Monday, July 30, 2007

Back-Door Uploading: The Free Alternative to Cryonics

These two sites, CyberRev and LifeNaut, are earily similar to an SF story I was working on, involving an upload constructed from a bog-standard human simulation architecture overlaid with all the recorded experiences of the original (of course, the upload is separated from the original, and the original - charged with species treason for playing video games and thus helping to train AIs up to the Turing level - has his brain very precisely wiped of the personality traits and memories that made him a rebellious youth in the first place ... thus making the upload choose between life in virtual heaven and a perilous journey in the world of atoms to reunite his original with his original memories.)

The basic idea at the two sites is to harness expected future computing power to do a kind of poor man's back door mind uploading. This amounts to throwing as much personal data as possible into a secure place (I'd hope impregnable would better describe the facilities, given the privacy implications of this.) Pictures, video, diary entries, personality tests, favorites lists, purchase histories (okay, I made that one up, but you have to admit that would probably be a useful check on other data): any data that is in any way specific to you, gather it in one place and then keep on feeding it.

Imagine if this kind of thing really took off: people wearing portable always-on cams and recording and instantly backing up everything they see and hear. If this uber-archiving became widespread it would create enough information to utterly confound present day historians; they'd rejoice at the abundance and curse their inability to make good use of it.

But really, what would be the point of recording so much? You're sure as hell not going to sit there and re-watch any but the slightest fraction of it; you don't particularly want anyone getting their hands on it, not without your permission anyway, because they'd use it to self stuff to you or incriminate you or in some other way use to do something to or against you. Whatever isn't dangerous or interesting (and that'll be most of it) is just useless. Dead data, archived away forever to no good purpose.

The bet is that future historians will be not be drawn from a population of standard humans, but AI orders of magnitude more intelligent, beings for which humans are as easy to understand as bacilli are to us. They'll take a basic (by which I mean exhaustive and cross-disciplinary) knowledge of what makes humans tic, likely a standardized model of some kind, and then use the archives to do some mixture of setting various universal but variable parameters and training the model up (in some sense it would be as though it lived your life through from the beginning all over again, at least from when you started recording.) Whatever comes out on the other side won't be you, exactly ... but if done well enough, you yourself might by hard-pressed to tell the difference (that is, if you put enough data in: two pictures of your family and a video of you joking around with your buddies at the bar is not likely to produce a faithful rendition.)

This idea is loopier than cryonics, in the sense of being so diagonal to the various views of the world people hold that it simply baffles them, so I don't see it ever really catching on. The same logic applies as in cryonics: by the time people might start to catch on to the feasibility of the idea (freezing yourself in case of death to be revived in case of more advanced technology), the technology will be so advanced that it will simply be able to prevent death from anything, rendering the practice moot. I very much doubt that cam-wearing people recording every mundane thing they see and do will ever become a common sight, at least for reasons of psychic longevity; by the time enough people really clue into the idea, direct uploading - simply doing a brain scan and using that to set a model running - will be both doable and likely relatively common.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Military Coups in America: Revolution or Regime Change

Most people assume it couldn't happen in the States: troops in the streets, martial law, political executions on a massive scale. It's a subject that has been treated in the past. This essay, Origins of the American Military Coups of 2012 by Lieutenant Colonel Dunlap at the Army War College, is particularly worth reading. Still, it seems unlikely at first. The American military has been under the perfect control of the civilian government ever since the founding of the country. It's composed of patriotic American citizens sworn to defend their country, men drawn from every walk of life and every part of the nation, who would never take up arms en mass against the population. Coups d'etats are a problem faced by other countries, basket-cases with corrupt governments and restive populations split by a mix of mutually repulsive, vehement ideologies or simple ethnic division.

Actually, put that way it doesn't seem so foreign, does it...?

A coups in the US is a probably a certainty in the near-to-mid term. Probability theory alone suggests that, at least once in US history, there will be a military coups. After all, no state ever lasts forever, and military intervention is the most common type of sharply discontinuous political event that leads to the death of one state and the birth of another (climate change, historically, is a distant second.) Military intervention can either be external - successful invasion by another country - or internal, ie, a military coups. When you're talking about the towering giants of history, military revolts generally precede outside conquest.

Now, you could apply Copernican probability theory - the assumption that there is nothing inherently special about the place or time from which we observe - to the question of how long the current constitutional order will survive. It's been around since 1787, so there's a 5 percent chance that the union is in it's final 11 years of existence, and a 5 percent chance that it will last for another for and a half millenia. And, of course, a 90% chance that it's remaining span is somewhere in between the two.

Copernican theory is a clumsy tool, however, for use only when no other data points exist. Data about the US abounds.

If you're talking about a coups, politics is one of the areas that deserves close attention. Part of the agreement the military, in effect, has with the political class is that they trust the politicians to make the call when it comes to going, or not going, to war. This requires that the military believes the political class to have the best interests of the country at heart and, beyond that, to know the best way of realizing that interest. The contract has held for almost two and a half centuries, and has largely worked out for the best. But there's nothing to say it couldn't sour in the future (and in fact, there's plenty of evidence it's souring right now.) If the common perception amongst the population that politicians were nothing more than venal, corrupt criminals were to spread to the troops as well, the military might well decide at some point that enough is enough, and simply remove the government from office.

Here's one scenario: Washington in general, and Congress specifically, finally puts an end to the Iraq war. The US military is withdrawn as fast as it can, and the country collapses into bloodshed along sectarian, political, and ethnic lines. The consequences of that little collapse lead to a larger one; a discredited US finds itself increasingly pressed everywhere around the world. The economic fallout of that loss of credibility is grim: possibly a sharp drop in the value of the dollar, maybe even just a long-term period of slow growth while the rest of the world rockets ahead (one or two percent in the US, but a decade of twenty percent in China, India, and Brazil....) Precisely what the consequences would be is hard to tell, but one lesson of history is that no war has ever been lost without some sizable fraction of wealth being taken afterwards from the loser.

Meanwhile, the military seethes. They know they could have won the war, but were betrayed from the top, sold out for cheap and ephemeral political gain. It becomes a bitter narrative, endlessly muttered by by soldiers, by former soldiers, and by their supporters. Their numbers grow; as the economy struggles, more people are willing to believe the tale of betrayal and treason at the top, especially with corruption and scandal becoming more apparent by the day. Finally things boil over. Congress is dissolved (ie imprisoned or executed), the president is replaced with a five-star general, and the American people wake up the next day to find themselves living in a military dictatorship.

This is perhaps the uglier scenario, driven as it would be by vengeful bitterness. It could be made uglier still: the successful nuking of an American city, for instance, would in this scenario turn Americans against their government with even greater malice. Media and academia, too, insofar as they're seen as supporters of that government, would come in for rough treatment. This is the kind of scenario where the streets might run red with blood, where hundreds of thousands might 'disappear' in detention centers and secret executions.

The second scenario is not necessarily so grim. The premise is the opposite to that of the first: America doesn't lose Iraq. In fact it succeeds, and proceeds to perform regime change on a regular basis, once or twice per decade taking out an odious government and inviting in a massive global network of NGOs and corporations to rebuild the country afterwards, establishing the conditions for a democracy and then protecting whatever starts to grow. This is essentially Thomas Barnett's view, and it is a strategy that bears thinking about. Executed correctly, it would benefit the entire world, from the country being invaded (which in exchange for some short-term instability is presented with both freedom from repression and economic opportunity), to the global community (who would gain in both a newly opened economy, and a reduced security threat from a basket-case regime.)

The danger comes in the downstream risk to America's own political order. Once again, were the general perception that the civilian government is deeply corrupt, counter-productive or even injurious to the country's interests to deepen, what would there be to stop the military from executing regime change at home? Indeed nothing would be easier. There wouldn't even be a military to oppose them.

Rome's transition from republic to empire bears comparison. For centuries, Rome made a habit of sending its army out, conquering foreign lands, and establishing Roman governance. Practice made them good at it, until Caeser was able to roll up the whole of Gaul within just a decade ... after which he made the logical connection that if a city could be conquered and her lands taken away, well, Rome was just another city and the same principle applied.

Caeser, of course, sought personal gain, though he justified his actions by pointing to the corruption of the Senate, claiming that it acted not on the side of the people but for the wealthy minority. His stated intentions were not to win a throne but to restore the old republic; almost certainly, these statements were mere public relations. But would a modern general be so cynical? One can well imagine some Caeser ordering the dissolution of Congress, all the while stressing that his motivation was merely to clean the slate and go back to a better day ... and actually meaning it. As an example, the gerrymandering of congressional districts is widely seen as a gross perversion of the democratic system; the coups leader could declare that elections based on such a system fail the test of free and fair elections, and all leaders so elected thus utterly illegitimate. First he would occupy Washington, banishing Congress from the city. Next, he would plead for cooperation and patience from the American people; the military government would last only so long as it would take new elections to be held, and that - given the American peoples' boundless experience in conducting elections - would likely be a very short time, almost certainly less than a year. In fact, there's no reason not to let all or most of the sitting congress run for their seats; competing in a fair arena (ie, congressional districts modeled more like third-grade shapes and less like regions of the Mandelbrot set) most of those congressmen would likely lose anyways, and if they were allowed to run it would do a lot to increase the perception of fairness.

Of course, there's no reason the people would have to passively allow their government to be dismantled, but it's worth keeping in mind that general confidence in presidential and congressional competence (19% and 14% respectively) are dwarfed by confidence in the military (64%.) The scenario presented above requires only that this massive divide continue long enough for some old warrior to decide to use that political capital to affect change back home.

There's also no overwhelming reason that the coups leader would have to be true to his word. He could, like Caeser, use reform as merely a pretext to the seizure of power. Even if he didn't, the possibility of another military coups would be eternally at the back of everyone's mind. Nevertheless, this second scenario is quite a bit more user-friendly than than the first; America, rather than becoming a nightmare of repressive government, would in all likelihood remain a livable country, as the transition from old republic to new republic, or republic to whatever comes next, would be managed in a much less destructive fashion. If a military coups is indeed in the long run inevitable, I for one would prefer it to follow the second rather than the first scenario.

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Monday, July 9, 2007

The Future Evolutions of Google Earth

Having been bored and with nothing better to do, I settled in for the evening and poked around the planet a bit with Google Earth. I checked out Baqubah, then flew over to Machu Pichu, where I turned on terrain and followed the trail up to the ruins. Then off to Vancouver, a tiny nest of concrete and steel packed into the rocky mountains; from there, I followed the border to Toronto. After that, back to Tokyo, where I explored the urban warrens of Shinjuku and Shibuya. That's more or less a tour of where I'm thinking about living, where I used to live, and where I live now, respectively.

One thing pops out when you compare Japanese cities to Western cities. Turn on 3D buildings and you'll see what I mean. Tokyo and Osaka are exhaustively, thoroughly, obsessively mapped. Vancouver, Toronto, and London (the three Western cities I chose for comparison) are almost entirely not, the sole exceptions being for the most part skyscrapers. Those skyscrapers are largely rendered (not photographically, but some effort has been made to create cartoonish models of the buildings as they actually appear.) Japanese buildings, however, are almost entirely blank, giving only an indication of proportion.

I'm not sure what this means. I suspect it is possible that the Japanese government might have invested in having the blueprints of every building in the country fed into a database and then layered the information in google maps as a survey tool. Western governments have not, I suspected, bothered to trouble themselves with such activities; as a result, models will generally be made by citizens (who will tend to concentrate on the larger, flashier structures, for obvious reasons) or corporations wanting to show off their HQ to the world (ditto.)

It's easy to see a lot of ways that Google Earth, or successor software, might evolve to take advantage of greater information and greater processing power. If an automated way of interpolating photographic data onto unrendered 3D structures could be found - assisted by photos with timestamps and GPS coordinates - a simple trawl through the photosharing networks would gather enough data to render every building in every part of the world in very high detail, full-color and fully textured. Refined a little more, some feedback from the photos on the actual shapes of the buildings would allow models of even higher accuracy to be built. It would be natural from there that the interface be extended to easily enable a walking pace through a city, so that areas might be explored in more detail. The same photo-mapping algorithms would enable rooms to be easily added, a feature for which businesses and citizens could likely find a million uses. Natural features would be amenable to the same process: zoom in far enough on a forest, and eventually you're traveling underneath the canopy, marveling at the trees; find the mouth of a cave system, and you can go spelunking; take a dip off the beach and swim through a reef, or in the deep ocean and plumb the depths of a continental trench.

That's what you could do with good photo-mapping. Video-mapping is the next logical step. Cameras are proliferating everywhere. London is perhaps the most extreme, with it's Ring of Steel, built of concrete and surveillance cameras (no steel, somehow not so surprising in this metaphorical age we live in.) England as a whole has millions of them. Follow David Brin's advice, connect all those cameras to the internet in real time, and that network becomes less the scary tool of a postmodern police state but a true public resource (the police state isn't necessary anyway: citizenry will do all the security work, millions of eyes being so much better at catching criminals and terrorists than are thousands that it's pretty much a law of nature.) Now feed all that video - stationary, wearable, portable, remote or autonomous - into google earth, along of course with any other open web-connected cameras on the planet, and voila: the earth rendered in real time, complete with all moving parts including people. The world would, for humans at least, take on complete transparency.

Privacy enthusiasts are probably squirming at this point, but lets face it: privacy has basically been an illusion ever since Google. Though I imagine things will remain similar to the present in at least one respect. Whatever company provides the software would almost certainly provide property-owners the ability to shut their dwellings out of the system, if they so chose, thus keeping their domestic lives as private as they've ever been. In public, no such thing as privacy would exist. Anyone who wishes, anywhere in the world, at any time from now to the end of history, can see what you're doing. They could follow your entire public life if they so chose (though most people would likely just fastforward to the interesting bits.) If privacy is possible in such a world, it is only in the sense it is now: through obscurity.

Google Earth, at this point, has morphed into something less like the ultimate cartographic tool and more into a kind hyper-geographical earth: a linked, tagged, fully searchable skin of information that clings to reality like a shadow. It doesn't have to reflect reality precisely of course; in addition to privacy holes, people might throw up projected buildings as architectural proposals, or show cities as they were in the past (it would be interesting to rewind, say, Beijing or London for a few thousand years and watch them grow in fast-forward.) In addition to such straightforward fantasies, people might well populate the hyper-geography with avatars, interacting with other avatars or real people all over the world. I'd imagine that people would generally prefer to see whatever avatars are about; hiding one's avatar from real people is the kind of thing I could see becoming a gross breech of etiquette, or even being made a criminal offense. It's nice to be able to see how many people are about, and it would be a handy way to tell, for example, if someone is following you (indeed, privacy concerns might largely be allayed if people were able to see a list of exactly who was performing searches on them.) No one would have to turn on the avatar layer if they didn't feel like it, but if they did - especially in any area of particularly high interest (commercial, cultural, political, scientific, or military) - they'd witness a ghostly blur of people, teleporting in and out and around too fast for the eye to get a good fix on any but the few who aren't just popping in for a look-see, split-second sightseers on a lunch-break world tour.

I should note I started assuming the proliferation of contact-lens displays and other wearable devices about halfway through that last paragraph. They'd render this hypergeographical earth something that wasn't just there when you're sitting in front of your computer, but essentially a permanent feature of the human sensory experience. Not a bad culmination for a little program that currently maps out an uneven, high-ish resolution version of the planet.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Baby Universes and Space Exploration

A year or so ago I came across a story about Japanese scientists who were planning on making a baby universe (link to news report, link to original paper). And then I remembered this post at Accelerating Future, Space Travel: Not in a Billion Years, and it got me thinking.

Civilization is bound to get a hell of a lot smarter, a hell of a lot faster, over the next few decades. Some of that will come from better human-to-human networking, as the net figures out how to maximize the utility of its human components. A lot of the rest will come from faster, smaller, exponentially more powerful computers. Part of the corollary to that is that problems that look intractable now - in biology, neurology, economics, and in all probability physics - will be solved with ease in the near future. In all likelihood even more fiendishly difficult problems will present themselves, but what sort of technological spinoffs might lie waiting in the problems that have yet to be solved? Those in biology would make life a plastic thing with which we could do what we wished, at every level, engineering it as reliably as we've previously dealt with stone, metal and, well, plastic. The ones in neurology would allow human intelligence to be immeasurably improved, as well as replicated and then improved even more inside computers. But what of those problems that may be solved in physics?

Leonard Susskind's book The Cosmic Landscape shows how recent advances in string theory have indicated that there may be a multiverse in which every constituent universe obeys entirely different versions of the same underlying physics. The number of different possible universes is of course quite vast, but they would all lie on a multidimensional mathematical structure Susskind calls the cosmic landscape. Charting this landscape through brute computation would be an enormous undertaking, likely far more difficult than simply completing the human genome. It is not, however, inconceivable that such a map might be made with the kind of supercomputers likely to be in operation two or three decades from now.

A map alone is of no use, but if those early experiments suggested by Sakai et al. are fruitful, and it proves possible to create patches of space-time on different parts of that landscape, it may also prove possible to specify what part of that landscape they're created on. The paper, of course, envisions the baby universe splitting off entirely from ours so quickly that its existence would be undetectable. It would, just like ours, expand forever, just along different directions. But what if there were regions on the landscape where such a separation wouldn't happen? Where stable wormholes into adjacent universes might be found? There needn't be a lot of them. One in a trillion trillion would be a bounty vast beyond imagining.

That's a lot of maybes, of course. Any one of them could prove to be inaccurate. But if they're not, the possibilities are interesting. In fact, they sort of dwarf piddling little things like mastering the intricacies of life and the human brain. Civilization would become a master of space and time, able to create it according to its specifications, along with the matter necessary to populate that universe. What might remain scarce under such a scenario is a fascinating question to contemplate, but one corollary that might be drawn almost immediately is that space would cease to hold any interest whatsoever. This is so certain that it might serve as an ironclad explanation of the Fermi Paradox: any intelligent species reaching a technological singularity would be guaranteed to figure out the technology of universe creation, and with that, it would turn its back on the outside universe and focus on creating all the real estate it wanted.

Indeed, it's even possible that civilization as such might simply disappear into universes better suited to maintaining it, migrating entirely into those with much higher densities of matter and energy (at least as locally defined.) Perhaps, should they be the type to give a damn, they even restore their home-worlds to their pristine state before tunneling through into superior realities, leaving not a trace of their existence behind.

The lost civilizations that are muttered about in new age theories and SF novels might even have gone that way ... but that would be pushing speculation too far.

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Monday, July 2, 2007

SF Plot Devices: A List

Well, here's just about all the separate SF plot devices I could think of, at least in a short period.

Step 2: find out if google knows more than I do.

Update: I found this list, which breaks things up into larger categories than I really cared to. The other list is more of a comedic exercise, a list of pitfalls to be avoided. I was more going for things that show up in almost every SF work I've ever read or seen. But there were a few things I missed....

Time Travel
- wormholes (it's always wormholes, if it's explained at all)
- or not. i forgot hibernation. that's only one-way though.
- wormholes
- relativistic time dilation (not really faster than light, but at least you arrive in months instead of millenia)
- hyperspace
- from microbes to gods and everything in between
- ah, yes, and UFOs.
AI and Robots
- like aliens, only we make them, or become them, or both
Biological Mastery
- life extension (or immortality, if the author's brave enough)
- new species, new ecosystems
- evolutionary divergence of the human species
Space Colonization
- from solar to galactic
Human Extinction
- .... and the posthuman world
Parallel Universes
- other dimensions, other beings
- quantum many-worlds, with many histories
- cosmic landscapes, with different physics

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Human Extinction

In the Scientific American (and via Belmont Club) a review of Weisman's book The World Without Us:

I’m not suggesting that we have to worry about human beings suddenly disappearing tomorrow, some alien death ray taking us all away. On the contrary, what I’m finding is that this way of looking at our planet—by theoretically just removing us—turns out to be so fascinating that it kind of disarms people’s fears or the terrible wave of depression that can engulf us when we read about the environmental problems that we have created and the possible disasters we may be facing in the future. Because frankly, whenever we read about those things, our concern is: Oh, my God, are we going to die? Is this going to be the end? My book eliminates that concern right at the beginning by saying the end has already taken place. For whatever reason, human beings are gone, and now we get to sit back and see what happens in our absence. It’s a delicious little way of reducing all the fear and anxiety. And looking at what would happen in our absence is another way of looking at, well, what goes on in our presence. ...

Weisman's a bit late to this party. The science fiction writer Stephen Baxter beat him to the punch five years ago or so, when Evolution was published(Bill informs me in the comments that the first mention was actually
in 'The Earth Abides', G. Stewart, 1941.) It wasn't traditional science fiction, exactly: throughout most of the book, the main characters are speechless animals, representatives of various precursor and (in the last third or so) successor species.

The book essentially gives a vivid picture of how we evolved to our present state, postulates that we then succumb to a vicious mixture of climate change, natural disaster, and of course war, and then imagines how the world might go on without us (basically, intelligence never re-evolves, though the hominid line persists to the death of all life, five hundred million years later, when the earth is hot, dry, flat, and geologically still.) I found the first two thirds immensely interesting, but the final third hard to bear.

Science fiction often invokes plot elements that are highly unlikely, if not impossible, and I'd suggest Baxter's postulation that we go extinct to be a novel and very clever innovation. I can easily see a whole genre of fiction - posthuman extinction SF or some such - spawning around that one book, for I have to say I was deeply impressed with it overall. But although it's certainly be interesting to think about, but that the species could really disappear, gradually or precipitously, strikes me as unlikely. I know that puts me in quite the minority, these days, but it's never troubled me to be in sharp disagreement with the rest of my species.

What's really the issue here is less the extinction of man, however, than it is the extinction of civilization. And in a very short time - with developments in the usual litany of genetic engineering, robotics, AI - civilization will become independent of man; man may fall, but civilization? It's here to stay, and it's going to eat the stars.

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