Happy Thanksgiving!

Today in the US is Thanksgiving Day.  If you’re somewhere where this is being celebrated, I hope you have a great holiday.  If you’re somewhere where it’s not being celebrated, have a great Thursday.

As someone who isn’t inclined to gratitude toward an apparently uncaring universe, my thanks tend to go to friends, family, and colleagues who make my life better.  I very much include my online friends in that circle, who enrich my life substantially.  Thank you!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must journey to where I will indulge in hedonistic overeating, followed by a likely collapse into unconsciousness while everyone else watches football.


Posted in Zeitgeist | 9 Comments

The Expanse: Intelligent space opera you should check out

1-ice-miningLast night, I watched the pilot episode to the new science fiction TV series, ‘The Expanse‘.  It’s based on a series of novels by a writing team that goes by the pseudonym James S.A. Corey, the first of which I reviewed a while back.  I’ve read all the books in the series and enjoyed them immensely.  In broad strokes, it’s about an interplanetary civilization becoming an interstellar one, with most of the action focused on the crew of a small Firefly type ship.

The production values of the pilot are impressive.  There are lots of zero gravity scenes, which are expensive to shoot, and the sets and special effects seem pretty first rate.

I’m also impressed by how intelligent the show is.  I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the show had sacrificed the commitment that the books had toward the ships moving around in a realistic Newtonian fashion, but the show seems to have mostly stuck with it.  Characters are in zero gravity when the ships are just coasting, and have weight when they’re accelerating.  And ships are shown flipping around to decelerate.

So far, the show seems to be following the first book pretty closely.  Most of the pilot story comes from the opening chapters of ‘Leviathan Wakes‘, except for the introduction of Chrisjen Avasarala, a character that doesn’t show up until the second book.  It appears that the show is going to follow the ‘Game of Thrones’ formula by doing a season per book, at least to start.

ExpanseCrew_0My only real beef with the show, and it’s not a major one, is that the actors all seemed a bit too  young compared to the descriptions of the characters in the books, or maybe in just a little too good a shape to be believable as the burnouts they are presented to be.  The actor that plays the main character, Jim Holden, looks like someone who spends hours a day in the gym, rather than the coffee inhaling guy who muddles through the books.  But then, this is TV and I guess some compromises have to be made.

One of my friends was bothered by the characters using magnetic boots in most of the zero gravity scenes, pointing out that they aren’t used in the books and wouldn’t be used in real life, but that doesn’t particularly bother me.  Filming zero gravity scenes is difficult and expensive (I’m impressed the show had as many as they did), and at least the magnetic boots are a concession to the reality of zero-g in space.  It seems like a reasonable compromise for a weekly show, a much better one than the typical solution of just ignoring it, or positing artificial gravity systems that never go out, even in derelict ships.

So I’m pretty excited with this new series.  It looks like its going to very intelligent, and will hopefully raise the standard for space opera shows.  I recommend checking it out.  I watched it on Amazon (for free), but it’s also available on the SyFy site, Hulu, and a lot of other places.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

The odd animosity toward ebooks

Someone called my attention to an Aeon article by Craig Mod describing his abandonment of digital books, returning to the traditional paper variety.

From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.

I found this opening odd.  Mod took up digital readings because of a “duty”?  This, to me, is the wrong reason right from the outset.  It makes sense to read things digitally, instead of via paperback or hardback, not because you’re supposed to do it, but because it’s more comfortable, convenient, or pragmatic, not because you feel any obligation to.

Anyway, after describing the way the Kindle enhanced his reading experience, he discusses how things changed for him.

But in the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books.

…As a consumer of digital books I feel delighted, but as a reader, I feel crestfallen. All of the consumption parts of the Kindle experience are pitch-perfect: a boundless catalogue, instant distribution, reasonable prices (perhaps once too reasonable, now less so with recently updated contracts).

…Take for example the multistep process of opening a well-made physical edition….The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

Contrast this with opening a Kindle book – there is no procession, and often no cover. You are sometimes thrown into the first chapter, sometimes into the middle of the front matter. Wherein every step of opening The Conference of the Birds fills one with delight – delight at what one is seeing and what one anticipates to come – opening a Kindle book frustrates. Often, you have to swipe or tap back a dozen pages to be sure you haven’t missed anything.

I can sort of see where Mod is coming from.  For decades, I often enjoyed the experience of opening and holding physical books, particularly ones that were well made.  Except that most of the physical books I actually read were trade paperbacks, where the experience was decidedly more pedestrian.  And, at least to me, all of that pales in comparison with the ease and convenience of digital reading.

Back in 2009, I started with the Kindle 2, and after a year or two of tentative experimentation, pretty much switched wholesale to reading electronically.  These days, most of my book reading is via the free Kindle app, which I use on an iPad when at home, or from my iPhone when out and about.  Sometimes, I use the Kindle cloud reader to read from a laptop or desktop computer.

What makes this super convenient is that my position in any book that I’m reading stays synchronized across all of these devices.  And, as Mod described, acquiring a book I’m interested in can now be done in seconds.  (Although I’ve found that it definitely pays to read the almost universally available preview chapters prior to actually shelling out money.)

It’s also extremely convenient to be able to look up the definition of any unfamiliar word or phrase, or to google details on a concept I come across in reading.  And if I’m looking for a particular passage in a book, full text searches save enormous time over the old and often incomplete indexes that were only occasionally available in nonfiction books, and never in fictional ones.

I’ve reached the point where virtually all of my reading is done digitally.  The only time it isn’t is when I want to read something that, for one reason or another, isn’t available electronically, then I might begrudgingly order a physical copy.  The idea of going back to physical books is, for me, like returning to reading scrolls.

Aside from personal convenience, digital publishing has largely created a new industry of indie published books.  Yes, a lot of what’s being put out there is junk, but a lot of it is competent well written stuff, and some of it is brilliant.  Just this week, I read three ebooks on writing, books that probably wouldn’t have existed without the Kindle platform, or if they did, would have been extremely difficult to find.

There are still plenty of people who thumb their noses at indie books, but then people used to thumb their noses at the 19th century penny dreadful novels and 20th century pulp magazines.  There was always a lot of dreck in the old pulps, but a lot of classics emerged from them.  And many genres today, such as fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, and hard boiled detective stories, largely developed in the pulps, with major writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, and many others developing their craft in them.

Over the decades, these old magazines have largely disappeared, a victim of shifting markets as the proportion of the reading population declined, largely due to the rise of competing forms of entertainment such as television, video games, home video, cable channels, and the internet.  As the economics caused the outlets for published works to shrink and consolidate to a few large publishing houses, it became increasingly difficult for aspiring writers to get published.  Indeed, a few short years ago, getting published was about as likely as breaking into show business, requiring not only talent but also an enormous amount of luck.

Digital publishing has resurrected the pulp layer of writing, one that I think is much needed for a healthy publishing ecosystem.  Authors now have a new proving ground similar to the old magazines and penny dreadfuls, readers have access to a lot more writing, including more experimental works, and traditional large scale publishers can now assess a prospective author’s selling potential by looking at their actual sales history as an indie author.

There’s been a lot of press this year about ebook sales being in decline.  What that press appears to be missing is that it’s not ebook sales in general that are in decline, it’s the ebook sales of traditional publishers.  Given the high prices that traditional publishers want for their books, this shouldn’t be too surprising.  A lot of ebook readers are switching to lower cost indie books, which typically sell for under $5.

And publishing snobs should remember that the current hit novel and movie, ‘The Martian’, started as a self published book.  As did ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and many other hits from the last few years.  You might regard these books as hopelessly low grade entertainment, but I’d argue they’re no lower grade than a lot of stuff that got published traditionally.

All of which is to say, that I hope digital publishing and reading are here to stay.  For me, returning to the world of only paper books, with a handful of large publishing houses acting as the gatekeepers to what gets published, is a bleak and depressing proposition.

Yes, the new paradigm isn’t problem free.  I do occasionally worry about what happens to my book collection  (or increasingly my video collection) if Amazon tanks, and I wish they and other online retailers did a better job policing their customer ratings.   (A depressing number of the ratings are obviously purchased.  Amazon is making some highly publicized attempts to combat it, but it’s not clear how well it’s working.  Again though, previews are your friend.)

But to me, the solution to problems with the new paradigm is to find ways to improve it, not to retreat to forms we find comforting only because they are centuries old.  If our ancestors had done that, we’d still be reading clay tablets.

Posted in Society, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

David Eagleman: Can a computer simulate a brain?

The other day, I highlighted the article by neuroscientist Kenneth Miller on the possibility of mind uploading.  Miller saw it as possible, but thought it might be thousands or maybe even millions of years before we could do it.  Here’s a take by another neuroscientist, David Eagleman, being a bit more optimistic, and discussing the simulation hypothesis.

It’s worth noting that both of these guys see the timeline envisioned by singularity enthusiasts (that it will happen in the next 20 years or so) as untenable, although Eagleman’s idea of when it might happen is much closer to the singularity timeline than Miller’s.

Eagleman also highlights an aspect of this discussion that I think is worth noting, the effect this capability would likely have on space exploration.  Currently, our robots are all over the solar system, and a few have even left it and entered interstellar space.  But humans, after a brief sojourn to the moon, have basically stayed just above Earth’s atmosphere.

Our society has long discussions about gathering the political will for human space exploration, but the lack of a viable economic incentive has pretty much kept it to just that.  Robots pretty much own space, and I often tend to think that’s unlikely to change.  So, a solar system spanning civilization, and later an interstellar spanning one, is likely to be a robotic one.  It might only be a human one if we can figure out a way to make humanity transcend our biology.

Remember that ‘The Martian’ is primarily about the challenges a biological human faces in surviving in a Martian environment.  While an exciting story, it highlights the chief problem for humans in space, that we’re essentially fish leaving the ocean of our biosphere, with the necessity of bringing enough of that ocean with us to survive.  Imagine if we didn’t need to bring any of it.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

Why I think we will eventually have a scientific understanding of consciousness

It’s a common sentiment, even among many staunch materialists, that we will never understand consciousness.  It’s one I held to some degree until a few years ago.  But the more I’ve read about neuroscience, the more convinced I’ve become that we will eventually understand it, at least at an objective level.

That’s actually an important distinction to make here.  Many discussions of consciousness inevitably include pondering of the hard problem, the problem of understanding how subjective experience, what it’s like to be a conscious being, arises from physical systems.  I suspect we’ll never solve the hard problem, at least not to the satisfaction of those troubled by it.  It will remain a conundrum for philosophers, no matter what kind of progress is eventually made in neuroscience or artificial intelligence.

But I don’t think it’s reasonable to require that science solve it.  Science gave up looking for ultimate understandings centuries ago in favor of settling for pragmatic ones.  It was one of the first steps in the evolution from natural philosophy to modern science.  The approach, that it is better to settle for what can be understood rather than hold out for a perfect and perhaps unattainable understanding, has been an amazingly fruitful one.

Consider also that the entire history of science has been a demonstration that reality doesn’t match our subjective experience.  Subjectively, the earth is stationary and the center of the universe, but we’ve known for centuries that, objectively, it very much isn’t.  Subjectively, humanity is very different from animals, but we’ve known since Darwin that, humanity is just another animal species, albeit the alpha of alpha predators.

The objective facts in these areas have taken us farther from our subjective experience.  We have nothing to indicate that the mind will be different.  Any expectation that a scientific understanding of the mind will explain our subjective experience, why red is red, etc, is doomed, I fear, to be a frustrated one.

Sometimes along with that is any expectation that an understanding of the mind will somehow show our subjective experience is more real than objective reality.  It’s an expectation that there is still something different about us, something that makes us special, that separates us from the rest of nature, that vitalism in some form or another is still true.  It’s a sentiment that ignores the lessons of Copernicus and Darwin.

I fear that this is what motivates a lot of very intelligent people to speculate that consciousness operates using some form of unknown and unknowable physics.  One of the most common is to posit exotic quantum mechanics.  Of course, the mind depends on quantum mechanics, just as every other physical system in the universe.  But proponents of quantum consciousness often make an assertion that it uses an exotic and unknown aspect of quantum physics.

The problem is that there is zero scientific evidence for anything like this exotic physics.  Speculation in this area continues because we don’t yet understand consciousness, and some people conclude that this means there must be some new aspect of reality that we’re not seeing yet.  While this lack of understanding remains true, there’s nothing in mainstream neuroscience to indicate that we will need a new physics to understand the mind.

This isn’t to say that the mind may not use certain quantum phenomena such as entanglement.  After all, plants appear to use it in photosynthesis, and birds in detecting the earth’s magnetic field.  But while biology uses these phenomena, the phenomena themselves still operate according to the scientific understanding of how they work.  The mind using them would be, at most, complications to understanding, not an insurmountable barrier.

Smi32neuronBut the data most strongly indicate that consciousness arises from neural circuitry.  This circuitry is profoundly complicated, but it operates according to well known physical laws involving chemistry and electricity.  Understanding how the mind arises from it is largely understanding how information is processed in the brain’s neural network.

Because of this, while there are lots of theories of consciousness, I think it’s the ones by neuroscientists, the people actually studying the brain, which are likely to be closest to the truth.  (A quick note here: neurosurgeons, such as Ben Carson or Eben Alexander, are generally not neuroscientists.)  These theories seem to agree that information integration is crucial.  Some stop at integration and declare any integrated information system to have some level of consciousness, leading to a form of philosophical panpsychism.  But I think the better theories see integration as necessary but not sufficient.

My long time readers know that I’m a fan of Michael Graziano‘s Attention Schema Theory, but there are other similar theories out there.  Many of them posit that consciousness is basically a feedback system, allowing the brain to perceive some aspects of its own internal state.  These theories give a data processing explanation for our sense of internal experience, one that doesn’t require anything mystical.  These explanations are far less extraordinary than those requiring exotic physics.  We shouldn’t accept extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence, particularly when far less extraordinary theories explain the facts.

Of course, there are still huge gaps in our knowledge.  Until those gaps are closed, we can’t completely rule out exotic physics or magic, just as we can’t completely rule out that UFOs are extraterrestrials, that bigfoot is roaming the forests of North America, or that ghosts are haunting old decrepit houses.  But we can note that there is zero actual evidence for any of these things.

None of this is to say that there aren’t aspects of reality that we may never understand.  It’s possible that we’ll never figure out a way to understand singularities at the center of black holes, whether there are other universes, or what actually happens during quantum decoherence.  But unlike these problems, which exist in realms we may never be able to observe, the brain shows no sign of being fundamentally beyond careful observation.

Yes, understanding the brain will be hard, very hard.  But even though there are many people who don’t want the mind to be understood, neuroscientists will continue making progress, year by year, decade by decade.  The gaps will shrink, eventually closing off the notions that depend on them.

I suspect that even when science does achieve an understanding of how consciousness and the mind arise from the brain, there will be many people who refuse to accept it.  It will be the same fights that heliocentrism and evolution once endured.  Many will look at the explanations and insist that their consciousness, their inner experience, simply can’t come from that.  But as I said above, we shouldn’t judge a scientific theory on whether it solves this hard problem.

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , , | 58 Comments

SMBC: The universality of mathematics, but not notation

This is pretty good, and it will exercise your mind for a minute.

Source: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

The distinction between mathematical notation and its underlying reality is a crucial one.  The first is an invention of humans, the second is universal.  In fact, I’ve increasingly become convinced that the second actually is the universe, and mathematics is just us recognizing reality’s fundamental patterns, and devising mechanisms to describe and to model, to extrapolate, to make predictions, based on those patterns.

Of course, many of those predictions have no correlation in observed reality, at least none that has been observed yet.  Many mathematicians take delight in pointing out how useless many of their endeavors are.  Yet, despite this, many mathematical structures initially thought to be purely abstract do eventually end up being useful to model some aspect of nature.  The ones that don’t could be thought of as either untested or falsified scientific theories.

Another way to describe what I’m saying is that mathematics is the universe.  This is similar to but the reverse of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, which posits that the universe is a part of mathematics.  Both of these ideas see an equivalence between underlying mathematical realities and the universe, but with opposite ideas of which is the more primal reality.

Which one is true?  Like all metaphysical conundrums, I can’t see any way to know for sure.  But my personal judgment is that mathematics being the universe is simpler.  The universe being a subset of mathematics requires us to assume a trans-universe reality that we can’t observe, an assumption mathematics being the universe doesn’t require.

Of course, depending on exactly what we mean by “mathematics”, even if there is no trans-universe reality, the universe could still be thought of as a part of mathematics, but only in the same sense that it is a subset of all scientific theories, including both true and false ones.

Unless I’m missing something?

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , | 84 Comments

Why alien life will probably be engineered life

Martin Rees has an interesting article at Nautilus: When We Find Aliens, We Might Find Something Like the Borg

This September, a team of astronomers noticed that the light from a distant star is flickering in a highly irregular pattern.1 They considered the possibility that comets, debris, and impacts could account for their observations, but each of these explanations was unlikely to varying degrees.2 What their paper didn’t explore, but they and others are beginning to speculate, is that the flickering might be caused by enormous structures built by an advanced civilization—whether the light might be evidence of ET.

In thinking about this possibility, or other similarly suggestive evidence of extraterrestrial life, an image of an alien creature might come to mind—something green, perhaps, or with tentacles or eye stalks. But in this we are probably mistaken. I would argue that any positive identification of ET will very likely not originate from organic or biological life (as Paul Davies has also argued), but from machines.

Few doubt that machines will gradually surpass more and more of our distinctively human capabilities—or enhance them via cyborg technology. Disagreements are basically about the timescale: the rate of travel, not the direction of travel. The cautious amongst us envisage timescales of centuries rather than decades for these transformations.

A few thoughts.

First, I haven’t commented yet here about KIC 8462852, the star Rees mentions in the first paragraph.  It would be beyond cool if this turned out to be something like a partial Dyson swarm or some other megastructure.  But with these types of speculation, it pays to be extra skeptical of propositions we want to be true.  Possibility is not probability.  I think the chances that this is an alien civilization are remote, but I can’t say I’m not hoping.

On the rest of Rees’s article, I largely agree.  (I’m sure my regular readers aren’t shocked by this.)  I do have one quibble though.  Rees uses the terms “robotic” or “machine life”.  In cases where it would make sense to have a body of metal and silicon, such as operating in space or some other airless environment, I think it’s likely that’s what would be used (or its very advanced equivalent).

But when operating inside of a biosphere, I suspect “machine life” might be more accurately labelled as “engineered life”.  In such an environment, an organic body, designed and grown by an advanced civilization for the local biosphere, might be far more useful and efficient than a machine one.  An organic body could get its energy from the biosphere using biological functions such as eating and breathing.  This might be substantially more efficient than carrying a power pack or whatever.

If we met such life, they might well resemble classic sci-fi aliens in some broad fashion.  Nor do I think we should dismiss the possibility that the form of such aliens might not stray too far from their original evolved shapes.  Even the advanced machine versions might well resemble those original shapes, at least in some contexts.

Of course, that original shape might still be radically different than anything in our experience, such as Rees’s speculation about something that starts as an evolved integrated intelligence.  And after billions of years, engineered life may inevitably become an integrated intelligence, at least on the scope of a planet.  (The speed of light barrier would constrain the level of integration across interstellar distances.)

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments