Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis


A raven in Dartmoor, UK

So Now Ravens Are As Smart As Chimpanzees…

But wait! Weren’t chimpanzees supposed to be the closest thing to humans?

Researchers tested ravens they had raised themselves (“hand-raised”), starting at four months of age (not far from the egg…) and then at 8, 12, and 16 months of age on a series of cognitive skills, compared to chimpanzees: Comparing the cognitive performance of the ravens with those of 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutans who completed similar tasks in a previous study, the authors found that with the exception of spatial memory, the cognitive performance of the ravens was very similar to those of orangutans and chimpanzees. Nature Publishing Group , “Cognitive performance of four-months-old ravens may parallel adult apes” at Phys.org Here’s the open-access study. The authors offer an explanation: The findings provide evidence that ravens, similarly to great apes,…

man inside man

But Do “Hidden Webs of Information” Really Solve Life’s Mystery?

Cosmologist Paul Davies won an award last year for an attempt that left “more questions than clean-cut answers (Physics World)

Last year, State University of Arizona’s cosmologist Paul Davies won a Best Book award from Physics World for Demon in the Machine: The book’s subtitle is “How hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life.” But are they? The book deals with established physics concepts (such as the second law of thermodynamics), but also delves into Davies’ thoughts on topics such as the emergence of human consciousness (while making sure the reader is aware of what is speculation). Readers, though, are likely to be left with more questions than clean-cut answers about the laws of nature. “Just in the last 10 years or so, I suppose, I’ve begun to see a confluence of different subjects. Partly, this is…

Chess Pieces on Board for Game and Strategy

The World’s First Quantum Chess Tournament Announces a Winner

Quantum chess allows for superposition, entanglement, and interference

Perimeter Institute’s Aleksander Kubica won: So what’s quantum chess? It’s a complicated version of regular chess that incorporates the quantum concepts of superposition, entanglement, and interference. “It’s like you’re playing in a multiverse but the different boards [in different universes] are connected to each other,” said Caltech physicist Spiros Michalakis during a livestream of the tournament. “It makes 3D chess from Star Trek look silly.” Jennifer Ouellette, “We have a winner in the world’s first quantum chess tournament” at Ars Technica Okay: Superposition: Elementary particles of our universe are not in one single specific place, they are only in a probable one. Entanglement: What happens to one elementary particle affects any other particle entangled with it, no matter how far…

Man looking at business plan at whiteboard

Complexity Is Not Always a Bad Thing

It allows us to have an intellectual life

In a recent podcast, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and engineering prof Robert J. Marks discussed the difference between a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces and a text message like “The city will get your car towed if you do not move it within the next 8 minutes”: Got your attention? That’s precisely what information does. It gets your attention. But what is information? How did those characters in a text message become important to you? Weren’t they just a string of letters and numbers? What, exactly, changed? https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-112-Robert-Marks.mp3 A partial transcript follows. The Show Notes and a full transcript are available below. Robert J. Marks: In terms of meaningful information, I think it’s obvious. Michael, they used to say that it…

Futuristic high speed travel through tube. could illustrate data travel

Faster Than Light? How About Faster Than Thought?—a Film Review

A free sort DUST sci-fi film looks at the plight of an astronaut testing the concept

Science fiction can teach us useful science concepts so it is hardly a waste of time. For example, what about “faster than light”? Albert Einstein thought nothing in this universe would travel faster than light (FTL). He might be right or wrong but if we can’t beat the speed of light light, we won’t ever see a lot of possibly interesting things in the universe. It’s just too vast. So science fiction has been trying to beat the speed of light since forever. Anyhow, here’s a short film about it, “Hyperlight” by Adam Stern: “FTL”: “A lone astronaut testing the first faster-than-light spacecraft travels farther than he imagined possible,” attempting to establish communications with a colony on Mars: My favorite…

quantum computer closeup

Could Slowing Quantum Processes Lead To More Useful Computing?

“Adiabatic” quantum computing slows down the process, in the hope of achieving more reliable quantum positions

In a recent podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange but important to our future. They discussed the prospects of slowing down quantum computing to make it more useful (adiabatic computing). https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 The discussion of quantum communication begins at approximately 58:47. The Show Notes and transcript follow. Enrique Blair (pictured): I guess the challenge with entangling massive numbers of quantum systems is that entanglement becomes much more fragile. In quantum communication, you just need pairs of photons to be entangled. One with another, that’s it. Whereas with quantum computing, you need many, many systems to be entangled, and that’s just…

burst set of random numbers glowing on a black background

How Spooky “Quantum Collapse” Can Give Us More Secure Encryption

If entangled photons linked to random numbers are transmitted, parties on either end can know, via high error rates, that they’ve been intercepted.

In a recent podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange but important to our future. They discussed “quantum communication” (generally, quantum encryption) and why safer quantum encryption might be easier to achieve than general quantum computing. https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 The discussion of quantum communication begins at approximately 55:32. The Show Notes and transcript follow. Robert J. Marks: I know there’s lots of interesting quantum communication today. The NSF and the Department of Defense are throwing big bucks at it. What is it, just roughly? Enrique Blair: Quantum communication really is the use of quantum mechanics to share information in a secure manner.…

Cybernetic Brain. Electronic chip in form of human brain in electronic cyberspace. Illustration on the subject of 'Artificial Intelligence'.

AI: Still Just Curve Fitting, Not Finding a Theory of Everything

The AI Feynman algorithm is impressive, as the New York Times notes, but it doesn’t devise any laws of physics

Judea Pearl, a winner of the Turing Award (the “Nobel Prize of computing”), has argued that, “All the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just curve fitting.” Finding patterns in data may be useful but it is not real intelligence. A recent New York Times article, “Can a Computer Devise a Theory of Everything?” suggested that Pearl is wrong because computer algorithms have moved beyond mere curve fitting. Stephen Hawking’s 1980 prediction that, “The end might not be in sight for theoretical physics, but it might be in sight for theoretical physicists” was quoted. If computers can now devise theories that make theoretical physicists redundant, then they are surely smarter than the rest of us. The program behind the…

Illustration of an extraterrestrial wearing a spacesuit standing on a mountaintop looking at the blue sky on an alien planet.

Astronomer Bets a Cup of Coffee That We’ll Encounter ET by 2036

Seth Shostak points to the increase in the number of exoplanets identified and the increase in computing power

Seth Shostak, iconic astronomer who directs the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is so confident that the vast increase in computing power, based on Moore’s Law, will make the difference in detecting signals from alien civilizations that he will bet you a cup of Starbucks coffee that we make contact by 2036. Moore’s Law (1965) originally held that computers would double in power every two years. But today’s pace is actually faster than that. And on the horizon is quantum computing and carbon computing, which would speed things up while reducing energy consumption. So Shostak (pictured) is looking at considerable reinforcements for a systematic search. He stresses that the search for ET is now largely computerized: “We don’t sit in…

weird ice planet

We Won’t Find ET on Ocean Planets, Researchers Say

We will see few extraterrestrials if a great many promising exoplanets are Waterworlds

Science writer Matt Williams has been writing a series on the question of why, despite the size of our galaxy, we see no other intelligent life forms. It could be, he suggests, that “many planets out there are just too watery!” Williams points out that, although water covers 71% of Earth’s surface, it is only 0.02% of the planet’s mass. If the proportion were much higher, Earth would be an ocean planet because the water would surface. It’s an open question whether an ocean planet would feature highly technologically developed intelligent life forms. Dolphins, for example, are quite intelligent but they do not seek to use any technology. The question of whether a planet could have too much water arose,…

quantum computer

How Quantum Computing Can and Can’t Help Us Here in Macro World

Quantum computing could easily break down current encryption schemes

In last week’s podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange, yet an intrinsic part of the way our universe works. They discussed whether quantum computing will be in our future any time soon? In our cell phones? What difference will it make? https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 The discussion of quantum computing begins at approximately 37:31. The Show Notes and transcript follow. Excerpts from the transcript: One significant thing that quantum computing could do is enable more secure encryption. Robert J. Marks: Let’s get to quantum computing. This is the thing that’s in the news everywhere. There was the announcement that Google has built…

Theory of Everything concept

Can a Powerful Enough Computer Work Out a Theory of Everything?

Some physicists hope so even if it would put them out of work. But is it possible?

Recently, prominent physicists were asked whether a sufficiently powerful computer could come up with a Theory of Everything, by the sheer power of crunching numbers. As a recent New York Times article by Dennis Overbye shows, physicists were divided and uncertain: “It might be possible, physicists say, but not anytime soon. And there’s no guarantee that we humans will understand the result.” But doubt, in the view of multiverse theorist Max Tegmark, means we are guilty of “carbon chauvinism”—the idea that humans could be smarter than computers. The late Stephen Hawking thought that computers would replace humans and was alarmed by the prospect. According to Overbye, Hawking had been warning that computers would start to replace physicists in particular since…

Colorful quantum world fractal

“Spooky Action at a Distance” Makes Sense—in the Quantum World

Einstein never liked quantum mechanics but each transistor in your cell phone is a quantum device

In last week’s podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange. The discussion turned to why Albert Einstein, a brilliant but orderly mathematical thinker, did not really like quantum mechanics at all and what we should learn from that: https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 The discussion of Einstein and “spooky action at a distance” (his way of describing quantum particles’ behavior) starts at approximately 27:45. The Show Notes and transcript follow. Excerpts from the transcript: Robert J. Marks: Albert Einstein didn’t like quantum mechanics or certain aspects of quantum mechanics. Dd he die thinking that quantum mechanics was a fluke? Enrique Blair (pictured): That’s an…

Blue glowing quantum laser in space with rippled beam

The Final Ambiguous Truth About Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger came up with the cat illustration to explain quantum mechanics to interested people who were not physicists

In last week’s podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange. Inevitably, the discussion turned to what really happened with Schrödinger’s cat, the one who is either dead or alive only if we actually look at it. https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 [Schrödinger’s cat starts approximately at 21:50.] The Show Notes and transcript follow. Excerpts from the transcript: Robert J. Marks (pictured): We hear a lot in popular culture about Schrödinger’s cat. Now, Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) was one of the guys who formulated quantum mechanics. He won a Nobel Prize for it. He was trying to explain quantum mechanics to a layperson and he used…

Quantum particle, quantum mechanics

How Scientists Have Learned To Work With the Quantum World

It’s still pretty weird, though

In last week’s podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why quantum mechanics is so strange. But scientists have learned to work with QM, despite many questions, like how to work with particles that can be in two different places (quantum superposition): https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 [Starts at approximately 13:16.] The Show Notes and transcript follow. Excerpts from the transcript: Robert J. Marks: What’s superposition? What’s going on there? Enrique Blair: Quantum superposition is really a mathematical description. We use wave functions to describe these particles. There’s a wave function for the photon going through Slit One and a wave function for the photon going through Slit Two. To…

Space dust abstract galaxy

Does the Slow Pace of Evolution Mean That ET Life Is Rare?

That’s the contention in a recent paper by astrobiologists at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute

In a new paper, researchers affiliated with Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute use the assumptions we make about the evolution of life on Earth to estimate the likelihood of it happening the same way elsewhere. And the numbers do not look good. As a science writer puts it: There are countless naturally occurring, but extremely lucky ways in which Earth is special, sheltered, protected, and encouraged to have evolved life. And some key moments of emerging life seem much more likely than others, based on what really did happen. Caroline Delbert, “Intelligent Life Really Can’t Exist Anywhere Else” at Popular Mechanics In the paper, the Oxford group concludes, It took approximately 4.5 billion years for a series of evolutionary transitions…

Blue glowing multidimensional energy sphere isolated on black

New Sky Catalog Reveals Most Likely Sites for Alien Technology

“Exotica” lists phenomena for which conventional natural explanations don’t seem to work well

We’ve been looking at reasons why we don’t see extraterrestrials, even though many scientists are sure they must exist. One enterprising research group has now assembled Exotica, a catalog of strange phenomena in space, which might help us search more efficiently. If extraterrestrials exist and are technologically advanced, they would leave a “technosignature,” which might at first only be seen as astrange phenomenon in space: Breakthrough Listen, the initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe, today released an innovative catalog of “Exotica”—a diverse list of objects of potential interest to astronomers searching for technosignatures (indicators of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence). The catalog is a collection of over 700 distinct targets intended to include “one of everything”…

Symmetrical quantum mechanics waves

Here’s Why the Quantum World Is Just So Strange

It underlies our universe but it follows its own “rules,” which don’t make sense to the rest of us

In this week’s podcast, “Enrique Blair on quantum computing,” Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks talks with fellow computer engineer Enrique Blair about why Quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr said, “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Let’s look at some of the reasons he said that: https://episodes.castos.com/mindmatters/Mind-Matters-110-Enrique-Blair.mp3 The Show Notes and transcript follow. Enrique Blair: It’s really quite different from our daily experience. Quantum mechanics really is a description of the world at the microscopic scale. And it’s really weird, because there are things that initially we thought maybe were particles but then we learned that they have wave-like behaviors. And there are other things that we thought were waves and then we…

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…

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…