Strange Loops Journal Archive: September 2003

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Singularities Harder To Find Than Black Holes
September 22, 2003

Another post at Philosophistry piqued my interest today. In defending the idea that the Singularity could be nearly upon us, Phil suggests three signs of its approach and says in some sense we are already close to these things. In particular, they are: (1) Holodecks, (2) Everybody has all knowledge, (3) Everybody is happy.

Now, whether or not these are accurate signs, I can't say. I can see where he's going, but it seems rather limited. For example, we could find a pill that represses all bad feelings - a "happiness pill" - but would that really bring us closer to the Singularity (assuming there is some coherent idea of what "the Singularity" is)? Not necessarily, since our world could still remain otherwise the same, just with ubiquitous use of valium2; but like I said I see where he's going with this.

Phil suggests that these three signs of the Singularity may be closer than we think. For the first, he argues that with the popularity and study of lucid dreaming, we are well on our way to creating our own holodecks in our mind (similar to the experience machine I describe in this thought experiment). He suggests that Google is the beginnings of universal omniscience (limited to combined human knowledge, of course), and that it might just take a speed up of the process to near-instantaneous computation for each of us to have all human knowledge. For the third sign of the Singularity's approach, everyone is happy, he combines psychological research into happiness (and its causes) and what you might call positive thinking with the possibility of enlightenment or bliss through psychotropic drugs.

I'll address each of these in turn:

  • Holodeck: I'm intrigued by his approach to this one via lucid dreaming. I'm just starting to investigate that subject myself (with combined skepticism and excitement), and while I love the picture Phil paints, I have trouble imagining it would provide us with the same sort of experience an idealized Star Trek-style holodeck does. Granted, I'm a neophyte in the area and haven't experienced full lucid dreaming myself, but I have had dreams where I become aware I'm dreaming, and yet even with control the dreamscape seems a fundamentally different kind of ontological space. Being able to simulate or emulate different environments and stimuli in waking life is not the same as experiencing isomorphic situations in a dream, however lucid.

    In addition, as I'm currently taking a neuroscience seminar by a well-known sleep researcher, I should add in that with all our knowledge of how the brain works, we still have almost no knowledge at all about the process of sleep and dreaming. We don't even know why animals sleep(!). I'm assured by this researcher that the mystery isn't likely to be solved in the coming decades. So on that front I'm a bit skeptical about how soon we will gain the control over the brain that Phil suggests could be near (it isn't as simple as one might think: to take an example, dolphins can sleep one brain-hemisphere at a time, and no one knows why it works; we don't even know what function sleep has).

    Personally, I think there are two technologies available and improving today which hold much closer to my vision of a holodeck and what it represents. Those are video game technology - everything from realistic graphics to true surround sound to vibration feedback to higher processing power for more detail and "AI" - and sensory deprivation tanks (or alternately, perhaps artificially induced lack of gravity ala NASA engineering attempts). The former is obvious, since virtual reality has been talked about for years. With research into planting electrodes into a monkey's brain to power a computer screen cursor, I wouldn't be surprised if all of these technologies can be implanted into our heads about the time they are becoming powerful enough to simulate a rich enough world to appear (be?) real. As for sensory deprivation or artificial gravity, I'm thinking something along those lines might be required to get the full effect, though perhaps by then we'll have enough control over nerves and other sensory apparati to fool the body into ignoring the real pull of gravity while still on a planet.

  • Limited Omniscience: This one I have the biggest objection to. Google is an amazingly useful tool, which I don't know what I'd do without, but I think occasionally we need to be reminded not to make unicorns out of horses with moles on their foreheads (or some less stupid sounding analogy). We tend to attribute more power to internet technologies than is deserved. The fact is, Google has severe inherent limitations that I don't think can be reconciled just by adding in connection to academic journal databases and all the other material one still needs a traditional library for. Let's face it, how many people really use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on Google? Not many these days, because likely as not, you'll run into a commercial site spamming you with advertising. To get where you really want to go, you have to search through a lot of listings, and often there's just so many that you may end up settling for an imperfect site because you can't find the perfect one.

    "Maybe the algorithms can be improved", someone might counter. I don't doubt they can get better, but can they ever really work well enough to dig up information with the accuracy and efficiency of the brain? That's a damn hard task to match, these days at least, and I'm not sure it's going to happen short of computers powerful enough to already be approaching human intelligence. In which case, I'd say this is a good sign of the Singularity; but I just don't see Google as the predecessor to such a technology. It's not a matter of processing speed or improving some relatively simple algorithms. To really turn a massive amount of data like the internet or a collection of libraries into real knowledge would require some way of digging into the raw data intelligently, and Google is far from that in type rather than degree, I'd say.

    In addition, I should add my latent worry that while a truly intelligent uber-Google could give us access to vast amounts of information, I'm not sure it would really give us knowledge. In some sense, knowledge comes from a deeper experience than the facts and figures found in even the best database. Can one really know the wonders of quantum physics or advanced mathematics just because a program can recall the answers to us? There's something to be said for understanding, and I'm not sure I could accept an account of knowledge as complete which stops at information and fails to encompass understanding (or perhaps even some sort of first-hand experience, as seems necessary with a lot of knowledge; see What Mary Didn't Know).

  • Universal Bliss: This one sort of worries me. Huxley's Brave New World painted a picture of a future world in which everyone takes a pill (soma - named after the hallucinatory beverage-drug of ancient times) that makes them happy. Just about everyone who reads that book reads it as painting a dystopian picture, and not just because of the class structure (the book would be every bit as creepy if it were set in an egalitarian society), but truly because everyone is happy. As the author himself probes through his characters, I think on some level we humans really want unhappiness. We want all the Shakespearean emotions - even grief and regret and torment - because if we give those up, we cease to exist in the way we did before. It feels like we've lost something more than the annoyance of a dentist drill causing pain. We've lost the ability to explore the depth of our existence, the depth of our experience.

    Can we get a happiness pill? Sure, I don't doubt it. Already we prescribe a version of a happiness pill (or as in the movie Equilibrium, a calming pill that suppresses all emotions) to kids [over?]diagnosed with attention deficient disorder. Already people take anti-depressants and tranquilizers and mood enhancers; and pain killers of varying strength are found everywhere from a hospitals to home medicine cabinets. Surely a happiness pill of some reasonable effectiveness isn't far off. But whether this sort of invention would be a good thing or a bad thing is another question. I can see the possibilities, and I'm intrigued by that, but I'm also frightened, especially since such technologies will be coming about in modern industrialized countries bent on consumerism and consumption at all costs (another hint at Brave New World). These pills may be signs of an incredible future to come, but that future likely won't be of the bright sort Singularity-watchers might envision. At the very least, I would associate this effect much less with the Singularity than I would the other two examples mentioned.

  • But still, I think there might be better signs out there to watch for. Like what?

    Well, first I would point to nanotechnology. I need only bring up Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age to evoke a brilliant, complex and very real picture of what a plausible future could look like with nanotech. It certainly is a much bigger and more fundamental change of life - including a much deeper molding of the environment than we have with our simple surface-scratching processes today - and the possibilities encompassed by nanotech all evoke in me associations with the Singularity.

    Another area I would point to would be computer research, both in software and hardware aspects, from all different angles. I wouldn't be surprised if, taking our queue from nature, we find that "artificially" evolved hardware/software brings about genuine intelligence much faster than any attempts at simply finding better algorithms or creating expert systems or imitating human conversation. At any rate, when I start seeing technology that blurs the lines between computer qua tool and computer qua sentient life-form, I will see the Singularity coming.

    Finally, the third major area I look to as a predictor of the Singularity is biotech. This might be related to nanotech and even computer research, but it deserves a mention of its own. As we gain more control over our genes (that is, manipulating them to "fix" genes that are "broken" rather than merely aborting fetuses in which we detect undesired traits), we in turn gain control over the very basics of things like how we see life as working and what species are. Like existentialists, we become able to shape ourselves (at first, perhaps simply shape each other, e.g. our offspring, and later gaining more control), and "human nature" becomes a thing of the past. This blurs all sorts of lines that most people today see in clear black and white, and I can only begin to imagine the changes in the way we experience our existence when we start to tinker with what evolution built for us.

    These three things to me are better signposts for the coming Singularity (again, assuming there is some consistent, coherent answer to "what is the Singularity?") than the three examples provided over at Philosophistry (though those were interesting and in the first case quite creative examples). Unfortunately, as with any time my transhumanistic idealism sets in, the realist in me has to set off a bunch of warning bells.

    Let's face it, short of a drastic change in the way society functions (something technology can't really control, though it certainly impacts it), we face a future that will be shaped not by the good-natured ideals of the transhumanists and futurists that muse over the Singularity, but a future shaped by greedy corporations who produce this technology with something entirely different in mind: the bottom line. Profits. And in our consumerist culture, even the most promisingly free and inventive technology can be stolen and corrupted and debased and turned into a simple tool of slightly more power than the ones before.

    As an example, look at the internet. Let's face it, it just hasn't lived up to the dreams we all originally had for it. Instead, corporations and capitalism have rotted it to the very core, where today we can barely keep track of the companies that control the technology and choose its protocols (take as an example Verisign's recent change of fundamental internet routing for arguably commercial purposes). And then look at biotech stocks, and how rich the CEOs of biotech firms are becoming today. Look at DARPA's attempts to take any promising technology - like, say, nanotech - and harness it into a tool of the military and the police state. Look around at the structural processes built into the system in which we live today, and tell me the future looks bright. I don't care what technology we come up with, I have a hard time believing the future will be drastically different in form rather than degree unless we find a way to alter society from the ground up.

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    September 19, 2003
    I added a Richard Forno piece called High-Tech Heroin to the politics section of the site. It's short and worth reading, because we need to be reminded once in a while where much of our ubiquitous innovative technology comes from.

    I'm still trying out some different blog software, but so far it either doesn't work on my cheapo webhost or I can't get the customization right or some other problem has confounded my efforts. If I don't find the ideal solution soon, I think I'll at least add in permanent-link archiving for all posts, manually if need be. That was a person can link to a particular post and know the link will always point to that post. Comments (or working ones, at least) so far continue to elude me, so I'm thinking the next best thing would be to put up a bulletin board or guest book to allow some sort of on-site feedback. It's hard to convince people - especially random passers by - to go to the trouble of dashing off an email when they want to give some feedback or build off an idea that intrigues them; so it seems like if I want this site to be more than an ephemeral "publication", I need to create some sort of on-site contribution mechanism.

    Also, because a reader has recently asked me this, I want to make it clear once and for all. Any written material on this site not attributed to other authors is anti-copyrighted. Permission is hereby given to freely copy, reproduce, alter and disseminate any such text on this site however you wish, without need to mention the source even. Of course, if you do choose to use or play with what I've written, I'm always glad to hear about it.

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    Hive-minds and Privacy
    September 10, 2003
    Just to bring up a tangent to the post below this one, I'm having trouble reconciling my transhumanistic interest in hive-minds (ala the Borg, though they were given a bad rap in Star Trek) with the high value I place on privacy in this midst of our would-be police state. How could I possibly be attracted to a world where every individual mind is connected to every other one so that no thought is private, indeed perhaps no thought is ever your own at could I be attracted to such a world when I am so turned off by the lesser encroachments of Ashcroft and his ilk?

    The only explanation I can come up with at the moment is that in a real hive-mind situation like the Borg, each individual ceases to be an individual, and what used to be a group of individuals becomes just one - the larger entity. In essence, each former individual qua person dies, and they become like neurons in a brain or cells in a human body. If that death (or metamorphosis perhaps, depending on how much of the former individual contributes to the new combined entity) comes about forcefully, as with Star Trek's representation of the Borg, then it seems like a bad thing. Yet if people someday choose through technology to merge their consciousness - and understand what they are getting into and giving up, indeed they are basically committing personal suicide - then I don't see it as a bad thing, per se. I marvel at the possibilities inherent in such a merging of minds, at what it might produce and the way it might experience the world. I've said before that I think Matrioshka Brains are sexy. Well, I think hive-minds are sexy too, but only when they are created by choice, not force.

    So how does this solve the problem of privacy? Well, simply put, in a hive-mind situation I don't think there are any individuals left to have privacy concerns (obviously this is making a big assumption about how a hive-mind works, but I'm speaking of a Borg sort of hive-mind, rather than a big drug-infused group orgy where people feel a synchronicity between them, e.g.). The hive-mind itself might, though, join a community of hive-minds, in which case I could imagine it seeking a certain amount of privacy for itself. The more I think about it, the more I want to say that privacy is what makes us individuals. And I don't think most of us are ready just yet to give up our individuality, so in a sense, people like Ashcroft (and corporations using RFID) are forcing their "hive-mind" society on us, and that is the problem.

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    Function Creep
    September 10, 2003
    Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips are here for real. No longer are they just promises of a "new barcode system" to help big warehouses keep track of inventory. Nope, they're already being tested for human implant. I've already ranted about these chips in some previous posts, but it seems I was underestimating how soon the inevitable function creep (from helping track inventory or perform recalls of tainted food to tracking humans and all their stuff) would occur.

    The story linked above mentions a recent Japan trade show where a demonstration of RFID technology allowed retailers to track the movements of a consumer in a bookstore. Combine this with the omnipresent "club cards" of groceries, book stores and other retail outlets everywhere, and with the advertising industry's new goal of increasing targeted advertising (e.g. send Pepsi popups to computer users who ran a net search on soft drinks), and you get a pretty ugly picture. It's not hard to imagine companies doing their best to track our every move through a grocery store, every product we looked at and how long we looked at it, and to try to compile that information into both aggregate statistics to better market products in general, and also to use that information for targeted marketing to us individually. Hell, many companies have came out and suggested just such a scenario as their goal.

    Do we really want companies to watch us so closely, to try to get into our minds by detailing how long we spent looking at the contents label of a food product? Granted, that's been the goal for marketing for quite a while now, to gather as much information as possible about consumers in order to manipulate them into buying stuff; but as technology increases at such a quick pace, we are soon to find ourselves in a world without privacy, in a world where we really are just a number.

    Can the march of targeted advertising be stopped? I hate to say it, but probably not. The best I hope for at this point is that it is kept under at least a little control by legislative limits, but somehow I doubt that will be close to enough. Legislation certainly hasn't stopped invasions of privacy by corporations so far. I just hope it is a long time before RFID tags become unavoidable. Maybe conscientious consumers can hope to minimize their invasion, but it's hard to hold back the tide once the technology becomes common - it'll be much harder than shopping in grocery stores without a "club card" (doesn't it suck to pay slightly higher prices in order to retain your privacy?).

    Then of course there are the worries that RFID implants will become mandatory for the sake of "national security" (ha!). John Ashcroft and company are pushing hard to get rid of all privacy they can, from the recently averted (for now) Total Information Awareness program to pushes for biometric national identification cards. I imagine it won't be long before the first bill is proposed in Congress calling for mandatory ID chips. Never mind that such things give virtually no security at all (terrorists fake IDs today, they'll be hacking body chips tomorrow). People do whatever makes them feel more secure, and most people don't give such things enough thought to realize the problems involved. And of course, those who benefit from the function creep of such technologies (police state governments and greedy corporations) don't mind at all: they get to find all sorts of fun new uses for the technology, like tracking peoples' every move.

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    September 08, 2003 top
    An interesting post over at Philosophistry:

    I feel like am an infovorve. I just swallow information. I have papers I've printed from the Internet, stapled and scattered all over my table waiting to be read. I have URL shortcuts splattered across my desktop. Magazine pages open and sprawled over my chairs and bed area. A laundry list of ideas I want to chew on, from baudrillard to bertrand russell. At the same time, we're approaching the 700th post on this blog. All the while I'm drowning in mp3 albums from my 33GB collection, all eclectic of course.

    ... My current method is like that of a conquest. I search, acquire a target, rip through the scroll button, and out comes an budding understanding of some sexy topic. Sexiness is what it is, and I think sex is a good analogy. Because, sex, unlike love, can be like chocolate or caffeine...not necessarily pure "addiction" but more like a recreational drug. Except on the Net, I'm high all the time.

    ... Instead, I have choked, and I am choking on this ever expanding law of accelerating returns. Every few days I trip over some undiscovered mountain of glorious new information.


    Is this the proper way to approach the Singularity. Is this what my genes are striving me to do, to become a super information recycler? Should we--can we--transcend our genetic imperative for human progress?

    Fuck it. I am man, I am unscripted, I can chill, I don't have to conquer texts and conquer information.

    ... Time to smell the roses I guess.

    Definitely resonates. The net is just so damn full of pure information, and even if you cull out all the crap and fluff, there's just too much great stuff out there for one person to ingest in a lifetime. It's like trying to read all of the interesting books ever written. At this point in history, that's just not possible.

    Nietzsche once said that reading a whole bunch of books is worth nothing compared to reading one book well. I think he's got the right idea. It's not about maximizing absorption of information - and let's face it, our consumerist culture teaches us that maximization is always best - but about getting the most out of any information you take in. It's about chewing on information and savoring it rather than trying to rush through the entire meal, as if this were a meal that could ever be finished.

    There's always, I think, a pang of guilt or sadness when one realizes how much great information is out there that can't ever be reached due simply to time constraints. But maybe there's something common to all great literature and art and science and other information, maybe there are some universal principles that one can sort of pull out of any piece or set of pieces. Maybe, even though we can never read all the books or web resources out there, maybe we can in a way get at the heart of them through what we do read.

    I don't know. Either way, I think that anyone who seeks to maximize information, like those who try forever to maximize money, will be disappointed and find ever decreasing value in each piece of information they do acquire. Eventually, a person simply has to stop and smell the damn roses or else the roses cease to exist as roses, and they become mere symbols for what they were before (information or money or whatever the obsession is).

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    September 07, 2003 [Entry 2] top
    It seems to me there is a deep problem with the way news is reported in America these days. The problem is one of bias, but it is isn't so simple as a "liberal bias" or "conservative bias". The bias is toward large, established entities like the government (and similarly big business), and I think it stems from an unlikely source of problems: objectivity.

    At one point in time, journalists were seen as servants of the people and watchdogs guarding against government corruption. Hence the need for free press outlined in the Constitution - the founders wanted to assure the press the right to hound the government and try to keep it honest.

    Unfortunately, over the years the role of a journalist has changed from uncovering stories to covering events. It's simply easier and safer to report that a person said something than it is to dig and try to find out if what that person said is the truth. Thus whenever you read the paper these days, you find that one of the main tools of a reporter is attribution. They take whatever someone said - like, say, the government - and report that that entity said what it did. It's the perfect way to avoid ever writing down a lie, because you never make any claims other than that people said what the reporter heard them say. In other words, it's an objective method of journalism, and it is the standard to which all mainstream journalists these days aim.

    The problem with this system is that the journalists have to choose who to quote. They have decide what sources are reliable enough to report, and what sources should just be ignored. After all, they can't go around reporting everything that the town drunk mumbles on about, even though it would be objective as long as they attributed the claims to him. So instead, professional journalists follow a hierarchy of reliable sources, and wouldn't you know it, the government is usually at the top. So when a journalist wants to report how many civilian casualties there were in some aerial bombing of a building in Baghdad, for example, they go straight to the most reliable source: the Pentagon.

    Yet it may not be in the Pentagon's best interest to report those numbers truthfully. Instead, they may choose to report only the numbers that make them look best, or they may choose to report false numbers. Or they may more subtly influence peoples' perception of the numbers by playing word games and using euphemisms. Hypothetically, the Pentagon could choose to define anyone in or around the target building (which they have decided to designate as a military target) as military personnel because of where they were. Hence, the numbers can be skewed even more subtly than just reporting fake numbers or holding back unfavorable numbers.

    Now, the journalists here seem on the surface to have done nothing wrong. After all, they were objective: they merely reported what someone (the Pentagon, in this example) said. However, when they have a presumably reliable source like the Pentagon, journalists are unlikely to go digging for further information. As I said above, it's simply easier to stick with what's thought of as "reliable" and report that.

    Unfortunately, the average newspaper reader or T.V. news viewer doesn't take such subtle distinctions into account. They don't look skeptically at the sources of a claim any more than the lazy journalists do. Instead, when the news reports that "The Pentagon announced today that seven Iraqis were killed by marines when a protest turned violent and the Iraqis began shooting at the American soldiers...", the average person simply hears "Seven Iraqis were killed by marines when a protest turned violent and the Iraqis began shooting at the American soldiers...". The same problem would apply, e.g., to claims of police brutality at a peace rally. Whenever such claims appear, the official police spokesperson goes in front of a camera and claims that the ralliers started it, and that the police acted appropriately. The news then goes back and reports this, and it becomes generally accepted that the police acted appropriately.

    Part of the problem here isn't just the news though. Sometimes journalists do offer the other side of a story. They might report that "some Iraqis claimed that the marines fired unprovoked" or that "some of the protesters at the rally claim that the police used unnecessary force." Generally these opinions get a fraction of the space that the "official" story does, but they are often there nonetheless. The problem is a more general one, I think, and that is that the average citizen tends to take the "official" word as the last one, and most dissenting opinions are simply ignored.

    This is probably a habit on our parts today to submit to hierarchy and authority - the foundations of our particular society, really - when they confront us. Many people might look upon the claims of the president skeptically (particularly those who aren't of the same party), but that is a rare instance. When it comes to the more subtle layers of government, the layers of bureaucracy, people don't stop to question authority very often. The spokesperson (i.e. public relations representative) of a police station or army branch or whatnot will be taken at their word more often than not because people are so used to getting their information from "official" sources. It's too much work to judge for one's self whether an official source is really reliable. Instead, people rely on the news to be objective and only report factual stuff. They trust the news.

    And yet the way the journalistic system is set up, they have just as little interest as their readers and viewers in looking at things with a skeptical eye. It's simply easier and safer to just attribute quotes to official sources than to question those reports and try to find the truth behind them. And anyone trying to get their dissent of official claims heard has an uphill battle to fight: big, established entities like governments and large corporations have lots of money to throw at public relations, spokespeople, funding studies that support their claims, etc. So they have a double advantage over anyone else, and thus when the official sources are wrong, we aren't likely to find out.

    How to fix it (aside from convincing journalists to be more vigilant and skeptical)? For one thing, I think it's important that we fight against media consolidations. A recent FCC decision removed many of the last few restrictions on media conglomerates becoming too big. Before long, we might end up with one company owning all the major media and news in the country, and as I've shown above, they're likely to have a bias favoring government and big business. Which is worrisome, because some of the worst governments in the world, past and present, have consolidated and held their rule through control of print and airwaves. When you control what people see, read and hear, to a large extent you control what they think.

    So fight against media consolidation. Fight against the few monolith transnational corporations that now own and control almost all of the T.V. we watch, news and magazines we read and radio we listen to. Only in a society where independent voices can be heard will we have a chance at finding out the truth and keeping our government under control. Fight the recent FCC decision. Express your concern to your representatives. Support indie radio and print. Whatever you do, just don't let the "objective" journalists convince you that what they report are facts. What they report are claims, and those claims come from groups for whom the truth may not be in their interest. Be vigilant. Be skeptical. Think for yourself!

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    September 07, 2003 [Entry 1] top
    Well, after trying to install/configure Movable Type on my host's server and failing miserably, I've given up for now. If anyone knows of a fairly simple blog program that I can host on my page (or even just a system for comments that are stored locally, rather than my current system which uses Enetation), please let me know by email. Until then, I'll be sticking to what I know and continuing the blog as it is. Be aware that the comments function on previous posts may not work. I apologize for that. From now on, I won't be including the comments option on new posts until I get a working system going.

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