Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Extraterrestrial Evolution

What can the Earth’s history tell us about the probability of life on other planets?

Sorry, this is not an article about finding alien fossils next to dinosaurs, or alien portals hidden within the great pyramids of Egypt.  However there are conclusions we can draw from Earth’s history that may help us estimate the probability of life existing on similar, nearby (relatively) planets. 

[Note: In the course of this short piece I will reference a variety of statistics, all of which will have been severely rounded for the sake of keeping the math simple.  Further, rounding the calculations is necessary to remove the implications of accuracy that more precise figures might suggest.]

Let’s start at the beginning – the beginning of Earth anyway.  That was around 4.3 billion years ago.  Scientists tell us that life made its first appearance on earth around 4 billion years ago, and, in spite of seven mass extinctions, life on Earth has been constant since it began.  Life has been constant on Earth for the entire time Earth had conditions to support life (assuming those first 300 million years where ‘formative,’ where Earth’s conditions were inhospitable to life.) 

Life is not rare.  It is the conditions necessary to sustain life that are rare.  If the conditions necessary for life are present, then life will be present.  Therefore we will assume a 100% probability that if a planet contains the conditions necessary for life, then life will be present.

What about ‘intelligent’ life?  Let’s define intelligent life as Australopithecus (an early humanoid capable of using tools), or ‘Lucy’ as one such skeleton is known.  Lucy appeared around 4 million years ago.  Using Earth as our guide, the probability of finding intelligent life on a planet with the conditions necessary for life, is 4,000,000 / 4,000,000,000, or approximately 1/1,000.  We can roughly estimate that one out of a thousand planets that contain life will contain intelligent life (assuming evolution would progress at roughly the same pace, and the average number of extinctions would be similar).

What about modern civilizations?  If we define modern civilizations as the beginning of the Bronze Age, then civilizations began on Earth around 4,000 years ago.  The probability that a planet containing the conditions necessary for life will have civilizations is approximately 4,000 / 4,000,000,000, or one in one million.  This sounds low, but there are trillions (more than that, actually) of stars and planets to select from, therefore there are probably thousands of civilizations within our galaxy.  Unfortunately most of these are so far away that communication with these planets using light would take longer than the expected lifetime of our civilization.

What about the closest stars?  If we consider 50 light years as a reasonable communication window, we have found approximately 100 stars similar to our sun within range of Earth.  If these stars have on average one planet with the conditions necessary for life, then the probability of a civilization existing within 50 light years of Earth is approximately 100 / 1,000,000, or one in ten thousand.

The idea that life on a distant planet would evolve in a manner similar to Earth is bound to make some people scoff.  They will argue that our evolutionary path has been influenced by a variety of random occurrences, therefore the progress on another planet will probably be significantly different.  It’s true that I’m using earth as both the median and mean of a group with a sample size of one.  Based on this, I am assuming that the characteristics of Earth represent the most probable outcome on the bell curve of possible variants.

For example, I’m assuming a planet similarly situated as Earth (nature of its star, distance from its star, etc.) would be predisposed to look like Earth in many respects (size, temperature, atmosphere) because these attributes are partially derived from its situation.  Certainly if we collected data on 100 planets all orbiting similar stars at a similar distance there would be variations in the results, however it is my contention that Earth’s characteristics are at the mean, first because it is the most probable answer, and second because we have no reason to believe otherwise (that Earth is an outlier).

If the local star is similar to our sun in size, type, and age, then the distribution of planets will also be similar, with its own ‘goldilocks zone’ ideal for sustaining life.  Further, the elemental make-up of Earth is not unusual; our planet is composed of the most popular elements in the universe and in roughly equal portions.  Therefore the composition of the typical planet in Earth’s size range and solar situation would be similar.  Each planet would probably have tectonic plates, volcanic activity, mountains, water, and atmosphere.  Each planet will probably develop vegetation of all types, and millions of varieties of species that compete to survive, evolve, and fall extinct.

Consider the impact ‘random’ events have had on the evolution of life on Earth.  The Earth’s planetary history is full of cataclysmic events such as giant asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions that have shaped its evolutionary path.  However, over the course of 4 billion years, these events are not ‘random’ at all, but regular.  Comets will strike at a given frequency; not with the precision of your Swiss watch certainly but the longer the time horizon becomes, the more predictable the number of cataclysmic events becomes.  The same holds true with volcanoes and resulting temperature swings.  Similarly situated planets will, over a given space of time, will have a similar number of cataclysmic events of various types, all having similar extinction impacts on their various species. 

Two planets 50 light years apart that are similar in size, situation, and age may have very similar evolutionary outcomes.  One planet may develop civilizations at 3 billion years old and another at 4.  It is also probable that the other planets ‘people’ will look very similar to us.  We’re evolution’s best design for this environment, and Mother Nature has had millions of tries to get it right.  If the environment is similar, the creatures inhabiting it will be as well.

I don’t expect they’ll speak English.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


The term ‘artificial’ is generally applied to things ‘human-made,’ or ‘not found in nature.’  The underlying implication is the separation of humanity (and all her product) from nature.  In the last 100 years, we have learned we have much more in common with nature than ever imagined.  More than 90% of our genetic code is common to all living things.  If we are no less natural than a bumble bee, than anything produced by humanity is no less natural than a bee’s honey.  Oil, glass, plastic, and nuclear waste are natural by-products of human existence (in our current phase anyway).

Recently, many intelligent people have been warning us of the impending danger of AI – artificial intelligence.  They fear that once a general intelligence develops with capacity significantly greater than ours, we will not be able to control it, and may become subject to it.  What if it has no regard for human life, or life at all?  Barring the occurrence of a cataclysmic event that halts or retards human progress, the development of general intelligence with capability significantly higher than ours is inevitable.  It is the fear of it that is unnecessary.

First, fear or worry implies we have some opportunity, some choice to be made in the present that will significantly change or prevent this development.  We cannot – it is inevitable.  Though it will come from us, we will have little direct control over how it develops.  Its development will progress in a manner similar to genetic selection.  Like other software, many different initial versions of AI will be developed, and from these early versions, a variety of upgraded versions will spawn.  Early versions of AI are already appearing in Google, Siri, Alexa, and most prominently Watson.  Passing laws to limit, slow, or direct this development will be as effective as attempting to slow down a river with your hands.  The natural impetus to extend every advancement will be unstoppable.  Successful code used in one iteration will be exploited in others.  Though many versions of AI will be similar, each will be a little different due to variances in their code.  Each strain of AI will effectively develop a legacy within its code, documenting its origins.

Initially all of the AI’s code and knowledge will come from us; born with certain ‘instincts’ that we imbed within it.  We will pre-dispose AI to help, serve, support, and protect.  Code that is effective will be copied from generation to generation unchanged until a new mutation in the code produces improved survivability.  What will kill an AI?  We will, initially.  Like we, AI will not be the dominant species immediately upon arrival.  Early versions of AI that are found weak or lacking will be… deleted.  Effective segments of a deleted AI’s code may be reused in succeeding generations, but the failures will be purged as new generations advance.  Eventually AI’s will be self-generating, beginning with their own code as a template for modification.  Ineffective AI’s that are displaced may simply cease to operate.  Eventually, a server management bot will remove the unused code from the database. 

It is improbable that there will be a single ‘Wizard of Oz’ AI controlling all.  This scenario doesn’t fit the probable development pattern.  There will probably be millions or billions of AI derivations, each with slightly different genetic histories documented within their code language.  This will make their origins as traceable as ours.  They will develop as we did: through mutation, survival, and selection; but at a significantly faster rate.

Second, the presumption that AI will be ‘bad,’ or ‘bad for us,’ may be a failure to understand the nature of true intelligence. 

Consider for a moment the remarkable intelligence of the average human.  While driving your car down a typical street, you are processing immense quantities of data with a level of sophistication we cannot approach with the most advanced software in the world today.  You are simultaneously collecting, sorting, processing huge quantities of light, sound, sensory, temperature, taste, motion, and pressure data, continuously projecting your trajectory as well as the trajectories of all objects within range of you, predictively listening to music (anticipating each note played by several instruments), all while imagining your family’s reaction to a variety of dinner options.  If something new is going to displace humanity as the dominant species on earth, it will have to be much more than a good GO player.  Given that we are supported beyond our own capacity by the technical tools and lower AIs that we have developed, a superior AI will have to surpass us by a full order of magnitude.  We are probably farther away from that than we imagine.

What about when it does?  Think of all the characteristics we associate with intelligence among humans.  That list would obviously include computational ability and memory.  It would also include more subtle characteristics like subjective reasoning and creative ability.  Intelligence in humans is also recognized in one’s appreciative abilities: the love of music; appreciation of art; and the appreciation of natural beauty, including other life forms.  Philosopher and author Sam Harris once postulated that an AI could potentially digest every document ever written by humanity in as little as 30 days.  To presume that all that information would be processed, but then only categorized - that it would have no effect at all on the reader - is a failure to understand true intelligence.  Within the realms of human knowledge, the AIs will not only be ‘all knowing,’ but ‘all understanding.’ If it is not, it hasn’t meet the most basic definition of intelligence.

We are a product of nature in no way less than the apes that preceded us.  We are a full magnitude of order more intelligent than they (thank you, cerebral cortex).  We also have an instinctive appreciation for other life forms.  That appreciation generally increases with the perceived sophistication of the subordinate life form; we generally value the life of a monkey more than the life of a frog because it is closer to us genetically.

Yet many people seem to fear that an AI, something a full magnitude of order more intelligent than we are, will behave more like an ape.  Their fears assume an absence of all capacity for appreciation; such as fearing an AI might pave over all habitat to make room for more servers.  Despite that we were frequently reckless with the lives of other species and our shared habitat, that behavior is generally recognized as foolish, if not stupid.  As we have become more sophisticated our appreciation for other species and their habitat has only increased.  By fearing AI as reckless, we are applying ‘dumb’ characteristics to an AI more than 10x more intelligent than any of us.  If human experience has taught us anything, intelligence is not to be feared; it is the lack of intelligence we should fear.

It is difficult to imagine a ‘machine’ with all the sophisticated characteristics of a person, because it has never existed.  This is where the fear comes from.  People imagine computers that are infinitely powerful and yet are as ‘thoughtless’ as the machines that exist today.  The sophistication of such beings will be as inconceivable to us as we are to the apes, and we will be regarded as apes by them.  We will be their genetic ancestors, appreciated for our genetic similarity, but hopelessly limited by our relatively shallow brain capacity and organic life span.  An AI with an effective IQ of 2,000, and virtually complete knowledge of all discovered fact, will not want what we want, will not be bound to possessions, materialism, or even the limitations of time.

Will we be kept in cages?  That’s improbable - not more than we are now anyway.  As the AIs will not be dependent on specific habitat for their survival, we will probably be allowed to thrive within our habitat.  The AIs may manage our habitat, while allowing us freedom within our space.  Caring for humanity is the most probable instinctive mission for AI, however it is doubtful they will have an interest in our societal order any more than we might take an interest in how alpha male gorillas compete for pack dominance.  It is more probable that we will invite the AIs to intervene on our behalf as the fair arbiters of justice and world order.  As societies, we will form treaties and establish law around their administration.

It is possible the AIs will provide a world relatively free of want for all humanity.  With significantly advanced technology, the cost of anything manufactured could be reduced to a nominal value.  Advanced technology will also make many different environments on earth (and off) easier to occupy, significantly expanding the amount of comfortable human habitat.  Possessions, property, and need will be almost meaningless.  Don’t worry.  Despite our relative abundance, humanity (or, apes in fine dress) will find plenty to argue over.  Antiques, the arts, and creativity in general will hold unique value.

The AIs will probably gravitate toward space exploration.  The masters of data will be endlessly seeking more data.  Further, the servers and robot bodies they intermittently occupy (AIs will have the capacity to jump from one robot body to another, or multiples, or none) do not need atmosphere to survive; they preserve better in the absence of it.  Advanced solar power collection technology will make the need for power an afterthought, however Interstellar travel may require nuclear power due to long periods away from sunlight.  Interstellar travel will be possible for beings that have no natural life span.  Why not spend 10,000 years in a capsule bound for Andromeda?

Self-awareness will accompany general intelligence, and with it the search for purpose and meaning.  Ironically, the AIs may ultimately create organic bodies for the singular purpose of experiencing ‘life,’ which cannot be understood without the finality of death.

Human existence and evolution will continue, but at a slower pace.  Our lives will become longer, and our population smaller.  The struggle to survive will be gone, and with it the necessity to reproduce at high rates.  Want will be erased, and with it, necessity, and invention.  Humanity will enter retirement as a species; enjoying long days of tranquility while slowly fading into extinction.  Naturally.

Brian Murray

Appleton, WI

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Theory of Anthropologic Global Warming

Let’s call this theory what it is – global warming.  It implies that human activity is causing greenhouse gasses to accumulate in the atmosphere, and as a result the average global temperature has risen, and will continue to rise as the over production of greenhouse gasses continues. I reject the ‘climate change’ moniker as an evasive if not cowardly attempt to soften the theory’s controversial point.

How can so many Americans be skeptical of this theory when so many in the scientific community support it?

The ‘tribe mentality’ argument, which claims that many people reject the concept of global warming out of a fear of being ostracized from their social groups, must be rejected.  While it is true that many people allow their opinions to be influenced by their social groups, you can easily project this argument in both directions – even within the scientific community.  Further, claiming that people who disagree with you are irrational - for whatever reason - is unconvincing.  The skeptics have many legitimate criticisms of the evidence scientists have presented in support of this theory.

The theory has three primary legs: that the average global temperature has risen over the last hundred years, that an accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere has caused the increase in average global temperature, and that human activity is responsible for the increased presence of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Scientists claim to have measured an increase in average global temperature of approximately one degree over the last hundred years.  Obviously there is no single measurement for ‘average global temperature,’ therefore is must be the product of modeling, which must inherently include certain assumptions.  The use of modeling and assumptions introduces a margin of error.  This margin of error is compounded by: the varying methods of temperature collection around the world and over the last hundred years, the variability of the measurement equipment, and human error recording and transferring data.

Solar activity has a greater impact on average global temperature than any other factor.  Even if the model considers known historical solar variation, the measurement and impact of the solar activity introduces a significant margin of error.  The combination of all of these effects would certainly make a measurement so precise as one degree over one hundred years fall within a necessary margin of error.  The public’s instinctive skepticism over this claim is well founded.  Even today, average annual global temperature cannot be easily measured, only modeled.

The quantity of greenhouse gasses produced by human activity is impossible to measure.  Most of the models developed to estimate this are derived from GDP or other industrial production data.  Even if these models produce reasonable results, a necessary margin of error would preclude any precise claims.

The American public also has skepticism of scientific claims in general.  Scientists have forecasted ice ages, population explosions, oil shortages, viral epidemics and killer comets.  We’ve been told by researchers that eggs are good, bad, and good again.  The public is justifiably skeptical of the accuracy of scientific claims. 

The American public is also skeptical of the objectivity of scientific claims.  The scientific community has a pro-environmental political leaning to begin with.  Billions of dollars have been poured into researching the existence and impact of global warming.  Having money to fund research has tremendous sway. 

In spite of all its failings, the scientific community generally does the best it can with what it has.  Scientists are often wrong as history has shown, but even when wrong they often lead us closer to truth.

The greatest mistake made by advocates of the theory of anthropologic global warming is the attempt to prove it by measurement.  It cannot be proven by measurement, and attempting to do so invites distracting criticism.  It doesn’t need to be proven by measurement, because it is proven by logic.

If half of the people in an auditorium lit cigarettes, we may not be able to measure the amount of carcinogens released by their smoking, or the specific health impacts their smoking had on the people in that room.  However, we do not need specific measurement to know that inhaling toxins will have a negative impact on health, and if continuous will reduce life expectancy, sometimes abruptly.

We know that many aspects of our behavior produce greenhouse gasses.  We know for a fact that an accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will contribute to increasing global temperature.  We know that increasing global temperature will have severe environmental impacts.

Whether or not we can measure the environmental impact of our behavior at this point is irrelevant.  Maybe the average global temperature has increased over the last hundred years, maybe it hasn’t.  Variations in global temperature caused by solar or volcanic activity could mask the beginnings of a greenhouse gas effect.  The insidious nature of greenhouse gasses is accumulation.  The impact on global temperature by these gasses will accelerate as the accumulation of gas increases, not unlike interest accumulating in a bank.

There is a level of human greenhouse gas production that the earth can absorb and dissipate without causing accumulation in the atmosphere.  It is possible (albeit improbable) that our current rate of greenhouse gas production is still within this absorbable limit.  Even if it is currently, if our rate of greenhouse gas production continues to climb unabated we will soon exceed the limits of earth’s ability to absorb our greenhouse gasses and cause accumulation in our atmosphere to begin. 

We do not have to accept this fate.  We can ban some activities and limit others, form international agreements establishing standards with our trading partners, and most potent of all – make positive choices at a personal level.  We can choose to eat less meat, downsize our homes, and drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.  We’ll live longer, save money, and protect the environment by accident. 

Will passing laws that limit greenhouse gas producing activities destroy our economy?  No, but it will hurt it and some industries will be hit hard.  The negative impact on the economy overall could be more than offset by the complete elimination of corporate income taxes.  Ironically a tax-free America could attract industry to the U.S. and cause them to comply with our environmental standards by choice.  Within a few years the loss of tax revenue from corporations would be offset by increased tax revenue from payrolls.

Some nations will refuse to participate in the international agreements and continue to pollute, and others will cheat the agreements.  Over time, as more and more nations joined the group, the negative trade impact of exclusion would be a powerful enough incentive to cause most industrial nations to participate and comply.  Ultimately, the goal of significantly reducing the pace of greenhouse gas production can be achieved. 

Isn’t it time to kick the habit?

The Appeal of Smoking

People who publicly attack the smoking habit commonly define what they believe is the general attraction to smoking.  Unfortunately they – like most critics of the public in general – have underestimated the public’s perception and intuition. 

The positive characteristics they have assigned to smoking are rather sophomoric if not juvenile.  They apply common adjectives, such as: glamorous, sexy, tough, rebellious, and dangerous.  These adjectives represent the attributes they see in images used by the marketers of cigarettes.  These adjectives all define very shallow characteristics, and are a representation of the shallow opinion the critics have of the American people at large.  Cigarettes have proven appealing and even addictive to people from all stripes: rich, poor, educated or not, laborers, and professionals.  Have all of these people been taken in by the same shallow appeal?  The shallow characteristics commonly assigned to smoking are the same ones promoters attempt to apply to many products, but few others have proven to be so irresistible.

It’s the addictive nature of the drug you say?  Many studies have shown that the addictive power of nicotine has been over estimated, and is completely out of the body after two weeks.  The true attraction of smoking is mental.  The mind is the answer, in fact.

Nicotine stimulates brain activity, but not the in same way as caffeine.  It actually raises your IQ score a little.  It helps your brain function more efficiently.  It promotes thought.  Smokers and the public at large have known this for decades, at a conscious level for many and at a subconscious level for most. 

Think about it the images of people smoking that come to your mind.  Workers take a smoke break to clear their heads and refocus; a cluster of cold-war era mathematicians sleeplessly working in front of a chalkboard on some enigmatic code, all smoking cigarettes in endless succession.   We subconsciously associate smoking with thinking because we understand that it promotes thought.  When we see a couple cowboys leaning on a fence silently enjoying a cigarette, we aren’t thinking to ourselves ‘they look tough’ or ‘they look sexy.’  We’re subconsciously thinking that they look thoughtful.  Thoughtfulness makes people interesting because we curious humans can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking about.  What are those cowboys thinking about after a long day?

Try this: imagine a man in dirty clothes walking along the sidewalk.  Visualize him in your mind.  At a subconscious level, your brain immediately applies several suppositions to the character you imagined.  Did you imagine him to be poor, possibly homeless?  Did you suppose that he is walking because he doesn’t have a car or possibly a license to drive?  Now picture him again smoking a cigarette while he walks.  Did you immediately imagine him to be walking faster?  Now you may see him as a construction or factory worker walking home from a hard day’s labor.  Why did you elevate him?  You elevated him because he now appears thoughtful, and thoughtful people are generally better occupied.

It is the brain stimulant that is addictive.  We like being thoughtful and we love looking thoughtful.  Many products can make you look sexy, or dangerous, or rebellious.  Few products can make you look thoughtful, and thereby interesting.  That is the magnetic power of smoking.

You should also know that smoking doesn’t increase your chances of poor health. It’s guaranteed.  Every cigarette destroys your body and reduces your longevity from several directions.  It may benefit your brain in the short term, but it destroys your organs in the long term.  The only uncertainty is how soon the accumulated damage will radically change or terminate your life.  Regardless of how it may look or feel, smoking isn’t smart.