Strange Loops - Blog Archive: April 2004
Strange Loops Journal Archive: April 2004

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

Categories of Extraterrestral Civilizations
April 28, 2004

Following up on my last entry, here's an interview with physicist Michio Kaku (of Hyperspace fame) on extraterrestrial civilization evolution within the plausible limits of physics as we understand it today. He does a good job of explaining the breakdown of civilizations into planetary, stellar and galactic (Types I, II and III) and some cursory implications of their variable available energy totals.

If we are ever to become a Type III civilization ourselves (if we want to stick around in the very long run), we will certainly end up looking quite different than we do today, not just in terms of details (Jetson's hovercrafts versus modern cars versus earlier horse-carts) but in the very basics. Certainly humans qua homo sapiens sapiens aren't likely to be around; gene therapy, nanotech and bioengineering are on the immediate horizon and will change us drastically even if evolution doesn't. But indeed, we may end up giving up bodies altogether, maybe giving up individuality, giving up physical mobility, maybe giving up just about everything we unconsciously associate with civilization and society and humanity. Life - whatever shape it might take (perhaps not biological in the sense we think of today, but biotechnological) - will certainly look very different, and the technology used is hard to imagine.

Our typical ideas on communication with ETI revolve around the assumptions that our civilization will be confined to one chunk of space-time (whether a single planet or a whole system) such that interstellar travel - especially of the relativistic, time-dilating sort - around the galaxy (or between galaxies!) would be just a colonization sort of thing. However, if we are willing to give up the attachment to the paradigm of a "home system" (and thus a home reference-frame, and corresponding time), then instead we could look forward to a move away from any sort of star-system-based home to a nomad civilization where home goes with the civilization as they move through the galaxy (and experience time-dilation, if relativistic speeds are used).

My favorite example of a possible Type III civilization technology is Matrioshka Brains (see very cool article explaining them here). Matrioshka Brains (or something even harder to imagine that a Type III civilization might turn out to be/use) have lifetimes much longer than our own sun's, and could be extended almost indefinitely by being migrated (or migrating themselves, if they are conscious and in control of the process) to new stars for new fuel. In essence, this technology functions on the time scale of the universe (where a few hundred thousand years is a blink), its raw thinking power limited only by the laws of physics, and its physical location not connected to any particular place permanently but using stars only as energy sources (rather than homes). In essence, a Type III civilization using or made up of these technological marvels would exist in a way almost unimaginable to us Type 0 (approaching Type I) civilizations.

Certainly, existence as a nomad super-civilization is nothing like our current existence; but chances are we will not be able to maintain anything like our current existence if we hope to live long enough to reach Type III development, so even if a person is optimistic about the future of our civilization, they need to come to terms with the fact that what will live on won't be anything like us, won't be us but some other thing, some other civilization. And that is a sobering thought: even if we can achieve civilization immortality, we can't really achieve civilization immortality. By extension, there is no reason to think that our individual existence will be kept around for indefinite extension since our form of existence will not be kept around. So again, even if immortality is physically possible, it won't be personal immortality of who we are here and now, of human beings qua Shakespeare and Hitler.

So perhaps the lesson here is one of depersonalization and focusing on the larger side of things: do our individual lives matter on the cosmic scale? Not really, they don't. The universe does not care whether you or I live on; neither will a Type III civilization arising our of our current civilization in the future. But something, some sort of existence, life, conscious thought will likely go on, can go on perhaps forever (perhaps into new dimensions or forms of existence unimagined by our current understanding of physics and reality), and that is a damn cool thing if you are willing to detach a little from the need for personal immortality.

When you think about it, who we are - our identity - changes over time. I may have the same name (and other qualities) as the twelve year old my parents were raising ten years ago, but is that person me? Well, not really, or not entirely. Who I am has been shaped and molded by my experiences and my memories and my thoughts and emotions; I think and feel and experience in a different way than that person did. I exist now, he does not.

Yet should that twelve year old (could he understand the question) really bemoan his lack of existence today? I do not see why, any more than I should bemoan the fact that tomorrow I will wake up a slightly changed person having been shaped by today's experiences. When seen in this light, an individual identity's destruction is not necessarily a bad or fearful thing - it is natural and even potentially wonderful. And given this, we can perhaps come to terms with the fact that we as individuals will not live on indefinitely, even if our civilization somehow masters the Type III (or IV or V...) technology needed to live indefinitely.

And once we come to terms with that, then perhaps we can fully appreciate the utter coolness that resides in possibilities like Matrioshka Brains, and other possible futures we cannot even imagine yet.

Permalink ||
Are We Alone?
April 19, 2004
I added an article to the science section on SETI: The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, covering the philosophy and methods of searching for other intelligent life in the universe.

Permalink ||
FDA Approves Trial of Brain-Computer Interface
April 18, 2004
Wired News has an update here about the development of brain-computer interface technology. A company in Massachusetts has received FDA approval to start clinical trials putting chips in patients' heads which would allow them to give instructions to computers by thought alone. This tech sounds really promising for making things quicker and easier for those with limited mobility, and I'm sure it will be appreciated by many people with disabilities.

In the long run, this technology will certainly seep into mainstream ubiquity, and I suspect it won't be too long before everyone is opening doors and running internalized integrated software ("initiate relaxation program") with a mere thought using wireless microchips attached to their brains. And this tech could certainly make for some fun and challenging multiplayer video game matches, since the human-machine interface tends to be the weak spot in carrying out intentions (imagine strategy games that relied not on twitch-clicking skills but on raw brain processing power).

I can't wait until this sort of device goes mainstream (how long until William Gibson's cyberpunk vision of mobile drive implants behind the ears?) and I can hook myself up. For now though, I suppose it would be wise to wait until they have perfected things. After all, as Curt Wohleber once said in reference to uploading one's consciousness into a computer: "Immortality is tempting, but I'm not uploading my mind until they're done beta-testing."

Permalink ||
My Lai
April 15, 2004
Early on the morning of March 16, 1968, the 120 or so U.S. soldiers of Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division in Vietnam flew by helicopter into the village of My Lai expecting an engagement with the Viet Cong. By the time they broke for lunch a few hours later, they had killed between 300 and 500 villagers, apparently without a single shot being fired back at them. No Viet Cong soldiers were present; the village was full of unarmed women, children and old men.

In the course of the morning, My Lai had gone from a peaceful farming village - where Americans had previously visited, handing out candy out to gleeful children - to an empty ghost town. The soldiers had scalped villagers, cut off hands, burned corpses, carved "C Company" into victims' chests. At least one village girl - a fourteen year old - had been raped and subsequently shot by an American soldier in front of her sister. The men gathered together groups of unarmed Vietnamese civilians and gunned them down. Only one American was injured: a GI who accidentally shot himself in the foot.

How had this event come to happen? The operation had been described as a search and destroy mission. The soldiers had expected a battle with the enemy which had so successfully evaded them previously through guerrilla tactics. Their company had suffered injuries from booby traps and snipers, taking damage from an enemy they could not find to fire back at. Confusion and chaos reigned in the Vietnam War, with the Viet Cong blending in with the villagers and making it hard to know who was who. The men of Charlie Company had certainly been frustrated by this situation in which they were being picked off from an invisible menace, so My Lai was their chance to take out what they thought was a Viet Cong base of operations.

When they arrived, however, they were not fired upon. In fact, the only people in sight were women and children. Yet in the minds of Charlie Company, any of these villagers could be Viet Cong (young boys had been known to fire on American soldiers). The order was given to fire on a retreating woman who was holding something, and Vernardo Simpson - thinking she might be carrying a weapon - shot the woman. She died, and the baby it turned out she had been carrying died as well. As Simpson describes it in this interview excerpt from the PBS Frontline special "Remember My Lai", something just snapped:

I just went, my mind just went, I didn't and I wasn't the only one that did it, a lot of other people did it. I just killed, once I started the training, the whole programming part of killing, it just came out... I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing in any kind of way I could kill. It just came, I didn't know I had it in me, but like I say after I killed the child my whole mind just went, it just went.
Soon the men were firing on every moving thing in the area. Before long they were rounding up groups of villagers and leading them into ditches to be shot. But had the men of Charlie Company simply gone berserk on their own, or was the command higher up to blame? Had the soldiers just been following orders?

On March 15, Lt. Colonol Frank Barker had drawn up plans for an attack on My Lai, which intelligence believed was the headquarters for a Viet Cong battalion, and passed on the orders to Charlie Company's commander, Captain Ernest Medina. Following investigation of the incident, Lt. William Calley - the man who led the offensive and the only one to be convicted in the wake of the massacre - testified that he was ordered by Medina to kill everyone in the village of My Lai. Barker and Medina denied responsibility for My Lai, but there was little doubt among the men what they were supposed to do. Army Chaplain Carl Creswell describes the briefing in preparation for the operation:

I was division artillery chaplain, which meant essentially I went to every fire base in my division area, and the day before My Lai I'd gone down to Landing Zone...They were going to do insertion or combat assault or whatever it took in Pinkville which was, quite frankly, it was the home of the 48th VC Battalion.

And I went in there, I was just, it was just a courtesy call. I had no business there, chaplains do this, just stopped in to say "hello" and meet the new commander. And while they were there they had the maps laid out on the board and there was a major in there who was on the Task Force staff. And I remember he said, "We're going in there and if we get one round out of there, we're going to level it." And I looked at him and I said, "You know, I didn't really think we made war that way." And he looked at me and he said, "It's a tough war, Chaplain."

Even if those in charge had not directly ordered the massacre, they had set in place the idea among the soldiers that in this war, in this guerrilla situation, the distinction between Viet Cong and civilian had been blurred, and a village which appeared to harbor or sympathize with the VC was equated to the VC.

Kenneth Hodges: The understanding of the order that was given to kill everyone in the village. Someone asked if that meant the women and children and the order was "everyone in the village" because those people that were in the village -- the women, the kids, the old men -- were VC -- and they were Viet Cong themselves or they were sympathetic to the Viet Cong. They were not sympathetic to the South Vietnamese Army and they weren't sympathetic to the Americans. They weren't giving us any assistance. They weren't helping us in the war effort whatsoever.

Interviewer: So it was quite clear that no one was to be spared?

Kenneth Hodges: It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village.

These soldiers were by all accounts normal American boys, a representative sample of young men from across the country. There was nothing special about them to suggest they had such atrocious deeds in them. And yet on that March day in 1968 they did the unthinkable. How do we explain how normal human beings could come to the point where they would do something like this?

Part of it surely was their initial training. An effective soldier must be trained to kill effectively, to not risk the lives of his unit, and that means following orders even if they do not seem ethical. If every soldier were to become judge over any order that came down to him, the chain of command would effectively disappear and every individual soldier would make their own decisions, with little cohesion or top-down planning. As part of their training, the men of Charlie Company certainly had to have this lesson programmed into them; following orders had to become second nature. This sort of training surely prepares a mind to do things that in normal circumstances would cause a human being to stop and reflect.

Yet more than that, the orders from the top (to be merciless in their assault on My Lai) and the breakdown in the distinction between enemy soldiers and civilians must have mentally set the stage for what was to come. It laid down the mindset these soldiers were operating under; it gave them a structure that helped them all slip into atrocity-mode after one initial act sparked things off. In normal circumstances, the soldiers would have stopped after realizing that they were not in danger, that they were slaughtering unarmed innocents; but because of the priming by their commanding officers, their minds were not able to make that proper click, and instead they just started doing what everyone else around them was doing. They snapped and went berserk.

I think the lesson here is just how powerful structural processes like the army chain of command can be. In the years following World War II, many people in the Allied countries sought to explain the country-wide crimes of Nazi Germany by trying to find something innate in the German people that would make them able to fall in line under a leader like Hitler, to commit the atrocities they did. Americans wanted to believe they were different, that they themselves were incapable of such deeds.

We now know that there is no simple biological explanation - a German tendency toward going along with fascist rule or following vile orders - and My Lai proves that even good old American boys have the potential within them to do the worst of deeds. And that means, in some sense, that such a potential lies in everyone, in every human being. People are generally not born murderers, not born to gas Jews or massacre villagers. Instead, to some significant extent, it is the situations they are put into and the programming they are exposed to and the structures they are trapped within which can turn normal people into monsters. As Michael Albert once put it:

"I have long since understood that Germans weren't different than Brits or Americans or anyone else, though their circumstances were different, but for those who still don't understand mass subservience to vile crimes induced by structural processes of great power and breadth, I have to admit that I mostly just want to shout: Look around, dammit!"

Permalink ||
Decaying Freedom Updated
April 11, 2004
The Decaying Freedom section has been updated again (mainly news and updating old entries) after a brief hiatus. More substantive updates to come.

Permalink ||