A balanced and well-researched Wired article by Jason Kehe reveals the latest “yoo-hoo transmission to aliens” stunt. Of course I consider these things to be at-best dopey, with a small but significant chance of being thoughtlessly dangerous for all of humanity.
Above all, to cast such noises outward, based on untested assumptions, without at least offering to discuss it first with our planet’s population and its greatest sages? That is simply rude. Arrogant rudeness on an unprecedented scale. See my article for the Lifeboat Foundation, Shouting at the Cosmos: how SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory.
Put it in perspective? A cute interactive graphic lets you test out four different assumptions in the Drake Equation to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy. (I’ve seen better… but still, this one is fun and a good introduction.)
Getting Smarter all the time
But I promised to appraise one of those Drake Equation factors today— intelligence. Is it rare? Can it be enhanced? Or possibly bestowed upon others?
Let’s start with a recent science news item. By placing a neural device in the brains of monkeys with disrupted cognitive function, researchers were able to recover and even improve the monkeys’ ability to make decisions, overcoming the effects of cocaine in select regions of the brain. Moreover, when duplicating the experiment under normal conditions, the monkeys’ performance improved beyond their previous 75% proficiency level. In other words, a kind of cognitive enhancement appears to have happened.
This got big play in the press. But, now let’s not get carried away. The prosthesis was designed to bypass a very specific type of temporary chemical debilitation in a specific region. That’s a far cry from the general brain boost proclaimed by florid news reports. Still…
… that raises the possible prospect someday of brain boosting some of the critters around us. A topic we have discussed here several times before. Now an excellent iO9 article by George Dvorsky indicates we may be at the dawn of the Uplift Era. Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?
The Mental Ecology of Intelligence and Uplift
These issues are (at long last) getting serious (if rather shallow) attention from the scientific community. For example, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Caltech’s Christof Koch. It declares the following:
“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
The authors go on to imply that they do not perceive a stark, decisive, qualitative difference between the consciousness of humans and of many higher animal species. Their implication is that we should consider new proposals for vesting such creatures with some level of sapient rights and respecting their current mental achievements as different, but of equivalent value to our own.
Alas, while I lean toward their general side of the spectrum, wanting more empathy toward the natural world, I find how they express that empathy to be fantastically myopic. Overblown, their declaration says nothing new. The threshold abilities of cetaceans, simians… and yes parrots, corvids, pinnipeds, even cephalopods… have all been investigated recently and we’ve been delightfully astonished by evidence showing how many animals possess impressive-if-basic mental skills.
Fascinating, indeed! Nevertheless dwelling on this positive trend is to miss the starkly deeper significance of all this.
What’s interesting is not how many somewhat-smart species there are on this planet, but how they cluster! With some variation (dolphins and chimps seem to be ahead by a margin) these dozens or so of elite “pre-sapient” species all bump against roughly the same glass ceiling of commonly shared capabilities—at problem solving, tool use, linguistic comprehension, and so on. The more you watch crows, sea lions, parrots, octopi—and dolphins and apes—the more this confluence of similar abilities comes across as the striking salient feature.
That ceiling is what’s interesting! It’s as if Darwin himself stepped up and told all these diverse species and genuses: “this high you may climb, because it helped you to be agile and clever in your natural environment. But no higher! The reproductive and survival rewards for getting much smarter than that simply aren’t sufficient to drive selection across an expensive and dangerous gap. You may not cross.”
What a fascinating topic for research! Comparing creatures across such a wide range and mapping the breadth and depth and nature of that ceiling. And possibly thereby shedding light on the greatest puzzle of all. Why are we the one exception? The one breakthrough to a whole ‘nother level? We sappy sapiens?
Was it a confluence of experiences, trials and selections endured by bands of gregarious apes, squeezing through evolutionary bottlenecks, one after another? Or our bipedal gait, freeing hands for full time manipulation? Our complex mating and alliance habits? Or was it something like my own hypothetical process, Neoteny and two-way sexual selection?
Could some rare fluke—in one factor of the Drake Equation—explain us… and thereby help shine light on our apparent loneliness in the cosmos?
Even more thought-provoking; suppose it truly was a fluke that let just one race of bright sub-sapients crash through the ceiling. Well, in that case, what kind of horrible bastards would we be, if we then refused to share our good fortune? If we churlishly disdained to turn around and help others make it across the gap?
Oh, both the left and the right will come up with rationalizations not to even try. Either because Uplift would insult other species or stomp into the creative realm of God. But in the end, these will simply be excuses for selfishness.
A longer life through self-starvations?
Oh but what about ourselves? Can we make ourselves smarter? Perhaps even becoming bright and wise enough to solve our vexing problems? Brilliant enough to turn this internet thing into a blessing, instead of a lobotomizing curse? Well, it’s a topic we’ve covered before and will do so again! (One tracking tool? What fraction of humanity reads this blog? Clearly we could be smarter (in aggregate) than we currently are!)
One route to transcendence might be to live longer. After all, doesn’t experience make you wiser?
But how? Calorie restriction (CR), a 10–40% reduced intake of a nutritious diet, is often reported as the most robust non-genetic mechanism to extend lifespan and healthspan. Effects on bacteria, fruit flies and even mice have encouraged many in the Life-Extension or Transhumanism movements to embrace CR as a personal lifestyle, hoping for the doubling effect they perceive in animal studies. You can recognize the type, at conferences, by their “lean and hungry look.”
I have been a skeptic; not only because humans are already the Methuselahs of the mammalian order, having picked all the longevity low-hanging fruit in order to get three times the average number of heartbeats used by most mammals… but also because caloric restriction has been practiced in hundreds of ascetic monasteries across the last 4000 years. (Do you see any 300 year old monks capering around?)
I portray all of this a bit in my new novel EXISTENCE.
Certainly, in order to get smarter, we’ll not only have to process information faster and better. We’ll also be behooved to overcome or toss out lots of baggage we picked up during those epochs in the caves. “The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American—they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others.” (From Evolutionary Psychology Primer, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby).
People who ordinarily cannot detect violations of if-then rules can do so easily and accurately when that violation represents cheating in a situation of social exchange.
“Everywhere it has been tested (adults in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Hong-Kong; schoolchildren in Ecuador, Shiwiar hunter-horticulturalists in the Ecuadorian Amazon), people do not treat social exchange problems as equivalent to other kinds of reasoning problems. Moreover, they do not behave as if they were designed to detect logical violations per se; instead, they prompt choices that track what would be useful for detecting cheaters.”
Well, well, were we speaking of getting rid of excess baggage? And did I mention “sexual selection?” Then consider this, published in The New York Times: Men, Who Needs Them? An amusing (I hope) rumination on how unnecessary the male half of the human race is becoming. A pondering that has long been mused-upon in both radical feminist science fiction and more moderate versions, like my own novel Glory Season.
Or might the new “Maker Movement” lead to building replicants, even better than we near-perfect natural specimens?
How to create cyborg flesh. According to Harvard researchers, you start with a three-dimensional scaffold that encourages cells to grow around them. These scaffolds are generally made of collagen, which makes up the connective tissue in almost every animal. (Elsewhere I describe recent advances in re-growing complex tissues like a whole esophagus.) The Harvard engineers basically took normal collagen, and wove nanowires and transistors into the matrix to create nanoelectric scaffolds (nanoES). The neurons, heart cells, muscle, and blood vessels were then grown as normal, creating cyborg tissue with a built-in sensor network. Next? Go beyond sensing to communicate 2-way with the cells. ALL the cells. Directly. Yipe.
Intelligence in the Future?
Hailed as the biggest breakthrough in genomics in a decade, swathes of DNA once thought to have no purpose, actually form a complex “control panel” for our genes. Turns out the “junk DNA” had some purposes, after all! The non-gene sections are regulatory, and crucially important.
Oh but then it gets mind-blowing. Big Brain futurist singularity guy John Smart has just posted a 45 min video about Chemical Brain Preservation, which might challenge cryonics among those looking for a better storage medium, to wait out the temporary hiatus between “death” and—er—a second life. That is, if it gets validated by neuroscience in coming years.
Will this make post-death preservation less expensive, less environmentally wasteful and more within plausible reach of those who have been skeptical, till now? I guess I’d prefer being a pickled-plasticized brain on my grandkids’ mantel to using up kilogallons of liquid nitrogen in a fragile, frozen ossuary, never being talked about (as you would be, now and then, as a plasticized keepsake on the mantel!) After all, isn’t that just a step removed from traditional embalming?
Emplace the brain/head in a unit with holo display and simple voice-response unit. (“Hey you kids! It’s getting dusty over here!”) Add some oracular statements that get released by time (a la Hari Seldon). Fun for the whole (extended) family. You can leave comments at John’s blog.
Oh, John added the following personal note: “I will do my best to get the price down to where the mantlepiece fossil is an irresistible choice for the Brin household. Then if the Universe allows me a bit more longevity than you (cross fingers), I’ll come by and pay my respects. I hope to see a holoBrin pop out, identify me biometrically, and then ask me if I’m working sufficiently hard to get you back out!!”
Hrm. I will have more fierce ways of haunting than just that!
And finally, the ultimate theory… OUR LIFE AS AVATARS…. My friend Rich Terrille is interviewed about the now familiar notion that we all dwell within a simulation. Rich is a very bright guy. We’ve discussed his version of this concept and I consider it a step forward. Earlier versions by Hans Moravec in the 1990s and Stanislaw Lem in the 1970s, are of interest along the way, going back to Lao Tse’s parable of the butterfly and the Emperor. My own contributions include an essay, Could our Universe be a Fake? and a novelette from the 1990s called “Stones of Significance” which folks might find both amusing and boggling. (A Hugo nominee.)
Evidence for this notion includes the fact that we have a minimum temperature and a maximum speed and a limit to how finely you can sub-divide nature. All of those “universal traits” strike one as attempts to skimp on computational needs by the stingy owners of this simulation… I mean the handsome, intelligent, generous, kind and wonderful owners who would never think of reaching over and flicking the switch that says reboo
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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