Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Evolutionary Development

Unlike the meaningful designs lying behind human creativity, no intelligent decision-making underlies the process of evolution. Species evolve as the result of random mutations. Those mutations that ensure fitness are passed on, while those deleterious to survival prove short-lived. Here we find a two-sided process is at work. Random experimentation drives evolutionary change, while development prunes variety down to the optimum. These two factors work together to produce the phenomenon of evolutionary development.

In the early stages of an evolutionary paradigm, one finds a larger degree of variation before development pares down design to optimum efficiency. For instance, in some lizards one finds a vestigial third eye on top of the head. The functional photosensory organ found atop the heads of some lizards lends evidence to the supposition that nature throws out all sorts of variations upon a common theme before a dominant paradigm develops, like that of dual forward-facing eyes.

parietal eye, iguana
parietal eye, lizard

Certain factors in the evolutionary development of dinosaurs suggest those animals were converging upon evolutionary paradigms more closely resembling our own. The body plans of the Troodon, a relatively small pack-hunter of the late Cretacious period, are conspicuously anthropomorphic by design. These creatures had the largest known brains of any dinosaur, sported forward-facing eyes. Paleontologist Dale Russel assembled a nearly complete Troodon skeleton in 1969. He speculated that had the species not been killed off by a meteorite extinction event, the evolutionary result would have been an intelligent “Dinosauroid.”

Dinosauroid image
The dinosauroid hypothesis

If Russel’s intuitions are accurate, the Dinosauroid hypothesis has profound implications for the future trajectory of the human species. If the vagaries of blind evolutionary selection predictably settle upon dominant archetypes, such as those found in large-brained mammals, there may well be a general path along which intelligent species are destined to follow. The best way to verify the hypothesis would be to look at examples of extraterrestrial intelligent life. But first we might ask just how likely we would be to find the existence of ETI’s in the first place.

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake conceived of an equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy by multiplying the number of stars in the Milky Way by the fraction of stars that have orbiting planets, the average number of planets capable of sustaining life, and the fraction of those civilizations currently communicating via electromagnetic radiation. The resultant Drake Equation includes many uncertain variables, for there is no way of knowing how likely life is to evolve on a planet like the earth, or if radio transmission is an inevitable convergent phenomenon arising from intelligence. Drake estimated there should be around ten thousand radio-capable civilizations in the galaxy. Carl Sagan guessed one million.

The Drake equation states that:
Drake Equation
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might expect to be able to communicate at any given time and
R* is the rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of the above that are willing and able to communicate
L is the expected lifetime of such a civilization

Arecibo telescope
SETI observations have been conducted at the 305m radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

The implications of the Drake equation were a motivating factor behind the SETI Institute’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, in a New Scientist article entitled “ET First Contact Within 20 Years,” cited the Drake and Sagan estimates as likely bounds within which one could expect to find the actual number of humanlike alien civilizations. Ray Kurzweil notes in The Singularity is Near, “The assumption behind SETI is that life—and intelligent life—is so prevalent that there must be millions if not billions of radio-capable civilizations in the universe… Not a single one of them, however, has made itself noticeable to our SETI efforts thus far” (347). In 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?” The question proves even more puzzling today, now that SETI has provided evidence that we are alone.

Acceleration Watch bannerThe Acceleration Watch webpage

One common response to the Fermi paradox is that earth may well be the first planet in the universe to carry intelligent life. For if an intelligent species within this galaxy developed advanced technologies thousands of years before humans, let alone millions, we should have heard from them by now. Futurist John Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, has proposed an alternate solution to the Fermi paradox, one that does not require humankind to have preternaturally “lucked out.” Smart’s universal transcension scenario hypothesizes that as intelligent life develops advanced technologies, these civilizations choose not to spread throughout the universe. Rather, they delve into inner and virtual space, essentially escaping this universe.

John Smart
Futurist John Smart, President of the Acceleration Studies Foundation

Smart describes universal transcension as an inevitable result of Convergent Evolution. As life evolves, it undergoes what Smart has termed MEST compression, yielding greater efficiencies of matter, energy, space, and time. Seen this way, both the evolutionary development of living species and the accelerating progress of information technologies follow the same paradigm of increasingly efficient design. The reason that homo sapiens dominate the planet is because of their MEST efficient phenotype. The body plans of humans are ideal, when compared to their extant earthbound alternatives, for developing intelligent machines. As a natural result, the next step in life on earth must necessarily be human equivalent AI. We should expect self-modifying artificial intelligence to be more interested in modifying its MEST efficiency by iteratively redesigning its hardware. This course will take intelligent life deeper and deeper into innerspace.

John Smart
and power point slides of John Smart's presentation on MEST compression at the Singularity Summit at Stanford

Expanding through space would not only be a waste of time and energy to our superintelligent progeny, the trip would prove dangerous and unenlightening. Forget trashing the universe with our genes, memes, and other viral junk. Had another civilization been so messy, ours would never have seen the light of day. In thinking about the future, we ought to consider nanometers, nanoseconds, and the infinite expanses of virtual reality. If convergent evolution demonstrates anything, it is that the definition of vision in future intelligences will reveal vast and complex vistas in the hospitable domains of the tiny and invisible.


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