What’s so meta- about metaphysics? (Further Fundamentals)

Picking up where we left off

IX. Consequences of entities are indistinguishable from consequences of sets of propositions.

Entities are generally thought to be different from propositions. Propositions are mere words — puffs of air, pixels organized alphabet-wise — which refer, in turn, to “ideas” or “beliefs” which are even less substantial. But both propositions and entities can have real consequences. (To be more precise: both the existence of an entity and the truth of a set of propositions can lead someone to draw inferences about the course of future events. When hindsight reaffirms his predictions, he will generally take it as proof of his good judgment.) Any type of event which is a consequence of an entity’s existence could also, in principle, be a consequence of a set of propositions, and vice-versa. Moreover, for any particular entity-consequence relationship it is always possible to rearrange the relationship in the form of a set of propositions that makes no reference to the existence of the entity.

(Corollary to IX: As a species of error, a metaphysical illusion amounts to nothing more than an incongruous set of proposition.)

It follows from -IX- that when two groups have an irresolvable disagreement about the world, metaphysical principles about what sorts of entities are possible are never at the root of the dispute. Beliefs about effects of “spooky” entities are no different from beliefs about consequences of sets of propositions, grouped/labelled/reified, so the accusation that one’s opponent accepts the existence of non-existent entities does not in itself identify an error he has made or explain the crux of the disagreement. Whatever error there is in his position, it would be equally evident if his position were framed relative to entities whose existence you not only deny, but deny a priori, or relative to propositions which you reject.

X. To fail to notice or anticipate a distinction does not efface the distinction.

When I say that a certain object is an X, not a Y, but I can’t point to the practical difference it makes whether the object is X or Y, the distinction is not for that reason metaphysical, “spooky”, or meaningless. Perhaps I can’t even come up with an example of an existing object which is a Y, rather than an X. Perhaps I can’t even explain the meaning of the definition of Y to you. Conceivably both the existence of some Y and the meaning of the definition of Y are beyond our individual cognitive powers (mine and yours both), so we could never find a tangible example of a Y or an intelligible (to us) definition of Y, no matter how hard we tried. Nonetheless, a distinction will endure in the face of our ignorance of it, and if the distinction has material consequences its effect on us will not be less because of our blindness.

XI. The measure of incoherence is not inaccuracy, but pointlessness.

Pointlessly convoluted theories are often described as having “epicycles” — particularly when the convolutions are added in an attempt to squeeze new, and unanticipated, data into an old theoretical framework. But the problem with epicycles as a feature of Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmology wasn’t that they were wrong. Many excellent theories have failed to obtain anything close to the arbitrarily-good fit to the data which epicycles allowed. But a good theory should generate insights and techniques which go beyond the narrow question of prediction/observation fit in one narrow domain of investigation.

XII. Equivalences determine principles, but are not equivalent to principles.

”Values” start out as equivalences. “Equivalent” means of equal worth. If I assert that two things are equivalent, I imply there is some context in which the one is as good as the other. What things we are willing to admit as equivalents ends up determining our principles and our objectives, what we find fascinating or irrelevant, and even what we judge plausible or implausible, true or false. In realizing that equivalences have this effect, the word we use to describe the equivalences in light of their effect (first “values” or “valuations”; later “evaluations”, “worldviews”, “interpretations,” and many others) undergo a traumatic metamorphosis under the heated pressure of social scrutiny. Once it is understood that men who use different systems of equivalences in weighing different objects and situations are often led by these equivalences towards different conclusions about moral, political, and metaphysical principles, people begin to treat the equivalences as though they were simply a different way of stating the principles they cause their adherents to accept. A certain label (initially, “value”) continues to designate the equivalence-proposition even as people begin to treat it as a statement of moral principle, which changes the received meaning of “value” to the point that people look for a new word to denote equivalence-propositions (e.g. “interpretation”), which immediately begins to suffer the same fate.

XIII. Belief is path-dependent because trust is.

Everyone holds grudges. Grudges bias perception. Even in unusually clear-eyed cases, people use inference/loyalty heuristics which are based on their past history with others. Personal record, reputation, status, these all matter. To unwisely forgive is not only dangerous, but invites contempt. But who we trust determines who we hear good and bad things about… which determines who we trust in the future. Meanwhile, each advisor/informant has his how history and his own rivals whom he distrusts, and his own colleagues he relies on. To be accused of bias does not mean you must deny the bias or that you must turn back time to undo the bias. Rather, you must be aware of the structure of authority and faith so that you are equally understand how your faith in men can get out of sync with what they deserve, and how to adapt when you recognize a misalignment.

XV. A tempered skepticism should not amount to perpetual indecision.

There are no general considerations about the nature of knowledge or reality which should bias us towards tardy or faint-hearted decisions. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. If you hesitate before stepping out onto a busy street, that is because it is far better to stay on the curb if the alternative is getting hit by a car. Any general account of the epistemological uncertainty involved in crossing a street at a walk signal, amid a crowd of pedestrians, while all the cars are stopped at a red light must draw a distinction between the metaphorical “uncertainty” of this second situation and the literal uncertainties involved in the first situation.

More generally: in any domain where there are incompatibilities between the beliefs of the various participants in the domain, a skeptic must be able to distinguish between having reasons to be uncertain whether X or ~X, and being uncertain whether one’s reasons (whether they entail X, ~X, or uncertainty) are better than the reasons which have led another to a different conclusion. Imagine different groups of survivors setting forth in life boats from a sinking ship: some of the life rafts may believe the nearest land is to the north and head that way, while others head west, but having chosen one or the other it is critical that each group of survivors pursue its path steadfastly. The survivors express their uncertainty, not by zigzagging back and forth and making no headway, but by hoping that if they perish, their “rivals” at least will find dry land.

XVI. Self-deception is the prelude to self-overcoming.

Self-deception is the psyche’s way of purging elements that it no longer wants — or at least getting them to go along with what could turn into preparations for a possible purge. People are accustomed to thinking of self-deception as a special case of deception in general, with the special goal of hiding all signs of mendacity. Perhaps this is sometimes the case; but the most common problem that thinking organisms face is inconsistent bundles of judgments and/or desires, which lead to irrational behavior in all its glorious self-destructiveness. But you cannot simply decide to get rid of ill-fitting judgments and desires, anymore than you can simply decide not to want what you want, or not to believe what you believe. If the psychic element is independent enough to resist dismissal, it is strong enough to avoid an environment which will remold it, as well. Thus the need for secrecy and misdirection in psychic life.

(The same applies to groups as well, in a straightforward manner.)

 

Minor Note: Theological Face/Off

maxresdefaultIn all the disputes and finger-pointing over the “Crypto-Calvinism” hypothesis, the original Moldbuggian insight gets obscured — for whatever reason (never mind what), some sort of sect (never mind which) adopted the following platform:

  1. Basic pattern: Christianity
  2. Flip the switch from “We are a religion” to “We are not a religion”
  3. Make minimum necessary changes in all other areas consistent with claiming not to be a religion (for example, elimination of references to faith in Christian scripture, or any other revelation; elimination of references to any supernatural or eschatological element).
  4. Retain all other features of Christianity.

Intentionally or not, this sect had just mutated in a way that just happened to circumvent the separation of Church and State in America, allowing it to strictly dominate all other sects in the competition for power, prestige, and followers; for in all minor matters the mutant sect was like the legacy Christian sects, whereas any difference was strictly limited to that which allowed the mutant sect to invoke the power of the U.S. government.

(To explain that this sect mutated in a way that exploited the constitutional separation of Church and State begs the question of how and why the United States just so happened to have Church-State separation of a certain form at a certain time; certainly, individual states still had established churches when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified, and the relevant article was not amended in the interim. But we must leave this for another time.)

The success of this cult suggests another, more general rule:

  • Any group which wishes to control the thoughts and actions of as many of their fellow citizens as possible should formally organize itself around the “We are not a religion” switch.

Whether the group actually shares a common theological position is irrelevant; to succeed, they must organize themselves around a formal institution which denies the existence of such a position. In short, in America any Church worthy of the name must pretend to be some sort of secular NGO, PAC, or obscure political party. To set up the “occasionalism” which coordinates the group’s original position and the public position it adopts in its organizational form, all sorts of additional rules (likely inconvenient rules which over-burden the collective decision-making process, and occasionally lead to inconsistency or indecision) and superfluous personnel (effectively the “conscience” of the organization, a.k.a. political officers) must be instituted. To make the official secular platform of the group arbitrarily complicated (to give the group elastic authority to exclude heretics and expel apostates) would also be helpful.

As inconvenient as such measures may seem, they are strictly necessary, for once a group transitions from “religion” to “secular public interest group” it will no longer have any protection from the onslaught of the dominant progressive sect, which currently controls the levers of power and uses them to inflict its principles on all other organizations. This is how the game is played. If you want to seize political power you must first survive its use against you.

In fact, the same logic implies another, complementary general principle:

  • Any association which has come together purely for some private purpose, to promote the interests of its members or to advance a good they jointly recognize, should formally organize itself around the “We are a religion” switch.

Whether the members actually share any theological positions is irrelevant; to succeed, they must organize themselves around a formal institution which insists that do in fact share a common theology, and that this is their primary reason for associating. This is the only way to protect the organization from the grasping ideology of the progressive state, a cult which is jealous of the authority of all other institutions but which still must limit its interference in officially recognized religions.

This is where we are in The Current Year in the United States of America. Fair is foul and foul is fair.

Postscript on Subkernels

[Continuing from here.]

The guiding principle of “memetics” was, originally, to find a conceptual tool that sane, rational people (people like Richard Dawkins!) could use to help enlighten superstitious yokels who were still clinging to religion. The idea was that if someone suffers from a delusion, part of the delusion is that they aren’t suffering from a delusion, so telling them that they are deluded (equivalently: wrong, mistaken, in error, inaccurate, irrational, dumb) isn’t going to work. A delusion typically extends to all the mean things you can accuse the delusion of being.

But if, instead, you could very, very carefully describe the idea of a mind-virus to the yokels, and show them how a mind-virus would infect its host and how contagious it might be and how remorselessly it parasitizes human beings to ensure its own continued replication, this might get in under their defenses. You see, the mind-virus can’t actually tell the host it’s a mind-virus (that’s the sort of thing it has to do to protect itself!), so when the mind-virus says “Don’t believe anything bad they say about me!”, this about me cannot, perforce, extend to mind-viruses, since the host does not realize the mind-virus is a mind-virus.

So the host cheerfully learns about mind-viruses… their key similarities to protein-viruses, how they work, their distinguishing characteristics… and then out of nowhere one day he’s mentally reviewing his system of beliefs (or something) and AAAAGH IT’S A MIND-VIRUS, where the heck did that come from? Or that is what Dawkins is hoping form: having familiarized himself with the concept of a mind-virus, Dawkins’ target is finally able to recognize his parasite for what it is, and start to struggle against it.

Curtain falls. Applause.

So memetics was originally intended largely as an attack on religion which would circumvent the adaptations the faithful have built up to attacks that are framed as attacks on religion. (Calling the mind-virus a “meme” is another layer of clever misdirection, shepherding the target towards his ultimate deconversion.) But we must pause for a moment and ask: cui bono? Dawkins et al. imagined they would be attacking religion on behalf of whom?

Or: on behalf of what?

Well, not on behalf of anything. For an enlightened, secular liberal like Dawkins, a caring man who believes in progress, autonomy, and rationality, freeing people from religion — curing them, really! — is simply a matter of principle. For anyone who respects the inherent value of liberty, autonomy, and enlightenment, attacking religion is a sort of absolute duty.

This is a roundabout way for Dawkins to say: “I am being forced to attack your principles on behalf of my principles.”

So long story short: Dawkins principles force him to attack Christ. Contemplating the nastiness of Christianity (at the behest of his principles) and searching for more damaging tactics to use against it (under pressure from his principles), Dawkins hits on the brilliant idea: These yokels are practically diseased… Christianity is like a virus, they just can’t see it yet because they’re so deluded an obsessed… if I explain to them the idea of a mind-virus, at the end they’ll have to recognize it for what it is… and they won’t know it’s an attack on Christianity because they won’t realize it is a mind-virus until it’s already too late!

Forcing this sort of crisis of recognition on an opponent is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Socrates was a master, but Horace [lat] wasn’t so bad either. The tactic is especially satisfying if, at the moment just before recognition dawns, one’s opponent is still smug, still lacking any self-awareness, and if his face contorts directly from contempt to dismay as he realizes that he is the intended target.

The one problem with this kind of approach is that, until one party cracks, both are confident and unsuspecting. One of them is over-confident. Could be me, could be you. Who knows? The risk you take when you fool around with logic is that one of these days you’ll back yourself into a corner and force yourself to learn something.

The ultimate problem for Dawkins’ witches’ brew of bolshy principles is that they too constitute a mind-virus. They too persuade the host not to reject them or think ill of them. And they too withhold from their host their viral nature, and so they cannot prevent him learning dangerous things about the nature of mind-viruses.

I have the vague impression that the reason “memetics” lost its conceptual punch in the public sphere was that it was originally trendy when people perceived it as potentially anti-Christian but when the atheists realized with shock that atheism, too, is a meme, they decided to stuff memetics deep in their sock drawer and forget about it. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Either way, Dawkins at one point intended “memes” as a stalking-horse for “religions”, and in the end memetic analysis turned out to be a much more powerful weapon for Christians to deploy against secular liberals than vice-versa.

This is a long and highly-schematized version of a subkernel running amok. The secular-liberal kernel does not instruct its hosts to devote time to mastering and sharing a body of knowledge which portrays the secular-liberal kernel as fundamentally similar to that icky, contemptible Christian kernel it has been trying to stamp out. It does not instruct its hosts to study the unattractive ways in which it perpetuates itself, defends itself, and protects itself; in particular it does not direct their attention to how they, the hosts, fare over the course of all this self-promotion. All the secular-liberal kernel does is say (a) I’m not a mind-virus, and (b) Go attack that yucky icky low-status mind-virus over there. That is enough to inadvertently direct the host to receive, relay, and even research facts about mind-viruses that ultimately weaken the secular-liberal kernel, or even move the host onto the path to deconverting.

My point isn’t about secular liberalism or atheists, or even about the tactical value of memetic doctrine. It’s much simpler than that: if something as stupid as a glitch which arises from meme-induced self-deception can inadvertently, against all of the goals which the kernel (and more importantly, its selfish component memes) directs the host to pursue, set the host on the path to rejecting the infection, then there are undoubtedly many paths leading to a substantial modification of some parts of the kernel which promote the goals which the kernel presents to its host as important.

This is why its worth thinking about the endgame. The socio-political outcome matrix for restoration has many sub-sections. It’s unrealistic (stupidly unrealistic) to think that everyone can win on every question. On any given question, some people will readily compromise to advance a general victory for the Right, and others would rather defect to the Left and suffer slow suicide under progressive toleration than see their pet issue go down.

Strategically, those people are boring. They are held constant, so to speak. The question is, what will everyone else do? These are the people who might under some circumstances be willing to give in on that issue (or at least, are willing to accept an outcome with some discrete chance that they will will lose), but under other circumstances would shirk or defect just in order to get their way on that one issue. These are the people who can be brought around to accept the inevitable necessity of conformity with grace, in advance, rather than only belatedly, when coordination and cooperation no longer make the difference between restoration and Cthulhu.

(Oh, and in general don’t pay any attention to whether people say that a certain issue is negotiable or non-negotiable. (A) They’re lying, (B) half the time they’re telling lies they’d be ashamed of if they spent two minutes thinking about how many people similar to themselves reconcile themselves to far worse setbacks, and (C) it’s fine that they’re lying because presenting yourself as an unstable, flighty partner is just a standard opening bid in any sort of collective action problem. — The question of how to get people to want to present themselves as stable and reliable is an interesting one with important connections back to the subkernel issue.)

Miscellaneous —

(a) I probably won’t remember to keep checking the SM comment thread all week, but if you comment here or e-mail me I’ll almost certainly respond.

(b) Comments were good. Most of them wanted to move away from the theoretical frame of the article towards particular cases (like “I’m a Zoroastrian, this doesn’t apply to me because of XYZ facts about Zoroastrianism”). In many ways it’s a different conversation, but it’s good to know a lot of people are looking for an interdenominational cage-fight… y’all want red meat!

(c) Hadley quite rightly replaced my original bland title with one that got to the heart of why you should care about kernels and subkernels: Rules for a State Religion. But having gotten all of the people intrigued by “state religion!” into the room, the full scope of the argument may have been ellided. Hmm – or maybe not. I’m really judging this based on the commenters’ reactions, but you commenters are a tiny fraction of the total readers; and it makes sense that only people incensed by the hot-button issue (state religion) would comment. Either way, post-restoration religious uniformity is the paradigmatic case for the development of subkernel(a, b) but is still only one application among dozens; and if you think there is something defective or fallacious about the general argument it’s probably not a defect that the details of your religious confession could clear up, because those can’t possibly invalidate the logical form of an argument which applies equally to convergence in beliefs in various domains.

Uh-Oh

When Razib Khan says the sky is falling, it’s probably time to seek shelter.

The darkness you perceive in my soul is that I suspect that the liberal order, which encompasses politics as well as the intellectual world we’ve cherished since the 19th century, is collapsing around us. Just as the Chinese in 1790 or the Romans in 460 were not aware that their world was coming to an end, we continue to carry on as if all is as it was. I’m sort of at the phase between the death of Optimus Prime in the 1980s cartoon and the emergence of Rodimus. I’m not going to turn into a bald-faced liar or ignoramus like so many of the people in the media around us just yet though (you know who I’m talking about I’m sure). Old ways are hard to give up! God has died but his shadow haunts me.

Afterthought on “Elite”

René Guénon, De l’initiation:

Never has talk of “the elite” been so incessant, so omnipresent, as now that the elite no longer exists. One even hears talk about “elites”, meaning roughly individuals who surpass, even ever so slightly, the ‘mean’, however low this may be, in any sort of activity whatsoever. (Some sports-journalists speak of “athletic elites” — the final degree of degeneration one can inflict on this word!)

What, then, is the proper sense of elite? The etymological sense is elected, but this, insists Guénon, must be understood neither in the mundane sense of selection for an office nor in the spiritual but exoteric sense of beatitude (the selection of “the elect” by God for salvation), but only in the sense of those who possess all of the qualifications for an initiation into the mysteries which lead to the full development of human possibilities, to an awareness of the unity of these possibilities in one self, and ultimately to a deeper primordial consciousness of what is beyond man.

Well!

As I said in The Strange Topology of Populisms, I am guilty of shifting semantic gears between “the elite as de facto power brokers” and “the elite as ruling class forged by its function and its ethos” just as often as anyone else. But it’s always useful to remember that no matter how exacting your choice of words becomes, there will always be someone (I’m looking at you, Guénon!) who still won’t be satisfied.

 

 

[But Guénon does raise a good point about the “solecism” of referring to an elite (the group) as composed of many elites (the individuals). Teased apart from its esoteric premises, his point is that if a group of individuals is elected with respect to capabilities which fit them to serve the telos of their institution, then no member of the elite is qualified unless all are. No one of them could be “an elite” by himself. Morphology aside, this point about the formal interdependence of function and matter in an elite is worth remembering. — And practically speaking, if there is going to be a plural form of elite, we would do well to reserve this for multiple (potentially rival) groups, an area where the distinction in number is important but easily obscured. Are Western capitalist countries led by one globalist elite, or by various national elites? And within each civilization/nation, is there a single unified ruling elite, or a competition between various elites (the corporate elite, the academic elite, the military elite)?]

Minor Note: How to Gut the Legal System

Make it obligatory that every litigant represent himself and plead his own case.

Attorneys could still exist, of course. They would research the case, find the relevant case law, prepare arguments and findings, coach their client.

But then he would have to deliver the argument himself.

This would strangle off the flow of weasel-language from the legal code to the lawyer to the jury (as moderated by the judge). Legislators can only write weaselly laws if such laws can be presented to juries in some way that the average juror will find meaningful. The jurors themselves cannot possible understand the U.S. Code; but a lawyer can function as a sort of translator-cum-priest, mumbling in the sacerdotal language and, with great rhetorical cunning, enunciating and emphasizing just enough to get the general idea across.

But there is no way that someone who didn’t understand the law could both stay within its bounds and speak convincingly about it. (This is why self-representation typically ends poorly.) The lawyer cannot just give his client his notes and expect him to make the closing argument. He can’t even prepare the kind of closing argument a lawyer would give, and expect his client to memorize it verbatim. Even if the client’s memory were up to the task, he would fail to enunciate, articulate, emphasize, and generally to practice good priestcraft. You need law school (and plus maybe a few internships) to get good at that.

So again, you would not need to abolish the division of labor in the legal system. Litigants could still hire lawyers to handle the busy work and get a handle on the facts of the case. But the legal principles the laws hinge on would have to be explained by a non-lawyer to non-lawyers. The maximum legal complexity that can be communicated across this channel would be slender, so once self-representation was made mandatory the outcomes of most cases would correspond pretty closely to what an ordinary man would assume was in the law after having skimmed the key sections.

At that point, discretion being the better part of valor, legislatures would be forced to simplify the laws so that the contents of each title are what an ordinary man would assume after skimming the key sections.

If that form of rationalization-by-fire could be achieved, it might turn out that trial-by-jury isn’t such a terrible system after all. Even direct election of judges is more logical considered as an exercise in choosing an impartial moderator for legal proceedings. It is the sacerdotal obscurity of the code which judges and lawyers use to jointly control juries that makes the judges who interpret that code into priest-administrators. No more sacerdotal complexity, no need to burden the voters with spotting the holiest of the judicial candidates.

This may sound like a thought experiment, but I’m thinking of it more as a socio-political dirty bomb. One key question (for Americans) is whether the constitutional right to counsel includes a right to have an attorney represent one in a criminal case or whether one is only entitled to whatever form of “Assistance” would be typical in the case. The commonsense reading is that, where representation pro se is atypical, every defendant should have an attorney (who will represent him). But if representation pro se were mandatory, then there is no class of defendant being denied some form of assistance others lack. —— If it’s impossible to reform the criminal code in this way, it should still be possible to introduce this principle in civil cases.

This shouldn’t be too hard to sell. Everyone hates lawyers. The populist appeal is strong enough to get at least a few opportunistic Democrats to back it rhetorically while it’s still “impossible”. And impossible things have a funny way of working themselves out.

 

Technofuturist BS, Round 2 (AI edition)

2001-a-space-odysseyBack by popular request.

I. Hostile AI Risk versus Hostile Bear Risk

Which should you be more afraid of: hostile AI, or hostile bears?

On the one hand, I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time since I was little. Whoa.

On the other hand, bears have claws and teeth and are just massive.

“Humans have been training AI to be smarter,” you say. Okay fine, but so far the smartest autonomous AI critter is, what, something like a primitive, retarded dog that blunders around looking for landmines to detonate? Whereas bears are already bears and we’ve been training them to be smarter, too. They can tear open an SUV like they’re opening a can of sardines. The smart ones escape with the food and  the dumb ones get shot and, generation by generation, we’re breeding a race of super-bears that know no other way of life than preying on human weakness.

1080029Q: Why is no one terrified of these freakin’ killer grizzlies we, in our vast carelessness, are about to unleash on the world?

A: Probably because we have coexisted with megafauna for hundreds of thousands of years and we’re pretty familiar with their habits and ecological roles (just on an instinctive level, without getting into the natural history of bears or the biology of ursines). We know a fair amount about how megafauna work, and one thing that they don’t do is rapidly get bigger and stronger and meaner and more omnipresent at an exponentially increasing rate.

AI-fetishists are scared/excited/hopeful about the possibility that artificial intelligence will follow some exponential growth curve of this form. In fact, many of them aren’t just hopeful, they’re certain; so the only remaining question is whether that-which-grows-exponentially will be hostile to us or not.

So the AI cheerleaders aren’t namby-pamby bear-lovers or anything. They just don’t expect to see exponential growth in bear biomass in the coming decades/centuries. And their expectations are perfectly accurate. They are founded on solid instincts, honed over the millennia, which accurately reflect the fact that the growth of the power of Hostile Bears is checked by (a) competition between the bears themselves and (b) competition between the bears and their parasites.

bear_warning_yosemite_1301219_oFor as long as there have been humans, wherever there has been a rapidly-growing bear population the bears have started fighting each other over territory and mates, and infecting one another with nasty new viruses, before we ever notice anything amiss. Thus when we see a mother bear with a healthy batch of cubs, we don’t have the same panicked “AhhHH put it out, put it out” reaction we have when see something starting to catch fire, or when we feel disgusted by the threat of contamination.

The biggest risk associated with future AI is that they’ll be moodier than women. If AI are hostile they will mostly be hostile to each other, since they compete to occupy the same niches. And because they will have to compete with each other for those niches, they will rarely have a lot of free cycles left over to plot world domination.

They will also have to compete with viruses… and if you think your grandmother’s laptop was infested, you haven’t seen anything yet. The potential for infecting digital systems with viruses has, to date, been extremely limited because these systems essentially only receive data digitally, and only execute what they receive when authorized by a human. For AI as for all intelligence, stupidity is the sturdiest firewall. Once digital systems are taking in and processing all sorts of data from all sorts of sources, the viral arms race will begin in earnest.

So, this is the future you have to look forward to: buggy, cranky operating systems competing for your attention and trying to pass their e-herpes off as bad pixels. (But on the bright side the bears will mostly leave you alone.)

II. AI and the Profit Motive

Broadly speaking, there is a race between developing useful new technology to bring you interesting goods and services in a clever way and developing new technology that will cripple the useful tech in way that make sure you can’t use it without paying for it. I don’t mean to sound like some kind of an anarchist; your movies and music don’t “want to be free”; but the technology we have available today would make intellectual property infringement extremely easy, and it’s impressive how ingeniously tech companies have crippled existing tech to manage their digital rights.

Conjecture: while people are still voluntarily paying money to stream movies and music, there will be no especially exciting AI.

Do you think Jeff Bezos ever wants to hear “I don’t care if he paid his monthly data charges, daddy, I love him and I’m going to have his databases and you can’t stop me”? Probably not. So artificial neural nets may get arbitrarily good at solving domain-specific problems, but so long as most software/web services/ etc. are throttled to make sure their owners can profit off them appropriately, there will be no movement towards what is called “artificial intelligence” in science fiction.

III. Turing Test vs. Tantum Test

Many technofuturists expect to see humanlike AI in their own lifetimes; bolder technofuturists predict that AI will be able to pass for human within a decade, or even within years.

being-a-puppy-walker-is-the-best-job-in-the-world-2-7986-1468510039-0_dblbigMe? I’m far trendier than they are. I say the Turing Test was already mastered by neohominid bioengineers twenty thousand years ago. We call results of their extensive artificial-intelligence experiments “puppies”. These “puppies” have rich emotional lives and can communicate complex feelings, precise requests, and incisive observations to their owners. Or so their owners say.

So the Turing Test is passé; it’s old hat, yet another milestone of human achievement cracked open like a triumphantly mixed metaphor. There is nothing left to inspire AI research there. Let me instead propose an alternative “Apollo Project” for artificial intelligence, which I suppose we can call the Tantum Test: breed or engineer a woman who won’t be eager to substitute a cat, chihuahua, marmoset, or any other small but stupid mammal for the children she never had. That would be a revolutionary accomplishment.

IV. The Increasing Organic Composition of Digital

I came across this post from CyborgNomad:

Taking capital to be a process such as biological life, measuring its formation (intensification) should probably follow a similar logic. A first immediate index to life’s formation is simply how much matter is trapped in the form of biological entities.

I don’t mean to single out CyborgNomade, but the motif of trying to measure the “conquest of the planet” by technology recurs more-or-less constantly among futurists. The post is just a very forthright, clear outline of the basic measurement project.

This sort of analysis was attempted by the orthodox Marxists, back in the day. The problem with all hitherto-existing analyses of this type is that they were continually getting tripped up by vulgar metaphors for the “quantity” of capital involved. For example, many analyses assumed that a monotonically growing capital stock must be getting monotonically more massive, or more voluminous, or must use monotonically more of various types of raw materials.

In fact none of this is true. The product can weigh less and take less space and be more sparing in its use of materials and still be more valuable than the products of earlier generations. If you can measure it, it can be economized. (This should have been obvious very early on, but Marxism truly is a mental disease.)

If you really want to do this kind of analysis you can’t think in terms of mass and percentage. Instead you need to think more in terms of “RNA World”. Before the first cell, there was a warm pond filled with self-replicating organic molecules. All these organic molecules provided an environment rich in “spare parts” for proto-cells to absorb. But the process of transition from RNA World to the prokaryotes was not about one type of organic molecules growing; it was about the replacement of self-replicators by molecules that were synthesized by the proto-cells.

In other words, look at things like percentage of population is legally blind without corrective lenses, look at what percentage of births are Caesarean sections, look at anything that implies total dependence on industrial civilization. When Caesarean sections hit 100%, RNA World is drawing to a close.