Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Evolution

Current Reading: The City & The City, by China Mieville

Inspirational Quote: "Evolution is a tinkerer." --Francois Jacob

I've been thinking about evolution lately. Not where it's brought us from, but where it's taking us.

Evolution is the theory that organisms change over time, and that changes which allow that organism to be more successful in its environment are more likely to be incorporated into future generations of the organism.

A couple of months ago, I first heard an interesting theory about the mechanism of evolution. I had always believed that evolution arose from natural, random genetic mutation. Trial and error. It seemed to me that this scattershot approach, where a mutation arises and gets squashed or propagated via natural selection, would take forever to create a man (or woman) out of a fish. A few hundred million years didn't seem long enough to manage it.

This other theory proposed that the mechanism of evolution was incorporation. We aren't just people. We're also colonies of bacteria. They live in our skin, our blood and our organs. The most well-known set of these are the ones currently inhabiting our digestive system. These are symbiotes that actually aid in our digestion. This theory proposes that organisms have a habit of annexing symbiotic bacteria, incorporating their genes into our own whenever these bacteria do something that improves our chance of survival. This explains a little better why we evolve in fits and bounds, and why we see so little evidence of failed mutations.

I don't know whether this new theory reflects reality, but it opens up some interesting lines of thought. If we assume that the human organism is a machine built to evolve, and is therefore always on the look-out for useful things that will give it an edge, then we can assume that bacteria have always been the method of evolution because they have existed in the sweet spot between abundance and efficiency.

That's no longer the case. You can see that. Especially if you walk down any busy city street.

Cell phones. Tablet pads. Computers. Networks. Our own technology is taking the place of bacteria as the evolutionary mechanism. True, we aren't incorporating it into our DNA, but that's because we don't know how. Instead, we're insisting these things become smaller and more portable, so we can carry them around with us (in a somewhat less icky way than we carry around our intestinal bacteria). People with cell phones and internet access are likely to have larger social circles (even if they are mostly virtual) than those without. More numerous and varied social contact results in more numerous and varied reproductive opportunities (which has always been "winning" in the evolutionary race). These things are a competitive edge.

We're not incorporating them into our DNA, but there has been talk of "Wearable Computing" for decades now. We want these things close to us. We want them to become part of us. In a more invasive manner, exoskeletons have been demonstrated in Japan (where else?) to help paralyzed people walk, and to help ordinary people carry heavy loads (like the power loaders in Aliens).

We are using technology to enhance our capabilities, to evolve.

And the most interesting thing about that is how conscious the process is. We are designing and making our own enhancements in response to demand, in response to perceived weaknesses in our capabilities. As a result, instead of "evolving" across hundreds of generations, we are now evolving across years and the time-frame is getting shorter.

In the short term, the improvements seem to be all around communication. It's about connecting us more, eliminating distances, changing the nature of community from "people close to me," to something more like "people who share my views and interests." But I see two branches of current research with tremendous potential to change what is to be human.

The first is nanotech. It's a big thing in SF stories right now because the science is still so early in its development. The potential of microscopic machines to create and reshape matter on the molecular level is tremendously exciting and very scary. I think the idea of bacteria-sized factories is a little too far-fetched to ever completely become a reality, but there is talk of injecting micro-machines into the human body as a way to deal with medical issues like cancer, plaque buildup in arteries and weak immune systems. Already we have surgically implanted pacemakers and insulin pumps available, making it possible for cardiac arrhythmia and diabetes patients to survive. In evolutionary terms, we are physically incorporating technology, making them part of the organism (is that even going to be the right word?) we define as "human."

But purists will tell you that's not evolution because it doesn't change our essential DNA.

True. We're organic, and no matter how fond we may be of our cell phones, they aren't. To that problem, I see two possible solutions: organic machines and inorganic humans.

Organic machines already exist. We call them organs, specialized structures in our bodies which carry out a single task while consuming one thing and producing another. If we accept genetic engineering as an eventual reality, then we can envision designing our own organs and incorporating their construction into our DNA. Children born with the ability to communicate across radio waves as well as sound waves would have a considerable advantage over the rest of us.

For inorganic humans, I have to bring up the second branch of current research with the potential to change us. Artificial intelligence. We're still decades away from true artificial intelligence, of course. But computer processing power is still growing according to Moore's Law, while we're jamming more and more memory into smaller and smaller devices. It's conceivable that we won't have to wait too long before we have machines with the capacity and capability of the human brain. In order to create a real artificial intelligence, though, we have to understand our own and I think that's going to be the toughest task. Our brains are a mass of organs and chemicals that it's taken nature billions of years to develop naturally. We're summations of our genetic heritage and organic urges and individual pasts thrown together into a mass of spaghetti thoughts that make the Gordian Knot look like a simple half-hitch.

But if we can do it, if we can create a machine intelligence capable of rational thought, what does that mean to humanity?

I know you're thinking about the Terminator, and the Matrix and every other machine intelligence that has ever decided to wipe us pitiful humans off the planet. Stop it. It ain't going to happen. Asimov saw that possibility, and created the Three Laws of Robotics to illustrate the solution: since we create the AI consciously, we determine its capabilities. Unlike us, the AIs we create will not be encumbered with a lizard brain and a monkey brain and a human brain all at war with each other inside its skull. It's not going to have to deal with the burdens and barriers of a million years of natural evolution. Of course, we could create an AI soldier (and probably will) programmed to destroy, but likewise we can create an AI nanny, programmed to nurture and teach. Eventually, we'll have AIs complex enough to exceed the capabilities of humans.

And then we have the robot apocalypse, right?

Not likely. It wouldn't make logical sense. Their bodies are different from ours, and it's unlikely we'll compete with them for food. Electricity, maybe, but there's enough sunlight to power everyone if we can learn to use it efficiently. With no competition for resources, the major reasons for widespread conflict evaporate. If we teach them well, and see them not as tools but as children, we'll have an opportunity to pass on the best of ourselves without the burden of the worst. Given machine bodies, these AIs will be able to exceed our capabilities and our boundaries. With no need for oxygen, they'll not be restricted to the Earth's atmosphere. If they are given the capability to renew their bodies, there's no longer a concept of mortality or age. Interstellar journeys will finally be within the capability of humanity, although it won't be the squishy kind of humanity we picture when we use that word.

What we will have is the next major stage in human evolution: the change from organic to inorganic. A merging of technology and humanity will require that we change what we define as human, that will eliminate our dependence on DNA modification for evolution.

There are complications and stumbling blocks to all of this, of course. It's speculation. It's dreaming. But we're human, and right now, that's something we do.

An AI equipped with raw materials and nanotech that his capable of altering its physical form, of evolving not across generations, but across whims might very well be the ultimate destination of human evolution. Whether you're terrified by the thought or inspired by it, it's a possibility that bears some thought.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Report: Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

Grail, by Elizabeth Bear

This is the final installment of the trilogy begun in Dust and continued in Chill. In it, the nano-tech infested generation ship Jacob's Ladder finally makes it to the planet it had been launched toward centuries before. Unfortunately, that planet is already inhabited by humans who leapfrogged the Ladder while it was marooned. Moreover the inhabitants have engineered themselves socially with the same extreme fervor the crew of the Ladder engineered themselves physically. As the two cultures meet, extremists on both sides attempt to derail negotiations.

I found this book quite a satisfactory conclusion. The ending actually surprised me. Up until the final few pages, I wondered if there were going to be another book, as clarity and resolution seemed to remain distant prospects. Then came a twist I didn't see coming, one which in retrospect makes perfect sense when I considered the main theme that ran through the books (evolution).

My only complaint was a moment when the captain of the Ladder, aware of conspirators on her ship and the presence of an enemy capable of circumventing their defenses, left the ship. That seemed a moment of plot-induced stupidity to me.

But it's a quibble. The trilogy is an interesting exploration of post-humanity, of what we might become when we take our bodies and our minds under conscious control.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Current Reading: Grail, by Elizabelth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer." -- Mark Twain

I have a problem with profanity.

I don't believe I'm a very profane man. I try not to swear in public, although I find that when I'm around others who swear, I tend to adjust my language downward. It's an unconscious adaptation, and not one of which I'm proud. Even so, I tend not to get anymore rude than “feces” or “damn” or “Hell,” the latter two of which are perfectly acceptable because they occupy a prominent place in the Bible and therefore cannot (according to the dictionary definition) be considered profane. Of course, one has to let off steam, and there's nothing like a good curse for that. My father was a sailor of Irish descent, and the kind of man who could swear in complete sentences, sentences that were grammatically correct but extremely... busy.

Like anything, however, profanity tends to lose its potency when used so casually. His frequent use of the worst words left him at somewhat of a loss when he experienced moments that were perfect for a curse. I remember him hitting his finger with a hammer once. His exact words were, “Oh, for crying out loud.” Myself, I tend to hold my use of profanity for extreme instances when it's required by anger, or pain, or frustration. The rest of the time, I use things that are less offensive although they're rarely appropriate. My favorite word is “Shostakovich,” the name of an Austrian composer who's been dead long enough that I doubt he'd take offense at my appropriating its use. It's a good word. A nice soft “sh” to start off with, followed by a hard “t” and “k” and a nice bite of “ch” at the end. It's got all the sounds necessary to let off steam, but none of the baggage that goes with all those other words.

There are lots of words (most associated with sex and other body functions) that I honestly believe have no place in civilized dialog. But I'm apparently in the minority. These are words I hear every day. I hear them at work. I read them on the internet and in books. They make their way onto television and into the news and definitely into modern music and movies. As a result, I hear them out of the mouths of my children (my constant refrain is, “just because they go in the ears doesn't mean they should come out of the mouth.”) and I hear them shouted across the school yard and I cringe.

I used to listen to George Carlin. He made profanity funny but I always felt embarrassed laughing at him when my parents were in the room... even though it was their album. I also used to listen to Bill Cosby, who was funny and safe for all ages. I listened a bit to Eddie Murphy when he hit it big in the 80's, but I realized that people were laughing at what he said only about half the time. The other half the time they were laughing because they couldn't believe anyone could get up on stage and talk that way.

Honestly, I know they're just words. They're how people talk these days. Their status as “dirty” words is an archaism, a relic of a time when soap was used to wash out mouths as often as it was used to wash one's face. And perhaps I'm a relic of that time too, because the moment someone resorts to profanity in the course of an ordinary conversation, I automatically revise my estimate of their I.Q. down a few dozen points. Profanity in conversation always tells me that the person is far more interested in how they say something than in what they're saying.

Photo from here.