Alien science

From: Tim May <>
Date: Sat, 30 Nov 2002 14:37:07 -0800

On Saturday, November 30, 2002, at 01:32 PM, Ben Goertzel wrote:
>> ...
> I think this is certainly a plausible prediction of the future, but I
> see it
> as an unlikely one.
> I think that intelligent software programs will be brought into
> existence
> within the next 10-50 years, and that among other effects, this will
> cause a
> physics revolution. Furthermore, it will be a revolution in a
> direction now
> wholly unanticipated.

It will be interesting and exciting if you are right, but I think the
kind of AI you describe above and below is further off than 10-30
years, though perhaps not 50 years.

> Right now we analyze data about the microworld in a very crude way.
> For
> example, we scan Fermilab data for "events" -- but what about all the
> other
> data that isn't "events" but contains meaningful patterns?
> Create an AI mind whose sensors and actuators are quantum level, and
> allow
> it to form its own hypotheses, ideas, concepts, ontologies.... Do you
> really think it's going to come up with anything as awkward and
> overcomplex
> as our current physics theories?

I have no idea. True, it may come up with all sorts of weird theories.
But, absent new experimental evidence, will these new theories actually
tell us anything new?

Your point about AIs exploring physics is an interesting one. And you
are right that Egan has his AIs, his uploaded Orlandos and even his
computer-produced Yatima, looking very much like humans. Not at all
like the "Entities" of Vinge's "Deepness," Zindell's "Neverness," or
Stephenson's "Hyperion" series. But let us imagine that an advanced AI
were to be turned loose on a Newtonian world. I can well imagine that
such an entity, left to its own devices, might come up with weird names
for inertia, mass, friction, etc. Perhaps even synthetic combinations
of what we take to be the basic vectors of classical mechanics. Instead
of 3-space being so primal, phase spaces of 6, 18, and even many more
dimensions would perhaps be more "natural" to such a mind. (Needless to
say, given that today's best AI programs and computers are having a
very hard time even doing "naive physics," a la ThingLab and its
descendants, I'm not expecting progress very quickly. And ThingLab is
more than 20 years old now, so expecting massive breakthroughs in the
next 10-20 years seems overly optimistic.)

More importantly, would an AI version of classical physics, complete
with incomprehensible (to us) phase spaces and n-categories and so on,
including constructs with no known analogs in our current universe of
discourse, would this version give any predictions which differ from
our own? In short, would the AI's version of physics give us any new

My hunch is no. It might be better at solving some problems, just as
the mental architecture of birds may give them much better abilities to
solve certain kinds of 3D problems than we have had to evolve, and so
on for many other such examples, but would the physics be different or

I will grant that had such minds existed earlier in the development of
physics they might have anticipated certain things decades or centuries
ahead of humans, so I will grant that in this sense they might have
found "new physics." And hence I will grant that perhaps an alien mind,
or an AI mind, might be able to look at what we have already measured
with our machines and may be able to see new physics we have not found.

Interesting topic, to be sure.

(On a tangent, we also have some experience with non-Western cultures
coming to modern science with their own "alien intelligence" (to a
slight extent, not a fraction of the alien intelligence a non-H.
Sapiens would have) and we can examine the question of whether their
non-Western outlook gave them any particular insights into science or
fresh points of view. My verdict is that no, the non-Western outlooks
were not particularly important. Sure, Gell-Mann drew some ideas of the
"Eightfold Way," but the group-theoretic developments were there
anyway. Ditto for Eastern ideas of other sorts, I think. And ditto for
the feminist notion that masculine ideas apparent in physics need to be
supplemented with more feminine, nurturing, holistic kinds of crapola.
But I am in danger of digressing into political topics, which I don't
want to do here on this list.)

> I suspect our current physics theories are overcomplex because they're
> based
> on extrapolating into the microworld, mathematics and intuitive
> concepts
> that originated primarily in models of our everyday physical world.
> Particle theory... wave theory ... path integrals. There are no
> particles,
> waves or paths down there.... There is no "observation" either....
> No
> strings. No membranes. Our attempts to project these concepts onto an
> inappropriate domain may well strike future quantum-domain-natural
> minds as
> mildly hilarious...

Probably so. But at any given point in time the best we can do is to do
the best that we can. We of course cannot just wait for the machines...

Whether there "are" branes and strings and spins and suchlike at the
Planck scale is unknown to me, but physicists seem to be making
progress in acting as if such things have some meaning.

The universe is not a rubber sheet, either, but it can help to think of
gravity with the rubber sheet model (though an Arcturan squid creature
might use a Flozzleblet to picture gravity, and an AI might use
something entirely different).

It is true that taking the "at hand, all around us" experience we have
with physical objects and with the logic of physical objects is
problematic at the quantum level. The fact that small things do not
behave the way rocks and spoons behave, being either here or not here,
having some speed which can be measured, etc., is why quantum mechanics
is so weird to newcomers and others. So, yes, the physical world is not
really made of rubber sheets or strings or little blue balls called
electrons. But the fact that reality is so weird is not, in my opinion,
an argument of any kind that we should not try to make some sense of it
with the best arsenal of tools and concepts we can gather.

> Humans may or may not arrive at a workable TOE before the advent of
> AI's
> with quantum-level sensors and actuators. Following this advent,
> however,
> the progress of fundamental physics will be unimaginably fast, and
> will move
> in humanly-unimaginable directions.
> Will mathematics be central to this new physics? Maybe. But not our
> mathematics.

I disagree fairly strongly on this point. I think our mathematics is
what is most lasting, albeit the mathematical ideas change names and
new ideas become more important.

And I expect the mathematics the AIs develop, or that alien cultures
may already have, will look like a "coordinate transformation" on our
space of mathematical basis vectors. Their categories may be slightly
different, but the underlying structure will be similar. (If natural
transformations are what "slide" one category and its morphisms into
other categories and morphisms, 2-categories, 3-categories, and
n-categories in general are the tools for looking at how these natural
transformations slide around.)

> Anyway, this was part of why I decided to start thinking about AI
> rather
> than fundamental physics ;->

AI remains interesting, but I think new views of physics will be coming
from AIs long after other important things come out of AI. Just my

(For example, some friends of mine are doing interesting work on using
systems of several million machine agents to data mine large amounts of
financial data. It seems likely that this kind of work on machine
learning, pattern extraction, support vector machines, and a plethora
of other "AI tools" will have major effects on the world of economics
and forecasting. And on creating financial derivatives (synthetics)
which are alien to human thinkers/investors.)

> I think Greg Egan's fiction is great, but I also think Diaspora is
> badly
> flawed futorology, because his uploaded minds never get tremendously
> more
> intelligent than humans. I don't think that's a very realistic
> prognostication, though it makes for easier storytelling.

I totally agree. His characters were all recognizably human. Where were
the entities with the equivalent of a truly alien intelligence, or with
an IQ of 1000? (Not of course in the sense of thinking 5-7 times faster
than the average bright person on this list, but of having many times
the difference in conceptualizing power than an Einstein or a Wolfram
has over a 100 IQ drone.)

Where were the "Jupiter-sized brains" so beloved of the Extropians and

Vinge would say, apropos of your "easier storytelling" point, that such
minds are on the other side of some flavor of Singularity, with little
to say except to say that there are "Entities" out there, brooding and
thinking their deep alien thoughts like some kind of unseen Lovecraft

--Tim May
Received on Sat Nov 30 2002 - 17:42:09 PST

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