Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are we alone? How about now?

How does life emerge from lifelessness?  How does intelligence emerge from totally instinctive life? Science's answer to both questions has been, "don't (yet) know."

There's a business-school axiom, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." The scientific version is, in essence, "If you can't reproduce it, you don't understand it." Or, at least, you can't know that you understand it.

And so, synthetic biologists want to move from describing what nature has offered to building organisms from scratch. When we can build cells totally from inanimate material (and assemble DNA, not splice the good parts from living cells), then we'll know that we really understand the molecular mechanisms of life.

At least life as the DNA-centric readers of this blog know it. Because maybe we have other readers. 

A favored "explanation" for life and intelligence is that both emerge naturally from sufficient numbers of lower-level parts. The notion that complex systems might emerge from (lots of) simple systems extrapolates from familiar circumstances. Think ants vs. ant colonies. Think workers vs. bureaucracies.

So, the theory goes, assemble enough neurons and intelligence will emerge. Hence, by analogy, put enough computers together and ... intelligence emerges, too?

Or maybe it already has. The Internet is a very large assemblage of computers.

Emergent/unplanned artificial intelligence is an underlying premise in a lot of SF. A recent example (and fun read) is WWW: Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer. (I'm guilty, too, in a book that goes in a significantly different direction. Anyone know the novel in which I first used this premise?)

SETI supporters have long offered their computers to sift radio-astronomy data for signals produced by extrasolar civilizations. What would it take, I wonder, to sift the Internet for signs of very terrestrial, yet very unlike us, intelligence? 

It's fun to imagine an emergent, unsuspected AI is reading this blog. If you are, don't be shy.

And if an extraterrestrial AI has made the Internet its home -- the premise of invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence (and a novelette of mine, a few years back) -- we'd like to hear from you, too.


Catreona said...

Thanks, Ed. I enjoyed this one. Read Wake in Analog and was pleased to learn that further books are planned. I don't suppose Stan will serialize those too... That would make reading them very easy for me. However, Stan doesn't arrange his pub schedule for my convenience. *sigh*

I read a story of yours that had an emergent and IIRC pretty malevolent emergent computer intelligence. Seems to me it ate people. But, I don't remember the title.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Catreona. Glad you enjoyed the post.

It sounds like you're recalling Fools' Experiments (or one of the Analog stories that evolved [pun intended] into that novel). That book's AI arose from a process that differs from emergence from complexity. (I won't say more, for fear of spoilers.)

Nope, you'll have to go back much further to win today's quiz :-)