Sunday Night Links

ALIENS

Pam Weintraub: After centuries searching for extraterrestrial life, we might find that first contact is not with organic creatures at all

When our first encounter or detection finally occurs, it could be a machine intelligence that appears in our sights.

The idea is not truly new. Back in the 1940s, the mathematician John von Neumann explored the possibilities of non-biological, self-replicating systems steeped in computation but requiring no operating minds. Later on, in the 1980s, others expanded on this concept by considering the real engineering needs for autonomous, replicating, space-faring devices; these machines would be able to roam the Universe, finding raw materials to build more and more of themselves, creating the infrastructure for energy from space or human settlement among the stars.

It would require a more complex mission still for such devices to have true artificial intelligence (AI). What would that purpose be, and what kind of AI is such a machine likely to have? An encounter with an alien machine could help us unravel this puzzle.

One possibility is that this machine is super-capable, exceeding our human capacity for cognitive or analytical tasks. Such an AI might be exceedingly hard to understand, either in terms of its underlying motivation or because of practical barriers of communication bandwidth. For this device, talking to us might be like talking to an infant. Or trying to discuss the collected works of Shakespeare using pictographs. An alien system optimised for processing vast data streams might not even be able to downgrade its pace enough to notice that we’re trying to talk, whether we use technology or not.

An extraterrestrial (ET) AI could also be seriously intimidating and scary simply because of its machine nature: a thing animated from non-living pieces, just like the classic tale of the golem moulded from clay or mud. By comparison, while a biological alien might be shocking, it would surely have some traits in common with us. We could convince ourselves that evolution leads to recognisable, even sympathetic behaviours and intentions. An artificial entity need not follow all of those evolutionary rules, taking alienness to a whole other level.

Encountering an alien AI would not only point to our own possible future, but also prompt a curious shift in our worldview. When Nicolaus Copernicus proposed in the 1500s that the Earth was not central in any way to the Universe, he set in motion the development of a critical scientific idea: that there is nothing cosmically special or significant about us. But meeting an ET-AI could turn that realisation on its head: if the only intelligence we meet is machine in nature, then we would be special, after all.


AMERICA

Victor Davis HansonThe Carnivores of Civil Liberties:

Why have the former guardians of civil liberties flipped in the near half-century since Watergate?

One, both the media and the liberal establishment believed that the outsider Trump represented an existential danger to themselves and the nation at large—similar to the way operatives in the Nixon Administration had felt about far-left presidential challenger George McGovern in 1972.

But this time around, liberals were not out of power as they were in 1972. Instead, they were the establishment. They held the reins of federal power under the Obama Administration. And they chose to exercise it in a fashion similar to how Nixon’s team had in 1972.

Second, pollsters and the media were convinced that Hillary Clinton would be elected. As a result, members of the FBI, CIA, and other federal bureaucracies apparently assumed that any extralegal efforts to stop the common menace Trump would be appreciated rather than punished by a soon-to-be President Clinton.

Three, those in the Obama Administration, the Clinton campaign, and the media formed an echo chamber. All convinced themselves that any means necessary to achieve the noble ends of precluding a Trump presidency were justified.

The danger of such groupthink continues; even now they are unaware of the impending bomb that is about to go off.


DRUGS

Scott Alexander on Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder and “the specter of permanent side effects”:

I recently worked with a man who took LSD once in college and never stopped hallucinating. It’s been ten years now and it’s still going. We can control it with medication, but take the meds away and it starts right back up again.

This is a real disease – hallucinogen persisting perception disorder. Most descriptions of the condition emphasize that it’s just some the visual effects and doesn’t involve distorted reality perception. I’m not sure I believe this – my patient has some weird thoughts sometimes, and 65% of HPPD patient have panic attacks related to their symptoms. Maybe if you can see the walls bubbling, you’re going to be having a bad time whether you believe it’s “really true” or not.

Estimates of prevalence vary. It seems more common on LSD and synthetic cannabinoids, less common (maybe entirely absent) on psilocybin and peyote. Some people say about 1-4% of LSD users will get some form of this, which seems shockingly high to me – why don’t we hear about this more often? If I were a drug warrior or DARE instructor, I would never shut up about this. But if most people just get some mild visual issues – by all accounts the most common form of the condition – maybe they never tell anybody. Maybe 1-4% of people who have tried LSD are walking around with slightly distorted perception all the time.


PSI

The Daily Grail: Is controversial research into telepathy and other seeming ‘super-powers’ of the mind starting to be more accepted by orthodox science?

In its latest issue, American Psychologist – the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Psychological Association – has published a paper that reviews the research so far into parapsychological (‘psi’) abilities, and concludes that the “evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of psi, which cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms.”

The new paper – “The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: a review“, by Etzel Cardeña of Lund University – also discusses recent theories from physics and psychology “that present psi phenomena as at least plausible”, and concludes with recommendations for further progress in the field.

The paper begins by noting the reason for presenting an overview and discussion of the topic: “Most psychologists could reasonably be described as uninformed skeptics — a minority could reasonably be described as prejudiced bigots — where the paranormal is concerned”. Indeed, it quotes one cognitive scientist as stating that the acceptance of psi phenomena would “send all of science as we know it crashing to the ground”.


TRUMP

A Steve Sailer thought experiment:

What if … Trump’s North Korea policy turns out to be a huge success, the economy continues to boom, the GOP maintains control of the House this fall, in October 2019 Trump shares the Nobel Peace Prize with the North and South Korean leaders, and the next day he announces that, mission accomplished, he is retiring and not running for re-election even though he would win?

Who runs instead? Who wins?

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