Ok, so, about this game thing…

If you look up into the night sky, just to the right of the bit that looks like a giant shopping cart, you’ll see a small blue star, called Sulis. Around it floats a stormy orange gas giant, and around that in turn swims a small moon, called Selene (until I come up with a nicer name).

selene2Selene is gravitationally challenged by all that whirling mass and hence is warm, comparatively wet and volcanic. It’s a craggy, canyon-filled landscape, by sheer coincidence remarkably similar to northern Arizona. The thin atmosphere contains oxygen, but sadly also much SO2 and H2S, making it hostile to earthly life without a spacesuit. But life it does contain! Spectroscopic analysis and photography from two orbiters have confirmed this (never mind how the orbiters got there – work with me, guys!)

There are hints of many species, some sessile, some motile. And just a little circumstantial evidence that one of these species may be moderately intelligent and perhaps even has a social structure. Your mission, should you wish to pay me a few dollars for the privilege, is to mount an expedition to Selene and study its biology and ecosystems. If at all possible I’d also like you to attempt contact with this shadowy sentient life-form.

Nothing is known (well, ok, I know it because I’m God, but I’m not telling you) about Selene’s ecosystems, geology, climate or, in particular, its biology. What is the food web? How do these creatures behave? What’s their anatomy? What niches do they occupy? How does their biochemistry work? How do they reproduce? Do they have something similar to DNA or does a different principle hold sway? What’s the likely evolutionary history? For the more intelligent creatures, what can be learned of their psychology, neurology and social behavior? Do they have language? Can we communicate with them? Are they dangerous? How smart are they? Do they have a culture? Do they have myths; religion? What does it all tell us?

You need to work together to build an encyclopedia – like Wikipedia – containing the results of your experiments, your observations and conclusions, stories, tips for exploration and research, maps, drawings, photos and all the rest. It will be a massive (I hope!), collaborative, Open Science experiment in exobiology…

So that’s the gist of what I’m working on. I was going to open a pet store and sell imported aliens but I decided it would be much more fun to build a virtual world you can actually step into, instead of watching through the bars of a cage. I’ll try to develop a whole new, self-consistent but non-earthlike biology, building on some of the things I learned from Creatures and my Lucy robot. I’ll discuss some of the technical issues on this blog but I’ll try not to give the game away – the point of the exercise is to challenge people to do real science on these creatures and deduce/infer this stuff for themselves. They/you did it admirably for Creatures but in those days I couldn’t give you anything as complex and comprehensive as I can now, and this time I don’t have marketing people breathing down my neck telling me that nobody’s interested in science.

I have no idea what the actual features will be, or to what extent it’ll be networked, etc. I’m just starting work on the terrain system and I have an awful long way to go. Because I’m working unfunded and have only a limited amount of money to live on, I’m going to work the other way round to most people, so instead of working to a spec I’ll squeeze in as many features as I can before the cash runs out. I know it’s absurd to hope to do all this in the space of a year to 18 months – after all, how many programmers and artists worked on Spore? Something like a hundred? But I think I’m as well equipped for the job as anyone, I work far more efficiently on my own, and it’s worth the attempt.

Whaddaya think?

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“Memristor minds: The future of artificial intelligence”

Ever the guardian of my intellectual development, Norm sent me a link to a New Scientist article on memristors, today. I’d never heard of them, but the article was interesting for both good and bad reasons, so I thought I’d share my impressions.

Here’s a short summary: The memristor is apparently a “missing component” in electronics, hypothesized by Leon Chua in 1971, to sit alongside the well known resistor, capacitor and inductor, but at the time it was unknown as a physical device. In the early years of this century, Stan Williams developed a nanoscale device that he believed fit the bill. And then Max di Ventra, a physicist at UCSD, linked this work with some research on a slime mould, which showed that they are capable of “predicting” a future state in a periodic environmental change. He suggested that this is a biophysical equivalent to a memristor. The article then goes on to suggest that neural synapses work the same way, and so this must surely be the big missing insight that has prevented us from understanding the brain and creating artificial intelligence.

But the article troubles me for a couple of reasons and I can’t help thinking there’s a serious problem with the way physicists and mathematicians tend to think about biology. Firstly, here’s a quote from the article:

“To Chua, this all points to a home truth. Despite years of effort, attempts to build an electronic intelligence that can mimic the awesome power of a brain have seen little success. And that might be simply because we were lacking the crucial electronic components – memristors.”

Hmm… So exactly what years of effort would that be, then? VERY few people have ever attempted to “build an electronic intelligence”. We simply don’t do that – we use computers! 

Sure, a computer is an electronic device, but the whole damned point of them is that they are machines that can emulate any other machine. So they can emulate memristors too. They don’t actually have to be MADE of them in order to do that – they simply simulate them in code, like they simulate everything else. And I’m sure I’ve many times written code that has a state memory like a memristor. I didn’t know there was a named physical device that works in the same way, and it’s very interesting that there is, because it might give us new analogies and insights. But if I needed something to behave like that I could have coded it any time I wanted to. It’s meaningless to say that we’ve been stuck because we lacked a new type of electronic component. Only a physicist would confuse hardware and software like that! It boggles my mind.

And then I’m a little perplexed about a missing electronic component we DO know about. Maybe someone can help me with this? Chua’s work apparently hypothesized the memristor as a fourth component to add the existing resistor, capacitor and inductor. But where’s the transistor? Isn’t that a fundamental component? It’s a resistor, after a fashion, but surely it’s a fundamental building block in its own right, because it has the ability to allow a voltage to modulate a current – without them almost no electronic circuits would do anything useful!

I hate to say it, but I wonder if that’s a comment on the minds of physicists, too? It’s the transistor (or vacuum tube) that makes the difference between a static circuit, for which the mathematics of physics works well, and a dynamic circuit, for which it doesn’t. The capacitor is a dynamic system too, but only for a moment and then it settles down into something nice and easy to write equations for. It’s only when you add transistors and their consequent ability to generate feedback that the system really starts to dance and sing, and then the equations stop being much use.

The real glaring insight that electronics gives us, in my not-always-terribly-humble opinion, is the realization that sometimes classical science has a bad habit of being obsessed with “quantities” and ignoring or even sometimes denying the existence of “qualities”. Two electronic systems might have precisely the same mass, complexity and constituent substances, for instance, but be wired up in a different arrangement, producing radically different results. The reductionism implicit in much of physics can’t “see” the difference between the two circuits – because it’s something purely qualitative, not quantitative.

It’s the same with the brain. The reason we don’t understand the brain has NOTHING of significance to do with some “missing component”. It has nothing to do with quantum uncertainty or any other reductionistic claptrap. The reason we don’t understand the brain is that we don’t understand the CIRCUIT. We don’t understand the system as a whole. Memories, thoughts, ideas and the Self are not properties of the brain’s components, they are properties of its organisation. It’s very hard to understand organisations – I could easily give you an electronic circuit diagram out of context and it might take you days or weeks to figure out how it works and exactly what it does. But you could know everything you need to know about the properties of its resistors, capacitors,  inductors and transistors, and even it’s memristors. You could weigh it and measure it all you liked and it would tell you nothing. Organization is not amenable to understanding using the tools of classical Physics.

Life and mind are qualitiative constructs. Looking for some special elixir vitae is completely missing the point. The article is very interesting and I plan to look up more information. Memristors may well provide a useful analogy that gives us some hints and insights about localised properties of brains, and that may steer us towards making more sense of the circuitry of intelligence. However, to suggest that we’ve got it all wrong because we didn’t have the right component in our toolbox for making our “electronic brains” is just nonsense. Electronic components are the province of physics, but electronic design is not. Synapses may be the province of physics too, but biology is not. Biology is a branch of cybernetics, which has a very different mindset (or did until physicists took it over and turned it into information theory).

P.S. I sort of see why transistors are missing now – at the mathematical level of description of Chua’s work, I guess a transistor is just a resistor, because both of them convert between voltage and current. Time only really enters into the equations as an integral, and the deeply nonlinear consequences of the transistor don’t really apply when you consider it as a single isolated component. But that was my point – once you wire them up into circuits all of this is pretty much irrelevant. It’s circuits that matter for intelligence. Minds are emergent properties of organisations. Looking for a “magic” component is just a modern-day form of vitalism.

Our hirsute brothers and sisters

Norm sent me a link to an interesting article on his site that suggests we are more closely related to orangutans than we are to chimpanzees. I lack the expertise to judge the research but it certainly seems respectable and comprehensive work.

Image © Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel 2000

Image © Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel 2000

I hope they’re right, I really do. For one thing whenever I’ve had the chance to watch my fellow great apes I’ve always felt more kinship with orangutans than with chimps, bonobos or gorillas (or even humans, sometimes). Their largely peaceful, solitary, gentle existence would make such a good common ancestral model to aspire to. Chimps always seem a bit nasty to me. Some would say that this makes them a better mirror of humans but that’s only true for modern humans (and indeed modern chimps) – I don’t know that we were always this warlike.

Plus we might have a little more chance of saving the few orangutans who are left if we recognised them as our brothers and sisters. Chimps seem to have a little more time left (not much but a little).

I wouldn’t dare say this in public, obviously, because someone might write deeply affronted comments on my blog or something, but if you ask me the differences in appearance and behavior between many human races are barely any smaller than those between the most orangutan-like humans and the most human-like orangutans. Sure, orangutans can’t talk, but they can do pretty much everything else – row boats, wash clothes, solve problems… They ought to be included in the human race, I reckon (along with the other hominids too). It would certainly challenge us to think more clearly about a lot of things if we expanded the definition of “us” rather more widely. After all, Australian Aborigines were not legally regarded as human beings by whites until 1967. Us and Them is such a basic categorization, something we are all guilty of making all the time: My friends versus my enemies, my family versus the rest of the village, Christians versus Muslims, Catholics versus Protestants. If you ask me (and I realise you didn’t, but this is my blog versus your blog) the more inclusive we make the category of “us”, the less meaningful the category of “them” becomes, and this is a good thing.

The evolutionary tree does not end in big lumps, within which all pigs are the same, all humans are the same, etc. It ends in trillions of individual leaves – every single living thing is unique and more or less distantly related to every other living thing. The notion of species certainly makes sense – there are reasons why some creatures can’t breed with others, and that means that creatures who can interbreed end up being more similar to each other and more different from those with which they can no longer share genes. This is also true to a lesser extent when geography or culture separate people – Irishmen end up looking more like other Irishmen than they do Russians, because they share genes more often. But so what? It’s still true that we are all different and all the same. Hedgehogs, jellyfish, azalias and E.coli are all “us”.

There are certainly places we need to draw lines, but there is no single line that works for all questions, so we need to get into the habit of turning our instinctive black and white categories into more subtle shades. For example we need to draw a line (perhaps a very fuzzy one) between things that are conscious and therefore have moral rights and things that aren’t and don’t. We don’t actually have a clue where to draw that line yet, but few of us are even asking the question. It almost certainly doesn’t fall between Homo sapiens and all other living things, as religion-reinforced intuition and arrogance would have us believe. Sometimes we also fail to differentiate between finding where to draw a line and choosing where to draw it.

Anyway, I realise this little rant would apply equally well if chimpanzees really are our closest cousins, but I just wanted to raise a cheer for orangutans. After all I was (until I went grey) a redhead just like them, so that makes me and the orangs into “Us” and all you dark-haired gorilla offspring can go hang…

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin would no doubt be honored to know that he shares a birthday with me 😉 Tomorrow he’d be 200 and I’ll be 51, so that makes me more than a quarter as old as Darwin, which is a very strange thought indeed. It sometimes shocks me in a similar way that Artificial Intelligence is only a little bit older than I am, and I’ve been doing it myself for thirty years, which means I’ve been working in the field for a substantial fraction of the time that it has existed. I figure this makes me now as guilty as anyone for how badly it has turned out so far!

Anyway, happy Darwin Day. How nice that the man managed to have a bicentennial in the same year that Obama became president and we regained some hope that rationality might return to the USA (and its followers, such as the UK, where half my fellow countrymen have now been duped into believing that the evolution of species requires the intervention of a creator).

(By the way, if you’re thinking of commenting on this post with a creationist or ID opinion, don’t even get me started. I’m sick of it. Go get an education. Go look at some actual fossils and trace some stratigraphy. Do some Artificial Life experiments. Take the trouble to find out for yourself from first-hand experience, like I did, instead of listening to sophistry. You’re being lied to).