Futurism

Can we run an Alien AI?

Here John Dunn suggests sending an AI to negotiate with any aliens we discover via SETI.

This raises an interesting question. If SETI worked, and we got a signal from an alien intelligence, and the signal was understood to be a description of a computer architecture and then a big long, and undecipherably complex computer program -- possibly an AI -- could we dare run it?

Oh, it would be so tempting to run it. Contact with an alien species, possible untold wealths of knowledge, solutions to all our problems and more. But if it can contain those things it's probably smarter than us. And as an alien, it has its own goals which are alien to ours.

AI pundit Eliezer Yudkowsky spends much of his time warning about the dangers of even a human-designed AI, and has developed a convincing argument that it's next to impossible to keep something much smarter than you locked up in a box no matter how much you resolve to do so. It's probable we couldn't keep the alien AI in a box either as it does a superhumanly good job of convincing us just what wonderful things it could do for humanity (or just the people with keys to the box) if released.

Indeed, a good strategy for a growth-oriented AI creature would be to broadcast itself out at lightspeed, in the hope that other creatures would run it, and it could then use their resources to build more computers on which to run itself and transmitters with which to transmit itself. It might even do that at the same time as providing wonderful benefits for the host culture, or of course it could toss them by the wayside as it saw fit.

Remind you of Pandora? In Contact by Carl Sagan, the aliens send plans for an FTL transporter, which presumably is a physical device with no AI, so they are able to build it. They debate building even that, worrying if it's a weapon, but the debate would be much more on an AI, and probably end up in the negative.

We need a better word than "Singularity"

Vernor Vinge (Vin-GEE)(whose 1993 novel "A Fire Upon the Deep" I published in hypertext form) coined the term "singularity" to refer to a future social and technological shift so profound and vast that those who come before it are actually incapable of understanding it.

This is an important concept, one that plays out in his novels and the writings of many others, and it needs a term. But this term has ended up not being ideal.

Scientists already have a meaning for the word of course, but it is more specific. It refers to a point where a function is undefined. For example, dividing 1/x has a singularity at 0, since 1/0 is undefined. More to the point, 1/x also increases exponentially towards infinity as you approach 0. These concepts of rapid acceleration, and the inability to extrapolate past a singularity inspired the metaphor Vinge was trying to convey.

Other forms of singularity can include any sharp corner in a function (where the derivative is undefined) and in areas within a black hole (where are normal equations of physics are undefined.) However, the non-scientific public does not understand these mathematical meanings, and thus don't quickly grasp even the metaphor.

An example of such a metaphorical singularity would be the creation of language. Pre-verbal proto-humans simply can't understand the beauty of poetry at all, no matter how much time you would have to explain it.

The "Vinge" singularity deoes not involve a discontinuity or undefined point in history. Instead, the path is continuous. You can't easily point to a specific second and say "There is the singularity where language capable of Shakespeare arose."

So the term is wrong for those who understand the mathematical meaning and meaningless to those who don't. We should seek a better term.

I welcome suggestions from readers. I think the important thing to convey is perhaps the metaphor of the "blind corner" -- a sharp, but not impossibly sharp turn which you can't see around until you get there. The ideal metaphor should also convey the acceleration of change which causes the phenomenon, and this does not. That is more akin to flying off a cliff, or the planes that turn to submarines in the new "Sky Captain" movie.

Notes on Tech-Nomading

Back in June I did a short experiment nomading. A trip that was just a change of home but not a vacation. My sister was going to Rome to shoot a war documentary for a couple of weeks, so we flew to Toronto.

She had the main things I needed. A house, a car, and of course a DSL connection. But could I get my home environment? I brought a wireless access point, and the ATA for my Vonage phone account. The Vonage account has both a Silicon Valley number and a Toronto number, so it moved quite easily. People could still call me on the regular numbers, and I could make calls without concern for the cost. I borrowed a local cell phone since my efforts to get my own spare phone unlocked and with a local NAM didn't work out.

Also vital for me was a big screen. I'm used to a very nice 1600 x 1200 21" screen and that's not portable. I was able to borrow a 19". My servers at home kept running and in fact I did a lot of things on them remotely 2500 miles away. At one point the DSL flaked out and I had to find a friend to come in and reboot it, but otherwise that was fine.

Toronto is a town I've lived in, so this is cheating, but I haven't really lived there since I was young, so it's halfway to a foreign town in terms of knowing my way to things. At your own base, you learn a lot about your area. You learn all the traffic patterns, and you know where all the shops are that have the things you want at the prices you like. It takes a lot of time to duplicate that.

I've also learned that as I've gotten older I've gotten too dependent on stuff. I think back to the first time I moved cross country, putting everything in the back of my hatchback and feeling great. The last time, I used 20 linear feet of Transport truck.

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Brave new world of Vasopressin gene therapy

Emory University scientists, taking one species of vole that is one of the extremely rare animals to be actually monogamous, found a gene to boost the effect of Vasopressin, one of the love hormones. Inserting this gene into other voles made them more socially monogamous.

I had heard of this before, and there has been science fiction about couples taking love drugs, but this story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage.

Imagine there was a gene therapy which would improve the chances that you would remain in love with the one you currently love. Might couples want to take it when getting married? (Or, more practically, after a few years of test marriage and before children are begun.)

And more to the point, if this became popular, might there arise pressure to do so, even for those who don't particuarly want it?

One can imagine injecting the virus to deliver the gene at the wedding, truly sealing the bonds of love. (It's unlikely that the romantic idea of transmitting the virus in the first marital kiss would be a good idea.)

But what if it starts coming down to "Honey, why won't you take the gene therapy? Don't you love me enough? I'll take it for you!"

How will we answer that?

New law on semiconductor growth

In 1965, Gordon Moore of intel published a paper suggesting that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year. Later, it was revised to suggest a number of 18 months, which became true in part due to marketing pressure to meet the law.

Recently, Intel revised the law to set the time at two years.

So this suggests a new law, that the time period in Moore's Law doubles about every 40 years.

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