Andron Ocean

Fiction and speculation about science, technology, and the future of humanity

Month: October 2013

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading

Mail from Mars

Atop a pillar of smoke and flame, the rocket rose into the blue October sky. The vibration of its engines shook the ground three miles away, where Arthur McLaren stood watching his wife leaving the Earth.

“It’s only five years,” she had said as they embraced one final time beneath the launch platform. A crowd of others saying their own goodbyes surrounded them, and the scent of kerosene and metal was heavy on the air.

“I know,” he said, and smiled to disguise his pain. “Five years of hopping over Martian sand dunes looking for fossil bacteria, while I sit at home running conference calls and weeding the garden.”

“Don’t pull all the weeds. They’ll be a rare sight when I get back,” she joked.

You better come back, he thought. “I will miss you,” he said, and kissed her fiercely, pulling her orange jumpsuit–clad body tight against his for a long moment. Then it was time. She had waved to him as the elevator took her and her nine fellow voyagers up to the shuttle, and he boarded the bus to return to the observation center to watch the launch.

And now the shuttle was gone, and the trail of smoke drifted away in the wind. A bell sounded, and a voice (was it human? Or computerized? It was hard to tell nowadays.) announced that the shuttle had achieved orbit. The time was 10:43 am, October 5, 2041. Arthur left the observation center, took a cab to the airport, and caught a flight back home to Virginia.

He ate a lonely dinner that evening, knowing it would be the norm for eighteen hundred nights to come. He was making tea afterwards when a call came in. Samantha McLaren, read the message on his watch. He went to the viewscreen overlooking the kitchen counter and turned it on. His wife’s image appeared. Continue reading

When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bierce was being funny when he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, but his definition of history seems pretty well on target. Or so we might think, given the usual portrayal of history as the speeches, battles, and poor-to-middling decisions of kings, beggars, and senators making the same mistakes over and over again.

That “over and over again” is a problem. If history were just about the decisions of individual human beings, we’d expect their actions to look like chaos on all scales. That doesn’t happen. We see plenty of chaotic behavior in normal life, but the further we zoom out, and the larger the time scale we examine, the more regular and repetitive history appears. To explain this regularity, people have proposed plenty of theories of history, ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. One problem with most of them is that they tend to be qualitative, or concept-based, rather than quantitative, or based on consistent relationships between numerical data. When you’re trying to systematically predict or describe events, a quantitative theory goes a lot further than a qualitative one.

So I was pleasantly surprised several days ago, when I stumbled across this post on the Long Now Foundation‘s blog: Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History. The post briefly describes a remarkable computer simulation of 3,000 years of Eurasian history, recently conducted by ecologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

Simulation? History? That means a quantitative model. I was curious.  I dove into Turchin’s report, which you can read here, along with its supporting documents.

Turchin and company created their simulation very simply: they took a map of Africa and Eurasia and chopped it up into “cells” of 100 kilometers square. Each cell was classified as sea or land; land cells were assigned elevation and further classified as desert, steppe, or agricultural land. Every agricultural cell was supplied with a “community” that could possess two types of social traits: military technology and ultrasociality. (Ultrasociality, as the study defines it, is humans’ “ability to live and cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”) Agricultural cells were randomly populated with ultrasociality traits, while military technology traits were granted initially to cells bordering the steppe, and spread outward from there (a way to simulate the effect of the steppe highway on the transmission and development of military techniques, most notably mounted warfare). The cells were programmed to attack their neighbors. Victorious cells built multi-cell empires, imposing their ultrasociality traits on the vanquished. Victory was more probable over cells with low elevations and fewer ultrasociality and military technology traits than their attackers. Continue reading

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading

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