Jun 27, 2012


Can you prove to this computer that you are human?
The computer age seems to be blossoming with an endless array of increasingly annoying software "features" that are inflicted upon us by folks with titles such as "software engineer". I love terms such as "software engineer". Clearly, if we are going to compete in global markets, then we need a steady supply of nifty job titles that will massage the tender egos of cubicle-penned herds of information age workers. I suspect that in Asimov's fictional universe it was possible to make intelligent robots because U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. had top staff with titles such as "Head Psychologist" rather than "Software Engineer". In our non-fictional universe it would be dangerous to have psychologists in top positions at computer companies...they'd get fired after mentioning that crappy software infuriates users.

I've been spending a significant amount of time lately thinking about artificial life and machine intelligence. Alan Turing imagined what has come to be known as a "Turing Test", a kind of game that would provide an operational definition of human intelligence. Turing's guess was that by the year 2000 there would be computers that we would all feel comfortable calling "intelligent".

That didn't happen.

Instead, the year 2000 brought us the reverse Turing test and the need for we humans to prove to computers that we are human. Now that's progress. In the "captcha" example shown above, you are expected to prove that you are human by typing in two words, one that you see in the image and the other that is in the text, a jumble of overlapping letters. So, human, what two words do you see?

Human Evolution
I'm three chapters into a new story set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe and I'm deep into imagining the social dynamics of a culture that includes both humans and humanoid robots. The robots are at least as intelligent as the humans and the bots have to make an effort to not offend the sensibilities of the humans who think of themselves as masters of the robots. In fact, the robots run the show and the main functional role for the humans is to serve as breeding stock.

We like to think of the human species as being at the top, having ascended during the past 7 million years through several intermediate steps from a common ancestor to chimps and humans.

Alien with a big brain.
One of the joys of science fiction is imagining biological species that might evolve far "beyond" the stage reached by we humans. It has long been popular for SciFi stories to include alien species with brains that are even larger than ours.

I put "beyond" in quotes, because it is not clear what might come next. Bigger brains might not be better. There is some evidence that human brains have actually gotten smaller during the most recent phase of human evolution.

In an Exodemic story, if I introduce the idea of a type of space alien that has existed as a sapient species for tens of millions of years then I'm usually able to leave all the details of the physiology and appearance of those aliens to the reader's imagination. For argument's sake, let's call those aliens the Huaoshy. But here is an analogy:
Imagine that the Huaoshy came to Earth about 7 million years ago and started "domesticating" the common ancestor to chimps and humans. In other words, the course of human evolution has been controlled by the Huaoshy. In particular, they have in mind a goal; they know the type of creature that they want to transform the human species into. Further, imagine that the Huaoshy have set up several "cultures" of humans, experimental laboratories of human evolution located on several different worlds where the trials and errors and designs and genetic engineering of humans can be played out across many thousands of years.

Imagine that we humans here on Earth have gone along an evolutionary trajectory as illustrated above (You Are Here). At the same time, on another world the Huaosy have been more aggressive and they managed to engineer a human variant that is much closer to their desired goal. Now, if brought before your maker (the Huaoshy) how would you argue the case for we Earthlings? What if the Huaoshy have their own concept of what constitutes a sapient creature and in their terms, we here on Earth are still sub-human creatures, not much better than chimps?

Die, Earthlings!
And maybe it is worse than that. Maybe the Huaoshy are disgusted with how we Earthlings are turning out. Maybe the Huaoshy are starting to think that it might be wise to sterilize this culture dish, just drop an asteroid on Earth and start over with field mice as their evolutionary starting point. After all, the Huaoshy already have human variants on other worlds that are nicely evolving towards the goal.

So here is the contest: prove to the Huaoshy that you are human. Warning: the Huaoshy are going to use their own highly subjective standard for what constitutes "human".

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