Walter Bradley’s struggle to bring reality to “sci-fi” origin of life research is the Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence’s inspiration.
Baylor University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Walter Bradley recalled for the audience at the Dallas launch, November 4, 2018, his own experiences with helping people grapple with fundamental issues of understanding ourselves in the light of science.
A friend sought to involve him in evolution issues in the mid-Seventies. He didn’t see how he could help; his specialty was materials science, where the subjects are interesting, “but they’re also dead.” He offered to evaluate research into the origin of life instead because he could better evaluate claims for the chemistry of non-living materials. There, he encountered a surprise: “It was very clear to me that they were absolutely like science fiction. They had so many claims and so little basis. And I was appalled that you had refereed journals that seemed to talk about these things as if they had real merit and real explanations.”
He and two colleagues, Charles B. Thaxton and Roger L. Olson ended up writing a book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin (1984). Afterward, a well-established researcher came up to him at a Gordon Research Conference and said, “I should have written this book.” Bradley asked, “Why didn’t you?” and he explained, We all get our funding on origin of life research from NASA. I agree with you we need a different theory and we don’t have one right now. If I’d written the book, we wouldn’t get our research funding from NASA … and everybody would be really ticked at me.”
That’s pretty much the situation that the Bradley Center Fellows find today: vast, heady claims that artificial intelligence can easily duplicate human thought and will soon do so. These claims are certainly unrealistic and there are good reasons for thinking them impossible. They proliferate for the same reason as unrealistic origin of life scenarios: So many people are invested in the idea.
Dr. Bradley pointed out in closing that his and his colleagues’ work did pay off, though only slowly. A recent textbook in his native state of Texas assessed the Miller-Urey experiment, a classic Darwinian legend of the origin of life, much more cautiously than past textbooks have done because — as he would say — the experiment bears little relationship to prebiotic conditions. Perhaps the Bradley Center can have a similar effect by promoting more general knowledge of fundamental issues around “thinking computers,” for example the Halting Problem.
Although he did not mention it in his talk, Dr. Bradley’s other passion is sustainable technology for developing nations, for example, industries based on the use of use of coconut-based materials. The Center hopes to keep abreast of developments in that vital area as well.