Thinking About Thinking

The Edge question for 2015 is “What do you think about machines that think?

The first two responses I read were from Sean Carroll and Nick Bostrom. I have been a long time followier of Sean Carroll blog’s Preposterous Universe and have also recently read Bostrom’s book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

Carroll took the opportunity to revisit yet again his long running atheist argument that we can explain everything with physical law by erasing the distinction between us and machines. His response entitled “We Are All Machines That Think” really misses the point of the question, I think.

Bostrom, on the other hand, in his response “A Difficult Topic” immediately begins discussing intelligence which may or may not be the same as thinking. I had planned to write a separate post on Bostrom’s book but will touch on my issues with that book here.

Not surprising, most open-ended questions with imprecise definitions of terms generate answers using different definitions. The terms in this question with imprecise definitions are “machines” and “thinking”. I will be curious to see if other responders even care to define the terms as they provide their answers. I will explore my thoughts on those terms and what they mean to the answer of the Edge question.

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A Close Stellar Encounter

Just when we thought we were safe after the 2012 Doomsday comes word that our solar system may be visited by a star. The good news is that it will not be anytime soon.

Coryn Bailer-Jones, a German astrophysicist, calculated possible paths for 50,000 stars in the Milky Way. The star HIP 85605, now  16 light years away in the constellation of Hercules. is heading towards our solar system and may pass through the Oort Cloud sometime between 240 and 470 thousand years from now. The Oort Cloud is a spherical band of what is to believed to be small icy objects that surrounds our solar system. Small is a relative term here. Even a small object perturbed from its orbit could plunge into the inner solar system to cause havoc on Earth. The passing of even a small star through the Oort Cloud could generate a storm of comets.

The paper can be read here.

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The Raw and the Cooked

In a 1964 book, The Raw and the Cooked, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss charts a winding course through the myths of the Bororo people of South America. Beginning with a story of the rape of a mother and subsequent attempts at revenge by the father culminating in the eventual murder of the father’s wives by the youth, Levi-Strauss weaves myth upon myth with the larger objective of showing how empirical opposites – such as raw and cooked, moistened and burned, fresh and decayed – constitute the conceptual foundation of culture. Levi-Strauss claims that concealed in the myth of rape and revenge is the story of the origin of cooked food and what distinguishes us from animals. We cook our food. We transform nature just as cooking transforms food. That is what sets us apart from the animal and makes us human.

While Levi-Strauss’s exercise was about myth, a new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham argues the Bororo myths may be scientifically true. It is all about energy.

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