The Technium

The Technium Test

[Translations: Japanese]

Beyond our tiny blue planet, the universe is filled with 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion suns, and each of those stars some vast but unknown billion of inhabitable planets. Let’s say we had some means to inspect at least one other planet in the universe that sprouted sentient creatures who also developed their own advance technology. If we could see a complicated artifact on that planet do we have any test to determine whether that thing was alive or created? Could we tell whether a particular example was an organism born, or a supremely advanced machine made by ones who were born? What framework would we use to discriminate between a product of “natural” evolution and one of technological evolution? If we knew nothing of the origins or even nature of this planet’s original lifeforms, is there some special thermodynamic or informational giveaway of how its technology would be different from its life? I don’t think there is such a test.

Biogenesis 448 2

Now, let’s switch the lens and let that intergallatic investigator look at things here on Earth. If they were ignorant of what system our planet used for natural life, would they be able to identify what things were biological and which were technological? Is there an all-purpose distinction in thermodynamics, or complexity, or information flow that says “this evolved without minds” or “this was invented by a mind”? Could it make the further distinction between something that was self-evolved vs evolved from a system created by a mind, by a sort of artificial evolution? Say we set up a system that would self-evolve new organisms based on an alternative DNA-like molecule. If the investigator looked at Earth today the difference in complexity between self-evolved and mind-designed among small things might be a telltale clue, but what would it make of our largest creations, like the internet? How about in 100 years? I suspect there is no fundamental physical difference between “natural” and “artificial” organisms, and that the only way to distinguish the two will be to investigate their history.

There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type. This continuity between the born and the made is not obvious nor very important right now, but it will become more important, valuable and troublesome in the future.

[Image of mechanical life generated by William Latham ]

  • Why are there no comments on this post, and so few on the blog as a whole? This is the best discussion of the future of technology and society that I’ve ever come across. It makes my new blog look so … trivial ( Is it too profound for people to comprehend? I knew I wasn’t the only one who had such thoughts, but it is great to finally find someone asking these kind of questions.

  • OK, here are some of my relatively feeble attempts to ask similar questions about life, the universe, and everything:

  • If it is not possible to discern the difference between sufficiently advanced biological and technological entities, the question then becomes “is there any difference or are they one and the same?” We currently perceive a difference because our technology is relatively simple and immature.

    Ask a doctor or scientist how biological systems work and they can only explain at a trivial high level. Even then, we are often incorrect due to the difficulty inherent in observing and isolating the activities of complex biological systems. Most of our drugs are developed through a process of trial and error because we barely understand how and why they work for some but fail to work for others.

    Let’s postulate that DNA and computer software perform a similar role in biological and technological systems. DNA contains the instructions for the construction, operation and maintenance of a specific biological entity. Computer software is similar, except that it is not presently used to create physical objects. It is, however, now used to control other physical machines that themselves are capable of creation (e.g. robotic assembly lines or 3-D printers). At some point, I suspect it will be possible to bundle into one package all the software and hardware needed to create a specific object given the right triggers and inputs.

    Even DNA requires a specific set of environmental conditions before it is able to function, such as a cell to contain it, and another system that can provide it with the inputs to start creating life, such as a mother’s womb. Similarly, technology requires supporting infrastructure and energy.

    DNA is just a starting set of instructions, but there is no guarantee or expectation that it will never change or that the created life form will be exactly the same each time. Technology is not necessarily any different. We think that all digital copies are exactly the same, but that only applies at a simple level absent any interaction with the real world. Consider the cases where software is modified by a virus or pre-programmed algorithms, or periodic updates, not to mention alteration by someone other than its original author. Software changes all the time due to intentional as well as unintended interactions. This is especially true of systems of systems, which contain many components that are themselves being upgraded or replaced all the time.

    If technology is distinguished from biology only by the concept of a creating mind, we have to ask: what exactly is a creating mind? Is it a biological brain? What about a biological brain supplemented with technology-based information and analysis? What about multiple biological minds linked by methods of communication and supplemented by networks of technology?

    Theologians will point to God as the ultimate creating mind while technologists will point to the minds of human creators. However, we know that technology is never the creation of a single mind. It may start as the invention of a single brain, but that brain most likely relied on inputs received from others and subsequently provided outputs to be used by others. For this reason, technology is destined to evolve under the influence of multiple creators over time.

    Can we really even say that we know we were born from a random natural process or were the result of supremely advanced technology? I don’t think so. We are certainly not perfect creations, but then technology is rarely a perfect creation either. Software may contain obsolete or redundant code or may not always work properly. DNA may also contain old, obsolete instructions or information that is not currently understood. If we are the result of deliberate creation, it mostly likely was the evolutionary creation of many minds over a long period of time.

    In movies like iRobot, we are told to expect that robots will some day be mass produced, centrally controlled and updated, and able to communicate with each other in such a way that they are effectively all identical. That sounds like an extremely good way to deliver a useful and consistent quality product. But it is a lot of work to keep software and data synchronized and identical, even assuming that hardware components are never upgraded. This also requires the control of what is effectively a single mind. Such a process is probably not scalable to billions or trillions of entities. I would bet that there are few identical smart phones on the planet even if they all have automatic software and app updates turned in. Each individual phone is likely to have some difference in terms of content, installed apps, or other configuration data that cause them to perform slightly differently.

    I think the tendency to centrally control technology will only remain the norm until we reach the point when technological systems are endowed with sufficient instructions and resources to maintain themselves. At this point, it is questionable whether or not they will find it efficient and useful to synchronize all the information they acquire independently with with that of billions of other entities.

    Human brains are capable of processing a massive amount of sensory data, but they can only deal with a limited amount of other inputs or outputs, even with the assistance of technology. I suspect that the more complex and powerful a system becomes, the more efficient and necessary it becomes to create, operate and maintain itself. For instance, at some point it will no longer be efficient for a robot to transmit all information it acquires to a central processor or to other robots–only what it believes is useful and needed. At that point, identical technological creations will begin to exhibit individuality.

    In other words, the direction of complex technology may be towards mass customization and distributed control rather than mass production and centralized control. Individuality is a central characteristic of biological life forms and so I believe it will also eventually be with what we call technology.

    As machines evolve, they will probably also look less like machines made of metal and plastic and more like organisms. We may find that it is more efficient to grow their tiny components or entire structures using biological methods. This evolution towards biologically-compatible materials will also be driven by the need for implanted devices that assist or supplement human capabilities. At some point, we may no longer need any external devices for communication or processing because they will be embedded into our brains. To an external observer, we would appear to be telepathic, astoundingly intelligent, and in complete sync with everyone around us.

    The ultimate goal of embedded technology may be to make itself permanent by merging the instructions for its construction, operation, and maintenance into our very own DNA. This will save us the need to upgrade each individual human after birth by embedding it into the very processes of birth and growth. At that point, however, it will be necessary to determine if we need a way to upgrade those instructions periodically. The current natural process of changing DNA, as far as we know, occurs through random mutation and natural selection. I’m not so sure that all the mechanisms of evolution are necessarily completely random, but I’ll have to address that at another time.

    We currently make machines that can be upgraded as needed, but when the cost of maintenance exceeds the cost of building an entirely new machine, we prefer to recycle than maintain. So it is with biological organisms. We mostly maintain ourselves, but sometimes things go haywire or we sustain too much damage and cannot be cost-effectively repaired. Medical care isn’t free, and most of the planet has little to none. Medical technology has extended the maintenance period of people in developed countries by a great deal, but there may be limits. Would we choose to spend more to upgrade a malfunctioning or damaged machine than it would cost to replace it entirely? Not unless it was affordable and the only way to retain some element of individuality that we prized.

    My sense is that any sufficiently advanced technology will be able to transfer all its vital information (code, configuration, history, and other data) into a new entity in order to save it from loss. If we are beings that were originally created by other minds, I would also expect to have such a built-in feature. Do we have a built-in communications path that is activated at the point of physical death but have not been able to scientifically identify yet? We have only anecdotal reports of life after death, but it would be interesting to know.

    I have to agree with you Kevin. I believe there will be a time when we find that there really isn’t any difference between born and created entities.

  • “There is no physically detectable vital spirit in living things that can not be found in manufactured things of a certain type.” And what about love?

    • Can love be physically detected or just inferred based on observation of a variety of inputs? How do we know when it is really something else? Anyway, what’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion? What’s love got to do, got to do with it? Who needs a heart When a heart can be broken?

  • Maximilliano Serna

    Turing Test.

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