Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sci-Fi I Want to See As Sci-Fact (Part 1)

When I was a kid, I used to love sci-fi. Movies, books, short stories, it didn't matter. I loved it all. I especially loved stories set in a human future. I loved to dream about what life would be like in 2010 (or even 1999). The kid I was might be a little disappointed how things have turned out. I mean, where's my flying car? Where are the moon bases? How come we still don't have a colony on Mars? Sure, we have cell phones, and the Internet is probably one of the most quickly pervasive and culture altering developments since the automobile, but they seem a little tame when compared to the futures of Space: 1999, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now that I'm an adult (for the most part), I'm still fascinated by visions of the future, even if I'm a little more critical of the various futuristic visions I come across. Also, my priorities have changed a bit. I'm not all that interested in a flying car, though I would like one that would drive itself, so I could read, nap, surf the net, what have you, during my commute. Nevertheless, there are speculated future developments I yearn for.

First Contact

Probably hundreds, if not thousands of stories have been written about mankind's first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. One of the most plausible (to me, at least) is Contact, by Carl Sagan. In it, he imagines a first contact coming in the form of a signal received from outer space. Indeed, there are a number of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects going on right now. I even participate in one of them, SETI@home, a project which uses home computers' downtime to analyze radio waves from space, hoping to find a signal amid all that noise. Of course, I'd love to have the home computer that actually found such a signal, but just having it happen would be exciting enough, regardless of who actually found such a signal.

Why does the idea excite me? Haven't I seen Independence Day? Or V, or War of the Worlds? Aren't I afraid of becoming an item on some intergalactic buffet? Quite frankly, no. First of all, the chances that some alien species, evolved on a completely different world, with completely different evironmental factors, would even be able to use us as a food source are likely very small. Second, I think if they've mastered interstellar travel, they've likely solved any problems related to a sustainable food supply. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I think benign curiosity, if not outright benevolence is a more likely motivation for interstellar exploration than conquest.

AI: Artificial Intelligence

Almost as exciting as first contact with an ETI, and perhaps more likely to happen first, is the development of a true artificial intelligence. My excitement for this is two-fold. First, it would be wonderful to be able to interact with computers as naturally as we do with people. I'd love to have a personal artificial secretary who would keep all my appointments straight, scan the web for information I need or simply might like to know, and screen my incoming information such as phone calls, emails, texts, tweets, and whatever other manner we devise to keep ourselves connected. But aside from simple convenience, I think the insights into our own intelligence we will surely gain from the development of an AI will be invaluable. Also, I'm a bit of a singularitarian. I think we should be working to create an AI that will be beneficial to the human race. I believe that we face problems that our own intelligence, unaided, is proving inadequate to solve. Already we have AIs that can devise their own scientific experiments, carry them out, and analyze the results. Can true human-equivalent artificial intelligence be that far behind?

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