Sunday, November 06, 2011

Spark Intelligence

Yesterday's post about self-limiting intelligence may come off as pessimistic, and indeed, I think very few leaders of organizations (nations, companies, colleges,...) have a standing agenda item labeled "survival." I think they should, and in some ways think that our forebears were more attuned to that, but it's just a notion. The cathedral in Cologne took about 640 years to complete. What projects do we have ongoing now with that sort of horizon? I think if you asked a large corporation's CEO what he or she thought of the company's prospects three or four centuries out, you'd get a strange look. Next quarter is what matters.

Suppose for a moment that it's true that a singular intelligent system (SIS) can only get so smart before it starts working against its own interests. It's doomed, and it would be smart enough to realize its's doomed. What then?

Although we have no evidence of other intelligent life in the universe, since we are here ourselves, it's possible that such life has or will exist somewhere else (the Drake Equation tries to pin that down, but that's not what I'm concerned with). So our hypothetical doomed SIS knows this too. That is, it knows that although all civilizations will eventually collapse, the universe is a fertile ground for new ones to spring up. This is what I call spark intelligence--new SISs cropping up now and then across the galaxy. Therefore, there is a possibility for the universe to maintain a disjointed "stream of consciousness" if these independent SISs could communicate with each other. Time and distance scales make any sort of synchronous communication unlikely, so it has to be asynchronous, like one civilization reading an ancient book left by another long-gone culture. This would enable a sort of meta-intelligence comprising knowledge and culture from a long sequence of dead civilizations: a universal Domesday book. Eventually one of them would have to figure out how to get this package to a new universe before this one suffers heat death, but there are billions of years left to do that.

Imagine these sparks of intelligence going off all around the hundreds of billions of galaxies in our observable patch of space. Many of them reach the same conclusion I just have. Some of them might have the motivation to participate (motivation is essential to survival, recall, and we're talking about survival of knowledge and culture). There are two ways to participate. One is to create a library that can be seen and decoded from a very long way off, and the other is to search for and assimilate the libraries of others.

If this giant inter-library loan program exists, it would depend on the "spark" rate, the probability that a civilization will be motivated to participate, and the window of opportunity it has to do so with existing resources before it collapses. An obvious first step would be to see if there are libraries already out there. Of course, we're already doing that with SETI, but it's not a high priority.

You may be having trouble seeing over the pile of hypotheticals I assembled in the preceding paragraphs, so let me bring all this back to Earth. Much of the analysis above also applies right here. A regulated market economic system, for example, provides fertile ground for "sparks" of a different sort--businesses of all sorts spring into existence and then eventually get eaten or die. A few last hundreds of years. But they too share a common "culture bank," hold conferences and host professional organizations in order to share ideas (while hiding trade secrets, of course) similar to the galactic library I proposed. [Edit: We can also see that there are policy implications for the government that regulates the system: keeping the ground fertile for new 'sparks' and making sure that the eventual end of any enterprise is planned for. That way "too big to fail" wouldn't be the critical issue it is now. If the philosophy is that every enterprise will eventually fail, and that this has to be planned for, it's not a catastrophic surprise when it happens.]

There may be a case made for education being like this too: providing the right environment for novelty to emerge in the form of new research results, new art, and so on. If so, it's probably not intentional from an organizational leadership viewpoint. The general tone of administration in my experience is more about how to keep a bureaucracy running efficiently. The effect of this machinery on learning are a factor, but the delineation between creating an environment for success and simply expecting it is a fuzzy one. As an example, assuming that learning is mostly related to how well students are taught is a bureaucratic simplicity (the inputs have a lot to do with it). Or the idea that if a student passes a writing class she can then write as well as she needs to. This "inoculation" philosophy is purely process-driven, and is almost antithetical to the idea that minds are cultivated, not stamped out in a factory. More on this theme next time.

1 comment:

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