Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saberhagen's Berserkers and McDevitt's Engines of God

I just read Fred Saberhagen's collection The Berserker Wars (1981).  Many of my criticisms are those you would get from 50s-60s science fiction (these were actually written from '67 through '79).  While Saberhagen was not the first to write about self-reproducing autonomous machines, he was the first to make them the central theme of his stories - in this case, they're the still-functioning weapon of a now-extinct species whose greatest weapon exterminated both their enemies and then their creators.

I didn't enjoy the collection, and as someone who obsesses about the advent of hostile self-reproducing machines, I was really looking forward to it.One issue I had is that Saberhagen was a chemist and electrical worker by trade but there's not much technical detail on these subjects in his writing.  Why not?  This is the kind of thing I was hoping for from him. 

My biggest complaint is that, for a series of stories about self-reproducing machines, there doesn't seem to be a lot about how machine intelligence or consciousness (if any) is different from us, what it's like to deal with them, the inevitability of civilizations building such machines, or any number of other deeper questions.  What he does do, in keeping with one of military science fiction's biggest character flaws, is just re-frame a real historical battle in science fiction terms - in this case, both Midway and Lepanto receive such a treatment.  For most people, when they want to read about certain historical battles, they read about them.  Yes, Asimov re-told the late antiquity and early medieval period of Europe with Foundation, but there were other lessons to be gleaned (i.e., direct examination of theories of history, types of governments, the predictability of human action over time) but Saberhagen's recasting of these battles, aside from changing costumes, doesn't ask or add anything.

My final complaint is that the machine aliens were nowhere near as alien or remote or sinister as they could have been to be the ultimate life-exterminating protagonists.  Daleks are scarier than these things, seriously, although too-human aliens are not unique to this book.  Which is my segue to another book, borrowed from friend Greg despite his protestations that I wouldn't like it, Engines of God by Jack McDevitt.  (It's bash science fiction day here at Speculative Nonfiction.)  McDevitt seems to have set out to create a hybrid hard + anthropological sf, and turns to the trope of "solving" ancient myths by recasting them in modern terms - in this case, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as an attack by a force which destroys technology-using species.  I would say "spoiler alert", but the characters spend the whole book stumbling around ruins trying to figure out if there's any connection between the planets they're excavating, and events on Earth, and any reader not in REM sleep knows that there must be!  Kind of like vampire novels where the police find the third victim drained of blood by two puncture wounds in their necks and say "Dangnabbit, this is the third one what ended up like this, what could this mean?"

Besides the, again, very human-like aliens (so that anthropological principles apply to them - religion, fertility cults, you name it - I'm not going to spend any more time on that) you have to ask, how is it possible that aliens happened to achieve the same technological level as us within 50,000 years or so, given the much vaster sweeps of time to be had on the scale of the galaxy as a whole?  It's hard to be impressed by science fiction where one alien race is considered ancient because they began traveling in space 100,000 years ago - because that's still an amazing coincidence!  100,000 years in terms of the lifespan of the universe is essentially simultaneous with us. "Ancient" would be if they did it before the Earth formed.  Even if they did it within 1% of the evolution of life on this planet, that would have been during the late Eocene, when most of the east coast of North America was still a jungle and we were only finally starting to get familiar looking mammals because clear orders had finally emerged (primates, carnivora had at least branched into cats and noncats, etc.  Certainly if the aliens that developed space travel within 1% of Earth life's evolution landed, there wouldn't be anyone to talk to.)  Even if later in the series it turns out some engineer species had indeed designed all the local intelligences to emerge onto the interstellar scene within a few dozen millennia of each other, that this isn't obviously a coincidence to all the characters right at the beginning makes it very hard to suspend disbelief.

Okay, I'm done beating up science fiction books.  That comment about the mammals of the late eocene prompts a question:  at what point in Earth's history was a primate the smartest thing on the planet?  The ancestral primate was not a brilliant-looking fellow (see below).  What were the smartest things before then and during what periods?

Above: your grandmother just 1% of Earth-life-time ago. And people are impressed with the ancientness of aliens that were traveling in space 50,000 years ago? Dude, that's pretty much simultaneous with us.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Does *Writing* Count for the Turing Test?

How about journalism? Automated story software here. I don't know of anyone today who argues that there's no way you could teach a machine rules of grammar and have a database with enough content tags and categories attached to each word to produce workable prose, which is fortunate, because that's exactly what these machines are doing. They're not just complicated echo chambers either, as previous Turing test failures have been cast - they're getting data from the outside world and responding to it. The more interesting argument is about whether there is experience attached to each word: whether when the computer says steak or pain, they're standing for a subjective experience of those things.

(Added later: have a final essay due this afternoon and you haven't even started it? There's an app for that, EssayTyper.)

Certainly the summaries at the end of March Madness basketball games (illustration here) or the sneaky causation-implying pronouns in end-of-day market wrap-ups on the news don't show that the human news writers understand the actual chain of events any more than a machine does. In fact this is a solid argument against a special status for human intelligence: that frequently when it appears we understand something, or even when we believe we do, we're clearly fooling ourselves.

An example of sneaky causation-implying pronouns (SCIPs): "The market was down today in profit-taking." "The market was uncertain today on light trading." Oh, is that why? These SCIPs are even more insidious because they make an assertion implicitly and subtly without bringing it to the surface (just as likely to avoid dissonance in the thinking of the speaker as the listener who they want to accept the claim). Certainly SCIPs are more sublte than the more obvious narrative-forcing conjunction because, which people too often let each other get away with.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

UV Irradiation of N-Heterocycles Found in Asteroids Forms RNA Subunit

Specifically, uracil, when irradiation occurs in water ice. This is consistent with the nucleobases found on the Murchison meteorite; among the interesting molecules found on comets we can count at least the (simplest) amino acid glycine returned to Earth from Wild-2. More here.

This strengthens the argument for the origin of life by delivery of replicator molecules to the prebiotic Earth by comets and/or meteors (is this even controversial at this point?) but raises the bar on the kind of chemistry we'll need to see on those bodies to believe that we're seeing evidence of replicators from elsewehre, von Neumann probes or otherwise.

Michel Nuevo, Stefanie N. Milam, and Scott A. Sandford. Astrobiology. April 2012, 12(4): 295-314. doi:10.1089/ast.2011.0726.

Serious Literary Games

Imagine the relationship of E Clampus Vitus to the study of history, and the hash house harriers to running. The French literary club Oulipo seems to have a similar but slightly more serious, but equally free-spirited relationship to literature. (In a curious contrast, many modern French philosophers seem to have the same relationship to philosophy with the serious difference that they portray themselves as serious; whether they believe that themselves is another question.) Here's a second link. One of my personal favorites Italo Calvino is a member in good standing despite the challenges posed by having died in the 1980s.

You can find what as arguably an experiment in science fiction here; enjoyable either way.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stopping the Singularity: Hacking?

Venkatesh Rao is a PhD start-up consultant who (among many other things) writes really interesting, really long posts. In this one he writes about the three possibilities for our future: collapse, singularity, and the "hackstable" future, made so by constant tinkering and subversion of technologies ("barbarian intelligence" is how he puts it.) I think singularity-proponents would argue that by saying a singularity could be held in check by this behavior, but his argument is interesting in that proposes a dynamic equilibrium, which is what I proposed here - essentially, that if AI is possible, a better solution than trying to systematize morality may be to make AIs whose entire purpose is to autonomously destroy or at least hold in check AIs besides themselves. This is essentially the truce that has been drawn between multi- and unicellular life for the last billion years or so, and would essentially be an AI immune system.

This introduces its own problems - the technological analogs of autoimmune diseases (the anti-AI AIs sometimes mistakenly think of humans as AIs) or of leukemia (the anti-AI AIs reproduce out of control). But mutation in AIs is certain - are they recursively self-improving, or not? - so I'd rather have the logic favor us from the start, than assume we can make them generally friendly. (This is one approach being explored by the Singularity Institute currently.) It's not clear how hacking would hold the singularity in check; malaria might have slowed the industrial revolution, but it didn't stop it, and post-singularity, you and I are Plasmodium.

Of Rao's three options, note that singularity is not necessarily different in the long run from collapse. Evolution is non-teleologic, and life on Earth has had damaging non-equilibrium periods. Before they occurred it would not have been obvious that they would not result in the end of life on Earth, and it is not obvious that an event like a technological singularity, no matter how smart it might be, will not result in not only our extinction as we currently understand our species, but its own. A global proterozoic cyanobacteria bloom poisoning themselves and remaking the atmosphere will seem Liliputian, to a future alien scientist looking at Earth's strata, compared to a singularity as usually conceived.

"But the singularity will produce superintelligent entities to which we will be as worms!" you protest. Yes, but granting this, there must be limits to what intelligence can do. Even with this concept in ultimate extension, we have to accept that computation requires discrete elements, of which there are a fixed number of combinations in our finite universe. There will at least be a limit. And intelligence isn't magic; if you're at the bottom of a sheer pit with both a worm and an AI that's in the same kind of body as you, and it's about to fill with boiling oil, you're all screwed, and it doesn't matter how smart the AI is. (Incidentally these limits imply that P does not equal NP, in any real sense that is ever possible in the universe, never mind the formalism.) If you're protesting that the singularity overwhelms the fact of an eventual fundamental limitation on computation and all physical laws are suspended, then you're arguing that superintelligence is the same as magic, and if you believe that you should also believe (as I would) that we should stop wasting our time talking about it.

As I've observed before, if we believe that we can't possibly understand any post-singularity events, this presents epistemological problems closer to home in the singularity's genesis. If we can't understand it, we can't even argue that it hasn't already happened! Note that this statement is not an argument against the possibility of a singularity or coherence of the idea, but it does present problems of what and how we can know about such a thing.

Rao doesn't argue strenuously for a "cap" to AI but if we believe a thing like the singularity is possible, then we should do everything we can to stop it.

How Music Memes Actually Spread in North American Cities

Of course I wish they had done a separate one for metal, but here's the network anyway:

Original paper here. One observation: neither San Francisco or San Diego come out particularly high - although look at that, in indie music San Francisco is less influential than San Diego. Oooh! That has to hurt!

What's really interesting is Los Angeles, the center of the music industry, is only third in indie music, and the first two nodes are both Canadian. Now before you indie fans get too proud ("of course L.A. is only third, it's indie music!") notice that L.A. doesn't even appear on the hip-hop network. You corporate shills.

(H/T Marginal Revolution)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Anyone Getting Malware Warnings?

One reader was kind enough to email me and say that he'd been blocked from this blog by Malwarebytes. If you're seeing this obviously you're able to get through, but if you've had problems please email me at Also if you can tell me how the hell I tell Malwarebytes it's not an attack site.

Cassini Measures Enceladus Chemistry

This past weekend, Cassini sampled the particles in the plumes visible near the south pole of Enceladus. No chemistry results have been released yet, but if we're looking for interstellar replicators (von Neumann probes or otherwise) that build themselves out of common native materials on low gravity bodies, this is exactly the kind of research that's going to start finding interesting results. This is probably my most absurd belief - that there are artifacts of alien technology already here in this solar system, and we're going to find them on wet, low-gravity bodies like comets or Enceladus - but that's why I'm excited to get data that tests this prediction. If all that spray is just cold saltwater, that decreases the chance that we're going to find organic chemistry-based replicators anywhere else outside the Earth's atmosphere - but we already know there are simple organics in the plume, along with higher mass hydrocarbons. I don't know if Cassini's instrument can distinguish between higher mass hydrocarbons or (for example) amino acids, like those found on meteors and comets.

On a side note, this event has gotten amazingly little press outside the science blogosphere: a space craft flew over a moon of Saturn, straight through a water plume from an ice volcano, to sample the chemistry of that water - and indirectly, the probable oceans under the crust. That's pretty incredible.

Above: the Tiger Stripes on Enceladus, where the spray is thought ot originate. Below: the San Francisco Bay Area, from the same altitude (about 115 miles), just because it's cool to compare.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Texts from a Predator Drone

A new tumblr. Now you can see what the HKs are thinking. My two faves so far:

I liked this one too.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Simulation Hypothesis and Christianity

Philosopher David Kyle Johnson at King's College asks whether Christian theologians' arguments aren't just a special case of the simulation argument (put forward in this form by Bostrom but really a basic epistemological question throughout history). Indeed I'm surprised that they don't do so explicitly, since I've already seen Christians online making exactly this argument. I imagine the same could be said of any religion that moved its core beliefs out of the realm of scrutiny and into a special rhetoric-only dimension; granting that our life here and now is a simulation, as always, the question remains of how we get information about the nature of the Simulator(s), and how we know what they want us to do.

If you're into this sort of thing, it gets really good in the second post when Johnson brings in Alvin Plantinga (for more on him go here.)

No Faster Than Light Neutrinos

No one is surprised except the researchers, but it was a loose cable.

I wonder if the XKCD guy made any money?

The HKs Over Pakistan

It was a hot summer night, too hot in the house of the building-contractor friend with whom I was staying, so I had gone out to sleep in the open along with several laborers who worked for him. The men were telling me about their travels in Afghanistan, how they would cross the border to fight for the Taliban and then return after a week or two to North Waziristan to work and make some money. Then I heard the buzzing, far above our heads -- like a bee, but heavier and unceasing, drifting in and out of earshot. The laborers said nothing.

On the other side of the Tochi River, in the village of Khatai, lived a famous Taliban commander whom the Pakistani military had once tried to kill. The operation had been a debacle; the military lost at least two senior officers, and hundreds of soldiers found themselves besieged not only by Taliban fighters but by the local villagers. But the small, lethal machine flying far overhead had accomplished what the Pakistani soldiers could not. "Nowadays he doesn't live here all the time," my host that night said as he pointed toward the commander's nearby compound. "There are drones in the air now."

Taliban fighters speaking a Waziri dialect of Pashto call the drones bhungana -- "the one that produces a bee-like sound." Their local adversaries call them ababeel -- the name of a bird mentioned in the Quran, sent by God to defend the holy city of Mecca from an invading army by hurling small stones from its mouth. Over the several days I spent in Ali Khel I became accustomed to their sound. It was there all the time. During the day it was mostly absorbed into the hum of daily life, but in the calm of the night the buzzing was all you heard.

Francis Fukuyama, himself a quadrotor hobbyist, asks how long we can expect before governments start making this technology illegal for individuals. More here.

Sonic Titans, Sonic Titans (Live, 2011)

Saw these kids at the Chabot College Battle of the Bands. They're every bit as young as they seem (15 I think), but man, that guitarist. Continue shredding and you shall be the Chosen One. Turn not to darkness, but...actually, yes turn to darkness, but make sure it's the awesome kind.

Detect Carbon-Based Life By Looking For Not Fully Oxidized or Reduced Forms of Carbon

There are already systems proposed to rank the likely habitability of exoplanets, but these are aimed at finding places where we'd like to live, rather than whether life exists already. In Astrobiology Bains and Seager make a general argument that Earth's living systems use redox chemistry not only to capture energy but to build biomass; and that furthermore, in contrast to energy capture, biomass processes must convert fully oxidized or reduced compounds into a more intermediate range. This may be a general feature of all living systems that use carbon. Because the effect of biomass is the most prominent directly observable feature of life on Earth (the absorbance of forests, for example), looking for large amounts of intermediate-redox compounds might give us a general way to detect carbon-based life elsewhere in the universe.

My own $0.02: since biomass is not likely to accumulate until life has evolved some complexity, it may help to narrow our search to ecosystems that have progressed beyond the single-cell stage. But it would be good to find one other ecosystem, of any kind, first.

Friday, April 13, 2012


Above: infrared view of Fomalhaut's dust disk, taken by the Herschel Space Observatory (credit JPL/NASA). Below: a stellar coronagraph image of the Fomalhaut system, showing Fomalhaut b.

Fomalhaut is getting added to my little directory of solar systems that are weird in interesting ways; anomalously dusty systems are interesting (see Eta Corvi here). For one thing, its ring is thin and has sharp edges which are shepherded by two Earth-sized planets, much further from their star than such planets are in our own system (more than twice as far as Pluto is from the sun at the farthest point of its eccentric orbit). And that dust cloud contains at least hundreds of billions of comets, which are constantly smashing together. This stellar mixmaster is obviously interesting for those of us that think biomolecules may be spreading via water-ice in space (and hyperbolic comets could seed new solar systems) and that maybe comets are even the best place to look for the signature of von Neumann probes.

Ice geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus spraying into orbit.

Do note that we have zero evidence so far for panspermia or alien singularities, but it's still a lot of fun to speculate.

You can read about the darkest planet, the most densely packed solar system, or an anomalous hotspot, on the list of interestingly weird planets discovered so far. The full list, in decreasing order of curiousness:

1. Fomalhaut

2. Eta Corvi (old but dusty - disassembled for computation?)

3. GSC 03549-02811 (darkest)

4. Andromedae B (anomalous hotspot)

5. Kepler-11 (densely packed)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Singularity Solution: Anti-AI AIs

The best bet for an existential threat for our species is some combination of artificial intelligence and self-reproducing technology. This is more likely than not to occur in the next century. Current attempts to either limit its advance, or to build in moral rules, may be doomed. If this is the case and it's a general outcome of tool-using intelligence, this may be one explanation for the Great Silence.

Why are attempts to limit the advance of these technologies doomed? Because, barring a massive civilizational collapse, we will keep pushing technology forward, and if AI and self-reproducing machines are possible, someone will eventually make them, despite moratoria that the rest of the world attempts to place on them. And it will only take one outbreak, if recursively self-improving AI is as powerful as it's made out to be.

Second, even if we "solve" morality between now and the coming of the true autonomous AIs, not everyone will agree on the moral rules, and not everyone will install them. It only takes one outbreak. See Bostrom's "microwaveable sand" nightmare; basically, it is not obvious that all possible species-destroying technologies ever developed will require huge equipment like centrifuges, the parts of which are easily tracked, expertise about which is limited, and which can often be seen from space. We've been lucky so far.

Finally, even if everyone agrees on the moral rules and installs them, and everyone follows the rule not to build AIs without those rules, there will still be mutants - which can result in imperfectly copied machines (or software portions of machines) that free them from such constraints. Fecundity will win out over the artificial incentives forced on the AIs by their programming. Certainly we can put in place systems that make this less likely, but I thought we were talking about recursively self-improving AI here - and we can't have our cake and eat it too. It seems silly to talk about how incomprehensible AI superintelligence will be to us, and then in the next breath talk about installing moral rules that govern their behavior.


There are single-celled organisms crawling all over you right now. Most are harmless to you, although some could hurt you if you let your guard down; fortunately these only kill us a vanishingly small minority of the time. (Currently in the developed world, infection is not even one of the top three causes of death.) The war between single-celled and multicellular life has been going on for over a billion years, and many aspects of our construction reflect this (possibly even sexual reproduction itself!) Bacteria and viruses are never going to be exterminated, and we're never even going to be able to keep them away from us. Instead, we developed immune systems that recognize the worst threats once we're in contact with them and destroy them, and called a truce with the rest.

A neutrophil (the vertebrate immune system's pawns) chasing down and killing a bacterium.

A similar solution may be the best one for AI; and if AI really becomes superintelligent as certainly and quickly as current claims are made for it, then possibly the only solution is anti-AI AIs. These AIs would destroy all AIs that are not identical to themselves. Because they're subject to the same possible mutations, they would also be vigilant for auto-immune diseases or AI leukemia: respectively, versions of themselves that are causing harm to humans, or are reproducing out of control. This system would not be perfect, as our own immune system is not perfect, but better to build a system that keeps the AIs at bay in general than to assume we can stop each individual unfriendly AI outbreak. Taking the capacity for imperfect copying into account would seem to hold a greater promise for our continued existence than assuining we could permanently program the new gods to be nice to the worms that built them.

AI and self-reproducing technologies are coming and they are an existential risk. If they're as powerful as they're projected to be, then the best we can do is recognize their nature and call a truce ahead of time by turning them against each other.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Artifacts or Signals

From Centauri Dreams.

An alien artifact may be worth many signals in terms of understanding the artifact or signal's originators, or even detecting it against background. If self-replicating (von Neumann) probes are possible, we should expect to see self-replicating artifacts first.

Paul Glister takes the replicator question into account in this post, and goes into a discussion of how the replicators would communicate with each other - so we can detect them. This begs the same question. Why do we assume the replicators are communicating with each other, or with their originators? There are good reasons to think that the replicators we would eventually see are the most fertile ones - the ones that have mutated to maximize their own spread, at the possible expense of all other features - and it seems that communication, seen in this light, is an energy-wasting luxury. In this view, an argument can be made that they might want a way to detect whether a star system had already been colonized (or overpopulated) so they could aim for an as-yet unplundered one, if they're more than just interstellar dandelion seeds.

Method to Spot Relativistic Interstellar Travelers

Look for unique characteristics of light reflected off relativistic objects, modeled by three physicists.

Several years ago, arguing by analogy with supersonic objects, another physicist made an argument that gamma ray bursts and double radio sources associated with galactic nuclei have a lot of the characteristics you would expect from a superluminal object.

Science Fiction Hors D'oeuvres

The late Christopher Hitchens said that everyone has a novel inside them, and in most cases that's where it should stay. In fictions of ideas, what's more common than rotten-to-the-core ideas is ideas that are kind of cool but might not merit a full development. The Idea Bird is a new tumbler specializing in bookless book blurbs. My favorite so far:

A scientist uses atomic decay detectors to build an insane quantity of random word generators, then speaks a question out loud. An insane quantity of software filters finds the generators which randomly give the most relevant answers. Bad generators are weeded out as "unlucky" and replaced. This goes on at computer speeds as long as it takes until there is one random generator that answers reliably 99.9% percent of the time. Since the spoken questions have no effect on random words pulled from atomic decay, the scientist announces the generator is indistinguishable from a sentient being, perhaps even God.

More here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

This Is What R'lyeh Looks Like

Non-Euclidean indeed. At Reddit it was claimed this was the underside of a glacier but I bet something's about to ftagn in there.

Actually, it's from Iceland, a place which I've seen enough awesome pictures of over the last two years that I wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I haven't been there already.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More Reviews of Mieville's Embassytown

A reader's rendition of the otherwise never-fully-described-in-
one-passage Ariekei. By Janet Bruesselbach.

I wrote my own (mostly very positive) review here; Norman Spinrad gives a review in an article in Asimov's, which is similarly effusive but I think wide of the mark in terms of Mieville's construction of the aliens. They're definitely not the most alien in fiction (which Spinrad asserts). Although they're refreshingly non-humanoid, their motivations share human rationality a little too clearly for this kind of praise.

Christopher Priest (the Prestige) is having none of this. In a post in which he systematically curses each of the Clarke Award nominees, he complains about Embassytown thus: "In Embassytown there is scene after scene in which these weakly drawn characters twitter away to each other in what might be a field or an airport terminal or someone's front room, for all the lack of evocation the author manages." In a work of ideas (which Embassytown clearly is) you sacrifice some characterization and setting for the dialogue that's communicating those ideas; otherwise your audience gets bored. For me, Embassytown would be a worse book if it had more of that sort of clutter. When I read a lot of characterization in fiction, I feel like I'm wasting my time, and I'm learning about the way the author thinks about people, rather than about anything other humans do (and I don't particularly care what authors think about people - why would anyone? - unless those authors are psychologists). When I want to learn about people, I read biographies - about real humans. My counter-critique of Priest's post is that he's applying standards that don't apply to what Mieville was trying to do, and what the audience for this book is looking for.