Monday, February 15, 2016

Childhood's End: Part One

Dr. Frank Drake and his Equation
I recently read a blog post titled "Goodbye Little Green Men" that got me thinking about a great many things. Primarily, it is an answer to the issues raised by the "Drake Equation" and the "Fermi Paradox".

In 1961 Dr. Frank Drake suggested that it is possible to identify all the elements that govern the existence of intelligent life in the universe and create a formula to predict its frequency.

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

Enrico Fermi
I won't go into the details (the link to Wikipedia serves that purpose or you can click on the picture of Dr. Drake), but I will point out that given what we now know about our galaxy and our present capacity to analyse radio waves, an honest question arises. As the physicist Enrico Fermi  asked: "Where is everybody?". This became known as the "Fermi Paradox".  Following the perfectly plausible elements of the Drake Equation, we should be drowning in old episodes of the extraterrestrial equivalent of "I Love Lucy" and "The Honey-Mooners". Instead, we get a big, empty silence.

Susan Schneider
The philosopher Susan Schneider and the astronomer Seth Shostak co-authored "Goodbye Little Green Men" to explain the Fermi Paradox and IMHO, they pretty much did it.

Simply put, their argument is that because of the nature of intelligence, once any species and civilization evolves to the point where it is capable of searching for intelligence in the wider universe, it would quickly change into something that that we would not be capable of identifying as such. In other words, the situation we find ourselves in right
Seth Shostak
now as a species is a tremendously short window of opportunity that disappears very quickly in the lifespan of intelligence. Before this point, we wouldn't have had the technological ability to search for signs of intelligent life, after it, we will be so changed by our technology that the intelligence we (and others) exhibit will be incomprehensible to the people who are alive today.

To understand this point consider the notion that human intelligence as we know it is the result of two evolutionary processes, one biological and the other cultural. The biological one is the result of billions of years of slow, Darwinian selection. The cultural one has worked on a much, much, much faster timescale and has only taken thousands of years. The first used random selection of chemicals in our DNA to create better and better brains. The second used random selection of culture as societies adopted things like language, agriculture, logic, writing, mathematics, democratic decision-making, the scientific method, and so on, to create more and more intelligent human societies. Think of these two processes as roughly the same as creating smarter and smarter computers, and, more and more sophisticated software to run in them.

A third process is happening right now. That is the use of technology to develop, for want of a better term, "post-human intelligence".


They still publish it!
Years ago I used to write a weekly column for my local daily newspaper. One of the "tricks" I learned to use was to find facts in my yearly almanac. Once a year a thick paperback comes out with a enormous number of statistics. I found it an invaluable tool. For example, I wrote one column about the cost of personal as opposed to public transit in my town. Using that almanac I was able to look up the population of my city, how much the average Canadian spends on their automobile, and, how many automobiles there are per Canadian. Using these figures, I was able to calculate the amount our citizens spend privately on transportation.  I then did some old-fashioned reporting and called City Hall and asked someone in transit to give me the numbers for how much the bus budget was, and how much of the money spent came from fares and how much from tax payers. The result was a column that shows my city spends something like a thousand times as much on cars than it does on buses and trains. The implication was that if we got rid of personal automobiles altogether we would have an amazing public transit system that meets all our needs and which would cost a fraction of what we spend on cars.

That old almanac was an amazing piece of technology for journalists!

During this three year period of writing a weekly column, I attempted to use search engines and web browsers to do research. But I always found that there simply wasn't enough content on the web to answer even such simple questions as how to spell "Auschwitz" (something my spell checker on Blogger just did.) Now things are very different. Indeed, they are so different that they have given someone like me an ability to do research much faster than was previously possible. (And I no longer buy a yearly Almanac.)

An even starker example of how things has changed comes from an earlier time----when I was in graduate school. It was possible to do word searches of databases. But before Google and the World Wide Web this involved paying $50/word and waiting a week for the mainframes at the University of Waterloo to come up with a print-out from specialized academic databases. I can remember one horrible semester where I had to go through one of these fan folded nightmares to look up "quality of life indicators research" in Master's theses.  This involved pulling out an enormous printed book filled with synopses of individual theses. I would look up a specific thesis, read the precis and make a note for the professor whether or not it might be of relevance to his research. Now everyone with access to a web browser and Google routinely does this sort of search with far more sophisticated parameters and other things much more mundane---like chicken soup recipes or telephone numbers. And, of course, the results come almost instantly and are usually for free.

The impact that this has on my writing is astronomical. It is what allows me, a glorified night porter, to do the sort of research and writing that used to be only the preserve of a tenured professor or a professional journalist. Before Google and the huge database on the World Wide Web, just looking up the bits of information that I mentioned at the start of this blog (ie: Drake's Equation and Fermi's Paradox) would have taken hours in a library. Instead, now I just have to vaguely know about them, do a quick Google search, and double check. Indeed, in this case I thought that Fermi's Paradox was the inspiration for the Drake Equation, but glancing through the Wikipedia, I realized that it was the other way around.

Not only does this enormous instantly accessible database allow me to do research hundreds, if not thousands of times faster than used to be possible. It also allows a generalist---like myself---to bypass the enormous amounts of time that used to be required to learn a specialized field. My MD mentioned this to me in my last check up. He said that increasingly he takes advantage of expert opinion on the internet to benefit from the best knowledge about diagnosis and treatment. (Thankfully, the medical community uses a vetting process to shift out all the crap that clogs the lame-stream and social medias.) Now he can be a family practitioner in general practice, yet still benefit from the experience of specialists who have been able to see thousands of patients with just one specific complaint. This is a good thing---.


This situation has crept up on us, so most people don't realize how tremendously important it is. What has happened is that the Google search engine plus the World Wide Web has by-passed several significant evolutionary bottle-necks in the evolution of our brains.

First, human beings used to be limited by their own personal ability to amass and store facts. Human beings are capable of storing huge amounts of information---anyone who has memorized the lines of a play can attest to this. Lots of traditional education used to involve assimilating information. The Chinese even have a slang phrase for this sort of learning, "stuffing the duck", which means jamming the heads of students with specific information aimed at their doing well in a standardized admissions test.  (Does any of this sound familiar to modern North American teachers?) The problem with this system is that it pretty much destroys any interest in learning for learning's sake and selects against creativity.

Having said that, there at least was a rationale for stuffing the duck because professionals had to lean on the facts that they had assimilated during training. It would take too long to constantly look things up when they were working and would be expected to have amassed a collection of information that they could draw upon at need. But with Google and the Web, this is increasingly unnecessary. If I don't know how to do something, all I have to do is be able to articulate the problem in a way that allows me to search for it, and the information will usually show up on my computer almost instantly. What this does is takes away the advantage of people who have specialized knowledge and puts the generalist who is a creative problem solver on top. (This is what my family practice MD is doing when he accesses the expert database.)

It isn't enough to just add to the store of human knowledge and give people access to it, there also has to be some way of evaluating that knowledge and organizing it based on its value. There is a lot of crap out there on the World Wide Web and people need to be able to find the good stuff easily. Indeed, when most people do a Google search, they only look at the first one or maybe two pages of results---even though there may be hundreds of pages found. The very best stuff needs to be on that first page! The way the Web does this is by using the collective intelligence/wisdom/good will of the entire human race.

This has been identified as "the wisdom of crowds" and is integral to things like Wikipedia. In the case of the Google search engine, it harnesses this phenomenon through a system called " PageRank". Basically, this assigns a value to a webpage based on how many other webpages link to it, and, the value that each of those webpages has in turn been assigned by the Google algorithm. (This is a gross oversimplification, but it is one of the main ways that Google assigns placement of a website URL in a search.)


This is a point where the reader should pause a bit and think through the implications of what I have just mentioned. The WWW and sophisticated search engines have managed to dramatically expand the store of human knowledge on a personal level. Moreover, they have harnessed the collective wisdom of the entire human community to improve our judgement about that knowledge. We are using technology to literally construct a "collective intelligence". This isn't some sort of strange science fiction future I am talking about, but what I am doing right now as I work on this blog post.


Consider the next steps.

Right now there are several "bottlenecks" in the development of this collective intelligence. First of all, we are limited by the speed with which a person can type and read. I can type over 100 words a minute, which is on the high end of human capacity. I can also read and comprehend faster than the average person. But the difference between the fastest and slowest human being pales into insignificance compared to the speed with which the hard drive on my computer can read and write data. What sort of world would we inhabit if the human mind were capable to directly connect to computers and was able to bypass the use of hand and eye to interface with the internet?

A lot of work is being done on this question right now, mostly for things like helping people who are paralyzed to walk through the use of powered exoskeletons or as a marketing tool to measure people's emotional engagement with specific products. They appear clunky, but if there ever is some sort of interface developed that allows people to approach the speeds that computers currently are able to communicate with the internet, it might dramatically change the relationship we have with it.

There are severe limitations on the speed with which the human brain can assimilate new information, however. As I pointed out in a previous post, there seem to be absolute limits to the ability of the human brain when it comes to assimilating new information. Beyond an hour or so of writing, for example, I become extremely fatigued. And if I spend too much time at a computer or "multi-tasking" I find myself becoming more and more "scattered". In other words, I lose my ability to focus upon one task and my mind starts flitting around almost at random.

This inability to focus one's attention is something that I've heard professors complain about with undergraduates. It's hard to tell if this is just a case of the old grousing about the young. It might also be the case that the old don't understand the way young people's minds operate---there still seem to be lots of bright young people making discoveries in science and engineering. Or, it might be the first signs of a growing problem as the human brain becomes a absolute bottle neck in the growth of earth's intellectual capacity. If so, it might be that we will be ripe for replacement for some sort of artificial intelligence.


This post is already a bit longer than most, so I will continue this theme at a later date.

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