Tag Archives: ArtificialLife

Biologists Taboo Artificial Life

Recently I’ve reviewed three new books by academic biologists on the future of life in the universe. All three books have gained high profile and prestigious reviews in major media and academia. (Which is how I heard of them.) And all of these books, and all of these prestigious reviews, seem to share and enforce a taboo against seriously considering the possibility that artificial life will make a big difference to the cosmos.

For example:

Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets, … and Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life. … But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other than planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Similarly:

I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a [Cambridge] zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in million of years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist [and computational biologist] recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials.

I actually just did a written debate with this last author, who wouldn’t even admit that I disagreed with him:

You write a long book mostly on the details of genetic engineering, saying we should use it to slowly change humans and their allied plants and animals, so that in 500 years we could launch them out to the cosmos, to arrive at other stars in a few thousand years.

I say, no, long before then artificial minds and life should have thoroughly replaced biology. A new kind of life, far more robust, able to grow far faster, able to travel out into space much sooner and faster, all made in factories out of stuff dug up in mines, and not at all based on biological cells, so that genetic engineering has little to offer them.

This all suggests more than just a few biologists with a mental block; it suggests an overall taboo within their shared intellectual culture, of biology academics who study astrobiology and our future. A taboo that has likely discouraged and distorted related research and analysis.

Added 30May: This post is discussed at Hacker News.

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The Biological Universe

In his new book The Biological Universe: Life in the Milky Way and Beyond, evolutionary biologist Wallace Arthur predicts the life we will find in the galaxy and universe:

Life forms are to be found across the Milky Way and beyond. They will be thinly spread, to be sure. … we can anticipate what life elsewhere will be like by examining the ecology and evolution of life on Earth.

Arthur defines life broadly:

If an entity is metabolically alive and membrane-bound, and groups of individual entities of this kind are characterized by variation, reproduction, and inheritance, then we describe the situation as ‘life’. … And regarding extraterrestrial life we should try to keep as open a mind as possible (p.13)

He says life is only near the surface of planets:

There are no macromolecules in [interstellar] clouds. There is thus no basis for life even approximately as we know it. So in the end we rule out all of the interstellar medium as a home for life. And that means in spatial terms that we have ruled out more than 99% of the galaxy. … Next we rule out suns. This means all suns and all parts them. No metabolizing, reproducing life, whether simple like bacteria, or more complex, like mammals, could exist in such a hellish environment. … By ruling out suns as possible homes for life, we rule out more than 99% of the matter of the galaxy. … Here’s a selection of other objects that seem likely to be barren. First, dead stars, including white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes. Second those entities somewhere in between a small star and a large planet that we call brown dwarfs. … Third, pulsars. (pp.42-44)

Arthur says most life is enclosed, made of carbon, and of long molecules with sequence specificity:

Carbon based life is the most probable, and hence more common, form of life in the Milky Wa, and indeed in the universe. … Life requires a type of macromolecule that exhibits sequence specificity that is that is similar in general, though not necessarily in detail, to the specificity that is found in nucleic acid and proteins. … Membrane-enclosed cellular life is the norm. (p.203)

Life is almost everywhere that it can be:

The fraction of habitable planets that actually become inhabited. My personal view is that it is close to 100%. (p.191)

And here is how many planets of each type:

Number of planets in Milky Way: 1 trillion
Number of planets with microbial life: 1 billion
Number of planets with animal life: 10 million
Number of planets with broadcasting life: between 0 and 1 million

Arthur even predicts more intelligent life is rarer:

Lets define four thresholds levels of intelligence. … animals with a small brain … crossed the first threshold. … Animals that can use tools, and indeed plan their use of tools, … cross the second threshold. … Animals that have begun to investigate the abstract nature of things, and to keep written records of their investigations, have cross the third threshold., … fourth threshold the achieving of a civilization with a technology that includes the use of radio signals and other means of interstellar communication, such as lasers. … It’s hard to believe that the number of planets whose evolutionary processes have crossed these four respective thresholds would go upward rather than downward. (p.328??)

How does Arthur make all these predictions? By assuming that that the distribution of stuff in the universe is much like the distribution of stuff across our solar system and across the history of Earth:

On the basis of Earth’s history to date, the fraction of microbial inhabited planets that also have animals can be estimated by the relative durations of these two types of life here, which is 630 million compared to 4 billion years. (p.200)

The fact that [intelligence] and the physical basis for it – the brain – can be downplayed or even lost altogether in some lineages [in Earth history] should temper our hopes for the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence. … Natural selection is not on a long-term quest for the ultimate brainy animals. (p.134)

With regard to possible life, the vast majority of the solar system, like the vast majority of the galaxy, is of little interest to us. For the most part, our system looks barren. (p..139)

But doesn’t all this neglect the possibility of that intelligent life on some planet will develop a more robust and powerful artificial life, which then spreads widely across the cosmos? Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets:

Between two and three billion years from now … if new make it that far, we might have the technology to colonize the closest suitable exoplanets. (p.160)

Intelligent life may have colonized nearby planets, as may the the case in the mid-term future wit humans on Mars. (p.315)

Planets on which radio-level intelligence has evolved constitute only a tiny fraction of those on which life in general has evolved. Yet because of the vastness of the universe, and perhaps also because of planetary colonization, there are many planets with such life-forms in the universe right now. (p.328)

And Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life:

But there is a caveat here. What about AI (artificial intelligence)? It’s a moot point whether any of our machines are yet intelligent enough to truly merit that label, though no doubt they will get there eventually. Perhaps the machines associated with ultra-intelligent aliens are already there. In this case, the intelligent universe and the biological universe … are overlapping sets. Having made this point, let’s focus on intelligent living beings across the universe, not intelligent machines. And let’s ignore the advanced organism-machine hybrids of science fiction, even though entities of this type probably exist somewhere. (p.318)

But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Arthur instead assumes that advanced intelligence and artificial life will just not spread much, perhaps due to self-destruction:

Intelligent life may have a tendency to self-exterminate within a few centuries of its inception. (p.221)

Wallace Arthur seems to be yet another biologists who just can’t imagine our descendants being that different from us, or artificial life making much of a difference to the cosmos.

Out of a great many reviews of this book I read, I only found one other reviewer, David Studhalter, a non-academic, making a similar complaint:

Arthur … blithely assumes that humans and their descendants will simply become extinct before advancing to a stage where they are spreading terriform life elsewhere in the Galaxy, and that we will never exceed the bounds of our own Solar system. … Arthur mentions virtually nothing discussed in this last paragraph. But they are crucial to his subject, which does purport to discuss the future of life. (More)

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Theories Of Unnatural Selection

In my career I’ve worked in an unusually large number of academic disciplines: physics, computer science, social science, psychology, engineering, and philosophy. But on a map of academic disciplines, where fields that cite each other often are put closer together, all my fields are clumped together on one side. The fields furthest away from my clump, on the opposite side, are biology, biochemistry, and medicine.

It seems to me that my fields tend to emphasize relatively general theory and abstraction, while the opposite fields tend to have far fewer useful abstractions, and instead have a lot more detail to master. People tend to get sorted into fields based on part on their ability and taste for abstractions, and the people I’ve met who do biochemistry and medicine tend to have amazing abilities to recall relevant details, but they also tend to be pretty bad at abstractions. For example they often struggle with simple cost-benefit analysis and statistical inference.

All of which is to say that biologists tend to be bad at abstraction. This tends to make them bad at thinking about the long-term future, where abstraction is crucial. For example, I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in the next few million years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials. These two books have been reviewed in prestigious venues, by prestigious biology reviewers who don’t mention these to-me obvious criticisms. Suggesting that our biological elites are all pretty bad at abstraction.

This is a problem because it seems to me we need biologists good at abstraction to help us think about the future. Let me explain.

Computers will be a big deal in the future, even more so than today. Computers will be embedded in and control most all of our systems. So to think well about the future, we need to think think well about very large and advanced computer systems. And since computers allow our many systems to be better integrated, overall all our systems will be larger, more complex, more connected, and more smartly controlled. So to think about the future we need to think well about very large, smart, and complex integrated systems.

Economics will also remain very important in the future. These many systems will be mostly designed, built, and maintained by for-profit firms who sell access to them. These firms will compete to attract customers, investors, workers, managers, suppliers, and complementary products. They will be also taxed and regulated by complex governments. And the future economy will be much larger, making room for more and larger such firms, managing those larger more complex products. So to think well about the future we need to think well about a much larger more complex world of taxed and regulated firms competing to make and sell stuff.

We today have a huge legacy inheritance of designs and systems embedded in biology, systems that perform many essential functions, including supporting our bodies and minds. In the coming centuries, we will either transfer our minds to other more artificial substrates, or replace them entirely with new designs. At which point they won’t need biological bodies; artificial bodies will do fine. We will then either find ways to extract key biological machines and processes from existing biological systems, to use them flexibly as component processes where we wish, or we will replace those machines and processes with flexible artificial versions.

At that point, natural selection of the sort the Earth has seen for the last few billion years will basically come to an end. The universe that we reach by then will be still filled with a vast diversity of active and calculating objects competing to survive. But these objects will be designed not by inherited randomly mutating DNA, and will not be self-sufficient in terms of manufacturing and energy acquisition. They will instead be highly cooperative and interdependent objects, make by competing firms who draw design elements from a wide range of sources, most of them compensated for their contributions.

But even though biology as we know it will then be over, biological theory, properly generalized, should remain quite relevant. Because there will still be vast and rapid competition and selection, and so we will still need ways to think about how that will play out. Thus we need theorists to draw from our best understandings of systems, computers, economics, and biology, to create better ways to think about how all this combines to create a brave new world of unnatural selection.

And while I’ve seen at least glimmerings of such advances from people who think about computers, and from people who think about economics, I’ve yet to see much of anything from people who think about biology. So that seems to me our biggest missing hole here. And thus my plea in this post: please biological theorists, help us think about this. And please people who are thinking about which kind of theory to study, consider learning some biology theory, to help us fill this gap.

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A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past

In his new book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum purports to tell us what intelligent aliens will be like when we meet them:

This book is about how we can use that realistic scientific approach to draw conclusions, with some confidence, about alien life – and intelligent life in particular. (p.1)

Now, that won’t be for a long time, and they will even then be far more advanced than us:

We are absolutely in the infancy of our technological development, and that makes it exceptionally likely that any aliens we encounter will be more advanced than us. (p.160)

The chances of us encountering intelligent aliens [anytime soon] is so remote as to be almost dismissed. (p.320)

Even so, this is what aliens will be like:

One way to prepare ourselves mentally and practically for First Contact is … to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are certain properties that intelligent life must have. … their behavior, how they move and feed and come together in societies, will be similar to ours. …

[Aliens and us] both have families and pets, read and write books, and care for our children and our relatives. … this situation is actually very likely. Those evolutionary focus that push us to be the way we are must also be pushing life on other planets to be like us. (pp.322-323)

And this will be their origin story: Continue reading "A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past" »

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