What will ET look like when we meet him/her/it?

Artificial Intelligence

When I first told my sister that I was doing machine learning and artificial intelligence research, her response was “SKYNET???” I will admit that Skynet is a terrifying villain. An intelligence capable of using all machines for its own ends, creating Schwarzenegger cyborgs, AND capable of time-travel? Truly chilling. In fact, most depictions of artificial intelligence are negative: Any Terminator movie, Battlestar Galactica, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tron. There are some positive portrayals as well. Tron Legacy comes to mind. However, none of these portrayals are reflective of actual artificial intelligence as I understand it. So what is artificial intelligence as I understand it? Its math and procedure. That’s really it.  I spend a significant chunk of my day writing mathematical formulas and pseudocode on a whiteboard. Another part of my day is spent translating those formulas and pseudocode into languages that computers understand. Most of the rest is meetings, and the last small part is reading about advances in the field. That’s really it.

Computers do math really well. Humans do not do math all that well. Even the best human in the world cannot do simple operations nearly as fast or as error-free as a computer can. However, humans are really good at estimating quickly. Let’s say you have a field full of frogs (I guess you’re a frog farmer?). Let’s also say you had a frog-farming robot and a human farm-hand. You send the frog-farming robot out to count all the frogs, and you’ll get back an exact number of frogs (assuming appropriate counting procedures). You send the human frog-farm-hand out to count all the frogs. It will take the human much longer and the count will probably be less accurate. If, on the other hand, you say to the robot, “Give me a rough estimate of my frogs! Go!” the robot will take longer and produce a poorer approximation than if you gave your human frog-farm-hand the same task. Artificial intelligence is a way for your robot to bridge the approximation gap. If you gave an artificially intelligent robot the frog estimating task, I cannot tell you whether the approximation would be better or worse than a human’s approximation, nor could I predict whether the human or the artificially intelligent robot would be faster. It would depend on the algorithm, the task, and all sorts of other factors. I expect that, depending on the algorithm, artificial intelligence can produce either a better approximation or a faster approximation than a human, but not both.

So. We know that artificial intelligence is just math, that humans are better and faster approximators, that computers are better at exactness and that artificial intelligence allows computers to approximate better. What does all this have to do with evolution?

We are currently seeing a new type of intelligence evolving. Yes, we humans are the drivers of this evolution. However, we are discovering algorithms, math, procedures that work, but no one understands how. Much like human consciousness, we can understand the pieces, but we don’t yet understand how the whole works. I think all intelligence, no matter the type, starts out like this: First there are simple solutions (swim towards the light to find food, count things if you want to know how many there are). Things get more complicated (find food AND avoid predators, estimate how many things because there are too many to count).  Eventually, things get so complicated that individual, natural intelligence is insufficient and we must invent computers to handle with the parts of intelligence that we lack.

Computers are currently replacing much of what humans are accustomed to doing and that is scary for so many people. However, we are so far from the days when computers can completely replace us, if they ever can. There is so much about computers, even artificially intelligent computers, that is different from humanity. Our ‘brains’ are so different: made of different things, operate in different ways, focused on different problems. One day perhaps, computers and humans will more fully unite, but I don’t think either side can be fully replaced.

Now we come to the question I’ve been asking myself for months: Could it happen the other way around? Could intelligence evolve for math first, and then develop “computers” to handle approximation and other squishy stuff? When we reach the stars, could we encounter an intelligence we see as artificial with biological “computers” to handle communicating with us?

Would we even know that the math-y intelligence was intelligence? Could we recognize an intelligence so different from our own?

I’m back!

WordPress tells me it’s been 4 years since I added a post here. I feel a little bad about that, but these last 4 years have been intense, beautiful and terrifying in turns. I’m engaged. I had pretty much convinced myself THAT was never going to happen and then it did. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me, hands down. I went back to school, and switched career tracks. I’m now a grad student in computer science. Also there were frogs:


Do not try this at home! Frogs are fragile! Leave this sort of work to the wildlife professionals!

I miss posting here, regardless of whether anyone (aside from fiance. HI FIANCE!) will ever see what I write. I’m going to start writing here again. Going forward, I have some new thoughts on intelligence from working with artificial intelligence, and some new thoughts on evolution from designing evolutionary algorithms. First topic: Artificial Intelligence. All this is simply to say, I’m back!

7 years

Isaac approaching has brought up too many memories for a comfortable day at work.  I left early to write this post.

7 years ago today, I was backcountry.  My trail crew was just finishing up a 2 week trail rerouting project.  I was so excited about my upcoming Americorps position with the National Civilian Community Corps.  Life was epic. What would become one of the most pivotal events in my life was playing out on a horrible scale and I didn’t even know it.

A couple days later, my trail crew and I reached the town of Darby, Montana.  We saw the news.  Hurricane Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast and wreaked widespread devastation.  Levees breached, looting, hundreds dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, all this was plastered across the newspapers we hadn’t seen in weeks.  We were horrified and disbelieving.  Later the death toll was updated to more than 1500 dead and more than 200,000 left homeless.   7 days later, I left for Americorps.

I remember how spectacularly governmental and a few private institutions failed to serve the people of the Gulf Coast.  I had a particularly close look at FEMA, because my Americorps team, along with many others, was used by FEMA to fill out paperwork.  In some cases, the paperwork we were completing for FEMA trailer residents had been filled out several times previous.  People were angry.  I remember the vitriol when people spoke of State Farm and FEMA.  I remember how BAD I was at talking to FEMA trailer residents in a soothing manner.  I remember thinking how much happier I would have been if they had just given us something to DO.  I remember thinking how helpless, how useless I felt.

After a month of training for Americorps, we were latecomers to the disaster relief game.  I remember thinking how tired everyone looked.  I remember spray-painted X’s on houses.  I remember the smell.  I remember the debris.  I remember the places where the water had scoured the debris away.  I remember a broken plate.

The government is an inefficient machine.  It could not handle the scale of the disaster that overtook it.  The people that should have been leading the people of the Gulf Coast were ill-suited to do so in times of disaster.  I’ve spent several summers working for the government in various capacities.  Maybe it’s time I stopped.  Maybe it’s a good thing that the space travel mantle is now swirling around the shoulders of private companies.  Maybe the system is broken.

I also remember companies I have long despised, like Walmart, doing admirable things.  While the Walmart building in Waveland, Mississippi was out of commission, Walmart operated out of their parking lot in tents.

I remember hearing from my parents how people even in Idaho were donating supplies.  I remember volunteers by the thousands, entering the Gulf Coast like a second flood, more positive though much slower.  I remember how the American people donated supplies and money for the Gulf Coast.  Everything from bottled water to poptarts to diapers.  There were lots of M&M’s.  I know because I was there.

I remember how the American people forgot what divided them in the midst of this crisis.  I remember how supportive everyone back home was.  As you can imagine, Idaho is a very different place than Mississippi or Louisiana.

I hope humanity never loses the ability to set aside vast differences in order to help people in crisis.  I hope that if we ever meet another intelligent species, this is one area we have in common.

I remember you, Gulf Coast, and I’m thinking about you today.

Once again, Octopus

Previously, I discussed how Octopus destroyed my theory that social groupings led to intelligence.  I think my theory was partially correct in that once a species is Octopus level intelligent, social groups are the key to becoming more intelligent.  However, one must ask how an animal gets to intelligence level: Octopus.  I have two options to set before you. The first is that we evolved intelligence to outwit predators and the second is that we evolved intelligence to find good food to eat.  I’ll put it to a vote.  If you feel the need to explain your vote, I highly encourage you to do so!

Space travel would be impossible without computers.  We need to machine parts precisely, navigate perfectly, and do so many other things exactly in order to send a human into space.  Even the Curiosity required precise parts.  Humans are not precise.  We never needed to be, before the modern era.  Ergo, space took the development of computers on our part.  Could other species do without computers to get to space?  I don’t think so.  Could the computers be biological or otherwise unrecognizable? Absolutely.  Think about a bacterial computer!  Of course, the fastest computers would be electrical, because the transmission of light and/or electrical signals are faster than the movement of matter.  Even human’s brains operate using electrical signals.  Oh wait.  So Biological computers are a possibility.  Are biological computers a monstrosity? Depends on the construction, but possibly.

Our nature as humans, as mammals, as animals, is dependent on environmental constraints.  One of the most fundamental constraints is chemistry.  Certain chemical reactions are simply more efficient, easier to control and simpler to evolve than others.  I think our own water and carbon oriented reactions are a prime example of this.  I think life evolved because of the unique nature of water and carbon atoms.  However, several organisms operate on other chemical planes.  For example, there are bacteria near deep sea vents that use sulfur reactions in the same way that plants use photosynthesis.  Scientists study these organisms to hypothesize about the chemical nature of life on other planets.  As cool as this is (IT’S AWESOMELY COOL!!! in case you were wondering) we are handicapped when we use these organisms to hypothesize about extra-terrestrials, because all life on Earth has the same starting point.  If you have different starting points, it would make sense that you have different results.

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” –Albert Einstien

“A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad Manners. Lack of consideration of others in minor matters.” –Robert Heinlein

Is cultural death inevitable?  In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, mathematical genius Hari Seldon is able to predict what large masses of people will do.  (The actions of one individual are completely unpredictable, but in any group of people, most actions will fall into a predictable pattern.  A bell curve is one example of a predictable pattern that people might fall into.)  One of the things he predicts is the end of the Galactic Empire, an endlessly bureaucratic, rude culture with no original scientific discovery.  In the Galactic Empire, I saw the reflections of the USA and the Roman Empire.  After the end of the Roman Empire (as well as after the fall of the Galactic Empire), there ensued a time of barbarism for all nearby cultures.  In this era of globalization, almost all cultures are nearby.  Is the USA destined to cultural self-destruction?  Is it possible for a widespread culture to escape the fate of the Roman Empire?  I’d like to think so.

This isn’t strictly science related.  Bear with me.

My first college degree was in Outdoor Education, because I loved rock climbing.  I can’t think of a single classmate that didn’t climb, and it was a great community in which to begin my college career.  However, in my last semester, there was That Guy.  In one of my classes we were discussing rock climbing history and the rise of women in the sport.  Prior to that point I had met That Guy, but only vaguely disliked him.  That particular day, That Guy asked, “What do you attribute [the rise of women in rock climbing] to?  Is it just better shoes?”  Despite the rage filling my brain (I am female, just in case it wasn’t obvious), I did hear the (male) instructor’s response.  He told That Guy that Lynn Hill, a female rock climbing icon, was not only the first woman to climb the Nose (really hard, iconic climb in Yosemite) without using certain gear, she was the first PERSON- male, female or purple spotted alien- to do so.  Her many accomplishments happened in spite of the convention that “women are not good rock climbers”.  A Canadian gentleman I climbed with in Red Rocks a couple years ago called Lynn Hill the greatest climber in the world because she not only redefined the sport for women, she simply redefined rock climbing.

Recently, I read the Joe Peacock’s article on females at conventions and John Scalzi’s response.  There has historically been a gender gap in geekdom, similar to the rock climbing gender gap.  Generally, the role of female participation in geekdom and at sci-fi conventions is getting much more attention than I remember.  A lot of that attention is negative, such as what happened to Anita Sarkeesian, and some positive, such as the numerous blog posts by men supporting women in geekdom or the Readercon convention committee apology.  I’ve been going to conventions practically since I was born.  With all the attention in the blogosphere this discussion is getting, I have to wonder: While I’ve been away from Geekdom (getting a couple college degrees and rock climbing mostly), have geeks en masse turned into That Guy?  Did I just not notice That Geek before?

If you realize you’re That Geek and you would like to become less ignorant, first of all, congratulations, you’re way better than the average That Geek.  I have a couple Lynn Hills of the Geek World for you to research.

Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer.  Ever.  She wrote a computer program for the Babbage engine before the engine was actually built and she had this idea that computers could do more than just mathematics.  Grace Hopper created the first compiler, which proved Ada Lovelace’s idea correct.    For the non-geeks in the virtual room a compiler translates different types of computer code, different computer languages which allows humans to create computer programs.  For example, let’s say a computer runs off of a language called Swahili (not a real computer language!).  Essentially, Swahili tells which parts to move when.  The compiler translates the Swahili into Spanish (also not a real computer language!) so we can tell the computer to do stuff in Spanish which is a bit easier to grasp, being closer to our own language.  Grace Hopper’s work in computer languages led to COBOL (for the non-geeks, she changed computing languages into something workable) and later in life they called her Grandma COBOL.  She also popularized the terms “debugging” and “computer bug” after her associates found a moth interfering with the operation of one of the computers.

I love Geekdom.  I consider myself a gamer, a scientist (in training), a fan, a writer (well, a blogger anyway) and general, all around geek.  I love the idea of a culture based on the love of ideas, rather than the level of conformation to an ideal.  The fact that I am female should be irrelevant to my choice in hobbies.  This is especially true since women have been computer programmers since before the Babbage engine.  We’ve always been geeks.  Perhaps the fact that male geeks haven’t seen women in large numbers at conventions has less to do with the geekiness of women and more to do with social constraints on women.

At the end of the day, I don’t care about mainstream society’s demands upon me based on my gender.  I just want Geekdom to love me back.

Any comments about great female geeks appreciated. Now back to the science!

Sadness 😦



NBC is reporting Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon- dead at 82.

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A while ago I wrote a post bemoaning the Betrayal of Octopus.  It was indeed a foul deed.  Octopus made a hole in my wonderful argument for intelligence being the result of society and language.  Recently, I listened to an interview of David Brin on the Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast.  He discussed many fascinating subjects but he also declared he didn’t think aquatic species such as dolphins and octopi could develop an industrialized society.  Even worse, this podcast occurred before I started trashing Octopus.  This is tragic.  Not only did my Betrayal of Octopus post not get very many hits, it wasn’t even original.  So now I must redeem Octopus in order to regain my originality and then I can find someone else to trash.

David Brin’s assertion was that aquatic species could not form industrialized societies because they lack the ability to make fire.  He is right.  Fire does not burn underwater.  There are fires that can burn when in contact with water, but fire by definition needs oxygen in order to burn.  No fire to make steel among other things means no industrialization.  Or does it?

The reason octopi don’t form cooperative societies is because in our ocean, nutrients and oxygen are widely dispersed.  For the amount of space in the ocean (lots), there is not a lot of life in most of it.  Tropical coral reefs and the phytoplankton blooms near Alaska are exceptions, rather than the norm.  Why is this?  First of all, terrestrial space and ocean space are very different.  Both the ocean and the land are hard surfaces with a fluid space above them.  For the ocean, the fluid is salt water and for the land, the fluid is gaseous compounds.  Salt water is much denser than air, so organisms can be entirely supported by the fluid.  In the terrestrial sphere, even birds must land occasionally which is not the case in the oceanic sphere.  Humans build structures off of solid surfaces and I’m going to assume a solid surface is necessary for structures.  Second of all, most animal life on earth depends on gaseous oxygen (dissolved in water or straight up).  There is a lot of space in the ocean that doesn’t have very much oxygen.  Third of all, because there’s a lot of space without oxygen, there’s a lot of space without a lot of life.  Being sans life, means there’s nothing for animals to eat.  All of these reasons mean it is more efficient for octopi and other animals to spread out, especially a reasonably smart animal that can find food even if food is hard to find.

What if the character of our ocean were different?  What if some natural process injected enough gas for organisms to breathe in the ocean almost anywhere?  What if the ocean was as full of life as the majority of terrestrial space?  What if octopi could clump together?  I think octopi would be more social and have a capacity for language similar to dolphins.

At the start of our industrial revolution, one of the many possibly catalyzing technologies was the water wheel, a version of which I am sure Octopus (if he were the social type) could build and utilize.  There may not be fire in the depths of the ocean, but maybe octopi could utilize lava flows and smokers to work metal.  Octopus is pretty smart after all.  There you go, Octopus, I forgive you for busting up my theory because I got to make a new one!

Variability and evolution

Last post, I asked: would life in a stable environment evolve past the primordial ooze stage and what level of environmental variability is good for the evolution of intelligent life?

One of my college professors described evolution quite simply.  He wrote, “Evolution is change” and left it at that.  I’ve spent a long time trying to add qualifiers to that definition, because I, an individual, change and individuals cannot evolve.  I’ve always thought that as a model, the “evolution is change” definition is too simple to be really valuable.  Mathematically, though, that particular definition of evolution is useful.  If one defines evolution as change, finding the rate of evolution in a population becomes a calculus problem.

There are two competing theories about the rate of evolutionary change, punctuated equilibrium and gradual change.  The punctuated equilibrium theory argues that, because we see relatively few individuals in the fossil record in the process of speciation, speciation and evolutionary change happen quickly (thousands of years rather than millions).  Then species remain relatively unchanged for the remainder of their history.  The gradual change theory argues that the fossil record is not nearly complete so we should not expect to find examples of speciation, and that evolutionary change happens slowly but consistently.  I think these two theories are both present in the natural world, and the two theories can be combined.  Check out my super simplistic illustration of the concept below!



The chunks where rapid evolutionary change occurs would be caused by a big change in the organism’s environment.  Most of the time though, chunks of gradual evolutionary change would be caused by small changes in the environment and other processes on a small scale.  A stable environment could hold organisms that evolve intelligence, but I think evolution would be slow.  Instead of the 3.6 billion years it took to get us and our industrialized society, it would take what?  7 billion years?  14 billion years, the entire life of the universe?  Thankfully, our star is pretty young, so it might be possible for a species from a stable environment to evolve intelligence and then come find us as we evolved intelligence.  I don’t think it’s likely though.

What level of variability is good for intelligent life?  We can look at major sources of extinction and evolutionary change in the past to find about the stability of our environment.  Here’s a brief list of possible causes for major extinctions: Temperature shifts, atmospheric changes, shifts in our magnetic field (look at Mars!), food sources vanishing, competition.

Earth has a relatively narrow temperature band (compared to Mercury, or the prison planet in Chronicles of Riddick) from 57.8o C (136o F) to -89.2o C (-128.6o F).  Water doesn’t even get to boiling, here!  Our atmosphere has had some pretty extreme shifts in the past but it’s been pretty stable for a long time now, with a Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, Oxygen mix that suits us well.  The magnetic field has also been consistent for a long time, preventing solar winds from removing our ozone layer.  Our ozone layer is important in preventing radiation from frying us.  Life in general can deal with extremely variable environments but intelligent life needs a relatively stable abiotic environment in order to evolve I think.  However, I also think that the biotic environment (competing organisms, prey species, etc.) needs to be fairly complex in order for intelligent life to thrive.

Sorry, folks.  This post was not as exciting as the last one.  However, if someone knows of an equation that’s been used to express the concepts above, I would give you an honorable mention in the next post if you could bring it to my attention!

I love you but I’m serious, Dad.  Turn off the computer now.  Mom, I love you too, but you also need to not read this.

Ok, now that my sensitive parental units have left the virtual room, it is also time to say this post has content that some would term “mature”.  So anyone under 18 needs parental guidance in order to read this post.  (Sorry youngest sibling, you’re out of luck.)  Thank you.

*elevator music*

Not that long ago, I was reading the Cosmo website (I ran out of books OK?? I almost DIED before I got to the bookstore!!) and I found an article touting the song Everlasting Light by the Black Keys as great sex music.  You know what?  It’s totally true!  When I (and an unnamed male) tested this hypothesis, I was not, Not, NOT thinking about evolution, reproduction or even my original hypothesis.  My higher brain functions weren’t even really a part of the process at that point.

Insects mating on a liatris flower head.

Insects mating on a liatris flower head. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)However, I recently heard the song again.  At first, I thought about the night I (and another) tested Cosmo’s hypothesis.  Who wouldn’t?  But then I started thinking about sexual reproduction.  How sexual reproduction has led to enormous variation.  Why sexual reproduction is great.  And then I thought, would intelligent species need sexual reproduction?  Which pretty much transported my whole sexy thought process into a new, strange, geeky dimension.

I recently read a really funny (and really accessible!) evolutionary biology book called “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation”.  In it, “Dr. Tatiana” dispenses advice on strange penises, monogamy, sex ratios, complex mating rituals, parental care and more, all the while explaining scientific concepts and making readers giggle hysterically.  The most relevant chapter to this post had to do with asexual reproduction.  Many people confuse sexual reproduction with internal fertilization.  The book defined sexual reproduction as exchanging genetic material with another.  Fish that spawn, bacteria that lyse and allow their genetic material to be taken in by other bacteria, flowers that use bees as an intermediary, all participate in sexual reproduction.  Internal fertilization is what humans (and many other animals) do in order to complete the process of exchanging genetic material.

Asexual reproduction is not that rare.  Certain plants, animals, and single celled organisms participate.  The interesting ones, however, had sexual reproduction in the past and evolved asexual reproduction.  The book provides many examples of this exact phenomenon.  Why?  What is so great about asexual reproduction?  Asexual females (sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?) only need to produce 1 baby to keep the population stable compared to the 2 babies a sexual female needs to produce.  Additionally, all that energy and time sexual beings waste trying to find a mate and doing the deed?  Completely unnecessary.

If asexual reproduction is so great, why don’t we all do it?  Our planet is variable.  Not only do seasons and weather vary in most places, but scientists are discovering cycles in temperature and precipitation that occur on geologic time scales.  Our predecessors evolved sex in order to create variability in their offspring. One of us might get lucky and have a gene that supports survival when the environment changes to X.   We as sexual beings have more variation among ourselves than do asexual beings.  Therefore, when environments are stable, sexual reproduction is kind of a pain.  However, when environments are variable, sex is great.  Extra-terrestrials would not need sex if their environment was stable (or only variable enough for mutation to take care of any issues).   On the other hand, Cosmo would totally not translate to intelligent asexual beings!  Maybe that’s a good thing.

Next post subjects: would life in a stable environment evolve past primordial ooze stage and what level of variability is good for the evolution of intelligent life?  Also, the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox and SETI.