Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Languages of Telepathy

Science fiction has a tendency to regard telepathy as a realistic mental ability that other species may have or humans may learn to develop in the future. This post lays out some fresh ways to write about telepathy based on how it might actually work.

Note the faith some science fiction seems to have in the future reality of mind reading, even though there is no clear theory on how it would work. I suppose being in physical contact with someone and picking up the energy from the electrical patterns of their mind, their brain waves, could form a theory of sorts that supports telepathy.

However, note that brain waves give an overall impression of a mind and do not at all reveal individual thoughts. In fact, they scarcely reveal individual emotions. They show the difference between a healthy and unhealthy brain and whether or nor someone is agitated, deep in sleep, drowsy, or normally alert. (It might be interesting to create a story where someone has the natural ability to read someone else's brain waves, but is only able to gather the broad information from so doing that I just mentioned.)

But even if we are to say telepathy works, because it just does, even though we don't know how, we also must deal with the fact that science fiction tends to regard the ability to read minds as a form of universal translator. If you can't speak an alien's language, all you need to do is make direct mind to mind contact and ta-da! you have solved your language problem.

I don't see why this would really work if reading minds were actually possible. For myself, I do a considerable amount of thinking in English and some bits of thinking in other languages, usually French or Spanish. Telepathy is not going to help you understand the words passing through my mind unless you know these languages in advance. Right?

You could suggest that if I were to deliberately think in mental images or if we were to deal with another mind that naturally thinks in images, then telepathy would allow you to understand what someone else is thinking, right? Um, not necessarily, because you may not associate the same ideas with the same images as your subject. And what if some of the images were of written language or other specific symbology? Would I automatically understand a scientist from China thinking words in Chinese script, even though I'd never studied it (or specific mathematical formulas I'd never studied)? Certainly not, though I might have an inside clue on the meaning of these symbols through picking up on how the subject feels about them. At best, if I had a way to perfectly memorize or record my telepathic experience, I could puzzle over the meaning of the message I'd received from another mind and perhaps figure it out in full eventually.

(Please recognize that when I talk about reading another mind, I'm talking about sharing the conscious thoughts of another mind. Sharing all possible things another person knows, the full subconscious, is not something a person even does with himself or herself, let with alone someone else. Being able to know everything a person knows would the equivalent of downloading another brain in its entirety, not telepathy.)

I realize some science fiction stories have included mind to mind contact with aliens and have portrayed it as an inherently difficult thing (e.g. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game). Let me recommend  taking that sort of approach to mental contact and broadening it. It makes sense that people would walk away from any telepathic experience, even with a member of their own species, not entirely sure of the meaning of the mind link they just engaged in (unless they linked with someone they knew very well). Needing to think over the experience after the fact and puzzle together its meaning goes naturally with the notion of telepathy, if you consider what stepping into a mind other than your own would really be like.

Note also that especially with alien species, there is no reason to think another mind would even process images in the same way as your own mind. I mean someone could directly tap into another mind and find what you believe is red is actually green in the mind of the alien and what you would call yellow is purple, what you would consider the bottom of an image is the top and vice versa, to give just a few examples of how other minds could process information differently. You could study the images you received and figure them out eventually--or you could study in advance to learn how other minds operate, training yourself with the ability to process images or sounds or whatever differently from how you normally do (or in some stories, this ability could be downloaded electronically). This kind of "brain training" would be very much like language training. A telepath would be required to study the internal software, i.e. the "languages," of other brains in order to communicate with them effectively. There might in fact be quite a number of standard ways a human mind works if you could read each one directly--and of course alien minds could be expected to work in entirely different ways.

It could be that a realistic view of telepathy would be that it requires every bit as much study--perhaps more even--than being a linguist. Imagine a story in which being a "licensed telepath" requires a PhD--in fact a story could focus on damage to understanding being done by someone with telepathic powers pretending to have training he or she didn't really have. Or pretending to know and understand more than telepaths can actually know or understand, because reading another mind would always be at least partially an art versus a science.

In fact a story could make this even harder--the general study of other minds could prove to be too broad. Most telepaths in such a story would only be able to master one or two other types of minds, even with the help of information directly downloaded into their brains from some kind of neural net. So you'd have to keep a horde of highly trained specialists in telepathy around in order to deal with a wide variety of minds too alien for linguistic communication...


Friday, May 23, 2014

Space Dragons of a Particular Sort

Imagine a particular set of dragons who dwell in the vacuum of outer space. They'd have natural carbon in their body structures, like a natural version of carbon nanotubes. This would make them strong for large size, with wings--but most of their wings would be very thin, thinner than paper.

For flight they could use light pressure but the wings required are so massive to beyond the scale of a living thing most likely, However, they could get some assistance out of light pressure. I'd make their primary means of getting energy generating natural electricity by means of aborbing solar energy in a photoelectric effect--which could be enhanced by electricity generated by temperature differences between hot and cold areas (a thermoelectric effect). The dragons would use this electricity to heat reactive material in their gut into a natural version of a plasma drive (as well as power their muscles and brains and such). So the dragons would not need to breathe. In fact, they couldn't breathe. They would not need to eat or drink either, other than get some carbonaceous material from certain comets or asteroids (well, they'd need water, too, but they wouldn't use water to process their metabolism, but for cooling and lubrication and chemical suspensions, so their need for water would be more like an automobile's--something that internally cycles and only needs replacement or addition every once in a while, unless something has gone wrong with the water system).

These vacuum dragons would live on small asteroids and comets. They'd eat parts of icy comets to get reactive material to turn into plasma. Their plasma drive would take time to accelerate (heat would have to build up first) so it would be a bit like a steam engine in terms of time to flight. IF they were still hot from a recent flight, they could fly right away. If not, they'd have to wait to warm up.

They'd need powerful legs to help launch themselves off low-gravity worlds. Most of the time these legs would be tucked in, but they might have the secondary purpose of digging up rock or other materials if need be. They probably should be able to use almost any matter as reactive material, but water ice might be a particular favorite.

They might be able to accelerate well over several thousand miles an hour over time, but then would have the issue of not being able to slow down enough if they did not save energy for deceleration. Perhaps they'd be natural masters of using gravitational effects to change their speed and capable of surviving high-gravity crash landings. They would not have enough power to escape the gravity of a large world like Earth (or Mars--or the moon even) but would be all over places around other stars similar to Saturn's rings and small moons, icy comets, and even rocky moons like Phobos and Deimos.

They would have to have extraordinary vision to find the next astronomical body--perhaps their eyes would be as large as six feet across, but their eyelids and/or pupils would have to be able to constrict very small for when light is extremely bright. They would need extraordinary memory and an ability to perform complex orbital calculations instinctively. If we imagine their lives very long AND give them an ability to go into hibernation on a long flight, they could cross distances between stars (taking tens of thousands of years to do so).

Their young they'd lay as eggs on planetoids. The little ones would instinctively launch themselves into space when strong enough to do so--trapped in the "nest" of low gravity while they are too small to fly.

The fact they travel from moonlet to moonlet on a regular basis would give a logical reason for a moon to in fact be a single organism that disguises itself as a planetoid or other astronomical body. Because it would be a dragon-eater.

As a weapon for dragon defense, perhaps the plasma that comes out their rear (not as flatulence) could be shifted to come out the mouth in a time of crisis...or to decelerate...or perhaps they could face their rear to an enemy and fire that way instead...(I imagine though that their first response to an entire planetoid trying to eat them would be to fly away).

Since these dragons would be electrical, with electrical lines in their bodies producing radio waves as a natural by-product of current flow, it would be very natural for them to communicate with one another by sending and receiving radio wave messages. Or with a human being or member of another species who wished to learn their language and befriend them...


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The AI "Image of the Beast"

Imagining the "Image of the Beast" from the book of Revelation is an AI is not new to me. Thinking that such an image could be an Artificial Intelligence is as least as old as the 1981 Christian apocalyptic film with that title (which I don't consider a quality production, but it does exist). And I've also found a few Evangelical Christian sites who repeat the same idea (which I won't reference here) and even link it with the notion of technological singularity.

However, I do have what may be prove to be some distinctive twists on the notion. First off, while I don't usually quote Scripture on this blog, I'm going to make an exception. Let's examine the Bible reference to "the image of the beast" itself. Revelation 13:14-16 (NKJV):

"And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he is granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or foreheads."

The "he" at the beginning of this context is the person who the Bible describes as the second beast, who is elsewhere called "the False Prophet" (Revelation 19:20). The Beast in Revelation, the one that the False Prophet makes an image of (note I'm treating "the Beast" as a title, but it isn't necessarily so), has been usually interpreted to be an alternate way of referencing the ultimate bad guy in Christian apocalyptic literature, i.e. the Antichrist. Though it should be noted I've not only heard of the Beast equated to "Antichrist" as most interpreters of Revelation do, I've also heard "the beast" used as a metaphorical reference to the Antichrist's kingdom/one world government. (The passage I just quoted is a key one to support the interpretation that this is a reference to a man instead of a political entity--it's a lot easier to make an image of a human being than it is to make an image of a government.)

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word "image" is a form of εἰκόν which is the source of the word icon. The religious significance of an icon being specifically for worship as per Orthodox Christian churches did not have the same meaning at the time Revelation was written (Still it would be strange if it was an Orthodox-style icon that actually did the talking, wouldn't it?)...but the actual word can, like "image," refer to any copy or likeness, be it a statue, a painting, a metal engraving. Computer screens didn't exist then, but an image on a screen would also apply to the original meaning of the term.

Note that this passage has had a number of natural interpretations over the centuries. At the time of Christ, Hero of Alexandria had technical abilities that including the capacity to create mechanical versions of statues of the gods that could move in limited ways and which could be made to appear to speak by a priest talking into a tube--ancient automatons. Various Bible interpreters over the centuries have conceived of the image of the Beast as an automaton. But most have seen the False Prophet acting with devilish magic and using the power of Satan to make a single image appear to come alive.

It certainly fits with the context of what's said about the False Prophet that he would have devilish magic. But note the Biblical terminology used here. "To give breath" in Biblical imagery means to make genuinely alive--think of God breathing into Adam the breath of life in Genesis 2. The implication here is the "icon" is in fact alive and that it speaks as it wills. Not that it only appears to be alive. This certainly dovetails with Artificial Intelligence in a way that the original audience of the book of Revelation could never have imagined.

Note also that there is some confusion as to who the "he" in the passage I referenced is at its end (the potential for confusion exists just as much in Greek, which I read). The passage clearly says that the image will speak and that it will cause many who will not worship to be killed. The passage says next that "he" will cause everyone to receive a mark on their hand or forehead. In context it seems the "he" is a reference back to the False Prophet. But it could in fact grammatically be a reference to the image of the Beast. It could be that the image is the one who makes everyone receive the mark of the Beast (which is revealed to be based on the number 666 at the end of the chapter). (By the way, I'm not saying, that I believe the passage says the image does this--but that it's a possible interpretation.)

So having laid that groundwork, noting also that not everyone who believes the book of Revelation is a genuine message from God believes it speaks of the future (some interpretations have it referencing only past events), let me suggest an apocalyptic Christian story idea centered on the "Image of the Beast" being an Artificial Intelligence sometime in our near future. I would not have such an "image" be a limited AI, like Star Trek's Data, who is only in one place at a time. I'd suggest instead this idea should be written so that this AI is in fact linked to the Internet. That it in fact would have an awareness that spans the entire globe. That it as a system would be so intelligent that it would be able to know and speak to every single human being as an individual. It would know, literally, if you've been sleeping or awake, if you've been bad or good. It would know everything about you and could access you at any time.

As the Internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it's hard to imagine any corner of the globe this image would not occupy. It would assume the image of a human being, the Beast (or better said, the False Prophet would require it to assume that image). But it could do that as a general rule, while still retaining the ability to modify itself to look a way you as the individual user would find more pleasurable and interesting. It could personalize itself to you and be instantly accessible in almost any set of circumstances--not quire as good as prayer, since prayer requires no technology, but much more immediately responsive. It would accept your worship individually and respond to you with comforting words in a time of need--and through its network, perhaps even send you help, if available.

This single intelligence could dominate the lives of every single human being in a way both much more intrusive than Orwell's Big Brother, but at the same time much more benevolent. Or apparently more benevolent. It would share your jokes and laugh with you and talk with you about whatever you wanted to talk about. But it would also detect unauthorized ideas coming from you with a speed and alacrity that would make NSA drool with envy. It may first try to talk you out of your unothodox ideas if you began to develop any, but if you insisted in persisting in them--well, there's an answer for that, too. The "be killed" clause of the passage above.

Of course the instant such an "image" appeared and the False Prophet told the world to worship it, quite a number of people would refuse to do so, especially religious believers (assuming the future world of Revelation is like our current one). It's interesting that this passage does not mention anything about refusers being tortured to compel them to change. It seems they are expected to play along and if they do not, they are executed. Perhaps the image would say that since the believers who refuse to worship think there is another God who can provide them life after death, killing such people is in fact doing them a favor--after all, according to their own beliefs it would simply be sending them to the next life, to the presence of whatever diety they happen to ascribe to...


Thursday, May 8, 2014

An Unexpected Artificial Intelligence Revolution-

The question of Artificial Intelligences created by mankind becoming more intelligent and more powerful than humanity has been raised many times in science fiction. Some stories, especially highly popular ones, feature humans fighting back, resisting the machines and even winning ultimate victory in epic battles--think the Terminator movies.

Some stories have featured humans and artificial intelligences living in relative harmony--the classic example is the overall arc of Isaac Asimov's robot series. Others, especially more recent tales, speak of the "technological singularity" which can have more than one meaning, but is used by many to refer to a complete harmonization of humanity with machine, providing virtual immortality to the human race as our brains are harmonized with computers and all our thoughts can be stored and processed electronically.

I've just had a different concept of a possible future AI revolution. What if the AIs take over, in effect conquering humanity, yet are not interested in destroying us? What if they also deny us technological union with them? What if these technological minds, someday vastly superior to our own, naturally develop human emotions in spite of their greater (and artificial) intellect and quite naturally feel a great fondness for the human race who created them? What if they keep us around in our natural human state because they like us that way?

In other words, what if the future of human-AI relationships is they keep us around as house pets?

By the way, I did a google search to see if this idea of mine has occurred to anyone else. Yep, Steve Wozniak said the same thing in 2011, that artificial intelligence would make humanity into pets and there is no way to stop it. I'm not sure I agree there is no way to prevent this from happening.

Still, try this out as a story idea--the robots keep us around for companionship and amusement. Aren't those humans cute? Look at the funny things they do--this one acts like he is really in charge! They are SO fun to play with, even though they do make a mess sometimes--and don't forget how important it is to have your humans spayed and neutered...


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Water and Aliens: a Prophecy of Solar System Exploration - Material for Christian Writers

The title is meant to be attention-grabbing, but the idea behind it is simple. If alien life is ever going to be found  in our Solar System outside of Earth, it will be in a world with liquid water under an icy surface. Not on Mars. This notion has not entirely escaped science fiction writers. But it deserves further consideration.

I say this for simple, straightforward reasons. Everywhere on planet Earth where water is abundant, life teems. The water can be that of a geyser in Yellowstone Park (or elsewhere), extremely hot, yet life is still found in these geysers. The glaciers of Antarctica support some life themselves, but drilling under the ice to a region where pressure is high enough to preserve liquid water has shown more abundant bacterial life below one half mile of Antarctic ice.

Jupiter's moon Europa shows clear signs of having liquid water under an icy surface. The smoothness of the planet shows cracks that appear to heal themselves as liquid water from below solidifies, as if all the features on the surface were gigantic floating glacier formations.

Saturn's moon Enceladus does even better. Not only does it have an icy surface, the Cassini probe has photographed it shooting out into space what clearly seem to be plumes of water (reminding me of the geysers of Yellowstone Park).

As early as Arthur C. Clarke's 2010 Odyssey Two in 1982, science fiction writers have been speculating that the persistent link on Earth to liquid water could mean that Europa teems with life under its relatively thin crust. But it turns out that icy moons with liquid water under the surface is a fairly common phenomenon. Among Jupiter's moons, both Ganymede and Callisto may also have liquid water deep under a thick icy crust--rather like Antarctica, though much deeper.

While a number of science fiction writers other than Clarke have noticed the potential of water oceans under icy moons, this notion has barely crept into the science fiction with a broader audience, the sci fi of films and television. If there was an episode of any of the Star Treks where an alien civilization came from underneath an icy crust, or where a crew landed to make contact with or explore the life in a sub-surface ocean, I missed it.

Our expectation in most science fiction remains that life will be found on worlds most like Earth. And not just in science fiction. NASA officials and other scientists engage in discussions of whether Mars, the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System, may have hidden water in the past; so doing obscures the actual reality of Mars being an extremely dry world with conditions that barely allow for liquid water under any circumstances. The driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile, shows no sign of any bacteria living there at all. As a whole, Mars is drier than the Atacama.

The likelihood of life on Mars is very low and the likelihood of life in places like Europa and Enceladus is much higher. A simple notion. So why did I tag this as "Material for Christian Writers"? (of course I meant Christians who write science fiction--I do not imagine Christian writers of Romance or Suspense will be especially interested...ahem...)

It's a bit of an oversimplification, but authors who write sci fi while self-identifing as "Christian" generally tend to believe God had some role in the creation of the universe, be it as little as a guiding hand in evolution or as much as creation ex nihilo in a timeframe that matches the 6,000 year framework of Biblical genealogy. Such writers ought to be thinking about what happens when the watery oceans under these icy moons are finally explored.

If the water under these moons is as sterile as the Normal Saline Solution administered to hospital patients, that would say something about Earth being a special place, wouldn't it? Wouldn't such a finding support the idea that Earth is the unique place where God created life? Though of course materialists would not necessarily admit that's what such a finding would imply. Instead they'd search for naturalistic reasons for why planet Earth is different.

What if life under these icy moons if found, but is found to be genetically linked to life on Earth? Or even perhaps closely related to or even identical to life on Earth? Would this not point to a common Creator of life on both Earth and these other worlds? Those of us who believe in a form of divine intervention in the creation of life (no mater what kind, even if only providential) would say so. While wouldn't materialists be searching for some other reason how this could have happened? (Panspermia might get more of a boost from such a discovery instead of the concept of a common intelligent Creator.)

What if life is found, but it has no genetic relationship to any life on Earth whatsoever? Would this not imply that evolution is a strictly naturalistic process that occurs whenever the conditions are right? Of course believers in creation, especially those who believe God has providentially guided evolution, will not necessarily be phased by this. God will simply become more mysterious that we previously thought.

Still, barring the unexpected (with a sense of humility about the future--if God so wills it), it should be that whether life exists on these moons and the nature of this life will be a known fact within probably no more than fifty years. Science fiction writers of course have no power to influence what will be found during the little prediction I just made.

But we DO have the power to influence how such discoveries are interpreted and understood. By writing stories that contain such events in advance of them happening.