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…]

From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain

What can one neuron tell us about brain function?  It can tell if we are looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Brain surgeon and researcher Itzak Fried, in 2005, was probing a certain brain region in patients with epilepsy to pinpoint the source of their seizures.  This is open brain surgery done while the patient is conscious (the brain doesn’t have pain receptors).  These patients agreed to additional probing in the interest of science.  Fried was showing patients pictures, some of famous people, and kept running into neurons that would fire to multiple representations of the same person or object, and to nothing else (within the limited but large set of images used).  “The first time we saw a neuron firing to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston–and nothing else–we literally jumped out of our chairs,” recalled R. Quian Quiroga, who did subsequent work on the phenomenon with Fried.

In a study by Quiroga, Fried and others, severe epilepsy patients each had 64 tiny probes implanted in different parts of the brain, to study how the seizures manifested. The patients also agreed to view sets of images while the probes were monitored. A number of invariant responses (the same neuron firing to multiple views of the same person/thing) were found.  “In some patients, Jennifer Aniston neurons would also fire to her fellow actresses in Friends, … But they would never fire to other similar-looking, but otherwise unconnected, actresses” (Nature Magazine).  Either way, a connection was made between a concept and a single neuron.  Finding connections between a specific neuron and one specific memory has been going on for seven decades, and single neuron stimulation has triggered laughter, remembered childhood scenes or hearing snippets of music, but this association, apparently with the concept of a certain person, instantly became and remains a major focus of brain research.

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Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

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Cloud Viruses in the Invisible Republic

Q: What do an air-gapped private datacenter, a public cloud offering rented servers, and a botnet all have in common?

A: Sooner or later, they’re all wormfood.

That probably requires some explanation. There are technological and environmental pressures that force spook shops and criminals to carry out permanent infiltrations into the computing infrastructure that the world economy depends on. It’s possible that the attack/defense cycle will produce an infrastructure that has better “antibodies”, and even co-options, but will never rid us of the infection. Meanwhile these pressures will continue to produce truly weird beasts. Can you guess what the pink beast plotted on the 2×2 below is?

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Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible

A short story.

The city was content in the deepening twilight, as the Sun set with the air of a job well done. Wrought iron street lamps flickered to life and small birds twittered in the bushes on the gentle hillside sloping down towards the water. From the patio of the Em Cafe, two thin and earnest young men looked out across the bay, nursing their cold brews with an air of reluctant contentment.

“Would it be bourgie to say ‘this is perfect’?” asked the ginger-infused cold brew.

Classic cold brew pondered the question gravely for a moment, and opened his mouth to respond, only to shut it again as a homeless black woman shuffled into view, pushing a shopping cart, and muttering something under her breath in a disturbed undertone.

Ginger cold-brew shuffled uncomfortably, “Well, you know what I mean. The bay view, the weather, the coffee. Not, you know, life.”

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