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Problems with Search Engines, Who's Your Daddy?

If you are living within a modern developed economy you are most likely the unwitting master of over 40 computer chips. Of these chips only one or two are the big expensive general purpose CPU's that sit at the center of PC's and laptops of the sort Intel or AMD or Motorola charge several hundred dollars, aggressively advertise, and which, improbably, get both more powerful and less expensive at the wild rate dictated by Moore's Law (respectively doubling and halving every 18 months).

The rest of your chips live less conspicuous lives of simple servitude. They are embedded within many of the products and appliances you already own and almost all of the products you will buy tomorrow or own in the future. Compared with CPU's, embedded chips are usually smaller, more specific, and limited in their abilities. Uncomplainingly, and in many cases, without the need for any human interaction at all, they go about their menial tasks in nauseating repetition… electrons, it turns out, are exceedingly cheap. Much to the chagrin of front yard hotrodders, embedded chips now control your car's gas/air mixture, and time the ignition sparks in each cylinder. One of the reasons modern cars are so much more powerful than earlier cars and manage better milage at the same time. There are special chips that keep your wheels from locking up when you break hard, that track the relative rotational speed of each tire and independently break each wheel to keep any one of them from slipping on ice and water, from digging into mud or snow at the side of the road, and still others that compile information from your speedometer, engine, and from accelerometers to individually regulate the responsiveness of your suspension at each of your car's four corners.

There are chips that inflate the air bags and keep you alive by sensing an impact and reacting to it in the few ten thousandths of a second between then and and when your head would have collided with the steering wheel or side window. There are several that do nothing but regulate the temperature and humidity and air flow within your car. Likewise, your home thermostat contains one that helps your furnace and air conditioner balance the opposing demands of energy efficiency and comfort. Back in your car there are chips in your GPS system, in your sound system, chips that track sensors all over your car and tell you when something mechanical is amiss or if you are scheduled for a tuneup. There are chips that control the display of your speedometer and other in-dash instruments. One keeps your cell phone attuned to the closest transmission tower. There is one in your wrist watch. If you are an avid athlete, you might ware a computer that keeps track of your heart rate and oxygen uptake. Your bike might have one that keeps track of your distance and speed and the amount of pressure you are applying to your pedals, tracking your motion through geography and altitude, even tracking your performance as it changes over months or years of training. Hell, your blender and stove and refrigerator have them. There are chips in your TV, in your DVR, in your CD and DVD player. On your bed side table your alarm clock and home phone have them, even each of the little black boxes that charge your wireless devices. Even some toilets are controlled by embedded chips. Most washing machines have them, more and more refrigerators come with them, some stoves, most microwave ovens, bread makers, coffee machines, home security systems, multi-room media systems, and lots of toys have them, robots, learning systems, trivia games, and then there are home weather stations, TV set top boxes for cable and satellite, hand held language translators, calculators, walky-talkies, baby monitors, pace makers, insulin pumps, fertility monitors, there are even little plastic flowers on plastic stems that you shove into the dirt in your yard which dutifully measure your soil's acidity, temperature, nitrogen content, moisture level, and the direction, hours, and intensity of sunlight, after 24 hours you pull the stem apart and plug the USB plug into your computer which goes to a site which takes your zip code and spits back a list of plants suited for that part of your garden's conditions.

The world of stuff is coming alive through computation. And it isn't just because smart stuff is better stuff. One of the main reasons chips are finding there way into so many things is because they have become so damn cheap to manufacture.

CPU manufactures compete by constantly building newer and more advanced fabrication plants (each costing billions of dollars) that spit out more and more powerful processors by incorporating new processes that can etch smaller and smaller transistors which means more and more transistors on the same sized chip. The etching is a projection process which means hundreds of chips can be etched at once which means once you have built the fabrication plant, it costs no more per chip to print out chips with two or four times as many parts. Meanwhile, older plants, having already been paid for through the sale of millions of what was state of the art just a few years ago, can be cheaply retooled to spit out lesser chips for at almost no cost at all.

Chips are becoming the inexpensive souls we install in our devices to bring them alive. Soon, as these devices gain communication capabilities, they will build out their own network of things. This thing-net will bring our environment alive with shared information. Where computers themselves are information object, the smart network of stuff will become information backdrop. You've heard the projection that your grocery cart will get biometric data via your smart toilet and will gently guide you to purchase organic broccoli or whole grain breads (partially subsidized by your health provider who can cut costs by helping it's patients stay healthy and out of the hospital). This scenario is not as far fetched as it first sounds. As embedded processors proliferate, the stuff around us will become brainy and chatty. Add in some software that understands the hopes and habits and needs of the humans that use them, and you have the beginnings of what I call "forced serendipity" where the environment conspires around us to make our lives more complete and our minds more content. How this will play out is beyond the scope of guessing. That it will play out… this is inevitable.

Simultaneously, the world gets richer. The third world becomes the second world and the second world becomes first world. Technology is no longer the sole domain of the top one tenth of the global population. There is a double explosion of processing power a growing demographic with growing demands for information and control.

It is hard to over-estimate the ramifications brought about by this Diaspora of processor infused devices. Born of computers but now running amok into the firmament of the day to day environment, the thing-net becomes a background, a living web composed of millions of ad-hoc collaborative groupings of shared processing. What we call a computer today, a single self contained processing device, wow will that come to seem quaint as we roll into the next decade. Think instead of amorphous coalitions of lesser processors and sensors coming together as the need arises and as opportunity presents itself… of two, ten, devices in your car, or two hundred thousand chips spread out across the planet, devices owned by many entities, or maybe even by no-one. A computer? In the new smart dust network of things, a computer is a what happens for a few seconds and what goes away as others, as other ethereal combinations of devices snap into and out of existence and layered such that any one node is part of many such computers if they are apart of one.

Then what? It is easy to see that our shared future is to be ever more defined and dominated over by an ever growing and ever more dense "All-Net" of environmental sensors and actuators that talk to each other, fall naturally into functional groups, learn and adapt to the ever changing demands of those people, organizations, and machine aggregates that emerge, compete, and collaborate in this ever more complex information and control exchange.

By the most conservative estimates, the network of things will grow out at exponential rates, rates faster even than Moore's Law. If a billion of Earth's six billion inhabitants each own 4o chips and if that number is doubling every 5 years and if the world keeps getting richer while chips get cheaper, than it wouldn't be crazy to suggest that in just twenty years we will live within a thing-net composed of somewhere between ten trillion and a hundred trillion intercommunicating processors. The total potential communication graph described by such a staggeringly large network is unimaginably complex. On what logic will it run? We are used to culture and society and government evolving by such loose and unstructured associations and connections… but that is because us humans are the nodes in social networks.

As the design of sensor/controller/communicator modules grows in sophistication, as the same factors that gave us Moore's law come to play in their design and production, as these All-Net motes shrink, and become more powerful, we will see them incorporated into more and more of the stuff around us. Eventually, we will live in a world where almost everything has sensory, processing and communications capabilities and where these capabilities are diffuse, cheep, expendable, and by virtue of their numbers alone, omnipresent.

But how will these devices keep track of themselves in relation to others? By which shared language will they communicate? How will they filter the cacophony of noise that will be the totality of chatter across millions of trillions of devices?

It is one thing to build a radio station and a bunch of receivers. Quite another to build both into every device. But that is just the beginning, these little radios can compute and they can broadcast what they think so that other nodes can think on those thoughts, take action, or send them forward to still more nodes. What kinds of logic are made necessary by the communications craziness produced when everything everywhere contains tens or hundreds of intelligent processing motes built into it?

Clearly, today's operating systems would collapse under such a load and without the centrality and determinism afforded to todays computing environments. Computing as it stands today, is a reflection of simpler times when the computer stood all by itself. But what of the network, the internet, the world wide web? Surely, the internet and email are proof that we live in the age of networked computing? The sober answer is that we have been duped. Clicking on a hyper-link and having a web page served up from some hard drive a thousand miles away is a parlor trick. When the UPS guy shows up with a pair of shoes you wouldn't confuse that with a conversation, with any kind of deeply collaborative process. Today's network is a network of transactions. I request, you send. You request, I send.

Operating system designers have only recently begun to think of the computer as a node, as a member of a network of nodes. Asking them to jump paradigms even further, to define a computer as some minimally complex, some minimally competent collection of nodes... as a collection of nodes aggregating and de-aggregating at a pace dictated by need, by task, by goal, by opportunity… this is beyond the cognitive scope of most industry engineers, is difficult even for academics and theorists to wrap their minds around. Ever hear those words used together: computer theorist? Historically, computing leans heavily towards practice. I am going to step on some toes here, but most computer researchers will probably agree that as a science, computing is dangerously long on practice and criminally short on theory.

Standing here at the edge of the now, looking out into the abyss that is the future, it seems obvious to me that we need to redefine the very notion of the word "computer". We need to dump the old definition of the computer as thing, and work towards a new understanding of a computer as a collection of computing devises, as a shifting sphere of influence, a probability cloud, a sphere of influence shared by, indeed made up of, hundreds or thousands of computing devices, each seeing themselves as the center of their own simultaneously overlapping spheres. If this is a radically new idea, it is an idea that is predated by the reality of the ever expanding network that is the natural product of chips embedded in so many of the things around us. It makes sense to call this new kind of center-less computing network, "Swam Computing" but the term still fails to evoke the complex dimensionality, simultaneity, and swift plasticity that will be true network computing.

So what will it take? What new logical structures will we have to build to get from where we are today, from the isolated computing systems we use today, to the What kinds of architectural logic will be required of a computing that has no center, no definitive physicality, no boundaries, where even the physical resources of computing (processing, memory, storage, and communication channel) shift and dance in a shimmer of dynamically shared and momentary and ever changing flux? Where real-time systems come and go at the speed of environmental flux, where need and demand and supply and goal and condition and context can never be pre-determined, what kinds of logical structures will be made necessary by the overlay of so ethereal a system onto the reliable accuracy we demand and expect of deterministic computing systems?

This is the future already flowing like a fog into and around our daily lives. This is the future practicality predicts, but for which our current knowledge and computing infrastructure is hopelessly ill-prepared. Everyday things are already laden with computing power. Some can even send and receive communications. But the wall of complexity that stands between this self-evident now and any true swarm computing future is daunting. Many computer researchers are beginning to sense as I do, that progress in computer science has come to a halt, that we have, as an industry, as a field, collectively run head long into this wall that stands between the single computer past and the swarm computer future. We know how to architect single computer solutions, but we are struggling to bring multi-computer self optimizing swam computing solutions from idea or dream to full working detail.

We desperately need an architectural solution to the swarm computing problem. We need a solution that allows each node to act as a cell, as autonomous but fully capable of coming together to build out collaborative systems as organs, bodies, species, and culture. As is true with biological cells, any true swarm computing architecture will have to imbue each and every computing node all of the logic necessary to autonomously swarm into larger and larger computing entities.

Progress in every human endeavor has been stalled by the complexity wall that stands between computing past and its future. Designing our way towards an architectural solution to the swarm computing problem must to be made humanity's central, shared, and most pressing goal. Until we meet this challenge, evolution in all human endeavors will remain stalled. As happened with the introduction of electrical power transmission, industrial agriculture, the internal combustion engine, and electronic communication, the other side of the complexity wall waits an increase in global productivity that will dwarf all previous epochs.

Computing hasn't even begun.

The Reetz Test!

Allen Turing proposed a simple test for assessing the parity of artificial and human intelligence.  A computer would pass the test if a person interacting through a keyboard, couldn't tell weather or not he was communicating with a human or a computer.  But this test is not sufficient for me.  To achieve true parity with humans, the computer should be better than a good cheat!

I have never seen human potential defined as the ability to take (or create) a test!

My own best definition of the highest of human capacity, that which separates us from everything that came before us, is that we have the ability to see ourselves in the context, and as active participants, in the evolution of the universe.

So, I await a computer who will scoff at Turing's little test and write something similar to this post.

A Sobering Look at Our Role in Evolution

We have a tendency to lump time and progress together, intuiting a direct link between the two, maybe even considering them one and the same.  With time, there is a past, a present, and a future.  Though they flow smoothly from one to the other, they are linearly separated by a line called now and remain experientially distinct.  But what of causality, of progress?  Compare the complexity of humans (or of any biological entity), with the chemistry from which life is composed, and you are forced to concede that progress towards complexity is as linear as time itself.  In the past there was simple, followed by a now that is more complex, and we talk all of this as proof that the future will be yet more complex.

But how does one go about getting to the future?  The passive answer: wait patiently.  But that implies that progress, like time, just plain old happens... independent of intent.  We don't yet know from what stuff or situation time propagates.  Einstein's little relativity equation allows us to compute the state or value of time in relation to energy, matter and distance, but that really isn't the same as understanding the causal chain from which time itself is born.  We experience time only after the fact, after time exists.  "So what?" I hear you say, "time goes about its merry business without need of understanding anyway!" And that is my point.  We accept that which never changes.  Omnipotent things and processes like time are experienced as background, firmament, unquestionable. But constancy doesn't justify ignorance.  In fact, if the unimaginable success of the uniquely human and very recent activity called SCIENCE says anything, it says that sticking our fingers in the cosmic cracks and pealing back the firmament's many layers, is the single most efficient means of success. Is that what progress is?  It is at the very least, a type of progress.  But the evolutionary record shows that progress happened for quite a while before the appearance of science or humans or animals or for that matter, before life itself.  Which makes me wonder... if algae could think, would algae be as confused by photosynthesis as we are by intent?

Specifically, I am thinking here about the future of computing.  But that doesn't really matter, when I think about any future, I use a trick I have learned over the years, I look for the ultimate future, the pinnacle, the end state, the future that will, if  given enough time, happen.  To this end I have spent the last thirty years pondered evolution it self (the rules and patterns of change), and by simple expansion of logic, self-evolving computing.  I assume that something like computing, something of computing, will some day proceed beyond the yoke of human intent.

As an aid to understanding the events around us, we humans developed counting and measurement.  From there we developed arithmetic rules and methods for manipulating and comparing our sums and measurements.  After that, it was only inevitable that we would build computing ticks and machines to slog through all of that arithmetic heavy lifting.  Computers and maths, like shovels and spears, are nothing but external tools that extend control of our environment beyond our own biological abilities. Anyone who has spent time exploring the notion of tools has come up against the foreground background problem that makes it impossible, or at the very least, arbitrary, to come up with criteria that perfectly separates any tool, from any tool user.  The arm or hand, is it a part of you or a tool?  Any answer you come up with depends heavily on how you define "you", the boundaries of "you", and how you define "tool".  If a tool is something a thing develops so that it can do something it couldn't previously do, then how is a hand, developed by evolution, not a tool?  When any discussion of progress, of the evolution of tools, and of the boundaries that define a system reaches the level of sentience, of intent, of purpose, we are faced by mutually linked concepts that can quickly cascade into feedback loops of infinite recursion.

Given that, is there a way to measure progress?  If the thing trying to measure progress is also a product of, and participant in that progress, is there a way to know the differences between actual universal limits and limits induced by our own structure and knowledge?  These are big big issues, and they are not the stuff of philosophy anymore.  Progress in almost every human endeavor is linked directly or indirectly to our ability to build systems that handle greater and greater complexities.

Eventually of course, it won't be enough to build better and better extensions to human capacity.  Eventually, our complexity handling tools will reach a level of self-genorating complexity handling such that interaction with humans will actually slow them down, will hamper their own evolution!

That eventuality, that inevitability, is a long way from where we sit today.  But, if we are going to go there, and we know it, why not make it an intentional and directed effort. That way, we will get there sooner, we will waste less time and energy exploring dead-end evolutionary what ifs.

Along the way, I imagine a computing that seeks its own complexity maximizing goals, an epoch stretching out forward of the of birth of the paradigm that comes after biology, a period of evolution that begins with what is now popularly known as "the singularity".

By any reasonable argument, it would be difficult to imagine a future that does not eventually reach such a point.  It happened with chemistry... that is how life got here!  Life, I argue, is just chemistry following a higher order of self organization.  So it would seem arrogant to suppose that a similar jump in self-organization wouldn't happen on top of the current scheme; biology.

I don't have a religious obsession with the future.  Meaning, I am not attracted to the future as a nether-world that will come and save us.  I don't see the future as a panacea, or a back door, as a way out.  I see it as the direct result of a process that resulted in us and that we are necessary participants.  In the exact same sense that we are the direct result of actions taken by things before us, the future, to me, is a thing to be built... by us!  The beauty of evolution is that it just plain happens.  Obviously.  In this neck of the cosmic woods, we are the first result of evolution that has the ability to see itself in the context of this grand process... as an agent or ingredient in the process!  But, because we are the first, we have to accept that consciousness is not requisite to the process.  In fact, one has to wonder if consciousness, if sentience, doesn't at times very much get in the way of evolution.

Regardless, here we are, self aware, and like everything else, part and parcel to a system that changes over time.... that gets more complex in pockets that are already more complex.  So, it is natural for us to ask the biggest questions of fate, purpose, and intention.  If, as I do, we accept that intent is simply a mechanism of organization (not qualitatively different then the krebs cycle or photosynthesis or RNA transcription), we have a responsibility to do evolution proud, to honor all of the hard work that has resulted in this level of complexity that is us, and to run our little leg of the relay in a way that respects the race that brought us into existence.

But what exactly is our role in this race that gave us, us?  We are beginning to understand the rules of the race, of evolution itself.  How does knowing about the race change our participation?  Is this the ultimate faustian hubris?  Are we flirting with the reification of Pandora's Box?  The Ouroboros (snake eating its own tail)?  It seems the very expression of human reason to explore questions of purpose.  But the old ways of seeking resulted in abstractions, philosophy, fantasy... this is different.  This is the blueprint of change.  This is a recipe for process itself.  Not some process... EVERY process.  

I am reluctant to imagine that humans are truly equipped desire an actual understandings of reality.  We seek "enlightenment" not "reality".  Reality requires a closeness that is uncomfortable, or at least, unfamiliar.   But as we acquire an accurate and causal understanding of purpose, what will happen to purpose or purposes transition into action?  Thermodynamics and information science have given us the structure of a theory of change.  Will we accept it as reality?  Can we understand it as reality?  And if so, then what?  In the theater of the mind, does knowing how change happens play itself out differently from seeking enlightenment or any of the more spiritual practices that have driven individual morality, shaped cultures and their ontologies, and ultimately resulted in motivation?

I was asked recently how I define the difference between humans and other life... I remembered Gregory Bateson's challenge to come up with a reliable set of criteria that would allow anyone to determine the difference between a thing that had been alive to something that had never been alive... and I answered:

A human can see itself as an active participant in the process that resulted in humans.

If we can, so informed, imagine ourselves, accept our purpose, as that which, like all before us, is here to maximize the potential of complexity will we, equipped with self knowledge of the actual workings of the system, will we be able to do evolution better than the systems that did it and did it so well without knowledge.  Knowledge should make us better.  But knowldge will surely bring its own unique challenges to the process.   Roughly, there were particles and particles accumulated into super particles which accumulated into atoms which accumlated into stars which ran through their fuel, exploded and accumulated into new stars and planets, the atoms on planets accumulated into more and more complex molecules and these molecules accumulated structures that alowed them to reproduce which led to even more complex molecules that worked as the molecule factories we call life, and these living systems eventually built abstraction systems or minds and these minds eventually evolved sentience and sentience gives us this sentence:

What matters is what matters, knowing what matters and how to know it matters the most.

That sentence is the first sentence of the book I am writing explaining evolution from the perspective of why.  The sentence is not special, it could have been written by anyone, it probably has been written before.  But what it means, and the ability to mean it is special.  It represents what and who we are as a species.

Darwin did a really great job explaining the how of evolution, at least with regards to biology.  What I work towards is a domain independent (any system) understanding of the rare but influential emergence and self-stability of greater and greater complexity.  I don't see biology as special.  I don't see humans as special.  I don't even see human sentience as special.  I see each of these systems as ever increasing, often layered, accumulations of complexity that are quantitatively but not qualitatively different from each other.  There is a huge difference between sentience and chemistry of course, but both levels of complexity are derived by the same dynamics, the same process.  Nothing new or bold or other-worldly has to be added to the general evolutionary scheme in order to move from the evolution of atoms to the evolution of sentience.  I labor this point only as a means of grounding the other theses I write here.  Grounding seems especially important when extrapolating any ideas to the future.

Of course my insistence on fusing human intention to this largest of problems, to evolution itself may seem superfluous or self aggrandizing given the concurrent argument that complexity just plain happens.  Where oxygen can't help but to bind to iron, human behavior is such that intention, though every bit as mechanical, requires the effort of thought against the noise of other competing mental processes.  A structure must be built in the brain, a real, mechanical structure, in order for intent to be realized.  The building of these structures demands energy.  Thermodynamically, we know that any structure is always (ALWAYS!) the result of the least energy path causally accumulated... that the next easiest thing to happen is in fact what always happens next.  If you ate french fries today but you want instead to run five miles tomorrow, than you have to go about building a new structure in your brain so that it takes less energy tomorrow to make the decision to run than it took to eat french fries today.  Worse than that, the process of reengineering these mental energy topologies must itself take less energy than every other competing process.  Given the hard taskmaster that is thermodynamics, it is a wonder that any complexity ever happens, let alone sticks around for long.  But then again, our brains must be pretty good at facilitating this seemingly impossible or improbable act... at turning the building of a thing into the mechanism that requires less energy.

The way that thermodynamics shapes and restricts causality is best understood if you think about dropping sand from your hand.  Most of the time (almost all of the time) the sand will land in configurations considerably less organized than the already low organization it had in your fist.  But once in a while, a couple of grains, shaped just right, with just the right internal properties, will land in just the right orientation and proximity to each-other so that their new arrangement accomplishes two entirely improbable things at once, the structure is self stable (resists disruption) and facilitates an increase in the whole system's ability to do what it is already doing faster and more completely.  Random interactions between grains of sand will at times create complex patterns, even patterns that might accelerate the processes at hand, but most of these random aggregates will not be stable, will not pass their structure into the future.  The appearance of new complexities is profoundly improbable.  Even rarer are new complexities who's structure can be maintained over time. In order for this to happen at all, a new complexity must cause the total system in which it resides to become less stable and less complex.  Nature falls apart easier than it falls together.  The long future of any system is away from complexity and towards chaos.  Systems can only become complex to the extent that they accelerate or help to maximize this grand movement towards disorder.

And that my friends is probably the most anti-intuitive truth any complex system will ever be asked to understand.

None of us know exactly how intent is manifested, how it plays itself out in the brain, but we do know that it must be as compliant to the hard restraints of thermodynamics as is every other system in the universe.  I look at intent through the lens of thermodynamics only to show that we find ourselves at a strangely confusing threshold, previously we lived in blissful ignorance, didn't know enough to question the difference between the way if feels to think and how thinking makes thinking seem this way.  In front of us is the era we must now live in, the era of the singular strangeness of the enlightenment that comes with being able to see the mind as a mechanical system even as we think these very un-mechanical thoughts about intent.  Wow.

Now what?  Given access to this great big brain we all posses, on which class of tasks can we put it to work that will do the greatest justice to it's evolutionarily rare and recent potential, and to the cosmic scale of the sacrifices made to produce it in the first place?  An even more perplexing question is the extent to which self-knowledge at this snake-eating-its-own-tail level effects mental productivity.  If a Chevy engine could sacrifice some of its piston strokes to calculate the correct gas/air mix to maximize it's power output, should it?  What of the power lost to those re-calibration strokes?  Do we know enough about the workings of the mind, about learning, about the effects of intention when inwardly directed, to risk messing with the system?  On the other hand, what of our mental activities are not in point of fact, exactly this kind of self-tinkering?

We have a tendency to lump time and progress together, intuiting a direct link between the two, maybe even considering them one and the same.  With time, there is a past, a present, and a future.  Though they flow smoothly from one to the other, they are linearly separated by a line called now and remain experientially distinct.  But what of causality, of progress?  Compare the complexity of humans (or of any biological entity), with the chemistry from which life is composed, and you are forced to concede that progress towards complexity is as linear as time itself.  In the past there was simple, followed by a now that is more complex, and we talk all of this as proof that the future will be yet more complex.

But how does one go about getting to the future?  The passive answer: wait patiently.  But that implies that progress, like time, just plain old happens... independent of intent.  We don't yet know from what stuff or situation time propagates.  Einstein's little relativity equation allows us to compute the state or value of time in relation to energy, matter and distance, but that really isn't the same as understanding the causal chain from which time itself is born.  We experience time only after the fact, after time exists.  "So what?" I hear you say, "time goes about its merry business without need of understanding anyway!" And that is my point.  We accept that which never changes.  Omnipotent things and processes like time are experienced as background, firmament, unquestionable. But constancy doesn't justify ignorance.  In fact, if the unimaginable success of the uniquely human and very recent activity called SCIENCE says anything, it says that sticking our fingers in the cosmic cracks and pealing back the firmament's many layers, is the single most efficient means of success. Is that what progress is?  It is at the very least, a type of progress.  But the evolutionary record shows that progress happened for quite a while before the appearance of science or humans or animals or for that matter, before life itself.  Which makes me wonder... if algae could think, would algae be as confused by photosynthesis as we are by intent?

Specifically, I am thinking here about the future of computing.  But that doesn't really matter, when I think about any future, I use a trick I have learned over the years, I look for the ultimate future, the pinnacle, the end state, the future that will, if  given enough time, happen.  To this end I have spent the last thirty years pondered evolution it self (the rules and patterns of change), and by simple expansion of logic, self-evolving computing.  I assume that something like computing, something of computing, will some day proceed beyond the yoke of human intent.

As an aid to understanding the events around us, we humans developed counting and measurement.  From there we developed arithmetic rules and methods for manipulating and comparing our sums and measurements.  After that, it was only inevitable that we would build computing ticks and machines to slog through all of that arithmetic heavy lifting.  Computers and maths, like shovels and spears, are nothing but external tools that extend control of our environment beyond our own biological abilities. Anyone who has spent time exploring the notion of tools has come up against the foreground background problem that makes it impossible, or at the very least, arbitrary, to come up with criteria that perfectly separates any tool, from any tool user.  The arm or hand, is it a part of you or a tool?  Any answer you come up with depends heavily on how you define "you", the boundaries of "you", and how you define "tool".  If a tool is something a thing develops so that it can do something it couldn't previously do, then how is a hand, developed by evolution, not a tool?  When any discussion of progress, of the evolution of tools, and of the boundaries that define a system reaches the level of sentience, of intent, of purpose, we are faced by mutually linked concepts that can quickly cascade into feedback loops of infinite recursion.

Given that, is there a way to measure progress?  If the thing trying to measure progress is also a product of, and participant in that progress, is there a way to know the differences between actual universal limits and limits induced by our own structure and knowledge?  These are big big issues, and they are not the stuff of philosophy anymore.  Progress in almost every human endeavor is linked directly or indirectly to our ability to build systems that handle greater and greater complexities.

Eventually of course, it won't be enough to build better and better extensions to human capacity.  Eventually, our complexity handling tools will reach a level of self-genorating complexity handling such that interaction with humans will actually slow them down, will hamper their own evolution!

That eventuality, that inevitability, is a long way from where we sit today.  But, if we are going to go there, and we know it, why not make it an intentional and directed effort. That way, we will get there sooner, we will waste less time and energy exploring dead-end evolutionary what ifs.

Along the way, I imagine a computing that seeks its own complexity maximizing goals, an epoch stretching out forward of the of birth of the paradigm that comes after biology, a period of evolution that begins with what is now popularly known as "the singularity".

By any reasonable argument, it would be difficult to imagine a future that does not eventually reach such a point.  It happened with chemistry... that is how life got here!  Life, I argue, is just chemistry following a higher order of self organization.  So it would seem arrogant to suppose that a similar jump in self-organization wouldn't happen on top of the current scheme; biology.

I don't have a religious obsession with the future.  Meaning, I am not attracted to the future as a nether-world that will come and save us.  I don't see the future as a panacea, or a back door, as a way out.  I see it as the direct result of a process that resulted in us and that we are necessary participants.  In the exact same sense that we are the direct result of actions taken by things before us, the future, to me, is a thing to be built... by us!  The beauty of evolution is that it just plain happens.  Obviously.  In this neck of the cosmic woods, we are the first result of evolution that has the ability to see itself in the context of this grand process... as an agent or ingredient in the process!  But, because we are the first, we have to accept that consciousness is not requisite to the process.  In fact, one has to wonder if consciousness, if sentience, doesn't at times very much get in the way of evolution.

Regardless, here we are, self aware, and like everything else, part and parcel to a system that changes over time.... that gets more complex in pockets that are already more complex.  So, it is natural for us to ask the biggest questions of fate, purpose, and intention.  If, as I do, we accept that intent is simply a mechanism of organization (not qualitatively different then the krebs cycle or photosynthesis or RNA transcription), we have a responsibility to do evolution proud, to honor all of the hard work that has resulted in this level of complexity that is us, and to run our little leg of the grand relay, in a way that respects the race that brought us into existence.

But what exactly is our role in this race that gave us, us?  We are beginning to understand the rules of the race, of evolution itself.  How does knowing about the race change our participation?  Is this the ultimate faustian hubris?  Are we flirting with the reification of Pandora's Box?  The Ouroboros (snake eating its own tail)?  It seems the very expression of human reason to explore questions of purpose.  But the old ways of seeking resulted in abstractions, philosophy, fantasy... this is different.  This is the blueprint of change.  This is a recipe for process itself.  Not some process... EVERY process.  

I am reluctant to imagine that humans are equipped to desire an realistic understanding of reality.  More often, we seek "enlightenment" instead "reality".  Reality requires a closeness that is uncomfortable, or at least, unfamiliar.   But as we acquire an accurate and causal understanding of purpose, what will happen to purpose or purposes transition into action?  Thermodynamics and information science have given us the structure of a theory of change.  Will we accept it as reality?  Can we understand it as reality?  And if so, then what?  In the theater of the mind, does knowing how change happens play itself out differently from seeking enlightenment or any of the more spiritual practices that have driven individual morality, shaped cultures and their ontologies, and ultimately resulted in motivation?

I was asked recently how I define the difference between humans and other life... I remembered Gregory Bateson's challenge to come up with a reliable set of criteria that would allow anyone to determine the difference between a thing that had been alive to something that had never been alive... and I answered:

A human can see itself as an active participant in the process that resulted in humans.

If we can, so informed, imagine ourselves, accept our purpose, as that which, like all before us, is here to maximize the potential of complexity will we, equipped with self knowledge of the actual workings of the system, will we be able to do evolution better than the systems that did it and did it so well without knowledge.  Knowledge should make us better.  But knowldge will surely bring its own unique challenges to the process.   Roughly, there were particles and particles accumulated into super particles which accumulated into atoms which accumlated into stars which ran through their fuel, exploded and accumulated into new stars and planets, the atoms on planets accumulated into more and more complex molecules and these molecules accumulated structures that alowed them to reproduce which led to even more complex molecules that worked as the molecule factories we call life, and these living systems eventually built abstraction systems or minds and these minds eventually evolved sentience and sentience gives us this sentence:

What matters is what matters, knowing what matters and how to know it matters the most.

That sentence is the first sentence of the book I am writing explaining evolution from the perspective of why.  The sentence is not special, it could have been written by anyone, it probably has been written before.  But what it means, and the ability to mean it is special.  It represents what and who we are as a species.

Darwin did a really great job explaining the how of evolution, at least with regards to biology.  What I work towards is a domain independent (any system) understanding of the rare but influential emergence and self-stability of greater and greater complexity.  I don't see biology as special.  I don't see humans as special.  I don't even see human sentience as special.  I see each of these systems as ever increasing, often layered, accumulations of complexity that are quantitatively but not qualitatively different from each other.  There is a huge difference between sentience and chemistry of course, but both levels of complexity are derived by the same dynamics, the same process.  Nothing new or bold or other-worldly has to be added to the general evolutionary scheme in order to move from the evolution of atoms to the evolution of sentience.  I labor this point only as a means of grounding the other theses I write here.  Grounding seems especially important when extrapolating any ideas to the future.

Of course my insistence on fusing human intention to this largest of problems, to evolution itself may seem superfluous or self aggrandizing given the concurrent argument that complexity just plain happens.  Where oxygen can't help but to bind to iron, human behavior is such that intention, though every bit as mechanical, requires the effort of thought against the noise of other competing mental processes.  A structure must be built in the brain, a real, mechanical structure, in order for intent to be realized.  The building of these structures demands energy.  Thermodynamically, we know that any structure is always (ALWAYS!) the result of the least energy path causally accumulated... that the next easiest thing to happen is in fact what always happens next.  If you ate french fries today but you want instead to run five miles tomorrow, than you have to go about building a new structure in your brain so that it takes less energy tomorrow to make the decision to run than it took to eat french fries today.  Worse than that, the process of reengineering these mental energy topologies must itself take less energy than every other competing process.  Given the hard taskmaster that is thermodynamics, it is a wonder that any complexity ever happens, let alone sticks around for long.  But then again, our brains must be pretty good at facilitating this seemingly impossible or improbable act... at turning the building of a thing into the mechanism that requires less energy.

The way that thermodynamics shapes and restricts causality is best understood if you think about dropping sand from your hand.  Most of the time (almost all of the time) the sand will land in configurations considerably less organized than the already low organization it had in your fist.  But once in a while, a couple of grains, shaped just right, with just the right internal properties, will land in just the right orientation and proximity to each-other so that their new arrangement accomplishes two entirely improbable things at once, the structure is self stable (resists disruption) and facilitates an increase in the whole system's ability to do what it is already doing faster and more completely.  Random interactions between grains of sand will at times create complex patterns, even patterns that might accelerate the processes at hand, but most of these random aggregates will not be stable, will not pass their structure into the future.  The appearance of new complexities is profoundly improbable.  Even rarer are new complexities who's structure can be maintained over time. In order for this to happen at all, a new complexity must cause the total system in which it resides to become less stable and less complex.  Nature falls apart easier than it falls together.  The long future of any system is away from complexity and towards chaos.  Systems can only become complex to the extent that they accelerate or help to maximize this grand movement towards disorder.

And that my friends is probably the most anti-intuitive truth any complex system will ever be asked to understand.

None of us know how exactly how intent is manifested, how it plays itself out in the brain, but we do know that it must be as compliant to the hard restraints of thermodynamics as is every other system in the universe.  I look at intent through the lens of thermodynamics only to show that we find ourselves at a strangely confusing threshold, previously we lived in blissful ignorance, didn't know enough to question the difference between the way if feels to think and how thinking makes thinking seem this way.  In front of us is the era we must now live in, the era of the singular strangeness of the enlightenment that comes with being able to see the mind as a mechanical system even as we think these very un-mechanical thoughts about intent.  Wow.

Now what?  Given access to this great big brain we all posses, on which class of tasks can we put it to work that will do the greatest justice to it's evolutionarily rare and recent potential, and to the cosmic scale of the sacrifices made to produce it in the first place?  An even more perplexing question is the extent to which self-knowledge at this snake-eating-its-own-tail level effects mental productivity.  If a Chevy engine could sacrifice some of its piston strokes to calculate the correct gas/air mix to maximize it's power output, should it?  What of the power lost to those re-calibration strokes?  Do we know enough about the workings of the mind, about learning, about the effects of intention when inwardly directed, to risk messing with the system?  On the other hand, what of our mental activities are not in point of fact, exactly this kind of self-tinkering?

There is even more cause for concern when we look to what we are learning about the way our brains evolved.  We think with a brain, a machine that "accumulated" more than it "changed"... a machine built as layers added over time, each one more complex, culminating in this eighth-inch thin top-most layer we call the neocortex, each one adding but never replacing functionality to functions handled by deeper layers.  Because of this, there is a necessary one-way communications challenge.  The outer most, more recent and more complex layers speak a language the inner layers are simply too simple to understand.  Yet the inner layers, being developed when organisms were themselves less complex, are far more likely to be more directly wired to action and control.  So, in order for our wonderfully complex and capable outer and more recent layers to effect change, they must send messages down to older, dumber, more directly wired layers, layers that are by definition incapable of understanding the reasoning that supports a directive.  Its as if each of us is a ship full of geniuses all trying to tell a really stupid captain when to turn and why.  The stupid captain may be able to understand the directives, but is at a loss to understand the reasoning backing them up.  This crazy situation is the reality of the current state of complexity... it is the sand currently being dropped by the cosmic hand of evolution.  

It is my argument that we succeed only to the extent that we can build a more and more accurate understanding of both the general parameters of evolution and the current situation evolutionary processes must work with.

NBC/MSNBC, The Worst Olympics Coverage EVER!

I can't tell if this is the worst ever coverage of an Olympics, or if it just seems so bad in contrast to what could have been in this internet broad band world.

Even if we completely forgot that we live in a world where almost everyone has some sort of access to the internet... NBC is doing nothing to take advantage of the breadth and depth of the spectacle that is the Olympics.  Think of the hundreds of events taking place daily.  The tens  of venues.   The tens of thousands of athletes.  The millions of potential stories.  Even if the games had to be told through the linearity of the tube yet again, there have been far better examples.  In fact, the only thing about NBC's coverage that gives any hint of the size of a modern summer olympics is the number of regular shows they have canceled.  Are the graphics people on strike?  Are the sports writers on strike?  Did all of the "up close and personal" gonzo reporters retire?  Is the instant replay button on the fritz?  Can't show a map of the venues between segments?  Can't interview a foreign athlete?  Can't show a grand schedule of the day's events?  Can't show Olympic, World or National records next to the current times or scores?

One of the funniest things about NBC's coverage is the hourly cut-aways to that big 70's living room with all the empty chairs and couches and one guy or gal sitting by themselves at the end of a ridiculously long dolly shot through the vast emptiness of the set.  What is that about? The old preacher looking guy they have sitting there dead pan delivering the day's events perfectly completes the "700 Club" feel of the place.  Would it be possible to design a less "sports" looking set or find a less sports sounding guy to sit there (and do nothing!)?  All this excitement and sports-fever is just about killing me!  Is the guy even alive?  Surreal.

Oh yah, I almost forgot, we live in the internet age.  An age where we are used to getting exactly what we want when we want it.  So, for instance, if there are a thousand or so Olympics spectacles each day, why can't we just go on line, punch in a search phrase, and watch exactly what we want and watch it exactly when we want to watch it?  And, as many times as we want to watch it?  YouTube has written software that automates the entire video publish and delivery system.  Even if NBC can't figure out how to do the internet thing themselves, they could just upload the events as segments the way the rest of us do... to YouTube. 

And, don't give me that "there is no money in it" crap.  If you can insert a 30 second ad into a tv broadcast, you can insert one into a digital video stream.  I heard that Google has made a little money on the web through ad sales.  What the hell is going on?  To bad NBC can't partner with a mega-large technology company (who could show them the digital ropes).  What's that?  They have?  With Microsoft?  What kind of crazy backwards-world is this?  Nothing makes sense.

If I was an NBC or Microsoft shareholder I would be demanding heads right now.  Think of the potential revenues lost!  If I was a citizen of the 21st century, I would be wondering why all of this technology we own is making things worse.

I don't read them, but my local Boarders book store has a huge section with thousands of the latest and greatest books on business and marketing.  I will bet any one of them would outline at least ten big ways in which NBC and Microsoft have totally blown this exclusive coverage opportunity.

I have an idea, how about we award three coverage contracts instead of just one.  If NBC had to compete for our viewer-ship, I would bet things would be substantially different.  We used to stand up against monopolies and monopolistic policy.  A monopoly derived through open bidding is no less a monopoly.  A market is open only to the extent there is choice in the market.  Each consumer must have the power to choose at any moment between any of several suppliers.  The very notion of a "contract" runs counter to consumer choice.

Come on people, speak up!  Demand more!  Please don't give up.  A 60 inch high definition plasma isn't going to make bad television anything but more obvious.  Lets stop purchasing high-resolution screens and start demanding high-relevence content.

Heat: Science vs. Math

This has been an interesting week.  I have been trying to get a handle on the issues and dynamics that have resulted in global warming.  Mainly, I have been trying to understand the actual systems involved and the physical processes upon which they operate.  I am not content to know the statistics or the summaries of multinational government commissioned studies.  I want to understand how these systems work... how heat is generated, where it comes from, how it is effected by all of the other earth systems, the very physics of heat and energy and systems in which it is transfered.

I have a good generalist's grasp of the standard model, of modern science, of modern cosmological theory, of mechanics and relativity.  I have more than an average pedestrian understanding of quantum theory and try to keep up with all of the sundry speculative theories heading towards a grand unified theory (string, multi-verse, etc.).  I am an adherent of a skeptics perspective, I am an atheist in the truest sense... not just as applied to religion or belief, but in all aspects of philosophy.

If something is true, I assume that it will agree with everything that has ever been measured.

Read that sentence again if you have to.  Which makes me a restrained dreamer.  I love to speculate, but I know that speculations need to withstand the test of agreement.  I will write another post about this concept soon... stay tuned.

Anyway, in the process of trying to understand the physics underlying global warming, I have googled and searched and read and asked and I am having trouble getting to the dynamics, the physics of the causal processes.

It's not as if there is a lack of information... there is book after book after web site after web site that contain the mathematics, the formulas that engineers (and scientists) use to calculate the parameters of heat systems.  The math is solid and well tested.  But nowhere have I found causal explanations of heat processes.

In particular, it seems obvious that heat straddles two worlds: the world of classical mechanics and the world of relativistic/quantum radiation.  Chemical heat is the jiggling of atoms and molecules within the confines of the strength of the magnetic fields that hold them together.  When considering chemical heat, transfer demands a physical medium.  There has to be actual atoms and molecules physically bouncing off of one another's magnetic charge in order for this kind of convective heat to travel.  But there is also radiative heat, where the atoms and molecules stay (relatively) put, but a photon is somehow produced and released, and that can then transfer some of the energy of those objects through space (at light's speed).

I have seen and trust the math, the formulas.  But that doesn't tell me how chemical heat and radiative heat actually cause each-other.  When I ask other scientists, I am pointed to the formulas.  

This is disappointing.  I am sure that much of the convenience of modern life is the result of people who work the engineering trenches, who diligently plod forward through the unquestioned use of the treasure of mathematics that has been slowly invented to crunch practical solutions... to get stuff done!  But some of us should at times attempt a deeper causal understanding.

Real life is much the same.  I am not weighed down by the implausible complexity of the rules of english grammar while I write these sentences... I just write.  Still, it behooves me to spend a few moments each year pondering the larger issues... what is language?  What is information?  What is the relationship between rules and data?  How is information produced?  What is the difference between language and meaning?  Between object and abstraction?

Science is powerful precisely because it has made it a point (the point) to demand agreement between ideas and measurements.  You can say anything you want about the unknown.  However, what you say, no matter how wild, no matter how crazily it predicts measurements that have not yet been made, it absolutely has to agree with everything that has already been measured.  This is big... and, it is lost on most non-scientists.  It is even lost on many scientists.  Einstein's relativistic theories pointed to dramatic and un-intuitive ideas about physics at energies and accuracies we had not yet encountered... but they did not argue with any measurements that had already been made (using Newtonian maths).

What Relativity did do, was provide a better model or abstraction, one that explained the mechanics that give rise to the classical properties and behaviors we measure in every day life.  It said, "You already have the math... here is a new math built upon a a more robust model that shows exactly WHY the old math works (and more)."

As our models get better, we gain deeper understandings of the why underneath the phenomena.  Knowing why helps us dig deeper towards even better models, abstractions, and the maths we use to calculate and predict.  But as our models get better, we are increasingly in danger of confusing them with the reality they map.  A model might perfectly map a reality, but it still isn't that reality.  If we obsess on our maps, if we train our telescopes upon the map on our table instead of the stars outside, we forfeit the power of the map.  At the same time, if we don't vigilantly question and remain aware of the differences and similarities between map and mapped, we forfeit the power of reality. 

I remember a story I once read about Richard Feynman.  While an undergraduate he would wonder the halls of the graduate department... looking for frustrated researchers.  He met a person working on a quantum explanation of optics.  Newton and others had gifted us with formulas that worked just fine predicting the behavior of light in interaction with other materials like lenses and mirrors... what light does.  This grad student was trying to dig deeper... to understand WHY light did what it did in the presence of other materials and forces.  Well, supposedly, Feynman went off that night and did it... explained optics at the quantum level (and muddying the career options of a fellow student?).  The old Newtonian math still works just fine... is used in most circumstances... but now we know why it works, what causes it, and this gave us insights into whole new worlds of the possible (predicting materials that would reverse light on incident... mirror mirrors that we have since built, and ways of slowing light down to a stop!).

The danger of shortcuts, (and all math is a shortcut... even Einstein's and Feynman's), is that because it works, the more we begin to believe that the abstraction, the math, the shortcut, IS the phenomenon.  We fall in love with and are blinded by the scaffolding.  The physics we use to explain reality, and the math we use to perform calculations based on that physics are not always very good explanations of the phenomena they represent. Often, they are just practical necessities.  Crutches, saws, recipes... methods blind to meaning.  Methods so beautiful, so useful, that they often obfuscate meaning.

Do you remember that day in middle school math class when the teacher introduced the concept of number bases?  I was blown away when I was forced to realize that most of my hard won understandings of "math" were in fact just arithmetic tricks to do calculations in a counting system that could just as easily have had 1, 13 or 649 digits, could just as easily not had digits at all!  That was the day I first saw the difference between mathematics and arithmetics.  But there is an even more profound difference between science and mathematics.

Once, I had a T-shirt made that said, "The Map Is Not The Territory. But The Map Is Territory".  I was trying to remind the postmodernists who had taken the subject/object split to far... that any abstraction, any scaffolding, any map, any formula was itself a thing, and that that thing was subject to the exact same physical restrictions as any other thing.  The word "house" is subject to different combinations of physical forces than those effecting any real "house" it might represent... but abstractions are things and the minds that processes them are things as well.  No magic needed.  The difference of course is that we construct abstraction systems exactly and precisely to be more flexible than the stuff we model in them.  I can say "I ate my house" without breaking any of the physics (the grammar) of the English language.  Actually having eaten my house would probably not be possible. Language rides the fence between the flexibility needed to play what-if's and the rigidity necessary to honor reality.

So, if anyone can climb outside of the arithmetics of heat formulas long enough to help me understand the actual causal interplay between mechanical heat and radiative heat... please don't be shy.

A question about heat...

I just sent the following to AllExperts.com... will post response as soon as it arrives.

Conversion of chemical to radiative heat...


What determines the rate at which chemical heat (convection) becomes electromagnetic heat (radiation)?  I am trying to get a handle on the Earth's energy budget.  Obviously, heat is being transfered in-system through convection... but what is the process that converts this chemical heat (brownian motion that needs a material medium) to photonic heat (that can leave the planet and travel through space)?  What factors limit this phase transition?  In terms of total energy transfer, how can one determine the delta between the rate of transfer (comparing convection and radiation) when a system has both.  What are the limits of efficiency when comparing both chemical and radiative energy transfer?  I know that convection is restricted by the sound limit, so I assume that radiative heat is likewise restricted by the speed of light.  However, because light doesn't seem to interact with other light, how dense does light have to be before we see dramatic self limiting effects?  I am guessing that E=mC^2 will answer my question as dense light becomes matter which provides the upper limit to the speed of light?  All of my questions are motivated by a desire to understand the base physics that underlies and predicts the Earth's energy budget and how these natural systems are effected by green house gasses and human energy conversion (releasing heat), especially with regard to the ratio of rate of change vs. dissipative capacity of the natural systems.


Thank you,


Randall Reetz

Laurence Lessing's "Independence 2.0"

An important reflection on how big oil money has influenced public perception of climate change science:

Or consider perhaps the most profound misfiring of modern American government—global warming. Davis Guggenheim's film of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth lecture was a tipping point in public recognition of the threat global warming presented to America and the world. But that tipping point came long after a consensus had developed among policy experts about the threat of global warming. As Gore describes the consensus:

The debate's over. There are five points in the consensus. No. 1: Global warming is real. No. 2: We human beings are mainly responsible. No. 3: Consequences are very bad. No. 4: We need to fix it quickly. And No. 5: It's not too late.

Researchers have tried to measure just how solid this consensus is. They conducted a study of 1,000 articles published in peer-reviewed journals between 1988 and 2003. Of the 1,000, 0 percent (or exactly 0) questioned the consensus around global warming. Yet a comparable study of articles published in popular news media found over 53 percent questioned that consensus.

The difference is accounted for by the extraordinary effort by oil companies and the like to fund and spread the results of junk science, questioning global warming in a manner that threw certain views into doubt. The result was political cover for the Republican Party's campaign of Global Warming Denial.

As strategist Frank Luntz put it in a memo to Republican leaders, 

"Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

The list could go on—for a very long time. None of these questions are rocket science. Not all are esoteric matters about the regulation of culture. Indeed, some are among the most important public policy questions government considers. Yet all these, despite the ease, government got wrong. And wrong in a predictable way—the product of a dependency tied to money. Among the reasons for reform, this certainly reaches quite high.

This is an excerpt from an essay on the dangers of monetary influence on our government representatives by Stanford University copyright law professor Lawrence Lessig (Independence 2.0, MetroActive, 8/6/08).

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