Archive for May, 2014

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Driving the Map, Not the Territory

It's classic slight of hand. What's breathtaking is that it caught the entire country in its misdirection. Google demos its driverless car, the tiny one with no steering wheel and no brakes. The media shows us the pictures and then asks Detroit why this car is coming from the Silicon Valley and not the car manufacturers. Clearly another sign that U.S. manufacturers are hopelessly behind the times.

A few weeks ago Alexis Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic called “The Trick That Makes Google Self-Driving Cars Work.” In his piece, Alexis explains how the trick is done. Self-driving cars have very little to do with the machinery of the car itself. In case you hadn't noticed Google has an extremely robust mapping application. The self-driving car can only drive itself through a territory with a sufficiently fine-grained 3-D map. That's because the car isn't really driving on the streets, it's driving on the map. This is a story about virtual reality for cars. And it's not about who builds the cars, it's about who owns the virtual streets.

 

Imagine You’re Responsible for Everything

Whenever there's an outbreak of evil among us, we seek to understand what could have possibly caused it. One reason we do this is to figure out if anything can be done to stop that particular thing from happening again. The other reason we do this is to build a wall between us and evil. Evil is circumscribed and isolated, it's labeled insanity, it's called completely uncivilized. This wall allows us to make sure that we're untainted by evil, that our innocence is preserved.

The victims of evil want us to know that this isn't an isolated case. Evil has a broader purchase than is generally acknowledged. We hedge, and say that some, but not all are evil. And the “evil ones” — they're readily identifiable. This allows us to keep evil on the other side of the wall.

Imagine that you're responsible for everything. Imagine that I'm responsible for everything. The racism, the sexism, the hatred, the stupidity, the insanity, the crime, the violence, the addiction, the bigotry — all of it. Every time there's an injustice, it's not the “other” who acts. It's one of us. It's me. When my country commits atrocities, those are mine too.

The quarantine of evil allows us some measure of safety and assures us that we don't have to change our ways. But as we're learning with the garbage that our civilization generates, there is no “away” to which it can be sent. There's just here. We behave as though our individual speech acts could be separated out from the language we all share. Prisons and other facilities are where you go when you're sent “away.” Prisons aren't on another planet or hidden in another universe. There is no “away.”

We look in the mirror and imagine we're something good and pure. Sure we have our problems, but they're inconsequential. We're nothing like that nut-job who unleashed evil and death. In fact, it'd be a good idea to arm ourselves against people like that. The wall that keeps evil out should be outfitted with lethal defensive weaponry. Our place in the afterlife depends on maintaining a certain level of purity.

Or imagine this. Imagine that you have a skin in the game. Imagine that you're responsible — that you're both the perpetrator and the victim. Imagine that you can't build a wall around evil. Imagine that the last mass shooting, this mass shooting and the next mass shooting are simply expressions of who we are. It's not a war that belongs only to the other political party. It's not a cruelty that other people are inflicting on the poor. I'm all these things, and I'm not comfortable with all the things that I am. How could I be? Own all the the good things, own all of the bad things, and then decide whether we need to change.

 

A Hundred Monkeys of Doom

There's the old story of a hundred monkeys randomly typing on a hundred typewriters eventually, over time, producing the works of Shakespeare. The point of this story is that once written, Shakespeare's plays and poetry are a fixed sequence of letters. If a hundred monkeys type random character sequences over thousands of years, eventually they'll produce a match to the Shakespeare sequence.

Of course, if Shakespeare had never lived or written his work, it's possible the monkeys would have still produced the Shakespeare sequence simply by virtue of the fact that all sequences are eventually be produced. On another level, this story is an attack on the artist. The work of the author is just an ordering of glyphs into a sequence that results in a pleasurable decoding experience for humans. Obviously a machine could be built to randomly produce these letter sequences, and then filter out the ones that have the qualities humans appreciate as they decode them. Computing power is verging on the capability to replace human creativity across the board through sheer brute force.

Software engineers often joke about the career potential of liberal arts majors. Something about “do you want fries with that.” But what's lost on them is that Shakespeare's works, reduced to a sequence of letters, is just some fixed sequence of letters. It has little to do with Shakespeare's particular genius. The complex software written by coders could just as easily be the subject of the story. Given enough time, a hundred monkeys at a hundred typewriters could produce the Unix operating system, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. In fact, unlike the works of Shakespeare, it would be much simpler to determine whether randomly generated software code was usable and useful.

Venture capitalists might be better served by investing in these random software generators than in human software engineers. Company founders can be royal pains. Over time the system would generate software that generated random software using commodity computing hardware. The need for engineers would be completely eliminated.

To put a darker cast on the story, a hundred monkeys at a hundred network-connected Unix command lines could generate spam, worms and viruses that would disable the entire network of networks. Even the tightest firewalls and security systems could be breached using this monkey-powered random brute force attack. No security system is perfect, they all have holes that are invisible until an unexpected exploit occurs.

When we say “over some period of time” we usually mean some far off future that none of us will experience. It could take thousands, even millions of years. Of course, the nature of randomness means that, very possibly, it could be the next roll of the dice that seals our fate.

 

The 6th Time is the Charm

When we look at the ecological catastrophe, we fail to see that it's already begun. Simply asking the question, “Has the ecological catastrophe begun yet?” is a signal that we're well past the beginning. We're on the inside of something that becomes visible to us as it reveals it has always enfolded us.

In Elizabeth Kolbert's book, “The Sixth Extinction”, instead of the dire warnings and hysterical laments about the end of the world, we see a calm journey to the places around the earth where species are in the late stages of extinction. Kolbert bears witness as the scientists around her record the effects of the rapid change in habitat. The life forms in these landscapes have deep ties to the slow moving patterns of the earth. As climate change accelerates, these ties are cut and whole species are set adrift.

The prose style of Kolbert's book is a smile of recognition; like the smile of someone saying a final goodbye to a loved one. The smile of someone who has experience loss before. It seems the most straight forward way of acknowledging our co-existence with other beings is at the moment when they're about to disappear forever. Kolbert is a calm witness; she says goodbye to individual life forms and whole species on our behalf.

Humans fancy themselves as highly adaptable. We can look around the world and see the varied and extreme conditions where humans have made a life. We're so quick that we believe we're exceptions. Other species may have a deep tie to the slow moving patterns of the earth, but we can a adapt to any pattern. It's this adaptability that defines us a species. Throughout our history we've looked for the thing that separates us from the animals, that thing that makes us special creatures on this planet. For a time we were the rational animal, our ability to reason set us apart. Now it's our belief that no matter what happens to the biosphere, we can adapt. Even if 90% of all other life forms were to suffer extinction, we could still make a go of it. Our existence is independent of the state of the biosphere or planet

The anthropocene is the unconscious effect of the sum total of human action on the geology and climate of the planet. The biosphere, thus changed by us, now turns and taps us on the shoulder. What was a deep, subtle and almost invisible power moving slowly in the background has emerged in the foreground. Like an unconscious thought made conscious, we believe that we can tame global warming with the power of our reason in the clear light of day.

Like Victor Frankenstein, we sit alone in our lab, attempting to reanimate a species, repair a damaged habit, stitch together enough of a biosphere to support the life forms we deem important. It's perfectly reasonable.

 

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