X-Message-Number: 25560
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005 11:27:05 EST
Subject: improving on nature

Peter Merel has noted that it may have taken Nature an immense amount of  

space and time to produce DNA and its consequences, with the suggestion  that  
cannot count on quick solution of AI problems merely because  Nature has 
produced intelligence.
He does agree that we might speed things up, but perhaps does not carry  this 
far enough. I think there are lots of hints that we probably can speed  
things up by important factors, as many others have also pointed out.
1. There are many things Nature never tried, that we in our brief  tenure 

have already used successfully. For example, as far as I recall, the  wheel does
not exist in living things--but wheels and gears are important,  successful 
devices in artifacts. And we have "birds" and "fishes" made of metal  that fly 
higher and faster, or swim faster, than anything made of meat. 
That we have already outdone Nature in some areas does not in itself prove  
that we can do it in all areas. But it's a powerful hint.
And remember that active enterprise and large resources for these endeavors  
are very recent--an eyeblink in history.
2. Evolutionary advances worked under at least one very great  handicap--that 
improvements or new versions had to be reasonably consistent with  previous 

models. As a crude example, if a mutation had a much larger head and  brain but
was otherwise the same, it could not survive--the system was not  

self-compatible. Also, in the case of sexual reproduction, a single mutant,  
carrying a 
dominant gene, had to be able to mate successfully with a  non-mutant in order 
to produce mutant offspring. (For example, a mutant  child with a large head 
would kill a mother with a small pelvis.) So successful  and lasting 
improvements were few and far between. 
We don't have those handicaps. We can make leaps instead of creeps.
3. In some instances Nature has simply blundered in obvious ways. For  
example, the human eye has a blind spot because the anatomy is wrong, and the  
vermiform appendix is both useless and potentially dangerous. Human engineers  

would not have made those blunders, and human engineers could improve on Nature

in some cases by the mere expedient of doing something similar but without the
4. We have many resources not available to Nature, or Nature near the  

surface of a planet. For example, cryogenics and hyperbarics and vacuum and  use
rare materials. Evolution had to depend almost entirely on wastefully  
generous amounts of raw materials and long-lasting dominant conditions.
5. Motivation. Just a reminder--Nature doesn't give a damn, and we do, and  
that makes a difference.
Part of Peter's argument concerns the "burden of proof"--we know that  

such-and-such is a hard problem, and no one has solved it yet, so we cannot make
optimistic presumption. But the correct application of probability theory in  
such cases is to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Those  
interested may look at my essay on probability on the CI web site.
Robert Ettinger

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