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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Future Humans with Enhanced Imaginations May Have No Need for Virtual Reality

The idea of virtual reality has been around for decades. You put on a pair of goggles, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in a computer-generated 3D world. Technology has been slow at bringing this idea to fruition, but this is an area where we can be very confident that spectacular progress will be made. There are absolutely no theoretical roadblocks to creating an extremely vivid 3D landscape that you can view with virtual reality goggles. Making virtual reality a household reality is just a matter of making more progress in visualization technology that has been progressing at a high rate of progress for decades. No doubt within twenty years, you will be able to have spectacular virtual reality experiences at a reasonable cost.

But what about interacting with the 3D world you see while wearing the virtual reality goggles? It will be hard for an interface to allow seamless interactions. Someone wearing virtual reality goggles may be able to manipulate a controller with his hands, maybe something like a video controller. But this creates a kind of imperfect blend. You are using your hands (which you cannot see with the goggles on) to interact with the world you view while wearing the goggles. And what if you want to interact with the virtual world or its inhabitants in a way that the simple controller doesn't allow? For example, in the virtual world you might want to kiss a character on the cheek, but your simple controller may offer no way to do that.

Another idea for interacting with a computer-generated reality is an idea advanced on the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation: the idea of a holodeck. The idea is that you go into some special room where there are very sophisticated holographic projectors. All of the walls, the ceiling, and the floor of the holodeck are involved in the holographic projection. So after entering such a room, you might suddenly find yourself seeing just what someone would see at the Grand Canyon. You look all around, and everything looks just as it would if you were in the Grand Canyon, even at your feet. You may also interact with what looks like other people, but these too are just holographic projections.  There is no need to wear any special goggles.

The basic idea of a holodeck seems technically feasible, although in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, the idea was stretched to what seemed like unrealistic extremes, as we would see people using the holodeck sitting on holographic chairs and lying on holographic beds. It would seem that a holographic projection would offer no such solidity.

The main drawback of a holograph is that it isn't a “use around the house” kind of thing, requiring a large expensive room capable of sophisticated holographic projection. Another drawback is that a holodeck seems unsuitable for a simulation in which you are walking around for long distances, such as a simulation in which you are walking around on the streets of a city.

But there's another idea for how future humans could experience something like virtual reality, an idea rarely considered. The idea is to somehow upgrade human imagination. If human imagination were somehow to be expanded far beyond its current limits, then people might have within their own minds something that would be better than virtual reality or a holodeck.

Consider the human imagination. Any one of us can conjure up a “movie in our minds,” in which we can imagine anything we can please. But what we see in our mind's eye when we daydream is kind of pale, dim, and shadowy, without many details. But imagine if that “movie in our minds” could somehow become as detailed and vivid and life-like as a widescreen IMAX movie.  And imagine if we could fill in endless imaginative details effortlessly.

Such a thing might be possible in the future, given some imagination upgrade in the human mind that might be achieved through technology, neural implants, drugs, or genetic enhancements. After such an upgrade, you might have no need for VR goggles or a holodeck. You could simply close your eyes and see in your mind's eye something that might be as vivid as virtual reality or a modern video game on a wide-screen TV. And you could shape that very-vivid reality effortlessly, just by imagining something different. In your mind's eye you could move from one city to another effortlessly, or from one planet to another planet, seeing each one as vividly as if you were watching a wide-screen movie. A hundred vivid details might flow into such scenes, flowing effortlessly from the wellsprings of your enhanced imagination.

It might be dangerous to make such an imagination upgrade a permanent part of the human mind. For with such an imagination, prisons would not be such a deterrent. Every prisoner would know that from his jail cell he could have something as enjoyable as trips to a thousand Disney Worlds, just by closing his eyes and letting his imagination gush forth.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why Don't More Scientists Use Something Like the IPCC's Probability Scale?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the main scientific body that studies global warming. Although it takes some heat from the skeptical, it seems that in a broad sense the IPCC has done two things right.

The first thing it has done right is to avoid making only one projection of future global warming until the year 2100. Given all the uncertainties, it would be very dogmatic to do such a thing. Instead of publishing only one projection, the IPCC publishes a variety of different scenarios, which have names such as RCP8.5, RCP6.0, RCP4.5, and RCP2.6. Some of them are shown in the graph below (from this document).

The climate change implications of these scenarios are shown in the next IPCC graph, which uses a color-coding scheme matching the one used in the previous graph. So we see that the RCP 8.5 scenario (requiring a total carbon dioxide emission of about 6000 gigatons or more) translates into a very damaging 3.5 Centigrade increase in global warming. But the RCP2.6 scenario and the RCP 4.5 scenario (involving only about 3 or 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emission) result in a much smaller increase of between 1.5 and 2..0 Centigrade. 

Now, you could argue that the RCP 8.5 scenario will never occur, on the grounds that we will never be extract so much carbon dioxide (6000 gigatons or more). The International Energy Agency estimates that the total world reserves of coal are only about 892 billion tons, and much of that is hard-to-extract coal that may never be extracted because it is not economically feasible to extract.

But given the IPCC's approach of providing widely different scenarios, such an objection does not damage its credibility. For one of its other scenarios such as RCP 2.6 or RCP 4.5 may still be valid, despite such an objection. Given its differing scenarios allowing such a variety of outcomes, we really can't fault the IPCC for being too dogmatic in this regard.

There's another thing that is good about the IPCC approach: the fact that it uses a probability scale. The IPCC has a scale that looks like this:

These probability assessments are used in the IPCC's Fifth Assessment report. So rather than the report speaking as if it was 100% certain about everything, we are told that some things are likely, other things are very likely, and other things are as likely as not.

The use of such a likelihood scale is to be commended, because there is a great deal of uncertainty in our understanding of nature. If scientists are not sure about something, it is is good that they state assertions in a shaded away, expressing only moderate confidence or low confidence.

It would be good if other sciences followed such an approach. But do we find such a likelihood scale used in fields such as biology, physics, neuroscience or cosmology? No, we do not.

The general tendency in contemporary science is to follow a very different approach. It is as if there were two big lists: the list of approved doctrines, and the list of disapproved doctrines. All of the items on the list of approved doctrines are pretty much taught as if they were gospel truths. This is not too different from the way that the Catholic Church teaches religious doctrines.

Once some teaching somehow manages to get on this list of approved doctrines, the doctrine has it “made in the shade.” We are then told that there is a scientific consensus, so it's kind of “case closed.”

But what if a different approach was taken, an approach using a probability scale, like the IPCC is using? The results would be salutary. There would no more be a situation in which doctrines could endlessly “rest on their laurels.” Each scientific teaching would have to be graded on a probability scale. If such a probability scale was used honestly, it would soon become apparent that some of the theories that have chewed up the most research funding have a not-very-high ranking on the probability scale.

It would be best to make use of a probability scale rather different from the one used by the IPCC. The scale below would be better suited for grading a wide variety of scientific assertions.

Almost certain Greater than 99% likelihood
Very likely Greater than 90% likelihood
Likely Greater than 50% likelihood
Quite possible Greater than 5% likelihood
Possible Greater than 1% likelihood
Remotely possible Less than 1% likelihood
Apparently impossible Apparently no likelihood

I can imagine a two-phase exercise to make use of such a scale. In the first phase, you begin with a chart like the one below. You draw colored lines between the items on the left and the items on the right, using a different color of ink for each level of confidence.

probability scale
So the end result might look something like this:

probability scale

In the second phase of the exercise, you would be required to justify each case in which you had specified that one of the items on the left had a probability of “quite possible” or higher. This would require actually presenting observations or experiments that show there is a basis for concluding a likelihood of at least 5%. Appeals to current popularity or a consensus of agreement would not be allowed.

Let us imagine how clarifying such an exercise would be. Using such a scale in the area of physics and cosmology would throw light on how much of modern theoretical physics is on shaky ground. For example, there would be no basis for giving either the theories of supersymmetry or string theory a probability grade of higher than “remotely possible” or “possible.” The fact that such theories are widely popular would be no basis for granting them an assessment of “quite possible” or “likely.”

Using such a likelihood scale sounds like a great idea, so why is such a scale not used in fields such as cosmology, physics, and biology? I suspect the reason is that using such a scale would involve introducing a level of humility that today's dogmatic theoretician would prefer to avoid.

Consider the dogmatic scientific theorist. He may advance some theory unlikely to be true. But he would rather that people not judge his theory based on some scale in which it is judged whether the theory is “quite possible,” “likely” or “very likely.” Because then it might become clear that there is no basis for concluding that the theory is probably true. Such a theorist would prefer the current approach, in which it is as if there is a “list of approved doctrines,” and you are supposed to accept all the items on the list. Having got his theory on such a list (often because of sociological considerations), such a theorist would not want there to be a system in which scientists use varying shades of confidence in their assertions. It might then become apparent to all that the theorist's pet theory is not on very firm ground. 

Similarly, an apologist for an organized religion would never want you to make use of some exercise like the one above, in which you drew lines specifying whether 15 assertions of his creed were “possible,” “quite possible,” “likely,” “very likely,” or “almost certain.” He would instead want you to accept the whole creed with complete confidence, regarding every item in it as a certainty.

Like such a theological apologist, the modern pitchman for the "official party line" of modern science would rather that you not use probability scale ratings that might make his "standard story" look like something that is largely speculative, largely a kind of social construct in which many a predominant theory is more of a speech custom than something that has been established as a likelihood.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cosmic Coincidence Cover-Up

In a recent post entitled “The Universe Itself May Be Unnatural,” cosmologist Ethan Siegel discusses some issues that he calls “coincidence problems.” He says, “If aspects of the Universe that should be very different turn out to be similar, we call this a "coincidence problem." He discusses some cosmic coincidences, but neglects to discuss the most dramatic ones, including the “vacuum catastrophe” issue discussed here, and the issue I will discuss in this post: the coincidence of the proton charge being the exact opposite of the electron charge.

As many a scientist has admitted in recent decades, the fundamental constants of the universe are very fine-tuned to allow the existence of living creatures such as us, in the sense that there are quite a few “coincidences” required for our existence, lucky breaks that we needed and just happened to get. Any fully informative listing of the universe's fundamental constants should show at least one such coincidence, standing out very plain for the eye to see. Such a listing would look like this:

Fundamental Constants

Speed of light 299,792,458 meters per second
Planck's constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s
Gravitational constant 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2
Proton mass 1.6726231 × 10-27 kg
Electron mass 9.1093897 × 10-31 kg
Proton charge 1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb
Electron charge -1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb

As we can see in this accurate listing, there is a great big coincidence. Even though each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than each electron, the charge of the proton is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. An absolute magnitude is a number that you get when you discard the sign in front of the number. Experiments have actually indicated that the absolute magnitude of the proton charge and the absolute magnitude of the electron charge differ by less than 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000.

But if you do a Google search looking for listings of the fundamental constants of nature, you are not likely to notice this coincidence involving the proton charge and the electron charge. Why is that? It's because almost all of the tables of fundamental constants you will see will have concealed the coincidence.

Imagine some bank employee named John Wilson who each day is supposed to send out an email to his superiors entitled “Today's most important transactions.” On a particular day such an email might honestly include the following:

Money we lost overnight in bank robbery: $1,345,239
Today's biggest deposit (to account of John Wilson): $1,345,239

Of course, this coincidence is very embarrassing to Mr. Wilson, as it suggests that the bank robbery was what they call an “inside job.” So Wilson would no doubt arrange his table of “today's important transactions” so that it somehow covered up the coincidence. Similarly, almost always modern scientists creating a table of fundamental constants of the universe will arrange the table in such a way so that no one can notice any coincidence involving the charge of the electron and the proton. For they don't want anyone to think that the universe is something like “an inside job.”

A convention is followed as to how this concealment is done. The convention is to avoid listing both the proton charge and the electron charge, and to list a single value that is called “the elementary charge.” So the table of fundamental constants will look like this:

Fundamental Constants

Speed of light 299,792,458 meters per second
Planck's constant 6.62607004 × 10-34 m2 kg / s
Gravitational constant 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2
Proton mass 1.6726231 × 10-27 kg
Electron mass 9.1093897 × 10-31 kg
Elementary charge 1.60217733 × 10-19 coulomb

This “elementary charge” is supposed to represent both the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron. Is it honest and accurate to be using such a term for both the positive charge of the proton and the negative charge of the electron? No, it isn't. Since the electron charge is negative and the proton charge is positive, it is misleading and inaccurate to use a single positive value to represent both of these things. It is as  misleading as representing both a $1000 withdrawal and a $1000 deposit under a single line giving a positive number. For example, you would be misleading your mortgage lender if you withdrew $20,000 one day and then re-deposited it the same day, and then emailed your mortgage lender with a line such as this:

Today's bank activity: +20,000

The convention followed in tables of fundamental constants of listing both the proton charge and the electron charge under a single “elementary charge” line listing a positive value is therefore a deceptive concealment. It is a concealment because it hides from us a fundamentally important fact that we should be informed about, that there is a huge coincidence in nature involving the proton charge being the exact opposite of the electron charge. The concealment is deceptive (in the sense of being literally inaccurate) in the sense that after looking at tables of fundamental constants that follow this convention, you will be left with the very inaccurate idea that the electron charge is positive.

Moreover, in physics the term “elementary” is used to mean something that cannot be reduced any further, as in the phrase “elementary particles” which refers to particles which cannot be subdivided any further. But we know that the proton charge is not even elementary in this sense. A proton is believed to consist of two Up quarks which each has a charge of 2/3 of the proton charge, and one Down quark which has a negative charge of 1/3 of the proton charge. So as the proton charge is not at all elementary, it is misleading to be listing it in a line labeled “elementary charge.”

There is quite a bit of talk in the news these days about obstruction of justice. What we have going on in the typical table of fundamental constants is what we can call an obstruction of learning. The person who bothered to view such a table should have been informed of the basic fact that the proton has a charge that is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. Such a person is obstructed from learning this important fact by the typical table of fundamental constants, just as if the scientist creating the table was interested in covering up such a fact, and sweeping it under the rug.

sweeping under rug

The “elementary charge” concealment trick is used in many different physics references, but very rarely a physicist will let down his guard and “spill the beans.” That's what happens in the informative and entertaining new book We Have No Idea by physics professor Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham (which has many fun little cartoons which make it easier to read than a typical book on science). On page 54 the authors state this:

If the quarks had any more (or less charge), then the charge of protons wouldn't precisely balance the negative charge of the electron, and you couldn't form stable neutral atoms. Without these perfect -1/3 and + 2/3 charges, we wouldn't be here. There would be no chemistry, no biology and no life.

But is there any explanation for this? Apparently not, because the authors next state this:

This is actually fascinating (or creepy, depending on your level of paranoia) because, according to our current theory, particles can have any charges whatsoever; the theory works just as well with any charge value, and the fact they balance perfectly is, as far as we know, a huge and lucky coincidence.

It's not just one coincidence but two coincidences. The first coincidence is that the absolute magnitude of the charge of the Up quark is exactly twice the absolute magnitude of the Down quark. The second coincidence is that when you add up the charges in a proton (consisting of two Up quarks and one Down quark), you get a charge that is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron. As far as we can tell, these are separate coincidences, each with a likelihood no better than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. The chance of both occurring in nature is like the odds of you correctly guessing the telephone numbers of two strangers, and then correctly the guessing the telephone numbers of the next two strangers you met. 

The use of the word "creepy" in the quote above is interesting, as if the authors were afraid of learning about some contrivance in nature needed for their own existence. Would not "wondrous" be a more suitable adjective? 

Postscript: The universe's fundamental constants are correctly listed at this page, one of the few listings that correctly has separate lines for the proton charge and the electron charge, using a positive sign for the proton charge and a negative sign for the electron charge. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Election Tamperers: A Science Fiction Story

Susan Tyler never thought she would see her young brother George again when she said a tearful goodbye to him on the day before the interstellar mission left. It was the first manned mission to another star, on the mighty interstellar spaceship named Starbird. The 120 crew members had been trained to establish a colony on one of the planets revolving around Alpha Centauri, several light-years away.

Using the latest antimatter drive technology, the spaceship traveled at about one-third of the speed of light. It took 13 years for the ship to reach Alpha Centauri. The ship beamed a radio message saying that an apparently habitable planet had been detected. The nations of Earth were thrilled by the announcement.

But then there was a long radio silence. People asked: had something terrible happened? For weeks, everyone would check the news day after day, waiting for a new radio signal from the spaceship. But no signal was received. The weeks turned into months, which turned into years. Eventually the public reached the sad conclusion that something terrible had gone wrong, and that no signal would ever be picked up from the doomed mission. Susan Tyler reconciled herself to the idea that her brother George must be dead.

What happened thirteen years later was almost as shocking as the sudden radio silence from Alpha Centauri. Astronomers detected a spaceship entering the solar system. At first people thought it might be some extraterrestrial spaceship. But before long, astronomers announced something shocking: the spaceship was Starbird, the very spaceship that had left for Alpha Centauri 26 years ago. 

The ship's crew docked at a space station, and then returned to Earth. The ship's captain gave a press conference announcing what had happened.

We approached the planet revolving around Alpha Centauri, and at first we thought it might be a habitable planet with life,” said Captain Horton. “But when we got closer we were disappointed to find it was just rocky and moon-like, with no signs of life. So we decided to just turn around and come back to Earth. We were going to radio our findings, but a meteorite damaged our radio antenna.”

The story seemed strange, and raised eyebrows around the world. But most people accepted it.

Susan Tyler welcomed George back to the town where she and her parents lived, and she thought: this is so strange, I never thought I'd see him again. She was not surprised that George looked 26 years older. But she was surprised by his cold, humorless demeanor. She remembered her brother as a very warm and funny person.

What are you going to do now?” asked Susan.

I'm going to do what quite a few of my fellow astronauts are going to do,” said George. “I'm going to run for President.” He explained that quite a few of his astronauts had developed political ambitions on the long trip home from Alpha Centauri. A German was going to run to become president of the European Union. A Russian was going to run to become president of Russia. A Chinese astronaut was going to run to become the president of China, which had become a democracy 30 years ago.

Over the next few weeks, Susan began to develop suspicions about George. Although he seemed to think very fast, he seemed to have a very different personality than the George she remembered. Funny warm George had somehow turned into cold, humorless George. He also seemed to have no memory of the childhood they had shared. He would also never eat any food when he was at a family gathering, and would never drink anything.

Susan discussed her suspicions with her mother, her father, and her sister Betty. They all agreed that George somehow wasn't the George they knew. The family began asking George questions he couldn't answer. Their suspicions were also raised by the fact that George lived in a house in which the windows were always covered up. George would never invite any other family members over.

Susan's suspicions about George began to eat away at her. One day she decided to wait until George opened his door, and then barge into his house. She would look around before George had a chance to throw her out.

Susan did just that. She hid behind a bush near George's door. When he opened the door, Susan rushed in.

I didn't invite you in!” said George. “Get out of here!”

I'll be out in just a second,” said Susan, running around. She went down to the basement. She let out a scream when she saw what was in the basement.

In the basement were four tables. On the tables were what looked like the bodies of her father, her mother, and her sister.

You fiend!” screamed Susan. “What have you done with Mom, Dad, and Betty?”

Oh don't worry, those aren't Mom, Dad, and sister Betty,” said George. “But they will be soon.”

What are you talking about?” said Susan, horrified.

I guess it's time I told you the whole story,” said George. “When the Starbird reached the planet at Alpha Centauri, its crew members didn't find a lifeless rock like you were told. They found a thriving life-filled planet with a civilization much older than yours. The crew members of the Starbird were all arrested. I'm not your brother – he's still at Alpha Centauri.”

So who are you?” asked Susan.

I'm a replicant of your brother – what you would call a robot,” said George. “The Alpha Centaurians hatched a plot to control your planet. They decided they would send back to Earth the spaceship you sent to their planet, but its crew would not be the original crew – it would be a crew of robotic replacements like me. We were all told to run to become the leader of a country. The plan is to have us robots take over some of the key nations of your planet. So when Alpha Centauri sends its invasion fleet to Earth, things will be much easier. We'll already have control over some of the main nations on Earth.”

So what are these bodies on the tables?” asked Susan.

They're the robot replacements for George's family members,” said George. “I built them myself. You see, if I'm going to successfully run for President, I can't have George's family members saying things like 'there's something real weird about George' or 'we have all these suspicions about George.' I need to have someone who will say, 'George is the same fine fellow I knew before.' ”

George went over to a table that had a blanket over it.

Do you want to see the latest robot I created?” asked George. George removed the blanket. It was a naked robot looking just like Susan. George flicked a remote control unit, and the robot stood up.

Hello, my name is Susan Tyler,” said the robot, “and I think George Tyler would make a wonderful president of the United States.”

Susan screamed, and began to run up the basement stairs. George grabbed her by the throat. I'm doomed, thought Susan.

It's pointless to resist our scheme,” said George icily as he strangled Susan with his hands. “The Alpha Centaurians are older and more powerful. Earth will fall.”

But just then police officers broke open the front door. Armed with machine guns, they stormed into the house, and quickly found Susan and George, who were both arrested.

Susan told the whole story to the police. No one would have believed her wild story, were it not for the fact that the robots were still lying on the tables on the basement.

Faced with the undeniable evidence against him, robot George finally confessed.

How did you ever find out enough to come to my house?” asked George.

We didn't know a thing about all this weird robot space stuff,” answered a police official. “While you were manufacturing those robots, a pungent smell was coming from your house. Plus your windows were all closed up. One of your neighbors got suspicious, and reported your house as one of those houses where they illegally manufacture drugs. At the time we stormed in on what we thought was a drug bust, we thought your house was just a regular old crystal meth lab.”