Saturday, November 28, 2015

Non-local spookiness

Einstein put forward his theory of general relativity 100 years ago. His prime insight concerned the reciprocal relationship between mass and spacetime. Mass (matter and energy) warps spacetime (our three observed physical dimensions plus time) and warped spacetime determines how objects move around mass. Mass in motion always moves in straight lines. However, in the presence of massive objects, those straight lines follow the curves of warped spacetime. Thus things fall.

Einstein also contributed to the elaboration of quantum mechanics. But quantum physics and relativity seem to be fundamentally different ways of understanding reality. The former reduces all we observe to a realm of particles and waves that remain intrinsically probabilistic. The latter places reality into a universal geometrical framework of space and time. Einstein was uncomfortable with quantum physics because of its probabilistic nature – “God does not play dice with the universe” – and because until observed, particles also exist as waves. A further issue for Einstein was the apparent implication of quantum physics known as entanglement.

Quantum entanglement occurs when two or more particles are generated or interact in such a way that they share the same wave function (quantum state). When that happens, no matter how far apart those particles may move away from each other – even to opposite ends of the universe – they remain entangled: measurement of one – collapsing its wave function – also determines the measurement of the other. This bothered Einstein – he termed it “spooky action at a distance” – because the two particles seem to communicate through space instantaneously and – more to the point – faster than the speed of light. For Einstein, the speed of light is a fundamental constant and nothing can go any faster. But experiment has consistently verified the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Most recently a group of Dutch physicists gave what is widely seen as definitive proof that entanglement across distance is real and reveals that reality is in some way non-local.

Non-locality implies that entangled things exist in a relationship that is not determined by the local conditions that impinge upon those things. In other words, when one of the things is measured, the qualities of the far distant formerly entangled thing are not determined by where that thing is but by some deeper reality that is not local to the thing itself. Non-locality implies that there is some more fundamental level of reality that exists outside space and time.

We live in a universe in which time and space do exist. We travel through space (in any direction of three directions) and time (only forward). Things with mass travel travel no faster than the speed of light. At the speed of light, everything happens at the same instant because time does not pass. If we could be that massless surfer riding a photon created at the moment of the Big Bang, we would experience everything and everywhere that photon would ever be at the same instant.

We experience time as passing because we live in a world of matter and energy, which seems to give rise to spacetime. Our consciousness exists in time as our body exists in space. But non-locality points to a reality in which the universe exists without time or space as one object in which all time and space exist at once. We appear not to experience this deeper reality outside the realm of quantum experimentation (though it may make it possible someday to have quantum computing). But non-locality – as St. Thomas Aquinas might argue – points to consideration of First Cause and Ultimate Reality. That is spooky.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Decoherence, or If a Tree Falls In the Forest...?

One of the basic unsettled questions of quantum physics is why we don't see quantum superposition in everyday objects. At the quantum level – and before being “measured” – mass and energy exist simultaneously as both wave and particle. The classic examples are light and electrons. Photons exist as both wave and particle and manifest as either depending on how it is observed. Similarly, electrons do not exist, in reality, as tiny “planets” circling the nucleus in neat orbits but in clouds of probabilities that may be “found” as a particle in a particular “place” only when measured. Everything that exists at the quantum level – the realm of the very tiny – shares this dual nature as wave and particle. It can be more accurately described as a wave function.

If everything were to remain in quantum superposition in the macro-world we inhabit, Schr̦dinger's cat Рand everyone else's Рwould be both alive and dead at the same time. We don't see in that way because superposition seems to breakdown when things get large. The wave function has collapsed and we see either waves or particles, i.e., individual, unconnected, single state things. Why?

The easiest answer might be that we don't see quantum superposition at the macro level because when we look at the world, we as conscious observers collapse the wave function. Light, sound, touch, smell, taste all enter our perceptual mechanisms and, interacting with brain and mind, are perceived. The world is there when we observe it because the act of observation collapses the wave functions around us even if nothing else did. But does this mean that if a tree falls in a forest with no one there to hear it, it doesn't make a sound?

One answer might be yes, the unobserved falling tree makes no sound. The basic reality of the universe may be thought of as one all-inclusive wave function in which everything is entangled. The universe is one big cloud of probabilities. Nothing exists per se until observed. But that verges on solipsism. So, science has considered a variety of other mechanisms for decoherence of quantum superposition – collapsing the wave function of anything tiny before it can get very big. It may happen simply because as things get bigger, they get more complex. They interfere with each other, fall out of phase, or vibrate at different frequencies. The latest theory posits that as mass slows down – dilates – time, even the gravity of earth would be enough to pull entangled particles into different time streams.

But at least some aspects of the macro-world do work through quantum effects. The efficiency of photosynthesis arises from quantum mechanical effects. Quantum mechanics may explain how birds use magnetic fields to navigate and our sense of smell. It may be that the cosmos is an entangled universal wave function that decoheres only at the boundary of individual acts of “observation.” But the observers would not simply be conscious human beings but any living thing interacting with its environment? Might the definition of life be that which breaks wave functions?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Gravity, Mass and Time II

I recently noted that mass, gravity and time may be essential features – givens – of our universe, that gravity is something that slows time and that at the speed of light, time stops. Actually time doesn't stop at the speed of light but becomes instantaneous. At that speed, everything happens at once. It's at an event horizon that time actually just stops passing. As whatever it is that is “falling” into a black hole passes the event horizon, the time that it may be experiencing cannot escape. Beyond that, at the singularity, anything/everything disappears from this universe (leaving aside the mechanism by which black holes “evaporate” over time). The mass and energy falling into the singularity is converted into the very warping of space that is the black hole.

How long does it take to fall from the event horizon into the singularity? Has time there stopped or has it become instantaneous? Apparently, if you could survive passing through the event horizon, you would still experience your own personal time. The length of time you'd experience would be very short but it would pass. As under general relativity there is no absolute standard of time, that would be all that counts for you. Indeed, time may be thought of as something entirely a matter of perspective. As I would be falling through the event horizon experiencing my own usual passage of time – it would not slow down or stop – it would appear to be doing so only to an outside observer experiencing his own usual passage of time.

Our human sense of the passage of time may be an entirely arbitrary experience defined by our nature as biological mechanisms (with mass) operating according to physical laws as elaborated by the evolution of life on our particular planet. One defining process may be the rate at which ribosomes add amino acids to the protein it is building (called translation). In all life on earth this process proceeds at the same speed of 10-20 additions per second. A “second” is a human unit of time but not an entirely arbitrary one as at the most fundamental level it is related to two apparent givens: the ability of our consciousness to hold just 2-3 seconds as our now and the existence of a basic unit – the Planck time – of 5.39x10 to the -44th seconds. Or perhaps we might simply say that our human, species experience of time is one heart beat. That, however, might speed up a bit as we crossed the horizon.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Light tricks: The Delayed Choice Experiment

Physical Review A reports a recent "experimental observation of simultaneous wave and particle behavior in a narrowband single-photon wave packet."  This is also covered in a more accessible form in Science News.  The experiment is a variation on the delayed choice model that submits a photon to being observed (measured) after it has already been through a double beam splitter setup.  This essentially is a way of forcing the photon to behave first as a particle (by passing it through a beam splitter) and then after having made that "choice" having it behave like a wave again, as predicted by quantum physics.  The recent experiment takes this one step further by first stretching out a single photon so that it takes a small but measurable period of time to pass through the second beam splitter.  With the splitter in place, the photon acts like a wave.  With it removed while the photon is still passing through it, the photon manifests as a particle.  The very same photon during one single act of observation -- in two parts -- is both particle and wave.  This does not violate quantum physics but, as a scientist quoted by Science News suggests:  "‘Wave’ and ‘particle’ are just words.  In quantum physics, those words are imprecise at best."

This beautifully done experiment offers a window into the nature of not only light but the universe.  As noted before, at the speed of light, time does not exist.  Therefore, every photon is everywhere it will ever be at the same instant. The speed of light measures the degree of departure of our existence as mass affected by gravity from that cosmic external moment in which light exists.  When we measure light we seek to capture in time that which exists without time.  Wave and particle are the way we perceive its timeless nature as we move at our own pace through time and space.

Monday, May 25, 2015

What does the Turing Test test?

Saw the movie Ex Machina. The outside shots, filmed in Valldalen, Norway, are are simply gorgeous. Good flick and provoked some ruminating (avoiding plot details).

There seems no a priori reason to suppose that machine intelligence cannot reach the point of passing the Turing test. A complex enough programed machine able to “learn” from extracting patterns from massive data and using them to interact with humans should be able to “exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” One can imagine such a machine as pictured in the movie.

But what does the Turing test really test. An “artificial intelligence” might be able to interpret and respond to the full range of human behavior and simulate the same. It might be able to “read” a conscious human better than an actual human might by picking up on subtle physical manifestations (as stored in its memory). With a large enough data base behind it and a multitude of “learned” behaviors it might convince a human that it was indeed intelligent and even self-aware. But would it be? Would the ability to simulate human behavior completely enough to appear human actually be human or entail consciousness? If programed with a sub-routine causing it to seek to persist (i.e., resist termination), would it be a self seeking self-preservation? Would programing allowing it to read human emotions and respond “appropriately” with simulated emotion mean it actually felt such emotions?

Would a machine intelligence able to simulate human behavior and emotions actually be able to love, hate, feel empathy and act with an awareness of itself and, perhaps more importantly, of an Other? Or might there still be something missing?

Smoked a cigar on my favorite bench while considering all this and watched some ants going about their business. Ants are extremely complex biological machines acting and reacting within their environment with purpose and an overall drive to self-perpetuate (both as individuals and as a collective). They may be conscious even if not self aware. Or is a certain basic self-awareness something that goes with being alive? Would even a very complex machine ever be alive even if very “intelligent?”

My guess is that machine intelligence – even if very complex and advanced and equipped with a self-referential sub-program allowing algorithmic analysis of itself – would not be conscious or alive. Thus not capable of emotion and therefore what we might call coldly rational. Is this why Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and others are concerned about AI?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gravity, Mass and Time

Recently finished physicist Kip Thorne's The Science of Interstellar about his work to make the movie as scientifically grounded as possible. While written for the interested layperson, some of it was hard to follow. But it provided a lot of food for ruminating about the deep connections between gravity, mass, time and the speed of light.

At the speed of light, time stops. Anything with mass that reached the speed of light also achieves infinite mass. (This is one good reason to believe that nothing with mass can go that fast. Anything of infinite mass would need a great deal of thrust to keep going, indeed, an infinite amount.) Photons have no mass and thus they gain no mass. Anything – some ghost without a machine – traveling with that photon at 186,000 MPS would also be timeless and thus everywhere that photon will ever be all at once.

Time also stops with an infinite mass that is not going anywhere, at a black hole. Gravity slows time. At the event horizon of a black hole, spacetime is so warped that nothing can escape upwards – not time, not space, not matter, not light – but falls down into the black hole until it reaches the singularity at the “bottom.” While the black hole may have a certain mass – the mass left over from the collapse of the star that formed it – the singularity itself has the equivalent of infinite mass. Anyone watching a friend drop into a black hole would never see him or her actually fall all the way past the event horizon. From the outside, the friend would be seen moving ever slower. At some point, a second to the falling friend might be, for example, a billion years to the outside observer.

Not just black holes slow time. Anything with mass does, including earth. Einstein's theory of relativity predicts this. And indeed, time on the GPS satellites (orbiting over 16 thousand miles up) run some 45,900 nano seconds slower per day than clocks on earth. The stronger the gravity, the slower time goes compared to places of less gravity.

Mass warps spacetime and achieves that effect through gravity. We don't understand where gravity comes from and it does not fit into the Standard Theory of quantum physics. Relativity seems to describe the effects of gravity but neither meshes with the Standard Theory nor explains from whence gravity comes. String theory has been the Standard Model's framework to incorporate relativity as quantum gravity. To do so, it would require extra dimensions beyond the four we observe (three space and time). But recent experiments have found no supporting evidence for the simplest forms of such theories.

It may be that mass, gravity, and time are just givens. Gravity is something that slows time. At the speed of light, time stops. Our experience of time – our consciousness – seems related to the speed of light. Mass keeps us from exceeding the speed of light. Random?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The World in the 21st Century: Facing a Singularity

It seems possible to discern four major trends that will determine the future of humanity in the 21st Century. They suggest a world approaching a multifaceted singularity that will mark an unprecedented change in everything and characterized most fundamentally by a loss of even the gloss of human agency.

The Economist of March 14 (2015) covers one of these trends in suggesting the likely continued success of “Factory Asia” – China plus its manufacturing chain of the currently even lower wage countries of Southeast Asia. This already accounts for almost half of all manufactured goods produced on the planet. China's advantages – financial and technological plus low cost labor and the very large domestic market – will allow it to continue to dominate manufacturing. But the real story here is that – as The Economist points out – this dominance will make it very difficult for other developing countries to progress to growth and prosperity through making things. The paper suggests services and agriculture as alternatives. But the basic problem is deeper and has been visible for much longer: looking at it globally, there may not be enough work to do to supply meaningful paid jobs to everyone who needs or wants one.

This highlights the second trend – the rising tide of computer-driven automation and the subject of “How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over” by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of April 2 (2015). In reviewing a book by Nicholas Carr (The Glass Cage: Automation and Us), Halpern notes that while predictions that mechanization would put humans out of work – and even Keynes saw the problem of what he called “technological unemployment” – so far technological advance has seemed to create new jobs to replace lost ones. But Carr argues that we are facing something new this time as computer driven automation – robots and virtual robots – takes on tasks such as surgery, drug development, driving, analysis and writing software and not only old fashioned machine production. This means not only losing jobs but most especially good jobs. While increased efficiency and lower cost of the goods and services produced through this new age of automation may be good for consumers with money, the questions arise of who will be able to afford them and what quality of life will those with no or unrewarding work have? As Paul Krugman has noted, most benefit – in the form of higher profits – will accrue to those few who own the robots.

So “modernity” in the 21st Century may turn out to equal a shrinking middle class and increased and unrelenting inequality. This leads to the third trend, the breakdown of order. Over the last few centuries, an increasing number of people have experienced modernity as disruption to their lives and traditions and an increasingly fierce struggle for livelihood. The frustration, resentment and often unbridled competition produced provided the motive force to the social and political movements that led to the domestic and international conflicts and wars of the 20th Century. The Cold War contained these forces by dividing the world between just two all-powerful and demanding camps. But since the fall of the USSR, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and reassertion of nationalisms, new forces of disorder have added to the old while the world has splintered into multipolar chaos. Globalization has meanwhile not solved inequality but has succeeded in presenting have-nots with minute-by-minute images of what they have not. The Cold War may have been an artificial order while disorder and chaos may be the new rule in what might be best described as an ever encroaching “state of nature.” And by the way, “military responses” just seem to make things worse and the rich don't seem to see a problem.

This brings us to environmental change, where the environment might be best understood as including the natural world in its totality: biology (e.g., disease) and land (e.g., desertification) as well as weather and climate. Scientists tell us – and have been telling us for a while – that humans are changing the world in ways we can't entirely predict but seem to be leading to challenges unprecedented in human evolution.

So, we – and more to the point, our children and their children – face finding a way to live in a world increasingly characterized by inequality, disorder and automated change that seems to be racing beyond our control. A singularity is something you enter that leads into a reality beyond normal experience. If we have not yet passed the event horizon of this human “black hole,” we are close. Time to start thinking of something different?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

186,000 Miles Per Second

Some time ago, I suggested that perhaps the speed of light is actually the speed of consciousness. The speed of light seems to be one of the universe's givens. We cannot explain why light “travels” at around 186,000 miles per second; it just does. Nor do we really understand why anything traveling at that speed does not experience the passing of time. (At the speed of light, time does not pass.) And of course, we really have no idea of what time is, really. It's just there, an apparently limitless sea that we swim in – and in only one direction, forward.

My Dad used to look up into the sky at night and ask how could all that be just an accident. One might say the same about any of the various fundamental physical constants that science has laid bare. They seem to be just what is needed for a universe in which we could come into being. We live in a Goldilocks universe, not too hot and not too cold.

So perhaps we might ask what does the speed of light tell us, if anything, about the nature of a reality that seems just right for us? First, without a speed of light – which places a limit on matter, which cannot travel any faster and thus must exist in time – everything would happen at once. Because everything does not happen at once – at least to things made up of matter – we can experience reality as the passage of time. That light travels so very quickly, compared to our experience of time, long distances of space are compressed into short intervals of our experience. Light travels 186,000 miles with every second we breath. That speed measures exactly how much slower we move through our physical existence than the instantaneous eternal of the universe beyond time that light exists within. 

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Job 38:4-7

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Will the Coming Turing Machines Have Soul?

By now, most everyone probably has heard of Alan Turing.  He played a lead role in breaking Nazi codes during WWII and contributed to the conceptual framework behind modern computers.  He also devised the Turing Test, a way to decide the question of whether an electronic machine might be able to think.  A machine might be said to pass the test if through a series of written questions and answers through a blind channel, a human would think that he or she was communicating with another human being.  This has set the standard for much of the debate over artificial intelligence

Machines that may pass the Turing Test are on the horizon.  Much is now being written about the development of machines that can learn and even read emotions -- affective computing -- by working through big data using sophisticated algorithms, running many iterations with pattern recognition. The machines essentially construct elaborate maps of patterns that emerge through analyzing huge sets of data by trying all paths but increasingly using the ones that lead to useful answers, a kind of binary evolution.  This form of machine "intelligence" is already being used on iPhones to determine what you might like to type, by Google to direct your search as you consider where to go and by the NSA to pick through the ever-expanding data haystacks for those "golden" needles.  Companies are eager to use affective computing to read your face, body language and physical state (via iWatch and other connected sensors) -- and therefore your emotions -- as you socialize and consume via the Web. 

All this also raises the very real possibility that soon, we might be able to talk with a robot able to read our verbal and non-verbal, internal and external information and convince us that even though we can see it is a machine, it is acting human.  It would pass a Turing Test squared.

Leaving aside the possibility that such machines might also be able to read us without our knowing, this raises the question of whether such machines would indeed be thinking actors perhaps deserving the attribution of being considered conscious.  Would a machine able to meet the Turing Test -- including by "understanding" what we say, how we feel and also being able to respond in a fully appropriate and meaningful way-- be aliveHuman?  Or to flip the question, are we, essentially, anything more than an evolutionarily elaborated biological device trained through life experience -- iterative learning -- and thus able ourselves to meet the Turing Test and nothing more?

Put more simply, can true understanding be reduced to even extremely complex patterns and decision algorithms stored and processed in massive memory?  Is a machine that "understands" in this way still just a very sophisticated hunk of metal or has some sort of "soul" been engendered in the complex workings of advanced electronics?  There are those who see consciousness as indeed just such an emergent property of the physical world.  The only other alternative seems to be some variant of the ghost in the machineBeyond this is perhaps the ultimate question of what exactly distinguishes life from non-life?  Can only things alive be said to truly think and feel?  Is it only a living creature that can be an agent with its own subjectivity?  I suspect so.  But the time may be coming for us to add to the Turing Test some way to measure that very property, which might also be called consciousness or just soul.