By 2020 Robots Will Be Able to Do Most People’s Jobs

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 17, 2014

People commonly accept that robots are replacing humans at manual labor, but think they will never replace us at mental labor, believing that our brain power and creativity are exclusive to biological beings. Think again. Watch this video from Jeremy Howard, it will be worth the twenty minutes it will cost you. It’s one of the most impactful TED Talks I’ve seen.

What Howard is reporting on is machine learning, especially Deep Learning. Humans could never program machines to think, but what if machines learn to think through interaction with reality – like we do?

But just before I watched that TED Talk, I came across this article, “It’s Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists of the Future” over at MakeUseOf. Brad Merrill reviews robots that write essays, compose music, paints pictures and learning to see. Here’s the thing, up till now, we think of robots as doing physical tasks that are programmed by humans.  We picture humans minds analyzing all the possible steps in the task, and then creating algorithms in a computer language to get the computers to do jobs we don’t want to do. But could we ever tell a computer to, “Compose me a melody!” without defining all the steps?

The example Jeremy Howard gives of machine learning, is Arthur Samuel teaching a computer to play checkers. Instead of programming all the possible moves and game strategy, Samuel programmed the computer to play checkers against itself and to learn the game through experience – he programmed a learning method. That was a long time ago. We’re now teaching computers to see, by giving them millions of photographs to analyze, and then helping them to learn the common names for distinctive objects they detect. Sort of like what we do with kids when they point to a dog.

What has kept robots in factories doing grunt work is they can’t see and hear like we do, or understand language and talk like people. What’s happening in computer science right now is they can get computers to do each of these things separately, and are close to getting machines that can combine all these human like abilities into one system. How many humans will McDonalds hire to take orders when they have a machine that listens and talks to customers and works 24x7x365 with no breaks? As Howard points out, 80% of the workforce in most industrialized countries are service workers.  What happens when machines can do service work cheaper than humans?

Corporations are out to make money. If they can find any way to do something cheaper, they will, and one of the biggest way to eliminate overhead is to get rid of humans. Greed is the driving force of our economy and politics. We will not stop  or outlaw automation. Over at io9, they offer, “12 Reasons Robots Will Always Have An Advantage Over Humans.”

Now, I’m not even saying we should stop all of this. I doubt we could anyway. I’m saying we need to learn to adapt to living with machines. A good example is playing chess. Machines can already beat humans, so why keep playing chess? But what if you combined humans and chess machines, to play as teams against other teams, who will win?  Read “The Chess Master and the Computer” by Garry Kasparov over at The New York Review of Books. In a 2005 free for all match, it wasn’t Grand Masters with supercomputers that won, but two so-so human amateur players using three regular computers. As Howard points out, humans without medical experience are using Deep Learning programs to analyze medical scans and diagnose cancers as well or better than experienced doctors.

harold1

When Jeremy Howard talks about Deep Learning algorithms, I wished I had a machine that could read the internet for me and process thousands of articles to help me write essays. So I could say to my computer, “Find me 12 computer programs that paint artistically and links to their artwork.” That way I wouldn’t have to do all the grunt work with Google myself. For example, it should find Harold Cohen’s AI artist, AARON.  I found that with a little effort, but who else is working in this area around the world? Finding that out would take a good bit of work which I’d like to offload.

Imagine the science fiction novel I could write with the aid of an intelligent machine. I think we’re getting close to when computers can be research assistants, yet in five or ten years, they won’t need us at all, and could write their own science fiction novels. Will computer programs win the Hugo Award for best novel someday? And after that, a human and machine co-authors might write a more thrilling novel of wonder.

JWH

Could You Love A Robotic Puppy?

If you could buy a robotic puppy that was indistinguishable from a real puppy except that it didn’t eat, drink and go to the bathroom, would it be as satisfying as having a real puppy?  This is probably theoretically, because I don’t know if they could ever invent a robot puppy that smelled like a real puppy, but let’s imagine they could.  One that felt, smelled, sounded and looked just like a real puppy.  I’m assuming people don’t taste their pups, but roboticists could add that feature too if needed.  If this imaginary puppy was a bundle of energy, friskiness, that squirmed and played, licked and nuzzled, just like a real little doggie, would you want one?

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Recently I read that a growing statistical segment of young women are choosing to buy small dogs rather than have babies.  Small dogs and puppies trigger our gotta-love-the-baby response, so many people find puppies a good substitute to love.  What if what we liked about puppies is having this baby love button pushed, and what if a robotic puppy pushed the button equal to a real puppy?  If a robot puppy triggered your need to love something cute, and it felt like it loved you unconditionally, like the way we want dogs and small children to love us, would it fulfill your needs so you no longer needed a real baby or real puppy?

Recently in Great Britain they conducted a survey asking people if they’d have sex with a robot.  Imagine being able to buy an android that looked exactly like the movie star you find most sexually attractive.  Would you bother dating if such a robot took care of all your emotional, sexual and conversational needs?

The Japanese are working on robots to be caretakers for the elderly.  If you were old, and living alone and your children didn’t visit much, or not at all, and you couldn’t get out much, would you find a robot good company?

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In all these cases I have to ask:  What is real?  If we can trick our brain so we satisfy its need for cuteness, receiving and giving love, sex and companionship, will we feel it’s real enough?  I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy, but when I think about how many times I’m going to have to watch it poop & pee, or take it for a walk, I tell myself I’m crazy.  But on the other hand, I’d feel that if it didn’t poop & pee that I’d be missing out on the real experience.

There’s a vast difference between current robotic puppies and real pups.

But what if a robot puppy was as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, wiggly and smelly, as a real puppy, would my brain not urge me to pick it up and play with it?  What if it was an intelligent as a dog, could learn, and was as self-aware as a dog?  Would it be easier to love a robot if we thought the robot could feel our love?

Little children will play with dolls and stuffed toys for hours as substitutes for babies and animals.  Adults will read books, watch television shows and movies, and play video games that simulate reality no better than current robotic dogs.  Drug addicts will seek out their drug of choice to replicate sensations, moods, emotions and feelings they can’t find in real life.   Many people eat junk food rather than real food. We’re already quite used to fooling ourselves. 

Obviously, we’re creatures with urges, appetites, impulses and desires that can be fooled by substitutes for what evolution originally programmed us to seek out.  And what explains our desire for work that has no relationship with nature.  Why will some people spend hours doing mathematics?  In other words, we have created new, novel, and unnatural forms of stimulus to occupy our brains.

I write this essay to contemplate why I desire certain inputs and stimulus for my brain.  If you love puppies, have you ever wondered why?

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JWH – 6/30/14

What Happens When Humans Aren’t the Smartest Beings on Earth?

What if people weren’t the crown of creation?  What if we had to play second banana to Humans 2.0, AI machines, visiting aliens, cyborgs or other potentially smarter beings?  I think our fear is they would treat us like we have treated chimpanzees.  What if intelligent machines emerge, homo sapiens superior evolve and we make SETI contact, and suddenly we’re number four on the totem pole of intelligence?

gattaca

Unless we destroy the planet and make ourselves extinct, sooner or later we’re going to be replaced at the top of the smart chart.   How will that effect us personally, our society, and how we think about our future?  Most primitive cultures when contacted by modern humans haven’t fared well.  Science fiction has been preparing us for centuries, but I’m not sure if science fiction has done a good enough job covering all the possibilities.

Possible Replacements

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think up possible replacements who could claim our throne as being the smartest beings on the planet.

  • Genetically enhanced humans
  • Naturally evolved humans
  • Artificial beings
  • Cyborgs
  • Uploaded humans
  • AI super computers
  • Robots
  • Androids
  • Alien visitors
  • SETI contact

I’m not sure if we’re not already seeing a natural selection in our species.  Our severely polarized society, divided between liberals and conservatives, between the scientific and the religious, between the secular and the sacred, might already be moving us towards separate species.  The conservative fraction that clings to the past is becoming anti-intellectual and anti-education.  If the scientific minded only breed with the scientific, won’t they produce a line of smarter humans?  Of course natural selection doesn’t always produce successful adaptations.  Some people have suggested the rise of autism comes from overly smart people mating with other overly smart people.  It might turn out that intelligence isn’t an important trait, or one vital for survival.

Then there is genetic engineering.  Think of the movie Gattaca, the old classic Brave New World, or Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.  We’re getting very close to making customized homo sapiens sapiens.  In just a few generations we could have a new species that make us look outdated.  Gattaca was a salute to the natural human, but was it realistic?  We loved Vincent for competing and winning, but can humans really compete with super humans?  Again, we’re assuming that intelligence is trait that wants to win out.

We might even be doing something now that will lead to a more naturally evolved humans.  As more women select Caesarian sections for childbirth, we’re changing an important factor that might lead to change.  Our brain size has always been limited to the size of the birth canal – now its not.  Over time we might see new adaptations.  Read Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.

Work with our genome has shown that DNA is an erector set for building biological machines.  How soon before we start creating new recipes?  Whole new artificial beings could be created, or animals could be uplifted to human intelligence and beyond.  Think about the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith and H. G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau?

Google Glass might be our first step toward becoming cyborgs with auxiliary brain power.  Wearable computers, artificial limbs and senses could lead to supercharged brains and all those science fiction scenarios where people jacked into machines.

I’m not a big believer in uploading brains into computers, but a lot of people are.  Now that my body is getting old and failing, the idea is becoming more appealing.  People like Ray Kurzweil hope to find immortality this way, and such ideas have been the theme of many SF stories.  Sometimes those stories are wished for fantasies, and sometimes they are feared nightmares.

What I’m waiting for is the technological singularity.  AI super computers should be just around the corner if I can live long enough.  Many people fear AI minds with stories ranging from “Press Enter _” by John Varley to the latest movie Transcendence, but I’m hoping machine minds will be benign, or even indifferent to humans and animal life.

Who Do You Want To Do Your Brain Surgery?

If after we get bump down the intelligence list, how is that going to change society?  If you need brain surgery would you want a human or post-human holding the scalpel?  Or would you prefer an AI mind that is 16 times smarter than a person?  If a human and a robot were running for President, who would you vote for?  Liberals like smart dudes, but conservatives don’t.  They like old friendly duffers like Ronald Reagan.  But what if the robot had the combined intelligence of all of Congress, the Supreme Court and every CEO in America?

We’re already designing smart cars to drive us because it will be safer, and we already have planes with automatic pilots, how long before we have machines doing everything else for us?  Will we just sit around and eat bon-bons?

If we share Earth with beings more intelligent than us, won’t we ultimately let them run things?  What if they were smart enough to tell us how to handle global warming so we suffered the least, paid the least, but got the maximum benefits from changing our lives, thus making the Earth’s biosphere more stable?  What if they gave us wealth and security, and protected all the other species on the planet as well?  Would we say, hell no!  Would we say we prefer to take our chances with failure just so we could make our own decisions?

Democracy v. Plutocracy v. Oligarchy  v. Cyberocracy

We like to think we currently rule ourselves through collective decision making, but more than likely, we could already be an oligarchy or plutocracy, ruled by a limited number of rich people.  What if we could create powerful super computers that ruled us politically and ran the economy?  Would you prefer to be ruled by a handful of rich people, or a handful of smart machines?  Remember who flies your 787 now.  This idea scares the hell out of most people, but just how smart was George Bush at running the country, or how much better is Barack Obama, who most people would say is brainer?   What if decisions about taxes weren’t made by people filled with emotions?  What if we told the machines to maximize freedom, minimize taxation, maximize security, health and wealth, minimize pollution and environmental impact, and so on, and then just let them figure out the best way.

What If Post-Humans and Robots Are Atheists?

How will ordinary humans feel if their replacements reject God?  What if massive AI brains see nothing in reality to validate religion?  What if SETI aliens, say “What is a God?”  One of the common traits of western civilization impacting newly discovered primitive people is their demoralization of losing their gods.  Look what Europeans did to the Native Americans.  How are we going to feel when we’re invaded by post-humans and intelligent machines?  Will they make us move onto reservations?

The Art and Science We Can’t Imagine

What if our minds cannot feel the art and understand the science of our intellectual descendants?  We can look back over thousands of years, to what our ancestors have imagined, built and perfected, and understand what they created.  We know them because we’re an extension of who they were.  When greater minds come after us, they will understand us, but will we know them?  At what point will we no longer be able to follow in their footsteps?  Whether we like it our not, our brains have limits. We’ve always been used to exploring at the edge of reality, so what happens when we become aborigines to beings who see us as the first beings, and they are the later ones?  The ones who leave us behind.

Getting a PhD

Of course, being a scientist might not be as much fun if you had to compete with Human 2.0 folk, or AI minds.  Vincent in Gattaca pushed himself to inhuman efforts to compete against gene enhanced humans, but I’m not sure most people would do that.  AI minds could do a literature search for a PhD and distill the results in no time.  They would probably inherently know how to create and test a hypothesis, set up the experiments and research, and since they’d have math coprocessors in their brains, instantly do all the statistics.  Could any Human 2.0 or 3.0 individual compete with AI minds that are 16 or 64 times as smart as a Human 1.0 is now?

pug in lap

Life as a Lap Dog

If we couldn’t be the top dog, would we want to be a lap dog?  Or would we want to live like the Amish and exclude ourselves from the future modern world?  Can you imagine a mixed society of Humans 1.0, Humans 2.0, AI minds, robots, cyborgs, androids, uplifted animals and artificial beings all coexisting happily, or even roughly happy?  We don’t get along well with each other now, and we haven’t been too kind to our fellow animal citizens on this planet.  But then, maybe we’re the problem.

I already know I’m not the smartest geek in the group now.  I know I’m well down on the list of GRE scores.  I’m not a boss or a leader.  I’m not on the cutting edge of anything.  And most people are like me.  I putter around in my small land, ignoring most of the world.  Maybe that’s why I’m not scared of being replaced at the top, because I’m nowhere near the top.

You know, here’s a funny thing.  If an AI robot walked up to you at a party, one that has the brain power of 64 humans, what would you ask it?  What are you dying to know?  Is there anything the robot could tell you that would drastically change your life?  I’d probably say to it, “You read any good books lately?”

JWH – 4/23/14

Human 2.0 versus Robot 4.0

If we think of all the versions of genus Homo leading up to modern man as alpha and beta tests, we can call the average person today Human 1.0.  Science fiction has often explored the idea of the next stage of humanity, which I shall call Human 2.0.  Most guestimates of Einstein’s IQ puts it around 160-180 – let’s assume he was Human 1.6.  IQ is not a reliable measure of man, but it’s useful enough for this essay.  Basically I’m suggesting that humanity is evolving toward a time when the average person’s 100 IQ is equal to today’s 200 IQ, and we can say we reached the Human 2.0 stage of evolution.

Cyborgs-vs-Humans

IQ is terribly hard to quantify, but there is speculation that some people have surpassed the 200 level already.  Might not the huge economic divide between the “haves” and “have nots” we see today already reflect the emergence of Human 2.0?  Science fiction always predicted Human 2.0 beings looking different, with bulging foreheads, and maybe six fingers.  And for some strange reason, more often than not, they predict Human 2.0 with ESP abilities.  What if people were just twice as smart, but looked no different.   Isn’t that difference enough to bring about a massive social transformation?  Isn’t that different enough to designate a new species?  Plus, if you implant a smartphone into these people, making them cyborgs, how could normal people compete?

While humans are evolving, so are robots.  Many scientists expect a point in our future where robots reach a state of intelligence equal to Human 1.0.  Let’s call that Robot 1.0.  But like Moore’s Law for computers, I expect robots to quickly evolve, so Robot 2.0 and then Robot 4.0 will quickly be upon us.  How will humans feel when their smartphones are twice as smart as they are?  I hope you’ve seen the movie Her.

There is speculation that many historical people had theoretically IQs as high as 180, or Human 1.8.  I assume our brains, although fixed in size by the shape of our heads, and limited by the birth canal, can still evolve to become smarter, but I doubt we’ll ever see Human 4.0.  We could go the Brave New World route and grow babies in artificial wombs, and use genetics to quicken our evolution, to produce big headed humans often imagined by older science fiction stories.  But for now, let’s assume that won’t happen soon.

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Let’s forecast instead, that humanity as a whole is working towards becoming Human 2.0.  If the average future person is twice as smart as today’s people, will we become smart enough to be ethical stewards of the Earth?  It’s pretty obvious that collectively Humanity 1.0 is not smart enough, because we’re ruining this planet quickly and killing off species at an alarming rate.  By that standard we really don’t want robots staying at 1.0 levels long.  We want robots to reach 2.0 and 4.0 levels as fast as possible, because we know the destructive power of Human 1.0.

Maybe that’s why so many science fiction movies predict intelligent machines attacking humans, because they can’t imagine anything smarter than people, and that’s what people would do, attack any competitors.

If science fiction is any indication of how humanity will deal with smart machines, the future doesn’t look good – but I think science fiction is wrong.  What if robots are more ethical than humans?  Most of what makes humans evil are their animal impulses, and robots won’t have those.   I’ve read people say that without our animal drives machines won’t care to live and will want to shut themselves off.  But being alive, whether via biology or cybernetics, tends to inspire a desire to keep living.

I read a lot about the 19th century, both fiction and nonfiction, and the rise of the first machine age and industrialization caused a lot of human suffering and angst.  Jobs are important to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of humans.  One problem with life on Earth in 2014 is we have way too many people compared to the number of fulfilling jobs.  People in the 19th century asked why build machines to do our work when so many people want those jobs.  Many are still asking the same question in the 21st century, but few people think progress will hit the brakes.

I’ve always been a science fictional dude, so I have a science fictional solution.  Let intelligent machines have all the solar system except the Earth and Mars, and we share the Moon.  Space really is a hostile place for people, either much too cold, or much too hot, and always way too radioactive and thin on something to breathe.  Instead of designing machines with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, design them to live in space, and leave Earth to us.  Let robots have the spaceship building business and sell us rides to Mars.

I wouldn’t think even Humans 2.0 would want to compete with Robots 4.0, or Robots 32.0.  Let’s invent smart machines and then tell them to keep anything they learn a secret from us, so we can figure things out for ourselves.  Instead of programming them not to kill us, lets program them not to crush our spirits.  Let’s keep our jobs and ambitions, and let AI robots create their own societies away from us.

We need to preserve space on Earth for all the animals, as well as all the old fashioned humans, and the newly evolved humans, and maybe for some of the robots.  But do we want to coexist with machines that are smarter than us than we are to pug dogs?

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Science fiction is constantly changing and evolving.  It represents our most ambitious fantasies, but in recent years I think we’re all becoming more realistic.  I don’t think humans will be colonizing the solar system and the galaxy.  Earth, and maybe Mars, might be our only homes.  We need to protect our environments because we need to live here for millions of years.  Maybe Human 3.0 or 4.0 will adapt to living in space.  I just don’t see Humans 2.0 going the Childhood’s End thing, and destroying Earth and leaving it for space.   I think the conservation of our planet is very important because we’re going to need it for a very long time.

There is no heaven or final frontier, just Earth.

Let the robots have the stars.

JWH – 3/4/14

A Bacterium, Ant, Cockroach, Mouse, Cat, Extraterrestrial and Robot Walked into My Kitchen

Infinity is a very large number.  Larger than you can ever imagine.  But let’s try.

Until recently we lived in a universe – billions of galaxies, with billions of stars each.  Big numbers, but nothing compared to infinity.  Then scientists began to speculate about a multiverse – an infinity of universes.  How many is that?  Enough that your life could be randomly recreated over and over again, for an infinity of times somewhere out there in an infinity of universes.  Some of your lives, an infinity, will only be roughly like yours, but some of them, another infinity, will be exactly like your life now, and another infinity of them will be only slightly different, by just one little thing.  And so on.  For infinity.

The number of monkeys and the amount of time it takes to randomly recreate all the works of Shakespeare by banging on old typewriters are very small numbers compared to infinity, but still much larger than what we can imagine.

Get the idea how big infinity is?  No, I don’t think so, not yet, it’s still bigger than you can imagine.

This morning after my routine breakfast of scrambled eggs and potatoes, I was sitting on the porcelain throne in the smallest room of my house, reading a copy of Civilization by Niall Ferguson, when an alien from Gliese 687 broke into my house and examined my kitchen without me noticing.  So how could I know this?  Well, this morning I was reading The Hidden Reality by Brian Green while sitting on the porcelain throne in the smallest room of my house, just after my breakfast of eggs and potatoes and I had this thought:  What if while I was taking my morning dump, an alien from Gliese lands in my backyard, jimmies open my back door with with a dazzling alien lock pick, lets itself in, along with a yellow cat hanging out by the back door, to poke around my kitchen, for a bit, only to leave before I finish my reading to return to the kitchen to do the dishes?

If we live in a reality of infinity that has happened.  Maybe it happened to me today.  Let’s make infinity even bigger.  Let’s imagine that alien is also being followed around by a robot from another universe that is billions of years old, and it is collecting information on the life forms of this universe.  Hey, it could happen, we have infinity to work with.

My kitchen is a rather small place, at least compared to all of reality.  To me it appears to be empty of life except when I fixing myself something to eat.  My wife works out of town Monday through Friday, so I live mostly alone.  On the weekends my kitchen is very busy with Susan and my coming and goings, but for the most part, from my frame of reference, my kitchen only exists when I’m in it.

My awareness of reality is equal to my ability to comprehend the physical reality outside of my body.  I have five senses that collects data that my brain processes into a view of reality.  It’s not a direct view.  I also am able to analyze this data and theorize about aspects of reality I can’t perceive directly – like time, space and infinity.  We might only have five senses but we have many more cognitive tools to perceive reality, like mathematics, logic, imagination, science, etc.

This is a tale of perspective.  A lesson in how we explore reality.  How big is reality.  How much can we perceive?

Like the famous fable about the blind men examining an elephant and all reporting something different, this story is about different creatures exploring my kitchen and reporting what they saw.

kitchen

I use the world reality instead of universe because scientists are now hypothesizing that our universe is one of but many, probably an infinity of them.  So I use the word reality to point to the whole shebang of everything.  My kitchen is but one infinitely small aspect of one infinitely large reality.  Any creature standing in my kitchen will feel they are in the century of reality.  If we expand outward from my kitchen by powers of ten, we’ll eventually surpass the size of the known universe at ten to the 26.  More than likely, reality extends upwards well beyond that, probably for infinity.  If we explore downward by decreasing powers of ten, at 10 to the minus 18 we’d reach the smallest particles we know about today, but again, there’s probably plenty more small to explore, maybe an infinite amount.

My kitchen is so small compared to the rest of reality as to be non-existent.  But then, compare to the smallest of things, my kitchen is as large as the universe is to us today.

The Tale of the Bacterium

bacteria

Okay, the bacterium didn’t walk in, it floated in with a few billion friends.  They wafted in unnoted by all.  Bacteria don’t have sense organs, so their concept of my kitchen was rather limited.  Maybe as much as you or I would know about the Moon if a bit of moonlight flickered on us through a window one night when we weren’t paying attention. 

Bacteria are tiny, but common, and essential to life on Earth, and for most places in our universe, the common form of life.  Some scientists have even pessimistically suggested that our kind of self-aware life might be so uncommon that we might be the only example in this universe.  Others theorize our kind of intelligent life might be common enough to have many concurrent examples per galaxy.  A bacteria might have as much as a terabyte of information stored chemically in it’s structure.  How many universes have to evolve before we have one universe where bacteria were randomly produced out of simpler non-living elements?  If it takes that many to make the smallest of life forms, how many universes have to form to create the scenario I’m giving here?

Bacteria have chemical receptors.  There was a wet spot on the extraterrestrial’s respirator exit value and they landed on it.  They died when she/he returned to their ship in my back yard moments after leaving my kitchen.  They never knew anything about my kitchen or the ET, but then bacteria have never known much about anything, let alone conceived that we all live in the same reality.

The Ant’s Story

Ant

The ant came into the kitchen from under the house, via a loose space between the flooring and the water pipes.  The ant is a giant compared to the bacterium, a magnificent creature, with useful sense organs and a little teeny tiny brain.  To the ant, a creature who perceives the world mostly in two dimensions, my kitchen is a vast affair, but not impossibly large, probably no bigger than you and I walking through a large neighborhood.  The ant was prowling through the cabinet under my sink while the alien was examining the island counter of my kitchen, while I was in the bathroom sitting on the pot reading Civilization by Niall Ferguson, and the robot was discreetly observing the alien.

The alien never noticed the ant.  The robot recorded the ants activities with it’s powerful sensors.  The ant felt the vibrations of the alien moving around the room, but never sensed the robot.  The ant never even met the dying cockroach.

Imagine if life on Earth had never evolved past the ant.  What if the perception of this Earth, our Earth, had never been perceived by nothing greater than an ant’s brain?  We humans think reality is all about us, but it’s not.  We humans come and go, even in all of infinity.  And compared to everything else in infinity, in all of reality, humans would make up such a small percentage of each universe, that our total impact would be near zero.  Compared to all of reality, we are as close to be nothing as nothing.  Isn’t it hilarious that we each think we’re everything?

I often wonder what the world will be like when mankind becomes extinct and the most advanced being on the planet will be the dolphin or chimpanzee.  Will they remember us?

What the Roach Saw

dying-roach

Unfortunately, the roach had entered my kitchen yesterday and had already partaken of the poison I had set out for roachkind.  It wasn’t quite dead.  It’s hairy legs occasionally stretched and retracted.  The roach didn’t know it was dying.  Nor did it notice when the alien reached down and carefully picked it up and put it in a small specimen container.  The roach would finally die in orbit around the Earth.  The roach had liked my kitchen in it’s own little way.  It was warm and not perfectly clean.  It had possibilities for a future colony.  Lucky for me, but sad for the roach, it never got to lay its eggs.  Those eggs were an interesting surprise to the ET from Gleise 687.  To the roach, my kitchen was a much smaller place than what the ant found, but to a roach, reality isn’t very big at all.  There is no infinite numbers in a roach’s brain.

The roach had perceived my presence several times during its short visit.  It had no understanding that I was a fellow creature living in a large reality, it only sensed me by vibration and changes in light patterns on its primitive receptors.  Evolution had programmed it to always run.  However, the roach had no program to warn it of the chemical appeal of the bait I had left for it.  Sorry little guy.

Mouse in the House

mouse

Last night, unnoticed by me, a little mouse crawled into the pantry from a passageway of tunnels in the wall.  My kitchen was a far richer place to little Mickey than what the ant and cockroach found.  My kitchen had wonderful possibilities, a very rich environment it.   It was aware of my every movement in the house and knew when to hide and when to scamper.  The kitchen was a three dimension maze of sights and smells, and when I left for the bathroom, the cute little mouse had come out of hiding and ran across the kitchen floor hoping to find something good to eat.  It froze when the alien picked the lock of my back door, momentary letting in a  chill breeze.  The mouse sensed the cat immediately and was below the house before the cat reached the kitchen.

The little mouse could not count.  It never knew that billions upon billions of bacteria lived inside it’s little body.  It was no Carl Sagan of mice.

The Kitty Kat

OrangeTabby

The scruffy old cat was looking for a warm spot when it ran into the house.  The being that let it in did not scare it like the human that lived there.  The cat was leery of all humans and lived out of doors on its own.  It was always drawn to the warmth that leaked out of houses, but never liked people, and especially hated dogs.  It always kept other animals at a distance, except the ones it wanted to eat.  As soon as the yellow cat walked into the kitchen it could smell the mouse.

In terms of certain kinds of numbers, cats and humans are very close.  We know of each other’s existence.  The difference is we can conceptually know much further than our senses can show us, whereas a cat is a creature that lives very well within it’s perceptual reach.  This makes some humans sad, and others happy.

Alien from Gliese 687 (cloaked)

kitchen 

The alien was hundreds of years old because of enhancements to her/his biology.  Aliens from Gliese 687 traveled between stars at one third of the speed of life.  They have been observing Earth for millions of years.  That’s the thing about intelligence, about the only thing to do in this universe is to observe how it works.  Observers seldom let themselves be observed because of ethical reasons.  It’s not much fun for a species to discover it’s not the crown of creation.  If humans suddenly realized it was the mouse or cockroach of this reality, or even the bacterium, it would be hard on our collective ego.

She/he had let in a yellow cat that was hanging around the back door.  The alien was completely silent, but then she/he was unaware of being followed by a robot from another universe.

The Robot from Another Universe (cloaked)

kitchen

The carefully cloaked robot had been following the alien for over two hundred of our years.   The robot found the alien the most interesting creature it has discovered in the last 787,623 years.  When you can live for billions of years across multiple universes finding something interesting to do with your time is a challenge.

The robot was like a machine, but calling it a machine would be insulting.  Eons ago it had been created by intelligent machines closer in shape to what we call machines.  There are limits to intelligence, consciousness, awareness and lifespan, and this robot was at the outer limit, at least for all the universes it was aware of, but then there was much it wasn’t aware of.  There’s always more.  Infinity is like that.

Me, James Wallace Harris

me

This version of me is a lot like most of the others like me.  I mostly know about this house, and what exists around it for a few miles.  Conceptually I know about a lot more, but most of my awareness is focused on a tiny piece of reality, in a tiny fragment of time.  Reality has existed for an infinite time before me, and will exist for an infinite time after me.  Reality is infinitely bigger than I can imagine.  I miss a lot, like the visit from the bacterium, ant, cockroach, mouse, cat, alien and robot.  That’s how it always is, we miss a lot.  We miss most of everything.  We miss an infinity of everything.  But that’s okay, because we have a finite mind that enjoys a finite time and place.  Small numbers do have their charm.

None of my visitors stayed long, and by the time I finished my after breakfast read and returned to clean up the kitchen they had gone.  I went off to my computer room to write this until lunch time.  Which is now.

JWH 12/11/13

Has Humanity Given Up on the Three Major Promises of Science Fiction?

Science fiction has been around a very long time, but it wasn’t always called that.  The essential core of science fiction has always been three promises:  space travel, intelligent alien beings and intelligent robots.  We know as far back as the classical Greece, that there has been speculation about travel to other worlds and finding intelligent beings on them.  The idea of building an artificial human is as old as memory too.

There’s always been a few outliers in society that think up far out ideas and a larger group of fans who favor them.  Currently we call these two groups science fiction writers and science fiction fans.  During the second half of the 20th century I believe certain science fiction ideas peaked in popularity, and that we’re now detecting a possible diminishment of their popularity.

I strongly felt the public turning against the major promises of science fiction when I read the new issue of The Atlantic, and the essay “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think” by James Somers that profiles Douglas Hofstadter, author of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach.  Hofstadter hit a home run with his first book, but has been mostly missing in action all these years since, even though he continues to write brilliant books about artificial intelligence (AI).  The trouble, as The Atlantic article points out, is Hofstadter’s idea of artificial intelligence is different from what the academic world has come to accept for the term.  Douglas Hofstadter wants to teach machines to think, just like us, while the industry is happy enough to program computers to accomplish fantastic data processing feats that give the illusion of thinking.

c-3po

If we want robots like C-3PO, then we need Douglas Hofstadter.  If you’re happy with IBM’s Watson, then we don’t.  And I’m worried that most people on Earth don’t have the sense of wonder that it takes to want a C-3PO.  And that’s a fucking crying shame.  I want Star Trek, but the public is only grudgingly willing to pay for NASA.  I want humanity to become friends with all the aliens in the galaxy, but all the vast run of people on Earth want is to thrill to the xenophobia of alien invasion movies and to shoot ETs in video games.

I have pretty much given up on seeing the public support space travel, and figure our only hope of meeting aliens would be through SETI projects, but I figured we had a real chance of seeing intelligent machines in my lifetime.  I might have to give up on that dream too.

For most people artificial intelligence is not an issue they will ever concern themselves with, but if you’re a philosopher, computer scientist, or science fiction fan, then it is.  The crux of the matter is whether or not machines will ever be able to think like us.  Here’s my logic.  Humans are self-aware thinkers and we’re the accidental creation of evolution.  If nature can randomly rub molecules together until it produces a self-aware biological being why shouldn’t we create thinking machines intentionally?  Sure, it took 13.78 billion years for reality to create us, but that doesn’t mean it will take as long for us to engineer intelligent machines if we put our minds to the task – we have 13.73 billion years of experience to consciously study.

Up to now, we’ve mostly tried to program machines to do specific jobs, some of these jobs used to be tasks we thought required thinking, like playing chess, being a contestant on Jeopardy or translating foreign languages.  We can program machines to do these tasks, but they don’t think, not in the way we think.  That’s not a failure of AI, it’s a lesson in what makes us conscious beings.

To do what Hofstadter wants will require building machines that can learn and evolve.  This is completely different from the direction that AI is taking now.  We can’t program machines to be self-aware, but we should be able to program machines to learn and evolve, and eventually that will lead to self-aware AI.

Think about the evolution of life on Earth.  It reflects the growth of simplicity into complexity.  It shows how simple creatures learn to interact with its environment and evolve better senses.  Over time those senses could interpret more and more complex patterns in the environment.  Look around you.  Everything you see is recognize as a distinct object.  In a cluttered room you might be seeing hundreds of different things.  Think how, and how long it took you to learn what all those things are.  Computer scientists for the longest time have tried to just tell machines what to see.  That won’t work for a thinking machine.  Like a human child, a thinking machine will have to grow up and learn everything on its own.

It does no good to create code that tells a computer what a banana is.  Can you remember learning what a banana was, and how to tell it from all the other kinds of fruits, or even distinguish it from vegetables?  I bet you can remember learning what an iPhone is, and maybe you can even tell the difference between an iPhone 3S and a 5S.  You’d think it would be easy to tell a computer to do the same thing, but it’s not.  Modern AI can be programmed to spot an iPhone, but not out of context of knowing what everything else is around it.  Not seeing and understanding the complete context of the visual field shows why the machine isn’t thinking.  It’s how we learn about new things that’s thinking, not knowing what they are.

The same problem we face building thinking machines are the ones we face for creating true space travel and finding alien life forms in the galaxy.  Most people just don’t see the point.  They don’t want to waste the money.  And they’re xenophobic.  But what it comes down to is most people really don’t care.  It’s not on their radar.  Space travel, aliens and robots have no value to them at all.  Zip. Nada.  Nothing.

So why the immense popularity of science fiction at the movies, on television and in video games?  Well, that’s another essay.

When I was a kid back in the 1950s and 1960s I embraced science fiction because I wanted to see space travel in my lifetime.  I wanted first contact in my lifetime, even if it was just SETI contact.  And I expected intelligent machines to be created in my lifetime.  Hell, I thought all of these things would have happened by the beginning of the 21st century.  Boy, was I wrong.

st

I thought we took a bad turn when the Apollo program was cancelled, but felt things were back on schedule with the emerging popularity of Star Wars and the return of Stat Trek.  I felt millions and millions of Earthlings were embracing the three great promises of science fiction as science fiction at the movies became huge box office successes.  But I was wrong.  All those people weren’t dreaming the same dreams as I had.  They are getting something else out of science fiction.

Orphans of the Sky is a powerful story by Robert A. Heinlein about a generation ship traveling the vast distances between the stars for so long that the passengers have forgotten that they live in a spaceship.  Their self-contained world becomes their entire universe and they forget the larger universe exists at all.  When I read Orphans of the Sky back in the 1960s I felt that humanity was waking up and realizing that they were living on spaceship Earth.  Hell, again I was so goddamn wrong. 

In most people’s minds, people on Earth live in a small place where God rules over them and cruelly holds out promise of everlasting life if they only confess belief.  Earth is a ball of dust God created as a classroom for us to live on while we decide.  Earth has no purpose other than a staging area for heaven and hell.  All the rest of the vast universe is a big distracting illusion.

The future used to be a vision of mankind spreading out to the stars making endless discoveries, but now I have a different vision.  Humans will continue to live on the Earth forgetting it’s a spaceship traveling through a vast universe, and the inhabitants will continue to follow their illusions century after century until they destroy their ship.  I could be wrong – I’ve shown that to often be true.  Let’s hope.  Maybe The Enlightenment is just taking longer than we thought.

Now it might sound like I’m depressed over this reevaluation of my beliefs, but I’m not.  I consider it far more healthy to be realistic than try to keep my own cherished fantasies.   The truth is always discovering the true mission of the spaceship where you become self-aware.  Which brings me back to robots.  If we ever create truly self-aware robots, what will they make of old spaceship Earth?

JWH – 11/6/13

Why Don’t Politicians Have PhDs in Economics?

It seems like every politician in Washington KNOWS the absolute solution to our economic problems.  But how do they know?  The Tea Party has Washington gridlocked because they claim to know, but is their knowledge based on anything substantial?  Are their opinions backed by something other than wanting to promote Christianity and pay less taxes?  How many politicians have advanced degrees in economics, government and political science?

I’m sorry, but it seems to me that all politicians are out for themselves, and their positions are based on personal desires and the special interests of the people that support them.  I’d be far more impressed with the Democrats and Republicans if they each based their policies on giant economic models backed by an army of PhD researchers.  Politicians have no intellectual authority behind their opinions even though they hold them so strongly.  In fact, after recent events I’d be happy to replace all our political leaders in Congress with robots and referendums.

gort

Every major university and think tank in the United States should be developing an economic model.  All their economic and political PhD students, postdocs, and faculty should be researching and writing to support these models.  All the models should compete, like weather models and global warming models, to see which ones best reflect actual reality.  We need to get away from opinions, away from us versus them.  It’s obvious that many of our leaders don’t know shit about economics.

The makers of Sim City should create Sim Economy so we can all play and study how our economy works.

simcity4_ss1

We all need a better economic and political education.  Maybe we have saps for leaders because we’re not smart enough to elect anything better.  If we learn anything from this current political/economic crisis, it’s that we need to elect smarter politicians.  Or replace them with AI robots.

JWH – 10/15/13