Saturday, September 22, 2012

Intelligence, Uplift, and Our Place in a Big Cosmos

"A balanced and well-researched Wired article by Jason Kehe reveals the latest "yoo-hoo transmission to aliens" stunt.  Of course I consider these things to be at-best dopey, with a small but significant chance of being thoughtlessly dangerous for all of humanity.  Above all, to cast such noises outward, based on untested assumptions, without at least offering to discuss it first with our planet's population and its greatest
sages? That is simply rude. Arrogant rudeness on an unprecedented scale.   See my article for the Lifeboat Foundation, Shouting at the Cosmos: how SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory.

Put it in perspective?  A cute interactive graphic lets you test out four different assumptions in the Drake Equation to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy. (I've seen better... but still, this one is fun and a good introduction.)  

Also: a collection of my articles on SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.)

== Gettin Smarter all the time... ==

But I promised to appraise one of those Drake Equation factors today -- intelligence. Is it rare? Can it be enhanced? Or possibly bestowed upon others?

Let's start with a recent science news item. By placing a neural device in the brains of monkeys with disrupted cognitive function, researchers were able to recover and even improve the monkeys' ability to make decisions,  overcoming the effects of cocaine in select regions of the brain. Moreover, when duplicating the experiment under normal conditions, the monkeys' performance improved beyond their previous 75% proficiency level. In other words, a kind of cognitive enhancement appears to have happened.

This got big play in the press. But, now let's not get carried away. The prosthesis was designed to bypass a very specific type of temporary chemical debilitation in a specific region. That’s a far cry from the general brain boost proclaimed by florid news reports. Still...

... that raises the possible prospect someday of brain boosting some of the critters around us. A topic we have discussed here several times before. Now an excellent iO9 article by George Dvorsky indicates we may be at the dawn of the Uplift Era. Should we upgrade the intelligence of animals?

From Pierre Boule to H.G. Wells, nearly all tales about ‘uplift’ of other species (to our level of intelligence) assumed that it would be done stupidly – because stupidity leads to errors and conflict, which transform any concept into an action plot! Mistakes create peril, so those authors portrayed the uplifters being callous, unwise, even vicious slave-masters. When writers do this, the plot almost writes itself.

What's more challenging is to write a story that shows humanity doing something well, or at least openly, with good intentions — and yet still crafting a story filled with action and excitement, where Crichtonian errors can get discovered through vibrant criticism.

 That was the premise behind my popular series of six novels in the "Uplift Universe"... soon to be re-issued in two omnibus volumes by Orbit Books. And yes, I am aiming to re-enter that cosmos in a big way, with that long-awaited "progenitors" tale. Pretty soon I reckon. See a new page devoted to The Uplift Universe.

 == The Mental Ecology of Intelligence and Uplift ==

These issues are (at long last) getting serious (if rather shallow) attention from the scientific community.  For example, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Caltech's Christof Koch.   It declares the following:

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The authors go on to imply that they do not perceive a stark, decisive, qualitative difference between the consciousness of humans and of many higher animal species.  Their implication is that we should consider new proposals for vesting such creatures with some level of sapient rights and respecting their current mental achievements as different, but of equivalent value to our own.

Alas, while I lean toward their general side of the spectrum, wanting more empathy toward the natural world, I find how they express that empathy to be fantastically myopic. Overblown, their declaration says nothing new. The threshold abilities of cetaceans, simians... and yes  parrots, corvids, pinnipeds, even cephalopods... have all been investigated recently and we’ve been delightfully astonished by evidence showing how many animals possess impressive-if-basic mental skills.

Fascinating, indeed! Nevertheless dwelling on this positive trend is to miss the starkly deeper significance of all this.

What's interesting is not how many somewhat-smart species there are on this planet, but how they cluster! With some variation (dolphins and chimps seem to be ahead by a margin) these dozens or so of elite "pre-sapient" species all bump against roughly the same glass ceiling of commonly shared capabilities -- at problem solving, tool use, linguistic comprehension, and so on.  The more you watch crows, sea lions, parrots, octopi -- and dolphins and apes -- the more this confluence of similar abilities comes across as the striking salient feature.

That ceiling is what's interesting!  It's as if Darwin himself stepped up and told all these diverse species and genuses: "this high you may climb, because it helped you to be agile and clever in your natural environment.  But no higher! The reproductive and survival rewards for getting much smarter than that simply aren't sufficient to drive selection across an expensive and dangerous gap. You may not cross."

What a fascinating topic for research! Comparing creatures across such a wide range and mapping the breadth and depth and nature of that ceiling. And possibly thereby shedding light on the greatest puzzle of all. Why are we the one exception? The one breakthrough to a whole 'nother level? We sappy sapiens?

201817627023139656_bN7Q5bvS_cWas it a confluence of experiences, trials and selections endured by bands of gregarious apes, squeezing through evolutionary bottlenecks, one after another?  Or our bipedal gait, freeing hands for full time manipulation? Our complex mating and alliance habits? Or was it something like my own hypothetical process, Neoteny and two-way sexual selection?  

Could some rare fluke -- in one factor of the Drake Equation -- explain us... and thereby help shine light on our apparent loneliness in the cosmos?

Even more thought-provoking; suppose it truly was a fluke that let just one race of bright sub-sapients crash through the ceiling. Well, in that case, what kind of horrible bastards would we be, if we then refused to share our good fortune? If we churlishly disdained to turn around and help others make it across the gap?  

Oh, both the left and the right will come up with rationalizations not to even try. Either because Uplift would insult other species or stomp into the creative realm of God.  But in the end, these will simply be excuses for selfishness.

== A longer life through self-starvations? ==

Oh but what about ourselves?  Can we make ourselves smarter? Perhaps even becoming bright and wise enough to solve our vexing problems? Brilliant enough to turn this internet thing into a blessing, instead of a lobotomizing curse?  Well, it's a topic we've covered before and will do so again! (One tracking tool?  What fraction of humanity reads this blog? Clearly we could be smarter (in aggregate) than we currently are!) 

See my article: The Flynn Effect: Are We Getting Smarter?

One route to transcendence might be to live longer. After all, doesn’t experience make you wiser?

But how? Calorie restriction (CR), a 10–40% reduced intake of a nutritious diet, is often reported as the most robust non-genetic mechanism to extend lifespan and healthspan. Effects on bacteria, fruit flies and even mice have encouraged many in the Life-Extension or Transhumanism movements to embrace CR as a personal lifestyle, hoping for the doubling effect they perceive in animal studies.  You can recognize the type, at conferences, by their "lean and hungry look."

dowereallywantimmortalityI have been a skeptic; not only because humans are already the Methuselahs of the mammalian order, having picked all the longevity low-hanging fruit in order to get three times the average number of heartbeats used by most mammals… but also because caloric restriction has been practiced in hundreds of ascetic monasteries across the last 4000 years. (Do you see any 300 year old monks capering around?) See my essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?

I portray all of this a bit in my new novel EXISTENCE.

Now news from a study of CR done for the first time on a primate species. "A CR regimen implemented in young and older age rhesus monkeys at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) has not improved survival outcomes."  Oops.  Did I call that? Sorry fellows.  

== More Problems With “Intelligence” ==

Certainly, in order to get smarter, we’ll not only have to process information faster and better.  We'll also be behooved to overcome or toss out lots of baggage we picked up during those epochs in the caves. "The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others." (From Evolutionary Psychology Primer, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby).

People who ordinarily cannot detect violations of if-then rules can do so easily and accurately when that violation represents cheating in a situation of social exchange. 

"Everywhere it has been tested (adults in the US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Hong-Kong; schoolchildren in Ecuador, Shiwiar hunter-horticulturalists in the Ecuadorian Amazon), people do not treat social exchange problems as equivalent to other kinds of reasoning problems. Moreover, they do not behave as if they were designed to detect logical violations per se; instead, they prompt choices that track what would be useful for detecting cheaters."

Well, well, were we speaking of getting rid of excess baggage? And did I mention “sexual selection?” Then consider this, published in The New York Times: Men, Who Needs Them? An amusing (I hope) rumination on how unnecessary the male half of the human race is becoming.  A pondering that has long been mused-upon in both radical feminist science fiction and more moderate versions, like my own novel Glory Season.

Or might the new “Maker Movement” lead to building replicants, even better than we near-perfect natural specimens?

How to create cyborg flesh. According to Harvard researchers, you start with a three-dimensional scaffold that encourages cells to grow around them. These scaffolds are generally made of collagen, which makes up the connective tissue in almost every animal. (Elsewhere I describe recent advances in re-growing complex tissues like a whole esophagus.) The Harvard engineers basically took normal collagen, and wove nanowires and transistors into the matrix to create nanoelectric scaffolds (nanoES). The neurons, heart cells, muscle, and blood vessels were then grown as normal, creating cyborg tissue with a built-in sensor network.  Next? Go beyond sensing to communicate 2-way with the cells. ALL the cells.  Directly.  Yipe.

== Intelligence in the Future? ==

Hailed as the biggest breakthrough in genomics in a decade, swathes of DNA once thought to have no purpose, actually form a complex “control panel” for our genes. Turns out the “junk DNA” had some purposes, after all! The non-gene sections are regulatory, and crucially important.

Oh but then it gets mind-blowing. Big Brain futurist singularity guy John Smart has just posted a 45 min video about Chemical Brain Preservation, which might challenge cryonics among those looking for a better storage medium, to wait out the temporary hiatus between "death" and -- er -- a second life. That is, if it gets validated by neuroscience in coming years.

Will this make post-death preservation less expensive, less environmentally wasteful and more within plausible reach of those who have been skeptical, till now? I guess I'd prefer being a pickled-plasticized brain on my grandkids' mantel to using up kilogallons of liquid nitrogen in a fragile, frozen ossuary, never being talked about (as you would be, now and then, as a plasticized keepsake on the mantel!)  After all, isn't that just a step removed from traditional embalming?

Emplace the brain/head in a unit with holo display and simple voice-response unit. (“Hey you kids!  It’s getting dusty over here!") Add some oracular statements that get released by time (a la Hari Seldon).  Fun for the whole (extended) family.  You can leave comments at John's blog.

Oh, John added the following personal note: "I will do my best to get the price down to where the mantlepiece fossil is an irresistible choice for the Brin household. Then if the Universe allows me a bit more longevity than you (cross fingers), I'll come by and pay my respects. I hope to see a holoBrin pop out, identify me biometrically, and then ask me if I'm working sufficiently hard to get you back out!!"

Hrm.  I will have more fierce ways of haunting than just that!

And finally, the ultimate theory… OUR LIFE AS AVATARS.... My friend Rich Terrille is interviewed about the now familiar notion that we all dwell within a simulation.  Rich is a very bright guy. We've discussed his version of this concept and I consider it a step forward.  Earlier versions by Hans Moravec in the 1990s and Stanislaw Lem in the 1970s, are of interest along the way, going back to Lao Tse's parable of the butterfly and the Emperor.  My own contributions include an essay, Could our Universe be a Fake? and a novelette from the 1990s called "Stones of Significance" which folks might find both amusing and boggling.  (A Hugo nominee.)

Evidence for this notion includes the fact that we have a minimum temperature and a maximum speed and a limit to how finely you can sub-divide nature.  All of those “universal traits” strike one as attempts to skimp on computational needs by the stingy owners of this simulation... I mean the handsome, intelligent, generous, kind and wonderful owners who would never think of reaching over and flicking the switch that says reboo...


David Brin said...

Again, the key test of the mean intelligence of humanity... what percentage frequents this blog! We have a way to go.

Unknown said...

Sorry to have disappeared. I've been ill.

Here's a Guardian article on about private paparazzi who engage in creating Revenge Porn and Creep Shots. There's a clear anti-camera undercurrent to the article. One point I'd make is that so-called 'creep shots' are better called candid shots of everyday strangers in public, a common type of artistic expression that doesn't target individuals for privacy. If store owners can install security cameras, why can't photographers shoot candid shots of people walking down the street?

More 'War Against Photography' stuff.

Unknown said...

Oh. The link. Duh.

Lyn said...

Tracking tool found one reader, at least. ;)

Good food for thought here: "Why are we the one exception? The one breakthrough to a whole 'nother level?"

One possible answer is that God uplifted us. The first Cause.

David Brin said...

JMG hope you are getting better. But re Creep shots. Creeps will always seek rationalizations for simply being creeps. Note that they would not like light shining on them. But it will.

LP: There is a wide spectrum of possible "God." Not all versions are omnipotent or omniscient. But many forms could have meddled. (e.g. the entire premise of 2001 a Space Odyssey). Though there is no evidence for it.

Tom Crowl said...

Here's a question I'd love to hear some speculation about re "uplift" possibilities:

Assuming both (e.g.) the octopus and the prairie dog could be raised to some rough intelligence equivalency.

How would the nature of their intelligence differ?

What I'm specifically referring to is the difference between solitary vs social animals.

Assuming intelligence would confer an advantage on a solitary creature... which certainly seems possible, it nevertheless seems that being solitary would severely limit any technological advance beyond a very limited level...

and what drive for language in a solitary creature?

Anyway, I'm all for 'uplifting' and readily accept consciousness in other species... but I'm doubtful that any solitary creatures could ever develop beyond a fairly limited level.
Though it might be fun to imagine how they could.

Alfred Differ said...

Construction of social institutions is probably more a function of our tendency to specialize and rely upon others for survival than our intelligence. Specialists could go our way or the way ants and bees go.

I personally wouldn't be all that inclined to uplift a species that wouldn't be fit for the path we are taking. The same goes for AI's. If we can't raise them as kids, we can't use the tools we've evolved over countless generations for doing uplift. We use and refine them with each human generation, so I think it would be folly NOT to use them to make a wider, heterogeneous community.

sociotard said...

Anyone care to comment on the recent law passed in Russia that regulates funding to NGOs? As near as I can tell, the law is applied to all foreign funding to NGOs of any stripe, but critics are emphasizing its effect on Pro-Democracy NGOs.

Anonymous said...

Two points David: Using the term 'consciousness' without defining it results in your process of arguments being founded on a concept as nebulous as the clouds. Give us a concrete definition of consciousness. Secondly, and ditto, with intelligence. I will however offer one for the latter. Intelligence is the ability to prevail in an environment within an organism's lifecycle. From this perspective intelligence does not necessarily lead to success of a species. But are we homosaps not successful evolutionarily we cry? Well, the jury is out on that one until we see how homo sapiens has fared in the overall fossil record. On current trends prognosis is not strong. Amoeba on the other hand seem to be going strong, history shows them to be intelligent according to my definition, and according to Maturana and Varela's autopoesis concept they are also conscious. Consciousness and intelligence are probably concepts which if we chase them to core meanings are probably the same thing: the ability for an organism to interact with its environment in ways that enhance its survival, but we should not necessarily extend these concepts to the species level until we have all the data from God's final fossil record available to analyse...

Ian Gould said...

If we seriously entertain what Chris Roberson refers to in his novel Further as the Recursivist Doctrine - the theory that we are more likely to exist in a simulation than in "reality" whatever that means in this context - what empirically-testable implications of such a theory are there?

Additionally, as David alludes to at the end of his post - should we seek to communicate with the entities runnign the simulation?

If my own theory - that we may be a simulation of the baseline case of how Earth would evolve without
CETI - is correct. I may have just doomed us all since, presumably, if we suspect our true status our value as a control sample is urely diminished.

Jumper said...

There are two scenarios for running a simulation: one in which the simulator wants to keep the knowledge from the sims, and one in which the simulator does not care if the sims know or not.
In the first scenario, the sims have limited abilities to affect the "real" world (as they don't know it exists!), in the second they fight mightily to affect change in the upper level.

Jumper said...

"should we seek to communicate with the entities (running) the simulation?"


Ian Gould said...

Then too, maybe it's turtles all the way down.

If we possess the ability to create simulations of our own, then maybe our creators were thesmelves simulations.

Again, if simulations can bud further simulations in turn, then simple probability makes it likely that our creators weren't the originals.

Orcinus said...

oGiving Cocaine to Monkeys seems [ to me ] on the same level as when Lilly gave LSD to Dolphins for which he was vilified and it cost him a good deal [ if not all ] of his scientific credibility at the time. Not making a judgement, just a comparison.

Why is no one seriously looking here [ on Planet Earth ] for non-Human Intelligence when Humans effectively only occupy about 25% of the planet?

I've worked on three different Interspecies Communications projects in my life, one of which was Lilly's JANUS. Non-Human Intelligence is here on Earth people, just open your mind to the possibility.

Paul451 said...

Can we hack the system from within. After all, malware is software running within a computer, within the operating system, yet it can exploit flaws to alter its environment (within limits) and move between files/machines. Perhaps the "multiverse" and other theories that seem necessary to unify the laws of physics are hints of our operating system, ie, beyond the simulation itself. Free story idea for anyone so inclined, physicists start to see holes in the laws of physics, ways of reprogramming the simulation itself, copying ourselves into other programs/sims or onto other machines. Uplifting ourselves to becoming God's malware. (Hmmm, better plot for the Matrix trilogy?)

David Brin said...

For the ultimate story about "we live in a simulation":


Orcinus, and Deepchange, you are both armwaving. Intelligence is that which cares about intelligence and tries to use it to make itself more effective. At problem solving, at communication, at overcoming incapacities and obstacles. The researchers in this field are blatantly vastly more intelligent than the dolphins or apes or crows in the experiments, and not just because they have all the power, the tools, the culture and knowledge and the situational upper hand.

They are vastly more intelligent because they are pursuing experiments out of curiosity that systematically call into question what intelligence is and incrementally increase understanding. If the crows or dolphins were of equivalent intelligence, they would make this plain by modifying the experiments in ways that add to this incremental building of insight. I know these researchers, they are constantly looking for such input. And indeed(!) sometimes get a little innovation from the dolphins, who are certainly curious and eager!

But is is pure mushy holistic blather to just armwave that the other must be of equivalent intelligence simply because that would be the virtuous "otherness" thing to say about another. That is religion. A nicer religion than most! I portray it sweetly in fiction. And I portray two kinds of Gaia worship battling it out, in EARTH. But one kind is not helpful, the kind that puts wishful thinking ahead of science.

Again, we need to consider what REALLY would be the morally defensible action of humanity to take in this matter. And while the left thinks it insults the other species... and the right thinks it insults God... in fact, Uplift does neither. It does lead inevitably to pain... lots of it! But what we might gain at the other end of the pain would be worth a lot.

Moreover, if we are a fluke, then NOT to pass on our gift would seem to be the most churlish act of selfishness imaginable.

David Woolley said...

Isn't it possible (likely, even) that the glass ceiling is an illusion? Consider that life has been evolving on earth for around 3.5 billion years, and modern humans appeared only about 200,000 years ago - or in other words, in the past 0.0005% of the time since life began on this planet. Maybe humans simply happened to be the species that got this smart first. Another half million years and elephants and chimpanzees might be where we are today. Except, of course, now that humans have become such an enormous force in shaping the earth's climate, ecosystems, and the life circumstances of most other species that could conceivably evolve along similar lines, we may purposely or inadvertently prevent any others from following us.

Jumper said...

Then there are elephants.

Gorillas were seen to disassemble traps placed by humans.

David, I think you are being a bit restrictive: if we put some pre-scientific humans through tests like that, likely they would not comprehend what we were doing at all. If we didn't tell them. Likely all they'd do that we could observe behaviorally (not linguistically) is try to escape.

I have often wondered how we would manufacture malware to thwart the platform upon which our simulation is run. Snow crash the simulators somehow? Tough to come up with a believable scenario, until we map the operating system - from within, not so easy a task! Not to mention if we crash the system, we are gone along with it.

Jumper said...

I believe what we call intelligence includes telling stories. We say what others said (we say "David said this.") We have a word for "word." We have a concept we call "a concept." We think about thinking. Not always. But we can, and often do.

I expect a porpoise can say "there are fish over there" or maybe even "maybe fish over there." I am unsure if a porpoise can say "another porpoise told me ('Fred says') there are fish over there."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if what we call intelligence wasn't nurtured by a loss of instinct? The apes show several areas where they not just can learn-by-observation, but must see it to be able to do it. Tool use, tool making and sex come immediately to mind.

Hominid tool making tended to progress in steps, with long periods of minimal change. Then the Great Leap, with new tools coming fast and furious, representational art, eh, you know the whole story. We broke through the glass ceiling. Was it because we gained "intelligence" or did we lose some instictive behavior, so that not just learned behavior, but experimentation and innovation, became the dominant determinant of fitness?

David Brin said...

DW you are the one posing a temporal coincidence. Are you saying dozens are now clustered at sub-sapience... and there weren't such clusters in the past? The pleistocene? The Oligocene or eocene? The Cretaceous? All these lineages that split apart eons ago are converging just now?

Jumper said...

I think we're all bozos on this bus.

Ian Gould said...

@David Woolley: David talks about how multiple genetic bottlenecks may have helped humans evolve intelligence.

Maybe we're already engaging in unplanned uplift by applying intense selective pressure on most of the highly intelligent animal species.

A few more generations and chimps might start using bows and arrows to shoot back at poachers.

Jumper said...

What animals walk 1000 miles? Only a few, I think. I might think migration in itself could smarten up any species.

David Woolley said...

> DW you are the one posing a temporal coincidence. Are you saying dozens are now clustered at sub-sapience... and there weren't such clusters in the past?

Yes, I'm posing a temporal coincidence (or happenstance, more accurately) but I'm not claiming such clusters never happened before. In fact, what I've been reading lately about human evolution seems to indicate that rather than a single linear progression from monkey-like creatures to humans, there were a number of independent branches that were heading in similar directions of more sophisticated intelligence but that homo sapiens is the only branch that survived. Apparently homo sapiens itself just barely survived, perhaps being down to a population of a few thousand at one point.

I think this goes to my point that some descendants of today's apes might well evolve human-like intelligence given enough time -- if we humans were to just get out of their way -- and that the "glass ceiling" of intelligence you speak of may simply be an artifact of the particular moment in time from which we're observing things.

David Woolley said...

But maybe your point is more to ask the question, what were the specific environmental pressures that selected for greater intelligence in the ancestors of homo sapiens? That's a fascinating question, and I know there are various theories about it, but we don't yet have enough information to say what the key factors were. Without that knowledge it's hard to say whether similar pressures might be at work on some of the other "sub-sapient" species we see around today.

David Brin said...

Sorry. Way too facile and blithe about the temporal coincidence. (1) if there were many other species that reached the ceiling earlier, then it only proves my point! That there is a real ceiling and we were a fluke that busted thru. (2) if the cluster we see is recent and ONLY recent then why?

In fact there's not tons of time. In just 100 million years, about the time since the dinosaurs, the sun will be so hot that deserts will start to spread no matter what. If we blow it, there's only time for one reboot.

Tim said...

Mr. Brin could you happen to know exactly when the omnibus version of the first three Uplift Novels will be released in the States?

As far as I can tell its only available on pre-order in the UK as of now.

David Brin said...

Alas, you'd have to urge Bantam (Random House) to do it in the US. Orbit is way ahead of the curve.

Jumper said...

Relevant to the discussion.

Anonymous said...

David, with all respect: If I were a 300-year-old monk, I would not be capering around in front of you. (And that's a plot that writes itself, too.)

Larry C. Lyons said...

Dr. Brin, you said "Was it a confluence of experiences, trials and selections endured by bands of gregarious apes, squeezing through evolutionary bottlenecks, one after another? Or our bipedal gait, freeing hands for full time manipulation? Our complex mating and alliance habits? Or was it something like my own hypothetical process, Neoteny and two-way sexual selection? "

Why focus on one thing. I suspect it was more of a matter of all of the above. The environmental changes that created our earliest ancestors also created the conditions that encouraged intelligence, as well as creating significant genetic bottlenecks that allowed the other factors (bipedalism, hands as tool users, communication etc) to come to the fore. In our reductionist thinking we keep focusing on one thing, instead of looking at the matrix of causes.

David Woolley said...

But isn't it true that 99%, or maybe 99.999% (I've read different numbers) of all species that have ever existed on earth have gone extinct? So one might say that any species that exists today is something of a fluke. Why pick out human-like intelligence as the particular trait for which there is a glass ceiling?

I guess I'm arguing against the exceptionalist viewpoint -- you know, the view we've always had that there is something special about us or our particular circumstances. That the earth is the center of the universe, etc. etc. It's always turned out that we're a lot less special than we think.

On the other hand, it's undeniable that, at least here on this planet -- and thus far in this planet's history -- humans ARE an exceptional, since we're the only ones to have created a technological civilization. So, maybe there is some reality to your glass ceiling theory.

I guess I'm not convinced, but I'm not totally convinced otherwise, either.

Alfred Differ said...

The notion that we are a fluke is one that I think is most sound. A glass ceiling idea comes burdened with the idea of evolutionary goals which we know don't exist except in our minds. They are both neat ideas, but I'm not inclined to assume metaphysical requirements on us just yet. 8)

The individual and social structures that support intelligence and reward its use come at quite a cost to us. If the rewards weren't as large, I'm sure we wouldn't have gone down this path.

1. Being able to predict the behaviors of fellow humans is critical when it comes to reproductive success. This is the feedback reward I suspect.

2. Being doubly selective means the mental traits one gender selects for in the other show up in themselves too. This is the feedback mechanism I think.

3. The historical rewards have been largest when one can dominate the behaviors of many others. In this we share behaviors with our cousin species. Recently, though, the rewards have grown larger for groups that tolerate 'otherness' and exchange through trade instead. This is what sets modern humans apart, I suspect. We succeed because we trade.

Tony Fisk said...

While investigating this 'sophist' divide is interesting and worthwhile, I think that life in the universe faces a far bigger hurdle...


How long were the prokaryotes around before the eukaryotes found out how to do a more efficient gene shuffle? What heights did the prokaryotes scale/slime up in that time?
We're talking billions of years, here!

PS finished Existence, which I enjoyed a great deal. Potted review:
Plusses: interesting ideas, subtle digs (Crichton! And did anyone else spot the reference to a much loved Python sketch?). No puns!
Minuses: last parts become increasingly detached from earlier sections. ( indeed, events implied by the very last chapter would make for a novel in itself!) Interesting themes and plots are left hanging.

Tacitus said...

An apolitical posting, except for the observation that as a conservative I prefer a slower (or more reasoned) rate of change.

I recall reading Childhood's End for the first time and being both in awe of the imagination of Sir Arthur...and appalled at the images.
I for sure would have been one of the rebels hiding in caves in the first half of the book. And if I were doomed to live the second half, where our children leave us...I don't know what I would do.

But regards Uplift I can see some reachable and reasoned changes in the next couple of decades. Feel free to suggest your own.

Improved companion animals. They are already pretty damned good. I have had a dog signal "Lassie style" when a patient was seizing. And my 90 year old father with dementia bonds marvelously with his small stupid lap dog. If we could make the critters a little smarter, say able to activate a home monitoring unit that would set up a link to a human who could check on status...asleep, in trouble, deceased, that would be progress.

Capuchin monkeys as fast food counter help. The accuracy of orders would improve. No change to count, it will soon all be card swipes. And even I, who disdain such vittles, would go in for the occasional MonkDonalds burger.

Dogs as bartenders. Same considerations as above. We could get past the lack of thumbs thing, just have a paw reader that would have to be pressed to activate the beer tap. Try and grab a paw and make him push the button?

GRRRRRRRRR! Hey, German Shepards make great bouncers too!


Ian Gould said...

So what's the antonym to "Going Galt"?

Steve Wozniak claims he's in the process of becoming an Australian citizen and moving here full-time.

He specifically cited the government-funded National Broadband Network as one of his reasosn for the move.

While I'm sure Steve's money people are ensuring he doesn't pay any more additional tax than he has to, Australia's tax rates are wll above those in the US.

Tim H. said...

I'm not too sure the animals would thank us, after all, we'd have some explaining to do, but to have something like Spider Robinson's "Dog day evening" (From "Time travelers strictly cash".) might be possible would make it a more interesting world.

sociotard said...

Of course, monkeys can already be waiters.

I'd also be interested in finally applying that silver fox research to domesticate new pets, just to do it. Maybe a black bear or a pygmy hippo. In my head it is awesome.

sociotard said...

Oh, it is delightful when those "what the future will be like" ads from yesteryear actually get it right.

David Brin said...

Tacitus, terrific post. Welcome back.

Sociotard when was that ad published?

sociotard said...

Citation on the picture is
Graham, Ian. Usborne Guide to Computer and Video Games, 1982.

Ian Gould said...

"They are already pretty damned good. I have had a dog signal "Lassie style" when a patient was seizing. And my 90 year old father with dementia bonds marvelously with his small stupid lap dog. If we could make the critters a little smarter, say able to activate a home monitoring unit that would set up a link to a human who could check on status...asleep, in trouble, deceased, that would be progress."

Now it's my turn to be the conservative.

Humans and dogs have been coevolving for at least the past 10,000 years (and I susect a lot longer.)

We've adapted to each other and each species has shaped the other.

Do we really want to change that equilibrium?

sociotard said...

Oh, if you want to squint and read the other predictions on that spread:

(And I was wrong, it was a book, not an ad)

David Brin said...

Most impressive canine trait. They know to look where we are pointing. Incredible. Wolves can't.

Jumper said...

Your dog, maybe.
Speaking of humans, I would posit that our ancestors' use of fire to manage hunting grounds had more of an effect on late mammalian evolution than hunting in itself did. I think our relationship to dogs came about in synch with that situation. I haven't thought about it enough to have gotten much further.