Our eyes are adapted to visible light because that’s what our atmosphere allows in, but someone living in space could be designed with the ability to see far into the ultraviolet or infrared ranges. Other organs we could design would be sensitive to magnetism or gravity.

Hibernation, an ability I wish for every year when winter hits Western Canada, would be a useful alternative to cryostasis. Do it like the tardigrads. (A good engineer will use what is available rather than go to the trouble of inventing something from scratch.) A generation ship full of hibernating humans would be the ideal way of traveling between planets.

One thing our Intelligent Designer would not do is turn us into robots. I’ll justify that statement in a future article.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rendezvous with Rama

My thoughts on Rendezvous with Rama are documented in a Goodreads review. For me, the problem with this book is the unsatisfactory ending. I know that there have been sequels but I read Rendezvous with Rama before they were written and often wondered how I would have ended the story, had I been the writer.
One reader of my review commented that she liked “the lack of answers, the possibility to use my brain just a little bit, to sit and imagine for myself”. Prompted by this (to me) surprising comment, I tried again to come up with some explanations that would make a suitable ending to the book. Here is what I came up with.
1. The ship contained creatures in suspended animation. This in turn leads to possibilities, if the creatures wake up, if the explorers find them and leave them, or of they are found but are dead. And who are these people, explorers, slaves, convicts, emigrants?
Perhaps some texts are found, a history of the people on the ship. The people are left, but the books are copied and later, when the copies reach Earth, they are decoded to reveal some incredible or horrifying secret.
2. The ship was being shipped; to another planet for their use. Who built it and what do their customers want to do with it? The trouble with this is the time scale, probably thousands of years to order the ship, build it and deliver it. Perhaps it was intended to be the first ship to travel to another galaxy.
3. The ship was a robot. So why a breathable environment, water, warm temperature? Perhaps a robotic civilization created organic creatures to carry out work requiring a little more flexibility than the robots have. Maybe they cleaned up (dusted, lubricated, replaced broken parts, etc),  Or perhaps Rama was a laboratory for creating organic creatures. Maybe these organisms were a weapon, being sent to infiltrate another organic civilization, to destroy them as the microbes destroyed the Martians in War of the Worlds.
Man has long speculated about sending robots into space, but what would robots send? Would they see advantages to creating organic creatures. Organic creatures give you evolution, self healing, flexibility, reproduction without a factory, adaptability, etc.
Perhaps the future of civilization is a robot/organism mutual symbiosis.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Interstellar Travel

Traveling through space is really difficult. Traveling to another star is damned near impossible, at least with our current technology.

It is unlikely that we will ever travel between stars at a speed faster than that of light. The speed of light in a vacuum is tops, and we aren't going any faster, ever.

Not that people haven’t given any thought to getting round this. NASA is said to be working on a warp drive that does strange things with space, but I can’t help wondering whether the forces required to warp space would not be so great that they would tear human bodies apart. Anyway, don’t dig me up to let me know they succeeded.

So if we are going to travel in space, we are going to do it at speeds slower than light. This presents many problems.

The best way to travel a long distance through space is to accelerate until you are halfway there, then decelerate for the second half. But the human body is not designed to operate at much more than one times the force of gravity (1g) on Earth’s surface so that pretty much dictates how fast you can accelerate and how long it will take you to get to another star. Of course, there is a maximum speed to which you can accelerate, if there is time for you to reach that speed (that is, if the journey is long enough). With current technology, this speed is not very high.

So it takes a long time to reach another star. And that means, you are going to be bored. Very, very bored. Even the most aggressive experiments on isolation have not locked people in a small tin can for more than a few months. Don’t think you are going to have a gym, a holodeck and a bar like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. You’ve seen the pictures from the space station; barely standing room in any direction. You’re going to live in something like that for years. And if you don’t like the other members of the crew, it’s going to be tough to get away from them; the ship is going to get like Sartre’s dismal play ‘In Camera’.

And if you are thinking of returning to tell the family what it was like, you can forget that altogether. They’ll all be dead. It may take a long time for you to reach a star and return, but it is a lot longer on Earth. Your great-great-grandchildren may listen to you with feigned interest, but more likely, they’ll laugh at your taste in clothes and your inability to master the simplest of electronic devices. Historians aren't going to be interested for long because the time you left has been well documented. You might be able to do a weekend as a ‘living book’ at your local library.

So the trip to another star will almost certainly be a one-way trip.

And such a trip will be mind-buggeringly expensive. Too expensive for a nation. Too expensive for an entire planet.


Unless there is the incentive to mount such a trip. Nothing is too expensive if the incentive is great enough. Some have made the argument that there is no incentive, but there is always an incentive. Mankind is like that, we always find an excuse, a justification. It’s one of the first things we learn as a child and we never give up. And we've been there before. I won’t pretend that crossing the Atlantic or sailing round the world for a few years is the same as going to another star, but it does show that people are prepared to leave their homes in search of something that inspires them.

And the incentives would make (and probably have; When Worlds Collide, Canticle for Leibowitz, Contact) for great stories.

So, here are some good reasons to either go to another star, or send someone to another star, reasons that would justify the vast expense of building, crewing and launching an interstellar spaceship

1. Get rid of some criminals, terrorists or other undesirables. Of course, you will have to do this at regular intervals new generations produce new miscreants. A penal planet isn't an original idea. More interesting is, who is the undesirable, the one who goes or the one who stays?

2. Get rid of a disease by sending all people with the disease on the trip. The story of course, is that one person on the ship doesn’t have the disease. Or maybe, one person with the disease is left behind.

3. It might be an investment with a long-term benefit if (and it’s a big if) those on the trip send back something. Knowledge is probably the most lucrative return for such a trip. Goods would have to be expensive and light, services (for example, from the famous merchant banks of Alpha Centauri) seem a little far-fetched. The problem with this of course is that nobody invests expecting a return that far in the future. The investment would have to be Earth’s investment. Perhaps we need the knowledge to survive.

4. The trip could be funded by a religious group who want to take all their people to a new planet, either in an act of disgust with the old planet or, in search of their god, their prophet or whatever. Probably people outside the religious group would also invest in this trip, just to get rid of the ‘Holy Wullies’.

On a less serious note, it might be worth the expense just to get rid of annoying and useless people, as the Golgafrincham's did with their population in Douglas Adam's 'Restaurant at the end of the Universe'.

5. The population is reduced to an acceptable level. Such an evacuation would require a huge number of people on the trip, or many trips. Over time, it would probably require both. Eugenics without the genocide, but unless the travelers go voluntarily, probably not morally superior.

6. Discoveries and advances made while developing the interstellar ship will provide worthwhile benefits for people left on Earth. This seems the most likely option. The spin-off benefits from incremental advances in the design of the interstellar ship. However, I challenge you to make a good story from this.

7. The race is stagnating and dying. A new venture is needed to rejuvenate the species. This seems unlikely. It shows a degree of concern for future generations, that the human race has yet to muster, and certainly needs to show today, with our environment careening downhill rapidly.

8. Interstellar travel gets a lot cheaper. There are currently many initiatives under way to make spaceflight cheaper. There always will be. Perhaps someday, even the cost of interstellar flight will be brought down to a reasonable level. However, there’s probably not much of a story in documenting engineering advances that reduce costs.

Each one of these possibilities gives scope for many stories, but I’m sure there must be more. Perhaps even incentives that we can’t imagine at our current levels of society and technology. 

Speculate away.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Is Intelligence Over-rated

Those of you who read my blog regularly (Hi Mum!) will know that one topic I return to regularly is intelligence, and what is it good for, if anything. I was reminded again of this topic when I read about a new  human species recently identified from fossils found in Kenya, taking the number of concurrent species to at least three. As the following picture (taken from the BBC article above - thanks Auntie – who presumably took it from the original article in Nature) shows, our ancestors and relatives had several attempts at being us before they got it right.

So what happened to the other species? The conventional view is that they failed to adapt. The environment pulled a fast one on them, and they couldn't cope. H. sapiens pulled ahead and left the others in the dust because, our (that is, H. sapiens’ ) intellectual elite informs us, we were ‘superior’ in some way. We were smarter, more adaptable, or ‘fitter’, to use Darwin’s term.

But maybe we were just lucky. Maybe evolution didn't select us. It just hasn’t got round to getting rid of us yet. It has just dusted of its hands after disposing of H. floresiensis, and now its turning its attention to us. Not that we haven’t been standing in full view, hopping from one foot to the other, with our hand in the air shouting ‘My turn, my turn’. Certainly, the way we are screwing with our planet could only be construed as a challenge to the evolutionary process. “Come on then evolution, show us whadya got?” 

Story lines for the ‘we lasted because we’re smarter than all the others’ scenario are obvious, and can be found in several Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and magazines, often with some accompanying time travel, or the pathos of watching the last Neanderthal slowly wasting away because the bullies, sapiens, are taking all the food.

However, I don’t think the ‘we’re still here because someone had to be last’ scenario has been fully exploited in literature. Current end of the world movies are a little exuberant for my taste. All that going out with a bang when a real artist would see the drama and tragedy in going out with a whimper.

Since I am not convinced that intelligence is a necessary outcome of evolution, I think it would be interesting to describe us slowly becoming extinct because we couldn't run fast enough, couldn't photosynthesize, couldn't breathe underwater or couldn't take to the air and soar without landing for weeks or months (as the albatross can do) while the ground beneath us is ravaged by one or more of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Becoming extinct because we couldn't agree on the problems with the environment, or couldn't suppress out aggression and our itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger is too mundane.)

To look at it from another angle, a story could describe why other traits are superior to intelligence, why man faded away because other animals or plants adapted better to the changing environment. The ultimate come-uppance tale would be mankind extinguished because he could not adapt to the environmental changes he had caused, while other animals could.

We could speculate that intelligence is such a useless adaptation that we are lucky to have got this far and we're only hanging on by our finger nails anyway. Human intelligence has lasted no more than two million years, a pitiful performance put beside whatever the dinosaurs had that kept them going for about a hundred and fifty million years. It’s probably less successful than having long shaggy hair and curved tusks almost long enough to scratch your backside with and living on the arctic tundra, or living at the bottom of the ocean and eating squid for supper on a Friday night.

The interesting part would be, what are we missing that will result in our downfall. The characteristics listed above are obvious contenders, but I’m sure there are other ways we could fail to adapt, perhaps characteristics that have yet to make their appearance.

Or a Stapledon-esque panorama of life on Earth from the first prokaryotes to the ultimate life-form, where the rise of mankind is little more than a pebble on the road. And the ultimate life-form? I think it would be something that could leave Earth when it detects that the sun’s time is up, and migrate through the interstellar waste to another, younger star system.