Archives: Oddversational

In Verner Vinge’s space opera A Deepness in the Sky, he proposes that one of this future’s most valuable professions is that of Programmer-Archaeologist. Essentially, the layers of accreted software in all large systems are so deep, inter-penetrating, idiosyncratic and inter-dependent that it has become impossible to just re-write them for simplicity’s sake – they genuinely can’t be replaced without wrecking the foundations of civilization. The Programmer-Archaeologist churns through this maddening nest of ancient languages and hidden/forgotten tools to repair existing programs or to find odd things that can be turned to unanticipated uses.

“The word for all this is ‘mature programming environment.’ Basically, when hardware performance has been pushed to its final limit, and programmers have had several centuries to code, you reach a point where there is far more significant code than can be rationalized. The best you can do is understand the overall layering, and know how to search for the oddball tool that may come in handy -“
A Deepness in the SkyVerner Vinge

Surfing the Web
This picture of a flexable keyboard tunnel linked to from Lord Cuauhtli Rangel’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

This is not all that different from what I actually do in my current job.

I work at a moderately large corporation analyzing and fixing bugs in our production systems. When a system gets too buggy, because:

  • Over time, the other systems it interfaces with have changed and so now it can’t communicate with them as smoothly
  • Elements of the server or network environment in which the programs run have changed, negatively affecting the program’s performance
  • Users have developed odd work-arounds to make the program partially serve some unanticipated need, and now those have taken on real business importance

There is often a desire to rewrite the program to accommodate the new situation. Many times, rewriting the system isn’t really practical, at least short term, because of the number of unknowns that much change would introduce in to the weirdly balanced ecosystem of software.

I spend a significant amount of time digging through old, partially documented or undocumented code, trying to establish relationships between systems and reconstruct reasons for the way things were done, so the fuller implications of changes to be made can be understood.

We’re less than a hundred years into the history of software accretion for our civilization, and already the notion of a Programmer-Archaeologist is not so absurd.

To my knowledge there aren’t any significant tools or proven working methods for this new trade, but looking forward, I’ll bet this is fertile ground for innovation.

I came across a great article today on Ars Technica about a do-it-yourself personal fabrication machine.

What’s a fabrication machine? It’s this:

Basically, Evan Malone, a mechanical engineering grad student at Cornell University, has designed a rapid prototyping 3D printer that you can build for yourself for under $3,000.00.

The article linked above points out that this is an equivalent cost range to early personal computing. I don’t know how much this will bear out as an analogy, but if the flexibility, robustness and sophistication of this machine compounds anywhere near as quickly as those early computers did, this could well be one of the first signs of a true revolution in the way things are done!

Here’s an experiment – I started writing this because I needed another outlet to toy with interesting ideas – the way I usually do this is in elaborate conversations with friends. My friend Eric and I have talked for a while about recording some of these conversations and seeing what we could do with them. Soooo – here’s the first installment of A Transparent Life on Youtube:

It’s at least 1980’s Local PBS Affiliate Public Interest Interview Show quality, don’t you think? 😛

I’ll be posting more 10 minute segments of this as time goes on… hopefully you’ll be entertained.

With all the spectacle of wealth excreting semi-conscious software based juristic entities (still working on that name) that has gone on this week here, now seems like a good time to consult our old friend Benjamin Franklin for a word of caution:

“Whenever we attempt to mend the scheme of providence, we had need be very circumspect lest we do more harm than good.”

– Benjamin Franklin, found in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Benjamin Franklin
This picture of a painting of Benjamin Franklin linked to from A. Meyers’ Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Here’s a nightmare scenario, as conceived by Charles Stross in his novel Accelerando. What if these weird, self-sufficient economic entities become self organizing and conscious, and able to guide their own further elaboration? The creatures I’ve been describing are like caveman versions of the entities which come to be known in his book as the Vile Offspring. In the book, the Vile Offspring are post-human intelligent entities evolved from a variety of Artificial and Human Intelligence combinations that participate in a highly accelerated economy that unaugmented humans can’t comprehend, and even augmented humans can’t fully join. This blaze of resource allocation reorganizes all the matter in our solar system on a molecular level into a substance called computronium, in which these post-human entities can live and conduct their incomprehensible business.

Too bad for the rest of us.

It’s the economic version of the runaway fission reaction that physicists feared might ignite the atmosphere as they were contemplating detonating the first atomic bomb.

I don’t know if that outcome is very likely, though I do think it will be possible to build a self-sustaining software based wealth generator that might well have some attenuated legal personhood. You won’t be able to steal from it or abuse it without being subject to prosecution. It will probably be on the level of an idiot-savant, good at its specialty, otherwise dependent on human custodians (legal guardians, i.e. a board of directors) to look after its other needs.

Though I’m using Ben Franklin above as a source of caution, I actually think he would have enjoyed thinking out the shape of these imaginary creatures. If he can be quoted saying cautionary things, it’s generally right before or right after his indulging in an elaborate bit of futurist tale spinning.

Finally, since it’s Friday, I’ll leave you with another quote from The First American:

Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy.
-Benjamin Franklin

Beer is proof that God loves us and want us to be happy. -Benjamin Franklin
This picture of a pint of beer linked to from Stig Andersen’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

But we don’t need to go as far as all that yet!

Stopping short of imagining these Juristic Entities taking on autonomous lives, there are interesting things to think about how they could be better used in the lives of more people today. Right now, the very wealthy already take advantage of versions of these kinds of constructions. Trusts, Investment portfolios, Corporations and LLCs are today designed to arrange the wealth of individuals in self-sustaining, self-growing systems. Right now, these systems require a good deal of expert human intervention. Boards of Directors, Trustees, Lawyers, Fund Managers, etc. All of these individuals divert wealth from the entity, but also, their necessary participation generally puts these kinds of entities out of the scope of imagination for the less-than-wealthy.

But it doesn’t have to be so. I think that today, much of the expertise exercised by these various managers can be reasonably modeled in software. I think even today you could set up a legal entity, run largely by software, to manage a body of capital on behalf of an individual that could grow that capital into real wealth without losing so much to management or setting a high initial bar to entry. You could sell it in a box, so that anyone with a computer and an internet connection could nurture their personal financial being this way.

This more egalitarian concept of software based self-sustaining wealth-creating juristic persons (note to self – think of a better name!) is somewhat Fullerine.

This picture of a Tensegrity Sphere linked to from Michael Hohl’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Buckminster Fuller developed an organizing principle around most of his architectural theory, that involved applying the discipline of mass-production to make inexpensive dwellings that were both better suited to their purpose as machines that facilitate your daily life, and more easily deployed than traditional houses. He favored air-shipment of complete, pre-built structures from their factory to the actual land they would stand on. Something that would be livable the very day it was delivered. As air-transportation put a premium on weight, he turned to modern steel and alloys and lightweight tension based construction as opposed to wood and concrete and the traditional compression based construction style of things stacked on top of other things. He came to view traditional house-building, the kind that still predominates, as a horribly outdated and inefficient process;

The small house, Fuller claimed, Had received none of the benefits of economic pressure that had influenced the design of the airplane and the radio. The housing industry was an absurd throwback to the pre-industrial world.

Michael John Gorman – Buckminster Fuller: Designing for Mobility

What I’m suggesting is that wealth generating economic entities, our present day small businesses, corporations, trust and investment funds, loan agencies and other combinations of legal and functional design that essentially eat raw materials and/or information and excrete wealth, might evolve given similar design pressures.

Fuller had an advertising writer (the guy who coined the word “radio”) work with him to express his central principals in a single word, and the word they invented was “Dymaxion (TM)”, a contraction formed from the words “Dynamic”, “Maximum” and “Tension”. As I understand it, the principals it tries to describe are those of flexible sufficiency – breaking with tradition to look anew at the purpose to be achieved, and then designing to that purpose with an eye to maximising flexibility and economy. A kind of “do more with less” attitude. A re-arranging of materials to tease greater utility out of less substance.

In my mind, Dynamic Maximum Tension when applied to Wealth Creation points in the direction of designing “corporations” to require the fewest humans possible to produce a sufficient surplus wealth to provide for the needs and comforts of its employees/caretakers, as well as contribute a degree of excess wealth to the larger economic system. It would be to build little “Wealth Creation Machines”, whose moving parts are software and legal frameworks around some service or resource for the benefit of both specific individuals and the larger economy. Every individual person should be able to have a personal Juristic Assistant keeping an eye on their personal wealth, making sure it keeps on growing.

I find the concept of Juristic Personhood to be really interesting.

That’s the practice of assigning some or all of the legal standing of a human being to a non-human system, like a corporation, in order to, as I understand it, simplify questions of ownership around the materials used by that corporation in its business, as well as to protect the actual humans who form that corporation from individual liability in the event of the corporation’s failure.

Juristic Personhood has been a tremendous benefit to economic development. I like to think of it as a way of constructing artificial super-beings which we can dress ourselves in to engage in economic tournaments with each other. Giant, semi-autonomous mecha power-suits built of laws and strategic plans. But enough of my fevered imagination.

I’m not going to go into the old slander of a corporation, considered as a person, exhibiting the symptoms of clinical sociopathy. Clearly the fictional beings we’re calling Juristic persons aren’t fully valent human personalities. They’re creatures with something like a quarter or an eighth of a brain… just the deep, autonomic and reptilian bits. You wouldn’t call a reptile a sociopath, it’s just a reptile. That’s the level our current, very useful, Juristic Persons exist on.

Kaa - South American Boa Constrictor
This picture of a boa constrictor linked to from Mozambique – Moments’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. As we talked about yesterday, if consciousness can be expressed as a set of rules, and a Juristic Person is essentially composed of rules, should the rules become comprehensive enough, and independently operating, we might be able to build up our Juristic Creatures to more full personalities, with real social imperatives. We could give them the corporate equivalents of the pre-frontal lobes, instead of limiting them to reptilian nervous systems.

The difference between this Juristic Person (JP) and the standard concept of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) is that the JP comes already plugged into a Darwinian environment – the economy. It has a food: capital. It has a metabolism: production/service provision. It has a means of storing excess energy: wealth. It can thrive or perish in this environment, which is rich in variety and opportunity and hazard. It’s more than a metaphor, it’s a real environment that has been winnowing the existing reptilian species of JPs for centuries now. It’s still an economic age of dinosaurs, a Juristic Park. If there is a revolution in wealth creation coming, I think it will involve our JPs evolving into something more mammalian.

Here’s where thinking out loud is going to carry me into absurd extremes, but it looks fun over there, so let’s go!

Given enough elaboration, and enough automation, I think we’ll be able to build corporations that require few, if any, human beings in the system. I believe we’ll eventually figure out ways for the various kinds of corporate guidance (the jobs of executives) to be derived using analysis of historical cases, existing market conditions and built in corporate goals, that will provide steadier, more beneficial leadership than the hodge-podge of people currently involved. A corporation is essentially a machine that produces wealth, and I think that eventually we’ll be able to program these machines to run better on their own than they can with a human’s hands on the wheel.

Eventually, if you can suppose an autonomous JP that achieves the semblance of consciousness, given the already extant legal definition of a corporation, might not a fully automated, conscious appearing wealth generating system with legal “personhood” be able to stand beside a natural human being in the world’s esteem?

This thing would exhibit signs of intent and comprehension, it would be making a positive contribution to the wealth of the society around it, and it already has a framework in which it’s legal rights can be equated with personhood.

This is a true form of Revolutionary Wealth.

I didn’t think it up, though. Alot of the above is elaboration on ideas presented by Charles Stross in Accelerando as a concept called Economics 2.0. As he imagined it, it wasn’t the best thing for anyone who couldn’t keep up.

But more on that later.

Yesterday’s Rubik’s Cube solving robot is a good starting point to raise the question of whether or not it is possible to model intelligence to such a fine degree that the model could be considered intelligent itself.

Mental Model
This picture of a mental model linked to from Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

There is a thought experiment called the Chinese Room. It is meant to prove that even if you could model a consciousness to a degree indistinguishable from actual conscious behavior, it still wouldn’t actually be conscious, it would be just an automatic process.

The argument goes like this: Imagine you know nothing of the Chinese language (any of them, take your pick), written or spoken. You are placed into a box with 2 openings. Through one opening, pieces of paper with indecipherable squiggles on them are inserted. You then take these squiggles, compare them with a vast library of rules as to what squiggles to put on another piece of paper based on what you find on the first piece of paper. You then slide this second squiggled-up paper out the other opening. You’ve probably guessed it by now; to an outside Chinese speaking interlocutor, the box appears to be responding correctly to questions posed to it in Chinese. It appears the box understands Chinese. You, however, inside that box don’t understand it at all, you’re just following instructions. You have no consciousness, no awareness of what the conversation is about, or even really that you’re facilitating a conversation at all. It could be anything. It’s a meaningless activity to you.

Poor Rubot doesn’t actually solve the cube puzzle. It knows not what it does. There is no consciousness there.

Leaving aside the response that for a system to behave indistinguishable from a conscious person so well as to fool other conscious people, it would need to do far more than simple return rules-based responses, there is another objection I’ve been thinking about.

It’s true that you inside the box do not comprehend the conversation, but, in a way, the box really does. The box as a system understands. In the thought experiment, you are deliberately being placed in the role of something like a neuron… not in the role of the interpreter of neural activity. The interpreter, the consciousness, in this experiment is the set of rules. All you are doing is delivering stimuli to the rule-set, and returning output from the rule-set to the world.

So, is consciousness a rule-set? I don’t know. Maybe something like that. Is that what we are, that thing we are referring to when we say “I want this” or I’m going there”… the I inside our heads? Is that, in the end, a rule set, partially built in conception and then elaborated through experience?

Evidence seems to suggest something like this is true.

All thought is action. All action is in some way reaction. Maybe our personhood is a really elaborate set of rules for interpreting stimuli that build up in our meat-brains throughout our lives. If that were so, maybe we can attribute real consciousness to software that models conscious behavior so closely as to be indistinguishable from our consciousness. Just because it’s not happening inside a human head doesn’t mean in might not really be as aware as we are.

So I left my apartment today to go get some coffee from our neighborhood Famima!! (a popular convenience store chain in Japan, apparently, and locally featuring the ruggedly handsome snack food Men’s Pocky) and, on my way back, found the street temporarily filled by what I mistakenly at first thought must be some kind of Easter Parade (today being the day, after all) but which I soon realized was obviously some kind of Sikh parade:

Big picture on a float.

I snapped a few camera phone pics, as even in Los Angeles it is not every day a moderately sized Nagar Kirtan comes ambling down your street!

Better view of the big picture

A quick web search when I got back to the apartment answered my question (superficially at least) about what this all was:

Sunday April 8, 2007 Event: Baisakhi Time: 10am-3:30pm Location: Los Angeles Convention Center 1201 South Figueroa Street Los Angeles, CA 90015 Event Info: Baisakhi, also spelled Vaisakhi, is the festival which celebrates Sikh New Year and the founding of the Sikh community, known as the Khalsa. Come for prayer, langar, Baisakhi bazaar, Kirtan Darbar (musical program) and Nagar Kirtan (Parade)

I don’t know if that always coincides with Easter, or if it’s just a fluke, but it was a pleasant surprise this afternoon.

The blog is about the future, and in what ways it is an extension of the past, and what ways it breaks with it… this encounter today seems like another sign of that to me – the world has been and will continue to be more and more like this. I doubt it will ever be so homogeneous that everything appears everywhere (at least not until the heat death of the universe), and I don’t mean to rehearse trite platitudes about the global village or anything, but frankly I really enjoy living in a country where an atheist can cross a street on an Easter Sunday on his way home from a Japanese convenience store and accidentally run into Sikhs performing a Gatka exhibition in a parade:

Gatka, I think.

That feels like the right kind of tomorrow to me. Thanks, Valley Sikh Temple! And Thanks, America, for still being a kind of map of what the whole world will be provided we all don’t start nuking/gassing/infecting each other. Happy Baisakhi, Happy Easter, and Happy Tomorrow to everyone.

Valley Sikh Temple

Another of the more actually revolutionary wealth creation ideas in Charles Stross’ Accelerando is the early career of the character Manfred Macx:

Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with wacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty,after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything.

Charles StrossAccelerando

The idea here I think is that by doing the most possible to increase the wealth of your environment, you yourself are lifted up with the general increase. In a way, you can’t get poorer than the world around you.

Of course, this wouldn’t necessarily work in the very specific sense as it appears in this novel without a great deal of other technologies and circumstances. Manfred is able to copyright ideas on the fly in pretty much real time, and has a crazy network of associates he can funnel them through, and lives in a world where corporate entities can be created that are only various layers of software programs managing accounting, licensing and distribution tasks for intellectual properties that they “own”, with no actual human in the loop… even granted all these things, Manfred’s strategy depends heavily on both his unique (on the verge of supernatural) ability to coin profitable notions, and upon the reciprocal kindness of the targets of his charity.

However, I think there really is something in this idea. If the ambient wealth of a system is high enough, there develops a floor below which it is very hard to descend. To a large degree poverty in the United States is wealth almost anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to put a price on things like general lawfulness, peace, toleration and spontaneous creativity.

I had a friend from Kenya who once told me that it was kind of amazing to her that she could drive, a single woman alone, the entire distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco without having to worry in the slightest about bandits blocking the road.

It sounds almost absurd to an American ear, I think. Highway bandits? Really? Yes, really, in more of the world than you might think. But here, it’s not a problem at all. You are pretty much assured peaceful transit between any to points within the whole continental US. That’s a kind of ambient wealth. It directly improves the quality of everyone’s life.

To shift this notion into the ecological sphere, think of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

You might rephrase that economically by saying “A thing is profitable when it tends to enhance the wealth of the whole economic community. It is unprofitable when it tends otherwise.”

It’s kind of an expansion of the frame in which profit is understood. You have to try to factor in an economic action’s effect on the whole econosphere, not just the local measure. I don’t mean this in a levelling sense. I don’t think this means wealth must be artificially re-distributed. I think it’s provably true that a system that allows certain large concentrations of wealth is healthier, and raises the common wealth higher, than one in which some notion of equitable distribution grinds the whole system into a dull poverty. But I do think you need more and more to look at, and attempt to calibrate the economic value of, a much wider frame of reference.

The common anti-Wal-Mart argument illustrates this idea. I don’t personally have an opinion if this argument is valid in this specific case, but it does seem likely in principal. A company, in an effort to maximize profits, undercuts all its competitors prices. To do this, it must underpay all its workers. People generally initially benefit from the lower cost of merchandise until the undercutting puts competitors out of business, and most of the local workforce has to accept lower wages, either from the victorious merchant or from competitors who have to roll back wages to stay in the game. Eventually, peoples’ incomes are choked to the point that the cheaper prices are no longer a luxury for them but a necessity, and they can afford even less of the reduced goods than they could at the start. This isn’t good, ultimately, even for the company, as it is smothering its own customer base.

So it seems, at least to me, that there really is something economically defensible in the idea of making others wealthier to make yourself wealthier. Kind of an economic golden rule.

A revolution in capitalism (and I must stress I am a HUGE FAN of capitalism) might be a kind of Comedy of the Commons, where the system, in accounting for wider econospherical effects, might tend to value higher those concerns that contribute most to the common wealth, lifting all boats.

Sure, it’s Utopian – but striving for the Utopian is how the quotidian is improved.

Previously I was criticizing the book Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler for having a lack of real revolutionary ideas about how new wealth might be created in the years to come. I’m not far enough through their book to make a serious critique, but I’ve found some fairly interesting ideas around the subject in a couple of actual Science Fiction novels I’ve been reading. Here’s one of them.

In Accelerando, Charles Stross proposes a legal framework for inter-corporate lawsuits that is essentially trial-by-combat, rather than adjudication.

The idea seems to be that a corporation being sued over something; for example copyright infringement, would then be obliged to pit its use of the copyright against the plaintiff coporation’s in a structured contest to determine who’s use of the copyright would most benefit the society that is ultimately the sponsor of the legal system. The corporation that demonstrates the greater general benefit wins.

The virtue of this framework is that it makes lawsuits more dangerous to enter into by the plaintif corporations (they might lose, and so lose their rights in the thing in question), and it places merit on utility, demanding action on ideas, not allowing a corporation to claim ownership of an idea or thing and just sit on it to prevent others from using it in competition. It keeps more ideas in competition, and actually encourages beneficial development as a direct result of the trial. The contest stops being “who claimed it first” and instead becomes “who uses it better”. It’s also important to note that the “better” is in relation to the society sponsoring the legal system, not necessarily just the profit of the company; though in a sane system the two will be as closely aligned as possible.

A downside is that it echoes the justification behind the concept of manifest Destiny; that someone who can turn a better profit with something has a greater right to it than its original owner. This is certainly a danger. The important distinction I think would be to make sure this legal framework only applies to corporate entities, and not to individual people. Although the legal fiction is very useful, corporations aren’t people. They exist to serve the needs of people. Maybe there is room now for a re-imagining of the useful fiction. Individual people are adjudicated on merit. Corporations must prove utility.

Maybe ther could even be a sort of Scottish Verdict version of the corporate trial-by-combat, in which the victor is not awareded exclusive right to the innovation, but rather is just granted permission to continue, while leaving the plaintiff in posession of their main rights. There could probably be a number of shades to such verdicts, according to the fitness that each contestant displayed in the fight.

Half-baked, sure, but an idea.