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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Psi, Closed-Mindedness and Fear

Some of the followup (private) emails I've gotten in regard to my just-prior blog post on Damien Broderick's book on psi, have really boggled my mind.

These emails basically present arguments of two forms:

  1. You're nuts, don't you know all the psi experiments are fraud and experimental error, everyone knows that...
  2. Look, even if there's a tiny chance that some psi phenomena are real, you're a fool to damage your reputation by aligning yourself with the kooks who believe in it

What shocks me (though it shouldn't, as I've been around 41 years and seen a lot of human nature already) about arguments of the first form is the irrational degree of skepticism toward this subject, displayed by otherwise highly rational and reflective individuals.

It's not as though these people have read Damien's book or carefully studied the relevant literature. I would welcome debate with suitably informed skeptics. Rather, these people dismiss the experimental literature on psi based on hearsay, and don't consider it worth their while to spend the 3-10 hours (depending on individual reading speed) required to absorb a fairly straightforward nontechnical book on the subject, like Damien's.

What shocks me about arguments of the second form is how often they come from individuals who are publicly aligned with other extremely radical ideas. For instance a few Singularitarians have emailed me and warned me that me talking about psi is bad, because then people will think Singularitarians are kooks.

(Amusingly, one Singularitarian pointed out in their conversation with me that, to them, the best argument for the possibility of psi that they know of is the Simulation Argument, which contends that we probably live in a computer simulation. This is I suppose based on the idea that the laws of physics somehow rule out psi, which they don't; but anyway it's an odd argument because whether we live in a simulation or not, the laws of physics are merely a compact summary of our empirical observations of the world we see, and so if psi data are real, they need to be incorporated into our observation-set and accounted for in our theories, regardless of whether we interpret these theories as being about a "real" world or a "simulated" one.)

Whoa!! So psi is so far out there that people who believe the universe is a simulation and the Singularity is near don't want their reputations poisoned by association with it?

This really baffles me.

I have no personal axe to grind regarding psi.

I have never had any unambiguous, personally convincing psi experiences (except when under the influence of various psychotropic compounds, but that's a whole other story ;-)....

I don't actually care much whether psi is real or not.

About psi and physics ... I am skeptical of attempts to explain psi based on quantum theory, due to not understanding how decoherence would be avoided in the hypothesized long-range quantum nonlocal binding between brains and other systems; but I recognize that quantum theory as such does not actually rule out psi. And, I am acutely aware that modern physics theories are incomplete, even leaving out psi data -- just taking into account well-accepted physics data. Modern physics does not provide a complete, conceptually consistent accounting of all well-accepted physics data. So all in all, our incomplete physics model doesn't rule out psi but makes it hard to explain. This does not seem a strong enough reason to ignore the available psi data on theoretical-physics grounds.

My observation is merely that, after spending a few dozen hours perusing the available data, it seems fascinating and compelling. Ed May's data is not the only good data out there by any means, but it's a great place to start if you want to dig into it.

I do not think we, as a community of thinking and understanding minds, should be ignoring all this high-quality data collected by serious, intelligent, careful scientists.

What is the reason for ignoring it? Presumably the reason is that a bunch of bullshit about psi has been promoted by a bunch of flakes and kooks. It's true. I admit it, Damien admits it, it's obvious. Let's get over that historical and cultural reality and look at the actual data -- quite possibly there's something to be learned from it. I don't know exactly what, but that's how science works -- you investigate and then you find out. What's frustrating is that in this extremely fascinating, important, potentially highly impactful area, research is proceeding so slowly because of excesses of skepticism and fear in the scientific community.

Scientists want to preserve their careers and reputations, so going out on a limb for something perceived as wacky is something very few of them are willing to do. As a consequence our understanding of the universe advances much more slowly than it otherwise could.

Finally, a brief aside.... For those who believe a Singularity is likely but who are highly skeptical of psi (a small percentage of the world, but disproportionately represented in the readership of this blog, I would imagine), I ask you this: Wouldn't it be nice to understand the universe a little better before launching a Singularity? If psi is real that would seem to have various serious implications for what superhuman AI's may be like post-Singularity, for example.

Well, anyway. I'm going to drop this topic for now as I have other stuff to focus on, like building AGI.... And I've been (finally) mixing down some of my music from MIDI to MP3; I'll post some on my website within the next month or so.... I don't have time to push ahead psi research myself nor to actively advocate for funding for those doing the research; but by writing these blog posts and reviewing Damien's book on Amazon.com, I've tried to do what I can (within my limited available time) to nudge the world toward being less closed-minded and less fearful in this regard.

Come on, people! Really! Have some guts and some mental-openness -- it's a big, weird, mysterious world out there, and I'm damn sure we understand only a teensy weensy bit of it. Experience gives us clues, empirical science gives us clues -- and the extent to which we manage to ignore some of the most interesting clues the world provides us, is pretty disappointing...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Scientific Evidence for Psi (is most likely stronger than you think)

My goal in this blog is to convince you to read Damien Broderick's book Outside the Gates of Science: Why It's Time for the Paranormal to Come in From the Cold.

Reviewing a host of research done by others over many decades, the book makes a remarkably and excitingly strong case that psi phenomena are worthy of intensive further investigation....

Let me explain why I'm so excited by Broderick's work.

Having grown up on SF, and being a generally open-minded person but also mathematician/scientist with a strong rationalist and empiricist bent, I've never quite known what to make of psi. (Following Broderick, I'm using "psi" as an umbrella term for ESP, precognition, psychokinesis, and the familiar array of suspects...).

Broderick's book is the first I've read that rationally, scientifically, even-handedly and maturely, reviews what it makes sense to think about psi given the available evidence.

(A quick word on my science background, for those who don't know me and may be new to this blog: I have a math PhD and although my main research areas are AI and cognitive science, I've also spent a lot of time working on empirical biological science as a data analyst. I was a professor for a 8 years but have been doing research in the software industry for the last decade.)

My basic attitude on psi has always been curious but ambivalent. One way to summarize it would be via the following three points....

First: Psi seems, on the face of it, is not wildly scientifically implausible after the fashion of, say, perpetual motion machines built out of wheels and pulleys and spinning chanbers filled with ball bearings. Science, at this point, understands the world only very approximately, and there is plenty of room in our current understanding of the physical universe for psi. Quantum theory's notions of nonlocality and resonance are conceptually somewhat harmonious with some aspects of psi, but that's not the main point. The main point is that science does not rule out psi, in the sense that it rules out various sorts of crackpottery.

Second
: Anecdotal evidence for psi is so strong and so prevalent that it's hard to ignore. Yes, people can lie, and they can also be very good at fooling themselves. But the number of serious, self-reflective intelligent people to report various sorts of psi experiences is not something that should be glibly ignored.

Third: There is by now a long history of empirical laboratory work on psi, with results that are complex, perplexing, but in many ways so apparently statistically significant as to indicate that SOMETHING important is almost surely going on in these psi experiments...

Broderick, also being an open-minded rationalist/empiricist, seems to have started out his investigation of psi, as reported in his book, with the same basic intuition as I've described in the above three points. And he covers all three of these points in the book, but the main service he provides is to very carefully address my third point above: the scientific evidence.

His discussion of possible physical mechanisms of psi is competent but not all that complete or imaginative; and he wisely shies away from an extensive treatment of anecdotal evidence (this stuff has been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere). But his treatment of the scientific literature regarding psi is careful, masterful and compellingly presented. And this is no small achievement.

The scientific psi literature is large, complex, multifaceted and subtle -- and in spite of a lifelong peripheral fascination with psi, I have never taken the time to go through all that much it myself. I'm too busy doing other sorts of scientific, mathematical and engineering work. Broderick has read the literature, sifted out the good from the bad, summarized the most important statistical and conceptual results, and presented his conclusions in ordinary English that anyone with a strong high school education should be able to understand.

His reviews of the work on remote viewing and precognition I found particularly fascinating, and convincing. It is hard to see how any fair-minded reader could come away from his treatments of these topics without at least a sharp pang of curiousity regarding what might actually be going on.

Perhaps my most valued discovery, based on Broderick's book, was Edwin May's work on precognition and related phenomena. Anyone with a science background is strongly encouraged to inspect the website of May's Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, which hosts an impressive collection of papers on his team's government-funded psi research.

What is my conclusion about psi after reading Damien's book, and exploring in more depth the work of May's team and others?

Still not definitive -- and indeed, Broderick's own attitude as expressed in the book is not definitive.

I still can't feel absolutely certain whether psi is a real phenomenon; or whether the clearly statistically significant patterns observed across the body of psi experiments bespeak some deep oddities in the scientific method and the statistical paradigm that we don't currently understand.

But after reading Broderick's book, I am much more firmly convinced than before that psi phenomena are worthy of intensive, amply-funded scientific exploration. Psi should not be a fringe topic, it should be a core area of scientific investigation, up there with, say, unified physics, molecular biology, AI and so on and so forth.

Read the book for yourself, and if you're not hopelessly biased in your thinking, I suspect you'll come to a conclusion somewhat similar to mine.

As a bonus, as well as providing a profound intellectual and cultural service, the book is a lot of fun to read, due to Broderick's erudite literary writing style and ironic sense of humor.

My worry -- and I hope it doesn't eventuate -- is that the book is just too far ahead of its time. I wonder if the world is ready for a rational, scientific, even-handed treatment of psi phenomena.

Clearly, Broderick's book is too scientific and even-handed for die-hard psi believers; and too psi-friendly (though in a level-headed, evidence-based way) for the skeptical crowd. My hope is that it will find a market among those who are committed to really understanding the world, apart from the psychological pathologies of dogmatism or excessive skepticism.

I note that Broderick has a history of being ahead of his time as a nonfiction writer. His 1997 book "The Spike" put forth basically the same ideas that Ray Kurzweil later promulgated in his 2005 book "The Singularity Is near." Kurzweil's book is a very good one, but so was Broderick's; yet Kurzweil's got copious media attention whereas Broderick's did not ... for multiple reasons, one of which, however, was simply timing. The world in 1997 wasn't ready to hear about the Singularity. The world in 2006 is.

The question is: is the world in 2008 ready to absorb the complex, fascinating reality of psi research? If so, Broderick's book should strike a powerful chord. It certainly did for me.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Yverse: A New Model of the Universe


A new model of the universe?

Actually, yeah.

It starts out with the familiar concept of the "multiverse," which is mainly associated with the many-universes interpretation of quantum theory.

According to one verbalization of the multiversal interpretation of quantum theory, every time a quantum-random "choice" is made (say, an electron spins up instead of down), there is a "branching" into two possible universes: one where the electron spins up, another where it spins down.

Similarly, if a bus drives at you while you're walking across the street, there may be two possible universes ahead of you: one where you get flattened, and another where you don't. (Actually, there are a lot of other choices going on in your life too, so it's more accurate to say there is one set of universes where you get flattened and another where you don't).

The collection of all these possible universes is known as the "multiverse."

In fact the language of "choice" used in the above description of the multiverse is a bit suspect. It's more accurate to say that corresponding to each possible state of the electron (up/down) once it is coupled with the external environment (so that it decoheres), there is a set of branches of the multiverse, and leave the ambiguous and misleading language of "choice" out of it.

Anyway, the multiverse is fascinating enough, but it's just the beginning.

It's easy enough to think of multiple possible multiverses. After all, there could be a multiverse in which Ben Goertzel never existed at all, in any of its branches.

One way to think about backwards time travel, for instance, is as a mechanism for selecting between multiverses. If you go back in time and change something, then you're effectively departing your original multiverse and entering a new one.

So, we can think about a multi-multiverse, i.e. a collection of multiverses, with a certain probability distribution over them.

I don't posit this hypothesis all that seriously, but I'm going to throw it out there anyway: It seems possible to conceive of consciousness as a faculty that facilitates movement between multiverses!

Well, I guess you can see where all this is going.

If there's a multi-multiverse, there can also be a multi-multi-multiverse. And so on.

But that is not all -- oh no, that is not all ;-)

What about the multi-multi-...-multi-multiverse?

I.e. the entity Yverse so that

Yverse = multi-Yverse

??

Math wonks will have already inferred that I chose the name Yverse because of the Y-combinator in combinatory logic, which is defined via

Yf = f(Yf)

In other words

Yf = ...ffff...

(where the ... goes on infinitely many times)

So the Yverse is the (Y multi-) universe ...

In the Yverse, there are multiple branches, each one of which is itself a Yverse....

Two Yverses may have two kinds of relationship: sibling (two branches of the same parent Yverse) or parent-child.

Backwards time travel may jolt you from one Yverse to a parent Yverse. Ordinary quantum decoherence events merely correspond to differences between sibling Yverses.

If there is a probability distribution across a set of sibling Yverses, it may be conceived as an infinite-order probability distribution. (A first-order probability distribution is a distribution across some ordinary things like numbers or particles, or universes. A second-order probability distribution is a distribution across a set of first-order probability distributions. Well, you get the picture.... An infinite-order probability distribution is a probability distribution over a set of infinite-order probability distributions. I've worked out some of the math of this kind of probability distribution, and it seems to make sense.)

What use is the Yverse model? I'm not really sure.

It seems to be an interesting way to think about things, though.

If I had more time for pure intellectual entertainment, I'd put some effort into developing a variant of quantum theory based on Yverses and infinite-order probabilities. It seems a notion worth exploring, especially given work by Saul Youssef and others showing that the laws of quantum theory emerge fairly naturally from the laws of probability theory, with a few extra assumptions (for instance, in Youssef's work, the assumption that probabilities are complex rather than real numbers).

And reading Damien Broderick's excellent book on psi, "Outside the Gates of Science," got me thinking a bit about what kinds of models of the universe might be useful for explaining psi phenomena.

Yes, quantum theory is in principle generally compatible with psi, so one doesn't need wacky ideas like Yverses to cope with psi, but it's fun to speculate. It seems to me that for quantum theory to account for psi phenomena would require some really far-out long-range quantum-coherence to exist in the universe, which doesn't seem to be there. So in my view it's at least sensible to speculate about how post-quantum physics might account for psi more sensibly.

This babbling about psi leads back to my wacko speculation above that consciousness could be associated with action in the multi-multiverse. In the Yverse model, the idea becomes that consciousness could be associated with action in the parent Yverse.

Could the difference between physical action and mental action be that the former has to do with movement between sibling Yverses, whereas the latter has to do with movement between parent and child Yverses?

Well I'll leave you on that note --

I've gone pretty far "out there", I guess about as far as it's possible to go ;-> ....

(Unless I could work Elvis into the picture somehow. I thought about it, but didn't come up with anything....)


-- (semi-relevant, rambling) P.S. Those who are interested in my AI work may be interested to know that I don't consider any of these funky speculations contradictory to the idea of creating AI on digital computers. The whole connection between probability, complex probability, quantum theory, determinism and complexity fascinates me -- and I consider it extremely poorly understood. For example, I find the whole notion of "determinism" in very complex systems suspect ... in what sense is a digital computer program determinate relative to me, if I lack the computational capability to understand its state or predict what it will do? If I lack the computational capability to understand some thing X, then relative to my own world-view, should X be modeled according to complex rather than real probabilities, in the vein of Yousseffian quantum probability theory? I suspect so. But I won't pursue this any more here -- I'll leave it for a later blog post. Suffice to say, for now, that I have a feeling that our vocabulary for describing complex systems, with words like "determinate" and "random", is woefully inaccurate and doesn't express the really relevant distinctions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Japanese Gods Pray for a Positive Singularity


In September 2007 I went on a two week business/science trip to China (Wuhan and Beijing) and Japan (Tokyo). In between some very interesting and productive meetings, I had a bit of free time, and so among other things I wound up formally submitting a prayer to the Japanese gods for a rapid, beneficial technological Singularity. Let's hope they were listening!

I wrote this blog post on the flight home but wasn't in a silly enough mood to post it till now.

(Scroll to the bottom if you're in a hurry; after all the irrelevant rambling beforehand, there's a sort of punchline there, involving the mysterious inscription in the above picture.)

My trip started in Wuhan, where I gave two talks at an AI conference and visited with Hugo de Garis and his students (his apprentice "brain builders"). Their near-term goal is to use genetic algorithms running on field-programmable gate arrays to control a funky little robot.

China was probably the most fascinating place I've ever visited (and I've visited and lived a lot of places), though in this brief trip I hardly got to know it at all. Society there is Westernizing fast (I've never seen anywhere more capitalist than modern China), but, there are still incredibly deep and dramatic differences between the Chinese and Western ways of thinking and living. As soon as I stepped into the airport, I was struck by the collectivist nature of their culture ...


... so very different from my own upbringing in which individuality was always held out as one of the highest values (I remember a book my mother got me as a young child, entitled Dare to Be Different -- a sort of history of famous nonconformists). There are of course many Chinese nonconformists (there are so many Chinese, there are many Chinese everything!), but in so many ways their whole society and culture is based on placing the group above the individual. (Which leads, among other things, to their enthusiasm for importing individualist Western scientists like Hugo de Garis.... But this is a topic for another blog post, some other day ... let me get on with my little story....)

Wuhan was a fascinating slice of "old China", with folks sitting out on the streets cooking weird food in woks, strange old men looking like they lived in 500 BC, and everywhere people, people, people. Alas I forgot to take pictures during my walks through the streets there.

Beijing by comparison was not too interesting -- too much like a modern Western city, but with terrible, yellow, reeking air. But the Great Wall, a bit north of Beijing, was really an amazing place. Too bad you aren't allowed to hike its full distance.



While hiking along the Great Wall, I asked for a sign from the Chinese gods that a positive Singularity was truly near. As if in some kind of response, a sudden gust of wind came up at that point...


I thought maybe the local gods would look more favorably on me if I ate some of the local cuisine, so I filled up on donkey, whole bullfrog, sea cucumber, duck's blood and pig foot fur and so forth. Not so bad as it sounds, but I still preferred the kung pao chicken.







(As well as consuming various recondite foodstuff items, in Beijing I visited the offices of HiPiHi.com, a very exciting Chinese virtual-worlds company ... but that's another story for another time....)

Next, I moved on to Tokyo (after some inordinately unpleasant logistical experiences in Beijing Capital airport, which I'd rather not revisit even in memory). The company I was visiting there was based in Shibuya, a suitably colorful and hypermodern Tokyo neighborhood:




Based on years of looking over my sons' shoulders as they watch anime', I expected all the Japanese people to look like these statues near Shibuya station:




In fact, some of the people I saw weren't so far off:





But more of them looked like this:


The Japanese love robots and cyborgs, and many of them seem to exhibit this love via making their own human selves as robotic as possible -- which is fascinating but odd, from my aging-American-hippy perspective. (I badly want to go beyond the human forms of body and mind, but I suppose that once this becomes possible, the result won't be much like contemporary machines -- rather it'll be something more fluid and flexible and creative than rigid old humanity.)

Toward the end of my stay, I got fed up with the hypermodernity, and I visited an old-time shrine in a beautiful park...


where I happened upon an intriguing site where Japanese go to submit prayers to the gods.

Each prayer is written down on a little piece of wood (which you buy for five dollars), then placed on a special prayer rack with all the others. The gods then presumably sort through them all (maybe with secretarial help from demigods or some such -- I didn't ask for the details), and decide which ones are worth granting, based on whatever godly criteria they utilize.


At first, the very concept caused the sea cucumber, duck's blood and twice-cooked donkey I'd eaten a few days before, much of which was still lingering in my stomach enjoying itself, to surge up through my gastrointestinal tract in a kind of disturbingly pleasing psychedelic can-can dance....


My next reaction was curiosity regarding what everyone else had prayed for. Sure, I could sorta guess, but it would have been nice to know in detail. But as the prayers were nearly all in Japanese, I couldn't really tell what they were all about, though a few gave small clues:


In the end, not wanting to be left out, I plunked down some yen to buy a little piece of wood and submitted my own prayer to the Japanese gods, to be considered along with the multitude of other human wants and needs. Hopefully the Japanese gods were in a generous mood that day -- for all our sakes!