Sunday, 22 March 2015

Are Human Beings Robots?: Our True Place in the Cosmos

I've spent the last several days thinking about robots and artificial intelligence. It seems there are quite a few people who are interested in this subject too. But my mind has wandered, as it is apt to do. (Question: do we control our minds or do our minds control us? Its not as easy to answer as you might think.) I found myself reading about cosmology and evolution to satiate a wide-ranging interest in humanity and what makes us, us. So this blog is going to kind of straddle the two stools of robots and the universe and probably do neither any justice at all. These blogs are just me thinking out loud, ok?

Last night I watched both the original Tron (which I had never seen aside from snippets) and Tron: Legacy (which I had seen once before). Both films are ostensibly about intelligent computer programs. 1982's original Tron was strangely compelling as a film. Its terribly out of date graphics and style was appealing and in a way that the sequel's weren't. Better does not always mean better it seems. There was something about the way the light cycle races in the original were better than the newer version. And the sound design in the original was much better (and it was Oscar nominated). But I digress into film criticism.

Both films, as I say, are set in computer worlds. It doesn't seem that there was much thought behind the setup though. Its simply a way to make a film about computers and programs. I have found, as I've watched films about computers and robots this week, that there is usually some throw away line somewhere about a robot or computer being "just a computer" or "just a robot" and "it can't think". It seems that at the conscious level "thinking" is taken to be a marker that shows how intelligent computers or robots are not like we humans. But this seems strange to me. Reasoning is surely a marker of something that makes us stand out in the animal kingdom. However, if anything could calculate then surely that's exactly the one thing that a computer or intelligent robot would be good at? But are thinking and reasoning and calculating all the same thing? Thinking clearly occurs in a number of different ways. There is not just logical reasoning or solving a problem. These kinds of things you could surely teach a computer to do very well at. (I recall to mind that a computer did beat Grand Master Gary Kasparov at chess.) There is also imaginative thinking and how good might an artificial intelligence be at that?

In thinking about this I come back to biology. Human beings are biological organisms. A computer or robot will never have to worry about feeling sick, needing to go to the toilet or having a tooth ache. It will never feel hot and need to take its jumper off. It will never need to tie shoes to its feet so that it can travel somewhere. This matters because these trivialities are the conditions of human life. Of course, you can say that computers may overheat or malfunction or a part may wear out. But are these merely analogous things or direct comparisons? I think it matters if something is biological or not and I think that makes a difference. Human beings feel things. They have intuitions that are only loosely connected to reasoning ability. They can be happy and they can be afraid. These things have physical, biological consequences. I think of Commander Data from Star Trek who was given an "emotion chip" that his creator, Dr Soong, made for him. When it was first put in Data briefly went nuts and it overloaded his neural net. Quite. But more than that, it melded to his circuits so that it couldn't be removed. By design. It seems the inventor in this fictional story rightly saw that emotions cannot be added and taken away at someone's discretion. If you have them, you have them. And you have to learn to live with them. That is our human condition and that is what the character Commander Data had to learn. So human beings cannot be reduced to intelligent functions or reasoning power. These things are as much human as the fact that every once in a while you will need to cut your toe nails.

In addition to all this thinking about intelligent robots in the past few days I was also thinking about the universe, a fascinating subject I have spent far too little of my 46 years thinking about. I have never really been a "science" person. If we must have a divide then I have definitely been on the side of "art". But that's not to say that scientific things couldn't interest me. They have just never so far been presented in a way as to make them palatable for me. All too often science has been presented as "scientism", offering a one-size-fits-all approach to everything that matters. Basically, scientism is the belief that science is all that matters, the highest form of human thinking. Not surprisingly, being an artistic character, I found this an arrogant assumption and rejected it outright. Science and scientists can get stuffed!

But its also true that the things you find out for yourself are the things that stick with you for longer. I am a curious person and am able to do research. So on Friday I was looking at articles about the Earth and the universe. I read things about our sun (thanks partial eclipse!) and how long it was going to last for (a few billion years yet) and then migrated to grand narratives about how our planet had been formed and what it was thought would happen to it in the future. Its fascinating to read the myriad ways in which bad things will happen to the planet you are living on. I came away from this reading with the sense that human beings are a speck in the universe or, as George Carlin once put it in one of his acts, a "surface nuisance". The show to which I refer was notable for a skit he did on environmentalists who, says Carlin, are "trying to save the planet for their Volvos". He ran through a list of things that have already happened to the Earth long before our species arrived and the upshot of his skit was that nothing we do makes any real difference to this planet in the grand scheme of things. Its human arrogance to think that we have that kind of ability. I have some sympathy with this view.

(Watch George Carlin's Environment skit here) 

Put simply, most human beings hold to what is called by the British paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, Henry Gee, "Human Exceptionalism". This is the view that human beings are essentially different to all other animals, if not all other living things in the universe. Its often accompanied by the belief that we are somehow the pinnacle of nature - as if evolution was always aiming to get to us, the zenith of the process. Put simply, humans are better. But as Gee, also a senior editor at the science journal, Nature, points out, to even think such a thing is to completely misunderstand the theory of evolution, a process which retrospectively describes human observations about the development of life rather than some force working in the universe with a predisposition or purpose to create human beings. The problem is that we are people. We see through human eyes and we cannot put those eyes aside to see in any other way. The forces that created us equipped us with egos for the purposes of self-preservation and even those of us with low self-esteem (such as myself) still regard ourselves as important. But imagine looking at yourself through an impossibly powerful telescope from somewhere a billion galaxies away. How important would you be then? You wouldn't even register. Even our planet would be a speck, one of billions.You wouldn't catch an intelligent robot having such ideas above its station - except in a film where it was basically standing in for a human being! Skynet and the revolt of the machines is a uniquely human kind of story. All we think and imagine is. We are, after all, only human. But what kind of stories would intelligent robots tell?

So I learn that I am just another human, one of a species of puffed up individuals that happened to evolve on a meaningless planet located at Nowheresville, The Universe. I'm on the third planet of a solar system that in a few billion years will be thrown into chaos when it's star has burnt up all its hydrogen and begins to change from a bright burning star into a Red Giant. At that point it will expand to such a degree that Mercury, Venus, and likely Earth as well, will be consumed. Long before that our planet will have become too hot to support life (the sun's luminosity is, and has been, increasing for millions of years) and will likely have been hit by several asteroids of considerable size that cause extinction events on Earth. Scientists already tell us that there have been at least 5 "great extinction events" on the earth before now. In 50 million years the Canadian Rockies will have worn away and become a plain. In only 50,000 years the Niagara Falls will no longer exist, having worn away the river bed right back the 32 kilometers to Lake Erie. Not that that will matter as by the time those 50,000 years have past we will be due for another glacial period on Earth. Seas will freeze and whole countries will be under metres of ice. In 250 million years plate tectonics dictate that all the continents will have fused together into a super continent, something that has likely happened before. In less than 1 billion years it is likely that carbon dioxide levels will fall so low that photosynthesis becomes impossible leading to extinctions of most forms of life. These things are not the scare-mongering of those with environmental concerns. They are not based on a humanistic concern with how our tiny species is affecting this planet. They are the science of our planet. You see, when you choose not to look with egotistical human eyes, eyes that are always focused on the here and now, on the pitifully short time span that each of us has, you see that everything around us is always moving and always changing. Change, indeed, is the constant of the universe. But you need eyes to see it.

The year 1816 (only 199 years ago) was known as "The Year Without A Summer". It was called that because there were icy lakes and rivers in August and snow in June. Crops failed. People starved. This was in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe and North America). It was caused by a volcanic eruption not in the Northern Hemisphere but in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia in 1815. It caused what is called a "volcanic winter". The eruption has been estimated to be the worst in at least the last 1,300 years. What strikes me about this, in my "trying to see without human eyes" way of thinking, is that 1,300 years is not very long. Indeed, time lasts a lot longer in the natural world than we humans have been given the ability to credit. We zone out when the numbers get too big. We are programmed to concentrate on us and what will affect us and ours (like a robot?!). The good news, though, is that because all of us live such pathetically small lives its likely stuff like this won't happen to us. But on the logic of the universe these things surely will happen. Far from us humans being the masters of our destiny, we are are helpless ants in the ant hill just waiting for the next disaster to strike. Like those ants, we are powerless to stop it, slaves to forces we can neither comprehend nor control. As Henry Gee puts it in terms of scientific discovery, "every time we learn something, we also learn that there is even more we now know we don't know".

So maybe there is a way in which we are like robots. We are dumb before the things that created us, powerless to affect or control what happens to us (in the grand scheme of things). It makes you think.

For more doomsday scenarios (real ones, based in scientific thinking) check out the articles Timeline of the Far Future and Future of the Earth

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  1. I like your way of thinking and I quite agree with you though I don't think I am important in this world whatsoever.
    We humans are all but dust in the wind.
    But humans did create artificial intelligence;))