Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Illustration of the Pace of Human Mental Evolution/Problem Solving

When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities -- on a still-shorter time scale. The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work -- the world acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct "what if's" in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals.(Vinge, 1993)

An illustration of this is the evolution of avian flight compared to the evolution of human flight. Birds diverged from dinosaurs (or dinosaurs and birds have a common ancestor - the jury's still out). What is no longer in dispute is the order of progress. In human flight,the order is gliders, then the biplane (two wings), followed by the monoplane (one wing) which is the predominant design people see and travel in every day. Initially, it was thought that avian evolution was gliding followed by monoplane-like forms and from the ground up. The discovery of Microraptor (1,2) tends to show that avian flight evolution was tree down and probably gliding, biplane, and finally monoplane. But design refinements due to natural selection are restricted to the generation rate (replication rate) of the organism and its background rate of mutation followed by positive selection. Natural evolution can go no faster. Human flight advanced to a monoplane design in less than 20-30 years after powered flight was achieved. If you include glider research, human flight went from glider, to biplane, to monoplane within the span of forty years. In other words, human flight mirrors bird flight, but the rate of progress is at least four orders of magnitude faster for human flight progress versus avian flight progress (with a humble nod to hummingbirds and bats).

Space flight is comparable (about 40 years) from the development of guided rockets to manned rockets (which natural evolution hasn't accomplished). A pilot and his plane can be considered a cyborg/enhanced human in a loose sense, as an astronaut in an EVA suit can be considered to be a manned space vehicle. By Vinge's definition, architects and engineers using computers and CAD/CAM programs are enhanced humans. Now we have the Internet with enhanced humans being networked together, what next?

Consider the following, more violent analogy, over the past 100 years, humans have positively selected for very intelligent coyotes. Ranchers have killed all the dumb animals. Coyotes have increased their range due to depredation of larger predators and competitors such as wolves, and in spite of, human depredation. Essentially the same thing is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world against terrorists. We are positively selecting for more intelligent terrorists/insurgents because we quickly kill or capture the dumb and less careful terrorists and insurgents. And even if we kill the intelligent ones, it's likely that they will have passed on their most successful strategies and tactics to their successors who will have been positively selected because of their expertise on and off the urban battlefield.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Metaphorical Life Dances

An epiphany hit me as I was browsing an online dating site. There are all these women's profiles and they show that they are online. You refresh the browser and some stay and some go. In a way, it's a metaphor of life - people coming and going in and out of one's perception. It's a funny sort of dance. Julie commented about leaving a mark, but isn't that what a blog is about - leaving one's mark? Look, I was here. IRC, chat, gtalk, etc. is like a life dance. People come, people go. The same effect is seen for dating sites, but then maybe, they are a bit of both dancing and leaving a mark. Online dating sites are certainly a snapshot in time, a period in one's life where you are looking for companionship. The usual thing when I think of snapshots is shipwrecks. Time capsules are a recent phenomenon I'm guessing, a bit more sophisticated than carving one's name in a rock or a piece of wood. A silent shout that I was here. I think I prefer the etherealness of dancing electrons and magnetic fields. They are more fleeting than life. A perfect metaphor in a fashion.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some call it a Singularity, others call it Apocalypse.

"God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension." Freeman Dyson

The above quote came from Vernor Vinge's essay about the Singularity humanity is fast approaching, a posthuman Singularity. Tolle espouses a sane Singularity, while Vinge isn't so sure. Such is the human imagination. Of course, all of this speculation is just that, speculation. One person can no more imagine the entirety of the future or even of a fragment of it, such as what humanity will truly become. I hope that whatever Entity/Superorganism arises is sane and benevolent, rather than insane and destructive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Lot of What Passes for Style is Quite Superficial

Joel Spolsky gives an illuminating seminar about the difference between the market leading product and its number two competitor. True art, or what passes for art, will only be proven over time, but a lot of products that people like are long on aesthetics and superficial style and often short of substance. The iPod has fewer features, is more expensive, and you can't replace its battery for less than $69, while it's competitor has more features, costs $100 less, and you can change the battery yourself. He shows that people prefer SUVs because the perception is that an SUV is safer than a car, when in fact, SUVs are less safe (twice the mortality rate) because SUVs are considered trucks, and by law, trucks don't have to meet the more stringent safety requirements that cars do. Also, SUVs have higher centers of gravity making them more prone to rollovers, and therefore, less safe anyway. The perception is that since I am higher off of the ground, I can see more, and I'm in a position of greater control, but I am more prone to rollover and since the SUV is a more massive vehicle, it's more difficult to control and stop due to center of gravity and inertial effects. Perception and reality don't converge in this instance. Mr. Spolsky points out other misperceptions. In terms of software development, people prefer the prettier applications to the more functional ones. Often for programmers, functionality trumps aesthetics. It's more important that the program functions than whether it looks pretty, but to users, the opposite is often the case. He points out that users generally never see the inner workings of the program, they only see the interface and the results, and procurement people will usually only see the pretty and aesthetically pleasing interface. Another example of this divergence of perception versus reality is the Russian observation that "Complexity is easy, but (making something) simple (and reliable) is difficult".

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Dream

The Sun rises, the Sun sets. The interval in between seems a dream, especially when viewed with hindsight. I realized that I've been separated from my ex for four years now. It doesn't seem that long, but we were only married for four years. As hours melt into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, time seems to pass quicker. Likely my metabolism is slowing down for such a perception to occur. Nothing seems very real any more. Was any of it real?

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Tiniest, Most Insignificant, Yet Precious Things that Exist

How precious, and yet, so insignificant we are! We only make up 0.4% of the matter and energy in the Universe, and we are an insignificant fraction of that amount! Didn't someone say that we were fleas on the back of a bigger flea?

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