Sunday, October 29, 2017

First Interstellar Asteroid? It's Interstellar, But Not the First We've Seen

Information here and here. Based on the velocity and path, this asteroid originated from outside the solar system. This is a great additional finding, but not actually news! Comet Wild-2 was the subject of the Stardust sample return mission, and analysis showed more than a few interesting things: that it contained the amino acid glycine, and that the nitrogen isotope ratio showed that the object likedly originated from a different solar system.

A point of interest here is that since the solar system's origin, there must have been multiple close passes by other stars - close enough that our respect Oort clouds would mix at the margins, and material would be exchanged between star systems. We have now verified this logical inference visually, and through direct chemical evidence.

Previous post about alien evolution, Life's Origins at Four Billion Years Ago; Implications For Our Future

Friday, October 27, 2017

If You Take Parfit Seriously, You Should Commit Yourself To Creating Superintelligence

Cross posted at Cognition and Evolution and The Late Enlightenment.

Derek Parfit makes the argument that if utilitarianism as it is commonly understood is to be taken to its conclusion - the greatest good for the greatest number - that mathematically we should care not just about making individuals happy, but making more individuals, to be happy. If you can have a world of a billion people all just as happy as a world of a million people, then that that's a no brainer.

The problem is when you get to the math of it. The "repugnant conclusion" that if the total amount of happiness is what matters, then you should favor numbers over quality of life. That is, a world of a hundred billion people with lives just barely worth living is better than a world of a hundred people with great lives - because the great lives are probably not a billion times greater than those of the hundred billion in almost total misery.

The obvious objection is that you're talking about theoretical people when you talk about those hundred billion. The counterargument is that we do care about theoretical people - our descendants - and you might already make environmental decisions to preserve the environment for the happiness of your grandchildren; right now you avoid (hopefully) littering the street to avoid upsetting people you've never met and will probably never meet.

There are other objections of course; for instance, that experienced happiness in an individual is what matters; otherwise slave plantations could be (in fact, probably are) morally acceptable.

But following Parfit's repugnant conclusion to its end, if the total amount of utility is what matters, then increasing the amount of utility possible to be experienced also matters. That is to say, there is no reason to stop at considering theoretical people, but rather we should consider theoretical kinds of experience, and theoretical kinds of experiencers. And there is nothing in Parfit's thesis provincial to or chauvinistic about humans. (If there were, that might solve the problem, because you could say "the closer something is related to me, the more I should be concerned with its happiness" - me and my brother against my cousin, et cetera - which, at very close genetic distances, is in fact what most humans already do.)

Therefore, we should try to make a world of a hundred million bipolar (manic) people who can experience hedonic value far in excess of what most of us ever do (assuming we can keep them manic and not depressed.) Or, even better, created an artificial superintelligence capable of experiencing these states, and not devoting all our resources to creating as many copies of it as possible. But cast aside those constraints - if you believe it is possible for a self-modifying general artificial intelligence with consciousness (and pleasure) to exist, then by Parfit, the only moral act is to give up all your recreation and resources to live in misery and dedicate your life to the single-minded pursuit of getting us one second closer to the creation of this superintelligence. The total suffering and happiness of life on Earth up until the moment of the singularity would quickly shrink to a rounding error, compared to the higher states these replicating conscious superintelligences might experience. Therefore, if you are not already singlemindedly dedicating yourself to bringing such a superintelligence to life, you are forestalling seconds of these agents' pleasurable experiences (which far offset your own suffering and maybe those of all living things) and you are committing the most immoral act possible.

This problem is superficially similar to Roko's basilisk (in the sense of your actions being changed by knowledge of a possible superintelligence) but I think it should still be called Caton's basilisk.

As a result of these objections, I do not think we need to take the repugnant conclusion seriously, and I do not think not dedicating yourself to creating a super-hedonic superintelligence is immoral.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Organics on Ceres Are From Ceres (not from other impacting bodies)

The organic material on Ceres, while intriguing, appears to be native, rather than delivered from other impactors. So says data from the Southwest Research Institute at the 2017 Astronomical Society meeting. The possibility of simple organic replicators on low-gravity bodies in the solar system ("space viruses", to be dramatic) an interesting one, and is one form (or one part) of the pan-spermia hypothesis that's been considered for over a century, going back at least to Arrhenius. (Space viruses might also be the only evidence we would ever see of alien life or even an alien singularity.) What this tells us is that the large majority of material on Ceres, and presumably on most large old asteroids, is native to those bodies since the dawn of the solar system.

What the findings mean for the "space virus" hypothesis is that we can be more confident that Ceres is not crawling with foreign space viruses - although if there is a replicator that can use the typical organics on large asteroids as building materials, that's not what you would usually see. That is to say, when an organism gets infected by a virus, the organism isn't infiltrated with foreign matter, but rather with a tiny bit of foreign matter that then rearranges the atoms in the organism into copies of itself.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review, Blade Runner 2049 (Containing Many Spoilers)

tl;dr It's good, worthy of the original, with a much cleaner script, and what shortcomings it does have it shares with the original. Go see it now, on the big screen.


The cinematography (given other reviews to this effect I need not belabor this point) and the sound, which was fantastic in the first one and is a hallmark of Villeneuve's other work. It's not surprising that a director who clearly focuses on being a good story-teller - to the narrative flow - also pays so much attention to the sound in his movies. In several interviews the actors described him as tending toward verbal sound effects in his direction. Roger Deakins should get the Oscar, [added later: he did] and you should watch this on the big screen.

In his movies, Villeneuve always goes for the emotional jugular, usually with the death of loved ones and harm being done to children, both happening here. From a distance it seems like manipulation but it feels wonderful while you're watching.

I really liked the shot looking down onto the city during the initial approach to Los Angeles. You see the detailed metal surface of the city, reminiscent of Latin American shanty-towns on the mountains surrounding the city centers - and then, best of all, you realize that's just the roof of packed high-rises, and you catch glimpses of neon down to the streets. And then there are the police and corporate towers above it all, implying the class stratification as in the first one - i.e., if you're not cops (or corporate) you're little people. This movies continues the trend of moving away from CGI to building real sets and doing real stunts (used to excellent effect in Mad Max: Fury Road.)

I liked the transition from slave to working skinjob, and the attendant shift in social status, represented as out of the frying pan and into the fire in a sense. In the first one after the term skinjob is introduced, in the narrated version we hear "O'Brien is the kind of man in history books used to call black men n-----s." In this one, the replicants are walking around free but clearly despised by police and civilians alike. This closely parallels the status change of African-Americans from slave to free but living under Jim Crow and segregation; or of gay people being out, but still having to watch their step.

Also a clear parallel - the police chief ("Madame") has more than a hint of plantation owner or county sheriff to her, and treats K as her boy. In the scene where she gets a little drunk there is clearly sexual tension and she talks to K teasingly in a way I doubt she would talk to her human employees. (She also at one point asks "How long have you been under me?")

The introductory scene continues the moral ambiguity of Blade Runner vs replicant. In the first one, it's "Did you ever take that test yourself Mr. Deckard?" that starts many viewers wondering. In the very beginning, a hard-working farmer (producing food for an overpopulated world and otherwise minding his own business) enters his kitchen, there's a thug sitting in the shadows who coldly dispatches him.

I like that we get out of LA in this one. If the cities are so miserable, now we understand why people aren't just moving elsewhere. If you've made the LA-Vegas drive on the 15, you've seen the single solar tower surrounded by mirrors, and in this movie we see a whole plain covered with them (I imagine Villeneuve doing his research by driving or flying around the desert and saying, "What is that? That's real, right now in 2017?") I like that LAX is now separated from the rest of LA by a fair stretch of Pacific and that there's a massive tide wall protecting LA. In general I appreciate movies that really use the places as they are instead of a made-up generic American city. In this one we see maps and landmarks - except during the visit to San Diego, which is seldom featured in movies. (Incidentally, that's exactly how I pictured the Dog Solitudes from Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

They eliminate the question of whether K is a replicant very early on, which I like. Even though he's a replicant, when "there's a wasp crawling on [his] arm" he chooses not to kill it. The movie then plays with the "are the memories real or not?" quite a bit. Favorite scene in this regard: K gets angry when he sees memory woman, and she assumes it's because he is finding out his memories are false, but the truth is much more complicated. And I'm still not clear that K really isn't the male twin who survived.

We still don't know if Deckard is a replicant or not. Villeneuve says in so many words that they were quite careful to avoid answering this.

We see a big Atari logo, but there's no explanation at all as to the resurrection of this company from 2017 to a corporate giant. In general the movie stays away from explaining how we get from 2017 of today to 2019 of the movies, and that's not what's important, so I'm glad they don't get bogged down in it. There continues to be an 80s flair to the styling, especially the cars (K's car looks like an old Toyota with flimsy plastic over it) although it's clearly shown to be a Peugot. (I wonder if companies actively fought to keep their logos out of this movie, given the fortunes of those prominently featured in the first.)

The Blackout is a way to keep the movie from being over in five minutes ("ah, I'll just go on Google 2049, and voila, there's Deckard!") but to the movie's credit, they don't belabor it. I had previously worried that this movie would suffer from the same problem that all paradigm-shift-reliant science fiction does, but I think I was correct that they aren't bogged down by it. the last one?)

Sylvia Hoeks said in one interview that the out-of-place crying was her idea and that Villeneuve trusted her to go with it. (Evan Rachel Wood has to do something like this in Westworld for her character Dolores and likens it to the "acting Olympics.") This is her first American movie, so I'm sure part of it is her showing off her acting skills to future directors. Even if this is confusing or even showboating, I don't mind, because we in the audience get to benefit from her performance.

The parallelism between Deckard's rejection of neo-Rachel and K's rejection of the not-true-Joi hologram is nice.

The fight scene and choking of Luv is genuinely disturbing.

The use of monumental architecture gives the movie a bit of an interesting 70s scifi feel (think of the concrete bunker where memory woman lives.) I wonder if they built this or just used some building on UC Irvine's campus, like everyone does.

There is rare use of humor, just enough to keep the movie from being too heavy or pretentious ("You must have been adorable" to the Wallace clerk.)

NEGATIVE or NOT FULLY UNDERSTOOD - the more I think about them, the less important they are.

There's maybe just a little too much correspondence between characters in the first and second movies, although many are hybrids. Memory girl is J.F. Sebastian (a replicant subcontractor who keeps to herself and has a genetic defect that keeps her from going off-world.) Wallace is Tyrell. Robin Wright is O'Brien. Blonde replicant girl is Pris. The man running the salvage-orphange is half Chu (the eye guy) and half Taffy Lewis (incidentally, I didn't like his performance - too over the top crazy.) K is a combination of Roy Baty and Deckard, Luv is a combination of Roy Baty and Rachel - but much more Roy. (Sylvia Hoeks didn't make up lines for Luv like Hauer did for Roy, but she did take liberties with emotional expression, i.e. the random flat crying.) She also auditioned by recording herself delivering Roy Baty lines. And she certainly perfected the facial-expression-of-naughty-child-while-doing-horrible-murderous-things look that Hauer used for Roy. You could say Joi is this movie's Rachel, but not really - she's the one that most does not fit.

One of the things that made Blade Runner unique was its depiction of 2019 Los Angeles as a multiethnic mess. When I first watched it I was an easily scared 80s kid on the East Coast, and I signed on to the sentiment at that time (driven by fear of an ascendant Japan) that if there are that many Asians in an American city and white people are eating with chopsticks, it must be a dystopia! Now I watch the first one and think, I wonder if that noodle stand is any good? Today, implying a dystopian tone is much better done with climate change and much less with ethnic mixing. Therefore, oddly, in this one, there are remarkably few Asians (or non-white people for that matter - far fewer than in the real LA of 2017 - did they all go off-world?) and furthermore, the use of certain languages doesn't make sense from a world-building perspective (Cyrillic on the farm modules; Devanagari in the police station; Korean on the casino.)

David Bowie was originally supposed to play Niander Wallace. That would've been perfect. I kind of wonder at Jared Leto as a choice. His dedication to the role can't be questioned, but I found his slow, staggered delivery a bit contrived and self-conscious.

I really liked some Robin Wright scenes, like the drunk one I mentioned. But some of her dialogue was clunkily written. "You've bought yourself a war." Sticks out to me; no good way to deliver it.

In the first one I wondered what the point was of using emotion to distinguish human and replicant. Because then the replicants become dangerous? For crying out loud, Pris was part of a kick-murder squad! In this movie, the unclear point is why being "born" makes such a distinction. But you can only explore the dimensions of the human condition so much in one movie.

Everyone who has seen Her will think of that movie during the sex scene, and I think the scene in Her was more poignant and better done - although technically I did really like the video effect here. That said, it still felt very crowbarred-in. The function this scene serves in the plot is to increase the emotional resonance of K's relationship with Joi, as well as to get a tracer into K's pocket, but this could have been accomplished in other ways.

I could've used less of the screen investigations (looking at bone fragments, looking at DNA.)

Where did Gaff's accent and use of cityspeak go?

There has already been discussion of another movie. Alien: Covenant has extra features that strongly suggest continuity between Blade Runner and Alien (i.e. Weyland's mentor was Tyrell) but this has several continuity problems: a) by 2049 there are at least 9 off-world colonies. In Prometheus, fifty years after BR2049, there are none. b) The late 21st century citizens of Prometheus seemed much happier than the people in Blade Runner. c) This would also mean continuity between Blade Runner and Predator. d) There has even been implied continuity between two PKD-inspired movies, Blade Runner and Total Recall. What a mess! I hope that Villeneuve or his descendants don't think about this at all, but if these movies are commercially successful, I can easily see pressure being applied to make this into a parallel to the Marvel Universe. Which will not likely benefit the quality of these movies.