‘What good is a newborn baby?’ asked Benjamin Franklin in 1783 when people questioned his enthusiasm for the recent invention of hot air ballooning. His predictions that the balloons would become significant for transport was unusually wrong. 250 years later, Loon is a balloon system in the news for delivering the internet in Kenya and elsewhere. Balloons are helping transport information.
‘Where are they?’ asked Enrico Fermi at lunch one day in 1950 when alien invasions had captured the popular imagination. This was at a time when people really should have been more concerned about the military focus on mutually assured destruction. It’s hard to imagine that there are aliens out there, in this universe at least, given that it’s taken us more than 4.5 billion years to evolve to be able to invent the hot air balloon.
In 1933, Georges Lemaïtre asked Einstein ‘Was there a day without a yesterday?’ though I don’t know if these are the exact words he used. Lemaïtre considered that if galaxies were moving apart, there must be an original mass. That point of origin is the source of galaxies that must have been superimposed or aggregated. He had proposed this as the primeval atom or the cosmic egg. Hoyle would later term this the Big Bang and Hawking went so far as to calculate the density of the cosmic egg. Pope Pius XII said that Lemaïtre had vindicated the Genesis story in the Christian Bible. Not a bad test of human memory (or imagination), given the Big Bang happened at least 12 billion years before anyone was around to write a Bible.
I stopped to outstare our fridge this morning. I’d been feeding my phone and my fitbit with the electricity that fuels them and was looking for some milk for my coffee. I was struck by how dumb our fridge is. It didn’t know I was approaching let alone what I needed. Other fridges can sense when the milk is running low and can order more. Or tomatoes or ketchup or whatever else is kept in the fridge. Not that the fridge yet senses any approach but it can’t be too far off that the door opens before you get there.
I admit that my head is a bit messed up because I’ve just read Novacene by James Lovelock. The subtitle tells you more than the title; The Coming Age of Hyperinteligence.
Lovelock gave us the insight into Gaia, the concept that our planet is a self regulating organism. Now he’s proposing that life is about the evolution of information and that the cosmos is essentially a self regulating, complex system.
Lovelock reminds us that one day, on this planet, more Ocean than Earth, a photon sparked a cellular organism into photosynthesis, without which we could never have evolved. I’m not a book reviewer but if I was, I’d say this is a very interesting book. As a reader, I have to confirm that it was fun to read. Easy yet it sparked mad thoughts.
A central tenet of Novacene is that we humans are just a stepping stone in the evolution of conscious life. Martha Gill has a promo-quote on the back cover ‘I have never read a jauntier book about artificial intelligence taking over the world.’ There’s nothing artificial about intelligence and certainly not the coming intelligence described in this book. It seems to me that most of the world continues to misunderstand the difference between machine intelligence and machine learning.
I have a collection of development assistants for my photography, software tools that help me recover images from damage or noise. Most of them include AI in the title. Sharpen AI. Gigapixel AI. I rarely use them. The machine learning with which they are programmed has nothing intelligent about any of it. Algorithms are not intelligence as we know from the recent news about education grading in lieu of examinations during the pandemic. Many commentators made the same mistake in blaming the algorithms and not the humans for the many grading errors.
The single most wonderful thing in the book, for me at least, is the idea that we’ve been programming our machines in a linear fashion. It seems to me that the disregard for enabling machine intuition is a lamentable failing.
Zephirum is nothing wrote Matt Ridley in How Innovation Works. And without zephirum, eight hundred years ago, Fibonacci could not have embraced the Indian concept of numbers that has liberated the world. Roman numerals were replaced with 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 and zephirum, an Arabic word for the nothing that we know as zero. Now zero has become half of everything that we use in computing. Zero or one. This is how consciousness works too. We don’t need to understand consciousness to embrace the fact that our brains are like our fridge, they both run on electricity. Zero and one.
One day, our fridge will be smarter than all of us. There’s a lot to be said for the theory that humankind has evolved rapidly because of language and that language has enabled gossip, a primary driver for mankind. Robin Dunbar, Experimental Psychologist, authored a 2004 paper called Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective and said that ‘Analyses of freely formed conversations indicate that approximately two thirds of conversation time is devoted to social topics, most of which can be given the generic label gossip.’
And when the fridge and microwave start to gossip about the dishwasher or the central heating, well, who knows what will happen. Facebook researchers had computers negotiating among themselves in plain English back in 2017 but they stopped it when the language rapidly evolved beyond human comprehension.
Humans have been persistently poor at predicting the impacts of new technologies. The inventor doesn’t know how revolutionary and transformative an idea may be. That’s down to the innovators. The stirrup conquered a continent. The steam engine transformed a planet.
Perhaps when we evolve to be cyborgs we will leap from this universe to another?