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.