Oct 4 2011

Darwinism run riot

I used to do some research in the field of genetic algorithms. This still fascinates me, especially the little edge case stories of amazing results, like the possibly apocryphal story of a guy doing GA work with field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA). He was trying to do some basic signal processing — I believe it was trying to recognize the word “yes” but my interweb search skills are failing me this morning — and using a GA to program the FPGA to do this. This entails basically coding the FPGA with a hundred or so random variations, testing it, taking the best 10, permuting those somehow (usually by splicing pieces of the winners together and adding a small amount of random permutation), and then testing the new 100.

Repeat until success.

The end result was a working “yes” recognizer (which we expect — GAs do work). In fact there were several. All but one were pretty comprehensible when reverse engineered. But one was very hard to understand — there was substantial logic on the chip that was never reached by execution, but if that logic was removed, the recognizer failed! It turns out this was some radio-frequency leakage or reflection from that logic that made the functional logic work — a side effect. Of course this was a very fragile effect, and changing the temperature by a few degrees either way ground it to a halt. But this story is highly illustrative of several facts about and Darwinistic system:

First, it exploits side effects. It doesn’t matter what the logical way to stick the allowed building blocks together is, it will use any unintentional properties to optimize the solution. Tricky!

Second, it hinges entirely on the selection criteria: how you pick which individuals in a generation to move forward to the next generation. So when your criteria is “how well does it recognize the word, ‘yes'”, then what you get is a good “yes” recognizer. Period. No other factors will be considered.

This means that when analyzing any Darwinian system, you need to drill down to the atomic unit of selection, which is why Dawkins’ revelation that gene reproduction is at the heart of understanding biological Darwinism is so profound. It sounds ridiculous, as though genes have some will and agenda, but really it’s just a clear statement of the root selection mechanism. All the more interesting things about behaviour and results of the system derive from it,  though in much the same way that Newtonian physics derives from, ultimately, sub-atomic behaviour. It does, and that’s useful, but not handy for shooting pool.

Unfortunately, there are many (and some are unknowing) wielders of Darwinian pool who think they are doing one thing when a deep analysis of selection criteria would reveal that they are doing something different. And that good results can be side effects or transient behaviour in the system.

We are often led to believe that Darwinism leads to “good” results at least in part because, in the biological realm, it led to us. This is artificial, however, and you should have alarm bells going off whenever anyone applies a value like “good” or “bad” to a Darwinian result. It just does what it does and things don’t get “better” in any deliberate sense. Sure they got better for us, for a while, anyway, but this is no guarantee of continued awesomeness. What it does guarantee is propagation of a lot of genes (and, actually, any other self-reproducing material). As soon as humanity is generally detrimental to gene propagation, we’ll be corrected for. Nothing special about us monkeys.

So the crux of a Darwinian algorithm is a set of reproducers, some criteria for selection and rejection, and reproduction with variation. If you have this in any context you get progress towards optimizing meeting the selection criteria. In computer science this is pretty easy to pin down because it’s probably one line in the code. In the real world, though, because the atomic unit of reproduction (a gene) is so far removed from the selection mechanisms (animal-scale interaction) it’s probably impossible to untangle. It’s also a moving target. If you optimize for evading lions and lions go extinct, you’ll have new dominant pressures. And the real world is a dynamic web of interconnecting pressures. very very tricky stuff.

This looks like a science post. It’s actually a political post.


Jun 27 2011

Robots and Role-play

This weekend I had that great moment where you get to reveal something awesome you know to people who don’t know it. And you know they want to know it. In fact, you know they are going to take it and run like hell and probably score touchdown after touchdown with it. This is especially wonderful when you are pretty sure you are not going to score touchdowns with it. The football in this case was the Mythic GM Emulator.

I was hanging around in Gamefiend’s D&D 4e IRC server (that’s #4ednd on irc.atwill4e.net) and talking about online role-playing. I like me some online role-playing, especially by IRC. I like it because it tends towards the multi-GM model — lots of people in the mix feel relatively free to grab a little narrative authority and hours of great fun can pass before a designated GM even shows up. This is huge fun for me, but the stories that come out of it are mostly chatty — characters trying to get other characters to put them in a situation where they can divulge their backstory. That’s fun, but it’s not a whole evening’s worth of it.

Well the GM Emulator came up in regular conversation and I think it meshed with ideas Gamefiend already had about adding some automation into the role-playing chat channels. Anyway, there was a flurry of PDF purchasing, and then a bunch of great and heated back-and-forth about what to implement, and then bang-zoom-code. Brent Newhall packed together a bot in python within a very short time and soon it was in the lab.

The bot is called Arbiter and what it does is really simple. If you ask Arbiter a question, it answers with a yes or a no and, some fraction of the time, a twist statement. What this does is really interesting. For example, I was playing Keln, who I wanted to be an airship pilot. I didn’t know if that was a kosher choice in the setting but rather than ask a GM, I ask Arbiter. This is where his name is important — he doesn’t just say yes or no, he implicitly grants authority to you.

So Arbiter says, “Yes, with the twist of a beautiful woman and a gambling debt.” 1 So now I have been granted authority to not only be an airship pilot but I have also been granted the authority to introduce some new elements and everyone sees and is engaged in helping that out. So my internal story is that I lost my airship to a beautiful cheating gambler. Someone else latches onto this and clearly wants their character to be that gambler in disguise. Spark spark flame.

So here are the themes that are interesting to me.

Simplicity drives complexity. Arbiter does not need to be any more complex in order to be awesome. Features can be added but at this point it’s pretty much gold-plating to do so. Yes or no, optional twist and you get triggered complexity from participants.

Authority comes from one place. In order to have authority it must be granted. It can be granted implicitly (I’m the GM in a game that has a GM) or explicitly through the rules. With Arbiter, authority actually resides in the stupidest member: Arbiter! He’s like the worst umpire ever, randomly saying “ball” or “strike” and not paying attention to the game at all. But as my favourite professor once said, that umpire is 90% of a good umpire. You need someone to decide more than you need someone to be right.

Those who want it, drive it. Because Arbiter is optional, it only triggers when someone demands information. Even then, it is only attended to (in the twist) if someone decides to do so. This is wonderful because there’s no pressure to perform (which can paralyze) but someone is bound to grab that hook and do something with it. No one is unduly put upon — if you want to mostly coast and react2, you can do that. But if you want some authority, you just ask for it.

The smarts are in the humans. For two reasons. First, and obviously, because humans interpret the answers creatively in order to produce content. But more importantly (and this was Gamefiend’s expectation but not mine) because the essential creative power is actually in asking the right question. My initial concern was that some high percentage of answers would just be “no” and this sounds boring to me. It is boring, absent the context of the question itself. When you know that those are the limitations of the Arbiter, though, you craft questions so that the answer will be relevant. My airship question, for example, was a grab for authority to establish certain setting facts. A “no” might have been boring there, but the possibility of “no” was essential for the authority of a “yes” to be legitimate. I swear there are other examples but I don’t have the chat log handy. Watch this space.

So this has my brain by the nuts at the moment. This is super cool space for gaming. All it needs is an underlying resolution system that is also very friendly to the fast pace of IRC play and can use arbitrary (see what I did?) granting of authority rather than rely on the coordination of a single human. And maybe a way to keep track of the facts list that evolves (something that a GM would normally prepare but that this system kind of demands emerge from play).


  1. Not verbatim
  2. And I don’t mean to denigrate that — a party full of high-initiative people all grabbing at every hook can be a nightmare.

Aug 16 2010

Atomic Rockets

I read this morning that SpaceX is advising governments to make atomic rockets. This is interesting and amazing for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s pretty smart. For a lot of reasons.

SpaceX is in the business of (or wants to be in the business of) lifting stuff off the planet into space. Their technology is directed towards exactly this: getting kilograms out of the gravity well. This is a non-trivial problem and one of the most effective short term solutions is giant chemical rockets. There are better long term solutions, like space elevators, but they mostly involve material science that doesn’t exists yet, so while we want to be thinking and experimenting about these, we don’t want to bet on them just yet.

Regardless, we can call the problem of ground-to-orbit basically solved. We’ll be refining it and SpaceX will have a heavy hand in the commercialization of it (fingers crossed) but we basically know how to do it.

The problem is that a lot of what we want to do next is not about getting off the ground. And the SpaceX dudes have correctly spotted the fact that getting from Earth to Mars, say, is only feasible if you treat it as a totally different problem from getting off the ground. So SpaceX is basically saying that there are really good designs for long-duration space-flight that are not good for getting off the ground, but that for a small fee they will totally launch the pieces of your smart Mars ark into orbit for assembly and launch.

Obviously this is a pretty shrewd business position: NASA, quit worrying about the lift and start building huge long-term projects that assume orbit and rely heavily on some contractor to supply that while you (NASA) work hard on how to travel through huge open regions of space.

And so, atomic rockets. SpaceX specifically recommends a NERVA design (not to be confused with the Roman Emperor) which basically uses a nuclear reactor to superheat hydrogen and shoot it out the back at enormous velocities, giving you thrust. This was first proposed back in the sixties though I think the idea then was to launch the bugger straight from the ground, which we all agreed was a bad idea at some point. High velocity radioactive hydrogen is just not “green”. It also had some serious issues to surmount (material science ones, interestingly) but it looks like we can get around most of these with judicious application of iridium, which is cool because tanks and ray guns are made from iridium in David Drake novels, which I secretly read all the time.

Anyway, you don’t want this thing going off on the only planet you own, so you lift the parts into space, put it together, and set it off there. If that works really well, you might want to think about setting up a factory on the moon or something and make a bunch of them. Or at least re-use the first one a lot, because it won’t be intrinsically disposable (like many chemical rocket designs) and just needs a new load of r-mass every now and then to set on fire and shoot out the back.

This would all mean a huge need for a lot of heavy lifting from ground to space. Which is a lot of SpaceX business, I expect. Smart smart smart.

Something that strikes me as amusing is that we may have inverted our previous space strategy with this, and that’s not unusual when people are learning honest lessons from practical experience. That is, it may be the case that getting to orbit is the bit that should be disposable (contrary to the shuttle concept) and then we should not do it a whole lot. Instead, build space-craft with great re-usability in space and shoot people up into them rather than whole spacecraft. This provides an incremental method of space exploration and further feeds into a progression of leisurization of the processes: as lifting transitions from government to commercial domain, deep space travel opens up to the government (this is the SpaceX proposal). Then we expect a similar transition over a great deal of time: as the government establishes science and infrastructure, commerce can take over the travel, transporting science missions for a fee and maybe even exploiting resources in space. Governments can get on with other things (like funding the science I hope). And within all that, there must come an opportunity for leisure and an increase in opportunities for simple labour.

The SpaceX proposal is exactly on the path to real blue collar space, where folks do what they do, it just happens to be in space. Or on the moon. Or Mars. Or Europa.


Jul 27 2010

Grass, going to seed, and competition

I am not a botanist. I have not done a ton of research into botany. Do not use this article as a primary research tool.

Every week-day I twice pass a lovely new playground that the City of Burnaby has constructed next to a well-preserved region of wetlands. The soil here is wet (duh) and fecund. Animals thrive here. Obviously the first priority of the city is to prevent that from happening in the playground. I make no moral or ethical judgment here, it’s just true: no one wants their kids playing in a swamp and the residents want a place right here that kids can play. Ergo, it cannot be a swamp. Swamps want to make more swamp, and so you need to defend your playground against the constant encroachment of the swamp and do so without killing the swamp, because the swamp is mandated by provincial or federal law. I don’t know which.

So you build a nice sterile gravel path at least a meter and a half deep between the swamp and the playground. You don’t want a sterile playground — in fact you are going to surround it with lush lawn-quality grass — but you do need a defensive perimeter. Okay then — maintaining this perimeter is now priority one.

No problem there. The city is doing a fine job of maintaining this perimeter. There is no danger of the swamp encroaching on the grass. There are two reasons for this: first, the sterile path idea actually works; and second, they managed to kill the soil under the grass.

I’m pretty sure this is how lawn grass and lawns in general work: you regularly cut some bog-standard (aware of the pun, thank you, and there will be more) grass. This is not an aesthetic thing you do. This is part of the control you need to exert over the whole growth culture of grass. What you are doing is preventing the grass from reproducing sexually. I know, put that way it sounds cruel, but it’s true. Because grass grows two ways and one is intrinsically cooperative while the other is intrinsically competitive.

When grass is prevented from seeding, it reproduces asexually, which is not as fun and makes lawns. Because the grass is regularly cut, there is no competitive growth (it’s all mostly the same length and it’s all short so sunlight is equally available and equally consumed). New grass is budded from the existing grass from at or below the soil line, creating a nice spongy mass that holds the dirt together and is very efficient at trapping water and transmitting nutrients. The grass is happy. It’s hard for alien plants to get a foothold in a good lawn, because this lawn is so good at what it does (and the regular cutting is bad news for anything that doesn’t also reproduce while really short). When you cut grass you are literally leveling the playing field, and grass wins this because it is a powerful cooperator when denied sex.

The City of Burnaby did not regularly cut this grass.

More to the point, they let it go to seed and then cut it.

When grass starts to get longer, a marked difference in the amount of sunlight any given blade receives can be had by increasing height.  Increasingly long neighbours strangle out the light for shorter neighbours, and they die. This results in clumping — now the most efficient way to get light is for clusters of tall grass to climb as high as they can (for two reasons, actually) which creates rings of shade around the best competitors. In these rings of shade, very little grows. If it’s dry (and it is) the soil will become rather less fecund in a positive feedback loop: because nothing is growing in these little bands, they cannot retain water well.

This is not all bad. At some point the grass uses its height to seed effectively. The high stalk allows the seed to be carried away on the wind, hopefully taking root somewhere new and fertile and, pointedly, far away from the parent so that it will not compete directly. All of this also creates competitive space for alien species that are good at the hard drier soil between clumps. This will create a new and different diversity provided there is a lot of water.

There isn’t a lot of water. The path maintenance prevents the wetlands from overflowing into the park.

And so then they cut the grass. Now there are patches of short grass all over the park. This short grass needs lots of water but the soil is no longer suited to holding a lot of water — grass gone to seed needs constant external influx of water because it doesn’t bind the soil the same way that asexual grass does. Oh crap! So this truncated sexual grass dies. Now you have a fucking desert in the making. Worse, there’s not really a way to nurse it back to health because the change in the soil is so dramatic. You need to till the whole thing under and add water or rip it up and re-sod with manufactured asexual happy cooperative grass.

Or let the swamp in. The swamp knows all this stuff and knows how to maintain it. Skunks are cuddly!


Mar 19 2010

Amateurizing space flight

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has a great article linking a great video about the Virgin Galactic space program.

It’d be nice if the auto-embed feature of WordPress actually worked as advertised. Just write the URL, they say. It’s automatic they say. Look folks, we can put an artist into space now, why can’t I embed video?

Okay. Now that is what I mean when I say “blue collar space”. Sure, one side of it is the industry of individual labourers in a new environment — that’s certainly what I mean by “blue collar” and blue collar work in space is an indicator of the move from government to corporate levels of exploitation, which is a definitive change in technological level in our game, Diaspora. But the other side is that because of the change from government to corporate operation, the technology can become recreational.

And more than that, purely academic, because now someone can go through the usual grants process to do research, and do it in space. Without anything more special than meeting the price tag. This is a serious disconnection from the government scale of operation, which is one reason why it is a technology level change: small groups of individuals decide how to use the technology. And as the technology advances, the number of people that need to be directly involved dwindles. That doesn’t mean you can fly to work on a jetpack — it means your can book a flight, catch a cab, fly, and be at your workplace in London without having to organize a thousand people. The corporate scale is a way of harnessing other peoples’ incidental organization for personal function. When you say “I am flying to London” you really mean that — it’s all about your decisions — even though there are thousands of people involved in making it happen.

So now we are being invited into space on a similar scale of agency. The price tag is still high enough that we are not talking about everyman, but that seems likely to change over time. And I know at least one person is watching that video and wondering if there’s a way to get a paper on classical Greek theatre out of a high altitude launch.


Feb 15 2010

More great views in space

While I’m getting all excited about clarity and lighting in space, check out this raw image of Mimas:

Click on it to see it much bigger and sharper. That’s one beat up moon.


Feb 15 2010

Bolting stuff in space with robots

Okay it’s been a while since I said anything that actually pertained directly to the topic of “blue collar space”. The “space” part has been especially absent. So, go check out this time lapse cupola-bolting video. This is awesome for many reasons.

First, it’s being done by a robot. Almost certainly remote-operated, but nonetheless there is a cardinal rule about working in space: if you can do it and remain inside, that’s the better approach. That’s because it’s nasty outside and you have to wear complicated and uncomfortable suits with unpleasant failure modes. So the reality of our laborious lives in space is robots and hardsuits, not unlike our efforts under the sea. Sure there’s always a time when you need a guy out there with a spanner, but whenever you can you use the robot arm. The ones made in Canada are of course the best. And I don’t just say that because I am Canadian. I say that also because several of my colleagues helped build that thing.

Now the other cool thing in there, because the clip spans a long-ish period of time, is the lighting. Precious few movies get this right. While orbiting (spinning around the planet at extremely high velocity) the lighting changes and changes dramatically. Each of those frames is an interesting mood for setting a dramatic space fiction moment. The brilliance of the sunlight and in the depth of the darkness are both extremes rarely found planetside. The dark moments especially made me want to run a game of Diaspora right now — there is so much fertile imagery for a space-horror mash-up.

And then there’s the fact that the ISS is built with such modularity that when it seems kind of cool to observe the Earth instead of outer space, it’s actually more convenient to move the observation dome than to re-orient the vehicle! That’s cool. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s slow but it’s safe — the mechanics of even simply rotating a massive, fragile structure with such long moment-arms are terrifying (and this is why you probably don’t want to extend your heat-exchangers while maneuvering — they are going to tear free as the tips try to accelerate to thirty times the velocity of the bases). Hence the image of ships at rest unfolding like butterflies, their sterile and boring cylindrical hulls slowly sprouting wings and antennae and other spires and spicules.

So go look at what we really do in space and then take it to the table. We are exciting animals.


Jan 19 2010

Folk Tool, Formal Fallacy

This is an ancient history post. It has been posted before, elsewhere. –BMurray

Folk Symmetry

I take the bus to work so I have time to read, listen to music, and think. When I use that time to think, dangerous things sometimes happen. Today en route to work I thought. On thinking, I realized that there is an interesting symmetry between Folk Philosophy and Formal Philosophy. Specifically, there is a Folk Tool that is a Formal Fallacy and there is a Formal Tool that is a Folk Fallacy. Cool huh?

Folk Philosophy is the philosophy that people do without resorting to formal training and rigour. It’s when you trust your instincts or local mythology (often the same thing) rather than derive or deduce solutions. So a Folk Tool is something we can categorize as a good trick in Folk Philosophy and a Folk Fallacy is a common pitfall that is readily identified as a failed folk argument. “Folk” is not intended to be derogatory in the slightest, it just indicates untrained thought. I engage in Folk Physics all the time — it seems obvious to me that if you slam on the brakes in your car, your helium balloon will lurch forward with the passengers. Turns out it won’t — it lurches in the opposite direction.

So, reductio ad absurdum is a Folk Fallacy and a Formal Tool.

When constructing a Folk Argument, you assemble premises and axioms in a very informal fashion but most importantly, though your logic might be rigorous, your premises are usually not carefully stated. That means that they have a kind of margin of error based on facts and interpretation. So, when you folk-argue that “If A then B, and if B then C, and if C then D” and assert A therefore D, you commit a fallacy — reductio ad absurdum — because although your logic is fine, the error on your premises is multiplied for each premise. Your conclusion is therefore most likely false even though the logic looks good. The more inferences in your chain, the wronger you probably are.

Formally, however, reductio ad absurdum is not only okay, it’s one of the core building blocks of formal logic systems! As a tool it works like so: if you suppose premise A and can, in supposing it, derive a contradiction, then A must be false. It’s a test through hypothesis and it can, with a small number of operators, be used to construct all more complex formal logical rules.

More interesting to me is post hoc ergo propter hoc.

As a Formal Fallacy this is simply the assertion that the order of events does not imply a causal relationship. Just because A happens before B, there is precisely zero rationale to assert that A causes B.

In Folk Philosophy, however, post hoc ergo propter hoc isn’t just a tool — it’s a survival trait! When developing a strategy to survive, say, testing food for edibility, there are a couple of criteria that will be strongly selected for. The most strongly selected for (especially in an area with lots of delicious looking poisonous fruity) is fail-safety.

Something fails safely (exhibits the property of fail-safety) when its failure does not result in an unsafe state. For automatic trains, for example (my own field), most devices fail in such a way as to halt the train because there are precious few more safe trains than ones that are not moving. In Folk Philosophy, fail safety is very valuable because you use it to reflexively run your life and post hoc ergo propter hoc has it in spades. It’s so powerful that most animals use it too.

Let’s say you eat a berry and get sick. Now as everyone knows thanks to Maple Leaf, listeria has an onset of up to 10 weeks, so it’s entirely possible that the berry you just ate had nothing to do with it. If, however, you reflexively apply post hoc ergo propter hoc, one of two things will happen: you will stop eating that perfectly good berry or you will stop eating that berry that makes you sick. Whether right or wrong, you are safe.

Now, for long term operation of humans and their communities this sucks because you will eventually rule out away everything and starve to death. But in the short term it’s a great strategy: it’s right often enough and it’s safe when it’s wrong. That also makes it the go-to logical tool when you’re scared, which is why people make profoundly improbable leaps based on next to no evidence when they are analyzing something dangerous looking like thimerosal in vaccines or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or having too much toothpaste on an airplane. It’s no good for building a civilization but if you find yourself having to test berries in the wilderness, it’s a keeper.

–BMurray (August 28, 2008)

Nov 19 2009

On being an organ

Aggregated effort is extraordinarily powerful at least in part because, given sufficient inter-communication between individual units of effort (let’s call these “cells” though real cells are already aggregates) and some time, aggregates appear to self-coordinate. That is, a functioning aggregate entity begins with individual free-behaving cells and comes to be organized. Because it becomes organized rather than electing or planning its organization, the aggregate entity also “discovers” any function it might have rather than deciding it. Even if each cell is perfectly free-willed and does precisely as it intends, with sufficient communication between these free-willed nodes there can (and maybe must) emerge an aggregate function. It might not be useful, but there will be consistent gross qualities of behaviour that we can describe.

I say that like it’s a fact because it reads better. It’s really a hypothesis. But that’s how the best science fictions starts — what if this (plausible, I think) hypothesis is true?

So cells aggregate to form tissues and organs whose disparate discovered functions allow a great level of aggregation to exist — a human being that acts and thinks and communicates. Is there a particular reason to believe that this is the terminus of these layers of aggregation? Does the chain organelle ? cell ? tissue ? organ ? human have to end at human? I’m not sure there is any reason to believe that. And if it’s true that there are higher levels of organization — that human beings could organize into things that could reasonably be seen as beings in their own right (and let’s be clear — we would not have to sense that for it to be true and more than a cell in your body, even if it was self-aware, would sense that there was a human being nearby), what do these beings do and think?

By inventing the Limited Liability Corporate we drew out the first sketch — blueprint even — for what such a super-entity might be. But the LLC is a golem — it’s a crude deliberate structure that does behave in some ways as an aggregate, but still also obeys commands from masters 1. It’s not what we’re really looking for.

Now the key to real aggregation has little to do with the individual elements — you can build powerful aggregates from elements that do no more than know their position in space, know the time, and are able to communicate. The first two functions are specific to certain kinds of applications but the third is the glue: powerful aggregate behaviour emerges when there is sufficient communication between cells. When the volume of data and the speed of transmission, and the delay time between data deliveries all cross some threshold, aggregates emerge and begin to evolve function. With the cells in our body, communication is diverse and information-rich — chemicals are swapped, transacted, reswapped, bought, and sold in myriad currencies, and cells themselves may move from place to place, carrying remote data to distant lands. Specific latencies, throughputs, and bandwidths vary, but the communication creates the aggregation.

In the last ten years the intercommunication between human beings has been skyrocketing. Even in very poor nations, large numbers of individuals have cellular telephones and internet connectivity in some form. Vast volumes of data are being transmitted. It is seductive to think that there are ways to organize this to do something great, and indeed humans are constantly pursuing this — we build non-profit organizations, petitions, companies, secret-santa lists, and on and on in an effort to plan a function for an aggregate entity. More golems here though.

What we should be looking for is the emergent entity — consistent behaviour that exists not as a matter of individual intention, but in spite of individual interests. This would be evidence that there are (not is — while the boundary between humans-as-animals is clear, the boundary between humans-as-minds is practically non-existent) super-entities that we do not control in any interesting fashion. Perhaps our golems incidentally provide aggregation of us-as-cells into functions that allow the existence of something much greater and wholly unintentional.

This is where the concept of “artificial intelligence” and, indeed, of transhumanism ceases to be relevant. It’s not possible, impossible, utopian, or inevitable — it’s irrelevant. Any artificial intelligence we create at this point will be just one more cell in these super-organisms. Any amazing changes that happen to humans are simply modifications to cells in a greater structure. As we improve communication, we make these super-entities inevitable and they (even if they exist today) have the power to shape the whole planet, and rapidly, in ways that suit their interests.

And their interests are not our interests except insofar as we keep talking to each other. Anything else they do has nothing to do with us at all. If this were already true, what would be the signs? It we could detect that it was about to happen, would we want to stop it? Could we?

Are new organisms ever still-born from cellular revolt?


  1. Though let’s be clear here. Companies — indeed every organization of humans — appear to  rapidly acquire self-interest. Just like any animal, they rapidly adopt behaviours that are solely about staying alive, even when every individual with an interest in it would be better off if it died and was re-constructed or even left dead. All organizations attempt to self-perpetuate regardless of individual interests. They desperately cling to life.

Nov 18 2009

What it looks like to work in space

I stumbled on this picture today thanks to Universe Today. It is awesome.

Astronaut replacing the Hubble wide-field camera

Astronaut replacing the Hubble wide-field camera.

This is a picture of a hard-working human in work-safe gear replacing a complicated and massive piece of technology in space. Yes, this is just a guy working hard in outer space. This is a definitive picture of my concept of “blue collar space” and an essential image to understand the underlying philosophy of Diaspora: a place where people are in space to do stuff. Not necessarily world-saving stuff, sometimes not even moral or ethical stuff. Sometimes just stuff that any human would do, but it happens to be in space.

This is amazing not because it looks like it is taking place just anywhere. I mean, look at that picture carefully: there is nothing intuitively “right” about what we see. All out intuitions fail us in interpreting it. That huge piece of machinery on the right is unsupported. The orientation of the worker is artificial — it is relative to a spacecraft and not to any force of gravity. In fact it’s a safe bet that the planet is “above” the astronaut in that picture, but you could rotate the image to any angle and it would still be “correct”. There are further counter-intuitive facts that are not obvious from the picture: that camera is massive and consequently carries all its inertia despite being “weightless” — moving it around is hard work, but not the same kind of hard work that moving it around on Earth is. It’s hard to get it moving and it’s hard to stop it moving, so all resistance to motion is with respect to the object itself rather than with respect to the ground or some other “down”. What’s going on up there is expensive and difficult, and some of that currency is simple sweat. It’s hard, good work up there.

Look how brilliant and clear the light is with no atmosphere. You cannot get anything like that clarity, that sharpness, over a distance of more than a few meters down here on Earth, but everything is crisp and sharp up there. And that crispness is also lethal — everything is white or gold or mirror-surfaced up there because it’s important to reflect away as much of that unattenuated radiation as you possibly can before it enters your instruments or your astronauts. Some of it does anyway — space workers face significant risks from radiation just from the sun.

Doing a hard, dangerous, but technically straightforward job is heroic stuff for me. Deep sea rig divers, miners, tall construction, and similar jobs all thrill me in a visceral way. Porting that simple heroism to space is an achievement that makes us, as a species, more than we were.