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God bless the drunks and the children, and the United States of America.
-- Mark Twain


Interview with Seth Shostak —Reported 2001-12-21 19:42 by Siduri

Always on a Standing Course

"So I suspect this is our future, that the machines will be running the planet."

Siduri: So.

Seth Shostak

Seth will make a great pet

Seth: I really don't remember if it's the Norwegian king...Wasn't Nobel a Swede?

Siduri: I don't know.

Seth: Sounds like he is.

Siduri: So, I want to hear about machine intelligence, and how that's going to...

Seth: Machine intelligence. You mean replace all of us here?

Siduri: Yeah.

Seth: Oh, not just the people at the SETI Institute?

Siduri: Right, is that one of the reasons we don't have to be afraid of alien life?

Seth: [dubiously]: Well, it might be. There is this question of machine intelligence simply because you can sort of see it happening on Earth. I don't know how all you all feel about it, but most people sort of figure that, well, you can build machines that can move faster than we can, and you can build machines that do things that can we can't, like fly, but you couldn't build a machine that could think. Can you replicate that functionality in a machine? And I don't understand why you couldn't do that. Unless you think there's something magical about a brain. And maybe there is, but frankly it looks to me like w`at, I don't know who it was once called, a slow speed computer operating in salt water.

So if you figure that's all it is, then all you need to do is figure out some sort of algorithm that has the same functionality as the brain, and then you have a thinking machine. I mean, there are plenty of people who've have worked on this, right, artificial intelligence, and as far as I can tell they're always predicting success right around the corner. It's a really big polygon, because there are a lot of corners. And they haven't done it yet. But if they do it, then you would use that machine to improve itself, and then you would use that machine to improve itself, and pretty soon you would have a very very smart machine. And then you feed it all the data in the world, feed it the Library of Congress, the British Museum, and it doesn't forget anything, and pretty soon you probably have it running the world. Or some part of the world. I would think you would want to do that, because if you don't do it, maybe the next guy does it. That's not so good for you. So I suspect this is our future, that the machines will be running the planet.

Siduri: Bill Joy agrees with you.

Seth: Who does?

Siduri: Bill Joy.

Seth: He does?

Siduri: Mm-hmm.

Seth: I guess I'm in good company in a way. But this in a way sort of discouraging, because maybe we get relegated to the status of—I mean, we'll be second-class entities. In some sense you might think, oh, the machines are going to destroy us, that this would be dangerous. But no, you don't deliberately kill your goldfish just because you're smarter than they are. So maybe we'll just become pets. I mean, that's comforting, probably.

The real point is not so much that, I mean you can worry about that if you want, but the real point is that machines could really move out into the cosmos in a way that biological intelligence would have a hard time doing. It's hard for us to go into space. It's really hard. We have a difficult time going to the moon, let alone Mars or any of these things, and these are just next door. To go to the stars is really, really difficult.

And you might say, "Oh well, we just need dilithium crystals." It'd be great to have dilithium, and Scotty down in the engine room, but you know that the energy required to go anywhere in any reasonable length of time, like a human lifetime—if you want to go to the nearest star in less than fifty years— the amount of energy required to do that, no matter what the engine is like, the amount of energy required is extraordinarily large. It's a tremendous amount of energy, more energy than the US burns up in centuries. You can work it out. So that makes it quite hard. And it's also dangerous to go at high speed in space because everything that's hitting the front of the spacecraft is producing very dangerous radiation, these high-speed particles that are zipping through your body.

Now, none of this is much of a problem for a machine. Because machines, to begin with, they're maybe not in such a hurry to get there. What do they care if it takes ten thousand years? They're just machines, right? They don't have this problem of mortality that we do. And also, they could probably harden themselves against all these dangers. They probably wouldn't get into fights onboard, either. So it just sounds like machines could really colonize the galaxy, even though biological intelligence would have a hard time doing that. Captain Kirk should really have been a machine.

I guess the bottom line of all this is that if biological intelligence has sprung up anywhere else—that's a big if: we think life is pretty common in the universe, you could make pretty strong arguments about that, but what you don't know is whether any of it is smart. Intelligence is maybe not such an obvious thing for nature to produce. Keep in mind, if the dinosaurs hadn't been wiped out, we wouldn't be here. And that was an accident. So there are a lot of accidents, and maybe it's just unlikely that just cause you've got a million planets with life, that any of them are gonna cook up smart critters.

But if one in a million do, or one in ten million do, that might be good enough—if they invent machines. Because machines can spread out, so that maybe it's not unreasonable to make the assumption that most of the intelligence in the galaxy is artificial intelligence. Not the soft squishy aliens that you see in the movies. Those guys are in the minority. What's in the majority is the machines. And the machines might do radio too. It wouldn't surprise me if the first contact turns out not to be a little grey guy conducting salacious experiments, but just a machine.

Siduri: But why wouldn't you integrate the two, and get, like, the advantages of organic matter—maybe adaptability or, well, I guess machines are pretty adaptable...

Seth: I was going to say, spoken like a true organic entity. But Shannon, you mentioned this down in San Jose.

Siduri: Right, I did, that I can't wait to have a chip implanted in my brain. And you said that would be like putting an engine in a horse.

Seth: Yeah, yeah, I think that's like putting a six-cylinder engine in a horse. You might get a faster horse, but why bother with the horse part? Why not get rid of the horse altogether and replace it with a Ferrari? I mean, really?

Siduri: Well, you have to assume that the horse is building the engine, you see.

Seth: A horse is a horse, of course, but my take on it is that you wouldn't go with the hybrid solution. Hybrid solutions never last very long. Name me one technology that's still hybrid. What about that device, that computer that could do both what Apples and PCs can do?

TCS: It's kind of a disingenuous question because any successful hybrid becomes known for its own success.

Seth: Yeah, it's no longer considered a hybrid.

TCS: Right.

Siduri: I would think convergence is more the...

Seth: But can you think of anything—I mean maybe you can, where two completely different realms where you have individual functionality, and then they combined the functionality, and the combination stayed sort of equidistant between the two.

Siduri: Movies. You have radio on the one hand, and you have your moving pictures on the other, and you smush 'em together and you have TV.

Mark: Television.

Seth: Oh, I think TV's just radio. Well, I don't know, maybe you're right, but...

Mark: Spoken like a true physicist/radio astronomer


Seth: Yeah, you could say that, but not only—somebody who knows something about the history of radio and TV. The guys who were developing TV weren't coming from the motion picture industry.

Next page: Family Values


Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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