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.

Although there is a significant amount of showmanship in the pre-programmed human interaction this robot displays, the actual Rubik’s Cube solving is legitimate. In this video the cube isn’t too badly mixed up by the little girl to begin with, but the robot can usually solve the cube no matter how mixed up it is in about 35 seconds, or about 20 moves total:

Rubik’s Cube solving machines actually look more astounding than they are. What you essentially need is some kind of sensor that can recognize the pattern of squares on each side of the cube (which this robot does when it holds the cube up to its eyes, which are actually scanners), then a piece of software, much like the chess playing software everyone is fairly familiar with, to determine what combination of moves are required to complete the task. Finally, you need some moderately precise manipulators that can turn the cube.

J. P. Brown, an archaeological conservator at the Field Museum in Chicago (not an engineer or inventor), has posted instructions for building just such a robot using nothing more complex than Lego Mindstorms! He even posts the full code to his color recognition program and the logic for the cube-solving solution he uses. His machine is slow compared to the one in the video above, but it works, and you can build it yourself. You should give it a try!

When non-specialists using off the shelf tools can build robotic manipulators which a mere 10 years ago would have been projects worthy of professional robotics labs, you’ve got to realize that real robot renaissance is on the rise.

(Sorry about that.)

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

In keeping with the run of dramatically different locomotive techniques being experimented with in robotics, here is an extended video segment from a Japanese television show featuring a robotic water eel (it’s in japanese, but if you watch it all the way through, it’s really visually informative on how the mechanism actually works, and there’s a bit comparing the motion of a snake across the ground with the way a person on rollerblades can get forward momentum by alternately spreading their legs and drawing them back together, which is something I’d never considered as similar before… it’s a cool insight):

This blog is starting to become the “Robot of the Week” column as I’ve been unable for reasons of available time to post at any length on other topics during the week. This should be changing soon, and though Robot of the Week will remain the Monday feature, I’ll be getting back to more work on ideas of wealth creation and science in general as well.

You might have heard about this one already, but it’s one of the more astonishing things to have happened in the past couple of years. Duke University Doctor Miguel Nicolelis has successfully wired up monkeys’ brains to a robotic arm which they have learned to control using thought alone:

Here is a New Scientist article on the subject.

Although not exactly a robot in the autonomous sense, this illustrates a kind of blending of the robotic into the biological that has been going on for some time now. There are, in fact, many cyborgs living among us today. Many, many people depend on their mechanical enhancements for continued life, mobility, the ability to communicate, or all of these things at once. Anyone who has:

a pacemaker,
an artificial heart
a portable dialysis machine
portable oxygen
an automated wheelchair
artificial limbs
a hearing aid
contact lenses or glasses
Speech Assistance machines

is already in some degree a cyborg.

You could make an argument for almost any sort of tool to enhance human performance as being a step down the road to cybernetics, but for the word to have any real meaning I think you have to draw the line somewhere. For me, I think that any time we take a machine into our bodies, or invest some degree of our consciousness into a machine, we are talking about the merger that produces cyborgs.

It’s interesting to think that, in as much as our conscious minds seem to ride along on our biological bodies without as much real control over them as we might think, that the ongoing push toward cybernetics isn’t so much an attempt to prolong the life of the body as it is consciousness attempting to devise a more acquiescent, durable host for itself. Consciousness, the selfish meme, attempting to transcend its withering native flesh through the agency of technological invention, an activity unique to consciousness itself.

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.