Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)


Link: Infinite Life

August 4, 2010

This is a fascinating article about the late 19th century/early 20th century studies in set theory and infinity. I particularly like the accompanying picture. Since I’m not sure the link will work (TNR might be behind a paywall), I’ll reproduce it here:


A Moving Image of Eternity

July 25, 2010

There is an excellently over-the-top article about baseball on the First Things website today. It begins with a discussion of baseball as a representative product of American culture, a topic I find quite interesting. I also particularly liked these two paragraphs, especially the term “the oblong game” (meaning all games of the football/soccer/basketball/hockey variety):

All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis, I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in ¬mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park—Yankee Stadium, for instance—there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

Over-the-top as all these claims are, there is something of truth in them; any beautiful thing (and baseball is beautiful) is so because it resonates with something greater than itself.

For the first time in several years the Texas Rangers appear likely to go to the playoffs and perhaps make it past the first round. It could be an exciting season.


Thoughts on Blood Meridian

July 23, 2010

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

It’s also an amazing book. It’s like Moby-Dick, but more nihilistic, with whaling replaced by scalp-hunting, and Moby-Dick made a member of Ahab’s crew (i.e. Glanton’s gang) in the form of Judge Holden. The Judge is perhaps the most disturbing example of the sublime ever; a giant of a man, hairless, and pure white, he kills for pleasure and desires to possess all knowledge in the universe so that he can control (and destroy) the universe. To that end carries around a notebook in which he makes detailed scientific observations before destroying the things he is observing. He may be a pedophile. He claims that “War is god.” He seems some sort of Gnostic deity, though he cannot be traced back to any “atavistic egg.” Perhaps he represents Death. He is a skilled dancer.

I have a hard time saying more than this about the novel. This is partially because it’s so overwhelming on a first reading – it’s like Moby-Dick in this regard as well – that I am completely aware that I do not understand it, at all. The Judge is by far the most fascinating character, but the rest of the gang are interesting as well — the captain, the expriest, Toadvine, the Delawares (are they like Fedallah and his men?), the kid himself, who never receives a name. One gets the feeling each of them can be examined individually in much the same way as Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Ishmael. But I have not done so yet.

I did wonder, while reading the book, whether or not Cormac McCarthy is capable of describing anything as being red without comparing it to fire or blood. It’s an effective descriptive technique, but every once in a while I sat back and said, really? Again? The sunset is bloodred. Is it ever any other color?

I’ve also read recently that there are plans to make it into a movie. Now, three of McCarthy’s books have already been filmed – All The Pretty Horses, No Country for Old  Men, and The Road – but those are children’s books compared to Blood Meridian. It would be completely impossible to show all the violence described in the book without getting an NC-17 rating. And omitting the violence somewhat defeats the point. So, to say the least, I’m skeptical, though I’m willing to give it a chance.

Cormac McCarthy’s epic 1985 novel Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, contains shockingly detailed descriptions of gruesome acts of violence, and perhaps more disturbing than the violence itself is that by the end of the book the violence has become routine, and the reader barely notices. None of the novel’s characters are truly sympathetic, though some are less loathsome than others, and the plot consists of a band of scalp-hunters roaming around the American Southwest slaughtering people until they’re not doing it any more, a shoot-the-shaggy-dog story if there ever was one.

Curtains, Pasteboard Masks

May 16, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ahab’s “pasteboard masks.” In chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, “The Quarter-Deck,” Ahab describes to Starbuck why he must kill the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough.”

(Moby-Dick 140, Norton Critical Edition)

The physical world is a pasteboard mask put up over the spiritual world, the world of meaning, and what tortures Ahab is that he cannot know what is in that world, because all his knowledge comes from this one. It’s a question of epistemology, really. It’s like Saussure’s “sign=signifier/signified” equation – Ahab continually senses the signifier, the physical world, slipping over and covering up the signified, the spiritual dimension of reality, leaving him unable to perceive it directly.

And Ahab’s solution is to punch through – to find what lies beyond. But what really fascinates me about this is that finding out what lies beyond is the same thing as fixing what lies beyond. The relationship between signifier and signified is, after all, arbitrary, and forever shifting. I like to think of it (and I believe I read I came across this metaphor in Derrida, but I can’t find a quotation; in any case, Derrida certainly talks constantly about slipping and covering over) as a piece of paper lying on top of a desk. The paper is the physical world and the desk the spiritual. At one moment, a given point on the page may be over a given point on the desk, but trying to actually look at that part of the desk will require moving the piece of paper, at which point the two points are no longer lined up; that point on the page is now over a different point on the desk. There is no fixed relationship between the two. Ahab doesn’t just want to see what lies beyond, then, for what lies beyond is always changing. He want to find a way to fix what lies beyond in place – even if he fixes it at nothingness. He would rather have nothing than not know what he has.

And this lines up nicely with the constant mention of Ahab as self-crucified. Because the image of crucifixion, specifically of using nails to pierce the victim’s hands and feet, involves both striking through the physical body, that is, the pasteboard mask, and fixing the physical body in place using the very holes struck through it. In crucifying himself, Ahab attempts to transcend his physical body and to fix his own meaning (a rather gnostic quest, it seems to me). But in doing so he is destroyed.

So I’ve been thinking along these lines for the last several weeks, and wondering how it applies to the Christian understanding of Christ. Is Ahab, the exemplar protagonist-villain-as-anti-Christ in literature, actually like Christ in the nature of his crucifixion? Does that nailing involve a similar fixing of signifier to signified? Is the crucifixion like God taking a hammer and nail and pound his son into the physical world and out the other side, fixing it to – what, himself?

I wasn’t really sure how orthodox this explanation of the image of crucifixion was, but then in one of the readings for Mass today, I came across this:

Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ‘ by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ‘ and since we have a great priest over the house of God, ‘ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

(Hebrews 10:19-22, RSV)

That was good timing, I think. In this passage, St. Paul says that Christ has through his death and resurrection opened up a path through his flesh – the curtain, the pasteboard mask – which we must follow if we are to enter the sanctuary – the area of fixed meaning.

So that’s interesting. But this all leaves me slightly confused; because if God needed to nail signifier and signified together through the crucifixion in order to fix meaning, doesn’t that mean the Crucifixion (and the Incarnation as well – but, in this understanding, they seem roughly equivalent, since God entering the world is the same as God nailing through it) was necessary from the beginning of creation? In what sense, then, was it caused by the Fall?

I have three thoughts on the matter. The first, is that the Fall can be considered akin to the first sliding of the piece of paper across the table. Before it, the world was perfect, but fragile; aligned correctly, but unfixed. After it, God “realized” that he needed to nail it down. It doesn’t fit, of course, to say that God “realized” it; but the basic idea is that Creation occurred in two steps, the first, the laying down of the piece of paper, the second, the nailing in. And the nailing in occurred immediately after the laying down, but because the nail was placed in time, we perceive it as occurring billions of years after the creation of the universe.

My second thought is that I need to re-read what Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say about the matter. Because, as I recall, he talked a lot about the connection between creation and the Incarnation, and his idea of “instress” and “inscape” seems somehow related to all of this, though I’m not quite sure how, honestly. I don’t have an amazing conceptual grasp of GMH’s theology, though what I know of it, I find quite fascinating.

My third thought is that perhaps the reason the image doesn’t really fit with the gap between Creation and Fall – and in fact seems to imply that they were the same thing (which sounds like heresy) – is that any imagistic way of understanding theology is inherently flawed, and only useful in a limited context. This may well be the case. But then again, it may not.

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!”

Causal Reduction

May 15, 2010

An interesting essay:

http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/thinking-again

But also an eminently frustrating one. Why? Because, while I agree with most of what the author says, I don’t buy most of her arguments. She seems to rely more on rhetoric – and she does write beautifully – than on logic. And she’s more interested in saying that we just can’t know most things than in saying what she thinks we can know.

Her basic point, though, I think is a good one; the mere fact that we can describe the mechanical functionings of our brains perfectly (and we can’t even do that) does not imply that there’s nothing more to them. She doesn’t use this language, but I think it mostly boils down to scientists thinking that because they’ve identified the material and efficient causes of things, they have proven that the formal and final do not exist. Which is kind of absurd.


James Cameron’s Avatar?

December 24, 2009

No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t decided if I will or not.

But I have read a LOT of reviews of it – they’re everywhere, it seems. And pretty much everything I’ve read takes the approach of, “the plot’s mediocre, the characters are mediocre, whatever, but OMG TEH SPECIAL EFFEKTZ!” So it would be beautiful to see, I suppose. So?

Then today I ran across this op-ed piece in the NYT. It’s about pantheism in pop culture. Interesting stuff. There definitely is a current of pantheism running through movies like Star Wars, The Lion King, etc.

What I wonder, though, is exactly how misplaced that pantheism is. There’s a great line from Chesterton about pantheism:

For the obstinate reminder continued to occur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister.

My question is, if Nature is our sister, does that really mean the pantheistic impulse is entirely flawed? I am wary of pantheism, but I am also wary of what I would call gnosticism – the rejection of the physical world entirely, saying that Nature is not only not our mother, she is not our sister either, she is rather our slave. If some Christians tend towards the former, some also tend towards the latter. But to be good Christians, we can do neither.

That’s why I don’t have a problem with movies like The Lion King – it is only about nature, not mankind, so it is not really pantheistic; it just provides an incomplete view of the world. Whereas with the Force in Star Wars, and other such belief systems, we find real pantheism. It is the latter that is dangerous, I think, not the former.

Anyway, has anyone seen Avatar? Does anyone think it’s worth seeing for reasons other than teh special effektz?


Lying Minds

June 25, 2008

It’s strange how our brains lie to us sometimes.

For example, for some unknown reason, I was under the vague impression a few years ago that Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, was somehow related to the constructed language Esperanto. This belief was, of course, baseless, and as soon as I thought about it for two seconds and browsed the wikipedia pages of each that became quite clear. I still, however, subconsciously link the two, and so my gut response to the question of “who thought up Esperanto” is going to be “Spinoza”, and I’ll have to consciously correct myself. Presumably with time this will correct itself, but for now, my brain insists on this link between these two unrelated things.

I think  the fact that our brain is able to do this probably encourages the belief that we somehow have a
mind that is separate from our brain. There is this obvious (if actually non-existent) interplay between our brain, which we think of as functioning as a kind of storage and retrieval system, and our mind, which does the actual thinking – and the brain, we think, can give false information the the mind – when it does this is the brain’s fault, not the mind’s. This makes us want to say, for example, that we could somehow take our consciousness and transplant it to another body and “we”, meaning our consciousness abstracted from our brain, would somehow take control of that body. Really, it’s another example of gnosticism.

This distinction is, of course, absurd. Scientifically there is no basis for it, and neither does religion provide one – at least not the Catholic religion. The person, for the Catholic, is both body and soul, and the soul is intimately intertwined with the body – separating the two leaves you without a complete person. (I suspect that the state of the soul is somehow reflected in the physical state of the brain – this would mean that even if you could observe the process of decision-making in the brain before the person was conscious of their decision, it would not mean that the decision was not freely arrived at by the soul – but I know of no doctrinal support for this belief.)

Yet many of us, whether atheists, Christians, or something else, approach life as if this were the case. I suspect this is because we are predisposed to do so given how we can observe our brains lying to us – even if the distinction between “brains” and “us” is completely meaningless.


Life as a Strategy Game

June 18, 2008

It’s interesting, I think, to compare the mechanics of “real life” to the mechanics of different kinds of games. In other words, to look at life as if it were a strategy game.

Now, I’m a fan of turn-based strategy games – TBSs, from here on out. But they are, I will admit, somewhat unrealistic. Life is not like a TBS, but rather like an RTS – a real-time strategy game. If life were like a TBS along the lines of chess, we would have infinite time to consider the possible outcomes of our actions. Presuming that we would still have both free will and intellect, then all possible outcomes of our moves could be considered, and we would choose the best one. That would mean we could not do things we would later regret, and would be more like angels than men. We would still have free will, but in a form much different than what we currently experience as free will. I imagine this is the kind of free will angels have.

Though, do angels have absolute knowledge? I could imagine a TBS where you did not have absolute knowledge yet it was deterministic – say, Dark Chess, i.e. chess with fog-of-war. Is the angelic point of view more like that than like chess itself? (I’m fairly certain that angelic life wouldn’t have an element of chance, like, say, Wesnoth does. Angels don’t play dice, I would guess.)

As it is, human life is more like an RTS – it doesn’t wait for us to make our decisions, it moves on with or without our consent. This is one of the implications of being physical as well as spiritual beings. It’s funny how often we forget it, though; there is I think a tendency to approach life as if it were a sequence of decisions to make rather than continuous motion.


The Blade Runner

June 8, 2008

I read recently (broadly speaking) that it has been decided (by some committee somewhere, I suppose) that a man with artificial legs will be allowed to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a sprinter.

This just seems absurd to me. On the surface, yes, it might appear fair – why shouldn’t a disabled person be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied people? But that, I think, misses something extremely important: running, as a competitive activity, is something that depends on both the mind and the body. You can’t separate the runner from his body – you can’t be a “good runner” in the abstract, without part of that good runner-ness coming from the fact that your legs are longer, you have a lot of muscle, you don’t weigh much, etc.

And so, if you don’t have natural legs, but rather artificial steel legs, then whatever you’re doing when you move really fast using them, you’re not running, at least not in the sense that competitive runners are running. You’re not using your body to go fast, you’re using something that is not part of your body to go fast.

I think the idea that this man should be allowed to compete because it has not been proven that his legs give him an advantage misses the entire point and tends towards a flawed gnostic view of the world. It  says that the legs of a normal runner are just tools that he uses to run quickly, and if the artificial legs give roughly the same capability as natural legs, then they’re equivalent tools, and so a man with artificial legs should be able to compete in a contest normally performed with natural legs, no problem.

The thing is, the “tool” that natural legs supposedly are is of a power determined by the skill of the runner, and a good runner has better legs than a bad runner. Which of these is the artificial legs supposedly equal to? Are the steel legs specifically calibrated to be just as useful as the legs of your average Olympic sprinter? If so, a runner using these artificial legs will finish in the middle of the pack, and what’s the point of them competing? Are they calibrated to be as good as the best Olympic sprinter? Then a runner using them who wins the Olympics will be considered to have won because of his more powerful legs, not because of any achievement on his part. Either way, there is no point to a person with artificial legs competing in the Olympics. The Olympics, and sports in general, are to find who is the best whole person – mind and body, not divided – at the given activity.

Put simply – there is no way to nerf or buff artificial legs so that they put a runner using them on a level playing field with the other runners. They are fundamentally unbalanced. They take a part of the contest – the quality of the runner’s legs – and remove that from the control of the athlete, instead arbitrarily giving him legs of a given quality. It would be like having a contest to paint the best picture where one person was given an outline to work from and the rest were not – it doesn’t matter how good or bad the sketch would be, it wouldn’t be fair because it would remove any skill from that part of the contest, but from that person only.

I don’t mean to take anything away from what Oscar Pistorius has done – he is clearly a great athlete, and I have nothing against the disabled – but the fact remains that what is doing is not running, but something else. That’s why they have separate contests for it – the Paralympics, which he competes in. If the Olympic committee wants to add a sport where you use a standard-size, standard-quality metallic extension to the legs to move quickly, fine, do so and let this guy compete in it. But if they don’t, then this man should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics.

P.S.: This is somehow related, I think, to the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball and other sports, but I’m not sure how yet. It is mostly, I suppose, a clear example of something that does too much to alter the body and make it so you’re not competing with the other players in the same way – I think it would be unacceptable in baseball, just as in running, for one of the players to have artificial legs. But where the line is drawn, I don’t know. I tend towards saying performance-enhancing drugs fall on the other side of it (and this applies even if they posed no danger to the user and were not illegal, neither of which are true), but I’m not sure.


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