A symposium event titled “Reality was Whatever Happened: Octavia Butler AI and Other Possible Worlds,” organized by U of T Associate Professor Beth Coleman, recently delved into the intriguing intersection of human cognition, learning, and artificial intelligence (AI). The event featured distinguished speakers who engaged in profound discussions about the multifaceted nature of reality and the potential perils and promises of AI.
Temporal relativism: A journey through time with Lee Smolin
One of the thought-provoking conversations during the event was centered around “Temporal Relativism,” a concept that explores the very essence of time itself. This discussion featured Lee Smolin, a renowned theoretical physicist and co-founder of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Smolin was interviewed by Maurice Jones, a curator and AI regulation researcher at Concordia University.
Time’s existence in the fabric of the universe
Lee Smolin passionately asserts that time is not merely a human construct or a convenient measurement but exists as a fundamental component ingrained in the very fabric of the universe. According to Smolin, time operates at a level that encompasses the most basic building blocks of our cosmos, including fundamental particles and the forces that govern them.
Smolin’s fascination with the nature of time traces back to his youth, starting at the age of 17. His initial inspiration stemmed from an essay by the legendary physicist Albert Einstein, who proposed that understanding quantum gravity requires grappling with two formidable challenges.
The first challenge involves deciphering the intricate realm of quantum mechanics, which explores the behavior of matter and light at the atomic and subatomic scale. The second challenge is to integrate these insights with Einstein’s own general theory of relativity, which beautifully describes the gravitational force as the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects.
Defining time: A ‘Thick Present’ of possibilities
Lee Smolin offers a unique and interconnected perspective on time. He views time as a fundamental and ever-evolving phenomenon. Smolin introduces the concept of a “thick present,” describing it as a state where only present events possess the potential to generate future events. In essence, the past has already exhausted its capacity to generate new events and, thus, becomes a fixed part of history.
Crucially, Smolin contends that the past, while determined, does not completely dictate the future. He posits that within the “thick present,” there exists room for novel events to unfold, emphasizing the notion that the future remains undetermined to some extent.
AI and shaping a novel future
In the context of the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence, Lee Smolin advocates for a distinct approach. Rather than focusing on constructing machines that strive to predict the future with unwavering accuracy, Smolin suggests a different path. He proposes the development of AI machines that actively contribute to building “a future that we’ve never imagined before.”
Smolin draws a compelling analogy with how infants engage with the world. Babies, when encountering people, do not attempt to predict each person’s identity beforehand. Instead, they interact sequentially, asking questions like “Who is that?” after meeting each individual. Smolin urges that this iterative and inquisitive approach should guide our efforts in shaping the AI machines of the future.
The “Temporal Relativism” discussion at the symposium led by Lee Smolin provided a profound exploration of time’s fundamental role in the universe and offered a fresh perspective on the development of artificial intelligence. Smolin’s insights challenge conventional notions of determinism and open doors to a future where AI can contribute to the creation of unforeseen possibilities. As the AI landscape continues to evolve, embracing these unconventional ideas may pave the way for a more innovative and unpredictable future.