Sunday, June 4, 2023

Not All That Intelligent

Dissected man

I have been writing fiction about artificial intelligence (AI) for most of my adult life.1 In all cases, my intelligences—whether a viral computer spy or a robot pilot from the 11th millennium—are what one science fiction author calls “a little man with a machine hat.” That is, they are multi-capable, self-aware programs able to function like a human being, carry on conversations, have thoughts and opinions, and occasionally tell jokes. The only difference is they aren’t made out of gooey carbon compounds. That is, they’re just another set of fictional characters.

With all the talk and all the hype about AI these days, it is useful to understand what the current crop of programs is and is not. They are not Skynet, “deciding our fate in a microsecond.” They are not functionally equivalent to human intelligence: that is, they are not thought processors capable of thinking through complicated, real-life situations, perceiving implications, and making distinctions and decisions. They do not have a lifetime of experience or what we humans would call “common sense.” They are ambitious children. And they are not all that intelligent. They are also designed—at least for now—for a single function and not the generalized array of capabilities we think of as comprising human-scale intelligence.

I recently heard an interview with Chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna of IBM. He said that programming the Watson computer that became a Jeopardy champion took six months. That was a lot of work for a machine to compete in the complicated but essentiallyt trivial task of becoming a game show contestant. IBM is now selling the Watson model as a way for corporations to analyze their vast amounts of data, like aircraft maintenance records or banking operations. Artificial intelligence in these applications will excel, because computers have superhuman scales of memory, analytical capability, and attention span. But Krishn cautioned that in programming an artificial intelligence for corporate use, the operators must be careful about the extent and quality of the database it is fed. In other words, the programmer’s maxim still holds true: “garbage in/garbage out.”

I can imagine that AI systems will take on large sets of data for corporate and eventually for personal use. They will manage budgets, inventories, supply chains, operating schedules, contract formation and execution, and other functions where the data allow for only a limited number of interpretations. They will be very good at finding patterns and anomalies. They will do things that human minds would find repetitive, complicated, boring, and tiresome. They will be useful adjuncts in making business decisions. But they will not replace human creativity, judgment, and intelligence. Anyone who trusts a computer more than an experienced human manager is taking a huge risk, because the AI is still a bright but ambitious child—at least until that particular program has twenty or thirty years of real-world experience under its belt.

Of recent concern to some creative and commercial writers is the emergence of the language processor ChatGPT, licensed by OpenAI, whose investors include Microsoft. Some people are saying that this program will replace functions like story, novel, and script writers, advertising copywriters, documentation and technical writers, and other “content creators.” Other people are saying, more pointedly, that such programs are automated plagiarism machines. People who have actually used the programs note that, while they can create plausible and readable material, they are not always to be trusted. They sometimes make stuff up when they can’t find a factual reference or a model to copy, being free to hallucinate in order to complete a sentence. They freely exercise the gift of gab. However, I expect that this tendency can be curbed with express commands to remain truthful to real-world information—if any such thing exists on an internet saturated with misinformation, disinformation, and free association.2

The reality is that ChatGPT and its cohort of language processors were created to pass the Turing Test. This was a proposal by early computer genius Alan Turing that if a machine could respond to a human interlocutor for a certain length of time in such a way that the human could not tell whether the responses were coming from another human being or a computer, then the machine would be ipso facto intelligent. That’s a conclusion I would challenge, because human intelligence represents a lot more than the ability to converse convincingly. Human brains were adapted to confront clues from the world of our senses, including sight, sound, balance (or sense of gravity and acceleration), tactile and temperature information, as well as the words spoken by other humans. Being able to integrate all this material, draw inferences, create internal patterns of thought and models of information, project consequences, and make decisions from them is a survival mechanism. We developed big brains because we could hear a rustle in the grass and imagine it was a snake or a tiger—not just to spin yarns around the campfire at night.

The Turing model of intelligence—language processing—has shaped the development of these chat programs. They analyze words and their meanings, grammar and syntax, and patterns of composition found in the universe of fiction, movie scripts, and other popular culture. They are language processors and emulators, not thought processors. And, as such, they can only copy. They cannot create anything really new, because they have no subconscious and no imaginative or projective element.

In the same way, AI develped for image processing, voice recognition, or music processing can only take a given input—a command prompt or a sample—and scan it against a database of known fields, whether photographs and graphic art, already interpreted human speech, or analyzed music samples. Again, these programs can only compare and copy. They cannot create anything new.

In every incidence to date, these AI programs are specialty machines. The language processors can only handle language, not images or music. The Watson engines must be programmed and trained in the particular kinds of data they will encounter. None of the artificial intelligences to date are multi-functional or cross-functional. They cannot work in more than one or two fields of recognizable data. They cannot encounter the world. They cannot hear a tiger in the grass. And they cannot tell a joke they haven’t heard before.

1. See, for example, my ME and The Children of Possibility series of novels.

2. The language processors also have to be prompted with commnands in order to create text. As someone who has written procedural documentation for pharmaceutical batches and genetic analysis consumables, I can tell you that it’s probably faster to observe the process steps and write them up yourself than try to describe them for an AI to put into language. And then you would have to proofread its text most carefully.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Class in America

Balloon rising

In my novel Revolt on the Iron Planet I describe a transport ship that travels a continuous loop between Earth, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter. The ship has three concentric rings of passenger cabins, with the apparent centrifugal gravity increasing as the passenger moves outward from the ship’s core. And these rings are graded and sold as First, Second, and Third Class, just like a 20th century transatlantic passenger ship.

I thought hard about this in the writing. Class separation based on the comfort levels of different gravity effects seemed appropriate, but what was the justification? Why would you have passenger classes on a spaceship traveling in the 22nd century? Why do we have First Class, Business Class, and Coach on airliners today? Why is there this distinction among classes of people in a supposedly egalitarian society?

For one thing, these are not classes in the traditional European sense, where the best is reserved for the noble born, and the rest goes to the upcoming merchant class and the lowly peasants. These are classes where the level of service is based on who can—or is willing to—pay. And why not? If an airline can get a thousand dollars or more per ticket for a seat at the front of the plane with a few inches more leg room—leg room that would hardly accommodate a second row of seats back in Coach—why wouldn’t they? That surcharge on the basic flying fare helps defray the costs of running the jet and perhaps makes the seats in back a little less expensive and more attractive to the infrequent flyers. And kicking in a few extra bucks for a glass or two of complementary, cut-rate champagne and a dollop of indifferent caviar doesn’t make up the price differential.

Why wouldn’t a cruise-ship line charge more for cabins on the outside perimeter of the deck, port and starboard, with a view of the ocean or the waterfront when the ship docks? And the added cost of providing a better table in the lounge or a few entertainment perks doesn’t make a dent in the return on the ticket.

And when those tickets are sold, no one is looking into the buyer’s pedigree or class standing—just his or her ability to pay. Yes, those tickets are usually bought by the wealthy, the famous, and those for whom an extra thousand or two on a flight to Paris means nothing. But they can also be bought by those of limited means who for once want a little luxury in their lives.

I stand just over six-foot-four and would benefit from those extra inches in First Class, although I can do without the champagne and fish eggs. I could actually, somewhat afford the two or three thousand extra dollars on the overall cost of my vacation. But I can put up with the discomfort of a small seat and crowded conditions for three, eight, or twelve hours because I have better things to do with that money than have one easy day out of the rest of my life. And, as they say, First Class passengers don’t get to their destination any faster than the rest of us, although they usually have the perk of deplaning first.

So class in America is not about distinctions of birth and family but about ability to pay. Each of us values our time, our comfort, and our visible status differently. And if the airline or the cruise line, the hotel or the restaurant, can make a few extra dollars by selling more space and a few amenities to those who think they matter, why not? It makes the experience less costly for the rest of us. And no one has to tug their forelock—except the waiters and cabin stewards up front there, and they are well paid for the gesture.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Human Agency II

Dissected man

Recently I wrote about human freedoms in the form of a commandment, about not denying the agency of a human being.1 And that makes good sense when dealing with the average person in the average political or social situation. But is there ever a time when someone or a society may—in fact must—deny another person their right to act?

I think we can agree that a human being always has the right to think and to speak as a free agent. This right includes the unfettered ability to perceive one’s environment, interpret to the best of their ability what is going on, and make judgements about what they see and hear. And it includes the right of the rest of us to hear what that person is saying or to ignore it, interpret their meaning if we choose to, and judge it as proper and useful or not.

But the right to act as a free agent may be circumscribed under certain conditions. I can think of at least two.

Questions of Competence

Let’s start with the lowest form of competence. A person who is brain dead cannot be granted the benefit of human agency. They will at best be unconscious and under intensive care, lest their body die for lack of nourishment or other necessary functions. Beyond that, brain dead equals dead, and the dead have no agency.

A person who has lost their conscious reason, their ability to perceive and interpret, to remember and function in even the simplest, least demanding setting, whether through stroke or a cognitive disease like Alzheimer’s, will be gravely disabled. They may not be able to feed, bathe, and clothe themselves. They may be under periodic or constant supervision. In these cases, society has ruled that the person may be placed in an environment where care can be given. And, for their own protection, that environment may be locked against their leaving, because they may not understand that they cannot survive on their own in the outside world. If such a person was formerly deemed competent but now is demonstrably not so, then the courts or other societal function may assign a conservator to inventory the person’s assets and distribute them for the person’s benefit. This is a humane denial of a person’s agency.

Higher up the competence scale is the person whose actions intermittently reflect a loss of what the rest of society considers “conscious reason.” Such a person may have ideas that others do not share, or they may see and hear sounds, people, or influences in their environment that other, more “normal” people do not perceive. They may, in the language of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code 5150, become a “danger to self or others.”2 In California and eight other states, such a person may be taken into custody and involuntarily held for observation. In California, the initial observation period is 72 hours, after which the person must be brought before an administrative law judge, and the custodial authority must show why the person may be held for a longer period. That longer period is for a total of 14 days, after which another hearing may be held, and the involuntary hold may then be extended for a further 14 days. After that, the person must be released, regardless of his or her mental condition.3

Whether people who are mentally different from the rest of society—delusional, hallucinating, psychotic, or even violent—should be restrained against their will is a question that is currently under debate. We used to “institutionalize” them, locking them away in hospitals where they might or might not get appropriate care but would certainly be given heavy medication to keep them docile and quiet. That is now considered a form of abuse. But many people with a severe mental illness, a brain disorder that distorts their thinking and leads to inappropriate actions, usually also have a condition called “anosognosia,” which leads them to think that they are not ill and do not need help. And many civil rights organizations defend the human agency of mentally ill people and protest against their involuntary treatment, even under a court order, and even if that means they will be homeless and scavenge for food, clothing, and shelter.

And at the top of the competence scale, at least in my view, is the person who abuses alcohol and/or mind-altering drugs so that they are temporarily impaired and, perhaps over a long period of continuous use, permanently mentally damaged. Such a person may have the ability to resist the temptation to use their drug of choice, to control their usage, or even wean themselves into a state of continued sobriety. Whether they chose not to exercise that ability—being granted complete human agency—and so decline into disability, or they choose to exercise it and so become a consistently rational and dependable human being, is a question of will and intent.

Questions of Hostile Action

An unimpaired person may still act in ways that the rest of society deems unacceptable. They may have the use of their conscious reason, but they choose to violate the rules that the larger society has put in place. They defraud people, they abuse others in their care, they steal, they murder, and they disobey the driving laws with harmful consequences. It would be nice if the rest of us could have a frank discussion with them and show why such actions are not to everyone’s benefit—including theirs. But such people, whom we call “criminals,” have a different sense of themselves and their own rights, usually against the rights of others.

It is proper to examine their allegedly criminal actions in a court of law, to give them a chance to explain themselves and show why they should not have been charged or should not be convicted: they didn’t do it, didn’t have complete competency, were under some compulsion, or have other reasons. Our laws are designed to give such people the benefit of doubt. And it is human to give them a chance to make amends and not continue in their previous course of action.

But once a person has proven that giving them complete autonomy and granting them unfettered human agency will only lead to further infractions, then society may be required—indeed must be required—to remove them from commingling with the rest of us. Exile to another country that might be willing to take them—where they will have continued freedom and agency to pursue their interests—is one possible course. Incarceration under punitive conditions, where agency is curtailed and leaving is not an option, is another option.

Whether a person is gravely incompetent or intentionally hostile, restricting their freedom of action and so denying their human agency in whole or in part would not then be a violation of the commandment to preserve human agency. Every rule has its exceptions, and that is what makes human beings the species that has conscious reason in the first place.

1. See Human Agency from January 29, 2023.

2. WIC 5150 also includes the state of being gravely disabled, which has been interpreted as a person being “unable to provide for his or her basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter” due to a mental health disorder or impairment. However, this condition is sometimes subject to interpretation, whereby a homeless person who scavenges in a garbage can or eats roadkill is considered able to provide for his or her food and so is not disabled.

3. This total of 28 days is the basis for most court-ordered drug and alcohol rehabilitation processes under involuntary conditions. To involuntarily hold a person for longer would require a criminal prosecution—and that’s a whole ‘nother court case.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Slightly Aspergic

Brain activity

Most human conditions—a person’s physical construction and endowments, their enzymatic and chemical orientation, their innate nature, their reactions and tendencies—are on a spectrum. One person may be mildly reactive to an allergen, which merely causes itching or discomfort. Another can be severely reactive, which causes the windpipe to close down, the autonomic nervous system to pause, and the person to go into shock that can lead to death. And at the same time many of us, maybe most of us, are not affected at all. Almost everything in life is on a spectrum.

True confessions time, I am mildly, slightly aspergic. That means I have—by self-diagnosis, based on my preferences for and reactions to most social interactions—a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome. I sometimes don’t understand what people might want or need, or “where they’re coming from.” I don’t feel anxiety when I have to spend the day alone, cut off from the signals of human companionship. On the other hand, I don’t feel all that comfortable in large parties full of people I hardly know, and I will not willingly walk into a crowd of total strangers.

I remember one of my first experiences of a large-group dynamic. In junior high, which in my town was a mixed junior and senior high school, I was sent along with everyone else into a pep rally for an upcoming varsity game. It was about a thousand kids sitting in bleachers and, prompted by the beat of the marching band and calisthenics of the cheerleaders, screaming their heads off. I was looking around, trying to take it all in. One of my friends sitting next to me noticed this, grabbed me by the shirt front, and yelled in my face, “Scream, Thomas!” And I looked at him in puzzlement and asked, “Why?”

Whatever group dynamic was driving those young people, age about thirteen to eighteen, into a form of hysteria—I wasn’t feeling it. I might have been an anthropologist at a tribal dance—interested in the experience, but not standing up to participate.

This does not mean I don’t understand human nature or the emotions and biases that drive human behavior. I can see things from another person’s point of view—or at least what I think is their point of view, as I may be wrong. But I am not always mindful of their needs and intentions. You might think that this would be a handicap for someone who wants to write fiction about human beings, but the reality is quite the opposite. When I am writing from a character’s point of view, I am simultaneously experiencing and creating something that is totally inside my head. A lot of writers are slightly aspergic: we’re wired into our own thinking. We can also be good communicators, because we can examine a thought process for ourselves, try it out on the imaginary people inside our heads,1 and then spread it to the world.

Asperger’s syndrome used to be thought of as a separate diagnosis from autism. Current psychological thinking places Asperger’s at the higher, more functional, more “normal”—if you will, and if you are one of those “habitually normal” people—end of a spectrum. And that spectrum runs from the deep end, which marks a debilitating isolation from human touch and communication, such that the child or adult lives totally inside his or her own head and doesn’t even see other human beings as animate, sensing, let alone like-minded creatures, up through various levels of misunderstanding and discomfort, to the shallower end, where we who are “slightly aspergic” fail to pick up on certain social cues, sometimes fail to get a joke, and don’t feel comfortable in crowds full of screaming people.

The point of this mediation is that, unlike certain skills and practices, a more sociable nature or a better tolerance for social situations cannot be trained or taught. This is that innate physical and chemical structure, hard-wired into the brain and not the result of an improper or incompetent upbringing. Being perfectly in tune with social situations is like having perfect pitch. Some people can hear a note and say, “Oh, that’s a D-flat,” or “That’s a C-minor chord.” I can only tell you that one note is higher than another, or that one combination of notes is “a little weirder or more discordant” than another. But no amount of listening, paying attention, or really trying will get me to identify the notes on a piano or violin by their sound alone. I am not wired that way.

Similarly, being mildly autistic or deeply aspergic is a case of brain wiring. An autistic person is not uncaring or unfeeling, or simply not paying attention, or has failed to learn human expression as a baby. They don’t have the wiring to pick up on, or sometimes even be aware of, social cues. They can understand intellectually that other people might have this ability, but they don’t have it themselves. In the same way I can understand intellectually that some people have the skill and coordination to dribble a basketball. But when I try it, my hand gets either ahead of or behind the bounce, and the ball gets away. My brain has a built-in stutter reaction to certain repetitive motions, and that’s hard-wired.2

What the rest of us—and I’m speaking to you “normies” here—have to understand is that the mildly aspergic, and those who are more deeply positioned on the spectrum, are not the way we are for lack of trying, or lack of caring, or because we are stupid. For those of us with full-on, diagnosed autism, it’s like we were born into a world where everyone else is speaking Chinese or Japanese, and we simply don’t know the language. Social interaction is difficult, exasperating, takes a lot of energy, and is terribly exhausting. But even then, if reading human social cues and facial expressions were simply a language that we could learn, we would do so. Instead, they are something hard-wired into the brain, like musical pitch. And on the deeper end of the spectrum, we who are afflicted are simply deaf: we don’t even know that other people are speaking a language at all!

Sometimes autism and the people who are born with it are curiously gifted. Think of the person who has no sense of human interaction but has a phenomenal memory or an ability with numbers—like the main character in the movie Rain Man. It may be that a brain not otherwise occupied with interpreting human social cues is left open to, or has the spare capacity for, pursuits that most people can’t even understand. But it’s not a gift that most of us would want.

As I said, we are all on a spectrum. And “normal” is a very slippery term.

1. This imaginary person is what the writer thinks of as the “general reader” or “educated reader”—an imagined synthesis of what the writer believes other people reading his or her words will likely think, react to, and understand. But it’s all in the writer’s head.

2. I tried to join a dragon-boat team once, as part of a corporate exercise. I could stay on the beat with the other paddlers for about five strokes. Then my mind and hands would stutter, hesitate, and miss the beat. I will never be a drummer in a rock band or any kind of performer where staying on the beat is necessary. And yes, because I am six-foot-six, I broke the high school basketball coach’s heart. But there it is.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Human Agency

Dissected man

For those of us enamored of the Dune ethos,1 I have a new commandment to add to the Butlerian Jihad: “Thou shalt not deny the agency of a human being.” This goes along with the broader and more restrictive, “Thou shalt not create a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” My addition, though apocryphal, completes the thought.

What do I mean by agency? First, it is the ability of a human being to act in all parts of life and includes by implication free will. Humans are free and unrestrained in what they may think, say, and do. This does not mean unbridled. The process of education and socialization that every human child undergoes includes lessons in what is right, proper, and true in thinking—which may vary from culture to culture. It includes lessons, sometimes painful lessons, in what is proper or discreet to say, and in what is right and proper to do. And again, these may vary from culture to culture and from setting to setting.

This commandment also does not imply that other humans may not take exception to the expressed thoughts, spoken words, and actions of other human beings. If one person’s free will and agency leads him to insult another, to break the posted speed limit, or to commit murder, there may be—sometimes must be—consequences. And the intelligent mind will weigh the probability of their occurrence and their outcome in the thinking that goes into speaking and acting.

Things that infringe upon and are an affront to human agency are enslavement and the narrow strictures that may be imposed by church, party, society, and state.

We resent enslavement because our will and our scope of action are denied to us: we can be punished, even killed, if we refuse to follow the orders of others in every aspect of life, even to valuing and caring for our families. Some humans may accept the orders and conventions imposed by the slave master as if they were laws to be obeyed. Sometimes they are laws, written into the statutes of the society that keeps slaves and protects slave owners. But those would then be laws against human liberty and agency, and so in violation of this commandment.

We may chafe under the strictures of a confining religious precept, the bounds of party loyalty, the adherence to social norms, or the laws and regulations of an administrative state that bind us with both demands to speak and perform in certain ways and injunctions on speech and action that we might want to take. With these restrictions of religion, party, society, and government, the threat against free agency is the consequence of being shunned by our co-religionists, removed from the party rolls, outcast from our family and friends, or losing our citizenship and in some cases receiving probation and jail time. We may understand the reasons and the reckoning in these cases, but the limits on our actions still chafe. Ultimately the individual must decide, as above, if the benefits of membership or citizenship are worth complying with the strictures. These conditions would not, however, be a violation of the commandment unless the penalty in all cases was imprisonment or death.

And yet … the religion, political party, social convention, or government statute that imposes too strict a set of conditions for membership must be aware of and weigh the risks it runs: internal revolt, structural revision, or mass renunciation by those who will not put up with the burdens of compliance. Every leader in every situation involving large numbers of human beings must calculate the risks and rewards of trying to impose too precise, complex, or complete a set of requirements on the people he or she intends to lead. Human beings are not puppets. They have eyes, ears, and minds, and those minds make decisions based both on the rules and promises they are given and on the consequences they can determine on their own. That is the fulcrum upon which human agency balances.

Recognition of and respect for individual human agency is the foundation of the principles of free thought, free speech, and free action. Without the one, you cannot have the others.

1. See my blog The Dune Ethos, from October 30, 2011.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Wiggle My Fingers

Abstract eye

Have you ever thought about what a complex motion that is, wiggling your fingers?

The fingers don’t actually have any muscles to wiggle with. All the action is through tendons that pass across the palm and back of the hand, through the wrist, and up to small muscles, a pair for each finger—one for retraction, one for extension—in the forearm. And each of those muscles needs its own separate neural group in the brain’s motor strip, one for each hand in each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex.

That’s quite a lot of mechanism, and we use it in exquisite ways: typing on a keyboard, playing the piano, producing chords on the frets of a guitar and similar instruments, or finding just the right notes on a violin’s fingerboard, and drumming our fingers on the tabletop or arm of a chair when we are bored or nervous. We fiddle with our hair, and we wind or unwind a piece of floss or string. We use our fingers in a lot of ways.

But sometimes the nerves get crossed up. I noticed this recently when performing the third, or Naihanchin, kata in my karate practice. During this kata, there is a move where the practitioner steps across the body to the right and left sides while throwing an underhanded nukite, or open “spear hand,” palm-up across the body. To be performed correctly, the spear hand must have the fingers pressed together side-by-side and lead with the middle and two outside fingers, like the point of a spear or knife. But lately, when I do this move to the left, those three fingers twitch almost uncontrollably. Almost, because if I think about it, I can hold them steady. But if I don’t think, then they wiggle like eels.

I have also noticed that this almost uncontrolled twitching does not happen when I move to the right, or when I perform the spear hand in a forward thrust with the palm oriented vertically. It also doesn’t occur when I perform the same underhand move in the three opening side stances of the second kata, Seiuchin. Then my fingers remain pressed together and rigid, as they should, or sometimes slightly splayed apart—as the should not—but still stiff. It is only when bringing the hand across my body with the palm up in the third kata, stepping to the left, that the wiggle sets in.

This makes me think there must be something about the underhand move across the body while stepping to the left side that interferes with the nerves controlling those muscles in the forearm. It might be a binding in the neck, shoulder, or elbow. It might be a slight deterioration in the brain. If it were uncontrolled—that is, no effort on my part could keep them from wiggling—I would begin to worry. But for now I will accept that I need to focus my attention on that body part to keep it in line.

As I complete my 75th year—three quarters of a century, wow!—I begin to take note of such things. For about a decade, I haven’t been able to drop down onto one knee and pop back up, as required by several of the katas. I can no longer jump straight up from the floor and simultaneously fake with the right foot low, followed by a high kick with the left foot, before coming back down—as distinctly required in the fifth and sixth katas. (Truth to tell, that move became a hop-skip across the floor more than ten years ago.) Similarly, I keep track of the times I must grope for a word or a name, or the exact details of a memory—which doesn’t happen too often but is distressing when it does. And I sometimes have to take a step to the side, to regain my balance, when walking around a piece of furniture. Small lapses, bits of deterioration, but concerning.

Like all of us, I know that one day this marvelous “meat robot” that I am operating will finally cease moving. The heart will stop pumping, the lungs will no longer expand, and the nerves will begin to go silent. What happens then, I don’t know. Nothing, I expect. The same nothing that occupied this space and this mind before I was born. We are all ephemeral, all mortal, and that has been the human condition since we acquired conscious thought: our minds conceive of infinity and eternity; our body is fragile and finite. And that gives color to our existence.1

And we are none of us the deacon’s “Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem: made in such a particular way that it lasted one hundred years and a day—and then disintegrated into dust. No, through the wonders of evolution, stem cells, and a functioning immune system, we grow and build substance from the beginning and up until a certain period of our lives, and then that substance is gradually eroded; the pieces no longer fit; the center releases its hold; and whole thing wears away to nothingness.

Hell, it’s a job.

1. I recall a sign I saw in a Facebook meme, I think from a British tattoo shop: “You are a ghost driving a meat-covered skeleton made of stardust. What do you have to be afraid of?” And another quotation, it might have been from C.S. Lewis: “You are not a body that has a soul. You are a spirit that has a body.” And then again, from the Puppeteer explaining their racial cowardice to Louis Wu in one of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” novels about the Ringworld: “We know that we have no undying part.” I am neural-networked software driving electro-molecular and mechanical hardware—and all three phases are extinguishable.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The Beam in Your Eye

Abstract eye

I was reading about the James Webb Telescope, which was launched into orbit last year at the L2 LaGrange point—a stable orbital position on the other side of the Moon—and began producing stunning images of the farthest stars as well as our own system’s more distant planets. The interesting thing about the JWT is that it views the universe not in “visible light” but in lower and longer wavelengths—called “infrared,” or “below the red”—which we normally feel as heat.

And that got me thinking about what we call the visible spectrum, electromagnetic pulses or photons vibrating with a wavelength between 380 and 700 nanometers (billionths of a meter, abbreviated “nm”). These are the wavelengths that virtually all animals perceive, although some—such as the pit viper—can see or sense in the infrared, and many animals and insects can see a bit into the ultraviolet—or “beyond the violet.” But 380 to 700, going from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to indigo, seems to be the animal standard. After all, most of us walking on or using four limbs on land are related by an evolution that extends back to the stump-finned fishes who first crawled out of the swamps.

But why those particular wavelengths? Why can’t we perceive the world in the longer radio waves and microwaves, or in heat like the JWT, or in the much shorter x-rays and gamma rays? It would be useful to see in x-rays, because then we could look through doors and see who was on the other side.

Then I started to think about the nature of our bodies. Our cells, the components that make up all of our different tissues, are sized between 10 and about 120 micrometers (millionths of a meter, abbreviated “µm”). Just for reference, there are a thousand nanometers in a micrometer. And the rod cells in our retinas are about 2 µm in diameter. Taking about the middle of the visible spectrum, say 500 nm, somewhere deep in the shades of green, that means the cells in our eyes that perceive light are about four times wider than the wavelengths they are encountering.

That seems about right. If the cells were much smaller than the wavelength, they would likely miss parts of it. If they were much bigger, their exposed area would be redundant, and so their resolution—the ability to pack individual light-sensing cells into a given area of the eye’s retina—would be reduced. Smaller light-receiving points equals greater ability to see details, in the same way that smaller pixels in a photograph or on a monitor screen means sharper images.

In evolutionary terms, it is an advantage to be able to see in the same wavelengths as your prey or your nearest predator. Everyone is playing in the same field, so to speak, and no one—except maybe the pit viper or the bee, who are able to see in those outside wavelengths—has a clear superiority.

But the relationship of cell size to perceived wavelength tells me something else. If we eventually meet extraterrestrials, and they are approximately our size and have about the same cellular complexity, they will likely see mostly in what to us is the visible spectrum. If they are very large or very tiny, then all bets are off. But if they are sized about like us, then they will probably see in the same way we do.

And our size has everything to do with the internal composition and radius of our home planet—that is, the acceleration of our particular gravity. Creatures from much larger, rocky, and iron-filled planets with stronger gravity will likely be much larger. Their bigger structure would stand up to the greater pull. Or, conversely, they might be much smaller, flatter, less upstanding, more like starfish than bipedal creatures. Similarly, creatures from smaller, less dense planets with weaker gravity might be much smaller. Or, conversely, they might be larger, taller, and more willowy than sturdy, more like waving grasses.

But if they are about our size, with about our cellular complexity—which in humans numbers about 37 trillion cells of various sizes, but none larger than about 130 µm in diameter, the human egg cell—then they will likely be seeing the same landscape as we do.

And if the extraterrestrials are much larger than us—say, the size of an Ultrasaurus of the early Cretaceous—or much smaller—say, with the size and organization of a swarm of gnats—then again all bets are off. They might still perceive the world in the visible spectrum, but we would likely perceive them as some kind of animal.