Monday, October 18, 2010

A Better Understanding

Are we headed down a technological highway that will transform the human race and give rise to machine based intelligence? And does the technology driving that development also help us better understand extraterrestrial visitors?

Let’s take a look at a couple of numbers.

The first is one everyone heard about this summer: 500 million. That’s the number of people on Facebook as of last July. That’s one out of every 14 humans on the planet. And it’s not just in the so called developed nations like the U.S. The use of social media is growing most rapidly in new newly developed markets. Malaysians actually have the most friends per user on Facebook. This is from TG Daily:

“Market research firm TNS found that countries such as Egypt and China have much higher levels of digital engagement - over 50 percent - than mature markets such as Japan (20 percent), Denmark (25 percent) or Finland (26 percent) - despite the fact that the latter have a more advanced internet infrastructure.”

I know, Facebook can seen pretty silly sometimes. But at its heart is a remarkable new way of looking at society. A social network exists outside the usual lines of social interaction. It has nothing to do with geography or close physical proximity. In fact, it’s the lack of a physical nature that makes it so remarkable. It’s a mini-society, complete with interaction and real value gained from that interaction, all without a physical presence.

That ability to create a new way of interaction, using technology, seems to be a fundamental development in human society. It joins the planet closer together and in a virtual environment that is amazingly flexible.

The other number that strikes me is 97 percent. That’s the number of teens who play video games according to a 2008 Pew Research Center study. The military actively recruits teens that are adept at manipulating video games, because much of the new military hardware is controlled in the same way. Kids are growing up with toys that teach them how to live and play in a virtual world.

So, we have generation that is immersed in internet based social structures and skilled at using avatars and navigating virtual worlds. How long before we begin to cross over into these worlds? I know, it’s been the subject of a bunch of Hollywood spectacles. Machine based intelligence has been a popular science fiction subject for decades. Hollywood brought the idea of (nasty) machine based intelligence to life in the Terminator series and the Matrix took virtual reality to a new level of consideration (and cheese). Finally, science is catching up to the writers and we can begin to grasp how such developments might occur, and how the resulting technology could truly impact human civilization.

It’s not just a matter of us creating artificial intelligence. We have already done so in rudimentary forms. As that technology develops at what point will be able to move our human intelligence into machine based environments? The move from body to machine has plenty of value for humans. You can overcome the limitations of organic life. You can have direct access to your technology and create whatever you might want or need. You can choose to interact with the biological planet or you could choose to inhabit a purely virtual world. And what happens when that virtual world becomes more enjoyable?

This could be important for understanding extraterrestrial visitors. There are many researchers who think that First Contact would most likely occur with a machine based intelligence, rather than biological beings. SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak and Arizona State University physicist Paul Davies have argued that machine based intelligence makes the most sense when it comes to interstellar travel. Machines can fix themselves and replicate. Machines don’t have to worry about supporting fragile bodies in the intense physical challenges of interstellar travel. Machine intelligence doesn’t have to worry about a lifespan and could travel for centuries, the time needed to traverse interstellar distances. Shostak elaborates on the idea in the fall edition of the journal Acta Astronautica.

In the article Shostak points to the incredible development of computing power in the last fifty years. Moore’s law says that computer processing speeds and memory capabilities will continue to increase at exponential rates. Ray Kurzweil has argued for some time that Moore’s law means that we will experience explosive growth in technology that in turn will lead to a dramatic rise in the power of artificial intelligence. Shostak and Kurzweil seem to agree that the resulting development will create a new machine based form of intelligence, perhaps taking over where humans have left off.

Shostak focuses his article on what such possibilities mean for the active, scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He argues that SETI should look for high energy signatures and expand the search area to include locations not previously considered. The current SETI effort tends to focus on stellar systems that might have planets that could support biological life. Shostak says that this may be short sighted. After all, machine based intelligence could exist almost anywhere.

The idea of machine intelligence is not just one for SETI consideration, but also for Direct First Contact consideration. Why? Because if a machine based extraterrestrial intelligence came to Earth to say hello, our recent technological development could allow us to understand them better.

Considering machine based intelligence would have been pretty tough 150 years ago. Fifty years ago, we may have understood the basic concept, but certainly not the complexities. Even in the last 20 years people probably would have viewed machine based intelligence as just smart computers with the ability to reason. The rise of the internet, the advance of social media, and the development of virtual worlds has given us new tools for understanding machine based intelligence. Is there any reason it could not be just as robust and “life-like” as human intelligence? And probably much more intelligent than us- if the intelligence has been around for many more years. Perhaps it’s time to consider that extraterrestrial beings may have developed into machine based intelligence as a natural form of evolution.

We could be crossing the threshold to becoming a technological civilization that a machine based intelligence would actually want to communicate with. It would be tough starting a relationship with beings that had no understanding of the possibilities of artificial intelligence or biologically developed machine intelligence. At least now we may have a start.

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