Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A crystal future?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, artificial intelligence

Like many, I have a lively interest in the possibility of other sentient species throughout the Universe. I have supported the SETI program for decades, including running the seti@home "screen saver". More recently, I have vetted a few thousand stars' light curves for the Planet Hunters project; I noted this morning when I checked in that there are 666,916 participants.

However, as a radio amateur, I realize how unlikely it is that SETI will turn up anything, even if there are millions of inhabited planets "out there". Our term as a radio-loud species lasted barely 100 years (it is all on cable and glass fiber now), and even though some TV stations of the 1960s-1990s utilized million-watt transmitters, even the Arecibo 300 m radio telescope would be unable to detect I Love Lucy or Jeopardy at a distance greater than about 10 light years. An intelligent species 100 to 1000 light years away would need to do one of two things to produce a signal we are capable of detecting: point a gigawatt signal right at us using a kilometer-scale dish, or broadcast an omnidirectional signal with a power of billions of gigawatts. Both are costly undertakings.

An economic analysis that I read a few years ago compared the cost of a huge radio transmitter to the cost of sending a number of small (around 10 kg) objects, propelled at about 1% of light speed, carrying some kind of message. The hard part is for such a small object to carry a technology for slowing down at the other end! One percent of c is about 100 times the velocity of Earth as it orbits the Sun. That's a lot of kinetic energy to shed.

This is the kind of idea a science fiction writer can run with. Couple it with likely developments in computer technology, possible advances in artificial intelligence, and a few projections—or flights of fancy—about human society, and a book like Existence by David Brin emerges. A very enjoyable book, I might add.

Some 40-50 years in our future, with a planetary population of 9 or 10 billion who are apparently all networked into the MESH (successor of WWW), an effort has finally been undertaken to clean up the mess left behind by NASA, ESA, and the various Soviet and Russian space agencies. With tens of thousands of broken satellites, shed fuel containers and bolts and bits of exploded stuff, near-space is getting hazardous. A trash-collecting astronaut named Gerald snags an unusual crystalline object, so rather than nudge it into an Earth-intercepting orbit, he retrieves it, at some risk to his career. When Gerald and the object return to Earth, he touches it, whereupon a word appears—a lot like the way a magic 8-Ball toy's message floats up—: Greeting.

So, as usual, the author leaves it up to the brains in the alien machine to figure out how to communicate with us. In an already big book (553 pages), this does avoid a large digression, so I can forgive it. Anyway, you might ask, is this the only one? No, as it turns out, and something like half the book is taken up with the consequences of finding multiple crystal ovoids from competing species, now that people know what to look for. Yes, the aliens are competitors. A peaceful Galactic Federation is about as likely as a one-world government here on planet Earth, or even less so. Star Wars trumps Star Trek.

I won't go further along the plot line. There are too many other fascinating threads to this story. Much is based on continued increases in becoming one with our computers. All but the very poorest (there is still a bottom few percent, more's the pity, but I am not surprised) have access at least to TruVu specs that let them access the many levels of the MESH. The software in the specs takes its cues from where you focus your gaze. Many, particularly the younger folks, get equipment installed in their vocal chords and teeth, and wear intelligent contact lenses, so they can effectively live in the MESH and control it with subvocal commands and tooth-taps and eye-flicks and hand motions. (Let it be noted, fifteen years ago I predicted to friends that "soon" people will be able to get a smart cell phone—the "smart phone" had yet to appear—implanted in the mastoid bone, attached to a tiny microphone in the jaw and a tiny speaker in the wall of an ear canal; it would respond to spoken or muttered commands. Maybe "soon" still means another 20-50 years…)

True artificial intelligence has yet to arise, but Brin's 2050s society has a close simulacrum, that can pass the Turing Test if it doesn't go on too long. Allied words have been coined, such as maind, aiware, aitomatic, aissistant and ailectronic. A brief vignette, wherein a high school student manages to download the personality of her pet rat into a computer, sets the stage for the crystal ovoids to contain numerous downloaded personalities. Then there are new acronyms. My favorites are WAIST (Wow! Ain't It Strange That…) and TSOOSU (To See Ourselves as Others See Us, and the command tsoosu invokes a MESH view of oneself from nearby cameras).

Here is an idea for someone capable of writing it into a novel: a possible process for capturing someone's personality in software. A backpack containing a massive neural network with heuristic programming, plus a "sensor hat" you would wear. Other sensors on or in the body are possible, but I haven't thought that out. You would wear the equipment for a few weeks or months, while it tries to learn to predict your behavior from the stimuli you encounter, plus periods during which you explain your behavior to the backpack. I suppose a breakthrough would occur at some point, and thereafter the longer you wear the equipment the better the simulation gets. How good you want it to be depends on the purpose to which it will be put. Once created, the simulation is easily copied. This would probably work best with people who have a lot of toleration of solitude, because such a simulation of your personality is most likely to be used to control a machine with a dangerous or one-way mission, including a small interstellar spacecraft.

That brings us to another interesting thread: Auties, a slang word for autistic people. Might it be that, for those who don't communicate, their only possible mode of communication is not words but something else, such as dance or broad-spectrum sounds packed with more meaning than our "words"? Brin treats at least some Auties as an evolutionary advance or even the vanguard of a new human species, one with immensely greater problem solving skills than run-of-the-mill geniuses.

Last evening I heard Sher Valenzuela speak to the Republican National Convention. Her son is autistic. She and her husband started their business, 15 years ago, in hopes of earning enough money to afford the specialized therapy their son needed. They succeeded. He is soon to be a sophomore in college. It would be amazing if such children had untapped potential and we could somehow learn to bring their abilities to fruition. In Brin's story, ubiquitous computer technology makes this possible. In our world, today, I dare not offer such hope, not yet. We know so little… I do know this. The two best computer programmers I ever met are autistic. I don't mean they have Asperger's syndrome. They have much more trouble communicating than my friends who have Asperger's. They have machine-like minds, and have said that dealing with people requires them to run a sort of social simulator program in their heads, which takes a lot of effort.

Another thread, a less encouraging one, is the Trillies, the trillionaires who scoop off about the top third of all human productivity for their pleasures and hobbies. There is a hint near the end of the book that their influence is abating, by the year 2100 or so. Really, what possible good comes of having billionaires and trillionaires around? I know one billionaire. He is a nice guy. But is the Earth better off if he owns, like, one percent of its land surface? The billionaires and some other celebrities are the new aristocracy. They would do well to beware, and learn from events such as the French Revolution.

When I worked at Conoco, the Marland Museum had a placard with a quote of E. W. Marland, founder of Marland Oil and then Conoco. As I recall, it says, "Who knows why people do what they do? I spent money like water on my town and my people, and they prospered." Let us remember that the money "he spent" was originally earned by those people in that town. My supervisor's and manager's salaries—and right up to the CEO—comes from money my colleagues and I bring into the company, which is not paid back to us but to them. The work that they do does not earn money directly, but rather produces the environment for us to earn the money. If they do it well, they deserve just compensation. I don't believe, however, that there is a person on the planet whose work is worth more than about half a million dollars per year (my CEO earns a million a month).

Finally, I was very intrigued by a list of twelve detailed questions, directed at Lurkers, possible alien AI objects in our solar system, as to why they have kept silent all this time. Think about it. If self-replicating Von Neumann machines are the least expensive way to communicate with the Galaxy, and it would only take 5-10 million years for such devices to spread to every star, multiple times, then where are they? Is the human race truly the only intelligent species? Two books explore the boundaries of this question: Vital Dust by Christian DeDuve and Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. But before you read them, read Existence.

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