Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Alien Life?

Avi Loeb is not exactly someone who one may call an outsider to the scientific community. As a reputed scholar and the longest serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, he is a well-known and reputed physicist, with many years of experience in astrophysics and cosmology. It is therefore somewhat surprising that in this book he strongly supports an hypothesis that is anything but widely accepted in the scientific community: ʻOumuamua, the first interstellar object ever detected in our solar system may be an artifact created by an alien civilization.

We are not talking here about alien conspiracies, UFOs or little green men from Mars. Loeb’s idea, admirably explained, is that there are enough strange things about ʻOumuamua to raise the real possibility that it is not simply a strange rock and that it may be an artificial construct, maybe a lightsail or a beacon.

There are, indeed, several strange things about this object, discovered by a telescope in Hawaii, in October 2017. It was the first object ever discovered near the Sun that did not orbit our star; its luminosity changed radically, by a factor of about 10; it is very bright for its size; and, perhaps more strangely, it exhibited non‑gravitational acceleration as its orbit did not exactly match the orbit of a normal rock with no external forces applied other than the gravity of the Sun.

None of these abnormalities, per se, would be enough to raise eyebrows. But, all combined, they do indeed make for a strange object. And Loeb’s point is, exactly, that the possibility that ‘Oumuamua is an artifact of alien origin should be taken seriously by the scientific community. And yet, he argues, anything that has to do with extraterrestrial life is not considered serious science, leading to a negative bias and to a lack of investment in what should be one of the most important scientific questions: are we alone in the Universe? As such, SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life, does not get the recognition and the funding it deserves. Paradoxically, other fields whose theories may never be confirmed by experiment nor have any real impact on us, such as multiverse based explanations of quantum mechanics or string theory, are considered serious fields, attract much more funding, and are more favorably viewed by young researchers.

The book makes for very interesting reading, both for the author’s positions about ‘Oumuamua itself and for his opinions about today’s scientific establishment.

Possible minds

John Brockman’s project of bringing together 25 pioneers in Artificial Intelligence to discuss the promises and perils of the field makes for some interesting reading. This collection of short essays lets you peer inside the minds of such luminaries as Judea Pearl, Stuart Russell, Daniel Dennett, Frank Wilczek, Max Tegmark, Steven Pinter or David Deutsch, to name only a few. The fact that each one of them contributed with an essay that is only a dozen pages long does not hinder the transmission of the messages and ideas they support. On the contrary, it is nice to read about Pearl’s ideas about causality or Tegmark’s thoughts on the future of intelligence in a short essay. Although the essays do not replace longer and more elaborate texts, they certainly give the reader the gist of the central arguments that, in many cases, made the authors well-known. Although the organization of the essay varies from author to author, all contributions are relevant and entertaining, whether they come from lesser-known artists or from famous scientists such as George Church, Seth Loyd, or Rodney Brooks.

The texts in this book did not appear out of thin air. In fact, the invited contributors were given the same starting point: Norbert Wiener’s influential book “The Human Use of Human Beings”, a prescient text authored more than 70 years ago by one of the most influential researchers in the field that, ultimately, originally coined as cybernetics ultimately led to digital computers and Artificial Intelligence. First published in 1950, Wiener’s book serves as the starting point for 25 interesting takes on the future of computation, artificial intelligence, and humanity. Whether you believe that the future of humanity will be digital or are concerned that we are losing our humanity, there will be something in this book for you.

SIMULACRON-3: are we living in a computer simulation?

Are we living in a computer simulation? And, if so, how could we tell? This question became very popular in the last few years and has led to many articles, comments, and arguments. The simulation hypothesis which states that all of reality, including the Earth and the observable universe, could, in fact, be the result of a computer simulation is a hot topic of debate among philosophers, scientists, and SF writers.  Even the popular Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC) webcomic has helped clarify the issue, in a very popular strip. Greg Egan, the master of realistic SF, may have taken the matter to its ultimate consequences, with Permutation City and Instantiation, but the truth is that this question has been the subject of many books, including the famous Neuromancer, by William Gibson.

Still, to my knowledge, Simulacron-3, by Daniel Galouye, may have been the first SF book to tackle the issue head-on. For a book written more than half a century ago, the story is surprisingly modern and up-to-date. Not only the presentation of the simulated reality world is very convincing and the technology very believable, but it also turns out that the reasons why the simulated reality world (Simulacron-3) was created could be sold as a business plan for any ambitious startup today.

There is not much more that I can write about this book without depriving you of the pleasure of reading it, so let me just recommend that you get a copy from a website near you and take with you for the summer holidays.

Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control

Stuart Russell, one of the better-known researchers in Artificial Intelligence, author of the best selling textbook Artificial Intelligence, A Modern Approach addresses, in his most recent book, what is probably one of the most interesting open questions in science and technology: can we control the artificially intelligent systems that will be created in the decades to come?

In Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control Russell formulates and answers the following, very important question: what are the consequences if we succeed in creating a truly intelligent machine?

The question brings, with it, many other questions, of course. Will intelligent machines be dangerous to humanity? Will they take over the world? Could we control machines that are more intelligent than ourselves? Many writers and scientists, like Nick Bostrom, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Sam Harris, and Max Tegmark have raised these questions, several of them claiming that superintelligent machines could be around the corner and become extremely dangerous to the humanity.

However, most AI researchers have dismissed these questions as irrelevant, concentrated as they are in the development of specific techniques and well aware that Artificial General Intelligence is far away, if it is at all achievable.  Andrew Ng, another famous AI researcher, said that worrying about superintelligent machines is like worrying about the overpopulation. of Mars.

There could be a race of killer robots in the far future, but I don’t work on not turning AI evil today for the same reason I don’t worry about the problem of overpopulation on the planet Mars

Another famous Machine Learning researcher, Pedro Domingos, in his bestselling book, The Master Algorithm, about Machine Learning, the driving force behind modern AI, also ignores these issues, concentrating on concrete technologies and applications. In fact, he says often that he is more worried about dumb machines than about superintelligent machines.

Stuart Russell’s book is different, making the point that we may, indeed, lose control of such systems, even though he does not believe they could harm us by malice or with intention. In fact, Russell is quite dismissive of the possibility that machines could one day become truly intelligent and conscious, a position I find, personally, very brave, 70 years after Alan Turing saying exactly the opposite.

Yet, Russell believes we may be in trouble if sufficiently intelligent and powerful machines have objectives that are not well aligned with the real objectives of their designers. His point is that a poorly conceived AI system, which aims at optimizing some function that was badly specified can lead to bad results and even tragedy if such a system controls critical facilities. One well-known example is Bostrom’s paperclip problem, where an AI system designed to maximize the production of paperclips turns the whole planet into a paperclip production factory, eliminating humanity in the process. As in the cases that Russell fears, the problem comes not from a machine which wants to kill all humans, but from a machine that was designed with the wrong objectives in mind and does not stop before achieving them.

To avoid that risk os misalignment between human and machine objectives, Russell proposes designing provably beneficial AI systems, based on three principles that can be summarized as:

  • Aim to maximize the realization of human preferences
  • Assume uncertainty about these preferences
  • Learn these preferences from human behavior

Although I am not fully aligned with Russell in all the positions he defends in this book, it makes for interesting reading, coming from someone who is a knowledgeable AI researcher and cares about the problems of alignment and control of AI systems.

Mindscape, a must-have podcast by Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast addresses topics as diverse as the interests of the author, including (but not limited to) physics, biology, philosophy, complexity, intelligence, and consciousness. Carroll has interviewed, in-depth, a large number of very interesting scientists, philosophers, writers, and thinkers, who come to talk about some of the most central open topics in science and philosophy.

Among many other, Daniel Dennett discusses minds and patterns; Max Tegmark  physics, simulation and the multiverse;   António Damásio  feeling, emotions and evolution; Patricia Churchland, conscience and morality; and David Chalmers, the hard problem of consciousness.

In all the interviews, Sean Carroll conducts the conversation in an easy and interactive mode, not imposing his own views, not even on the more controversial topics where the interviewees hold diametrically opposed opinions.

If you are into science and into podcasts, you cannot miss this one.

Do humankind’s best days lie ahead?

This book, which transcribes one of the several Munk debates organized by an initiative financed by Peter and Melanie Munk, addresses the question of whether the future of humanity will be better or worst than the present.

The debate, also available in video, takes place between four formidable names, the wizards Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley (apologists of the theory that technology will continue to bring progress) and the prophets Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell (doubters of the idea that further technological developments will keep improving the world).

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The dialogue that takes place, between the Pollyanas and the Cassandras (to use an expression coined in the debate itself) is vivid, interesting and, at times, highly emotional. Not one of the debaters has doubts that progress has improved immensely the human condition in the last few centuries, but the consensus ends with that. Will we be able to use science and technology to surmount the environmental, social, and political challenges faced by humanity or did we already reach “peak development” and the future will be worst than the past? Read or watch the debate, and decide for yourself.

My take is that the Pollyanas, Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, with their optimistic take on the future, win the debate by a large margin, against the Cassandras, Their arguments that the world will continue to improve, based both on the historical tendencies but also on the hope that technology will solve the significant challenges we face do not meet a coherent resistance from Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell. At least they did not manage to convince me that famines, cybersecurity threats, climate change, and inequality will be enough to reverse the course of human progress.

Machines like me

Ian McEwan´s latest novel, Machines like me does not disappoint if you are looking for a well-written and accurate work of fiction about Artificial Intelligence. The novel takes place in a slightly parallel universe, where Alan Turing did not kill himself and, instead, continued to make important contributions to computer science and to Artificial Intelligence throughout his life. In this world, similar to ours but different in some important respects, AI has evolved much faster and, in the 80s, it became possible to acquire, by a reasonable amount, humanoid robots that could be used as servants, friends or companions.

And, indeed, Adam, the robot, is all of these. From the three characters in the novel (the other two are Charlie and Miranda and yes, there is a sort of love triangle involved) Adam has, no doubt, the more fascinating personality. Without giving away too much, Adam, who starts as something like a sophisticated new laptop, which a 470-page “user manual”, becomes the hero of the story, raising in the mind of the reader many questions about machine intelligence, consciousness, and the rights of intelligent machines. His takes on the events that unfold are sometimes brilliant (e.g., “those who believe in the afterlife will never be disappointed“), other times unexpected,  but never off the mark.

Artificially intelligent or not, Adam is by far the most fascinating character of the lot, and we find ourselves empathizing with him (or it?), in a way that you may not expect

In the process of telling the story, Ian McEwan creates an alternative version of the history of computer science and Artificial Intelligence, which is accurate, thought-provoking, and, ultimately, quite plausible. I strongly recommend this book as an inspiring reading for the summer!

The Fabric of Reality

The Fabric of Reality, a 1997 book by David Deutsch, is full of great ideas, most of them surprising and intriguing. The main argument is that explanations are the centerpiece of science and that four theories play an essential role in our understanding of the world: quantum theory, the theory of evolution, the theory of computation and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

You may raise a number of questions about these particular choices, such as why is the theory of relativity not there or why is the theory of evolution simply not a result of other theories in physics or even what makes epistemology to special. You will have to read the book to find out but the short answer is that not everything is physics and that theories at many levels are required to explain the world. Still, in physics, the most fundamental idea is quantum theory and it has profound impacts on our understanding of the universe. Perhaps the most significant impact comes from the fact that (according to Deutsch) what we know about quantum theory implies that we live in a multiverse. Each time a quantum phenomenon can conduct to more than one observable result, the universe splits into as many universes as the number of possible results, universes that exist simultaneously in the multiverse.

Although the scientific establishment views the multiverse theory with reservation, to say the least, to Deutsch, the multiverse is not just a theory, but the only possible explanation for what we know about quantum physics (he dismisses the Copenhagen interpretation as nonsense). Armed with these four theories, and the resulting conclusion that we live in a multiverse, Deutsch goes on to address thought-provoking questions, such as:

  • Is life a small thing at the scale of the universe or, on the contrary, is the most important thing on it?
  • Can we have free will, in a deterministic universe? And in the multiverse?
  • Do computers strictly more powerful than Turing machines exist, and how do they work?
  • Can mathematical proofs provide us with absolute certainties about specific mathematical statements?
  • Is time travel possible, at least in principle, either in the physical world or in a virtual reality simulator?
  • Will we (or our descendants, or some other species) eventually become gods, when we reach the Omega point?

The idea of the multiverse is required to answer most, if not all, of these questions. Deutsch is certainly not a parsimonious person when he uses universes to answer questions and to solve problems. The multiverse allows you to have free will, solves the paradoxes of time travel and makes quantum computers possible, among many other things. One example of the generous use of universes made by Deutsch is the following sentence:

When a quantum factorization engine is factorizing a 250-digit number, the number of interfering universes will be of the order of 10 to the 500. This staggeringly large number is the reason why Shor’s algorithm makes factorization tractable. I said that the algorithm requires only a few thousand arithmetic operations. I meant, of course, a few thousand operations in each universe that contributes to the answer. All those computations are performed in parallel, in different universes, and share their results through interference.

The fact that Deutsch’s arguments depend so heavily on the multiverse idea makes this book much more about the multiverse than about the other topics he addresses. After all, if the multiverse theory is wrong, many of Deutsch’s explanations collapse, interesting as they may be.

Still, the book is full of great ideas, makes for some interesting reading, and presents many interesting concepts, some of them further developed in other books by Deutsch, such as The Beginning of Infinity.

Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress

Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, deserves high praise and careful attention, in a world where reason and science are being increasingly threatened. Bill Gates called it “My new favorite book of all time“, which may be somewhat of an exaggeration. Still, the book is, definitely, a must read, and should figure in the top 10 of any reader that believes that science plays an important role in the development of humanity.

Pinker’s main point is that the values of the Enlightenment, which he lists as reason, science, humanism, and progress have not only enabled humanity to evolve immensely since they were adopted, somewhere in the 18th century, but are also our best hope for the future. He argues that these values have not only improved our lives immensely, in the last two and a half centuries, but will also lead us to vastly improved lives in the future. “Dare to understand“, the cry for reason made by David Deutsch in his The Beginning of Infinity, is the key argument made by Pinker in this book. The critical use of reason leads to understanding and understanding leads to progress, unlike the beliefs in myths, religions, miracles, and signs from God(s).  Pinker’s demolition of all the values not based on the critical use of reason is complete and utterly convincing. Do not read this book if, at some level, you believe in things that cannot be explained by reason.

To be fair, a large part of the book is dedicated to showing that progress has, indeed, been remarkable, since the 18th century, when reason and science took hold and replaced myths and religions as the major references for the development of nations and societies. No less than 17 chapters are dedicated to describing the many ways humanity has progressed in the last two and a half centuries, in fields as diverse as health, democracy, wealth, peace and, yes, even sustainability.  Pinker may come up as an incorrigible optimist, describing a world so much better than that which existed in the past, so at odds with the most popular current views that everything is going to the dogs. However, the evidence he presents is compelling, well documented, and discussed at length. Counter-arguments against the idea that progress is true and unstoppable are analyzed in depth and disposed of with style and elegance.

But the book is not only about past progress. In fact, it is mostly about the importance of viewing the Enlightenment values as the only ones that will safeguard a future for humanity. If we want a future, we need to preserve them, in a world where fake news, false science, and radical politics are endangering progress, democracy, and human rights.

It is comforting to find a book that so powerfully defends science, reason, and humanistic values against the claims that only a return to the ways of the past will save humanity of certain doom. Definitely, a must read if you believe in, and care for, Humanity.

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era

In what regards the state of the art in Artificial Intelligence, and the speed that it will develop, James Barrat is extremely optimistic. The author of Our Final Invention is fully convinced that existing systems are much more advanced than we give them credit for, and also that  AI researchers will create Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) much sooner than we expect.

In what regards the consequences of AGI, however, Barrat is uncompromisingly pessimistic. He believes, and argues at length, that AGI will bring with it the demise of the human race and that we should stop messing with advanced AI altogether.

I found the arguments presented for both positions rather unconvincing. His argument for the most likely development of AGI in the next decade or so is based on rather high-level considerations and conversations with a number of scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs from the field. Needless to say, they were picked from the ones most connected with his ideas. As for the arguments that AGI will be not only dangerous but, ultimately, fatal for humanity, they are borrowed, with minor changes, from the standard superintelligence (Bostrom) and intelligence explosion (I. J. Good) ideas.

From Watson’s performance in Jeopardy and from the ANN’s small victories in the perception fields, Barrat concludes, without any additional considerations, that AGI is around the corner and that it will be very, very, dangerous. The book was written before the recent successes achieved by DeepMind and others, which leads me to believe that, if written now, his conclusions would be even more drastic.

Even though there is relatively new material here, a few stories and descriptions are interesting. Barrat makes extensive use of his conversations with the likes of Omohundro, Yudkwosky, Vassar, and Kurzweil and some stories are very entertaining, even though they look a bit like science fiction. Altogether, the book makes for some interesting, if somewhat unconvincing, reading.