Responses to some post-singularity Physics comments

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 material these days, there were many many discussions over at io9.

Here are some points:

svenhoek likes guns: “A ceiling? Wow, I think we have heard this kind of speak all through history. People that say this always are made to look stupid by history. plus, there will still be scientists needed to analyze the data and figures the machines bring up.”

But why shouldn’t there be a ceiling, just because there hasn’t been one up until now? 😉 To let someone else do the work for me, I think that this comment summarises nicely how I feel about this ‘ceiling’ argument:

Derek Pegritz: “I think one of the reasons there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in theoretical physics since the early days of quantum mechanics is simply that the baseline human mind is no longer capable of crunching the multidimensional data required to view the universe in its totality. As we are now, humans are perfectly capable of observing, analyzing, and describing the way in which the 4-dimensional submanifold our minds exist in primarily. Once you start adding dimensions and reduce physics to dealing with incredibly fine, emphemeral particle and field transactions, the 1.0 human mind is simply cannot envision the higher orders of logic which may obtain. This is not to say that we can’t see and understand certain *glimpses* of higher-order multidimensional physics–string theory, M theory, et. al. indicate that we can certainly comprehend it to *some* degree–but to really get to the heart of post-quantum physics, we’ll probably need a measure of intelligence amplification. Combining a machine-mind’s speed and data-crunching capacity with the human brain’s excellent pattern-matching faculties could very well lead to a true unified TOE.”

(There were several other comments along this line)
I do agree that humans mostly work by analogy and building up a mental picture of the world to whatever level of detail is necessary for us to survive. So the argument goes that we just aren’t evolved to be able to make logical arguments in N-dimensions – it doesn’t come naturally to us, so we use tools to help, but we are still at a disadvantage in that the links are no longer ‘obvious’ to us. How often have you heard the phrase ‘quantum mechanics is weird’ or ‘spooky’ – even Physicists don’t like QM because it is non-intuitive (it is also incomplete, but let’s not go there – it’s pretty good, and a better theory that closed some of those loopholes probably wouldn’t look *much* more ‘intuitive’ to us.)

Makidian: “I feel like only part of this will ever be true. I don’t think physicists will ever want to give up the aspect of their job that causes them to ask fundamental questions of everything. It would counterproductive and against what they have been working for to just have a computer do it for them. These futurists are so in love witht the idea of the singularity that they just start posing theories without considering that humans may want to do it and still work out the answer for themselves.
I’m all about making a better human to a certain degree, but not at the cost of losing my own humanity because isn’t that really the point!?”

I think the point here is not that they wouldn’t still want to do their job, but that that they would HAVE to give it up if something could do it much better than them, as no-one would pay them (at a higher rate) to continue. Physicists don’t sit around pondering the great problems of the Universe for fun – most do it to earn a living. At the least they would have to relegate it to a hobby (in the same way that people still build radios from discrete components). If machines do something better than people, they will be replaced, unless something about our global socio-economic system changes radically in the next few decades (which I won’t rule out completely). This is also assuming that human-physicists remain the same throughout this entire process, which I also do not believe will happen. We are already starting to augment ourselves as a community (how many of us read arXiv on smart-phones on the train in the morning?) There are many ways in which we can continue this trend, hence my point in the original post about experimentalists possible undergoing a human-machine merger just before their jobs get stolen 😉

artum: “Enough of this Singularity BS. It’s just another get-immortal-quick scheme for morons. Also research of any kind like this would be a horrible idea because there’d be no one to confirm it as with ordinary science, only other science-bots”

This comment made me smile. Gotta love that bio-Luddite ad-hominem attack touch. Anyway, I think that the machines would very much enjoy sharing the information with each other, if their hardwired goal was to discover a model with which to predict the behaviour of the Universe, it would make them very happy! Much happier than it would humans, who tend to think: ‘Damn, I’ve been scooped again by my competitor’.

RandomThought: “As for the rest of your article, I personally have come to the opinion, that in general more stays the same than changes. People have always thought they were heading towards the big everything-changing event and somehow life mostly just goes on. “

The Singularity meme is a double edged sword. It gives people an idea of what I am talking about without me having to describe it in minute detail, but then again I have to accept all the baggage that comes along with it. So yes, I admit, I was being lazy, and I wasn’t necessarily referring to the Singularity in all its ‘wonderful glory’ but just rather the part where AI technologies start to become better at doing Physics than we are. Personally, this really does radically affect my life, seeing as I am a professional Physicist for a living 😉

Just in case you missed the links:
Original post
Discussion over at io9

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7 thoughts on “Responses to some post-singularity Physics comments

  1. RAK says:

    That last comment about things staying the same instead of the big everything-changing event is colored by post-hoc perspective. As you approach / reach said everything-changing event, it tends to appear more “normal”. Note though, that this observation is also a critique ot the Singularity mystique! Care should be taken on both sides of the argument.

  2. In all honesty I think in order for an AI to tackle physics it would have to be sentient to some degree (not necessarily human equivalent). It would have to have true intuition. Unfortunately this is far outwith our grasp, at the moment.

    I truly hope the singularity happens (preferably in my lifetime) but I doubt that it will, at least in the beginning, be the great equalizer we are hoping for.

    Also, I hope the AIs can put paid to the string theory idea, the damned thing is not disprovable. Why do we need to make up dimensions?

    Great article by the way 😉

  3. Tom Michael says:

    How could we hard-wire machine AGIs to want to do physics? Human’s have GI but very few of us are interested in science (sadly).

    Humans are (kind of) hardwired to seek pleasureable states and avoid unpleasurable states, via nucleus accumbens and amygdala neurology respectively. It gets more complex when you add in the addition of anticipation of future loss or gain, but those four motivators essentially explain most human behaviour.

    You or I might have enjoyed physics at Uni and experienced increased dopamine firing in the nucleus accumbens, but most human beings don’t. If human beings were hard-wired to enjoy learning special relativity or QM, we’d not really have GI, as we’d all be obsessed with physics! One of the few desires that most humans share is a sex drive, and I’m guessing AGIs wouldn’t have that, though they might have libido in the sense of wanting to live and experience things.

    So I’m wary of any computer scientist who goes around telling people we can “hard wire” things like compassion, altruism and the enjoyment of problem solving into AGIs, as I suspect that such inventions would be limited by these so as to lack GI. Even in human beings such traits are not really hard-wired, but arise as an interaction of our culture with our brains.

    I work with brain injured people, so I like to think I have some idea of what I’m talking about when it comes to behavioural changes following damage to neural networks. With regard to AI/AGIs, the H+ community really needs more neuropsychologists!

  4. Mike G says:

    We already leverage to power of many auxiliary computing tools to help us understand the world. Modeling, simulations, data analysis, document storage, etc. What you’re getting at is when the computers/machines will start leveraging us, or asking the big questions. I think this boundary is pretty gray. A couple examples come to mind in which “big questions” have been posed by machines or answered by machines in ways arguably incomprehensible to humans. For the former, take any non-intuitive result that has come out of a simulation. For the latter, think about computational proofs (e.g. four color theorem) or super computer simulations (e.g. climate change, nuclear stockpile degradation). A recent example that comes to mind is the “flash crash” in the stock market. Here you can argue that computers forced us to ask a big question about the stability of our stock exchanges.

  5. Daniel says:

    “I think one of the reasons there hasn’t been a major breakthrough in theoretical physics since the early days of quantum mechanics….”

    How can a physicist write that? OK, maybe the commenter isn’t a physicist, but you are, and you reposted it. There has been a constant push into new realms of theory ever since the formulation of quantum mechanics. (There was also a constant push before QM) What of QFT? Are you just sweeping that under the rug of QM? I guess sweep QED in there, too, then. But QCD? Electro-weak mixing? Those are amazing postulations that weren’t just derivative of QM. Plus the wide array of BSM physics: supersymmetry theories, string theories, kaluza-klein theories, technicolor, quantum gravity, etc.

    I think what your commentor meant to write is, “I haven’t noticed the major breakthroughs since QM because my brain is not capable of processing them.”

    Regardless, your “physics after the singularity” essay was nice science fiction, but complete nonsense.

    • physicsandcake says:

      I was merely speculating that a system that had an intuitive understanding of, for example, a Green’s function or an n-dimensional space might produce theoretical insights more easily than a human scientist with a brain evolved specifically to deal with mammalian survival in a very 3-dimensional world consisting mainly of pattern matching tasks.

      I would be interested to know exactly what brought about your conclusion that the essay was ‘nonsense’. Could you provide a more substantial rebuttal?

  6. Daniel says:

    The nonsense starts with assigning intuition to a system. Yes, there’s no point in hand weaving in competition with a weaving machine. But I can ride a bicycle way better than a weaving machine can because it wasn’t built to cycle. I fail to see how outside of dusting a machine with fairy dust, you expect to endow it with intuition beyond ours.

    I want to point out the activeness of “endow.” You’re proposing that we can program a machine to do something we can’t. This has never been true of computers. They can do calculations faster than we can, but they can’t calculate anything we can’t.

    And there are many things we do intuitively that they (so far) can’t be programmed to do, even after decades of dedicated research. Look at the failure of chess-playing AI: Rather than building a machine that could actually understand chess strategy, computer scientists developed faster and faster processors that could sift through sets of possible game futures in order to decide the move that was most-probably game winning. (They then claimed this as a victory, sadly.)

    Maybe it’s the field of experimental quantum computing, I don’t know — but I work in theoretical and experimental (high energy) particle physics, and I see imaginative thinking as a requirement for the job. But then, of all the concepts in physics to choose as examples, Greene’s functions and N-dimensional spaces are most intuitive. Part of our work is retraining our intuition, no? A better example would have been something like SUSY’s extra dimensions, which are measured not in length but in the square root of length.

    I can’t leave a comment without again highlighting how ignorant it is to assert that there haven’t been major breakthroughs since the early days of quantum mechanics. That commenter can’t be a physicist; certainly he isn’t a particle physicist.

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