Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Can the Earth be intelligent?

The claim that Earth is a self conscious being is a large one, one which needs to be supported by facts.

One way of testing the claim is to ask if Earth has any computer like qualities which might be capable of intelligent thought, and if it has is there a way of testing that intelligence. A Turing test for the planet is difficult to conceive.

Defining intelligence as knowledge applied for a purpose leads to the conclusion that Earth has indeed done just that. and so is an intelligent being.

For the sake of this argument I will refer to humanity as the mind of Earth. This though is intended only to demonstrate a point and I make no claim for our sole tenure of that position.

Earth compared to a Computer

One way of looking at the question of whether Earth can be described as intelligent is to ask how it compares to a computer. If Earth is comparable to a stored program computer then it should have the same minimum components as a computer: The ability to input data and programs, as well as output its result, short term storage and processing, long term storage.

It is easy enough to argue that humanity, taken as a whole, does indeed have all these characteristics. We can gather information and take in instructions; humans can individually store information and make decisions based on that information for perhaps a hundred years. Collectively we have devised methods for storing data and passing on instructions for periods into the thousands of years-though not without signal decay. We can take action based on our collective knowledge, and pass on our new understanding to the next generation. 

To claim that these are characteristics of the planet, and not just the species, as a minimum it is necessary to show that the characteristics are capable of emerging from a process common to many species.

It is generally accepted that the process of evolution works by passing advantageous traits on from one generation to another. So the storing and modifying of instruction is certainly an internal function of life on the planet. Habitat or territory is another thing passed through generations by many species. It is arguable that for humans the passing on of territory, as an advantageous trait for the genes, became the passing on of property for the same reason. Likewise the passing on of hunting skills became the passing on of codified knowledge from generation to generation.

So the computer like characteristics present in humanity are not limited to our species but are a facet of all life on Earth

The Turing Test

Compared to evolution there is much less agreement on what is intelligence. So when Alan Turing first asked the question of whether electronic ‘brain’ machines were intelligent or not he had to cut through most of the debate on the nature of intelligence to propose a simple practical test.

In his original description of the test Turing proposed that the computer take part in an imitation game:

“It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.  We now ask the question, 'What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?' Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?”

Turing’s idea was that a machine should be called intelligent if it can not be distinguished from a person in a practical test. In other words it does as well, or as badly, as a human who is credited with intelligence.

One good thing about this approach is that it avoids precise definitions and measures of intelligence. Certainly at the time Turing was writing, and still to too large an extent, many definitions of, and tests for, intelligence can be criticised on the basis that often seem set up to prove that the person or group who originated the test are more intelligent than others.

It is difficult to conceive of an equivalent to the Turing test that could be taken by an entire planet, especially as the testers are part of that planet themselves.  So another way must be found.


Turing’s introduction to the imitation game has been widely criticised, even his biographer Andrew Hodges seems to suggest the introduction is frivolous. To me however the imitation game illustrates something very important.

For any animal meeting another member of their own species surely an important first question is to ask; ‘Potential mate or potential rival?’ 

Framed in this way the question is irrelevant to a computer. But framing the question in this way shows, I believe, that in this aspect at least intelligence is not neutral. Ultimately the intelligence demonstrated in the imitation game is one where knowledge is applied in the service of biology–even possibly of evolution.

This then is what leads me to a definition of intelligence against which Earth can be tested. This is that intelligence is knowledge applied for a purpose.

This has the immediate advantage to my mind of answering the question of where intelligence lies in a Turing machine. It can only lie in the running of a machine for a purpose and not in the tables. The tables represent knowledge, but not its application.

Has Earth applied knowledge for a purpose? Clearly the answer is yes, for knowledge, and energy, have been gathered and built on to send life beyond the limits of the planet.

By this test Earth is an intelligent being.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Earth’s Thought - a few notes

Earth is a single living creature, and that creature is self-aware.

I know that sounds insane but, sin é, there it is.

Did you ever have a moment when you thought about something familiar in a slightly different way? Suddenly a lot of things seem different. For me there was a moment when I was looking at a picture of a Wasp’s nest

A wasp’s nest is a complex structure, which wasps build with a paper like material. But when I said to myself ‘this is a wasp made structure’ the statement did not make sense. The way I have grown to see the world a wasp’s nest is natural, art of the natural world. If thinking about the ‘wasp made’ does not help us understand our world what about ‘man made’?

Fresh thought gave me fresh eyes. I started to think about how the natural world is shaped by creatures living together-grown like a coral reef. Our countryside, even the wild Burren, is shaped by farming. We are so proud of what we do that see our houses as different, special, not part of nature. Even when some wasp’s choose to build in the same location.

Seen with fresh eyes a spacecraft leaving Earth’s atmosphere is a thing of nature-a shell for soft skinned creatures to find more places to feed or live.

This brings so many questions. Why are creatures going there, and why so quickly? What does it mean for me, for all of us?

When you step out of the day-to-day world for a moment you can see there are answers.

Think about the idea for man to go to the moon. This idea was shared with the world in the story of the first fiction film in 1902. It became a physical reality less than seventy years later. In the history of the world seventy years is an astonishingly short time. Even if we date the idea to Jules Verne’s earlier book, about a hundred years, or the few thousand years since the ‘Tower of Babel’ was written of, it is an instant compared to the millions of years Earth has been inhabited.

And there you have it. Earth a living being thinking and acting. Ideas welling up in living creatures, who are driven to act.

That is the story I have to tell. Insane I know so I hope you will forgive me for thinking about it for a year or two before passing it on.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thoughts for Safer Internet Day

As parents we sometimes feel that young people know more about the internet than we do. Yet there are real risks in internet use, like exposure to inappropriate content or bullying. We have to trust our real world experience and use it as a guide to internet safety.

We have the ability to help and guide our children

Obviously, but many of us are afraid of technology, of computers and the web. We don’t really understand it all.  We should not let that make us forget all the other things we do know and understand.

When we are unfamiliar with technology, stumble and make mistakes where they fly through, it is easy to think that they know better than us. Easy, but a major mistake.

People will tell you that the young are the digital natives we are the digitally naïve. Not true—this is a myth. Young people not us—adults, parents—are naïve in the real world and the web—technology—is part of the real world. Forget about some mysterious place called cyberspace, remember we are all using real technology, doing real tasks, in the real world. 

Young people tend to believe the first thing they find on Goggle. They probably won’t check who is telling them something—they see no difference between ‘Johnny says that….’ and ‘The Government has announced that...’ Maybe they’re not always wrong, but the point is the do not see a difference. Children—young people—are really the ‘digital naïve’. The feel confident and at home with technology yet they too often lack the knowledge and life experience to realistically judge what is being said to them.

We tell our children the story of Pinocchio so that they understand that there are sly foxes who will try to trick them—like the fox who got Pinocchio to trade his school book for a ticket to Runaway Island, and life as a donkey.  We need to find new stories, new ways to arm our kids for this new connected world. We have our knowledge, our experience, and our moral compass to help guide them.

Is nobody in charge of Internet safety?

No. It is important to understand the basic rule of the Internet, anyone can connect anything, and send any type of data, and there is no central control. I’m not talking about a free spirit hippy view of the web. I am actually describing the technical architecture that is used by all devices across the world to connect together. Anything, anywhere, no control, are the rules that the Internet connection of a laptop, a mobile phone, or a games console are built to comply with.

The hardware, the phones, computers, game consoles we use every day are part of a physical network that connects everybody everywhere. The network can carry anything. There is no central control.

Once we accept that if it’s digital it’s connected we can help our children stay safe.

What are the risks, and what can we do?

Here is my summary of a few of the main risks, and some brief pointers to how they should be approached:

  • The Internet makes it easy to meet strangers using instant messaging, Skype, or chat rooms.  Chat is part of many online games; even for children under ten.

    We need to remember two things. First is that actually most times it is god to be able to communicate, that’s why the internet is such a part of our lives.

    Second we need to remind our children that the Internet is a very big place. Just because a few people in one group think something is normal behaviour does not make it so.

  • A teenager using a laptop in their bedroom feels safe, and anonymous. The dis-inhibiting effect of technology makes it easy for them to do and say things they never would in person.. Spreading embarrassing pictures or information, bullying or even suggesting they self harm, can make your child’s life miserable.

    In guiding our children we need to remind then that technology does not change the rules of right and wrong. The rule should be do not do this unless you would feel comfortable if everybody knew.

  • It’s easy to send a text or an email, share a picture with friends, but once you do the genie is out of the bottle; it’s uncontrollable. Yet even teenagers who share other people’s private pictures think it won’t happen to them.

    Parents need to guide children as they a create permanent public records that might be seen by future employers, or even their future spouse or in-laws!

  • Sex sells, and the web contributes to the premature sexualisation of children, but the problem is not simply exposure to porn. Self made porn and sexting, sharing naked pictures on mobile phones, are things many teens are already aware of.

    Remember that many of the large business that our families deal with on a daily basis are also part of the sex industry, for example both Sky and UPC sell adult content.

    As parents we need to understand where the pressure to participate is coming from, to help our children resist being pressured in the wrong direction.

These are just a few pointers. If you have any questions please e-mail me.