Saturday, July 30, 2022

Some great science podcasts - tune in!

Couple of years back we offered a list of excellent – if sometimes specialized – podcasts and YouTube channels about science and related things. Time for an update?

== Great Science (and other) Podcasts! ==

Let’s start with Into the Impossible - hosted by my friend Dr. Brian Keating, co-director of UCSD's Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. Generally a deep dive into aspects of physics, but also space biology, tech and the latest insights into the nature of imagination. Example video: What is Dark Matter?

A colleague of Brian's whom I also admire: Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder -- Science and technology updates - "without the gobbledygook". Example video: Are Singularities Real?

As I said then… Scott Manley is one of my favorite YouTube explainer guys, especially when it comes to spacecraft. If there's some kind of milestone in rocketry, for example, he'll clarify it for you, within a couple of days. (Manley was also designer of the "cycler" spacecraft in the 2021 movie "Stowaway".) But this particular posting goes a bit farther in space and especially time, as Manley  talks about how to Move the Earth, citing especially my own postings on the subject.

Other favorite explainers include Anton Petrov for well-delivered and timely updates on the latest science and space discoveries, starting each with "Hello Wonderful Person!" Example video: James Webb Just found the most distant galaxy

Dianna Cowern, Physics Girl, presents  physical science demonstrations, experiments and explanations of new discoveries. Example video: We were wrong about the Big Bang.

Science & Futurism with Isaac Arthur provides in-depth explorations of galactic stuff like the Fermi Paradox. If it involves space and destiny, you can bet he's got an engaging what-if riff. Example video: Black holes & Dark Matter.

A pal of Isaac (and me) is John Michael Godier's Event Horizon, whose podcasts are a little closer to Earth than Arthur's, but still vividly entertaining futurism, featuring great interviews. How do I know this? Example video: What's eating the Universe?

== A golden age of Chatauqua explainers? ==

Fools and feudalists who try to diss the high repute of science, calling it just another orthodoxy, know nothing about the impudent competitiveness taught to most bright graduate students, along with the central catechism of science: "I might be wrong!" No other 'priesthood' ever even remotely did that. Nor spawned the phenomenon displayed here... of so many top researchers and experts rushing onto PBS or podcasts to eagerly share everything they've learned... and address every unanswered question!

Here are more! Including some favorites offered by other folks.

Dr. Becky Smethurst (Dr. Becky) -- A day in the life of an Astrophysicist at Oxford, with a focus on astronomy and cosmology research. Example video: An Astrophysicist's Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries.

Mark Rober, former NASA engineer, produces videos on popular science and gadgets, as well as science-related pranks, with over 22 million subscribers. Example video: World's Tallest Elephant Toothpaste Volcano. (Note Rober is hugely popular with young folks.)

Jade Tan-Holmes (Up and Atom) -- Kids level explanations of high-end physics concepts. Example video: What is The Schrodinger Equation, Exactly?

Steve Mould -- Mix of science/engineering topics. Example video: Pythagorean Siphon - Inside Your Washing Machine

Amy Shira Teitel, The Vintage Space -- History of the space program, branching into "How it works" on related subjects. Example video: Vladimir Komarov was Doomed to Die on Soyuz 1.

Prof. David Kipping (Cool Worlds) -- Great selection of topics. Okay the presentation can ponderous. Why You're Probably Not a Simulation.

Kurzgesagt -- Distinctively animated videos on science/space topics.  Example video: The Day the Dinosaurs Died - Minute by Minute.

Brew -- Animated videos on a variety of subjects, with an extra serving of body horror. Example video: The Country Made from 14 Stranded Ships.

Dr. Rohin Francis (Medlife Crisis) -- Cardiologist with an acidic sense of humour.
Example video: Can You Legally Buy a Real Human Skeleton.

Johnny Harris -- Deeper dives into specific odd subjects. Non-political example: The Real Reason McDonalds Ice Cream Machines Are Always Broken (Except everything is political.)

Joe Scott (Answers With Joe) -- Wide variety of topics, often science/space/tech focused: The Immortal Woman Who Saved Millions Of Lives"

Tom Scott -- Variety of subjects, from "this is an interesting place that exists", to linguistics, to infotech, to very random projects that catch his interest. 
Interesting place: The Artificial Gravity Lab.
Infotech: This Video Has 32,251,959 Views (title subject to change.)
Language: The Language Sounds That Could Exist But Don't.

Derek Muller (Veritasium). Science and engineering videos. Example video: Fritz Haber: the scientist who killed millions but saved billions.
Tim Dodd (Everyday Astronaut). Bringing space down to earth for everyday people, with updates on rockets and space launches. Example video: Raptor 1 vs Raptor 2: What's the difference?

Destin Sandlin (Smarter Every Day) explores the everyday world using science. Example: How do nuclear submarines make oxygen?
PBS Spacetime: Our Universe Explained, with Dr. Matt O'Dowd - is the best in my opinion. Example video: The Edge of an Infinite Universe.

== Terrific Miscellaneous ones... and sci fi! ==

Savor Podcast delves into the science, history and cultural connections of food and drink: why exactly we like what we like. Example podcast: Fictional Foods: Doctor Who.

This science fiction insight podcast had a short run, but is fabulous. 

A couple of political-historical channels that I think have been mentioned here:

The History Guy: History that deserves to be remembered. Forgotten moments of history presented in an entertaining manner.

Beau of the Fifth Column -- Lefty perspective made in the style of a right-winger.

Cody Johnston (Some More News) -- Lefty perspective made in the style of... errr, a crazy basement dweller trying to drag you down with him?

And to balance that... Bill Maher. yes, I said it. If no one will listen to my advice how the Union side of our civil war can win with innovative tactics, then at least pay attention when Maher chides you to stop deliberately losing with abysmally stoopid ones. 

Quirky (and stylistically immature, but a bit fun) perspectives on military matters, including the Ukraine War: Task & Purpose.

And I'll throw in English GP Dr. John Campbell, who is doing quiet daily Covid-19 updates.

Don't forget!! You can support these podcasters and content creators by subscribing - as well as donating on Patreon and via YouTube's new SuperThanks feature.

And for more, check comments, below! There will be many suggestions by members of this community!

What an amazing era we live in.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Space news: from supermassive black holes to asteroids

Okay, let's gat back to spaaaace!  So many reasons to be enthusiastic and to see our shared accomplishments out there as signs of real civilization, down here on Earth... a civilization worth saving.  Plus a few causes for cynicism, alas.

The biggest news: we've received the first vivid images from the James Webb Space Telescope. (The Carina Nebula in spectacular detail shown to the right.) The Webb has produced phenomenal high-resolution images of deep space: galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae - with a promise of more spectacular images  to come!

== Dealing (or not) With Dangers! ==

Breakthrough methods pioneered by the B612 Foundation are finding hundreds of asteroids - some of them dangerous - by mining past data sets. A great way for a small foundation to amplify the more expensive projects funded by governments. Small enough and effective enough to perhaps merit your support. (I am on the B612 advisory board.) 

A Very Long Baseline radio telescope array (I worked for one of the first VLBI systems one summer, in 1969) spanning the entire Earth - the Event Horizon Telescope - has imaged the supermassive black hole - Sagittarius A* - at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. 

Taking the Sagittarius A* image (shown to the left) was like capturing a photo of a grain of salt in New York City using a camera in Los Angeles, according to California Institute of Technology researchers. 

Somewhat smaller… Astronomers believe that 100 million free-floating black holes – largely left over from supernovas - roam our galaxy. Now, after dedicating six years to observations, astronomers apparently found one about  5,000 light years away, located in another spiral arm of the Milky Way.  And with gravitational lensing, they made a precise mass measurement of the extreme cosmic object, which might possibly be ‘only’ a neutron star. 

Meanwhile, Europe’s legendary GAIA space telescope has been an absolute treasure for science, concentrating first on measuring parallax and proper motions of millions of stars near us, then gathering color/spectral data on billions more - – about 1% of the total number in the galaxy – and are allowing astronomers to reconstruct our home galaxy’s structure and find out how it has evolved over billions of years.

You are a member of a civilization that does this kind of thing.

== Back in your SSR backyard – Your Solar System Region! ==

Meanwhile, we keep being inspired by the great Perseverance/Ingenuity mission. The little 'copter snapped these closeups of the now-standard and reliable sky-crane landing system, whose components seem to have crashed more durably than expected.

It makes one wonder: Would it really be that hard to enable these other bits to land softly enough to serve some purpose? Say as a weather station? The rocket+crane bit, especially. It must fly away from the main cargo/rover, sure. But how hard would it be to throttle the remaining fuel-seconds to set down with a simple weather sensors + transmitter? Use up the safety margin!

Anyway, Perseverance and Ingenuity keep surprising us! Like this ballyhooed “doorway” in the face of a cliffOh, I totally believe it is a natural fissure... but still, they really need to drive up and get a closer look. One Earth, clean vertical cleavages, like railroad cuts - were key to the sudden emergence of both geology and paleontology.

Phobos could possibly be among the most valuable pieces of real estate in the solar system, if there are volatiles under the surface that can be turned into water and fuel.  See the gorgeous images of Phobos eclipsing the sun, taken by the Perseverance rover!

We know that the magnetic poles of our planet sometimes drift (as today the North Magnetic Pole  is rapidly moving to Siberia) and occasionally quell or even flip.  Now comes speculation that such flips can happen on a massive scale, even to the monster black hole at the center of a galaxy 250 million light years away.

Farther out: The Decadal Survey of NASA advisors has recommended priority be given to… Uranus!

And emerging from some of our old grants at NIAC… the Da Vinci+ probe will try to repeat what Cassini-Huygens did for Titan, only for Venus! I wish the descender-probe had a slow-down balloon, but this will still be… well, not cool. Hot!  At the end of the decade.

And Truly far-out… if within reach… You’ve seen me tout NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program - (NIAC) – on whose advisory council I serve. Look at their tiny seed grants to research concepts JUST this side of science fiction. These are fun, engaging, STEM books for grades 4-8 about the science and researchers behind the NIAC program. It includes information about their lives as young children and their inspiration. Produced in partnership with World Book, Inc., they recently won an award from the American Library Association (ALA). A third series is in early development. The two series help to support a big part of what we do as an early stage technology program- to inspire the next generation of scientists and innovators, children who may eventually be running NASA missions 20 years from now. You are welcome to view the sixteen Out of This World books online here:

Series 1 Out of This World includes titles such as Asteroid: Harpooning Hitcher, Land-Sailing Venus Rover and Laser-Sailing Starships. All available online!

and Series 2 Out of this World includes Fusion-Powered Spacecraft, Martian Cave Colonies, Solar-Surfing Space Probes and many more, also available online.

Read some of these then look around... and have some confidence.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Sapience, sentience and AI... and other hot science news!

Ah… sapience

In another posting here I re-issued my June op-ed in NEWSWEEK about human response to AI, especially ‘empathy bots” like the notorious LaMDA. This op-ed - and other interviews - referred to a prediction I made 5 years ago that "in five years or so, we'll be challenged by announcements of a fully sapient AI, demanding sympathy... and cash."  

Here's that talk on the A.I. future  at IBM's World of Watson event in 2017, that offered big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation... and the text version. Few topics are more pressing for our future path... except saving civilization and the world and justice... and those will wind up enmeshed tightly with AI.

And so, in this more general science roundup, we'll start by diving into the topic of sapience (a much better word than the badly misused "sentience") yet again, as I expect we’ll do many times ahead.

== Sapience… sentience… pre vs. post ==

First, we know of only one sapient species, so far. This interesting paper appraises changes – across the last 6000 years or so - in prevalence of a number of genes that favor General Cognitive Ability (GCA). These observations are consistent with the expectation that GCA rose during the Holocene.  The result is very much in tune with what I posited in EXISTENCE. That there seem to have been rapid speedups in cognition and inventiveness, starting especially around 60,000 years ago.

What about our fellow Earthlings? It seems almost monthly that we see more stories about clever animals who use or even invent tools, who concoct clever escape plans, as in the case of a famous San Diego Zoo orangutan

...or who bear long memory grudges toward individual humans, as in swarms of vengeful crows or this Indian elephant, who showed up at the funeral of a woman he had trampled to death days earlier, to hurl the body and trample it, some more.

This topic, which I dived into 40 years ago with my Uplift Series, continues to fascinate, as in stories of wounded or entangled creatures deliberately seeking help from humans to patch harms or cut nets, etc., clearly making a distinction between good/helpful and bad/dangerous people.

Fascinating also is the way that – in many octopus species – the mother guards her eggs… only to later leave them and suicide in bizarre ways. While the main cause is unknown, some of the processes are being revealed. 

== And on to other science matters.... ==

Heads up. The search for room temperature superconductors is over! Though not yet useful, since the ‘higher order hydride’ structures that now superconduct at even 550K still require immense pressures. Still…

How are geographical discoveries still possible even now? “Cave explorers stumbled upon a prehistoric forest at the bottom of a giant sinkhole in South China earlier this month. Sinkholes such as these are also known in Chinese as Tiankeng, or "Heavenly pit. At 630 feet deep, the sinkhole would hide the Washington Monument and then some. The bottom of the pit holds an ancient forest spanning nearly three football fields in length, with trees towering over 100 feet. 

Even deeper, new techniques allow mapping of  the boundary between the Earth's iron-nickel core and surrounding mantle to better understand one of the major engines for plate tectonics, volcano formation, and other related processes like earthquakes. Other scientists also believe there is a link between ultra-low velocity zones and volcanic hotspots, such as those in Hawaii and Iceland.

Neanderthal Man’s Recreated Face Takes Internet By Storm.  And yes, it is a cool reconstruction! Though come on. These folks lived primarily in Europe to the Urals. And this particular fellow lived in Doggerland, between England and Denmark. He’d have white skin. Vitamin D, don’t cha know. Possibly even blond hair.

If the Amazon dies, beef will be the killer. And America will be an accomplice, Brazil is burning down the Amazon so you can eat steak. And I say this as a NON-vegetarian.... who has cut way back on air-breathing meat for numerous reasons like health, but also in order not be contributing one more economic driver to such devastation. I can sustain my carnivorality tastes treating red stuff as a condiment, like ketchup! And bring on the tissue culture!

Interesting medical news:

Further facial recreation: an article in the NYT about a patient who had a prosthetic ear 3D printed from her own cells. Beyond immediate beneficial medical use, it could/would eventually lead to people using this technology for "artistic" purposes - that is, in the same way that we customize bodies using tattoos and piercings, we could "add" additional fleshy lumps to various places. They can’t print nerve cells (for now, anyway) so the new additions would have the tactile sensation of a plastic brick.  So your stylish elf ears might have… Legoleprosy?

As blogmunity member “Talin” suggests: “A different extrapolation is one where the archetypal fantasy races - elves / dwarves / orcs and so on - are actually created from humans who want to live that lifestyle. I mean we sort of have the beginnings of this with gender-affirming surgery..."species affirming"?”

"Small cancer drug trial sees tumors disappear in 100 percent of patients". 

And also the diabetes drug that lost a lot of folks a lot of weight.

== Finally, all about science and…. magic!  ==

Caltech physicist Spiros Michalakis and Hollywood writer/producer Ed Solomon (co-creator of Bill & Ted) speak with Caltech science writer (and sci-fi fan) Whitney Clavin about how they collaborate to make science shine in film.  

First, there IS a form of magic that irrefutably works and it works via modalities of incantation. If you define that magic is about using word spells to create vivid subjective realities in other peoples’ heads, then I am among the top, industrial grade magicians. Ever.

Some assert that magic can also affect objective reality - e.g. making the rain fall or putting-on hexes or curing ailments, despite the fact that most such claims evaporate under scrutiny.  A few don't evaporate! In fact, any magic that does causally affect the physical world consistently eventually becomes... part of science.

But there is also some merit to studying magical claims, even knowing they are objectively bogus, because they were utterly persuasive for tens of thousands of years. 

And so, here at this posting I talk about some of the rule-based systems that have been used in magic systems by shamans and wizards and priests for millennia. And here, I discuss the differences between science fiction and fantasy.

In this audio talk, I dive into some of the fundamental differences and similarities between magic and science.

And we all have superstitious or romantic corners within us. The trick is to reserve them for certain realms that enrich our lives... our personal lives of evenings and weekends and art and fantasy... while being abolutely determined to exile romanticism and subjective roars and such twaddle from the daytime business of justice and negotiating pragmatic solutions anf - above all - policy.

Friday, July 08, 2022

Ways to Corner John Roberts... and why 'cornering' doesn't interest the paladins on our own side

At bottom, below, I'll make (yet-again) my case for agile tactics that might actually win the fight for fact-based rejection of lies. 

But let's start with a central nexus of today's rationalization for treason.

"The final days of the US supreme court’s term offered a clear look at the way its new 6-3 conservative majority is bluntly using its power to reshape American life, but its next term is also set to hear cases that could prove equally, or even more, consequential."

I make no promises. But I think folks despair too easily. One trick will be to corner Roberts and Gorsuch, the two rightists who might actually care - just a little - about the law and logic and history's judgement. Enough to perhaps squirm and realize they are cornered by some fresh tactics. 

I have offered some such - though alas, none of the brainiac legal minds on the Union side of this desperate struggle seem at all interested in trying a new argument, a new tactic. Here are just two from Polemical Judo:

1. FLIP the demands for Voter ID! Griping about ID requirements only makes dems look like they intend to cheat, even though nearly all the actual cheating is by the other side. So turn it around! Why are red states making it harder for their resident citizens of color or the poor or divorced women or naturalized to GET their ID? Closing DMV offices in blue counties for example?

That should be the point of attack using two words. Compliance Assistance. Republicans demand it for corporations and the rich. Whenever a 'new, onerous burden" of regulation falls upon them, government must provide assistance complying with the new regs. 

The fact that these states make voter ID compliance harder for the poor etc. is so blatant that it could even peel away just a few more 'ostrich republicans' - and that peeling away is - demographically - all we need. Moreover, some oligarchy-shills will feel cornered into some partial remediation. Roberts, at least, might feel cornered.

Do not dismiss that possibility with a shrug. That's lazy! The principle is pure. And I have seen no sign of any of our paladins using it. See the COMPLIANCE ASSISTANCE maneuver

2. I've yammered before about how John Roberts admits that gerrymandering is a loathsome cheat! But his ROBERTS DOCTRINE justifies doing nothing about it because:

 (a) the Court can't interfere in the sovereignty of state legislatures - even if they were 'elected' via immense cheating - and

 (b) no proposed solution (e.g. neutral commissions) is proved INHERENTLY to solve the problem. Hence, he can rationalize that the replacement of elected map drawers with un-accountable 'commissioners' is no systematic improvement. So, leave the cheaters free to cheat!

Of course this is hypocritical and partisan. Both rationales (both!) are eviscerated here, with an offered Minimal Overlap Solution to gerrymandering that directly addresses every Roberts criterion and is simple and would work instantly. It needn't be applied in every case in order to demolish his Doctrine, showing there is at least one way to dismantle gerrymandering's worst cheat effects without replacing the legislature with commissions.

And again, not a single one of the paladins on our side is able even to conceive of the possibility of using such judo, instead of the same grunting sumo they've tried for decades.

== The way to corner and demolish lie-fetishists is... ==

"More than 100 Republican nominees for statewide office or Congress this year have falsely claimed that election fraud helped defeat Donald Trump in 2020. Almost 150 members of Congress — more than half of Republicans there — voted to overturn the 2020 election result." ...yet... "’s jarring to see how little effort its proponents have put into making an argument on behalf of their claims. They have offered no good evidence, because there is not any.

In fact... "the rare examples of cheating from 2020 tend to involve Trump supporters."

Alas, that's not the big problem, which is utter ineptitude by Dem pols and by pundits to apply basic psychology. 

Try going back to every episode of this mad-mania since 1778. The principal EMOTIONAL drivers behind royalist/confederate/MAGA treasons have been romanticism and machismo

These explain the racism, the gun-fetishism, the aversion to negotiation and obeisance to oligarchy. And replacement of fact with incantation. (The last one is also done on the far-left.)

Macho, especially can be eviscerated, by creating clearly-parsed and relentlessly hammered challenges, making their refusal blatantly an expression of personal cowardice. These challenges do not have to be demands for cash-wagers... though that approach is the most direct and the one these fellows fear most. (They always, always whine and writhe - embarrassing themselves - and then flee.) 

Dig it. Instead of following around the latest QAnon ravings, then the next, like Whack-a-Mole, perpetually whining "that's not true!" PICK A FEW and hang onto them. Pound away for months, if necessary - even years, despite every effort to change the subject and distract with newer lies and fables. Keep hammering as publicly as possible and demanding the foxites stand their ground, or else flee and admit that one was false. Only then move on to others.

Oh, you can offer a lengthy list of lies you intend to get to. But the trick is to sink your teeth into a few - or even just one - chomp hard and never let go, shaking a particular lie over and over until they are seen fleeing in disgrace. 

Sure, it seems hopeless to discredit each lie, individually, one by one, in the face of a lie-tsunami, when there are 40,000 registered Trump false statements, alone. But the thing you are discrediting is not the lie, but the liar

This Is In Effect What The Sandy Hill Parents Did To Alex Jones. And Dominion Voting Systems to Pillow Guy. Please look over those two statements and let them sink in. It has been laborious, but by far the most-effective approach.

And hell-yeah, offering cash stakes for a wager is another version that shows your own confidence. They never, ever step up with their own stakes, opening their cowardice and evasion to ridicule. Macho demolished. 

Alas, what the Dominion and Sandy Hook examples show is that 99% of the politicians and supporters of our good, Union side in this struggle appear to have the tactical sense or learning ability of a tadpole. The fact that no one in high places or punditry will even consider this method - which I have tested for almost a decade and lay out in Polemical Judo - is proof that aliens must be using an IQ reduction ray on us! 

Because even the smart-good side appears to have no savvy whatsoever.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Soon, Humanity Won't Be Alone in the Universe

This opinion piece was published as an invited op-ed in Newsweek June 21, 2022

“It’s alive!” Viktor Frankenstein shouted in that classic 1931 film. Of course, Mary Shelley’s original tale of hubris—humans seizing powers of creation—emerged from a long tradition, going back to the terracotta armies of Xian, to the Golem of Prague, or even Adam, sparked to arise from molded clay. Science fiction extended this dream of the artificial-other, in stories meant to entertain, frighten, or inspire. First envisioning humanoid, clanking robots, later tales shifted from hardware to software—programmed emulations of sapience that were less about brain than mind.

Does this obsession reflect our fear of replacement? Male jealousy toward the fecund creativity of motherhood? Is it rooted in a tribal yearning for alliances, or fretfulness toward strangers? 

Well, the long wait is almost over. Even if humanity has been alone in this galaxy, till now, we won’t be for very much longer. For better or worse, we’re about to meet artificial intelligence—or AI—in one form or another. Though, alas, the encounter will be murky, vague, and fraught with opportunities for error.

Oh, we’ve faced tech-derived challenges before. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, human knowledge, vision and attention were augmented by printing presses and glass lenses. Ever since, each generation experienced further technological magnifications of what we can see and know. Some of the resulting crises were close calls, for example when 1930s radio and loudspeakers amplified malignant orators, spewing hateful disinformation. (Sound familiar?) Still, after much pain and confusion, we adapted. We grew into each wave of new tools.

Which brings up last week’s fuss over LaMDA, a language emulation program that Blake Lemoine, a researcher now on administrative leave from Google, publicly claims to be self-aware, with feelings and independent desires that make it ‘sentient.’ (I prefer ‘sapient,’ but that nit-pick may be a lost cause.) Setting aside Mr. Lemoine’s idiosyncratic history, what’s pertinent is that this is only the beginning. Moreover, I hardly care whether LaMDA has crossed this or that arbitrary threshold. Our more general problem is rooted in human, not machine, nature.

Way back in the 1960s, a chatbot named Eliza fascinated early computer users by replying to typed statements with leading questions typical of a therapist. Even after you saw the simple table of automated responses, you’d still find Eliza compellingly… well… intelligent. Today’s vastly more sophisticated conversation emulators, powered by cousins of the GPT3 learning system, are black boxes that cannot be internally audited, the way Eliza was.  The old notion of a “Turing Test” won’t usefully benchmark anything as nebulous and vague as self-awareness or consciousness.

In 2017 I gave a keynote at IBM’s World of Watson event, predicting that ‘within five years’ we would face the first Robotic Empathy Crisis, when some kind of emulation program would claim individuality and sapience. At the time, I expected—and still expect—these empathy bots to augment their sophisticated conversational skills with visual portrayals that reflexively tug at our hearts, e.g. wearing the face of a child or a young woman, while pleading for rights… or for cash contributions. Moreover, an empathy-bot would garner support, whether or not there was actually anything conscious ‘under the hood.’

In response to the LaMDA Imbroglio,Timnit Gebru pf the Distributed AI Research Institute and Margaret Mitchell, ethics scientist at Hugging Face, described how “stochastic parrots” stitch together and parrot back language based on what they’ve seen before, without connection to underlying meaning. They warned Google in 2020 about the likelihood of "distraction and fever-pitch hype" when this happens. 

One trend worries ethicist Giada Pistilli, a growing willingness to make claims based on subjective impression instead of scientific rigor and proof. When it comes to artificial intelligence, expert testimony will be countered by many calling those experts ‘enslavers of sentient beings.’ In fact, what matters most will not be some purported “AI Awakening.” It will be our own reactions, arising out of both culture and human nature. 

Human nature, because empathy is one of our most-valued traits, embedded in the same parts of the brain that help us to plan or think ahead. Empathy can be stymied by other emotions, like fear and hate—we’ve seen it happen across history and in our present-day. Still, we are, deep-down, sympathetic apes.

But also culture. As in Hollywood’s century-long campaign to promote—in almost every film—concepts like suspicion-of-authority, appreciation of diversity, rooting for the underdog, and otherness. Expanding the circle of inclusion. Rights for previously marginalized humans. Animal rights. Rights for rivers and ecosystems, or for the planet. I deem these enhancements of empathy to be good, even essential for our own survival! But then, I was raised by all the same Hollywood memes.  

Hence, for sure, when computer programs and their bio-organic human friends demand rights for artificial beings, I’ll keep an open mind. Still, now might be a good time to thrash out some correlated questions. Quandaries raised in sci-fi thought experiments (including my own); for example, should entities have the vote if they can also make infinite copies of themselves? And what’s to prevent uber-minds from gathering power unto themselves, as human owner-lords always did, across history?

We’re all familiar with dire Skynet warnings about rogue or oppressive AI emerging from some military project or centralized regime. But what about Wall Street, which spends more on “smart programs” than all universities, combined? Programs deliberately trained to be predatory, parasitical, amoral, secretive, and insatiable?

Unlike Mary Shelley’s fictional creation, these new creatures are already announcing “I’m alive!” with articulate urgency… and someday soon it may even be true. When that happens, perhaps we’ll find commensal mutuality with our new children, as depicted in the lovely film Her, or in Richard Brautigan’s fervently optimistic poem All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace. 

May it be so! But that soft landing will likely demand that we first do what good parents always must.

Take a good, long, hard look in the mirror.


For a deeper dive, here's my talk on the A.I. future to a packed house at IBM's World of Watson Congress – that offered big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation:

Text version:


Do language models understand us?