On Significant Figures, Peter Gleick examines the rather relaxed attitudes of some Californians to an extreme drought fostered by three years of dry weather. Gleick writes “reservoirs are at record low levels. Deliveries of surface water to some farmers are lower than at any time in recent history. Streams are drying up and fisheries are being devastated.” Yet he and millions of other residents have been able to run water from their taps freely. Agriculture might only suffer losses of 4% (about .0008% of the state’s total economy). And an expectation of El Niño rains obscures the prospect of another dry year, when “the shit is going to start to hit the fan.” Sacramento recently imposed statewide water restrictions and fines, but many homes lack water meters. Greg Laden writes “water meters are the first line of defense in controlling water use.”
With 2001 in the rear-view mirror, there have been no little green men, no meal-replacement pills, no flying automobiles, no space odysseys. But as big-budget plans to model the human brain prove, proponents of artificial intelligence remain hopeful. In its most literal sense, AI exists already: encoded and executed, endowed with sensors, lenses and microphones, connected to the internet, and stuck in your pocket. But how intelligent does a machine have to be before our worst nightmares come true? Intelligent enough to pass a Turing test? Intelligent enough to nuke the human race? And/or intelligent enough to be self-aware, and thus real by Cartesian standards? Apocalypse notwithstanding, that’s the threshold we’re really interested in: artificial consciousness, artificial free will, and artificial bodies for that matter, if they’re sexy enough.
But spending all the world’s neuroscience dollars on a supercomputer simulation of the brain’s neuronal connections will reveal less about AI and more about human stupidity. PZ Myers writes, “We aren’t even close to building such a thing for a fruit fly brain, and you want to do that for an even more massive and poorly mapped structure? Madness!” If the IT resources exist to simulate 90 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between them, mediated by dozens of different neurotransmitters and organized into highly specialized networks, there’s still no reason to expect intelligence to emerge or a ghost to glom on to the machine. The scientific consensus is that there’s still much to learn about the brain, and this will only be achieved through less grandiose and far-fetched research.
As our planet makes more and more noise, we can’t help but wonder why no one is paying attention. Are we alone in the universe? Or alone in our desire to discover new worlds? PZ Myers says “Spaceship building is never going to be a selectively advantageous feature — it’s only going to emerge as a spandrel, which might lead to a species that can occupy a novel niche.” Humanity could tread that path, following our dreams to the stars. But even then, we might only find extraterrestrials in the form of well-adjusted slime blobs, content in their otherworldly ecosystems.
If there are other tech-savvy lifeforms in the galaxy, would they communicate with lasers instead of radio waves? This could explain our apparent isolation, because the civilized worlds are narrow-beaming communications to their neighbors and leaving us in the dark. Chad Orzel explains how it would work, with a possible assist from a ‘magic compact fusion reactor.’ That device is still on our to-do list.