Archive for November 2017

When we discover aliens, they will have teapots

November 22nd, 2017 — 10:57am

When we (inevitably) discover intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, I predict that they will have teapots. My line of reasoning is that just as the evolution of body plans inevitably stumbles across useful things like mouths and body armour, so too the evolution of tools will inevitably stumble across useful forms like teapots. This can be extended into the world of ideas, with interesting consequences for first-contact with other intelligences.

At least some of the life in this galaxy must resemble our own here on Earth. It must have evolved from something like the archaea that exist in hostile proto-Earth conditions – themselves perhaps born from some kind of panspermia that permeates the stars. Evolution naturally takes life towards more complex forms, where conditions permit, and these must he able to manipulate a planetary environment. Evolution inevitably creates creatures which have mouths to eat each other, armour to protect themselves, things like legs to move, hands or claws to grasp, ears to detect vibration in the atmosphere, eyes to see into the electromagnetic spectrum, voices or lights to communicate. They will also modify their environment to extend these functions – burrows and nests for protection, symbiosis with plants, cleared paths to walk on, tools to capture food, vessels to contain it, and systems of behavior that coordinate activities for mutual benefit. Eventually as coordination increases, languages will evolve to communicate complex information, writing will evolve to store it, and civilizations will be constructed.

These forms as a product of evolution are as inevitable as is the production of carbon atoms in giant stars from helium nuclei. Their existence given evolution and stable terrestrial conditions is a universal law.

This is a deterministic view which can be contested (see here and here for discussions on contingency vs determinism). It won’t be proven until we begin to discover other life forms. But I think that when we look at convergent pathways of evolution on Earth, and notice that the galaxy also has a limited range starting conditions and habitats for life, then the parameters that we can expect life to stay within are already fairly well known as they have existed on Earth. There will be some surprises – we don’t know which qualities of Earth life are peculiar to Earth. I wonder if sexual reproduction is ubiquitous across the galaxy for instance? Or bilateral symmetry? And beyond our galaxy the variation is likely to be even greater and harder to speculate on. But there is no reason to think that life on other planets, forced to travel a similar path of evolution, wouldn’t turn out much the same as here.

Just as life itself has a limited range of useful body forms, which are discovered again and again by evolution, intelligence also develops the same tools and features which are innately useful in an Earth-like world. Wheels, swords, cups, flags, music, lamps, steam engines – all these things would be discovered again and again as useful by evolving societies, reappearing each time like reliable milestones on a pathway to complex civilization. Indeed, we know this is true, as disconnected early civilizations on Earth to simultaneously develop say, agriculture, and scientists have regularly simultaneously discovered the same thing. And once a particular thing is invented, for example music, the same process would continue to a deeper discovery of the same familiar forms – pentameter scales, minor and major keys (all based on natural harmonics), perhaps even some of the same simple tunes. Once drinking herbal infusions – tea – is common, then teapot forms naturally follow. Wheels lead to chariots and carriages and cars, steam engines lead to trains. These things must exist throughout the galaxy, showing up again and again, and are as integral to nature as the elements of the periodic table.

One interesting speculation is what complex societies naturally discover that is more abstract. Mathematics seems to be a given. What forms of belief, what systems of government, what ethics, what art, what jokes? Just as the featureless Hadean terrain of the Earth eventually after four billion years spawns skyscrapers, so the terrain of the mind will naturally accrue patterns, I hesitate to say memes (but I think it captures the right idea), given time for information to accrue and breed with itself. The stronger ideas will succeed, the weakest fail, just like the faunas of the Cambrian explosion.

This intellectual terrain is the evolutionary battlefield of the future, where ideas will continue to be constructed and pitted against each other. The pace of this has increased, and will do so ever more as we spend our lives interacting more and more with ideas alone, in the virtual worlds of social media. The effect of Artificial Intelligence in generating or promulgating new ideas is impossible to imagine, and it will become ever clearer that ideas are the most powerful tools in controlling society. We have created the atom bomb, but they are useless in their bunkers. It is the powerful meme which inhabits the brain of the human who has the button (#MAGA anyone?).  Now consider, that as we likely approach the date of first contact with other civilizations, although they might be millions of light years away, their ideas will instantly able to infect us and change us. The effect would be like the Christianity meme that obliterated native belief systems, but it would spread very quickly like wildfire through the internet, in comparison to the slow pace of the conquistadors, journeying up the amazon with their bibles.

Our only defenders are the creators of today’s memes, our poets, musicians, artists, writers, thinkers. These are the people who are out ahead, discovering and mapping the new world, and preparing the cultural and intellectual foundations on which the future of human civilization will stand or fall.

Comment » | space, whimsy

What shall we do about the zombie apocalypse on Twitter?

November 10th, 2017 — 1:50pm

Imagine going about your daily life and never being sure if the people you meet around you are real humans. Some of them, no one knows quite how many, are AI powered robots that churn out the propaganda of their creators. They seem real at first but when they are engaged, it is clear that their brains that have been taken over by viral memes.  The television shows huge crowds of people cheering the president, but one day you come across one of these crowds and you realize they are all zombies, not one of them is real, or if some of them are real you can’t tell. What these zombies embody is the transformation of money into opinion, and their mission is to change society to suit their masters. They are programmed to love their masters with cult-like devotion, and their weapon against his enemies is channeled hate and rage. Their very existence is poison to the democratic ideal of one human, one voice; the foundation of modern society.

If you have spent any time on social media, you’ll realise that this situation is already a reality. This could not happen in real life where we can instantly tell if someone is a real human being or a zombie or a robot. But on the internet where “nobody knows you’re a dog“, the zombie apocalypse is an AI driven bot takeover that is already well underway. Twitter is awash with thousands of bots (though they argue the numbers), infecting debate, and the AI that powers the bots gets better all the time so that they can be difficult to identify.

The anarchy which characterized the early internet was sometimes fun, healthy even, but it has become infected with money. We are living in a time of great inequality, and some of the 0.001%, the super rich, have discovered how it is possible to engineer a populist base by creating armies of bots and paid trolls. These are being used to undermine the democracy of other nations, to influence elections, prop up dirty industry, and generally to further empower those who already hold wealth, against the interests of actual human beings. They work in tandem with some more mainstream media outlets, and also use more traditional lobbying and advertising to get what they want. The sales pitch is nothing very new, But the zombie takeover on social media is particularly insidious because it undermines the core touchstone of democracy and sanity in society, which is the will of the majority of the people.

This situation is regularly drawn to the attention of Twitter, whose users have already done a lot of the work in digging out these bot networks. These networks are a mixture of bot accounts and propaganda accounts run by users who are presumably under the employ of someone, like the famous Russian troll farms. Twitter closes down accounts which are overtly promoting violence or harassing others, but this basic policing does not affect those whose goal is simply to dominate and derail a conversation. Many accounts seem to stay dormant for months, then suddenly become active en-mass, creating an effect before the twitter teams can shut them all down, by which time the damage is already done.

The key problem is identifying if an account belongs to a real human being. Twitter verifies accounts, but this is a slow process. There needs to be a faster way to identify accounts that are bots or zombies and tag them so that they can be hidden, and don’t infect the dialogue. At the same time, there should be a way to tag an account as belonging to an ‘actual human’. Then users could apply their own filter to discriminate against bots or humans as they please. Real block lists do already exist but they are blunt instruments and place a lot of trust in their creators. What we need is complete transparency, so we can see who has verified who.

One solution I can think of is if there was a lineage of verification that users pass on to each other, which is visible, and could be used to judge the veracity of an account. By getting users to verify each other, a tree branching structure of verification would be created. Importantly, if one of those accounts in the tree turned out to be a bot, then the whole branch of verification below it would be cut off.


In such a network, the stem would verify a bunch of accounts who would go on to verify others. Every account’s verification could be traced back to a handful of original users who everyone knows are humans. The verification path would also be an interesting analysis of who is connected who on twitter, and could help to identify who to trust, apart from identifying just the worst bot networks. As well as verifying each other, everyone would also be able to ‘deverify’ a user who they thought was a troll. Such a user and all their verification tree below would then also be blocked to that user.

This is visualised below using real twitter data from the activity of troll hunter @peterdaou (one day 10/11/2017). Peter’s account could be used to verify a bunch of other accounts, then those ‘first tier’ like @leeladaou at level 1, who would go on to verify others at level 2 and so on.

Level 1 connections to @peterdaou

Level 2 connections to @peterdaou

Level 3 connections to @peterdaou

In the end you would create a system that creates and rewards users with greater integrity. Those who had been verified by lots of real people would be more valuable users to have in your likes. If a bot or troll somehow got verified and went on to verify a bunch of other trolls, then the whole branch could be cut off by identifying the account that made the original mistake.  New users to twitter might not even see unverified accounts by default.

This system wouldn’t have to exclude bots, but bots would become labelled as such, and once they could be identified, there would be a way of keeping them in, but excluding them from interactions where they were not wanted. The system would also not eliminate every angry real human troll on twitter but it would go a way to restoring the basis of what social networks were created to do – enable discussion and connections between ordinary people in real life.

I think that systems like this will take us towards Web 4.0, which is less anarchic, but also less zombie apocalypse than Web 3.0. It will strengthen the democratic basis of civil society as it exists on the web, reward integrity, and be a step towards combating the huge inequalities of wealth which are poisoning politics around the world at the moment.


Comment » | essay, nerdy

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