May 27, 2005

Let Me Be Among the First to Welcome Our New Orbital Cybernetic Zombie Overlords!

I present for your edification three pieces of evidence that the modern world is, in fact, a really bad* science fiction movie.

  1. (Return of the Zombie Monger): Lo, these many months ago, I puzzled over how Christof Koch --- one of the brighter lights in the field of biological computation --- could be saying such obviously-wrong things about consciousness. Koch appears to be saying that consciousness evolved to allow us to engage in behavior which requires memory and planning, rather than the automatic responses of what philosophers call "zombies". The problem is that zombies, in that sense, are defined as creatures behaviorally identical to people, only without inner consciousness. Matthew Yglesias is now similarly puzzled, though he expresses his bafflement with less automata theory. I suppose I should really read Koch's book and see if he's really making the mistake he appears to be, or just ought to be cursing all publicists and science-writers for gross misunderstanding.
  2. (Death from Space): The Air Force wants to militarize space --- as in, spend a ton of money on filling it with weapons, as well as our existing spy satellites. Now, I like the idea of an orbital death-ray platform as much as the next guy (though really I'd prefer mind-control lasers), but actually doing something like this is just stupid. There's no way Star Wars will ever actually be a workable defensive technology. But an offensive capacity is far more feasible. It also only makes sense to encourage such things if you assume that you and yours are going to be ruling humanity with an iron fist and no allies for the next thousand years.
  3. (The Little Grey Cubes that Ate Ithaca): Victor Zykov and others working in Hod Lipson's lab at Cornell report successful self-reproduction by modular mechanical robots in Nature. There are cool movies available, too (either from the supplementary files at Nature, or directly from the lab at Cornell). This actually implements an old idea of John von Neumann's, for what he called "kinematic" self-reproduction. He imagined an automaton swimming in a large pool filled with machine parts (all presumably rust-proofed, or perhaps the pool was to be filled with oil?), snagging the ones it needed to assemble a new copy of itself, according to a plan it could carry in memory. You might object that the parts had to come from somewhere, but it seems clear that a robot which could do that could also assemble program-controlled machine tools, etc. (The mathematical field of cellular automata, which I hold dear, owes its existence to von Neumann's feeling that these arguments weren't completely rigorous, and that he needed something else to prove there was nothing self-contradictory in the idea of a self-reproducing machine. Things might have been very different if Johnny had been more of an experimentalist.) Zykov et al. have provided a neat implementation of this idea, minus the pool, using partially-articulated, mechanically-actuated metal cubes, which can swivel and attach to each other using electromagnets. Physically all the blocks were identical --- it's not clear to me from the paper whether their internal programming was differentiated. In any case, I thought this bit was very clever: "The four-module robot ... was able to construct a replica in 2.5 min by lifting and assembling cubes from the feeding locations. Because the replica is as large as the original, the replica reconfigures itself to assist in its own construction." They also suggest a very reasonable quantification of self-reproduction, by "by comparing the log probability of a machine spontaneously appearing in an environment to the log probability of it appearing, given that one instance already exists". They do not cite A. Merritt's 1920 pulp lost-world novel, The Metal Monster, the title character of which is made out of re-arrangeable cubes a few inches on a side.

Needless (?) to say, only the last of these is a basically-hopeful development.

(Thanks to Rob Haslinger and Dave Rainwater.)

Update, further to the theme: Via Gary Farber, startling photos of the Baikonur rocket junkyard.

Update 2, 8 June 2005: Cell announces the coming of Mutant Laser Zombie Flies from New Haven!; trailer; one critic's view ("I am so not going to sleep tonight"). (Thanks to Edward Burns for the pointer.)

*: Actually, to cite precedents from good science fiction, all three themes appear in Lem's great Peace on Earth. And, of course, it is well-established that we have been "living in a Ken MacLeod future since sometime not long after 9/11, and I wish he'd CUT IT OUT" --- to judge by this batch of news, we're someplace in the back-story of The Cassini Division (or perhaps The Sky Road, it's too early to tell).

Scientifiction; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Eternal Silence of These Infinite Spaces; The Continuing Crisis; Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted by crshalizi at May 27, 2005 23:45 | permanent link

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