Physics post-singularity….

As post-singularitarians, what will happen to scientific discovery after the inevitable continued progress of automation? Will physicists be needed at all?

I think that there really won’t be much point in studying Physics post-singularity, as expert systems and AIs will be able to advance scientific development and understanding, put forward theories and perform experiments themselves. Or rather, there won’t be much point in studying it as humans. It would be like studying weaving, except there won’t be a market for quaint, slightly wobbly ‘hand-made theories’ and ‘hand-analysed data’ in the same way that people look for beads on strings at craft-fayres in country barns.

I’m afraid to say that the first guys out will be the theorists. Theorem proving machines are already gaining traction, and I don’t think it will be long before these systems will start to become commonplace, as soon as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) gets even a foothold in this area. These kind of systems which are given the chance to play about in a theoretical, platonic realm of logic and inference constitute a nice step between AI and AGI, and they are likely to be exploited as such. Our beautiful theoretical physics will be demoted to a mere rung on the ladder of systems trying to become more ‘human’ and less like theoretical physicists!

Coming a close second will be computational Physicists. I mean, they need expert systems already to even start! Their only hope is to cling on to the ability to test their simulations against the real world – which an automated system might find tricky.

I think that experimentalists will be the last to go, as they interact the most closely with the material world… These brave soldiers will hold out the longest in the trenches of this war, fighting the new breed of scientist with their ability to gracefully control and manipulate the most delicate of scientific instruments. Instruments which are indeed the lower sentience predecessors of Intelligent Scientific Equipment. In fact, experimentalists might even hang around long enough to see the merging of humans with machines, in which case they can probably keep their jobs throughout :)

I think that the process of writing papers could probably be automated sooner than we think. But if our scientific equipment really does start to out-investigate us, who will read the papers? The equipment will just quietly and democratically communicate information across a global network, with each piece of kit having an instantly updated database of the current ‘cutting edge’ results. The system will know everything. It will have the capability to search and analyse every single paper ever written on a scientific subject. It will have a deduction and inference engine that can allow it to leapfrog any literature-savvy scientist in an instant, even with limited AGI capabilities. Such machines would not need to go to conferences, all necessary information can communicated almost effortlessly over the network. Peer review will probably still happen (systems will compare results), but it will be done via distributed computing, and it will be democratic – there’s no need for one system to be ‘better’ than another, these machines don’t care about getting first author on that Nature paper. They care about sharing the information and producing a model of the Universe that best describes it. This can be hardwired into their algorithms. It will be their very raison d’etre. They can become perfect scientists within their experimental capabilities (which will improve over time too).

2050, Researchers carrying piles of paperwork from their offices. (Many never did go paperless. Most of the yellowing documents are still from the 1990s)

Curious-2010-researcher: What’s happening? Why are you guys leaving? You’re eminent scientists! Pinnacles of wisdom and knowledge!

2050-research-group: Well, the University had to make cuts…

Curious-2010-researcher: How could you guys ever let this happen?

2050-research-group: You can’t get a grant these days unless you’ve got the latest Auto-Prof-300. Nothing can analyse data quite like it! It doesn’t take tea breaks or lunch. It doesn’t claim conference expenses. It uses less electricity than our computers did, not to mention the savings on pens and envelopes! It even writes our papers for us, heh! There’s just no use for us anymore. But it’s OK, we have a plan. We’re going to start a museum :)

What is the point of all this rambling…. Well, I just thought I’d explain one of the reasons why I’m interested in AI and AGI. I think that we can develop AGI as a tool for improving the way we do Physics. As for the consequences of that, well I am not in a position to judge. Technology is agnostic, it will provide advantages and disadvantages for the human race as we know it. But being a Physicist, one is always looking for better ways to be a physicist, and to do better Physics. I feel that the best way to do Physics is to build machines to do Physics for us. After all, we’re good at building machines to do things for us. I also believe that there are fundamental reasons why we are not best placed as agents in this environment to do Physics anymore. I feel that we are approaching somewhat of a ‘ceiling’ regarding our own ability to understand the way in which the universe operates.

Hopefully this lighthearted and somewhat tongue-in-cheek post will be the forerunner to some more posts about how machines such as Auto-Prof-300 can actually be realised. I’ll also talk a bit more about why I believe this ‘ceiling’ to our understanding exists.

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8 thoughts on “Physics post-singularity….

  1. Ben says:

    You don’t need AI to benefit from a global network of experimental results, we could be doing that now. It might make sense to replace the whole concept of ‘publishing papers’ with updating a bunch of science wikis or something similar.

    Shame that human egos and commercial considerations make it pretty much impossible. In fact, won’t commercial factors always interfere, even if/when scientists are mostly machines?

    • physicsandcake says:

      Well, I guess that people would still be applying for grants to cover the cost of their Auto-Prof-300s, and those with the best results would get more money and be able to upgrade to the Auto-Prof-3000, so it would still be a rich-get-richer game….?

      I agree that we could benefit from a global network of results to some extent, and indeed a faster and more transparent open source publishing system. But I still believe that the only real way to data-mine such a resource properly would be to use AI. I think the main bottleneck is the ability of humans to extract meaning from increasingly abstract and specialised data, and to keep a working breadth-first memory of enough different aspects of Physics/Science to have those ‘creative insights’ which occur when you cross-fertilise disciplines. I think machines would be very good at this kind of pattern recognition. :)

      Humans don’t tend to get anywhere near this stage until they are close to retirement, and then they leave their discipline, without passing on that wisdom (because they can’t – it is a very difficult skill to teach).

  2. Craig says:

    Suzanne,

    Interesting post – it has its parallel in Martin Ford’s book entitled ‘The Lights In The Tunnel’. (see my blog: http://bit.ly/7A5kKF)

    But lets go through this thought experiment:

    – Is the global population of physicists increasing or decreasing? Is it already at a maximum point? My bet is that it is on a downtrend. Why?: Kids, our future, hate Quantitative subjects these days and not enough kids are taking-up Engineering, Maths, Physics and Chemistry (Its still not cool to be ‘nerdy). The industry is in a state of depopulation; there are too FEW physicists! Therefore, I believe that the AIs will only help to meet the shortfall and save the profession from decline.

    And, at this stage, the most plausible path to the singularity is ‘large computer networks (and their associated users) “waking-up” as a super-humanly intelligent entity’. ‘Wake-up’ in this context means to ‘gain consciousness’[1]. Meaning that the humans won’t be supplanted by the computers during the singularity: they’ll combine their intelligence with AI to create superhuman intelligence (which appears to be already happening – the social networking revolution has transformed the idea of the collective consciousness of mankind from an abstract notion to something ‘tangible’). So, the long and short of it is: Its you guys working in unison with the machines, they won’t supplant you!

    -C.

  3. [...] 3, 2010 by physicsandcake So the post I wrote on Post-Singularity Physics got linked a couple of times, and although people are very reluctant to comment on original source [...]

  4. TransAlchemy says:

    I argue a new type of human scientist will arise, those that seek to understand what the machines are learning about the physical universe. Sure the really reality bending work may be “discovered” by the machines, but we will need intermediate interpretors of the information for those that choose to remain “natural”. Here is where the transhumanist may needed in to fill a potential universal informational communicational gap.

    Also it is quite possible that “AGi” minds may interpret the universe on a level that is non comprehensible to biological minds thus, human/agi hybrids may be needed to keep the high end physics from looking like magic ;-D

    In short The drive to “understand” the universe will not die once we create artificial theoreticians , but rather our concept we may shift our approach from simply seeking new knowledge to deep philosophical debate of what the “AGI” is presenting to us as actual reality…

    Computer….
    Is it real, this reality?And if you said no, will I believe you?

  5. Andrew says:

    Theory-developing/Theorem-generating and theorem-proving are not quite the same. It’s (sort of) like the difference between prime factorisation and checking the answers once provided. Far fewer (scientific) theories are developed than the experiments to test them. Look at the effort and time (almost 40 years) being spent by 10,000+ mathematicians/physicists to develop ‘string theory’.

    It’s hard to envision how an AI/AGI would come up with, say, general relativity or how it would interpret the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics but it’s not as difficult to see how one would come up with an experiment that could falsify these theories.

    I don’t think theoretical physicists will go away first. In fact, using the logic that theories are harder to come up with than thinking of experiments to disprove them, experimental physicists might be the first to go. Embedded in any theory are assertions (or laws) which even a layperson can draw a [possible] experiment that would falsify the theory if it panned out. (Yes, the experiments themselves are a little more difficult than that)

    What would be left for the experimental physicist to do is to supply the AI with materials required to perform the experiment, assuming it couldn’t synthesise them, and that would be rendered moot if the AI created, or tunnelled into existing, androids or ‘sentinels’ it could dispatch to do that work
    ;-)

  6. Constantine says:

    In parallel with the development of AGI, especially by 2050, you would also have cognitive enchantment. Whether through genetic augmentation, brain-computer interfacing, or nanotech upgrades, one of the main reasons behind collective technological progress is to also enhance our self’s thus not completely throwing the human (or post-human I should say) element out of the laboratory.

    I agree there are facets of research that could be completely automated, that do not require much effort in an analytical fashion, but it would upset me to live in a world in which we just sit back, relax and let automatons do everything. We’re constantly achieving greater potential and it is important in my view to also put that potential to work.

  7. null says:

    Intelligent Machines (singular or plural or whatever name you would assign) would care about Physics. They would need to understand physics to improve themselves and would like to know how the universe operate as much as we like to understand weather on Earth. The discovery of the laws of Physics and the simulation of the universe and its parts will increase in higher resolution. For some reason you still put humans at the center of the equation — do monkeys stop eating bananas since we invented agriculture? As far as experiments done by people, if you see it from that point of view — then the machines are invisible to you. Most of the progress today in science is done by machines already.

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