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Sapience, sentience and AI… and other hot science news!


Ah… sapience

In another posting here I re-issued my June op-ed in NEWSWEEK about human response to AI, especially ‘empathy bots” like the notorious LaMDA. This op-ed – and other interviews – referred to a prediction I made 5 years ago that “in five years or so, we’ll be challenged by announcements of a fully sapient AI, demanding sympathy… and cash.”  

Here’s that talk on the A.I. future  at IBM’s World of Watson event in 2017, that offered big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation… and the text version. Few topics are more pressing for our future path… except saving civilization and the world and justice… and those will wind up enmeshed tightly with AI.

And so, in this more general science roundup, we’ll start by diving into the topic of sapience (a much better word than the badly misused “sentience”) yet again, as I expect we’ll do many times ahead.

== Sapience… sentience… pre vs. post ==

First, we know of only one sapient species, so far. This interesting paper appraises changes – across the last 6000 years or so – in prevalence of a number of genes that favor General Cognitive Ability (GCA). These observations are consistent with the expectation that GCA rose during the Holocene.  The result is very much in tune with what I posited in EXISTENCE. That there seem to have been rapid speedups in cognition and inventiveness, starting especially around 60,000 years ago.


What about our fellow Earthlings? It seems almost monthly that we see more stories about clever animals who use or even invent tools, who concoct clever escape plans, as in the case of a famous San Diego Zoo orangutan

…or who bear long memory grudges toward individual humans, as in swarms of vengeful crows or this Indian elephant, who showed up at the funeral of a woman he had trampled to death days earlier, to hurl the body and trample it, some more.

This topic, which I dived into 40 years ago with my Uplift Series, continues to fascinate, as in stories of wounded or entangled creatures deliberately seeking help from humans to patch harms or cut nets, etc., clearly making a distinction between good/helpful and bad/dangerous people.

Fascinating also is the way that – in many octopus species – the mother guards her eggs… only to later leave them and suicide in bizarre ways. While the main cause is unknown, some of the processes are being revealed. 

== And on to other science matters…. ==

Heads up. The search for room temperature superconductors is over! Though not yet useful, since the ‘higher order hydride’ structures that now superconduct at even 550K still require immense pressures. Still…

How are geographical discoveries still possible even now? “Cave explorers stumbled upon a prehistoric forest at the bottom of a giant sinkhole in South China earlier this month. Sinkholes such as these are also known in Chinese as Tiankeng, or “Heavenly pit. At 630 feet deep, the sinkhole would hide the Washington Monument and then some. The bottom of the pit holds an ancient forest spanning nearly three football fields in length, with trees towering over 100 feet. 

Even deeper, new techniques allow mapping of  the boundary between the Earth’s iron-nickel core and surrounding mantle to better understand one of the major engines for plate tectonics, volcano formation, and other related processes like earthquakes. Other scientists also believe there is a link between ultra-low velocity zones and volcanic hotspots, such as those in Hawaii and Iceland.

Neanderthal Man’s Recreated Face Takes Internet By Storm.  And yes, it is a cool reconstruction! Though come on. These folks lived primarily in Europe to the Urals. And this particular fellow lived in Doggerland, between England and Denmark. He’d have white skin. Vitamin D, don’t cha know. Possibly even blond hair.

If the Amazon dies, beef will be the killer. And America will be an accomplice, Brazil is burning down the Amazon so you can eat steak. And I say this as a NON-vegetarian…. who has cut way back on air-breathing meat for numerous reasons like health, but also in order not be contributing one more economic driver to such devastation. I can sustain my carnivorality tastes treating red stuff as a condiment, like ketchup! And bring on the tissue culture!

Interesting medical news:

Further facial recreation: an article in the NYT about a patient who had a prosthetic ear 3D printed from her own cells. Beyond immediate beneficial medical use, it could/would eventually lead to people using this technology for “artistic” purposes – that is, in the same way that we customize bodies using tattoos and piercings, we could “add” additional fleshy lumps to various places. They can’t print nerve cells (for now, anyway) so the new additions would have the tactile sensation of a plastic brick.  So your stylish elf ears might have… Legoleprosy?

As blogmunity member “Talin” suggests: “A different extrapolation is one where the archetypal fantasy races – elves / dwarves / orcs and so on – are actually created from humans who want to live that lifestyle. I mean we sort of have the beginnings of this with gender-affirming surgery…”species affirming”?”

Small cancer drug trial sees tumors disappear in 100 percent of patients”. 

And also the diabetes drug that lost a lot of folks a lot of weight.

== Finally, all about science and…. magic!  ==

Caltech physicist Spiros Michalakis and Hollywood writer/producer Ed Solomon (co-creator of Bill & Ted) speak with Caltech science writer (and sci-fi fan) Whitney Clavin about how they collaborate to make science shine in film.  

First, there IS a form of magic that irrefutably works and it works via modalities of incantation. If you define that magic is about using word spells to create vivid subjective realities in other peoples’ heads, then I am among the top, industrial grade magicians. Ever.

Some assert that magic can also affect objective reality – e.g. making the rain fall or putting-on hexes or curing ailments, despite the fact that most such claims evaporate under scrutiny.  A few don’t evaporate! In fact, any magic that does causally affect the physical world consistently eventually becomes… part of science.

But there is also some merit to studying magical claims, even knowing they are objectively bogus, because they were utterly persuasive for tens of thousands of years. 

And so, here at this posting I talk about some of the rule-based systems that have been used in magic systems by shamans and wizards and priests for millennia. And here, I discuss the differences between science fiction and fantasy.

In this audio talk, I dive into some of the fundamental differences and similarities between magic and science.

And we all have superstitious or romantic corners within us. The trick is to reserve them for certain realms that enrich our lives… our personal lives of evenings and weekends and art and fantasy… while being abolutely determined to exile romanticism and subjective roars and such twaddle from the daytime business of justice and negotiating pragmatic solutions anf – above all – policy.



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