Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

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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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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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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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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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Glowing earth DNA strand

Has a Computer Algorithm Discovered the Secret of Life?

In the past, a curious pattern wouldn’t have been visible due to the lack of computing resources

Artificial intelligence has enabled a remarkable level of automation of chemistry, with great benefits to us all. Once upon a time there was a multivolume Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry, but it is now an online database. Biochemist Fazale Rana (pictured) tells us that, because so much has been discovered about the chemistry of the world we live in, “Learning to master Beilstein’s Handbook is no easy task. In fact, there are textbooks devoted to teaching chemists how to use this massive database effectively.” So putting Beilstein online doesn’t make it a walk in the park but does make it computable. And some have started computing around the origin of life. Origin of life studies have been hampered by the…

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3D Rendering of binary tunnel with led leading light. Concept for data mining, big data visualization, machine learning, data discovery technology, customer product analysis.

The Brain Is Not a Computer and Big Data Is Not a Big Answer

These claims are mere tales from the AI apocalypse, as George Gilder tells it, in Gaming AI

In Gaming AI, George Gilder (pictured) sets out six assumptions generally shared by those who believe that, in a Singularity sometime soon, we will merge with our machines. Some of these assumptions seem incorrect and they are certainly all discussable. So let’s look at the first two: • “The Modeling Assumption: A computer can deterministically model a brain.” (p. 50) That would be quite difficult because brains don’t function like computers: As neuroscientist Yuri Danilov said last year, “Right now people are saying, each synoptical connection is a microprocessor. So if it’s a microprocessor, you have 1012 neurons, each neuron has 105 synapses, so you have… you can compute how many parallel processing units you have in the brain if…

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Cell abstract concept. Microorganisms under microscope

Are Our Minds Just an Extension of the Minds of Our Cells?

A prominent philosopher and a well-known biologist make the case, offering an illustration

Naturalism, the idea that physical nature is all there is, can lead us down some strange paths. In the words of prominent philosopher Daniel Dennett and prominent biologist Michael Levin, both of Tufts University, the road to “biology’s next great horizon” is the attempt to “understand cells, tissues and organisms as agents with agendas (even if unthinking ones).” They think that the principle of natural selection acting on random mutations can create everything, including minds: Thanks to Charles Darwin, biology doesn’t ever have to invoke an ‘intelligent designer’ who created all those mechanisms. Evolution by natural selection has done – and is still doing – all that refining and focusing and differentiating work. We’re all just physical mechanisms made of…

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Books, old, stacked.

Why Wisdom Is Not and Cannot Be a “Science”

Some have tried to make the pursuit of wisdom a “scientific” endeavour. That is not going well.

A curiosity of our age is the effort to “naturalize” traditional values, to treat them as an outcome of evolution. Evolution we are told, took us in a slightly different direction from that of the apes but it did not put us in contact with a wisdom beyond this world. There is no such thing. That conflicts with traditional accounts of wisdom. Wisdom has been seen as different from “knowledge,” “intelligence” or “street smarts.” They are all very useful, of course. But wisdom is a view of the world from a great distance, which enables clarity about the big issues. For example, from Boethius, about 1500 years ago: Indeed, the condition of human nature is just this; man towers above…

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Distant planet system in space with exoplanets 3D rendering elements of this image furnished by NASA

Space Aliens Could in Fact Be Watching Us

Using the methods we use to spot exoplanets. But if they are technologically advanced, wouldn’t they be here by now?
Last week, we looked at the ominous “Great Filter” hypothesis about why the space aliens never show up: Something dreadful almost always happens to prevent a civilization from reaching the point of easy space-faring. Probably something to do with mutually self-destructive warfare. But this week, let’s start with something different first. Let’s look at the possibility that the extraterrestrial intelligences could be alive and watching us right now, using the very same methods we use to spot exoplanets. A recent open-access astronomy paper tried to calculate which aliens could actually spot us by whether Earth dims the Sun when passing it: These sudden drops in luminosity are very slight, but detectable nonetheless. These dimming events can yield other important data as well, allowing astronomers to determine the length of an exoplanet’s year, its temperature, and its chemical properties, the latter of which can be used to discern rocky planets from gas giants. Other detection techniques exist, such as the Doppler method, but the transit method continues to be the most reliable and straightforward. The number of stars that we can observe through our telescopes seems almost endless, but the transit method means we’re caught in a rather glaring observational selection effect. With the transit technique, we can only spot exoplanets that pass in front of their host stars from our line of sight. George Dvorsky, “Aliens From These Worlds Could Be Watching Us Right Now” at Gizmodo Of course, a life-bearing planet might be out of our line of sight but, as Dvorsky points out, astronomers have already spotted thousands of exoplanets, which enables some sort of analysis. And, he says, observers there might be able to detect whether an industrial civilization exists on Earth (composition of gases, for example). The projected James Webb telescope could do that for their planets too. But now, on the other side, let’s look at the Hart-Tipler Conjecture: “Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist” (1980). If they did, within 300 million years, they would have developed advanced technology and be here by now.” Or maybe by 650,000 years. Either way, they have had enough time. Here are some of the actual constraints of space exploration: As we may guess, a conjecture that the aliens must have reached or contacted us if they really existed is not popular among searchers of the skies. Consider a 2015 discussion at Universe Today by Toronto researcher and science writer Paul Patton of the Hart-Tipler conjecture. As Patton notes, that hypothesis originated nearly a half century ago in a paper by astronomer Michael H. Hart. The paper doesn’t seem to be open access but an astronomy letter responding to it may be found here. And how did eclectic Tulane physicist Frank Tipler become involved? Patton tells us that Tipler extended the argument in 1980, pointing out that even if they couldn’t visit Earth themselves, intelligent aliens could certainly have developed intelligent robots that could. Curiously, Tipler made that point long before artificial intelligence (AI) triumphed in many strategic games like Go, chess, and StarCraft II. So if we want to say that Tipler is wrong, we need something more compelling than “We don’t like his idea.” As it happens, those who persist in the search for extraterrestrial intelligences often become impatient with such skeptics. Patton, for example, cites alternative authorities like Carl Sagan (1934–1996): Besides assuming that interstellar travel is feasible, Hart’s argument is based on very specific and highly speculative ideas about how extraterrestrials must behave. He assumed that they would pursue a policy of unlimited expansion, that they would expand quickly, and that once their colonies were established, they would last for millions or even billions of years. If any of his speculations about how extraterrestrials will act aren’t right, then his argument that they don’t exist fails… Paul Patton, “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” II: Questioning the Hart-Tipler Conjecture” at Universe Today As might be expected, Carl Sagan and William Newman responded in 1981, offering a more hopeful analysis, based on the spread of animal populations: For Newman and Sagan, the absence of extraterrestrials on Earth doesn’t mean that they don’t exist elsewhere in the galaxy, or that they never launch starships. It just means that they don’t behave in the way Hart expected. They conclude that “except possibly in the very early history of the Galaxy, there are no very old galactic civilizations with a consistent policy of conquest of inhabited worlds; there is no Galactic Empire”. Paul Patton, “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” II: Questioning the Hart-Tipler Conjecture” at Universe Today Well, we don’t really have a good reason for being sorry about the absence of a Galactic Empire, do we? Maybe the aliens view the current turmoil here on Earth as a kind of distant soap opera. Maybe they’re just a studio audience and the show sells advertising in a distant galaxy. The audience can never get here, in the same way that we can’t intervene in a historical drama to save the heroine from the stake. Can we prove that’s not true? Anyway, next Sci-Fi Saturday, we will look at another account of why we don’t see the aliens! You may also enjoy these accounts of why we do not see the aliens: 1.Are the Aliens We Never Find Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive? The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions. Assuming the aliens exist, perhaps it’s just as well, on the whole, if they do want to leave us alone. They could want to “fix” us instead… 2.How can we be sure we are not just an ET’s simulation? A number of books and films are based on the idea. Should we believe it? We make a faith-based decision that logic and evidence together are reasonable guides to what is true. Logical possibility alone does not make an idea true. 3.Did the smart machines destroy the aliens who invented them? That’s the Berserker hypothesis. A smart deadly weapon could well decide to do without its… Read More ›
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Concept of

Do We Really Have Free Will? Four Things to Know

Free will makes more sense of our world than determinism and science certainly allows for it

Free will is a contentious topic in science these days. Theoretical physicists weigh in sharply on one side or the other. Just this month, based on quantum mechanics, mathematician Tim Andersen says maybe and theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder says no. Based on cosmology, the study of our universe, physicist George Ellis said yes last June. With free will, as with consciousness, we don’t fully understand what’s involved. All insights from science are partial so we can’t look to science for a definitive answer. But maybe science can offer some hints. Here are four that might be helpful: 1.Has psychology shown that free will does not really exist? Psychological research on free will has supported the concept of free will but…

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Frog with Turtle and Snail

To What Extent Does Life Simply Invent Itself As It Goes Along?

The evidence may surprise us

According to a popular anti-creationist website Talk Origins, one of the strongest pieces of evidence for evolution and common descent is the phylogenetic signal. In their view, when we look at specific properties across multiple species — number of legs, presence or absence of wings, the presence of a gene, a configuration of nucleotides in the genome, etc. — such properties will form a strongly nested hierarchy. We should expect to see such a strongly nested hierarchy if organisms evolved from one another and therefore a “family tree” links all the organisms together. However, if a property that appears only on a branch, it will be shared only by that branch’s leaves. Leaves on a different branch will not have…

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Stethoscope on an old book of medicine, conceptual image

Should We Really “Listen to Science”? What Should We Listen For?

Politicians who insist that their beliefs represent science might be surprised by the checkered history of that view

This political season, politicians are telling us to “listen to science.” But buyer beware. The politicization of science is a long and sad history of so-called “scientific truths” that were not only mistaken but resulted in tragedy. Those who know a bit of this history should be wary of politicians’ table-pounding claims on topics ranging from climate change to COVID. In a 2003 lecture at Caltech, Michael Crichton, MD (pictured in 2002, courtesy Jon Chase CC BY-SA 3.0), author of great science fiction including Jurassic Park, noted, “science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity.” For example, racism was “settled science” in the early 20th century. So was eugenics, the so-called science…

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The region 30 Doradus lies in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.

Maybe There Are Just Very Few Aliens Out There…

The Rare Earth hypothesis offers science-based reasons that life in the universe is rare

Recently, science and science fiction writer Matt Williams has been writing a series at Universe Today on why extraterrestrial intelligences never make contact with us. Last week, we looked at the hypothesis that, to avoid the heat destruction of their advanced technology, the aliens have put themselves into a digital slumber until the universe cools down. This week, let’s look at a quite different approach, which Williams outlines in “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” IV: What is the Rare Earth Hypothesis?” (July 29, 2020): That is “the possibility that life-bearing planets like Earth are just very rare.” We don’t see aliens because they are very uncommon: This is what is popularly known as the “Rare Earth Hypothesis,” which argues that the emergence…

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Tumor cell under attack of white blood cells

Why Do Many Scientists See Cells as Intelligent?

Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

Recently, we talked about the ways in which bacteria are intelligent. Researchers into antibiotic resistance must deal with the surprisingly complex ways bacteria “think” in order to counter them. For example, some bacteria may warn others while dying from antibiotics. But what about individual cells in our bodies? A skeptic might say that bacteria are, after all, individual entities like dogs or cats. There is evidence that individual life forms can show intelligence even with no brain. But dependent cells? Surprisingly, cells that are not independent at all but part of a body can also show something that looks like intelligence, as Michael Denton discusses in Miracle of the Cell (2020): No one who has observed a leucocyte (a white…

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Cells under a microscope. Cell division. Cellular Therapy. 3d illustration on a dark background

New Book: Our Bodies’ Cells Are a “Third Infinity” of Information

If the first cell somehow morphed into existence without the ability to reproduce, it would also have been the last cell.

Recently, computer engineer and philosopher Jonathan Bartlett pointed out that Elon Musk has inadvertently highlighted the biggest problem with origin of life studies: How life originated is not as difficult a question as how it originated with the ability to reproduce. If the first cell somehow morphed into existence without the ability to reproduce, it would also have been the last cell. The only cell, in fact. Musk, as it happens, was talking about the production of cars when he tweeted, “The machine that makes the machine is vastly harder than the machine itself.” He estimated “1000% to 10,000% harder.” Indeed, and that’s also true of the cells that comprise just about every living being. Our cells not only live…

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Abstract 3d render, geometric composition, yellow background design with cubes

Interview: New Book Outlines the Perils of Big (Meaningless) Data

Gary Smith, co-author with Jay Cordes of Phantom Patterns, shows why human wisdom and common sense are more important than ever now

Economist Gary Smith and statistician Jay Cordes have a new book out, The Phantom Pattern Problem: The mirage of big data, on why we should not trust Big Data over common sense. In their view, it’s a dangerous mix: Humans naturally assume that all patterns are significant. But AI cannot grasp the meaning of any pattern, significant or not. Thus, from massive number crunches, we may “learn” (if that’s the right word) that Stock prices can be predicted from Google searches for the word debt. Stock prices can be predicted from the number of Twitter tweets that use “calm” words. An unborn baby’s sex can be predicted by the amount of breakfast cereal the mother eats. Bitcoin prices can be…

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Entrance gate to Persepolis Persia Iran Gate of All Nations

How Much Can New AI Tell Us About Ancient Times?

An ambitious new project hopes to use the predictive text that cell phones use to unlock their stories

Many researchers hope that AI will leading to a“golden age” of discovery for lost languages, hard to decipher writings, and badly damaged Biblical scrolls. Algorithms can chug through vast numbers of possibilities of interpretation, presenting the scholar with probabilities to choose from. But even powerful algorithms have their work cut out for them. For example, of the hundreds of thousands of clay (cuneiform) tablets that survive from an ancient part of the Near East called Mesopotamia, many are damaged. We may know the language but we don’t know what’s missing from the text and what difference the missing part makes to what is being said. Experts try to fill in the missing parts but guessing at all the possibilities is…

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virtual keyboard

SwiftKey Co-founder: Computers Can’t Just “Evolve” Intelligence

Can vain hopes for AI spring from a wrong understanding of evolution?
Ben Medlock asks us to look at self-organization as a principle of life, lacking in computers. Read More ›
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Astronaut and robot or artificial intelligence handshake on alien planet.

Should Robots, Instead of Humans, Go Into Space?

They might be better at life in space than humans. But could they be counselors too?

Are we here to re-create ourselves as robotic humanoids? In a recent podcast, Robert J. Marks discusses what robots can do for us with retired internist and author Geoffrey Simmons. In his most recent book, Are We Here to Re-Create Ourselves?: The Convergence of Designs (2019), Simmons argues that in creating artificially intelligent robots, we are trying to recreate the human being. But can we really recreate everything about ourselves? For example, they discussed, can robots be counselors? Should robots go into space instead of humans? As a writer, Simmons has found audiences for both fiction and non-fiction. For example, he wrote Z-papers (1976), a medically based crime thriller in which “In a Chicago hospital, the U.S. Vice Presidential candidate…