Chapter 12: The Principle of Computational Equivalence

Section 10: Intelligence in the Universe

Recognizing artifacts

Various situations require picking out artifacts automatically. One example is finding buildings or machines from aerial reconnaissance images; another is finding boat or airplane wreckage on an ocean floor from sonar data. In both these cases the most common approach is to look for straight edges. Outdoor security systems also often need ways to distinguish animals and wind-induced motion from intentional human activity—and tend to have fairly simple procedures for doing this.

To recognize a regular crystal as not being a carefully cut artifact can take specific knowledge. The same can be true of patterns produced by wind on sand or rocks. Lenticular clouds are sometimes mistaken for UFOs on account of their regular shape. The exact cuboid form of the monolith in the movie 2001 was intended to suggest that it was an artifact.

Recognizing artifacts can be a central—and controversial—issue in prehistoric archeology. Sometimes human bones are found nearby. And sometimes chemical analysis suggests controlled fire—as with charcoal or baked clay. But to tell whether for example a piece of rock was formed naturally or was carefully made to be a stone tool can in general be very difficult. And a large part of the way this has been done in practice is just through comparison with known examples that fit into an overall pattern of gradual historical change. In recent decades there has been increasing emphasis on trying to understand and reproduce the whole process of making and using artifacts. And in the field of lithic analysis there are beginning to be fairly systematic ways to recognize for example the effects of the hundreds of orderly impacts needed to make a typical flint arrowhead by knapping. (Sometimes it is also possible to recognize microscopic features characteristic of particular kinds of use or wear—and it is conceivable that in the future analysis of trillions of atomic-scale features could reveal all sorts of details of the history of an object.)

To tell whether or not some arrangement of soil or rocks is an artifact can be extremely difficult—and there are many notorious cases of continuing controversy. Beyond looking for similarities to known examples, a typical approach is just to look for correlations with topographic or other features that might reveal some possible purpose.

From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]