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    Intelligence, Uplift And Our Place In A Big Cosmos
    By David Brin | September 22nd 2012 03:30 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About David

    David Brin is a scientist, public speaker, technical consultant and author of books including The Postman, Startide Rising, The Uplift War and Existence...

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    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.

    the drake equation_1Put 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.)

    == 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?

    planetapesbookFrom 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.

    Uplift_B-2-653x1024That 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.

     == 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 more-significant significance of all this.

    StartideBurnsWhat'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) they 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? We sappy sapiens?

    Was it a confluence of experiences, trials and selections endured by bands of gregarious apes, squeezing through evolutionary bottlenecks, one after another?  Or was it something like my own hypothetical process, two-way sexual selection?

    Could some rare fluke 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, what kind of horrible bastards would we be, if we then refused to share our good fortune? If churlishly disdained to turn around and help others across the gap?

    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, stay tuned.

    == More Problems With “Intelligence” ==

    To get smarter, we’ll have to learn to overcome a lot 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.

    GloryTrailerWell, 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, this project explained how 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 nopn-gene sections are regulatory, and crucially important.

    connectome-pipeline_610x394_2Oh 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 withing 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!)

    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 Perspective-Button-Reboot-iconskimp 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

    Comments

    Lord Dome

    Being new tothe pages of Science 2.0, I was drawn to the Top Articles and spent anenjoyable few hours following the thread and associated links of “Intelligence, Uplift And Our Place In A Big (er…limitless?) Cosmos”

    The excellent nature of this web site and forum allows for comment to be made. Hopefully this is constructive and informed if not enquiring. At the very least it permits closet astro-philosophers such as myself to project musings into cyber space with more than a little hope of reaching a listener than a METI practitioner.


    Doesn’t the human race suffer badly from being the human race? What happened to humility and some semblance of managed and considered behaviour?  We’ve made such a mess of so called civilisation having failed miserably to lift ourselves out of a quagmire of exploitation, greed, war, inter-cultural hatred and distrust and all of the other ugly aspects of our progress since the stone age. My advice would be to avoid an unfettered transmission of Tweets, loudly, to the assumed inhabitants of exoplanet GJ667Cc lest they get a whiff of the foul stench emanating from our planet. I’m not even sure we should let anyone know that significant numbers of us indulge in what is often the self serving activity that Twitter(and the like) can be.


    Stephen Hawking’s assertion that we should sit quietly until we have assessed the situation further might be qualified with an additional condition, namely,  until we are ready to project humanity in a way advisable.  That is, assuming, that what WE regard as the best in civilisation is in fact worth promulgating beyond our horizons terrestrially, philosophically and in absolute terms. This last aspect casts a shadow on the nature of intelligence, also discussed in your article. Yet again we appear to suffer from a human-centric view, this time, that our limited experience of intelligence represents more than a miniscule view of the topic even given the astounding admission that humans are not unique in possessing the perceived stuff of concsciousness, ergo, intelligence.


    Intelligence which is rooted in conscious reason against a reference base of experience, education and other forms of programming is often difficult to differentiate from complex instinctive behaviour. The most irresistable force in observed nature is that of survival. Life forms have woven incredible intricacies in to their survival strategies which are automated and evolving. That alien life forms have also done so is practically a given.  We would do well to stop and consider the wisdom or lack of it in some of our assumptions before we make even the most futile attempts at sending out invitations and second guessing the nature and intentions of our external neighbours.


    The chances that extra terrestial life-forms whatever their nature, are using communications methods reliant on speed of light transmissions are slim. The modern example of our attempts to keep in touch with Voyager ought to have persuaded us of the inherent limitations by now. It seems likely that as we understand the true nature of the relationships between energy and matter, their interchangeability, parallelism and the role played by dimension, we will discover ways in which inter-stellar travel and communication will become possible and perhaps already understood by extra-terrestrials. We humans still struggle with self confining concepts, for example, that time somehow has a beginning and the universe is somehow no bigger than we can detect, or worse, than defined by current science based advocacy.


    Perhaps one day we will rid ourselves of the shackles of the space-time continuum, curved or otherwise and we will enjoy the uncomfortable-for-some notions that space is infinite in all directions, we’re not the only big bang in town and time has but one essence…it passes!

    Thanks Gordon, for your cogent and well-spoken remarks. I agree with much you say... though those parts are less interesting than courteous and respectful disagreement!

    First off, most of the topics in my posting and in your reply are explored vividly in my new novel EXISTENCE... see the trailer at tinyurl.com/exist-trailer I have spent my whole life in these fields.

    But I disagree with you about the "mess" we've made of civilization. The statistics do not back you up. For example, read Steven Pinker's recent book: THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. Which points out and proves that per capita rates of violence on Earth have plummeted in each of the decades since the horror of 1945. Even war is a much more careful thing than it was, more like hectic swat team urban action than carpet bombing of whole cities. And bad old habits like racism - while still around - have been driven into ill repute.

    Given that no one has helped or guided us, and given the temptations that always ruined our leaders in times past, I am amazed we have done so well.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

    http://www.davidbrin.com

    blog: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/

    twitter: http://twitter.com/DavidBrin1
     

    Gerhard Adam
    I find two topics in this discussion to be interesting to consider from a slightly different perspective.  I'm not clear about what we hope to accomplish by attempting to communicate with another civilization in space.  Beyond satisfying the curiosity factor of establishing that there is another civilization, what kind of relationship do we hope to achieve?

    While even the most trivial type of physical contact could be highly dangerous for either species in such an encounter, I've never understood what was supposed to occur after the first contact had been satisfied.  Why would we think that another civilization has any desire to be our mentors, or worse ... what if we ended up being the more "advanced" civilization? 

    Regarding intelligence, perhaps we should be considering the question of whether we can get any smarter.  After all, it seems that our current level of social organization argues against such an increase, with indications that we may actually be experiencing decreases in fundamental intelligence.

    http://www.whatsonningbo.com/tech94.html

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-limits-of-intelligence
    Mundus vult decipi
    SarK0Y
    David, Great article, really thank ye very much for!
    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? We sappy sapiens?
    the body makes difference how creature interacts with environment and what could be apt environment for whatever creature. + environment is very source to produce stimuli to improve or to suppress CFs (cognitive function). In short, Mother-Nature always searches as far simple solution as possible to create energy-efficient systems.