Monday, December 26, 2016

Is AI Magic?

AI is what everybody knows about. It is embodied in the idea that computers will someday be able to do everything a human mind can do. For instance, to play board games, to drive cars, to recognize people, to interpret human speech and respond to it, to design circuit boards and skyscrapers, to watch for intrusions, to keep track of bills or accounts, to look up interesting facts, and a thousand more tasks. It also means the computers will learn by themselves. Humans teach themselves many, many things, and in order to equal human intelligence, AI would have to do that as well.

One could quibble and say AI begins not at the peak of human intelligence, but when a computer is just as capable as a rather dumb person. This is not as mundane as it sounds. There is a lot a smart human being can think of that a dumb one cannot.

If we wish to go on and predict how AI will transform alien civilizations, and make them more efficient, or powerful, or anything at all, it is necessary to ensure that AI is not magic. In other words, AI is not one of those things that it is easy to think of and dream about, but for some basic reason, cannot happen. A prime example of magic is faster-than-light space travel. If physics weren’t already advanced beyond many other sciences, and it did not have a handle on what was the nature of force and energy in the universe, FTL might not be so easily recognized as magic. If this latter situation was accepted, alienology might be expecting space travel to be happening a thousand times faster than is actually possible, and be a thousand times more prevalent. This would result in a huge difference in what was predicted.

Perhaps AI is another form of magic, but it simply hasn’t been recognized as such yet. While this won’t have as strong an effect as FTL would, it would have a strong effect. So it behooves us to analyze AI more carefully. This means human intelligence, the target capability, needs to be sorted out in some more detail.

Human beings process data with neural nets, and that may give an illusion that AI must do the same. The recent work with what is called ‘deep learning’, which is the same thing that has been called neural networks for fifty years, may support that illusion. Neural networks can be used in recognition situations, where a machine can observe repetitions of an activity or an image, and draw conclusions from it. Humans recognize faces using a neural network – because they do everything with one. But it is not necessary to do that. Algorithms, meaning some mathematical formulas that can be embodied in an efficient computer program, can do such recognition much faster than a neural network, measured in processing units. Algorithms can replace neural networks in very many situations. Sometimes, it is not at all clear how to write such an algorithm or what values to use for it, and running a competent neural network might assist in figuring one out.

Motion is another example of where algorithms can be superior to neural networks. Having a robot move requires complicated algorithms, and the big breakthrough was learning how to write them in layers. Since the brain works in layers, this was not too surprising, but programming in this way was finally seen to make sense.

Algorithms are very useful in trying to get a computer to achieve AI, as it simulates a neural net very poorly, and has no chance of having the same number of processors as the brain does, as each neuron is a simple data processor. Nor could anyone expect to have the same variety of processors in a computer as in the brain: the number of discrete types of neurons is large, but controversial, as some differences are hard to detect.

It can be surmised that, if there are tasks which can only be done by a humongous neural network, and not a collection of algorithms, AI will not be achievable, even in computers as large as we wish to conceive of. So, are there any of these?

The brain’s neural net is extremely good at linkages. It can remember a long series of events, and many details about each. But each detail has linkages to other things, such as other events or series of events, and each of these will have details. Each specific detail is linked within the brain, in a way that a computer database cannot imitate. A computer can have an immense database, capable of recording much more data than the brain can, but the brain remembers unstructured data, or rather data where each detail has its own unique connections, features, linkages, and events.

Memory additions in a computer database have to have some structure that the program which interprets them understands. The brain has no such structures. It operates through something that would almost appear random, if there was any way it could be recorded and exposed to analysis. For example, a unique word might be connected with a book where it was first noticed, and much could be remembered about the book. Instead, it might be associated with some individual who used it more often than most, and that individual might have a huge assortment of details, able to be structured in many different ways. A particular color might be associated with a thousand different things, and the particular thousand that one individual remembers could be quite distinct from the number than another individual remembers. These things form the context of the thoughts that emerge from one individual’s brain, and lead to the creativity that humans possess. Can an AI program be made to operate with such complete randomness of structure? Is there any AI without such creativity?

Perhaps it can be said that simpler tasks, such as face recognition or object recognition or any of a huge number of individual tasks can be translated into algorithms, and a computer possessing the ability to perform these tasks might be considered intelligent in some degree. But to be able to mimic the thinking ability of humans requires destructuring data, and algorithms do not work with that. Furthermore, it is not likely that microprocessors can ever come close to simulating the huge number of neurons that function inside a human brain, so that even if there was some way to build random linkages, there would not be enough to become equivalent to a competent person’s thinking.

So, AI is not magic, as many intelligence tasks can be done by algorithms or neural networks, or combinations of them, but building an AI that has the equivalent of talented human intelligence is. Trying to describe an alien civilization following their reaching the final step of technology will be a bit harder as the line between these two levels of AI would have to be drawn, and then the implications of that line inferred.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sustainable Interplanetary Colonies

When an alien civilization, with fully advanced technology, is making up its collective mind as to whether to travel to other solar systems, and colonize the best of the bunch, it has certain considerations. One of these is feasibility. Other solar systems are marvelously distant. Just getting a probe there takes a large effort. But even if we grant that they could be determined enough to commit the resources necessary to attempt this, there is the problem of sustainability. A colony in another solar system simply cannot depend on a supply line from the home planet. It is too far and too costly. So, plans have to be made for a finite commitment from the home planet, and after that, the new colony must be able to sustain itself.

This is one reason that origin planets, ones which develop their own life and evolve into an entire ecosystem, would be preferred far above anything else. There may be some incompatibilities between life on the colony planet and life on home planet, such as DNA differences, but these are small compared to the needs of a colony which is just planted on a lifeless rock and expected to generate everything it needs from mining there.

It may be the unfortunate actual state of the galaxy that there are very few origin planets anywhere. This means that an alien civilization has the choice to colonize planets not suited for life on the surface, not possessing the atmosphere needed by the aliens for breathing. This means domes or underground sealed chambers. This adds to the supplies that the original ship or ships must bring to the distant solar system.

One question to ask is, can there be a sustainable colony on a barren planet? Sustainability is not the same as feasibility. With enough resources flowing in from the home planet, the colony could continue to survive. This could happen on a planet or satellite within the home solar system. If the colony there was providing valuable resources, at a cost which was affordable, the colony could be supported as long as the resources kept coming. Having a supply chain within a solar system can be done in some expedient ways, but there is no analog of one for a planet or satellite in another solar system. There is one benefit that a home solar system colony provides: it is a prototype for a barren planet colony in another solar system.

This means that if there is some doubt as to how to do a colony, and the level of engineering on the alien home planet is not sufficient to determine some details of how a colony would function, they can attempt to do one without anything like the cost or risk of a remote solar system venture. By this time in their developmental progress, their engineering skills should be sufficient to answer most of the questions that would arise about such a colony, and their computational capability should likewise be able to determine, or assist in determining, if such a colony could be designed to be self-sufficient.

Consider for a moment what sustainable means in this situation. It means that every resource that is brought for the colony's use by the initial supply vessels must be located on the planet and obtained at a cost that can be accommodated by the energy sources that are found there. Energy can be thought of as the currency of the colony. The myriad materials that are needed for an energy source, such as a simple fission reactor, have to be found, as discrete ore sources, mined, converted, transported, refined, and then fashioned into useful parts and components. This has to be done for a fraction of the energy that these resources will eventually produce. It goes without saying that energy storage or distribution within the colony must also be accomplished within the same energy budget.

One aspect is the amount of fissile materials that are present. If the initial supply vessels brought with them fissile material in sufficient quantity, then simply mining fertile materials might be sufficient. A simple breeder reactor could be assembled using the ship’s fissile material and the newly obtained fertile materials, hopefully leading to a net production of fissile material. If the supply vessel did not bring this, for reasons of intrinsic radioactivity or anything else, then the mining operation would have to locate its own source of fissile materials.

The amount of this material is directly related to the age of the colony solar system. Uranium-235 is deposited in the planets and satellites of the solar system from the amount in the original cloud of dust and gas that formed the solar system, and after than formation, no more is made, any more than other elements are transmuted into existence. In an older solar system, much of the uranium-235 would have decayed into lead, leaving only very weakly enriched uranium-238 behind.

The other quantity that affects the distant colony's chances to become self-sufficient in nuclear energy relates to the amount of uranium in the original gas cloud, which in turn depends on the processes which formed it, notably the number of supernovas which have detonated nearby. This might not be a quantity which could be measured remotely, meaning that one or more probes would have to be deployed. Note that deploying a probe means a delay of centuries in the launch of the colony vessels.

If the solar system is old, or wasn’t bequeathed much uranium prior to its forming a solar system, the prospective colonists might just choose to bypass it, or else rely on some other energy source. There aren’t many to choose from. A barren planet not too far from its star might serve as a good place to collect solar photons. Again, can the materials needed to form such a system be obtained for the net energy produced during the lifetime of the system? We are not really sure yet about this aspect of solar power ourselves, but within a few decades it should become clear if a solar energy system infrastructure can be afforded based on its own power production capability. An alien civilization would of course know this long before they even contemplated interstellar travel and colonization.

One interesting takeaway from this is that we may be thinking a bit about out own interplanetary colonies, and the information we learn from this can be useful in telling us if alien civilizations could manage to pull off colonization. The very understandable return on net power calculations should translate over, with appropriate modifications for a different solar system, and inform us of this. If the answer is negative, we can say we have one very good reason why aliens have not spread throughout the galaxy: Too few origin planets and nothing else is sustainable.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Needs, Wants and Satisfaction in Alien Civilizations

It is easy to imagine alien civilizations with different levels of satisfaction of the citizens’ needs and wants. For civilizations past asymptotic technology, there are some additional considerations.

If we use the term needs to mean the biological needs of the alien citizen, meaning food, shelter and so on, and wants to mean everything beyond that, then by the time the civilization reaches this stage, they will completely understand how wants are formed in the alien brain, and will likewise understand the means for putting those wants there, mostly during the youth period of each alien’s life, but also during the adult period. What choices might whatever is used for governance in the alien civilization make?

The options they have and the motivation they might consider depend on the stage of the civilization, where we refer to the scarcity level currently being faced. An alien civilization, unless on a fairly barren planet, will have a period when its resources are abundant, and they could consume more per year if they chose to. Then there will be a later stage in which resources are no longer abundant. The decisions might be different.

In the abundance stage, the governance elements could make the decision to be as frugal as possible, or could decide to provide the citizens with a high level of consumption. The trade-off is with the length of time this abundance stage lasts. No matter where they live, the planet has finite resources that are obtainable with the best technology possible, or the solar system if the economics of interplanetary mining are favorable, and there is only the choice of how fast to use them up.

Since there is no guidance provided by the universe to an alien civilization, it has to make up its own directions and choices. There is no reason why they might be compelled to make resources last as long as possible, nor is there any reason why they might not. They have to make such choices in a vacuum. They have their own traditions, their own history to tap into, and they have a great ability to reason about their situation. But the choice of some particular tradition as a reference to follow is completely arbitrary, as is the choice of a starting point for reasoning about how to dole out resources and the products that are made from them.

The other side of this coin is that there is no pressure from the population to make any of these choices, in the long term. If, during some alien’s lifetime, the amount of satisfaction of needs and wants drastically reduces, they would experience some negative feeling, which are an inevitable result of the mismatch between the associations already established with their life and the level of resources provided. However, over the long term of large numbers of generations, resource provision can be gradually lowered with no reaction, as the neural associations associated with these resources and these effects of their consumption can be adjusted for each new generation.

A set of unsatisfied wants does more than simply provide unhappiness. If the alien civilization chooses to induce some feelings of self-reliance in each generation of alien citizens, the mismatch between wants and resources might impel the citizens to take on some tasks, otherwise done by automation or intellos, genetically designed and specially bred creatures serving to supplement or replace robots. If there was any savings in energy usage or resource consumption when aliens themselves performed some tasks in the civilization’s activities. It is hard to imagine many tasks where aliens could exceed the performance of robots or intellos.

Consider transport. For an alien to travel to a location, pick up an item, and then travel to a destination where it is left, there is the cost of moving the alien as well as the item. A specialized transport automaton would be expected to have less weight and therefore use less energy and materials. Only if there was some unique special transport situations where the versatility of an alien would be beneficial could it even be potentially possible for aliens to out-compete automatons. Only if the lack of sunk costs in the alien, as compared to the construction cost and maintenance costs of the automaton were a significant factor could this happen.

There might be some possibilities in the areas of interfaces with other aliens. Having dedicated automatons to interact with aliens again represents a cost, the energy and materials that go into constructing and maintaining it, while each alien is already provided for by the civilization, so the equivalent costs are not applicable.

This is reminiscent of the earlier eras of an alien civilization. When it first started, aliens may have been only hunters and gatherers, gradually transitioning into agriculture. There, the time horizon for planning was one or two generations. An alien would be most concerned about the survival of his group, whether that be a clan or a hunting band. After that, the young aliens might be considered. But resource usage was small in this era and the consideration of finite resources may not have even been dreamed of. It would only be during and after the industrial grand transformation that these ideas would percolate up. Thus, any traditions that the alien civilization could recall might lead to a high level of resource consumption, even without any consideration whatsoever of exhaustion. Exhaustion of individual deposits of resources would be the first sign that something different was happening, and only over time, as more and more individual deposits were exhausted, would there appear the general idea of all the resources of the whole planet being limited.

Resource exhaustion might first enter the thinking of the young alien civilization as a constraint on their growth in technology and living standards, meaning that the search for alternative deposits or substitutions would dominate their activity. There is no clear clue when an alien civilization will start thinking about itself in the long term, except that it is likely to happen after the very rapid change that happens in the various transformations leading to asymptotic technology come to an end, and civilization settles down into something quite constant for a long period. Then long term thinking might seep into the thought of the alien civilization. Then they would be ready to face the decisions discussed above, as to how long they wanted to survive before becoming extinct or declining to a very primitive level. It is this time when the alternative of star travel becomes quite interesting.