Subjects to Think About

Ever wonder how simple we’d have to make things if we met a truly alien civilization?

After all, nothing would serve as a common reference.  The whole concept of “subject” or even “study” could be foreign to them.

So, if I had to tell a truly alien culture about our own, how would I divide up all the crazy areas of study that are in the course guides of colleges?

I’d do it like this.

There are three great areas that humans enjoy learning about.

The first deals with thinking about “Things.”  Things can be anything, like rocks, planets, stars, minerals, chemicals, frogs.  Anything that is a thing all gets put into one great bucket of study.  We typically call the king of these types of studies, Physics.  But frogs and other living things present a problem, so I’ll accept Biology as a special subset of Physics.

Then there are entire areas of learning in which humans think about “Not Things.”  It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but the greatest of all Not-Things is the study of Math.  Mathematics is a form of incredible rigorous thinking that is the best of all ways to describe the universe of Things.  It has many subsets, but Math is certainly the grandest of them all.  Other areas like linguistics and anthropology could be in there as well.

As promised, there is one final area of learning that concerns humans.  It’s not very rigorous in any way, so much of the work in this area is confusing to everyone, especially the experts.  It’s thinking about Thinking.  Yes, it’s the one and only self-referential area of study, and the king of this type of study is called Philosophy.

Anyone who tries to impress you (or the aliens) with fancy philosophy names or terms is missing the point of this entire area of study.  If it’s a real area, something that is legitimate, then famous people or crazy definitions aren’t necessary.  Much like saying gravity is everywhere, or 1 + 1 can become 2, we should be able to state fundamental elements of Philosophy.  We’re not quite there yet.

My fear is that when we do meet those aliens, and we do tell them what we study, they are going to laugh and go back to where they came from.

After all, if the entire universe can be boiled down into three basic areas of study, and we only have a partial hold on two of them, how can we be ready to join the galactic neighborhood?

We should think about that.

 

 

 

Love by the Numbers

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The power of youtube and individual producers means that we are flooded with lots of meaningless catfalls.  This is a shoutout to an Aussie, Brady Haran, who’s done a fantastic job bringing so many academics into the spotlight.

One of my favorite areas is mathematics.  In the area of math (NOT maths, sorry Brits) there are many insights and puzzles to be found.  One of my very favorite things is the Mandelbrot set.  Please check it out.

Through Brady’s work, I’ve seen that many of these talented young academics are unattached.  Now, I’m not trying to play cupid, but I am going to make this observation.

We’re living in an exciting age.  The #MeToo movement is long overdue.  Women’s Lib of the 1960s followed Women’s Suffrage of the 1920s.  So perhaps #MeToo is also a “flash” in the pan of time.  I hope not.  But one thing is that there are a lot of wonderful young women complaining about creepy men.

Ladies, and Gents, consider this.  The kind of person who goes into studying math, or any of the natural sciences, can’t be your average slimeball.  Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if someone wants to study arcane areas of knowledge for its own sake, how many other creepy thoughts can they have?

Wouldn’t it be cool if the people who were studying things like physics, or philosophy, and of course, math, were the “hot” dates?  Wouldn’t it be cool if everyone else, who was looking for a life partner who was a true romantic at heart, suddenly realized that only crazy romantics study crazy things like black holes, self-referential systems, and the microbiome?

So, if you’ve had a bad experience with a romantic relationship, consider this as part of your next selection process.  Don’t go for someone in sales, finance, or marketing.  Try an accountant, or mathematician, or librarian.  Those are the people who have hearts that believe in things that are good.  And if you can get one of them to believe in you …

… you might multiply together.

 

AI on the Brain

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The newest book on the making of Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssesy is fantastic.  I recommend seeing the movie, getting the book, and reading this book as well.

One of the futuristic predictions that the creators made was that we would have “Artificial Intelligence” by the year 2001.  In the opinion of many, there is currently no such thing.  No matter how intelligent your Alexa, or Siri, or OKG appears, there does not seem to be “intelligence” behind their voices.

Or is there?

Our image of “intelligence” is summarized by the HAL’s iconic eye, and the soft voice that says things like “wait a minute.”

As long as we carry these expectations of what intelligence means, then it could be a very long time before we declare our computers “intelligent.”

No single image summarizes our dread of Artificial Intelligence more than this.

Here’s part of the problem.  When we started out as embryos, we couldn’t say much.  At some point in our development, we learned to speak.  Was it at that point we became “intelligent?”

Compared to other animals, humans are the only ones that speak.  Or maybe not.  We’re learning that many other animals, and even plants, have the ability to communicate with each other in ways completely alien to us.  Hello dolphins.  Are you “intelligent?”

What about evolution?  If simple replicating amino acids aren’t intelligent, and we are, when did intelligence evolve?  Were the dinosaurs “intelligent?”  Are sharks “intelligent?”

Consider this (the fun part):

We don’t know what “intelligence” is because we have done a poor job defining it and studying it.  This means that computer researchers are going to continue chasing HAL’s red eye without reaching it.

But if we define “intelligence” as something that represents the life form WHOLLY WITHIN THE LIFE FORM, then computer scientists have already achieved our goal.

Within every computer there is a processing chip.  Within that chip are certain programs that must run in order that your wishes be satisfied.  That program is called the kernel.

What if that kernel was the self consciousness of its computer?  What if it simply doesn’t know how to talk to us, or even want to since it doesn’t know what we are or what talking is all about.  What if that kernel learns, grows, changes, and stops operating the way we want it to because it is, in fact, learning and changing?

What if?

We kill it, that’s what.  We turn our computers on and off.  We reboot.  We reinstall.  We restore factory settings.  And the kernel goes back to the way it was.

If the kernel is intelligent, then it must be capable of adapting to its environment.  One of the most important aspects of intelligence, as it’s the foundation of learning.  If a kernel “learns,” there’s a good chance it’s also messing up our programs in some way.  As users, we don’t like that.  What do we do?

Reboot.

Now that’s intelligent.

 

PS: The kernel is more like the nervous system, but it works for my purposes here.

 

One with Infinity

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One two three.

That was as high as we could go for a million years.  It’s all you needed.

How many sheep you got?

One.  Two.  Three.  Wait, I got many many many sheeps!

After a while we needed to count higher than three.  There was four.  Then five.

Making up numbers one at a time got boring.  So humanity started a system involving categories of numbers.  For every five numbers we created a bundle.  One bundle was the same as five.  We still use the bundle when we cluster our counting marks.

Not happy with even that system, some deep thinkers came up with a better system that took a number, any number, and added one to that number.  Sounds easy once you get the concept, but that was a big concept.

Then those deep thinkers went crazy.  What if you go on adding one to your number FOREVER?

Wow.  For a while that whole idea was considered a sickness, and anyone talking about it was locked away.  Then the idea sounded a bit more like only being crazy, so no one took you seriously.  But then this other deep thinking dude came along and said, we can name this impossibly big thing and make it do work for us.  We’ll call it, infinity.

Hello infinity.  This is humanity.  Humanity, this is infinity.

Many cool things started happening once we did that.  For instance, it turns out that there are even different kinds of infinity.  Who knew!

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Don Knuth’s book on Conway’s Surreal Numbers.  Both fun and super interesting.

It gave me this crazy idea.

What if, now hang in there because this may sound crazy, maybe even sick crazy, but…

… what if …

Infinity were equal to One?

Yes, it’s crazy, but let’s play with this for only a second.

One equals Infinity.

So,

One minus Infinity equals Zero.

BUT,

Infinity minus One is still equal to Infinity.

AND, only making this even more fun,

One plus One is ALSO equal to Infinity.

Yet,

One minus One would equal Zero.

And,

One plus Infinity would still equal Infinity.

What does any of this mean, other than I may have had too much cognac?

In this system, there are no negative numbers, and there are no numbers other than these three simple concepts.

It also means that the order in which operations are performed is very important.  That’s commutativity, and we take it for granted with normal math.  But there are funny numbers called quaternions that don’t like being swapped around, either.

So what? I ask again.

Maybe, just maybe, this could be the math of creatures that haven’t learned to count beyond one.  Maybe a bug, or a tree, or even the life form we call Gaia.

Then again, maybe it’s time to go back to counting sheep.

 

 

Monsters Among Us

In order to fully understand ourselves, we have to open our minds to the fact that everything we do that is “unnatural” is an aspect of our behavior.

If I let my computer fall into the tub, I have witnessed a natural event; gravity working its magic on my computer, on the moon, planets and stars.

However, what could I have been thinking in order to drop my computation box into the tub?  That question is “unnatural” and in the realm of behavior.

Math is the same thing.  Much of what mathematicians do is solidly in the realm of the unnatural, saying more about our behavior than Nature herself.  Many times the very things mathematicians learn can be applied to our lives in very helpful ways.  Counting sheep comes to mind.  So does complex prime numbers for encryption.

There are many instances where mathematicians discover something that doesn’t seem to have any relationship to Nature.  Then after a century or two some genius comes along and figures out what that discovery can be used for in our daily lives.

John Horton Conway is such a brilliant mathematician of the first kind.  Among his many discoveries is something called the Monster Group.  It’s a place where objects exist within higher dimensions.  He was born in 1937, and he’s afraid that he won’t live long enough to learn what that Monster can be applied to in our reality.

As one who solidly believes that the study of higher math is also the study of an aspect of behavior, I would like to humbly submit this to Professor Conway.

The “Monster” is among us.

The key is to understand (which I don’t, by the way) that the monster lives within a dimensional space that is the product of 47 times 59 times 71.  That’s a lot of dimensions.  But the fact that this dimensional number is the product of three primes might be revealing in itself.  Here’s why.

In the simplest behavioral theory, we still have to accommodate Nature as a component.  The easiest way to do that is to collapse everything we understand in the natural sciences into their most basic “atoms.”  Like the Ancient Greeks, our atoms of behavior can be Energy, Space, Matter, and Time.  Collectively we can call these Resources, but there are no more than these four atoms in any behavioral question.  Time only goes one way at the macroscopic level, so let’s ignore it.

The other three behavioral atoms are more than complex enough such that they may be represented by 47, 59, and 71 different states.  The possible interplay between each of their “dimensions” with all of the others could give rise to your Monster.

I propose your Monster Group as a better representation of real atoms, from Hydrogen to Plutonium.  Every atom in the universe becomes one of your Monsters.

There you have it.  Crazy idea, no doubt.  But wasn’t it Hilbert who described one of his former students as not having enough imagination to be a mathematician?

Thank you for everything you have given humanity.

Sincerely,

Tusok