Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

Monthly Archive November 2020

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Not a Word Inside

A Philosopher Writes in Praise of Anxiety

It is part of the ability to think about life in a human way

Yes, you read that right. Samir Chopra (pictured) thinks that anxiety is not a pathology but part of the ability to think about life in a human way. Chopra, author with Laurence White of A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents (2011), writes, Humans are philosophising animals precisely because we are the anxious animal: not a creature of the present, but regretful about the past and fearful of the future. We philosophise to understand our past, to make our future more comprehensible. The unknown produces a distinctive unease; enquiry and the material and psychic tools it yields provide relief. Where anxiety underwrites enquiry, we claim that the success of the enquiry removes anxiety and is pleasurably anticipated. Enquiry comes to…

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collection of alien planets in front of the Milky Way galaxy, nearby exoplanets

Why Search for Extraterrestrial Life? Why Not Make It Ourselves?

A NASA astrobiologist’s bold suggestion is likely to spark debate

Recently, we have been looking at the question of why we don’t see aliens, with as many as 75 hypotheses offered. But one astrobiologist has a bold suggestion: Why not just seed life on various suitable exoplanets, once we have the means to do it? We need not search for extraterrestrial life if we can learn how to create it ourselves. There are a lot of reasons to think very carefully about doing something like that, as Betül Kaçar (pictured), director of the NASA Astrobiology Consortium MUSE, acknowledges: Rather than regarding the overwhelming majority of planets and moons as failures unworthy of further study, we should instead recognise them for what they are: they’re not empty. In fact, a very…

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Alien arrival on planet Earth, full moon rises above the horizon

Particle Physicist Offers 75 Reasons We Don’t See Aliens

But Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute gives high odds that we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy

Recently, we’ve been looking at Matt Williams’s admirable collection of hypotheses as to why we do not see intelligent extraterrestrials, despite the size of our universe. But particle physicist Stephen Webb collected many more such theses, in a book published in 2002, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (2002). A revised edition was published by Springer, a big science publisher, in 2015, offering 75 hypotheses. Webb calls his collection of hypotheses the “Fermi solutions,” in honor of Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), whose famous question was “Where are They?” “Fermi realized that any civilization with a modest amount of rocket technology and an…

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Cat looking to little gerbil mouse on the table. Concept of prey, food, pest.

Can We Find Purpose in a Universe With No Underlying Purpose?

That’s the ambitious goal of a prominent science writer

British science writer Philip Ball offers us a guide to a very interesting project: an attempt to “naturalize” the idea of agency, that is, make the desire to do things—the mouse’s desire to escape the cat— explainable from a fully materialist perspective. That’s much harder than it seems. Rocks don’t desire anything. So we can’t just start from the bottom. It’s also not enough to say that the mouse wants to avoid getting killed. That’s true but it doesn’t really explain anything. For example, a person looks both ways before crossing the street to avoid getting run over. But, by itself, that doesn’t explain why she tries to avoid getting run over. One must factor in her memory, background knowledge,…

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Swarm of drones surveying, flying over city

Is the U.S. Military Falling Behind in Artificial Intelligence?

What is the likely outcome of allowing those with very different value systems to have control of global AI warfare technology?

In a recent podcast, Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks spoke with Robert D. Atkinson and Jackie Whisman at the prominent AI think tank, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, about his recent book, The Case for Killer Robots—a plea for American military brass to see that AI is an inevitable part of modern defense strategies, to be managed rather than avoided. (The book may be downloaded free here.) As they jointly see the problem, There’s a lot of doomsday hype around artificial intelligence in general, and the idea of so-called “killer robots” has been especially controversial. But when it comes to the ethics of these technologies, one can argue that robots actually could be more ethical than human operators.…

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Twisted clock face. Time concept

Do Time and Space Mean the Same Thing to Humans as to Computers?

Futurist George Gilder tells us, humans don’t treat physical and chemical forces or clock pulses the way computers do

Recently, we have looked at four of the six assumptions that, according to futurist George Gilder in Gaming AI, are generally shared by those who believe that, sometime soon in a Singularity , we will merge with our machines: Four of them are: 1) The brain is a computer and Big Data is a Big Answer (here) and 2) maps are territories and reality follows our rules (here). Now here are the final two: • The Locality Assumption: Actions of human agents reflect only immediate physical forces impinging directly on them. • The Digital Time Assumption: Time is objective and measured by discrete increments. (p. 50) Gilder tells us that the Locality Assumption means that “minds respond to local inputs…

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The universe inside us, the profile of a young woman and space, the effect of double exposure. scientific concept. The brain and creativity. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Study: The Human Brain and the Universe Are Remarkably Similar

It looks as though the universe is not random but rather patterned in the way it unfolds

Recently, Franco Vazza, an astrophysicist at the University of Bologna and Alberto Felleti, a neurosurgeon at the University of Verona, decided to compare the network of human brain cells and the network of galaxies in our universe. Even though the universe is 27 orders of magnitude bigger than a singe human brain, remarkable similarities emerged: The human brain functions thanks to its wide neuronal network that is deemed to contain approximately 69 billion neurons. On the other hand, the observable universe is composed of a cosmic web of at least 100 billion galaxies. Within both systems, only 30% of their masses are composed of galaxies and neurons. Within both systems, galaxies and neurons arrange themselves in long filaments or nodes…

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a mouse with a tree / green it

Could Carbon Computing Make Computers More Environment Friendly?

As a key component of life forms, carbon is abundant and energy efficient

Carbon, a very abundant chemical element, is one of the building blocks of life, partly on account of its stability. It is a minimalist element, compared to the silicon used in computing today: … carbon dioxide is is a small gaseous molecule consisting of two oxygens both forming a double bond with a single carbon while silicon dioxide is a massive behemoth of a molecule made of huge numbers of alternating oxygen and silicon atoms and is more commonly known as sand. S. E. Gould, “Shine on you crazy diamond: why humans are carbon-based lifeforms” at Scientific American (November 11, 2012) But there’s something else about carbon. As George Gilder puts it, carbon-based life forms, like humans, consume very little…

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Autonomous vehicles on highway with self driving cars sensing environment by radar and operating safely on speedway thanks to artificial intelligence and control systems, automated transport concept

What Real Advantage Do Self-Driving Cars Provide?

It’s time for a hard-headed look at the costs and benefits of the pursuit of fully self-driving cars

More and more people are realizing that autonomous (self-driving) vehicles are not a road to automotive prosperity. To recap, Level 5 self-driving is what most people think of when they hear the term “self-driving.” You type in an address and the car takes you where you want to go while you sleep in the back. That car is not going to hit the road anytime soon. Level 4 self-driving is similar but only works within well-defined areas or situations. In practice, Level 4 essentially relies on either intelligent infrastructure or a territory that is so predictable and well-mapped that it obviates the need for intelligent infrastructure. Huge amounts have been invested in self-driving vehicles. The Information estimated that $16 billion…

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Schrodinger's cat

Does Schrödinger’s Cat Think Quantum Computing Is a Sure Thing?

It might lead to more security, though not to thinking computers

Some hope that a move to quantum computing—qubits instead of bits, analog instead of digital—will work wonders, including the invention of the true thinking computer. In last week’s podcast, futurist George Gilder and computer engineer Robert J. Marks looked at, among other things, what’s really happening with quantum computing: https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-108-George-Gilder.mp3 (The quantum computing discussion begins at 15:04.) Robert J. Marks: What’s your take on quantum computing? It seems to me that there’s been glacial progress in the technology. George Gilder (pictured): I think quantum computing is rather like AI, in that it moves the actual problem outside the computational process and gives the illusion that it solved the problem, but it’s really just pushed the problem out. Quantum computing is…

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Woman scientist holding lab rat, medicine development, tests on animals

An Old Rat With No Brain Raises Some Very Interesting Questions

The researchers had no idea how strange their lab rat was until, in a routine procedure, they scanned its head

Yes, R222 was only a rat. A rat that turned out to have no brain. But here’s the thing: R222 had lived a normal life as a lab rat for two whole years. According to rat specialists, that’s like 70 human years. Researchers were, to say the least, puzzled. The story begins with a scientist scanning the brains of “very old” lab rats as part of a study on aging. Except that subject R222, otherwise a conventional rat, didn’t seem to have a brain. The brain cavity had collapsed and filled with fluid (hydrocephalus). We can see from the photo that where the control rat has brain, R222 has fluid: On further investigation, researchers found that all brain functions had…

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Communist Party Monument, Pyongyang, North-Korea

Computer Science Explains Why Communism Can’t Work

Successful communism is not only morally and practically flawed, it is mathematically impossible

Communism has been the target of many criticisms. The strongest deal with the mismatch between central planning and individuals’ desires for their lives and with the horrific human rights record of communist nations. Some scholars place the toll in human life due to communism at above 100 million in the 20th century. Those are criticisms of the practicality and ethics of communism. But is it also intrinsically flawed at a fundamental mathematical level? It turns out that the answer is yes. The basic idea behind central planning is this: If the central government makes most decisions that, in a freer society, individuals or small communities would make for themselves, more efficiency will follow—and, as a result, more prosperity. It doesn’t…

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Atom Particle

A Materialist Gives Up on Determinism

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne undercuts his own argument against free will by admitting that quantum phenomena are real

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has denied free will for years. But most recently, he has said something that puts the whole matter in doubt. A bit of background: Free will simply cannot be real if determinism is true, that is, if everything in nature falls like dominoes after the first one is pushed: If nature is truly like that, our acts, like those of the dominoes, are wholly determined by natural history and physical laws that we do not control. Nearly all arguments against free will depend critically on determinism. But there is a central problem with determinism: It is clear from physics that determinism in nature is not true. In 1964, theoretical physicist John Bell (1928–1990) proposed relatively simple…

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mindful nature

Is Mindfulness Losing Its “Shine” These Days?

Maybe, but that’s because it has often been misused. Rightly understood, it’s a blessing

In a recent news release from the University of Buffalo, we learn that mindfulness (meditation and similar practices) were not found to be helpful in managing stress at the time it is happening: Where earlier work in this area suggests how mindfulness may help people manage active stressors, the current paper finds evidence for an opposite response. In the midst of stress, mindful participants demonstrated cardiovascular responses consistent with greater care and engagement. Put another way, they actually were “sweating the small stuff.” Bert Gambini, “Be mindful: Study shows mindfulness might not work as you expect” at University of Buffalo However, the study, which measured the cardiovascular stress response of 1001 volunteers also found, Even more curiously, although the study’s…

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Ghost of Girl in Dark Foggy Forest

Why Do People Who Believe in Extraterrestrials Dismiss Ghosts?

The talk about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence—or otherwise—misses the point. There is no evidence

A recent profile in Astronomy focused on Abraham Loeb (pictured) a Harvard astronomer who is convinced that closed minds are a key barrier to our finding extraterrestrials. Statistically, he thinks, they must be out there somewhere: About 25 billion stars, roughly one-quarter of those that reside in the Milky Way, lie in a habitable zone. He rounds that down to an even 10 billion to keep the calculations simple. “And then there are about a trillion galaxies like the Milky Way,” he says, “which means there are about 1022 [10 billion trillion] planets in the observable universe that could potentially host life as we know it.” In other words, searches for extraterrestrial life have barely scratched the surface. “As in…

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Atoms and their electron clouds , Quantum mechanics and atomic structure

The Aliens Exist—But Evolved Into Virtual Reality at a Nanoscale

That’s the Transcension Hypothesis, the latest in our series on science fiction hypotheses as to why we don’t see extraterrestrials

Readers will recall that we have been looking at science writer Matt Williams’s analysis of the various reasons that we do not see extraterrestrials except at the movies. Last week, we looked at the Firstborn Hypothesis: We don’t see aliens because they haven’t evolved yet. And, when they do, we must be careful not to harm their development through colonization. This week is a bit of a deeper dive: The extraterrestrials have evolved so far beyond us that perhaps we could not encounter them. … the Transcension Hypothesis ventures that an advanced civilization will become fundamentally altered by its technology. In short, it theorizes that any ETIs that predate humanity have long-since transformed into something that is not recognizable by…

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Asian doctor wearing face shield and PPE suit to check elder woman patient protect safety infection Covid-19 Coronavirus outbreak at quarantine nursing hospital ward.

Why Did New York Have COVID Policy That Killed Elderly Patients?

For all practical purposes, the government directive was essentially an order to spread COVID to people in nursing homes

This is a difficult post to write, and a difficult post to read. I’ve thought about it for months, and what I’m going to say must be said. I see no way around the conclusions I’ll draw. So here goes. On March 25, 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York State, the New York State Department of Health, under the signatures of Governor Andrew Cuomo, DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, and Executive Deputy Commissioner Sally Dreslin, issued a directive to New York State nursing homes requiring nursing homes to accept patients for re-admission or admission regardless of their COVID-19 status. The salient paragraph is: No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH solely based…

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Rolled Yuan bill on the map of Africa. Chinese investment in African economy

China and Africa: Debt-Trap Diplomacy?

The story of China helping Africa modernize resists simple formulas

Last week, I reported on the accusations of racism on the part of the the Chinese authorities against African residents of the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province. While Africa and China have enjoyed a seemingly amicable relationship since the 1970s, several African leaders have pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as highlighting unresolved underlying tensions. One of those tensions is several African countries’ debt burden. China’s response to requests for deferral in the midst of a pandemic has strained Sino-African relations. China isn’t the African countries’ only creditor. As of this writing, G20 leaders will be meeting to discuss debt-relief and extending the Debt Suspension Service Initiative (DSSI). The service has deferred debt payments by poor countries due to the…

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Blockchain technology. Information blocks in digital space. Decentralized global network. Cyberspace data protection. 3D illustration with elements of a binary code

While the West Hesitates, China Is Moving to Blockchain

Life After Google by George Gilder, advocating blockchain, became a best seller in China and received a social sciences award

In this week’s podcast, “George Gilder on blockchain and carbon computing,” tech philosopher George Gilder and computer engineer Robert J. Marks, our Walter Bradley Center director, continued their discussion of the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). This time, they focused on the future of blockchain, of quantum computing, and carbon computing.What difference will they make? Quite a lot it seems. Today, we will look at what happens when blockchain goes global. You can download Gilder’s new book, Gaming AI, for free here. The three earlier episodes and transcripts in this series are also linked below. And so now… https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-108-George-Gilder.mp3 Gilder and Marks discussed both the huge surge of interest in blockchain in China and the central weakness of Bitcoin, whose…

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Global virus and disease spread, coronavirus

Did Social Media Panic Drive Up the Damage from COVID-19?

Richards: It was, honestly, terrifying to watch important stories and studies get buried in real time on Google searches.

Last month, business studies prof Jay Richards, along with co-authors Douglas Axe and William M. Briggs, published a book with some controversial premises: One of them is that many popular COVID-19 fears are the overblown outcome of paying too much attention to social media as opposed to the facts that got lost in the uproar. And that we are paying the price now in human, as well as financial, costs. The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe (October 2020) assembles a massive statistical case. But in this interview with Mind Matters News, Richards focuses on how it affected us: What we all thought was happening and why we thought so—a different story…