The Visitor from Planet X

Why not send the code of an AI to extraterrestrials? Now that would be a real visitor, able to converse with its hosts and share details of Earthly life and thought, and return with its new knowledge. For it the trip would be instantaneous both ways. Decades or centuries would pass on Earth, of course, but it’d still be faster than physical spacecraft and more satisfying than just exchanging greeting cards. Read more.

Will Extraterrestrials Understand A Message We Send?

In this blog entry I discuss a message transmitted from the Evapatoria Deep Space Antenna in Evapatoria, Ukraine to four target stars between May and July 1999. It’s called the Cosmic Call. Can we assume that this message will be understood by any intelligent alien mind? What hidden assumptions of ours might not be shared? Read on.

The turning point: The moral example of UC Davis students, and Occupy Wall Street

The video is shocking. (See it here.) A line of students sits on the ground, heads bowed. A police officer dressed in riot gear walks up to them, holding a pepper spray gun. He theatrically raises his arm, as if about to carry out an execution, and presses the trigger. A foul-looking orange spray shoots out.

Methodically, deliberately, he walks to the end of the line, saturating each student. He might as well be casually spraying bug spray. When he reaches the end he begins walking back in the other direction, spraying each of them again. The students huddle in obvious pain. People in the crowd nearby gasp in shock and began chanting, “Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!”

Communicating with Intelligent Aliens

May 21, 2011. My newest blog entry: Communicating with Intelligent Aliens. I consider the prospect of communicating with aliens from the perspectives afforded by linguists: Mark Johnson and George Lakoff on the one hand, and Guy Deutscher on the other. Are our bodies and histories likely to be so different as to make communication impossible? Or can the gulfs be crossed by patient efforts at explanation? Read the posting to find out.


Tonight I saw Francis Fukuyama lecture at Politics & Prose about his new book, THE ORIGINS OF POLITICAL ORDER. He gave an impressive performance, lecturing for an hour on how governments form, both for better and for worse.

A point that stuck with me was that governments have to overcome the natural human inclination to transfer power to immediate family and clan relations. It’s natural for kings to want to pass on the crown to children. But doing that greatly reduces the chance of competent governance; as he put it, if generals pass their power to their children, they’re not going to win wars. And from this perspective, clerical celibacy makes sense because it forces an end to nepotism and hereditary office. (First time I’ve ever seen any value in clerical celibacy.) So any successful government has to break a clan and kinship-defined polity.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

If you want a field where august authorities come to completely different conclusions, try astrobiology. Some people are certain that there is life off the earth (and some even think that we have already found it), while others insist that life is rare and intelligent life even more so.

I’ve been reading a slew of books in this field, including Ward & Brownlee’s “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe,” Paul Davies’s “The Eerie Silence: Renewing our Search for Alien Intelligence,” and Marc Kaufman’s “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth.” Read on for my take on these books…

Is There a Logic to History?

I’ve put up a new Psychology Today blog posting, Is There a Logic to History?

Here’s how it starts: “I have been pondering this question: When, if ever, is it meaningful and fair to say that one culture is “more advanced” than another?” Read more.

To Become Intelligent, Watson Needs an Ecosystem

I’ve put up a new blog posting on Psychology Today. “On February 16, 2011, an IBM computer named ‘Watson’ crushed its two human competitors in the final night of a three-day Jeopardy battle. Its final score was $77,147 to the humans’ $24,000 and $21,600. It might seem that Watson is another incremental step toward computers attaining humanlike intelligence. Just keep making them faster and more complicated, and sooner or later they’ll become self-aware. But in fact  artificial intelligence doesn’t gain much just by scaling up. What Watson needs is an ecosystem, not more RAM.” Read more.

New York Times posts a great review of WORLD WIDE MIND

When the New York Times put its review up on its website, I was so nervous I printed it out and had my wife read it to me line by line.  But it’s a great review! “Michael Chorost is not only a clear and concise science writer, but also a visionary.” Read the whole thing.

And then, if you’d like to read an excerpt from the book, the Times has posted it here.

A new Moore’s Law for neuroscience?

According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles approximately every two years. Now, we have Stevenson & Kording’s Law: the number of neurons that can be tracked in the brain doubles every 7.4 years. What are the implications of that? I’ve written a Psychology Today blog entry considering that. Read more.