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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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…]

Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

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CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.

Compare:

The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 

to

Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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How to Make History

In the past year, I’ve found myself repeatedly invoking, in all sorts of conversations, a hierarchy of agency with three levels: labor, making, and action. Here’s a visualization. The annotations on the left characterize the kind of agency. The annotations on the right characterize the locus where it is exercised, and the associated human condition.

The hierarchy is based on Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, so I’ve named the visualization the Arendt hierarchy.

A mnemonic to remember the distinctions is mark time or make history. In everything you do, from posting a tweet or buying a coffee to running for President or tackling the Riemann hypothesis, you must choose between two extreme contexts: to either mark time with labor, or make history with action. In between there is a third context, where you can choose to slow time, which includes any sort of making, including art and trade (which is making in the sense of market-making). Naturally, Arendt thought (as do I) that you must choose action and history-making as much as possible. That is what it means to be fully human.

The scheme is non-intuitive, but once you’ve internalized the concepts, they turn out to be weirdly useful for thinking about what you’re doing and why, whether it is futile or meaningful, nihilistic or generative.

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The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

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The Ominouslier Roar of the Bitcoin Wave

This post is co-authored by Artem and Venkat

We have been annoyed with the state of blockchain visualizations. On the one extreme, we have the crappy not-even-wrong images of piles of gold coins to represent cryptocurrencies (there are much better visual metaphors you could use). On the other extreme we have stock-market type visualizations designed for salivating traders. It is actually remarkably hard to find good visualizations of the blockchain qua blockchain. Block explorers only give you a lost-in-the-weeds view at individual block and transaction levels.  There is no good, visual, empirically grounded thing you can point to when normies ask you what is this blockchain thing? So we made a video visualizing and audiolizing (there appears to be no auditory equivalent to visualize) the bitcoin blockchain.

In the wave animation above, the x axis is the block number, and the y axis is the amount in unspent outputs at that block location at a given time. One bar represents 300 blocks, and one frame of the video represents a 300-block increase in block height. We also treated the evolving wave as a sound spectrum to create the accompanying audio track. It sounds like a primordial slow roar. Watch with the sound on to hear it.

The wave basically represents value on the blockchain moving forward in time, as transactions move balances from older to newer blocks. “Bitcoins” are actually just moving balances.

This video was the result of a recent straggling chat over several days in the #blockchain channel of the ribbonfarm slack, between Artem and Venkat, with Sarah and Joe joining in occasionally (yes, there is a ribbonfarm slack, and yes, there is a #blockchain channel in it). Editing out several arguments over technical details and idle digressions into how to make your own MRI machines, speculations about an AI that collects all the bitcoin to gain control over humanity, arguments about whether Hedy Lamar was a geek or a nerd, and various other critically urgent and important topics, the conversation went as follows.

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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There are bots. Look around.

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

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