“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

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From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.

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it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

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Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

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There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

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The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

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At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

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Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.

The Singularity is Just One in a Series

I’m reading Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.

It occurs to me that the transition that the human race is about to experience is similar to other major transitions that are often described as epochs – paradigm-shifts – in which a new structure emerges over a previous structure. There are six key epochs that Kurzweil describes. (The first four are not unlike epochal stages described by Terrance Deacon and others.)

  1. Physics and Chemistry
  2. Biology and DNA
  3. Brains
  4. Technology
  5. Human Intelligence Merges with Human Technology
  6. Cosmic Intelligence

When a new epoch comes into being, the agents of that new epoch don’t necessarily eradicate, overcome, usurp, reduce, or impede the agents of the previous epoch. Every epoch stands on the shoulders of the last epoch.This is one reason not to fear the Singularity…as if it is going to destroy us or render us un-human. In fact, epoch number 5 may allow us to become more human (a characterization that we could only truly make after the fact – not from our current vantage point).

I like to think of “human” as a verb: as a shift from animal to post-human, because it characterizes our nature of always striving for something more.

animal to posthuman

There are debates raging on whether the Singularity is good or bad for humanity. One way to avoid endless debate is to do the existential act: to make an attempt at determining the fate of humanity, rather than sit passively and make predictions.  As Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. We should try to guide the direction of the next epoch as much as we can while we are still the ones in charge.

In a previous article I wrote that criticizes some predictions by Nick Bostrom, I compare our upcoming epochal shift to a shift that happened in the past, when multi-cellular beings evolved. Consider:

Maybe Our AI Will Evolve to Protect Us And the Planet

tree-of-lifeBillions of years ago, single cells decided to come together in order to make bodies, so they could do more using teamwork. Some of these cells were probably worried about the bodies “taking over”. And oh did they! But, these bodies also did their little cells a favor: they kept them alive and provided them with nutrition. Win-win baby!

I am not a full-fledged Singularitarian. I prefer to stay agnostic as long as I can. Its not just a human story. Our Singularity is just the one that is happening to us at the moment.

Similarly, the emergence of previous epochs may have been experienced as Singularities to those that came before.

When Earth Discovered Water

When Earth discovered water, life became possible.

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“Discover”? I was going to use the word “invent”. Then I remembered that water can be found on other planets, comets, asteroids…and the Moon. Water is not unique to Earth. It may be more accurate to say that Earth invented a way to preserve and manage its water by evolving the biosphere. The biosphere harnesses, protects, filters, and enlivens the water that covers most of the planet.

Mars did not succeed in preserving its water.

The Gaia Hypothesis blows open the perspective of what life is. The evolution of the self-adaptive, self-regulating spherical ecosystem that we call Earth is more than just a collection of interacting organisms. It also relies on the dynamics of storms, oceans, tectonic plates, and the balance of gases in the atmosphere.

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I began thinking about this as I was pouring boiling water into a coffee press. A beautiful stream, sparkling and transparent, visible only by virtue of the fact that it reflects the darks and lights of the surrounding environment.

What an amazing fluid. A true friend of gravity and heat, forming a collaboration resulting in a network of clouds, rain, snow, glaciers, streams, rivers and oceans.

There’s a deep reason why we can generate so much poetry about water.

“Planetary scientists are quick to stress that it’s not just water that’s indispensable for life, but liquid water. The distinction is key”

Water made life on Earth possible. Some people go as far as to say that water is alive.

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On the Origins of Earth’s Water

http://www.iflscience.com/physics/origin-earths-water-discovered-0

Did life on Earth begin with replicating molecules? Depends on how you define life. The backdrop for these replicating molecules was already rich and dynamic, with an interplay of water (in all its forms), gravity, atmospheric and ocean chemistry, electric storms…

…and the rhythms of day and night, winter and summer, which forms a backbeat. That backbeat drives the polyrhythmic dance that pulls water through its many forms – and brings us into being.

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Thoughts on the Evolution of Evolvability

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It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)

Why Nick Bostrom is Wrong About the Dangers of Artificial Intelligence

emvideo-youtube-VmtrvkGXBn0.jpg.pagespeed.ce.PHMYbBBuGwNick Bostrom is a philosopher who is known for his work on the dangers of AI in the future. Many other notable people, including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, have commented on the existential threats posed by a future AI. This is an important subject to discuss, but I believe that there are many careless assumptions being made as far as what AI actually is, and what it will become.

Yea yea, there’s Terminator, Her, Ex Machinima, and so many other science fiction films that touch upon deep and relevant themes about our relationship with autonomous technology. Good stuff to think about (and entertaining). But AI is much more boring than what we see in the movies. AI can be found distributed in little bits and pieces in cars, mobile phones, social media sites, hospitals…just about anywhere that software can run and where people need some help making decisions or getting new ideas.

John McCarthy, who coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” in 1956, said something that is totally relevant today: “as soon as it works, no one calls it AI anymore.” Given how poorly-defined AI is – how the definition of it seems to morph so easily, it is curious how excited some people get about its existential dangers. Perhaps these people are afraid of AI precisely because they do not know what it is.

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 10.51.56 AMElon Musk, who warns us of the dangers of AI, was asked the following question by Walter Isaacson: “Do you think you maybe read too much science fiction?” To which Musk replied:

“Yes, that’s possible”….“Probably.”

Should We Be Terrified?

In an article with the very subtle title, “You Should Be Terrified of Superintelligent Machines“, Bostrom says this:

An AI whose sole final goal is to count the grains of sand on Boracay would care instrumentally about its own survival in order to accomplish this.”

godzilla-610x439Point taken. If we built an intelligent machine to do that, we might get what we asked for. Fifty years later we might be telling it, “we were just kidding! It was a joke. Hahahah. Please stop now. Please?” It will push us out of the way and keep counting…and it just might kill us if we try to stop it.

Part of Bostrom’s argument is that if we build machines to achieve goals in the future, then these machines will “want” to survive in order to achieve those goals.

“Want?”

Bostrom warns against anthropomorphizing AI. Amen! In a TED Talk, he even shows a picture of the typical scary AI robot – like so many that have been polluting the air waves of late. He discounts this as anthropomorphizing AI.

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And yet Bostrom frequently refers to what an AI “wants” to do, the AI’s “preferences”, “goals”, even “values”. How can anyone be certain that an AI can have what we call “values” in any way that we can recognize as such? In other words, are we able to talk about “values” in any other context than a human one?

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 3.49.13 PMFrom my experience in developing AI-related code for the past 20 years, I can say this with some confidence: it is senseless to talk about software having anything like “values”. By the time something vaguely resembling “value” emerges in AI-driven technology, humans will be so intertwingled with it that they will not be able to separate themselves from it.

It will not be easy – or possible – to distinguish our values from “its” values. In fact, it is quite possible that we won’t refer to it at “it”. “It” will be “us”.

Bostrom’s fear sounds like fear of the Other.

That Disembodied Thing Again

Let’s step out of the ivory tower for a moment. I want to know how that AI machine on Boracay is going to actually go about counting grains of sand.

Many people who talk about AI refer to many amazing physical feats that an AI would supposedly be able to accomplish. But they often leave out the part about “how” this is done. We cannot separate the AI (running software) from the physical machinery that has an effect on the world – any more than we can talk about what a brain can do that has been taken out one’s head and placed on a table.

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It can jiggle. That’s about it.

Once again, the Cartesian separation of mind and body rears its ugly head – as it were – and deludes people into thinking that they can talk about intelligence in the absence of a physical body. Intelligence doesn’t exist outside of its physical manifestation. Can’t happen. Never has happened. Never will happen.

Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2023 a $1,000 laptop would have the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain. When put in these terms, it sounds quite plausible. But if you were to extrapolate that to make the assumption that a laptop in 2023 will be “intelligent” you would be making a mistake.

Many people who talk about AI make reference to computational speed and bandwidth. Kurzweil helped to popularize a trend for plotting computer performance along with with human intelligence, which perpetuates computationalism. Your brain doesn’t just run on electricity: synapse behavior is electrochemical. Your brain is soaking in chemicals provided by this thing called the bloodstream – and these chemicals have a lot to do with desire and value. And… surprise! Your body is soaking in these same chemicals.

Intelligence resides in the bodymind. Always has, always will.

So, when there’s lot of talk about AI and hardly any mention of the physical technology that actually does something, you should be skeptical.

Bostrom asks: when will we have achieved human-level machine intelligence? And he defines this as the ability “to perform almost any job at least as well as a human”.

I wonder if his list of jobs includes this:

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Intelligence is Multi-Multi-Multi-Dimensional

Bostrom plots a one-dimensional line which includes a mouse, a chimp, a stupid human, and a smart human. And he considers how AI is traveling along this line, and how it will fly past humans.

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Intelligence is not one dimensional. It’s already a bit of a simplification to plot mice and chimps on the same line – as if there were some single number that you could extract from each and compute which is greater.

Charles Darwin once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Is a bat smarter than a mouse? Bats are blind (dumber?) but their sense of echolocation is miraculous (smarter?)

parrot

Is an autistic savant who can compose complicated algorithms but can’t hold a conversation smarter than a charismatic but dyslexic soccer coach who inspires kids to be their best? Intelligence is not one-dimensional, and this is ESPECIALLY true when comparing AI to humans. Plotting them both on a single one-dimensional line is not just an oversimplification. By plotting AI on the same line as human intelligence, Bostrom is committing anthropomorphism.

AI cannot be compared apples-to-apples to human intelligence because it emerges from human intelligence. Emergent phenomena by their nature operate on a different plane than what they emerge from.

WE HAVE ONLY OURSELVES TO FEAR BECAUSE WE ARE INSEPARABLE FROM OUR AI

We and our AI grow together, side by side. AI evolves with us, for us, in us. It will change us as much as we change it. This is the posthuman condition. You probably have a smart phone (you might even be reading this article on it). Can you imagine what life was like before the internet? For half of my life, there was no internet, and yet I can’t imagine not having the internet as a part of my brain. And I mean that literally. If you think this is far-reaching, just wait another 5 years. Our reliance on the internet, self-driving cars, automated this, automated that, will increase beyond our imaginations.

Posthumanism is pulling us into the future. That train has left the station.

african cell phoneBut…all these technologies that are so folded-in to our daily lives are primarily about enhancing our own abilities. They are not about becoming conscious or having “values”. For the most part, the AI that is growing around us is highly-distributed, and highly-integrated with our activities – OUR values.

I predict that Siri will not turn into a conscious being with morals, emotions, and selfish ambitions…although others are not quite so sure. Okay – I take it back; Siri might have a bit of a bias towards Apple, Inc. Ya think?

Giant Killer Robots

armyrobotThere is one important caveat to my argument. Even though I believe that the future of AI will not be characterized by a frightening army of robots with agendas, we could potentially face a real threat: if military robots that are ordered to kill and destroy – and use AI and sophisticated sensor fusion to outsmart their foes – were to get out of hand, then things could get ugly.

But with the exception of weapon-based AI that is housed in autonomous mobile robots, the future of AI will be mostly custodial, highly distributed, and integrated with our own lives; our clothes, houses, cars, and communications. We will not be able to separate it from ourselves – increasingly over time. We won’t see it as “other” – we might just see ourselves as having more abilities than we did before.

Those abilities could include a better capacity to kill each other, but also a better capacity to compose music, build sustainable cities, educate kids, and nurture the environment.

If my interpretation is correct, then Bolstrom’s alarm bells might be better aimed at ourselves. And in that case, what’s new? We have always had the capacity to create love and beauty … and death and destruction.

To quote David Byrne: “Same as it ever was”.

Maybe Our AI Will Evolve to Protect Us And the Planet

Here’s a more positive future to contemplate:

AI will not become more human-like – which is analogous to how the body of an animal does not look like the cells that it is made of.

tree-of-lifeBillions of years ago, single cells decided to come together in order to make bodies, so they could do more using teamwork. Some of these cells were probably worried about the bodies “taking over”. And oh did they! But, these bodies also did their little cells a favor: they kept them alive and provided them with nutrition. Win-win baby!

To conclude, I disagree with Bostrom: we should not be terrified.

Terror is counter-productive to human progress.

The Evolution of Mathematics on Planet Earth

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math-heartMany people couldn’t imagine Math and Biology going out on a date. Flirting with each other from time to time…maybe. But a date? Never! Math is precise, abstract, cool, and distant. Biology is messy, unpredictable, prone to mood swings, and chemically dependent…as it were.

But this may be changing.

“The conversion of biology into a more quantifiable science will continue to the extent that it might even become the main driving force behind innovation and development in mathematics”

Philip Hunter

Let me explain why I think Math and Biology are ultimately compatible, and in fact, part of a Single Reality.

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I have written a few articles on the subject of math, and raised questions as to the universality, truth-status, and God-givenness of Math. Here is something to consider about Math and Biology:

Math Evolved in the Biosphere

Let’s start with numbers. Imagine a mother crow busily feeding her three chicks. She would become worried if she came back to her nest to suddenly find two chicks instead of three.

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She would know there something is wrong with this picture…because crows can count (they can subitize small numbers, like about 2 or 3).

How did it come about that some animals, like crows and humans, can count? First of all, in order for intelligent beings to be able to count, they have to live in an environment where countable objects are found, and where counting has some evolutionary benefit. Consider a gaseous planet where fluids intermix and there is no way to detect a “thing” or “event” and to compare that with another “thing” or “event”. In this kind of world, there is nothing to count.

seahorseFor that matter, it is unlikely that an intelligent entity that can count could ever evolve on such a planet in the first place, because structure and differentiation at some physical level are required for living things to bootstrap themselves into existence.

Theories of autopoiesis, negentropy, and the emergence of mind from matter rely on the existence of a prior structure to the universe where it is possible for self-regulation, and self-creation to arise. One might say that the origins of life had a head start long before those first molecules started dancing together and accidentally reproducing. Maybe it wasn’t such an accident after all.

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…which brings me to a core concept: since Earth’s biosphere gave rise to animals that can count, as well as those things that can be counted – at the same time, we must understand ourselves as in and of the biosphere – we and it all evolved together: one did not come before the other.

70212-1024x603Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Neither. They have both been in a continual state of becoming since egg-like things and chicken-like things have existed. And if you go back in time far enough, these things look less and less like chickens and eggs.

We animals have evolved to understand containment, and that is partly because hierarchy evolved within the fabric of physical biology. We know what it means for something to be “inside” or “outside” of something else. We clumpify, categorize, differentiate, compare, and identify. All animals need some degree of this compartmentalization of nature in order to operate within it.

We cannot separate our math from the environment from which it evolved. The very foundations of math evolved within the bodies and minds of animals as a part of evolution. At least this is what several recent scientists and philosophers are suggesting. (Mathematicians are more likely to claim that math is universal, constant, and unchanged by biology.)

OctoMath

In a previous article I consider what kind of math would have emerged if octopuses has evolved to become the complex and dominant species on earth, instead of humans. This is not so hard to imagine, considering how intelligent they are.

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Would an advanced octopus race have stumbled upon complex numbers? Would they have become as obsessed with the Cartesian coordinate system as we are? Since they have no skeletons, would they have formulated a geometry based on angles and lengths? Of course we can’t know, but it is likely that they would have created some math concepts that we may never achieve. And that would be because the long history of math that we have built and that we rely on to create new math has taken our brains and societies too far away from the place where an octopus-like math would naturally arise.

mouroborobius2Now consider aliens from a completely different kind of planet than Earth. What kind of math would originate in that world? Many people would argue that math is math and it doesn’t matter who or what discovers or articulates it. And there may be some truth to this. But we can only hope and imagine that this is the case.

Until we meet aliens from another planet and ask them if they understand and appreciate the fibonacci sequence, I have to assume that their math is different than ours.

What do you think?

(I would have consulted one of my octopus friends on the subject…but I don’t speak their language).