Friday, January 30, 2009

AWA Celebrates IYA!

The International Year of Astronomy is underway, and Are We Alone? will be dedicating program segments, blog entries, and sometimes entire shows to celebrate! Tune in, log on, and space out by listening to the show, visiting this very blog, or checking out the Are We Alone? webpage dedicated to the International Year of Astronomy. There are less than 12 months left before its over. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Human Intelligence Special?

Our "You Animal!" show prompted this exhange between listener Chis Lehmann and Alex Kacelnik, a behavioral ecologist at Oxford University and guest on the program.

Bottom line: is human intelligence special (btw, we'll cover more of this in the show coming up: "Feather Knows Best!")?

Prof. Kacelnik,

I have a long and deep personal interest in the topic of what I call the human-animal relationship. Of course that includes the sub-topic of animal minds. Listening to you caused me to have an "aha" moment which shone some light on the struggle we (humans) have when discussing whether animals (non-human) have "intelligence." Specifically, you said:

"Just to show that an animal does something difficult does not mean that it does it having the same level of experience as we do. It is perfectly possible to do very complex things simply on the basis of simply very sophisticated programs of responding to the world."

My "aha" insight was this: we always approach this from our human perspective and with lots of references to our own abilities. which we know so well from personal experience. We find it fairly easy to prove, or to create sufficient doubt that any other animal species has the ability to respond to the world in quite the same way we do. So ... what if we turn the question around, look in the mirror and ask ourselves this question:

Q. Is human "intelligence" simply demonstrating a (more) complex programmed ability to respond to stimuli from the environment?

Prove to me that it is anything else. I mean this in the most sincere terms. If human intelligence is simply a more (differently) sophisticated form of programmed response to the environment, then we only differ from other species by degree.

Regards, Christopher J. Lehmann

Dr. Kacelnik's response:

You are right, Chris, and chaps in AI (artificial intelligence) deal with the problem repeatedly. Ultimately, we vouch for us having mental experiences because each of us knows by introspection, but we can’t tell about others.

This is related to what is called the “hard problem” of the study of consciousness. We may even have awareness of what we do post hoc, namely we do it, as zombies, and then we know that we have done it and we tell ourselves that we did it for some great motive.

Hope this helps.

- A

P.S. Have a look at this:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Humanity a Spacefaring Race?

In his most recent article for's SETI feature, Seth suggests that, thanks to huge advances in probe technologies vs. modest advances in rocketry, unmanned spaceflight is humanity's best bet for extra-solar exploration in the near future:

"Let's look at some numbers. Von Braun's V-2 rockets crossed the English Channel at 1 mile per second. NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto - the fastest spacecraft ever launched - is headed to this erstwhile planet at 10 miles per second. That's an order-of-magnitude improvement after 70 years.

Now consider one component of our remote sensing capabilities - our ability to "see" what we're exploring. The Mariner 4 spacecraft - the first to snap decent photos of Mars - was fitted with a monochrome TV camera having a resolution of 40 thousand pixels. In the summer of 1965, it sailed by the red planet while imaging craters as small as a few miles across.

Today, the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter boasts a resolution of 200 million pixels (and shoots in color). It can discern items on the surface as small as a horse.

In other words, in seven decades our rockets sped up by a factor of ten, but in little more than half that time our cameras improved by a factor of five thousand. There's no comparison: probe technology is marching to the beat of a faster drummer."

You can read the whole article here or here. Paul Gilster also wrote a similar piece for Centauri Dreams, which you can read here and a follow up comparing his article to Seth's which you can read here.