Bottlenose Dolphin Art PosterMany years ago, when I was a young’un, the list of criteria for being sentient was quite short and only humans qualified. Over the years, the criteria for sentience has subtly and quietly changed as more and more animals were found to qualify. For example, some animals were found to use tools, so tool using was dropped from the list.

Star Trek: The New Generation did an episode where Data was to be returned for disassembly by an AI researcher. Picard defended Data in court to prove his sentience and rescind the order. The full text of the scene is available online.

PICARD: What is required for sentience?
MADDOX: Intelligence, self awareness, consciousness.

Picard manages to create enough of a case and create enough doubt that the judge had to find for Data. It seems to me there was a similar episode during the original Star Trek series but I’m not sure. (If anyone knows for sure let me know which episode and basic case.)

From Ask The Van: in response to question on AI sentience:

When it comes to animals, there are a number of things which scientists try to measure – here are a few examples:

(1) The ability to observe and respond to one’s environment. This requires sensory perceptions and the ability to react to those perceptions. This is a pretty basic property of life, although the extent to which various creatures can do it varies widely. Most (all?) AIs already possess this ability.

(2) Intelligence. *”The ability to learn and understand, the ability to cope with a new situation” Many animals, including primates, pigs, and dolphins, have been shown to have very high intelligence. Some AI’s have also been shown to possess a high level of intelligence.

(3) Sentience / Consciousness. To be *”able to feel and think”. This is a tricky one. There is some very strong evidence out there indicating that certain species of animals are capable of both emotion and rational thought, but the argument hasn’t yet reached final resolution.

(4) Self-awareness. In the animal debate (and also the AI debate, I suspect), this is a big deal. Does the animal have awareness of itself? There are a zillion different experiments out there to test this, and they all seem to rely on a different idea of what proves self-awareness. For example, some definitions require that an animal understand how its own movements affect the image in a mirror. Some depend on an animal’s ability to lie. Some even rely on the fact that carnivorous animals don’t try to eat their own flesh. In the end, this is still a very nebulous issue, and the answers aren’t clear.

As you see from the above response, animals have been found to achieve many of these criteria. I’ve never managed to get over my feeling that we, humans, are so full of ourselves and our place at the center of the universe that we’ve ignored the possibility that we may share this world with a number of other intelligent/sentient species. In doing some research for this article, I ran across the following quote from Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) from Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

“Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. … The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?… The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes…”
Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)
Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

The quote was used in an article on Ethics and discussed our anthropocentric view of sentience.

I believe that I’d got way beyond this author’s views. I believe we are still very anthropocentric. In fact, as strict as we tune the criteria for sentience to always keep mankind on the top of the stack as the only sentient species on Earth — we have many people, humans, who don’t feel that other humans, because of skin color, sexual preference, perceived intelligence or whatever, are really sentient or, in fact, human. Whenever humans from whatever government start a war the first thing that is done is the dehumanizing of the enemy. Evidently it is much easier to kill if you don’t believe the enemy is actually “one of us”.

So, the other day when I came across this article on, “Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons” (January 6, 2010 by Lin Edwards), my first reaction was, “it’s about time.” The article abstract states:

Scientists studying dolphin behavior have suggested they could be the most intelligent creatures on Earth after humans, saying the size of their brains in relation to body size is larger than that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and their behaviors suggest complex intelligence. One scientist said they should therefore be treated as “non-human persons” and granted rights as individuals.

More than about time, but since people don’t consider all people as having rights as individuals, I doubt that this will get very far. But it is a step in the right direction. As we move out into space, we need to recognize that if we were to find intelligent, sentient life out there somewhere, it won’t necessarily look like us. If we can’t accept the possibility of intelligent/sentient life other then homo sapiens on this planet, I don’t hold out much hope for a first contact situation going very well if we should find life on other planets. The odds of this happening are increasing as current research shows that the possibility that we’ve found that life once existed on Mars is increasing as more research is done on available samples.

So, while I think it’s time that we re-examine our relationship with the species that we share our planet with, I doubt very much that humanity is willing to accept the possibility of animal sentience, let alone plant intelligence, when so many can’t accept that all humans are sentient.

Never the less, I’m leaving you with the introductory song to the motion picture, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Besides being a great riff on humanities blindness to other intelligences, it’s a wonderful piece. Enjoy.

Feedback on this article is welcome but unless it is more than — great article or nice blog — it won’t be approved in the comments.

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Radiation Hazard SignI can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a crew member exposed to lethal radiation in science fiction stories and the doc just loads up the anti-radiation serum and gives them a shot and everything is looking good. In movies and TV, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Just the other night we were watching a Battlestar Galactica DVD and the planet had high radiation levels and Starbuck, Helo, and Boomer just dosed themselves with the anti-radiation serum at regular intervals.

Now it looks like science has caught up with fiction. Ynet News has a story on Cure for radiation sickness found? by Ronen Bergman. The medication developed by Professor Andrei Gudkov – Chief Scientific Officer at Cleveland BioLabs has immediate real life implications for people who have or need to be exposed to high levels of radiation. From the article:

Gudkov’s discovery may also have immense implications for cancer patients by enabling doctors to better protect patients against radiation. Should the new medication enable cancer patients to be treated with more powerful radiation, our ability to fight the disease could greatly improve.

How the discovery came about is one of those lucky ideas that sometimes happen when the right conditions come together.

The process that led up to the medical innovation dates back to 2003, when Professor Gudkov came up with the idea of using protein produced in bacteria found in the intestine to protect cells from radiation.

Tests so far on mice and monkeys look like this is the “real deal”. If approved after being moved to the fast track, this would be a preventative medication not a cure but it would be safe and easily injected. The possible uses could be a miracle for cancer patients, workers in the nuclear industry, astronauts and space workers, and many others such as governments who wish to stockpile medications — just in case the worst case scenario of MAD comes knocking.

In fact, if this drug manages to hold up to its promise, it could mean that space flight and/or long-term habitation of space stations and on ships heading to Mars (for example) would have less of a problem with radiation that would other wise limit our chances of success. It opens up a lot of possibilities that were previously unavailable to us because of the radiation exposure the crews would face.

What are your thoughts? And please read the original article before commenting?

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Liquid water on Mars on the lander legs Today an article in National Geographic News reports that liquid water was recently seen on Mars. Phoenix, which landed near Mars’ north pole, has taken several photos of itself and a recent series of photos seem to show water droplets on the lander’s legs that are clumping together and running downward. If it’s not water, it’s a pretty good approximation, and definitely looks like a liquid of some sort. Scientists report:

This substance is probably saline mud that splashed up as the craft landed, study leader and Phoenix co-investigator Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan told National Geographic News. Salt in the mud then absorbed water vapor from the atmosphere, forming the watery drops, Renno said. The water can stay liquid even in the frigid Martian arctic because it contains a high amount of perchlorates, a salt “with properties like the antifreeze used to melt snow here in Michigan,” said Renno, who will present the work next month at the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Finding liquid water under these conditions carries possible implications for Mars’s habitability, the scientists say.

Personally, I feel like I do at Christmas — all excited and expectant and jittery with glee. Imagine the possibilities. This is exciting news. It’s great news because water, even if it’s mud-salt water, is critical for supporting life. However, it also means that unless life can manage the huge amounts of salt in the liquid — well, it’s unlikely. But it does raise the chances that a human expedition to the planet for research purposes might be able to survive (after all technology could probably deal with extracting the water for use.). Meanwhile, these pictures are just amazing.

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Mars Methane Release: Northern Summer

Okay, maybe you saw this news item and maybe you didn’t — if not I’m going to talk about it for a bit. It seems that scientists have noted that there seems to be some rather large methane plumes on Mars. NASA released this information in one of their news release/feature report along with some media photos and animations.

Why is this so important a discovery? I’m so glad you asked.

Methane is usually an indication of life. You may have heard that the problem with cattle is that they create manure and thus methane gas. However, as the US EPA report on sources of methane there are a lot of other sources for methane gas. It can be created by either geologic or biologic mechanisms and the same thing applies in the case of the methane on Mars.

For many years, Mars has been considered to be a dead planet. In science fiction stories it has always been a source of possible life, sharing this solar system with us. However, no evidence of a civilization has been found in spite of all the rumors of canals and canal building since the earliest studies of Mars with telescopes as they were developed and perfected. But, things have changed as we’ve sent landers to Mars and studied the landscape much more closely. There is evidence that there may once have been water on Mars and there may be water there still. Water is a key element in developing life — at least as far as we know from our own experiences and studies on Earth.

Now NASA has found methane:

New research reveals there is hope for Mars yet. The first definitive detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars indicates the planet is still alive, in either a biologic or geologic sense, according to a team of NASA and university scientists.

“Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas,” said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif.”

However, we can’t get too excited about finding life on Mars, even in such a basic form as a biological process that could produce methane gas because the gas can also be produced via geologic processes:

“Microbes that produced methane from hydrogen and carbon dioxide were one of the earliest forms of life on Earth,” noted Dr. Carl Pilcher, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute which partially supported the research. “If life ever existed on Mars, it’s reasonable to think that its metabolism might have involved making methane from Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

However, it is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide (rust) into the serpentine group of minerals creates methane, and on Mars this process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide, and the planet’s internal heat. Although we don’t have evidence on Mars of active volcanoes today, ancient methane trapped in ice “cages” called clathrates might now be released.

These scientists (Dr. Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. and others) found the methane plumes using observatories here on Earth at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, run by the University of Hawaii, and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Further research needs to be done because while their findings are definitely exciting, they need to be matched with observations made on Mars to help identify the origins of these plumes and what makes them.

Personally, it doesn’t really matter whether the methane plumes are a result of geologic or biologic mechanisms. If they are geologic they can be of use to future colonists or visitors to the planet as a source of possible energy during the early stages of establishing a research facility. If biologic then there maybe indigenous life on the planet — perhaps just low level cellular activity but still life — that also can be of use in broadening our understanding of how the universe works and our place in it.

The fact of the matter is that currently all our eggs are in this very fragile blue basket — Earth. The case is not if the Earth gets hit with a asteroid or a stray bit of whatever, it’s when we get hit. Depending on the size of a strike, we could be eliminated completely or starting all over with the basics — back to the stone age. For the survival of our species and for the survival of our society and culture and knowledge, we need to spread out throughout this solar system so no matter what happens to our planet, some of us will survive at a level that can in turn help us to recover what we’ve lost.

It’s beginning to look like Mars just might be a really good basket for us to look to when we’re looking for a place to put a few eggs. It’s the same sort of impulse for survival that caused the people of Vietnam during the war to send a son to each side so that no matter who won the war, there was a family member who could help the family to go on. The people of Earth are now reaching the stage where we are becoming capable of seeing that no matter what happens we should be capable of survival as a species if not as individuals. Space science has given us enormous technological leaps in medicine, physics, engineering, computers, and a basic understanding of how systems work in complex environments. It may not look like it, but it will also give us a chance to reach out to a new frontier — increasing the chance that humans will continue to grow and survive in this solar system.

But then that’s just my pie in the sky hope.

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