Category Archives: Uncategorized

Intelligent aliens?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cuttlefish [see ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve‘ on January 16th, 2019]  based on a wonderful book, that I was given for Christmas, called ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘ by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes as ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.  The most recent common ancestor of cephalopods and humans is so distant and was so simple that cephalopods represent an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  An octopus has about 500 million neurons, which is not as many as humans, we have about 100 billion; but still a large number and connectivity is probably more important than absolute size [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Whereas we have a central nervous system, an octopus has a distributed system with neurons located in its arms which appears to give each arm a high-level of autonomy.  In addition to tactile sensory information from its suckers, each arm receives visual information from its skin which is sensitive to light.  The extent to which information and control is shared between the neurons in the brain and the network of neurons in its body is unknown.  It is difficult for us to imagine our fingers as being able to respond independently to visual as well as tactile stimuli, even more so to think of them as independent problem-solvers.  Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests that cephalopods are the closest that we are likely to come to meeting intelligent aliens – their thought processes and capabilities appear so different to ours that our scientific studies and experiments are unlikely to fully reveal their intelligence or level of consciousness.  A first step would be to stop eating them!

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.

Knowledge is power

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite.  Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs.  I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”

These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it.  So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances.  Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.

This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community.  Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge.  For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence.  This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.

More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge.  Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information.  Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest.  Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge.  This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.

Source:

Hardwig J, Epistemic dependence, J. Philosophy, 82(7):335-349, 1985.

Aircraft inspection

A few months I took this series of photographs while waiting to board a trans-Atlantic flight home.  First, a small ladder was placed in front of the engine.  Then a technician arrived, climbed onto the ladder and spread a blanket on the cowling before kneeling on it and spinning the fan blades slowly.  He must have spotted something that concerned him because he climbed in, lay on the blanket and made a closer inspection.  Then he climbed down, rolled up the blanket and left.  A few minutes later he returned with a colleague, laid out the blanket and they both had a careful look inside the engine, after which they climbed down, rolled up the blanket put it back in a special bag and left.  Five or ten minutes later, they were back with a third colleague.  The blanket was laid out again, the engine inspected by two of them at once and a three-way discussion ensued.  The result was that our flight was postponed while the airline produced a new plane for us.

Throughout this process it appeared that the most sophisticated inspection equipment used was the human eye and a mobile phone.  I suspect that the earlier inspections were reported by phone to the supervisor who came to look for himself before making the decision.  One of the goals of our current research is to develop easy-to-use instrumentation that could be used to provide more information about the structural integrity of components in this type of situation.  In the INSTRUCTIVE project we are investigating the use of low-cost infra-red cameras to identify incipient damage in aerospace structures.  Our vision is that the sort of inspection described above could be performed using an infra-red camera that would provide detailed data about the condition of the structure.  This data would update a digital twin that, in turn, would provide a prognosis for the structure.  The motivation is to improve safety and reduce operating costs by accurate identification of critical damage.