BISASusan Schneider’s recent paper argues that when we hear from alien civilisations, it’s almost bound to be super intelligent robots getting in touch, rather than little green men. She builds on Nick Bostrom’s much-discussed argument that we’re all living in a simulation.

Actually, Bostrom’s argument is more cautious than that, and more carefully framed. His claim is that at least one of the following propositions is true:
(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
(2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
(3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

So that if we disbelieve the first two, we must accept the third.

In fact there are plenty of reasons to argue that the first two propositions are true. The first evokes ideas of nuclear catastrophe or an unexpected comet wiping us out in our prime, but equally it could just be that no post human stage is ever reached. We only know about the cultures of our own planet, but two of the longest lived – the Egyptian and the Chinese – were very stable, showing few signs of moving on towards post humanism. They made the odd technological advance, but they also let things slip: no more pyramids after the Old Kingdom; ocean-going junks abandoned before being fully exploited. Really only our current Western culture, stemming from the European Renaissance, has displayed a long run of consistent innovation; it may well be a weird anomaly and its five-hundred year momentum may well be temporary. Maybe our descendants will never go much further than we already have; maybe, thinking of Schneider’s case, the stars are basically inhabited by Ancient Egyptians who have been living comfortably for millions of years without ever discovering electricity.

The second proposition requires some very debatable assumptions, notably that consciousness is computable. But the notion of “simulation” also needs examination. Bostrom takes it that a computer simulation of consciousness is likely to be conscious, but I don’t think we’d assume a digital simulation of digestion would do actual digesting. The thing about a simulation is that by definition it leaves out certain aspects of the real phenomenon (otherwise it’s the phenomenon itself, not a simulation). Computer simulations normally leave out material reality, which could be a problem if we want real consciousness. Maybe it doesn’t matter for consciousness; Schneider argues strongly against any kind of biological requirement and it may well be that functional relations will do in the case of consciousness. There’s another issue, though; consciousness may be uniquely immune from simulation because of its strange epistemological greediness. What do I mean? Well, for a simulation of digestion we can write a list of all the entities to be dealt with – the foods we expect to enter the gut and their main components. It’s not an unmanageable task, and if we like we can leave out some items or some classes of item without thereby invalidating the simulation. Can we write a list of the possible contents of consciousness? No. I can think about any damn thing I like, including fictional and logically impossible entities. Can we work with a reduced set of mental contents? No; this ability to think about anything is of the essence.

All this gets much worse when Bostrom floats the idea that future ancestor simulations might themselves go on to be post human and run their own nested simulations, and so on. We must remember that he is really talking about simulated worlds, because his simulated ancestors need to have all the right inputs fed to them consistently. A simulated world has to be significantly smaller in information terms than the world that contains it; there isn’t going to be room within it to simulate the same world again at the same level of detail. Something has to give.

Without the indefinite nesting, though, there’s no good reason to suppose the simulated ancestors will ever outnumber the real people who ever lived in the real world. I suppose Bostrom thinks of his simulated people as taking up negligible space and running at speeds far beyond real life; but when you’re simulating everything, that starts to be questionable. The human brain may be the smallest and most economic way of doing what the human brain does.

Schneider argues that, given the same Whiggish optimism about human progress we mentioned earlier, we must assume that in due course fleshy humans will be superseded by faster and more capable silicon beings, either because robots have taken over the reins or because humans have gradually cyborgised themselves to the point where they are essentially super intelligent robots. Since these post human beings will live on for billions of years, it’s almost certain that when we make contact with aliens, that will be the kind we meet.

She is, curiously, uncertain about whether these beings will be conscious. She really means that they might be zombies, without phenomenal consciousness. I don’t really see how super intelligent beings like that could be without what Ned Block called access consciousness, the kind that allows us to solve problems, make plans, and generally think about stuff; I think Schneider would agree, although she tends to speak as though phenomenal, experiential consciousness was the only kind.

She concludes, reasonably enough, that the alien robots most likely will have full conscious experience. Moreover, because reverse engineering biological brains is probably the quick way to consciousness, she thinks that a particular kind of super intelligent AI is likely to predominate: biologically inspired superintelligent alien (BISA). She argues that although BISAs might in the end be incomprehensible, we can draw some tentative conclusions about BISA minds:
(i). Learning about the computational structure of the brain of the species that created the BISA can provide insight into the BISAs thinking patterns.
(ii) BISAs may have viewpoint invariant representations. (Surely they wouldn’t be very bright if they didn’t?)
(iii) BISAs will have language-like mental representations that are recursive and combinatorial. (Ditto.)
(iv) BISAs may have one or more global workspaces. (If you believe in global workspace theory, certainly. Why more than one, though – doesn’t that defeat the object? Global workspaces are useful because they’re global.)
(v) A BISA’s mental processing can be understood via functional decomposition.

I’ll throw in a strange one; I doubt whether BISAs would have identity, at least not the way we do. They would be computational processes in silicon: they could split, duplicate, and merge without difficulty. They could be copied exactly, so that the question of whether BISA x was the same as BISA y could become meaningless. For them, in fact, communicating and merging would differ only in degree. Something to bear in mind for that first contact, perhaps.

This is interesting stuff, but to me it’s slightly surprising to see it going on in philosophy departments; does this represent an unexpected revival of the belief that armchair reasoning can tell us important truths about the world?


  1. 1. Sci says:

    What does it mean for a mind – machine or biological – to be “incomprehensible”?

    Makes me think of Lovecraft’s Old Ones floating in the void. Any good reason to believe this sort of thing belongs outside of the SFF and comic book sections of the bookstore?

    “This is interesting stuff, but to me it’s slightly surprising to see it going on in philosophy departments; does this represent an unexpected revival of the belief that armchair reasoning can tell us important truths about the world?”

    You likely need a combination. I think without a formulation of the Hard Problem from philosophy people would think figuring out the *wiring* that gives us access to phenomenal experience would be enough to claim we’d figured how the mystery of consciousness.

    Speaking of said combination, there’s an interesting book out by Smolin and Unger rejecting a variety of things such as Multiverse silliness:

    I know in Time Reborn Smolin briefly suggested qualia exceeded reductionist explanations, and that consciousness *might* relate to his notion of real time in some way.

    Will let you know if there’s more in this book, but regardless I think it’ll be an interested read touching on some “meta” considerations in empiricism and philosophy.

  2. 2. Hunt says:

    When I think of the promise of transhumanism I buck the usual trend of thinking that we will merge with machines and become God-like. Maybe it’s an infantile aspect of my personality, but I think about returning to child-like wonder and innocence. I want to re-experience those things that life seem to have sealed off from my jaded adult personality. For me, transhumanism would be more like a pruning process than one of exponential growth. Perhaps the aliens will agree with me and that part of their civilization they send to discover new worlds will be the post-alien infants and children. We’ll have to wait until later to meet their parents (and hope that they like us).

  3. 3. Sci says:

    @Hunt: Interesting post. Makes me think of Lanier discussing how Virtual Reality would lead to generations of children engaging in “post-symbolic communication”:

    I will hopefully be around to see what such children think about consciousness, given our tendency to try to understand the qualitative via our symbols of logic & math which as the philosopher Freya Matthews notes tend to always leave something out.

  4. 4. Sergio Graziosi says:

    does this represent an unexpected revival of the belief that armchair reasoning can tell us important truths about the world?

    You would hope! But it’s more likely just academic philosophy trying hard to preserve it’s own existence…
    Seriously: Bostrom is a very clever chap, and his work IS relevant, even if (or specifically because) one doesn’t always have to agree with all he writes.

    Your point on the loss of detail every time you nest one simulation into the other is particularly relevant here, I just don’t see how one can propose that simulations will be that common… On the other hand, we do have a problem of scale: we think the observable universe is made of a staggering enormous amount of interacting particles, but that’s tied to our own ability to understand, it’s an evaluation due to our own “scale”, not an objective/absolute fact. Furthermore, who can say that the observable universe is not itself a particle in an even greater superthing, or that a single particle doesn’t contain lots of self-contained, but interacting supertiny-particles? There may be virtually unlimited (potential) processing power out there (not to mention the promises of quantum computing), we just know that we can’t tell for sure.
    Also: there is a clear and present danger that we’ll manage to make ourselves extinct quite soon, and one can see it as a self-generating problem. Once a species is smart enough to change the environment and adapt it to its own needs, it will generate global changes, which are demonstrably very hard to predict. So I tend to believe that the intelligence necessary to trigger the desired changes is likely to be not enough to foresee/prevent/reverse the unintended consequences (applies at all scales!). This could explain why we have no indication that aliens exist: there is a technological roof that civilisations hit and never (or very rarely) actually manage to escape their original planets.

    Re your strange one: “[BISAs] could split, duplicate, and merge without difficulty”. Split: maybe. Duplicate: almost certainly (but the two copies will start diverging as soon as they are created). Merge: very difficult to say (we kind-of split+merge via sexual reproduction!). I agree that Identity is likely to be very blurry for BISAs, but have other reasons to believe that an intra/inter galactic civilisation would still need to be based on discrete agents: it’s a very effective way to diversify and explore as many ecological niches as possible (and spread across a galaxy 😉 ). A centralised “unique” and teleological superintelligence would eventually make a fatal mistake, no matter how smart (thus we get back to Bostrom and the singularity runaway argument).

  5. 5. Scott Bakker says:

    Ah, those techno-optimists. My next post actually discusses this in detail (via a criticism of Eric Schwitzgebel’s recent account of AI rights). The point you make about BISA’s and identity is a shrewd one, Peter: machines are ‘componentially combinatorial’ in a manner that humans (as yet) are not. This features large in the argument I present, which is that asking how we might accommodate AI into existing forms of moral cognition presumes too much, and neglects the radical nature of the threat AI poses to intentional cognition more generally.

    I find none of the digitalism stuff even remotely convincing (check out Eric Steinhart’s Digital Afterlives for a excellent crash course). Any predicate, such as ‘is a simulation,’ that can be attached to any claim whatsoever is vacuous. As with envatment, it presumes the simulating reality is structurally identical to the simulated… quite an astonishing ontological leap of faith, if you think about it.

  6. 7. Sci says:

    @Scott: Good stuff. In line with Rosenberg’s pessimistic outlook on AI. Not sure either of you is right, but this is far more honest than the silly Singularity, meet your AI girlfriend in virtual paradise stuff the computationalists proselytize.

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