Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.
I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.
Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?
It brings tears to my eyes. A little guy millions of miles from home. The only spark of acknowledged intelligence on the entire planet. It’s his birthday and he’s singing “Happy Birthday” to himself. It’s downright depressing. The guy, however, is the Mars rover Curiosity. It is a machine. The headline, however, jerks an emotional response from all but the coldest of individuals: “Lonely Curiosity rover sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself on Mars.” It’s that word “lonely.” It gets me every time. Then I stop to think about machine consciousness again. Empirical orthodoxy tells us that consciousness—which is probably just an illusion anyway—is restricted to people. Animals, we’re told, are “machines” acting out their “programing” and not really feeling anything. So robots we build and send to empty planets have no emotions, don’t feel lonely, and are not programed for sadness. Even your dog can’t be sad.
Amazing how short-sighted such advanced minds can be.
We don’t understand consciousness. We’re pretty wowed by our own technology, however, so that building robots can be brought down to the level of middle-school children. We build them, but we don’t understand them. And we may be losing part of ourselves in the process. An undergraduate I know who works in a summer camp to earn some money tells me a couple of disturbing things. Her middle-school-aged charges are having trouble with fine motor skills. They have trouble building basic balsa-wood airplanes. Some of them can’t figure out how paperclips work. One said she couldn’t write unless she had access to a computer. This camp worker’s supervisor suggested that this is typical of the “touchscreen generation.” They’re raised without the small motor skills that we’ve come to take for granted. Paperclips, it seems to me, are pretty intuitive.
Some 34 million miles away, Curiosity sits on Mars. An exile from Earth or an explorer like Henry Hudson? Or just a machine?
Machines don’t always do what you tell them to. I attended enough high school robotics sessions to know that. Yet at the local 4-H fair the robots have a tent next to the goats, the dogs, and the chickens. We’ve come to love our devices. We give them names. They seem to have personalities. Some would claim that this blog is the mere result of programing (“consciousness”) just as surely as Curiosity’s programmed singing to itself out in the void. I’m not for turning back the clock, but it does seem to me that having more time to think about what we do might benefit us all. This constant rush to move ahead is exhausting and confusing. And now I’m sitting her wondering how to get this belated birthday card delivered all the way to Mars.
Posted in Astronomy, Consciousness, Current Events, Posts, Robotics, Science
Tagged 4-H Fair, Consciousness, Mars, Mars rover Curiosity, Robotics, technology, touchscreen generation, Washington Post