The universe is already weird and alien

You think we understand things? Nice try.

I wrote a bunch of articles about "The Singularity" in the last week.

Not all of them were friendly articles. But, truth is, I'm fascinated by A.I. (artificial intelligence) in all its forms. The concept of a "living machine" is one of our oldest stories. You find the roots of it all the way back in the most ancient of myths.

The Greeks in particular had a thing for this. Hephaestus, master of the forge, crafted a small army of mechanical "golden men" to serve him. There's Pygmalion, the sculptor who created a beautiful statue of a woman that the gods brought to life.

We even have creation stories about the beginning of human life, reflecting our fascination with our own beginnings. It's only natural that builders would see themselves as built.

There's a lovely paradox built into all this. Who's the creator and who's the creation?

If we're really on the cusp of an "intelligence explosion", then we're going to face these questions in their most practical form. (I am dubious, but I can't rule out something damn weird happening.)

What is a real nonhuman intelligence going to look like?

The problem with even asking the question is that we're so deeply wired to see other things as human minds with human intentions...

We almost can't help but "see ourselves" in any machines we build.

Ever get mad and hit the computer?

And that's just a chunk of metal and plastic. What happens when that joker talks to you in soothing phone-operator voice and seems at least intelligent enough to pass as a dim-witted customer service rep?

You could call it arrogance.

We think everything has to be like us.

And that's double-plus-ungood because we also badly overestimate how smart we are.

Not that we can't be smart. All that math and science and engineering shows that we've got a leg up over beavers and termites.

The question is whether the image of humans at our cognitive best has much to do with how humans typically behave in the day to day grind... because we can be mighty stupid, too.

Not least of which because that intellectual brilliance often...

Blinds us to obvious facts and forces working right under our nose

Like a Chinese finger puzzle, the more we try to reach "escape orbit" the further we're drawn in.

There's an important concept to understand. It's called...


The idea's simple enough.

Reflexivity means self-reference.

Without bringing in complicated mathematical or logical formulas, you can put it like this:

The outcome creates its own material conditions.

It's a feedback loop, basically.

A "chicken and egg" problem, but it's real.

You can't have a chicken without an egg to hatch it. You can't have an egg without a chicken to lay out.

If you're locked into binary either/or logic, this looks like an irresolvable paradox.

Mother Nature DGAF about logic.

Which came first?


Eggs and chickens mutually "bootstrapped" themselves out of primordial proto-chicken bio-genetic goop.

That's the power of reflexivity. Each step brings forward, reinforces, and amplifies the step that came before.

This is known as emergence. You get novel outputs, like chickens and eggs, from a mundane process, like DNA smashing around in goop.

Over the last 100 years, there's been leaps and bounds in logic, computers, and information theory.

There's whole fields now that study reflexivity, self-organization, and emergence in artificial mechanical systems.

And it turns out that...

Emergence isn't some neat parlor trick by living things

Life is the best example of a self-organizing system.

You don't have to "build" a full-grown organism. It isn't manufactured. It grows, develops, and matures.

But there are artificial self-organizing systems, too. The basic operating principles aren't limited to living things.

Which means that it's possible to build machines that self-organize like living things.

And if they can self-organize...

These machines can create emergent properties

New things, never before seen.

It's all down to reflexivity.

The very same process doing the generating becomes part of the generated output.

Like a feedback loop between the mic and the speaker, amplified out of control.

Guess what?

We aren't even done with the weird... you're living in it

You can read all that and think, this is crazy sci-fi talk. This is in the future, if ever.

About that.

One casualty of this cybernetic revolution is your most cherished sense of being a rational and responsible person.

See, once we've got these operating principles in hand... we can understand concepts like emergence and reflexivity using principles of physics and mathematics...

We can explain life's "weird" behaviors as a kind of machine

Growth and development, which happen every day all around you, can now be explained as a type of machinery.

You know what else is a type of machine? Your body. Your brain.

And we're still not done.

If your brain is a machine, a terribly complex machine that processes information and guides your actions, that has serious consequences.

Here's one.

Look at something near you. It can be anything.

When you see that object -- say it's a book -- when you see that book, you aren't seeing a physical object.

There's no "out there" (outside of your mind) sending information into your conscious awareness.

Your brain does not pick up information and then reconstruct an image of that really-real object.

That's an old philosopher's belief -- that your mind produces "ideas" in response to "impressions" from your senses.

Your brain isn't like a camera, trying to capture accurate images of reality.

What happens is this:

Your brain, in your body, contacts the physical environment around you.

Because of how we're built, with eyes and skin and noses and ears, we receive certain "brushes" with reality.

Once the brain gets hold of them, these "brushes" show up to us as sights, touches, scents, and sounds.

But those contacts with the environment aren't information until the brain works on them.

Brain in Body + Environment = Your World

You need all three pieces.

Your brain isn't like a TV antenna picking up messages from the ether.

The "picture" that you experience as consciousness is a holistic act of interpretation, constructed by a human organism as it "runs into" its environment.

We're built to receive certain kinds of inputs. Sights and sounds and smells show up for us because of that.

But we also act on the environment to change it for ourselves.

And that action isn't just about using hands and tools to create stuff.

The human mind transforms what it receives.

There is no neutral information fed into your brain or mind. All information is interpretation.

Now think of what this means for artificial intelligences. Any minds we build will work in the same basic way.

They won't just "receive information" and process it the way computers process streams of data.

AI minds will actively create their worlds just as we do... based in part on how they are built, and in part on how they act.

This has serious and mind-blowing results for our understanding of the universe

The technical term for this mutual creation of self and world is called "informational closure".

Cognitive scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela used that term to describe how physical systems build their own working "models" of reality.

But there's no real reality out there beyond the models. There's only systems bumping into other systems.

That means even human minds... human beliefs, thoughts, desires, and all the rest... all that stuff is already explained by self-organizing behaviors.

All that culture, all our social structures... that's already an emergent behavior.

Human beings are "informationally closed" cybernetic cognizers.

You're already a cyborg and you didn't even know it

Informational closure means that the universe may well be chock full of truly alien things.

Things that contact 'reality' in ways we literally cannot conceive.

The way we look at the universe is already heavily filtered through our machines. We have no special independent access to nature. We only know it through our senses, which our instruments can extend and refine.

We're pretty much already locked into a Virtual Reality of our own making. Humans have always been a self-obsessed, if not narcissistic species. Most every advance in thought since the Renaissance has come about through a selfish preoccupation with ourselves.

Can you imagine varieties of alien minds that experience the universe in ways that we aren't even built to comprehend?

Can you imagine what it would mean if the universe weren't really "like" we believe it to be... if even our best scientific theories were fundamentally wrong?

This might be one way into Fermi's Paradox concerning the missing aliens.

If you're a sci-fi writer looking for cool cyberpunk ideas, look no further

Philip K. Dick's novels played with this theme to great effect.

I have no idea if PKD did this self-consciously, rather than as an unintentional play under the influence of drug-fueled hallucinations... but he is the "cybernetic" storyteller par excellence.

He questions everything about identity, about the relationship between technology and man, machines and humans, the barriers between reality and subjective appearance.

The thing about that "cyberpunk" aesthetic I'm into so much is that it's not just cool implants and rogue machines as technology runs amok. PKD shows how you can built serious thematic weight into what look like superficial "genre" stories. It's not a coincidence that several of the 80s sci-fi action heavy-hitters came from his work.

I love robots punching cyborgs as much as anybody. When you can add a little thinking under the surface, that's even better.

If there's no longer any difference between what is made and what is found then we're living in truly wild times.

Reality itself is no longer a fixed sphere grounding us in the firmament of heaven...

Reality is the result of a technological process...

And that opens up serious possibilities for any keen-eyed world-builder.

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