Category Archives: Nature

Reflections on Water

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A shape-shifting water creature—or “NTI,” non-terrestrial intelligence—mimicking the human faces of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris in James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi film The Abyss.

Ever stop to think how amazing water is? It flows when warm, rises when hot, and holds its shape when cold. It waters your garden for free. It generously bore the Titanic for miles, and then clawed a gash in its ribs before covering its lifeless hull like an eternal blanket.

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Do you suppose James Cameron has a thing for water? …

Water quenches your thirst when it flows through your esophagus; your life when through your windpipe. And yet it is the very essence of your person—you are made of water, and just a few fistfuls of minerals.

It is the essence of life itself. Water is life.

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Man and Nature: A Calculus Beyond My Understanding

I stand on the front walk to my house and look around. I am seeing certain things as if for the first time, and I am awestruck:Telephone lines (or are they power lines?) slung between tall, slender, unadorned, wooden totems, strictly for the purpose of transmitting information (or energy) all along the little street.

Metal antennae attached to rooftops. A satellite dish.

All of these comprise the infovascular system (if I may) of our species — an extension of our bodies, as Leonardo da Vinci would have said. I say they are an extension of our minds — not an alien, unnatural blight on the landscape, but an inevitable result of the advent of the frontal lobe in humans.

Chimneys spring from rooftops as well, venting whatever we cannot use and do not want in our houses. I do not normally see these, rather taking them for granted a hair shy of one hundred percent of the time. They are cowlicks on the structures we have built for ourselves in our image. Two windows and a door make a face. Buildings are large cloaks which we can move around in. Very roomy.

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The Space Shuttle: Our Tower of Babel

I find myself genuinely mournful of the space shuttle program. I was born in 1980; the program launched in 1981. It was always there for me.Space travel will continue, but the space shuttle program was more than that. It was a symbol of something strident and hopeful.

The space shuttle program, in my mind’s eye, was the white spaceplane, the NASA logo, the American flag emblazoned on spacesuits filled with heroes. My heroes.

The space shuttle program was the televised launches. The countdown, the ignition, the launch, the blinding blaze of rockets, the disappearing of a handful of astronauts into the heavens.

The space shuttle program was our Tower of Babel. We built it for science, yes, but really we built it to reach God.

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Some Unpremeditated Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence

Will any android ever achieve the grace and fluidity of the human organism–not just in physicality but in the electro-chemo-mechanical functions known as thought and emotion? Certainly they can approximate or mimic the human organism–but can they ever achieve the almost water-like nature of a human? Hmm, maybe that is the key to perfect AI: liquid crystality, if I can coin a word.

I once perused a book called The Society of Mind by cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky. There he talked about how all of the simple functions–push and pull, move and stop, and so on–work in concert to behave in unpredictable and creative ways. Perhaps the key to AI is determining the simplest functional substances that can work together.

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A corollary to the “society” concept of the individual mind is that of the group. A giant anthill was once pumped full of cement, allowed to dry, and then excavated. The scientists discovered a complex “metropolis” of highways and bi-ways, ventilation and waste management systems, incubation rooms, and so on–all seemingly designed by a single architect. No one ant knew what was going on on the macrocosm, but by God the thing worked as a whole, and each ant did his mighty little part.

That is how human civilization works, as well. Of course. What else but compartmentalization and an invisible “hive mind” can account for the fact that we all know as individuals what the collective should do, but the collective doesn’t seem to give a damn what our puny individual thoughts are. No matter how influential an individual, the whole will move in ways much more similar to a flock of birds or a weather system: unpredictable, fluid.

There it is again: fluidity. So an organism of artificial intelligence must be fluid, no? How can we create an artificial human that thinks, feels, and moves with such grace as that normally afforded to humans–or to animals–or to the way a forest grows up and self-regulates and achieves homeostasis?

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Perhaps it is time to re-engineer the very concept of intelligence. Why not a stone have intelligence? Why not a mote of dust? Our galaxy is in itself seemingly “of some design”–the way it spirals, pirouettes–like a ballerina, or a dolphin at Sea World. Why not every level of existence be afforded some “intelligence”? Not only will this go a long way towards improving our understanding and respect and empathy for the world around us, but it could help to redefine the quest for a perfect AI.

Maybe we should redefine what it means to be intelligent before we try to create a robotic being that, for all intents and purposes, is a human being in a very real way. Instead of trying to create an artificial homo sapiens sapiens, why not create an artificially intelligent substance or fluid? Maybe it has already been done. Maybe we are surrounded by artificial intelligence already. Orville and Wilbur Wright created an airplane that captures air currents and manipulates air pressures in such a way as to create lift. The human arms cannot do that–and yet the seemingly unconscious airplane wing is impressive and awe-inspiring just the same.

Back to ants: I saw an article in Popular Science recently about real-world “zombies”–or beings whose brains have been compromised by some outside force. There is a fungus that attaches itself to an ant’s cranium, injects it with chemical “commands”, rides the ant to an ideal location for the fungus to reproduce, and then boom: the fungus bursts out of the poor ant’s skull having been incubated therein, in just the right place for its spores to take flight and find more ants to use for procreation.

Pretty gruesome stuff, but besides that, what can we learn from that? What can we learn about the cooperative nature of “intelligence”? Certainly a fungus is not intelligent like a human. But that does not mean it is “lower” than a human (unless we are talking about actual spatial relationships, in which case, sure, yes, it is physically lower towards the ground.) Instead, the fungus is intelligent like a fungus.

We must meet intelligence on its own terms, not on the arbitrary narcissistic terms we set out for ourselves. Yes, it is natural to see the world in terms of what we can most immediately relate to–our own human incarnations, in this case–but why not expand the very definition of the self? Why not say, “Yes, that stone is me, that ant is me, that fungus is me, that galaxy is me.” Of course, we don’t have to mean this in every literal sense, but perhaps if we simply imagine it to be true for a moment, we can empathize with beings that can help us to increase our understanding of Things.

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Fluidity. Self. Cooperation. Unconscious organization giving rise to consciousness. Emergent properties. All of these concepts and more must be applied to artificial intelligence–not just mechanics, electrodes, and software. Why limit ourselves? Perhaps the great breakthrough in artificial intelligence will come not from a tinkerer, not from a scientist, but from a jack of all trades–or a society of jacks of all trades.

A few reactions to my first cautious steps into a study and experience of Theosophy.

I went to a Theosophy class at Theosophy Hall in downtown Los Angeles last night with my most excellent roommate Pedro. I enjoyed the experience. I wasn’t sure what was going on during the presentation and ensuing discussion – were they seeking the truth? conveying the truth? – yet the experience was so intellectually stimulating that I left feeling quite aware of my surroundings.

One guy gave me some free printed matter, which I read today. I also did some background research on the oh-so-trustworthy Internet. (I trust you can hear the measured sarcasm on that last point.)

My impressions are not all roses, though.

Continue reading A few reactions to my first cautious steps into a study and experience of Theosophy.