Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Rant: On Intelligence, Emergent Phenomena, and Alpha


-          Social contracts can be viewed as a balance between the individual and the collective

-          This balance is reevaluated as technology allows for changes in the number, strength, and speed of connections between individuals

-          As technology has enabled the number and speed of connections to be greater than ever before, reaction time of social structures is faster and more significant than that of the individual

-          This has already put significant strain on our legal systems, which struggle to adapt

-          It is likely that concepts such as individual privacy and individual rights will be redefined as these structures exert their increasing influence on society

-          Interactions of these emergent entities are predictable; it is possible to distil signal from the sea of noise


1. The Arrogance of Individualism

Previously, I wrote:

"The difficulty folks seem to have in looking beyond the absurd assumption of the finality of individualism in constructing most -ism's - as opposed to seeing individualism as a product of the proto-industrial forces that shaped the 12th century - is something I consider amazing."

The following is an attempt to clarify my position.


2. Fish searching for the name of water

2.1 A romp through history

At the dawn of humanity, tribes, bound by a shared creation myth, found a balance between the individual and the collective. As individuals competed within a tribe, so tribes competed, with tribes that balanced the interests of the tribe with those of the individual best emerging from the Darwinian struggle.[1]

The nature of this balance changed over time. Painting with an extremely broad brush, the nature of the balance between the individual and the collective changed with the coming of agriculture, where nests and ancestral homes became central to defend, culminating in the middle ages, reaching a critical juncture during the age of monarchy. As writing, then printing slowly permeated societies, the age of kings gave way to the age of enlightenment, ushering in a renewed social contract. The individual continued to gain prominence as labor-saving devices laid the seeds of the industrial revolution. With time, the corporation, a pale reflection of the individual, was conceived: a caricature of the individual that birthed it, it nursed the industrial revolution into maturity.

2.2. Dynamic -isms

With these changes came methods of organization, which I refer to as "isms". Modern isms are neatly tabulated by Ebenstein and Fogleman in _Todays Isms: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Libertarianism_. By their very nature, these labels sought to organize social structures that existed at that point in time. To illustrate, the concept of Libertarianism would have very little meaning in ancient Egypt; similarly, capitalism was viciously punished in medieval Europe, as discussed in Heilbroner's _The Worldly Philosophers_.

During most of this time, we considered our social structures sacrosanct, our conceptions of societal roles and structures complete. Each year, each decade, each generation, each age, we were recurrently surprised as they fell apart, and new norms, new societal contracts, new balances between the individual and the collective emerged.

Whether we smashed power looms in the name of General Ludd or applauded in corporate technological advances, whether we decried proclamations of God's death or embraced the proclamation of promised freedom, the new balance found quiescence for a few months, years, generations. Then, the seed germinated and blossomed into the sensibilities of the next brief period of quiescent development.

And so, two thousand centuries after the dawn of Homo sapiens, we find ourselves swimming in the zeitgeist of Pax Americana, amidst change that is (we are assured) faster than ever before in human history. [2] We are more connected than ever before, and alleviate every limitation we can using technology. Information about each of us is more available than ever before, and is harvested, poked, marketed to, and stored in giant underground datacenters.

Kurzweil's cries for singularity echo in our zeitgeist as quietly as Paul Reveres' whispered warnings[3]: "The regulars are coming," Kurzweil cries. They'll be here any minute now. Get ready.

Meanwhile, social change is sparked throughout the cradle of civilization, facilitated by an Arab spring that erupted in the same region where, millennia ago, Moses struck water from a rock, creating a spring that would reverberate over four thousand years.

We watch enraptured, not seeing the forest of the trees. What does it all mean? We struggle to connect the dots, certain that there is a pattern, some meaning. We strain, as goldfish in a bowl, struggling in an attempt to name water.

The problem, of course, is that "What does it all mean? is a patently terrible question.[42] Perhaps a better question is, "Where are we going? What's next?"


3. Emergent Phenomenon: On Layers of Complexity

3.1. On Sentience

To consider the question and attempt to name the zeitgeist we swim in daily, let us step back and consider what self-aware sentience we so flippantly label "human" entails.

Hofstadter's anthill

Consider the humble anthill. Assuming we knew how to "read" the pattern of ants, we would be able to see changes in activity when rain was expected; when the colony was low on food; when there was a rival colony nearby. This is analogous to being able to "listen to" the anthill--the examples here roughly translate to "It's going to rain," "I'm hungry," and "Stranger danger!"

Assuming we did have this skill, our communication with the anthill would still be quite limited. There's a good chance that we wouldn't have much to say to it, and that its ("her?") topics of conversations are very likely going to be quite boring.

But then, an anthill is quite a simple construct. How, then, do we go about deciding if something is complex enough to be an interesting conversationalist, meriting perhaps a dinner invitation?

3.2. Picking Interesting Dinner Companions

Information Integration Theory of Consciousness

One interesting approach is the one taken by Koch, Griffith, et al, that uses the concept of Kolmogorov Complexity to determine how complex a system is. On this basis, the Information Integration Theory of Consciousness (IITC, has been developed, which attempts to quantify how complex intelligence really is.

However, a definition that relies solely on complexity is quite lacking. For example, the average Rube Goldberg device is extremely complex, but one would hardly consider it an interesting dinner companion.

Future Histories

To this end, another dimension to the definition of intelligence is presented by Wissner-Gross and Freer. They focus on the number of "Future Histories" a system is able to account for, and discuss an extremely elegant mathematical treatment in Causal Entropic Forces ( The short paper is likely to be a landmark publication, in addition to being a strong contender for "Most Deceptively Humble Title of the Decade."

Each of these views holds a mirror to sentience, a perspective mapping a projection of the whole. Consider, then, that these characteristics can be applied quite easily to other, higher, levels of organization. What, then, stops these higher levels of organization from being considered sentient?

4. The Borg: you really think it will be this obvious?

Kurzweil has, for years now, predicted the singularity. "They're coming," he promises, "and we have no way of knowing what will happen when they get here."

Perhaps there is a singularity on the horizon, a major phase-shift that will redefine the human race in its entirety. However, I posit that "they're coming" is inaccurate.

They're here.

4.1 Dramatis Personae

At this point, I would like to introduce a colorful cast of characters. I invite you to picture them in your mind as you read their description, and try not to chuckle.

-          Twitter: The overly caffeinated Manic ADHD

-          LinkedIn: Three-piece empty suit waving list of bullet-point accomplishments.

-          Facebook: People you see every thanksgiving, the ones that remind you that we don't pick our relatives.

-          Reddit: Mid-twenties hipster, well-read, informed, armchair intellectual

-          Quora: Introverted nerd

-          Anonymous: Discordia, Dionysian reverberation of Guy Fawkes and Gavrilo Princip

-          Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative: Agent Smith

-          Usenet (circa 1992): A herd of performing elephants with diarrhea--massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it

4.2. O RLY?

Of course, the same criteria can be applied to much older structures. What of the church? What of the state? Or the humble anthill, aforementioned? Aren't they the same thing?

Nope. Considering the criteria, glaring differences lie in degrees of effectiveness and reaction times.

Anonymous can devastate armies more comprehensively than Guy Fawkes or Gavrilo Princip could imagine; Government datacenters are more informed, aware, and capable than any warmachine Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Alexander the Great, or Papal Rome could ever envision.

More importantly, for the first time in history, our institutions can react at the speed of thought. Anonymous can act as fast as any human; twitter responds minutes, if not hours, faster than traditional news source; Facebook ruins reputations faster than an inebriated weekend in Las Vegas.

Finally, institutions are created, live, evolve, and die, faster than ever before. They spontaneously coalesce, act, and, robbed of energy, dissipate, as dust-devils. While the UseNet reference in the list above no doubt brings a wry smile to the few readers who have braved my clumsy prose this far, how strange would it have been to see MySpace in that list?

4.3. YA RLY

The impact of these personalities being born, living, interacting, and, eventually, dying, in our zeitgeist is slowly asserting itself. Our legal system, so focused on the individual, or on explicitly declared organizations such as corporations, creaks and groans, struggling--and, frankly, failing--to adapt. Our notions of individual privacy, and, increasingly, individual rights, seem increasingly quaint, bordering on ironic, and fade to irrelevance.

We search for a new quiescent point, looking for that next stable point to reorient our sensibilities amid familiar structures. But who knows what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


5. Stay Thirsty, My Friends

Contrary to the popular understanding, emergent structures at this level are far from unpredictable. Mandelbrot was the tip of the spear, leaving us a legacy that reads as a survey of an idea whose time has come. Stogatz, Kuramoto, Crawford how us how to analyze pieces of a much larger system, adding to our toolbox. Sornette tames the chaotic wilds to some degree, offering some refuge in a framework to build digital oracles that espouse pythy predictions.

Taleb teaches us to ensure that any action we take based on our predictions is built on an antifragile foundation. Thales of Miletus tells us that we must act.

As the Jotun, Aesir, and Vanir of our age scheme, plot, live, love, and die in our ether, we can listen in. There is an abundance of signal in the apparent noise, and I am going to find it. There's alpha here. Stay thirsty, my friends.



[1] Wilson covers this best in _The Social Conquest of Earth_. I have copied a snippet below.


Since Paleolithic times each tribe--of which there have been countless thousand--invented its own creation myth. During this long dreamtime of our ancestors, supernatural beings spoke to shamans and prophets. They identified themselves to the mortals variously as God, a tribe of Gods, a divine family, the Great Spirit, the Sun, ghosts of forebears, supreme serpents, hybrids of sundry animals, chimeras of men and beasts, omnipotent sky spiders--anything, everything that could be conjured by dreams, hallucinogens, and fertile imaginations of the spiritual leaders. They were shaped in part by the environments of those who invented them. In Polynesia, gods pried the sky apart from the ground and sea, and the creation of life and humanity followed. In the desert-dwelling patriarchies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, prophets conceived, not surprisingly, a divine, all-powerful patriarch who speaks to his people through sacred scripture.

The creation stories gave the members of each tribe an explanation for their existence. It made them feel loved and protected above all other tribes. In return, gods demanded absolute belief and obedience. And rightly so. The creation myth was the essential bond that held the tribe together. It provided believers with a unique identity, commanded their fidelity, strengthened order, vouchsafed law, encouraged valor and sacrifice, and offered meaning to the cycles of life and death. No tribe could long survive without the meaning of its existence defined by a creation story. The option was to weaken, dissolve, and die. In the early history of each tribe, the myth therefore had to be set in stone.

The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival.


[2] I remain unconvinced that we are changing faster than ever, but have tabled investigation in that area for now.


[3] - Paul Revere really did whisper the warnings, as secrecy was paramount to his mission.