The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Remembering Pierre Kabamba

I think it was sometime in 1998 or 99. I was walking down the hallway of the faculty floor of the Aerospace Engineering department of the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student at the time. One of the professors had tacked a recently published paper by his door, as professors like to do. It was something about computing asteroid rendezvous orbits, and it used some rather pretty continued-series approximations of a sort that were popular in the 19th century. The professor in question was chatting with another, Pierre Kabamba, and was making some sort of self-deprecating remark about his paper (though he was clearly pleased with it), but Pierre was having none of that.

Pierre T. Kabamba, 1955-2014

He exclaimed with a characteristic ebullience, “But this is wonderful! You’re doing ROMANTIC mathematics!”

The remark made me smile, and put me in an unreasonably cheerful mood for the rest of the day. At the time, I was working with another professor, and growing increasingly depressed and jaded (I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize a fundamental incompatibility). I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to switch topics and advisors, and complete my PhD with Pierre. I would spend a wonderful three years in his company, rediscovering, as an adult, the spirit of romanticism in engineering that had me memorizing airplane silhouettes in high school.

Last week, I learned, much to my shock, that Pierre passed away just over four years ago, in 2014, of lung cancer. He was only 59, and the last time I saw him, in 2011, he had been his usual cheerful and energetic self. We had last collaborated in 2006, on a course we co-developed and taught in parallel (me at Cornell, Pierre at Michigan).

The easiest way to describe Pierre is this: he was a real-life Hercule Poirot, and in many ways, the person who taught me to think in the ways I still try to practice on this blog. So let me tell you about Pierre and what I learned from him.
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Pack Experience

We experience and navigate the world in packs. Families ride in cars together. Groups of coworkers take elevators together. Dating couples go to movies in pairs.

The pack is a unit, the unit, of operational coordination and everyday problem solving in human life. Pack behaviors always involve some technology, and can involve non-human participants like dogs and cats, but they are human first. The pack is a little sociophysical robot. A transient biological assemblage animated by a tacit, embodied consensus about how to inhabit the environment, and shaped by a shared exposure to the constraints of materiality. Perhaps the strongest of these constraints is the constraint of a shared temporality: A pack is more simply defined as a transient social unit on a shared subjective clock.

 

The pack is where the rubber of sociality meets the road of materiality. The pack experience strongly shapes, and is shaped by, the built environment. Conversely, every kind of built environment is shaped by a real or theorized pack experience.

There is one kind of built environment that is a huge and crucially important exception. One that is growing so rapidly in scope that it threatens to become the rule. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

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Dodo Thoughts

This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed (edit: model apparently, not stuffed, according to a knowledgeable commenter) dodo. As I meditated on the poor, dumb extinct bird, I was struck by an unsettling thought: All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought. The species’ failure to continue existing is not just the failure of the dodo genome. It is also the failure of the sum of all dodo thought.

There was once something it was like to be a dodo, and think thoughts only dodos could think, but now there isn’t. The dodo is worse than extinct. In some deep way, it was wrong about everything it thought it knew.

This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.

When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking. Sure, we talk about brain size as though it were just another morphological variable like height, but we don’t think about thinking in Darwinian terms. Things get weird when you go there.

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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

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Flying Blind into the Anthropocene

For several days, Seattle has been enveloped in wildfire haze, with an air quality index (AQI) between 150-200, coded red for unhealthy. For these few days it has been among the most polluted cities on the planet. Many of us learned for the first time about N95 masks, which are rated to keep out 95% of 3 micron particles. Supposedly an AQI of 150 is equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes a day.

Photo credit: Sean McCabe in Vanity Fair

It struck me that we’ve been doing the everyday equivalent of piloting an airplane on instruments. Weather reports, AQI numbers, mask ratings, and metaphoric comparisons to cigarettes have been more useful for guiding behavior than direct sensory evidence. Even the knowledge that we are breathing wildfire haze rather than some other sort of less harmful smog is based on on instruments, since the actual fire is in Canada, too far away for the smell of burning to carry.

Though there has been direct sensory evidence — being outside felt like being in an awful smoke-filled bar, the sunsets have been a lovely red, and visibility has been poor — the sensory reality has been something like a spectator sport with a very misleading relationship to atmospheric reality and meaningful responses to it. Air quality degrades to harmful levels well before you notice it. You can either believe the reports and numbers, or find out the hard way that going for a run outside is a bad idea. You can either wear the recommended mask, or find out the hard way that being outside for a long time makes you feel ill.

AQI numbers are abstract proxies and open to criticism, but they are not bullshit. They have a detectable relationship to reality. Wearing the masks is a matter of faith in the science, but their efficacy exceeds that of ceremony or superstition. Understanding the numbers and responding by limiting outdoor activity, keeping windows closed, and perhaps wearing masks, is instrumentally rational behavior in a literal sense: it has to do with how we think about reality through instruments.

By this standard, only a small fraction of people in Seattle (many of them tourists from Asia where mask-wearing has been socially normalized) are being instrumentally rational. I have been among the instrumentally irrational. Though we own a mask, the idea of wearing it and standing out made me not wear it, so I came home the other day wheezing and short of breath.

Our condition this week in Seattle has been something of a microcosm of the human condition in the anthropocene. Through a mix of design and accident, we’ve created a novel environment that is at once strongly shaped by human behaviors and highly opaque to normal human sensory modalities. But we haven’t instrumented this environment well enough to make up for our sensory deficits.

Worse, we seem to collectively lack the instrument rating to fly this civilizational airplane.

So we are flying blind into the anthropocene, without the appropriate instrument rating, on a wing and a prayer.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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Symmetry and Identity

This is a guest post by Kenneth Shinozuka.

Everything is changing all the time, even though many of the objects in the world around us appear to be totally still. As the philosopher Heraclitus said over two millennia ago, “Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed … You cannot step twice in the same river.”

The leaves change color. Buildings decay. Your body grows old.

Yet most of us subscribe to the idea that there is a stable identity that underlies all of this metamorphosis. A leaf that is now red isn’t, we believe, a separate entity from the one that was originally green. We don’t think that someone changes into a different person if he swaps out his outfit or dyes his hair to another color. In fact, we believe that you keep the same identity throughout your entire life, even though your appearance will change so much that it might be impossible for someone else to recognize you based on how you looked when you were many decades younger. In other words, identity is a feature that persists through the changes brought on by time.

Many of us believe that an object can retain its identity even when it undergoes far more dramatic changes. For example, the age-old Ship of Theseus thought experiment asks whether a ship remains the same object after all of its components have been replaced. A lot of us are inclined to believe that it does, since the new ship, though comprised of an entirely different set of planks, looks no different from the previous one.

But questions about identity become much more complex once we move beyond this simple case, and some of these complexities take us to the unstable world of quantum mechanics, where nothing is easily distinguishable.

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Justifiable AI

Can an artificial intelligence break the law? Suppose one did. Would you take it to court? Would you make it testify, to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? What if I told you that an AI can do at most two, and that the result will be ducks, dogs, or kangaroos?

There are many efforts to design AIs that can explain their reasoning. I suspect they are not going to work out. We have a hard enough time explaining the implications of regular science, and the stuff we call AI is basically pre-scientific. There’s little theory or causation, only correlation. We truly don’t know how they work. And yet we can’t stop anthropomorphizing the damned things. Expecting a glorified syllogism to stand up on its hind legs and explain its corner cases is laughable. It’s also beside the point, because there is probably a better way to accomplish society’s goals.

Pick any two.

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Glitches, uh, find a way

Core scientific theories often sound tautological, yet we keep them around because they lead to useful ideas. The prime theorem of biology is that life comes from life. Life coming from life doesn’t mean that spontaneous generation is impossible. It had to have happened at least once. But it’s so much less efficient than reproduction that it no longer has a chance. Before two amino acids can start rubbing together in just the right way on the road to making Life 2.0, some version 1.0 bastard comes along and eats it. That leads you to the idea of natural selection, evolution, dimorphic sex, and the rest of it.

The prime theorem of computing is that any computer can simulate any other. But for all of the talk about “artificial life”, the two mechanisms are subtly different. Lifeforms compete by turning each other into food. Computerforms compete by turning each other into memes. [Read more…]