Archive

Posts Tagged ‘speculation’

Threat or Opportunity

March 12, 2018 Leave a comment

I have discussed the idea that our whole universe could be a simulation in past blog posts. I have also mentioned recent progress in virtual reality systems on multiple occasions. And finally, I have enthused over thought experiments at least once. How do all of these factors fit together? Well, read on to find out.

Pong was one of the first computer games. It was ultra-simple, involving a single bar moving up and down a screen which could “hit” a ball – a bit like table tennis (or ping pong, hence the name). Move forward almost 50 years and have a look at what we have now. People report being totally immersed in virtual reality (VR) games to the point where they almost accept them as reality.

So what will the simulations of reality be like in another 50 years? If we can already produce experiences which are almost indistinguishable from reality, surely in 50 years the experience will literally be impossible to distinguish from reality. Will that make it a type of reality in itself?

Apart from the philosophical question about what reality even is, if we assume the VR is not actually real, is it as good as, or even better than actual reality? And would people prefer to live in an artificial reality rather than the real world?

Most people will say no, but before they say that I would ask them some questions, as a sort of thought experiment (remember, these are one of my favourite things).

First I would ask this: if your “real” life wasn’t that great would you choose to live in a virtual world instead. This might be one where your body just exists in a facility with your life artificially maintained while you “live” in a virtual world. Most people would reject this idea.

But what about this: you are living your life which is pretty good, but you suddenly discover that it is really an artificial reality, and your life is far worse in the real world. Would you choose to terminate the simulation? In this case I think most people would be more hesitant.

If you had been paralysed by an accident, for example, why not live in a simulation where you are fully mobile? That might be tempting. What about if you are really poor and have a poor quality of life, would you live in a simulation where you have whatever you need (or at least a comfortable life, because realistic simulations probably shouldn’t go too far into fantasy). Maybe that might not be so appealing.

Many people will say that they need real human contact in the real world. But do they? People already enjoy interacting with their friends and family using phones, Skype, and other systems. If VR could make these interactions totally convincing, what would be the point of being in the same location as the other person?

And if people are happy to interact with other people through artificial means is it a big step to interact with artificial people instead, assuming they were indistinguishable from actual humans? In science fiction people often form bonds with non-humans and machines, although the machines are often portrayed as being like quirky humans (think of the android Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek) but surely the technology would be sufficient to make them just like any real human.

So if Data’s personality just existed in a computer and could be portrayed through VR then we have (paradoxically) an entirely artificial but totally authentic experience.

Emotionally these ideas seem distasteful to many people now, but I think they might be inevitable in the future, and I don’t think that future is far away. Would I want to live in a simulation? Well, I also have that emotional negative response but if it really is indistinguishable from reality then why not?

There are plenty of science fiction stories where characters live in artificial realities. Generally these have dystopian themes where the character wants to “escape” back to reality. But I wonder whether that would be the most likely response. I also wonder how soon this potential dystopia could become a real threat… or opportunity.

Advertisements

A Better West

March 3, 2018 Leave a comment

In my last blog post I talked about how most economic and social indicators show the superiority of Western civilisation, but I also mentioned that I recognise that it has real problems. Today I want to talk about one of the biggest problems: our work environment.

This seems to be a major flaw in our society because the majority of people feel disillusioned with their work, and because work is still the most important part of many people’s lives, this seems to be an immediate issue which we should be paying attention to.

As I have said in previous posts, there will probably be no need for most people to work at some point in the not too distant future, so the problem might go away then, but no doubt that will introduce a whole pile of new problems as a result. But that aside, what can be done about work dissatisfaction until then?

Before I answer that I should mention another significant issue with modern society: inequality of pay. It is not unusual to find situations where CEOs, and other high ranking position, are paid at a rate which is hundreds of times more than the median rate for the company they are in charge of. I would say this is unjustified because I see no reason to think that most CEOs are doing a lot more than what any reasonably intelligent person could do, but even if it was justified from that perspective, would it be desirable anyway?

Also there are the biggest barriers to people enjoying their work, according to many surveys: lack of autonomy, incompetent and excessively authoritarian management, and micromanagement and unwarranted bureaucracy and paper work. Note that many studies indicate these factors not only prevent people from enjoying their work, but they prevent the organisation working efficiently as well.

Finally, there is a common situation in many companies (and other types of organisations) where the staff are not motivated to put in extra effort to make the company work better, and this is often related to the other points I have made above. If a person is dissatisfied with their work and is being paid poorly, what motivation do they have to put extra effort into their work?

As you will probably have guessed by now: I have an answer for all of these issues.

Every person in an organisation should take ownership of the day to day operations. Yes, I know that word “ownership” is often used as a business bullshit buzz word and has lost most of its meaning as a result, but I am using it here in a more literal sense.

What I propose is that every person’s pay should be made up from a base rate, plus a bonus depending on how well the organisation is doing. That would encourage people to work more enthusiastically because they would be motivated by their own best interests. They would literally have ownership of the organisation and its profits.

And, of course, because jobs will become increasingly unnecessary, people will get the base amount whether they work or not.

Many companies complain that they cannot afford to pay their workers the minimum wage, especially when there is a call to increase that basic amount. This idea would remove that barrier because everyone would get paid according to what the organisation can actually afford. There would be no false stories about how little is available for pay increases, because they would just naturally occur as a result of the company being successful. And if there was a genuine case of hardship that is allowed for as well, because the everyones’ pay will decrease to compensate.

And decisions could be made based on this system as well. No managers would be necessary because all the parties involved in a decision could be part of it. The vote could be biased towards the higher paid members (because they got that pay through being more highly valued), or to those who have worked there the longest, or maybe towards those who have made successful decisions in the past. Of couse, this would be a computerised voting system so all the details would be accounted for automatically.

Note that there are a few of issues which need to be tackled to make this system work.

One difficulty with this idea comes when the organisation might be (perhaps temporarily) running at a loss. Should the staff then have their part of the loss deducted from the base? I think not, but maybe they should have it deducted from future gains, so that no one ever gets less than the base amount.

Second, the financial position of the company needs to be made known to all interested parties, including the employees. The secrecy which surrounds this stuff nowadays is unnecessary and can too easily be used for dishonest purposes, so I think it should be dispensed with anyway.

Additionally, organisations which are not primarily driven by profit, such as charities, government services, etc, would need to find a different way to evaluate their success. And financial success should not be the only measure of success, even for private companies.

Third, there needs to be agreement on what the minimum base is for everyone and what percentage of profits each member of staff gets. I would suggest a vote amongst all members of the staff assigning value to each position.

You might think that everyone will want to give themsleves all the extra pay but I doubt whether that would happen, because people to have an innate sense of fairness, plus they know that id certain key staff leave as a result of low wages the company will fail.

Fourth, how can his fit in with the current model we have where part of the companies profits are distributed to shareholders? Well, I would like to dispense with that aspect of capitalism completely, because I think the people working at the company should be the only shareholders. Obviously this cannot be done too quickly or suddenly but it should be a long-term aim.

Needless to say, these requirements, especially the second one, present a few difficulties, but every system has difficulties, and I think we need to try new ways of managing work, despite the risks involved.

If everyone is part of the same team, and everyone can gain or lose in the same way that should fix, or at least significantly improve, the problems I listed above. It wouldn’t be easy to do, because the current power elite have a lot to lose, but it’s something which must be done.

Utopia or a Dystopia?

February 5, 2018 Leave a comment

I have been interested in artificial intelligence for years, without being too deeply involved in it, and it seemed that until recently there was just one disappointment after another from this potentially revolutionary area of technology. But now it seems that almost every day there is some fascinating, exciting, and often worrying news about the latest developments in the area.

One recent item which might be more significant than it seems initially is the latest iteration of AlphaGo, Google’s Go playing AI. I wrote about AlphaGo in a post “Sadness and Beauty” from 2016-03-16 after it beat the world champion in the game Go which many people thought a computer could never master.

Now AlphaGo Zero has beaten AlphaGo by 100 games to zero. But the significant thing here is not about an incremental improvement, it is about a change in the way the “Zero” version works. The zero in the name stands for zero human input, because the system learned how to win at Go entirely by itself. The only original input was the rules of the game.

While learning winning strategies AlphaGo Zero “re-created” many of the classic moves humans had already discovered over the last few thousand years, but it went further than this and created new moves which had never been seen before. As I said in my previous post on this subject, the original AlphaGo was already probably better than any human, but the new version seems to be completely superior to even that.

And the truly scary thing is that AlphaGo Zero did all this in such a short period of time. I haven’t heard what the time period actually was, but judging by the dates of news releases, etc, it was probably just days or weeks. So in this time a single AI has learned far more about a game than millions of humans have in thousands of years. That’s scary.

Remember that AlphaGo Zero was created by programmers at Alphabet’s Google DeepMind in London. But in no way did the programmers write a Go playing program. They wrote a program that could learn how to play Go. You could say they had no more input into the program’s success than a parent does into the success of a child whom they abandon at birth. It is sort of like supplying the genetics but not the training.

You might wonder why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) has spent so much time and money creating a system which plays an obscure game. Well the point, of course, is to create techniques which can be used in more general and practical situations. There is some debate amongst experts at the moment about how easily these techniques could be used to create a general intelligence (one which can teach itself anything, instead of just a specific skill) but even if it only works for specific skills it is still very significant.

There are many other areas where specialised intelligence by AIs has exceeded humans. For example, at CERN (the European nuclear research organisation) they are using AI to detect particles, labs are developing AIs which are better than humans at finding the early signs of cancer, and AIs are now good at detecting bombs at airports.

So even if a human level general intelligence is still a significant time away, these specialised systems are very good already, even at this relatively early time in their development. It’s difficult to predict how quickly this technology might advance, because there is one development which would make a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change: that is an AI capable of designing AIs – you might call this a meta-AI.

If that happens then all bets are off.

Remember that an AI isn’t anything physical, because it is just a program. In every meaningful way creating an AI program is just like playing a game of Go. It is about making decisions and creating new “moves” in an abstract world. It’s true that the program requires computer hardware to run on, but once the hardware reaches a reasonable standard of power that is no more important than the Go board is to how games proceed. It limits what can be done in some ways, but the most interesting stuff is happening at a higher level.

If AlphaGo Zero can learn more in a week than every human who ever played Go could learn in thousands of years, then imagine how much progress a programming AI could make compared with every computer scientist and programmer who ever existed. There could be new systems which are orders of magnitude better developed in weeks. Then they could create the next generation which is also orders of magnitude better. The process would literally be out of control. It would be like artificial evolution running a trillion times faster than the natural version, because the generation time is so short and the “mutations” are planned rather than being random.

When I discussed the speed that AlphaGo Zero had shown when it created the new moves, I used the word “scary”, because it literally is. If that same ability existed for creating new AIs then we should be scared, because it will be almost impossible to control. And once super-human intelligence exists it will be very difficult to reverse. You might think something like, “just turn off the computer”, but how many backups of itself will exist by then? Simple computer viruses are really difficult to eliminate from a network, so imagine how much more difficult a super-intelligent “virus” would be to remove.

Where that leaves humans, I don’t know for sure. I have said in the previous post that humans will be redundant, but now I’m not totally sure that is true. Maybe there will be a niche for us, at least temporarily, or maybe humans and machines will merge in some way. Experts disagree on how much a threat AI really is. Some predict a “doomsday” where human existence is fundamentally threatened while others predict a bright future for us, free from the tedious tasks which machines can do better, and where we can pursue the activities we *want* to do rather than what we *have* to do.

Will it be a utopia or a dystopia? No one knows. All we know is that the world will never be the same again.

The Future of Driving

January 31, 2018 Leave a comment

In a recent post, I talked about how electric power seems to be the inevitable future of cars. This is probably not too surprising to most people given the way electric cars have become so much more popular recently, and how the company Tesla has successfully captured a lot of headlines (in many cases deservedly so, because of its technical advances, and in other cases mainly because of the star status of its founder, Elon Musk).

But a much greater revolution is also coming: that is self-driving cars. In the future people will not be able to comprehend how we allowed people to drive and how we tolerated the massive amount of inefficiency, and the huge number of accidents and deaths as a result of this.

In my previous post I commented on how I am a “petrol-head” and enjoy driving, as well as liking the “insane fury” of current petrol powered supercars. I commented on how electric cars have no “soul” and this would appear to apply even more to self-driving cars. Before I provide the answer to how this travesty can be avoided, I want to present some points on how good self-driving cars should be.

First, there is every indication that computers will be far better than humans at driving, especially in terms of safety. Even current versions of self driving systems are far better than the average human, and these will surely be even more superior in the future once the algorithms are refined and more infrastructure is in place for them.

Whether computer controlled cars are currently better than the best humans is debatable, because I have seen no data on this, but that doesn’t really matter because being better than the actual, flawed, unskilled humans doing most of the driving now is all that is required.

In fact, the majority of accidents involving self-driving systems now can be attributed to human errors which the AI couldn’t cope with, because they still have to obey the laws of physics and not all accidents can be avoided, even by a perfect AI.

So if we switched to self-driving cars, how would things change? Well, to get the full benefit of this technology all cars would need to be self-driving. While some cars are still driven by humans there will always be an element of unpredictability in the system. Plus all the extra infrastructure needed by humans (see later for examples) will need to be kept in place.

Ultimately, as well as all cars being self-driven, the system would also require all vehicles to be able to communicate with each other. This would allow information to be shared and maybe for a central controller to make the system run more efficiently. It might also be possible, and maybe preferable, to have a distributed intelligence instead, where the individual components (vehicles) make decisions in cooperation with other units nearby.

The most obvious benefit would be to free up time for humans who could do something more useful than driving. They could read a book, read a newspaper, watch a movie, write their blog, do some work, etc, because the car would be fully automated.

But it goes far beyond that, because all of the rules we have in place today to control human drivers would be unnecessary. There would be no need for speed limits, for example, because the cars would drive at the speed best for the exact conditions at the time. They would use factors like the traffic density and weather conditions and set their speed appropriately.

There’s no doubt that even today traffic could move much faster than it does if proper driving techniques are used. The problem is that drivers aren’t good enough to drive quickly. But speed and safety can co-exist, as shown by Germany’s autobahns where there is often no speed limit, but the accident rate is lower than the US.

There would be no need to have lanes and other symbols marked on roads, and even the direction vehicles are travelling in the lane could be swapped depending on traffic density. All the cars would know the rules and always obey them. Head-on crashes would be almost impossible even when a lane swaps the direction the traffic is flowing in.

The same would apply to turning traffic. A car could make a turn into a stream of traffic because communications with the other cars in that stream would ensure the space was available. There would be no guessing if another driver would be polite enough to create a gap, and no guessing exactly how much time was needed because all distances and speeds would be known exactly.

I could imagine a scene where traffic was flowing, turning, and merging seemingly randomly at great speed in a way that would look suicidal today, but was in reality is precisely coordinated.

Then there’s navigation. Most humans can follow GPS instructions fairly well, but how much better would this be when all the cars shared knowledge about traffic congestion and other delays, and planned the routes based on that, as well as the basic path?

Finally there’s parking. No one would need to own a car because after completing the journey the car could go and be used by someone else. It would never need to park, except for recharging and maintenance, which could also be automatic. All the payments could be done transparently and the whole system should be much cheaper than personally owning and using a car, like we do now.

The whole thing sounds great, and there are almost no disadvantages, but I still don’t like it in some ways because my car is part of my identity, I like driving, and the new world of self-driving electric cars sounds very efficient, but seems to lack any personality or fun.

But that won’t matter, because there will be two ways to overcome this deficiency. First, there might be lots of tracks where people can go to test their driving skills in traditional human driven – maybe even petrol powered – cars as a recreational activity, sort of like how some people ride horses today. And second, and far more likely, virtual reality will be so realistic that it will be almost indistinguishable from real driving, but without the risks.

And while I am on the subject of VR, it should be far less necessary to travel in the future because so much could be done remotely using VR and AR systems. So less traffic should be another factor making the roads far more efficient and safe.

In general the future in this area looks good. I suspect this will all happen in about 20 years, and when it does, people will be utterly shocked that we used to control our vehicles ourselves, especially when they look at the number of accidents and fatalities, and the amount of time wasted each day. Why would we drive when a machine can do it so much better, and we could use that time for something far more valuable?

Cosmological Musings

November 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently I have listened to a few podcasts featuring some of the most well known scientists of today. Specifically, I mean Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. These aren’t general scientists obviously, since they all specialise in physics and cosmology, but that’s the area I want to concentrate on in this post.

I admire these three in particular for a number of reasons: first, they are clearly brilliant and highly intelligent people, or they wouldn’t have got to the positions they have; second, they are good public communicators of the often difficult subjects they specialise in; and third, they aren’t scared to call out BS where they see it, and Carroll and Krauss in particular are very critical of religion and other forms of irrationality.

But it isn’t the politically or socially controversial topics I want to cover here, it is the scientifically contentious or speculative stuff instead. So let’s get started talking about some of the more speculative ideas I have heard discussed recently. Note that these aren’t necessarily directly attributable to the people I mentioned above, and they represent my interpretation of what I have heard, and I am not an expert in this subject. But that has never stopped me before, so let’s go!

The origin, and underlying nature of the universe is not well understood. This has been a problem for a while, because the actual point where the Big Bang started is hidden in a singularity of infinite density. Physics breaks down there, just like it does in a black hole, so nothing much can be said about it with any certainty. It is possible to use existing theories to get really close to time zero – a tiny fraction of second – but beyond that is inaccessible to current theories.

And the best direct evidence we have comes from the light of early galaxies and the cosmic microwave background (CMB). But even the CMB only formed after 300,000 years, which is s small fraction of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years) but still not as early as we would like.

So clearly this is a difficult subject, but here are a few observations and speculations about the universe which might assist in understanding what is going on…

The first point is that the total energy of the universe might be zero. This seems totally absurd on the surface, because of all the obvious energy sources we see, like stars, and all the mass which we know is the equivalent of energy through the famous equation E=mc^2. But that’s where a convention in physics makes the reality quite different from what most people intuitively believe.

Gravitational energy has always been thought of as negative. This is nothing to do with the Big Bang or cosmology, it is just a natural consequence of the maths. If we accept this it turns out that the gravitational energy of the universe cancels the other energy exactly. So the universe has zero energy which means that any process making a universe can do so easily, meaning there could quite conceivably be an infinite number of them.

While some people dismiss this as a “trick” it really isn’t. If cosmologists had said something like “we need to get the total energy to zero so let’s just say gravity is negative and voila!” then that would be a trick. But this was an established fact long before the total energy of the universe was being considered and this gives it far more credibility.

And while we thinking about the idea of more than one universe, what about the idea that there could be many universes – each with slightly different properties – which might explain why many of the properties of our universe seem to be quite well tuned for the existence of life?

What I am saying here is that various constants seem to have values which make chemistry possible and that, in turn, makes life possible. But there seems to be no reason why the constants could not have totally different values and this could lead to a universe where stars could not form, and no stars means no energy source for life.

And the old argument about life which is entirely different from the type we see now doesn’t really save us because any form of life needs both energy and heavy atoms, and stars are the only likely source for these.

But if there are an infinite, or very large, number of universes, with different constants, then it is inevitable that some will have the values which make life possible. In fact, it’s possible to imagine a universe which is even better than ours for life, so there could be many which have life. In fact, if there are an infinite number of universes, there will be an infinite number with life as well!

A concept I have sometimes heard in both pop science and science fiction is the idea that at very large scales and very small scales there might be other universes hidden. For example, an atom could be a universe made of its own tiny atoms which in turn could be universes, etc. And going the other way, our universe could be an atom in a bigger universe above ours, ad infinitum. This idea might arise from the popular notion that an atom is like a miniature solar system (which it isn’t).

It’s a cute idea, but unfortunately it can be ruled out by applying the laws of physics. Sub-atomic particles have no details and no uniqueness. For example, every electron is a single point (or “cloud” of probability) with no structure and which is completely indistinguishable from every other electron. This doesn’t seem like a good candidate for a whole universe!

What about the “oscillating universe” or “big crunch” theory? This is the idea that the universe expands but the expansion slows down until it stops at a certain point, then it starts contracting again, reaches a singularity, and is “reborn” in a new Big Bang. At this point any vestige of the old universe is erased and all the energy is replenished. This would be a process which recurs infinitely in both the future and past.

This is quite an appealing notion, because it tells us what was before the current Big Bang, and previously it was thought that gravity might have been slowing the rate of expansion. Unfortunately for this theory new evidence shows us that the rate of expansion is actually increasing, because of dark energy, so the contraction and “Big Crunch” can never happen.

There’s nothing fundamental in physics which seems to stop processes running backwards in time. I have heard an idea that maybe the universe was created as a result of a signal sent backward from a future form of the universe itself. This removes the need for an initial cause which in turn might need a cause, leading to an infinite regress of causes.

Signals going back in time should be considered somewhat controversial, of course, because of the principles of causality, so I would be hesitant to take this too seriously unless some clarification on the exact mechanism arose.

Here’s another one: new universes appear inside black holes created in existing universes. These universes all have slightly different attributes than the universe they came from, but inherit the starting parameters from them.

This is nice because it sets up an “evolution” model where “the survival of the fittest” applies to whole universes! Only universes which can make black holes will create new universes. To create a black hole the universe needs to have a fairly long life, a way to concentrate matter, a way to allow matter to “condense” out of energy, etc. These attributes also lead to laws and constants suitable for the development of life.

Clearly this is difficult to evaluate because we don’t know what happens inside black holes, because as I said above, the infinite density of matter causes current theories to break down. There is no compelling reason to think universes are formed from black holes so it’s probably best to disregard this idea unless some new, relevant information becomes available.

Finally, how about the idea that the purpose of a universe is to allow intelligent life to form which, in turn advances to the point where it figures out how to make universes?

This also sets up a potential evolutionary scenario, but we have no idea whether any intelligent life form, no matter how advanced, could create a universe, so again this seems to be somewhat unworthy of spending too much time speculating about at this stage.

Well, wasn’t that fun! Obviously we don’t know the truth about the origin or fundamental nature of the universe, not because we have no ideas, but because we have too many! I’m fairly sure that when real theories are created to explain these phenomena that none of what I have said here will be the real explanation, but it’s still fun to speculate!

Child or Picasso?

October 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I love thought experiments, and I’m in pretty good company because so did people like Einstein! If you don’t know, a thought experiment is a way to test an idea by applying logic to it through pure thought. It often leads to new ideas (as it did for Einstein in developing the General Theory of Relativity) which might then be tested with experiments in the real world.

So General Relativity is an example of where a thought experiment was used in physics, but they can also be used in other areas, such as philosophy. In previous posts I have talked about the famous “trolley experiments” (originally in “More Morality” from 2007-11-27, and “Would You Press the Button?” from 2013-07-16) which are probably the most well known thought experiments in the area of ethics, and I have a few more in that area I want to discuss in this post.

This is interesting stuff but you have to go from one point to the next honestly. So let’s go through some of these experiments. Here goes…

Philosopher, Peter Singer, likes to challenge his students with the following question: “I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.”

Unanimously, the students say they are morally obliged to rescue the child. He then asks, “assuming you could still perform the rescue, would the distance to the pond, or the nationality of the child matter?” The vast majority say no, they are still obliged to act to rescue the child. He then points out that a similar “rescue” could be achieved with very little effort in time or money by donating to a charity, like Oxfam, who are concerned with saving many lives every day.

Yet few of the students do this. Why not?

Now imagine a burning building with a child trapped inside. You can rescue the child relatively easily, and almost everyone says they would. But there is also an extremely valuable Picasso painting in the house which you will get a $1 million reward for. If you remove it from the fire you won’t have time to rescue the child as well. What should you do? Almost everyone would value the child’s life more and rescue her instead of the painting.

But what could you do with that $1 million? You could save hundreds of lives by donating it to charities, such as the one which provides mosquito nets in Africa. Still, most people would save the child instead. Also note that, if you did do the “logical” thing and saved the painting in order to help thousands of people later, you would probably be charged with a crime for not making a reasonable effort to save the child, as well as suffering the contempt of your friends and family!

But now imagine the building had two rooms. The first room contains the child and the painting, and the second has 5 children. If you grab the painting from the first room and ignore the single child, you can use the painting to prop open the door to the second room and rescue 5. Do you grab the painting then? If you do, what is the difference between doing that and taking it for the monetary value which could be used to save far more than just 5 lives later?

Finally, consider the burning building again. Behind the painting is a lever which releases the 5 children in the room next door. Do you ignore the single child, remove the painting, and activate the lever? Most people would. What about if the lever, through a complex mechanism, activated a food distribution system in Africa and immediately saved a thousand lives? You might still use it. And if the mechanism had a delay of 6 months before the lives were saved? Well maybe and maybe not. And is that any different than distributing the funds from the reward for the painting? In the final analysis, no, but most people treat it as if it is.

It should be clear by now that people’s ethical choices do not depend on a logical treatment of the facts involved in a particular situation. Not only do most people ignore the possibility of making a much more significant contribution later rather than a lesser one immediately, but they also treat the directness of their action as a major factor, rather than the final outcome.

Consequentialism is a philosophical doctrine which states that the best course of action should be judged by its final consequences. Superficially this seems to make sense, but no one can follow this in the real world. And if they tried they would very likely be condemned by others. Not only that, but trying to analyse the options available in a situation like those mentioned above would probably result in a paralysis of uncertainty to many people.

Maybe it’s just as well we act on immediate instincts rather than a careful analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. No philosophical system, including consequentialism, can really answer these questions. And although the answers are usually not obvious there is a significant amount of agreement in what people would do.

Decisions like this are a complex combination of logic, emotion, and social conditioning. And that’s OK, because the end result is usually fairly reasonable even though they make no sense. General Relativity thought experiments are so much easier!

The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!