Friday, 8 June 2012

Aliens and AI

Many works of science fiction, including many by Poul Anderson, address the hypothetical issue of human-alien interaction. Anderson's later works, the Harvest of Stars tetralogy and Genesis, instead address the equally hypothetical issue of human-AI (artificial intelligence) interaction. If we do not meet other intelligences, might we create them? If they do not co-exist with us, might they succeed us?

(Parenthetically, in Anderson's Time Patrol series, we think that our evolutionary successors, the Danellians, remain organic, not post-organic. When I first read The Guardians Of Time, I thought that the Danellians were the time travel equivalent of aliens. As space travellers might meet extraterrestrials, so time travellers might meet "extratemporals"?)

Philosophically, I accept John Searle's argument that computers merely simulate intelligence but that a different kind of artifact might indeed duplicate the brain functions of consciousness and intelligence. It would follow that AI is not an immediate prospect and that it will not emerge simply from a few more generations of computers.

The Boat Of A Million Years is an intermediate work addressing both aliens and AI. Its aliens are less numerous and more alien:

physically, less humanoid, departing from the biped with torso, arms, head and face model;
psychologically and intellectually, far less easy to establish regular communication with;
socio-politically, when contacted at last over vast distances and with advanced technology, not rival imperialists but fellow explorers.

The problem in Boat is that interstellar explorers are mostly robotic, ultimately AI's, and that they can cope with data from only about a hundred light years away so will not explore further except in exceptional circumstances. Meanwhile, Anderson suggests, they will absorb their creators into their intellectually superior systems and will direct their attention away from organic life while the few remaining organic beings turn inward and away from cosmic exploration. Anderson and his leading characters want humanity to survive, to remain active and to move outwards so, of course, they find a way to do this: interstellar exploration by human and other organic beings - more expensive and difficult than with robots but infinitely more worthwhile.

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