A Box of a Trillion Souls

pandora's box

“The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.”                                                                          

Jaron Lanier


Stephen Wolfram may, or may not, have a justifiable reputation for intellectual egotism, but I like him anyway. I am pretty sure this is because, whenever I listen to the man speak I most often  walk away no so much with answers as a whole new way to frame questions I had never seen before, but sometimes I’m just left mesmerized, or perhaps bewildered, by an image he’s managed to draw.

A while back during a talk/demo of at the SXSW festival he managed to do this when he brought up the idea of “a box of a trillion souls”. He didn’t elaborate much, but left it there, after which I chewed on the metaphor for a few days and then returned to real life, which can be mesmerizing and bewildering enough.

A couple days ago I finally came across an explanation of the idea in a speech by Wolfram over at John Brockman’s Edge.org  There, Wolfram also opined on the near future of computation and the place of  humanity in the universe. I’ll cover those thoughts first before I get to his box full of souls.

One of the things I like about Wolfram is that, uncommonly for a technologist, he tends to approach explanations historically. In his speech he lays out a sort of history of information that begins with information being conveyed genetically with the emergence of life, moves to the interplay between individual and environment with the development of more complex life, and flowers in spoken language with the appearance of humans.

Spoken language eventually gave rise to the written word, though it took almost all of human history for writing to become nearly as common as speaking. For most of that time reading and writing were monopolized by elites. A good deal of mathematics, as well has moved from being utilized by an intellectual minority to being part of the furniture of the everyday world, though more advanced maths continues to be understandable by specialists alone.

The next stage in Wolfram’s history of information, the one we are living in, is the age of code. What distinguishes code from language is that it is “immediately executable” by which I understand him to mean that code is not just some set of instructions but, when run, the thing those instruction describe itself.

Much like reading, writing and basic mathematics before the invention of printing and universal education, code is today largely understood by specialists only. Yet rather than endure for millennia, as was the case with the monopoly of writing by the clerisy, Wolfram sees the age of non-universal code to be ending almost as soon as it began.

Wolfram believes that specialized computer languages will soon give way to “natural language programming”.  A fully developed form of natural language programming would be readable by both computers and human beings- numbers of people far beyond those who know how to code, so that code would be written in typical human languages like English or Chinese. He is not just making idle predictions, but has created a free program that allows you to play around with his own version of a NLP.

Wolfram makes some predictions as to what a world where natural language programming became ubiquitous- where just as many people could code as could now write- might look like. The gap between law and code would largely disappear. The vast majority of people, including school children, would have at the ability to program computers to do interesting things, including perform original research. As computers become embedded in objects the environment itself will be open to the programming of everyone.

All this would seem very good for us humans and would be even better given that Wolfram sees it as the prelude to the end of scarcity, including the scarcity of time that we now call death. But then comes the AI. Artificial intelligence will be both the necessary tool to explore the possibility space of the computational universe and the primary intelligence via which we interact with the entirety of the realm of human thought.  Yet at some threshold AI might leave us with nothing to do as it will have become the best and most efficient way to meet our goals.

What makes Wolfram nervous isn’t human extinction at the hands of super-intelligence so much as what becomes of us after scarcity and death have been eliminated and AI can achieve any goal- artistic ones included- better than us. This is Wolfram’s  vision of the not too far off future, which given the competition with even current reality, isn’t near sufficiently weird enough. It’s only when he starts speculating on where this whole thing is ultimately headed that anything so strange as Boltzmann brains make their appearance, yet something like them does and no one should be surprised given his ideas about the nature of computation.

One of Wolfram’s most intriguing, and controversial, ideas is something he calls computational equivalence. With this idea he claims not only that computation is ubiquitous across nature, but that the line between intelligence and merely complicated behavior that grows out of ubiquitous natural computation is exceedingly difficult to draw.

For Wolfram the colloquialism that “the weather has a mind of its own” isn’t just a way of complaining that the rain has ruined your picnic, but, in an almost panpsychic or pantheistic way, captures a deeper truth that natural phenomenon are the enactment of a sort of algorithm, which, he would claim, is why we can successfully model their behavior with other algorithms we call computer “simulations.” The word simulations needs quotes because, if I understand him, Wolfram is claiming that there would be no difference between a computer simulation of something at a certain level of description and the real thing.

It’s this view of computation that leads Wolfram to his far future and his box of a trillion souls. For if there is no difference between a perfect simulation and reality, if there is nothing that will prevent us from creating perfect simulations, at some point in the future however far off, then it makes perfect sense to think that some digitized version of you, which as far as you are concerned will be you, could end up in a “box”, along with billions or trillions of similar digitized persons, with perhaps millions or more copies of  you.   

I’ve tried to figure out where exactly this conclusion for an idea I otherwise find attractive, that is computational equivalence, goes wrong other just in terms of my intuition or common sense. I think the problem might come down to the fact that while many complex phenomenon in nature may have computer like features, they are not universal Turing machines i.e. general purpose computers, but machines whose information processing is very limited and specific to that established by its makeup.

Natural systems, including animals like ourselves, are more like the Tic-Tac-Toe machine built by the young Danny Hillis and described in his excellent primer on computers, that is still insightful decades after its publication- The Pattern on the Stone. Of course, animals such as ourselves can show vastly more types of behavior and exhibit a form of freedom of a totally different order than a game tree built out of circuit boards and lightbulbs, but, much like such a specialized machine, the way in which we think isn’t a form of generalized computation, but shows a definitive shape based on our evolutionary, cultural and personal history. In a way, Wolfram’s overgeneralization of computational equivalence negates what I find to be his as or more important idea of the central importance of particular pasts in defining who we are as a species, people and individuals.

Oddly enough, Wolfram falls into the exact same trap that the science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem fell into after he had hit upon an equally intriguing, though in some ways quite opposite understanding of computation and information.

Lem believed that the whole system of computation and mathematics human beings use to describe the world was a kind of historical artifact for which there much be much better alternatives buried in the way systems that had evolved over time processed information. A key scientific task he thought would be to uncover this natural computation and find ways to use it in the way we now use math and computation.

Where this leads him is to precisely the same conclusion as Wolfram, the possibility of building a actual world in the form of simulation. He imagines the future designers of just such simulated worlds:

“Imagine that our Designer now wants to turn his world into a habitat for intelligent beings. What would present the greatest difficulty here? Preventing them from dying right away? No, this condition is taken for granted. His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality”. One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything” would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything” considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out- out of pure curiosity- if nothing else.

…We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess.” ( 291 -292)

Yet it seems to me that moving from the idea that things in the world: a storm, the structure of a sea-shell, the way particular types of problems are solved are algorithmic to the conclusion that the entirety of the world could be hung together in one universal  algorithm is a massive overgeneralization. Perhaps there is some sense that the universe might be said to be weakly analogous, not to one program, but to a computer language (the laws of physics) upon which an infinite ensemble of other programs can be instantiated, but which is structured so as to make some programs more likely to be run while deeming others impossible. Nevertheless, which programs actually get executed is subject to some degree of contingency- all that happens in the universe is not determined from initial conditions. Our choices actually count.

Still, such a view continues to treat the question of corporal structure as irrelevant, whereas structure itself may be primary.

The idea of the world as code, or DNA as a sort of code is incredibly attractive because it implies a kind of plasticity which equals power. What gets lost however, is something of the artifact like nature of everything that is, the physical stuff that surrounds us, life, our cultural environment. All that is exists as the product of a unique history where every moment counts, and this history, as it were, is the anchor that determines what is real. Asserting the world is or could be fully represented as a simulation either implies that such a simulation possesses the kinds of compression and abstraction, along with the ahistorical plasticity that comes with mathematics and code or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, it’s difficult to say how anything like a person, let alone, trillions of persons, or a universe could actually, rather than merely symbolically, be contained in a box even a beautiful one.

For the truly real can perhaps most often be identified by its refusal to be abstracted away or compressed and by its stubborn resistance to our desire to give it whatever shape we please.



The Sofalarity is Near

Mucha Goddess Maia

Many readers here have no doubt spent at least some time thinking about the Singularity, whether in a spirit of hope or fear, or perhaps more reasonably some admixture of both. For my part, though, I am much less worried about a coming Singularity than I am about a Sofalarity in which our ability to create realistic illusions of achievement and adventure convinces the majority of humans that reality isn’t really worth all the trouble after all. Let me run through the evidence of an approaching Sofalarity. I hope you’re sitting down… well… actually I hope you’re not.

I would define a Sofalarity as a hypothetical  point in human history would when the majority of human beings spend most of their time engaged in activities that have little or no connection to actual life in the physical world. It’s not hard to see the outline of this today: on average, Americans already spend an enormous amount of time with their attention focused on worlds either wholly or partly imagined. The numbers aren’t very precise, and differ among age groups and sectors of the population, but they come out to be somewhere around five hours watching television per day, three hours online, and another three hours playing video games. That means, collectively at least, we spend almost half of our day in dream worlds, not counting the old fashioned kind such as those found in books or the ones we encounter when we’re actually sleeping.

There’s perhaps no better example of how the virtual is able to hijack our very real biology than pornography . Worldwide the amount of total internet traffic that is categorized as erotica ranges from a low of four to as high as thirty percent. When one combines that with recent figures claiming that up to 36 percent of internet traffic aren’t even human beings but bots, then it’s hard not to experience future shock.

Amidst all the complaining that the future hasn’t arrived yet and “where’s my jetpack?” a 21st century showed up where upwards of 66 percent of internet traffic could be people looking for pornography, bots pretending to be human, or, weirdest of all, bots pretending to be human looking for humans to have sex with. Take that Alvin Toffler.

Still all of this remains simply our version of painting on the walls of a prehistoric cave. Any true Sofalarity would likely require more than just television shows and Youtube clips. It would need to have gained the keys to our emotional motivation and senses.

As a species we’ve been trying to open the doors of perception with drugs long before almost anything else. What makes our current situation more likely to be leading toward a Sofalarity is that now this quest is a global business and that we’ve become increasingly sophisticated when it comes to playing tricks on our neurochemistry.

The problem any society has with individuals screwing with their neurochemistry is two-fold. The first is to make sure that enough sober people are available for the necessary work of keeping their society operating at a functional level, and the second is to prevent any ill effects from the mind altered from spilling over into the society at large.

The contemporary world has seemingly found a brilliant solution to this problem- to contain the mind altered in space and time, and making sure only the sober are running the show. The reason bars or dance clubs work is that only the customers are drunk or stoned and such places exist in a state of controlled chaos with the management carefully orchestrating the whole affair and making sure things remain lively enough that customers will return while ensuring that things also don’t get so dangerous patrons will stay away for the opposite reason.

The whole affair is contained in time because drunken binges last only through the weekend with individuals returning to their straight-laced bourgeois jobs on Monday, propped up, perhaps by a bit of stimulants to promote productivity.

Sometimes this controlled chaos is meant to last for longer stretches than the weekends, yet here again, it is contained in space and time. If you want to see controlled chaos perfected with technology thrown into the mix you can’t get any better than Las Vegas where seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure and losing one’s wits abound all the while one is being constantly monitored both in the name of safety, and in order that one not develop any existential doubts about the meaning of life under all that neon.   

If you ever find yourself in Vegas losing your dopamine fix after one too many blows from lady luck behind a one-armed bandit, and suddenly find some friendly casino staff next to you offering you free drinks or tickets to a local show, bless not the goddess of Fortune, but the surveillance cameras that have informed the house they are about to lose an unlucky, and therefore lucrative, customer. La Vegas is the surveillance capital of the United States, and it’s not just inside the casinos.

Ubiquitous monitoring seems to be the price of Las Vegas’ adoption of vice as a form of economy. Or as Megan McArdle put it in a recent article:

 Is the friendly police state the price of the freedom to drink and gamble with abandon?Whatever your position on vice industries, they are heavily associated with crime, even where they are legal. Drinking makes people both violent and vulnerable; gambling presents an almost irresistible temptation to cheating and theft.  Las Vegas has Disneyfied libertinism. But to do so, it employs armies of security guards and acres of surveillance cameras that are always and everywhere recording your every move.

Even the youngest of our young children now have a version of this: we call it Disney World. The home of Mickey Mouse has used current surveillance technology to its fullest, allowing it to give visitors to the “magic kingdom” both the experience of being free and one of reality seemingly bending itself in the shape of innocent fantasy and expectations. It’s a technology they work very hard to keep invisible. Disney’s magic band, which not only allows visitors to navigate seamlessly through its theme parks, but allows your dinner to be brought to you before you ordered it, or the guy or gal in the Mickey suit to greet your children by name before they have introduced themselves was described recently in a glowing article in Wired that quoted the company’s COO Tom Staggs this way:

 Staggs couches Disney’s goals for the MagicBand system in an old saw from Arthur C. Clarke. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he says. “That’s how we think of it. If we can get out of the way, our guests can create more memories.”

Nothing against the “magic of Disney” for children, but I do shudder a little thinking that so many parents don’t think twice about creating memories in a “world” that is not so much artificial as completely staged. And it’s not just for kids. They have actually built an entire industry around our ridiculousness here, especially in places in like China, where people pay to have their photos taken in front of fake pyramids or the Eiffel tower, or to vacation in places pretending to be someplace else.

Yet neither Las Vegas nor a Disney theme park resemble what a Sofalarity would look like in full flower. After all, the show girls at Bally’s or the poor soul under the mouse suit in Orlando are real people. What a true Sofalarity would entail is nobody being there at all, for the very people behind the pretend to no longer be there.

We’re probably some way off from a point where the majority of human labor is superfluous, but if things keep going at the rate they are, we’re not talking centuries. The rejoinder to claims that human labor will be replaced to the extent that most of us no longer have anything to do is often that we’ll become the creators and behind the scenes, the same way Apple’s American workers do the high end work of designing its products while the work of actually putting them together is done by numb fingers over in China. In the utopian version of our automated future we’ll all be designers on the equivalent of Infinite Loop Street while the robots provide the fingers.

Yet, over the long run, I am not sure this humans as mental creators/machines as physical producers distinction will hold. Our (quite dumb) computers already create visually stunning and unanticipated works or art, compose music that is indistinguishable from that created in human minds, and write things none of us realize are the product of clever programs. Who’s to say that decades hence, or over a longer stretch, they won’t be able to create richer fantasy worlds of every type that blow our minds and grip our attention far more than any crafted by our flesh and blood brethren?

And still, even should every human endeavor be taken over by machines, including our politics, we would still be short of a true Sofalarity because we would be left with the things that make us most human- the relationship we have with our loved ones. No, to see the Sofalarity in full force we’d need to have become little more than a pile of undulating mush like the creatures in the original conception of the movie Wall-E from which I ripped the term.

The only way we’d get to that point is if our created fantasies could reach deep under our skin and skulls and give us worlds and emotional experiences that atrophied to the point of irrecoverability what we now consider most essential to being a person. The signs are clear that we’re headed there. In Japan, for instance, there are perhaps 700,000 Hikikomori, modern day hermits that consist of adults who have withdrawn from 3 dimensional social relationships and live out their lives primarily online.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of very cool stuff either here or shortly coming down the pike, there’s Oculus Rift should it ever find developers and conquer the nausea problem, and there’s wonders such as Magic Leap, a virtual reality platform that allows you to see 3D images by beaming them directly into your eyes. Add to these things like David Eagleman’s crazy haptic vest, or brain readers that sit it your ear, not to mention things a little further off in terms of public debut that seem to have jumped right off the pages of Nexus, like brain-to-brain communication, or magnetic nanoparticles that allow brain stimulation without wires, and it’s plain to see we’re on the cusp of revolution in creating and experiencing purely imagined worlds, but all this makes it even more difficult to bust a poor hikikomori out of his 4’ x 4’ apartment.

It seems we might be on the verge of losing the distinction between the Enchantment of Fantasy and Magic that J.R.R Tolkien brought us in his brilliant lecture On Fairy Stories:

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

For Tolkien, the primary point of fantasy was to enrich our engagement with the real world to allow us to see the ordinary anew. Though it might also be a place to hide and escape should the real world, whether for the individual or society as a whole , become hellish, as Tolkien, having fought in the World War I, lived through the Great Depression, and was on the eve of a second world war when he gave his lecture well knew.

To those who believe we might already be living in a simulation perhaps all this is merely like having traveled around the world only to end up exactly where you started as in the Borges’ story The Circular Ruins, or in the idea of many of the world’s great religions that we are already living in a state of maya or illusion, though we now make the case using much more scientific language. There’s a very serious argument out there, such as that of Nick Bostrom, that we are already living in a simulation. The way one comes to this conclusion is merely by looking at the virtual world we’ve already created and extrapolating the trend outward for hundreds or thousands of years. In such a world the majority of sentient creatures would be “living” entities in virtual environments, and these end up comprising the overwhelming number of sentient creatures that will ever exist. Statistical reasoning would seem to lead to the conclusion that you are more likely than not, right now, a merely virtual entity. There are even, supposedly, possible scientific experiments to test for evidence of this. Thankfully, in my view at least, the Higgs particle might prevent me from being a Boltzmann brain.

For my part, I have trouble believing I am living in a simulation. Running “ancestor simulations” seems like something a being with human intelligence might do, but it would probably bore the hell out of any superintelligence capable of actually creating the things, they would not provide any essential information for their survival, and given the historical and present suffering of our world would have to be run by a very amoral, indeed immoral being.

That was part of the fear Descartes was tapping into when he proposed that the world, and himself in it, might be nothing more than the dream of an “evil demon”. Yet what he was really getting at, as same as was the case with other great skeptics of history such as Hume, wasn’t so much the plausibility of the Matrix, but the limits surrounding what we can ever be said to truly know.

Some might welcome the prospect of a coming Sofalarity for the same reasons they embrace the Singularity, and indeed, when it comes to many features such as exponential technological advancement or automation, the two are hardly distinguishable. Yet the biggest hope that sofaltarians and singularitarians would probably share is that technological trends point towards the possibility of uploading minds into computers.

Sadly, or thankfully, uploading is some ways off. The EU seems to have finally brought the complaints of neuroscientists that Henry Markum’s Human Brain Project, that aimed to simulate an entire human brain was scientifically premature enough to be laughable, were it not for the billion Euro’s invested in it that might have been spent on much more pressing areas like mental illness or Alzheimer’s research. The project has not been halted but a recent scathing official report is certainly a big blow.

Nick Bostrom has pondered that if we are not now living in a simulation then there is something that prevents civilizations such as our from reaching the technological maturity to create such simulations. As I see it, perhaps the movement towards a Sofalarity ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Just as I am convinced that hell, which exists in the circumscribed borders of torture chambers, death camps, or the human heart, can never be the basis for an entire society, let alone a world, it is quite possible that a heaven that we could only reach by escaping the world as it exists is like that as well, and that any society that would be built around the fantasy of permanent escape would not last long in its confrontation with reality. Fermi paradox, anyone?