The Scientific Method in a Crumbling State

In her review of Steve Jones’ No Need for Geniuses, Ruth Scurr laments the regression of scientific inquiry in Revolutionary France:

At the heart of the French Revolution there is a puzzle about why so little progress was made in the social sciences compared to the natural. Lavoisier’s contemporaries were excited by his advances in chemistry, and some of them thought it would be possible to make similar advances in understanding society and politics. Condorcet died certain that such breakthroughs were on the horizon – but the social harmony, equality of rights and opportunities that he envisaged have never been realised, not in France, or anywhere else.

One would think that small-r republicans would not only embrace but nourish scientists working to harness free thought for the benefit of the common person (botanists alone, one would also think), but apparently the Sans-culottes harbored a (healthy?) distrust of promises of social/scientific progress. Of course, on the other hand, for as loud a statement as it could make, the guillotine didn’t speak for everyone.

The irony is that the Revolutionaries couldn’t help but to accelerate discovery; in a crumbling State, where neither agencies nor academies retain their closely guarded vaults of knowledge, suddenly anyone can be some kind of scientist. If only the scientific method itself would be prized and protected above the automatic application of its fruits in every case, as if it’s impossible to learn the workings of some previously unobserved phenomenon and not generate a new technology out of it. As Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, as a warning to the scientists who regenerated dinosaurs: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could that you never stopped to think about whether or not you should.”.


Smart-Enough Machines Might Recognize Material Limits

Here’s a cool piece on possible futures of artificial intelligence, i.e. the singularity: Where do minds belong?

The idea is that if humans are able to make machines that surpass us in cognitive ability, then one possibility is that these machines will realize the futility of infinite growth on a finite planet—let alone space travel—and re-engineer themselves back into biological form in order to harness the energy efficiency of natural selection. Perhaps this is why we won’t be visited by aliens:

If life is common, and it regularly leads to intelligent forms, then we probably live in a universe of the future of past intelligences. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old and our galaxy is almost as ancient; stars and planets have been forming for most of the past 13 billion years. There is no compelling reason to think that the cosmos did nothing interesting in the 8 billion years or so before our solar system was born. Someday we might decide that the future of intelligence on Earth requires biology, not machine computation. Untold numbers of intelligences from billions of years ago might have already gone through that transition.

Those early intelligences could have long ago reached the point where they decided to transition back from machines to biology. If so, the Fermi Paradox returns: where are those aliens now? A simple answer is that they might be fenced in by the extreme difficulty of interstellar transit, especially for physical, biological beings. Perhaps the old minds are out there, but the cost of returning to biology was a return to isolation.

I don’t think humans will ever create A.I. in the first place, since we’re already running up against (and over) material limits now, just by making and discarding plastic. Also, humans are for the most part irrational, if rational in this case means moving towards efficiencies that both move technology forward and benefit us and our ecosystems.

Of course, one could also make the case that we’ve already developed A.I., i.e. corporations. What are corporations, after all: sentient machines that are optimized to accomplish their goals at all costs.

Front-Yard Habitat

I rebuilt the small garden after it was mowed over, and have added some hot pepper seedlings and some morning glories to the fence and tree. I hope that the cinder blocks and wood and noticeable plants will deter future cuttings-down. As I mentioned last week, I also noticed that what I thought were magnolias are actually loquats, so I’m betting I will see even more squirrels and blue jays in the near future, competing with me for the tart, summery fruits. I made wine with them (the fruits, not the squirrels) in the past, and I think they could add something to a lighter kind of beer, but the next batch has already been earmarked for porter, and I’m not sure there will be enough loquats left in a month or so; I’ve already noticed claw and tooth marks on some of the riper ones.

garden 1

garden 2

loquats 1