Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Technically Smart

You guys! I had a crazy day and missed posting today’s Afternoon Inquisition, which comes to us courtesy of last week’s Comment o’ the Week winner, Zapski, who writes:

It has taken me a while to think of this week’s AI. There are so many things bouncing around in my head.

So. Given that life on Earth has existed for about 3.5 billion years, and that as far as we know no other technological intelligent life has ever evolved on Earth, we can surmise that technological intelligence is something of an aberration.

Part One: Do you think that technological intelligence is a going to prove a successful survival trait?

Part Two: What purpose could technological intelligent life serve on the planet Earth? [Note that when I say purpose, I do not in any way imply a “higher” or spiritual purpose, but rather the kind of purpose
that trees possess (CO2 to O2 conversion, food, and habitat) or the Moon possesses (helps shield Earth from space rocks)]

Part Three: Describe our role in the global ecosystem from the point of view of an outsider to Earth.

You have 40 minutes, pencils are under your desks. Cheating will meet with failure. Begin.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. Read your Hitchhikers. Technological intelligence has already been proven successful. Look to the awesome power of… the TOWEL!!! Thats takes care of queries uno y dos. And as I already mentioned Hitchikers which essentially is an outsider’s view to go on would be plagarism thus also satisfying nummer drei.

  2. can’t really think of much in that would be considered positive…

    Just stuff like serving as a major extinction level event (although, a bit more drawn-out then your average asteroid impact, supervolcano, etc.) , eventually allowing the surviving species to diversify and radiate.

    Or maybe to quickly get a bunch of that carbon locked up in oil and coal deposits back into the atmosphere…

    Maybe just to prove a point, that a technologically intelligent life form has a high likelihood of squandering it’s non renewable resources (fossil fuels, easily refinable metal ores, etc.) in silly little bids to one-up each other, or beat their neighbors into oblivion. I’m leaning towards the idea that because of this squandering, our society will collapse before we can transition to full-on renewable/sustainable tech, or a possible exploration/colonization level of space travel.

  3. I’ve often thought about such things. The only place in the entire universe where we know there is life is right here.
    So to extrapolate from what we know, life exists in a wide variety of habitats, so life in the universe is likely common. Higher life forms are also very common here, so we can guess they’re common elsewhere. Intelligent life is pretty uncommon, and of course we are the only species using technology.
    So maybe technological life is rare in the cosmos. Maybe we’re it.

    If humans had never evolved, all the dolphins and squid and pigs and other intelligent species would(in all likely hood) be getting on pretty much as they are now. I think technology arose because of war, and it often makes great leaps forward because of war.

    So, if some alien civilization has great technology, it may have arisen because of war, and the most peaceful aliens may not ever invent any technology.

  4. Do you think that technological intelligence is a going to prove a successful survival trait?

    I would say that technological intelligence is definitely a successful survival trait. Fire == not dying of hypothermia.

    The problem is all that leftover competition and aggression stuff. You know, war, short sightedness and selfishness.

    What purpose could technological intelligent life serve on the planet Earth?
    The ability to leave it. Like steve said up there.

    Describe our role in the global ecosystem from the point of view of an outsider to Earth.
    “Remember when we were like that? Running away with the climate, using up all the resources as fast as possible, fighting amongst ourselves… teenage civilization huh? Can’t wait till they grow out of it.”

  5. @Mark Hall:

    For certain definitions of “technological” and “society”, there’s been lots of technological societies already. I mean, stone tools are a type of technology that non-human species came up with millennia ago. Monkeys and birds (and I’m sure others) use tools for various reasons.

  6. I think technological intelligence has already proven a successful survival trait. We’re still here, hey? And it sure as hell wasn’t due to our size or strength or funny-looking pink wrinkly bodies.

    I’m not entirely sure I follow your meaning of “purpose”. Any purpose we have is self-determined. And, any importance our little blue rock has is only what we’ve created. Don’t get me wrong, I love this place, but I don’t think the word “purpose” has any meaning outside a human context.

    And I think our role in the global ecosystem from an outside perspective is the one of the unwitting oaf – we’re big and strong enough (collectively) to cause harm, but we don’t know how to control it. Like the proverbial bull in the china shop, only the bull is just starting to realize what all this stuff is and what he’s been doing to it.

    And and and, I think there should be Evening Inquisitions. That way we can answer while approximately 2.718 sheets to the wind. Like I am now *hic*.

  7. I think humans will be a persistent surviving species who will continue to exhibit the phenomena of technology to its advantage. I’m not pessimistic and I’m not fond of notions like purpose, even divorced from spiritual notions, as they seem to imply design or notions of oversight, coordination or environmental moralism, beyond that your guess is as good as mine.

  8. Intelligence is a successful trait if we pull ourselves together in order to fix all of those issues. If not, we might either blow the crap out of each other, or nature might blow the crap out of us (you know, environmental collapse).

  9. @ryk:
    WRT extinction level events: we may actually provide the opposite effect. We’re pretty focused on self preservation, and we’re getting to the point where we could potentially *do* something about such events (asteroid impacts in particular).

  10. @xrelaht:

    I wasn’t thinking of us as much as the rest of the biosphere, since we have either directly (through pesticides, over hunting, etc) or indirectly (invasive species introduction, habitat destruction, climate change) contributed to a massive decline in biodiversity.

    I think there are some arguments that as primitive humans radiated out of Africa, they overhunted most megafauna to the point of extinction. I’ve heard some arguments disputing this, and I’m not very well versed in it, but one of the points brought up was that Africa is pretty much the only continent with significant megafauna because they co-evolved with primitive humans.

    but, yeah- I think its within our capabilities to possibly prevent an asteroid strike, but I’m not sure we will be able to put aside thumping on each other long enough to get the necessary precautions set up…

  11. @ jtradke: I understand that, though I largely refer to pre-human, non-anthropods. While ravens make use of environmental materials to create tools, they aren’t what would usually be considered a technological society, in that they’re unlikely to carry tools with them to complete certain tasks. They’ll make a tool, but they won’t keep a tool.

    Part One: I think technological society will prove to be a successful survival trait, especially in the relatively short geological term (a million years or so). Technology allows us to transcend environmental limitations; I’m sitting comfortably and relatively bug-free because of technology, even though I live in a swamp. My family has spread across thousands of miles because technology allows it. These are both things that lead to the increased likelihood of a given genetic pathway surviving.

    Part Two: I think the spread of life beyond the planet would be the ultimate purpose of intelligent life. If we go with Leakey’s idea of a river of DNA flwoing from pre-history, that river is most successful when it is both wide and deep. Currently, we’re not very wide, being limited to this planet and rare (never in my lifetime) trips to our one satellite… wipe out the world, and you wipe us out. However, we’re pretty deep… if we’ve got any warning at all, you’re going to have to dig pretty hard to get rid of all of us.

    Part Three: Managers, and somewhat incompetent ones. While we clearly control the land and its uses, and, to a degree, the water and its uses, we do so poorly, to the point that many of our resources are depleting. We’re obviously human-forming the environment to an extent… but we’re messing that up, too.

  12. The question strikes me as essentially wrong-headed. Humanity doesn’t have a purpose, humanity is a purpose. Purpose implies goals, goals imply consciousness of some form. Things have a purpose from humanity’s perspective, but the ecosystem isn’t self-aware so we don’t have a purpose in it. We’re just one more group of organisms bouncing around in the shifting dynamic equilibrium that is life.

    As to how an alien species would view our purpose? Well that depends on what their goal system is. And since I suspect the minds of alien species are unfathomably and disturbingly different to anything we can imagine, I doubt anything we can come up with would be even close to right.

  13. I remember watching this cartoon while back where Lex Luthor built this super intelligent robot to destroy Super Man. As with all super intelligent robots the machine became sentient. Lex could no longer control it so he sent it to the other side of the galaxy. The robot fought its way back and went after Lex. The machine destroyed all defenses Lex threw at him. Lex could not stop the robot. As it towered threateningly over Lex the billionaire asked why machine was coming after him. The robot said he just wanted to ask his creator what his (the robot’s) purpose in life was. Even though the robot was about to crush him, in true arrogant Lex Luther style the billionaire stood up looked the machine straight in the eye and said, “you idiot. We each make our own purpose in life.” Nice secular message hidden in that cartoon.

  14. Part One: I think technological intelligence will continue to be a survival trait to some degree, yes. Though not necessarily to the degree we possess it at as of current. It’s possible we could get “stupider” as the necessity of technological intelligence wanes in the coming millenia.

    Part Two: I think we’re poised to have the largest impact on the planet next to cyanobacteria creating oxygen billions of years ago. We may never achieve *that* level of catastrophic changes to the planet, but we should be able to rate a good second best on the scale of life ****ing with the planet.

    Part Three: To quote the late Bill Hicks, “Mankind is a virus with sneakers.” We’ve invaded and expanded to literally every corner of the planet, we alter the natural ecosystems there exclusively to support ourselves likely as the detriment to whatever was there before us, and we’re focused entirely on making ourselves as comfortable as possible for pumping out copies using the resources of what we’ve taken.

  15. @James K: If I thought it wasn’t worthy of skepticism, I wouldn’t have submitted it ;)

    But it is fundamentally a question of imagination – if you came across a planet, and were trying to categorize it and its ecosystem, you might conclude that the plant-like things seem to provide a primary point of converting solar energy into food, as well as converting some airborne molecules into other kinds, that other mobile creatures seem to need, and so on and so on. So what are the city builders for? To produce greater quantities of CO2? Why? It seems to be a consequence of their technology, but what function does it serve? Is it a slow extinction event, or are they seeds trying to leave the pod?

    Personally, I’m in the seed camp of thinking, though some of the other ideas that have been put forward are compelling….

  16. @Mark Hall: As far as I can tell, we really can’t be sure that there hasn’t been technological intelligence here before us. I’m reading The World Without Us now and it seems that all it would take would be a few tens of millions of years to wipe out almost all evidence we’ve ever existed. The remaining clues would be extremely difficult to find.

    Radioactive materials would be a clincher though.

  17. Asking the question re purpose is putting the cart before the horse.
    Life exists. By existing, it creates environments and resources. Other life evolves to utilize resources, and to take advantage of environment. The evolution itself creates new resources and environments to which organisms evolve to take advantage of. A complex dance ever changing.
    Flowering plants evolved because insects existed that increased the probability of the plants’ reproduction. Insects proliferated because the existence of flowering plants increased the probability of insect reproduction in many different ways.
    It makes no sense to argue that the purpose of insects is to pollinate plants, or that the purpose of plants is to feed insects.

  18. @Skepotter: Aha! Good answer, and very much worth considering. I suspected that there was a flaw somewhere, but I needed you guys to help out with the thinking. Sometimes we get so insular with pre-conceived notions that we need to ask others to see what we are missing.

    I had a notion, wanted to ask about it, was seeking either collaberation or criticism. I have received both, and now I also have other ways to approach the notion that I did not have before. Thank you all!

  19. @Zapski: I think the question is just fine and I appreciate the unique nature of human imagination. However having spent 25 years of my life thinking about a god’s purpose for humanity and my own personal life I tend to have avoidant behaviors when philosophical discussions seem to head in that direction. And while its may be my desire to get lucky (so to speak) I do not equate that desire for survival, or any other determining factor in human activity, with a purpose.

    As for the alien question I tend toward thinking humans are screwed and will be (a.) slaves (b.) an interesting first course, or (c.) regrettably irritating to the point of not deserving all the wonderful alien knowledge, ray guns and perpetual energy producing machines.

  20. Re: Technological intelligence as a survival trait

    Technological intelligence has allowed us to manipulate our environment very effectively giving humans an edge in survival. Further, as technology has advanced, it has allowed us to advance technology ever faster. Sounds good so far.
    However, biology advances very slowly and the rather sad meat pie in our skulls is not wired to “think globally” or think in terms of “sustainability”.
    Technology does free us from the slavery of our biology. Think about the huge push for more environmentally sustainable or energy efficient technology we are pushing for right now. Seems far sighted; seems rational. Truth is that such technology only means that we can support a larger population. The elephant in the room is population. Technology is, for humans, a way of leveraging the resources of the environment. However, technology cannot create more “environment” out of nothing; technology provides for ever expanding population in a world with finite resources. Eventually, we will succeed to death.

  21. Re: Technological intelligence as a survival trait
    Technology has done astonishing things to put more and more power into our hands. With the flick of a switch, we can banish darkness. With a jab of a needle, we can be moved beyond the reach of smallpox and diptheria. A push of some buttons and we are able to communicate across the globe (nearly) instantaneously. A handful of workers and their machines can excavate the foundations of the greatest architectural marvels humanity has ever built.
    Technology has turned miracles into mundanities.
    We should expect this trend to continue. We should expect that the miracles of today: space flight, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and quantum physics, to be harnessed and turned into practical tools for our use.
    Sounds good so far. Or couse I skipped the dark side in my examples. Today a handful of government officials can irradiate the world. It won’t be long before a single head of state can act independently of any restraint.
    It used to be that the “big lie” could only be perpetrated by states or media moguls. The advent of the internet, the proliferation of publishing tools, and the general lack of skepticism evident in our society, allows cranks with an internet connection to push hate and dillusion with wanton abondon.
    The problem isn’t just the technological innovation, it is the way technology becomes usable to a wider and wider class of users. Some of our fellow humans are nuts (a fact I think is painfully obvious to contributors to this blog). One day, in the name of personal freedom or necessity or apathy, individuals or small groups will have access to the tools to do that genetic engineering, create those nanobots, or purify their own uranium. And some of those individuals will be nuts.

  22. @SkepLit: Ever play Civ4? One of the ways of winning that game is to win the Space Race… not just reach the moon, but build an interstellar ship that gets you off the mudball.

    Why? Because if there are habitable planets out there (and I believe there are), getting off of this planet into another is the last real way humans have of dividing the genome. If intra-generational stellar travel isn’t possible, it’s really our last hope at speciation, short of an ELE (or eugenics).

    The race is on.

  23. The only “purpose” life could be given is the perpetuation of the existence of life. A primary method for this is evolution via selection: the traits best suited tend to increase survival chance.

    Humans are amazingly badly adapted to our (natural) environment. As Terry Pratchett once said, we’re basically “apes that fall out of trees a lot.” The only really beneficial adaptation we have is neoteny – in specific, the ability to continue learning after childhood (whereas most species stop or severely slow active learning at maturation).

    Technology is the basic result of this continued learning combined with our horrible adaptation. No claws or fangs? We make spears and knives. Can’t live in trees for protection? We find substitutes in caves and, eventually, tents and houses.

    Technology, in essence, changes the nature of natural selection by increasing the viability of ill-suited traits. Individuals with weak hearts or dibilitating disease are no longer immediately selected out, because technology allows us to repair or compensate for these problems.

    Furthermore, assuming that we develop the technology for it, space flight further increases the chance of survival, not only by being able to spread life to places where life doesn’t exist (at least from what we can tell) but ensuring that, should a catastrophe take place on Earth, life is guaranteed to be able to survive.

    Finally, by “short-cutting” part of natural selection, technology actually increases the diversity of the existing human population by allowing traits that may be (naturally) primarily detrimental but having secondary beneficial characteristics to continue propagation without detriment. In the event of a catastrophe, it’s more likely with this increased diversity that someone will have a trait that will allow humanity to continue.

    So, in essence, technology is merely an extention of (and enhancement to) the processes that enable life to propagate and spread.

  24. “And some of those individuals will be nuts.”

    Possibly, but I think you grant them far more resources than is necessary to wreak havoc. You don’t need to create a vast technological infrastructure in order to be destructive. All you need is to become a vector animal for something nature’s already provided.

    But that aside, technology is not what dooms us. Misapplication does, and while a great case can be made for people who do misapply it, a greater case can be made for those who don’t, and who use it towards betterment rather than destruction.

    Our biological meat pies don’t need rewiring. Just education. Most of the people bent on the misapplication of technology have little or none. The fact that they’re an exception even amongst the uneducated demonstrates this.

    As far as the OP goes, I favor the Babylon 5 response with regard to purpose: we are the universe trying to figure itself out.

  25. Part One: Do you think that technological intelligence is a going to prove a successful survival trait?

    I actually tend to think that it is our technology and not us thats going to survive and populate the galaxy long after we are gone.

    Another distinct possibility is that we will eventually reach what I call “technological escape velocity”. By that, I mean that we will reach a point in technology where our ability to breed and colonize will out pace any effort by nature to destroy us. I don’t mean to imply that nature has intent, just that we may eventually become too powerful for nature to have any serious impact on our development.

    Or, we could just as easily wipe ourselves out before we get there.

    Part Two: What purpose could technological intelligent life serve on the planet Earth?

    I think, in the big picture, it doesn’t really matter. Earth is an incubator, and egg from which we will hopefully one day hatch. Once we’ve outgrown it’s usefulness we might preserve it for posterity, but not necessarily.

    Part Three: Describe our role in the global ecosystem from the point of view of an outsider to Earth.

    See above. I think any sufficiently advanced civilization will have long outgrown the romantic notion that any single planet is indespensible. I don’t think a superintelligence watching us from afar would necessarily care what we do to the environment. If they have any interest at all, it might be to see if we hatch, and if we do, what kind of creature we evolve in to.

    Of course, none of these musings are very skeptical or scientific. They are fun to think about but can’t really be taken very seriously.

  26. Picking on Eric the Bassist a little bit, because he’s simply the most recent and convenient example:

    “I don’t mean to imply that nature has intent.”

    I find it interesting that, on a skeptical website, amongst an audience for whom the default assumptions can be said to be naturalistic/skeptical, that there’s still the impulse to clarify that when we used the word “intent”, we don’t mean “intent of a guiding principle” but “intent of entropic/mutational forces.” I catch myself doing it, too.

  27. I’m reading The World Without Us now and it seems that all it would take would be a few tens of millions of years to wipe out almost all evidence we’ve ever existed. The remaining clues would be extremely difficult to find.

    The conditions for good fossilization are rarely met … but humans and our artifacts are everywhere. Several places where prime fossil-forming conditions exist have been identified – and in every case, humans and humans artifacts are there, being fossilized. Doubtless other as-yet-unidentified places exist.

    It’s well known that size matters in fossilization. A large dinosaur is much more likely to be preserved than a small dinosaur. Dinosaurs were occasionally very large – some may have been over 150, or even over 200 feet long. Yet even a small road is much, much longer than 200 feet.

    It’s also well known that durability of the original material matters. The fossil record favors bones over soft parts overwhelmingly. And among bones, teeth are favored above all. Yet many human artifacts are much more durable than teeth. Many of our roads are nearly as tough and hard to break down as the rocks themselves. And roads are everywhere .

    Extinctions have already been brought up in this thread. There are a few dozen species which have been driven to extinction by humans, which have fossil records going back millions of years. Dozens more such species are on the verge of extinction now.

    And I must mention climate. Baring some sort of large-scale CO2-removal technology, the elevated CO2 levels we have created will last at least 10s of thousands of years, possibly over 100,000. Present paleo-climate science has revealed sparse but useful information about climates from hundreds of millions of years ago, and much less sparse information about climates tens of millions of years ago.

    If something like humans had happened 50 million years ago, there would be many signs. Sediment cores taken from the ocean bottom would show a temperature spike, coincident with a spike in CO2, and a rise in sea level.
    Many large mammal species formerly common in the fossil record, from mammoths to glyptodonts to giant ground sloths, would suddenly stop appearing. Fossils of cows would become widespread. “fossil” roads would be found in nearly every region of the planet.

    Radioactive materials would be a clincher though.

    Not really. Look up the Oklo natural nuclear reactor.

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