Charles Stross wants to get off the bus

Upon writing Accelerando, Charles Stross became to Technological Singularity what Dante Alighieri has been to Christian cosmology: the pre-eminent literary conveyor of an esoteric doctrine, packaging abstract metaphysical conception in vibrant, detailed, and concrete imagery. The tone of Accelerando is transparently tongue-in-cheek, yet plenty of people seem to have taken it entirely seriously. Stross has had enough of it:

“I periodically get email from folks who, having read ‘Accelerando’, assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. I find this mildly distressing, and so I think it’s time to set the record straight and say what I really think. … Short version: Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

In the comments thread (#86) he clarifies his motivation:

“I’m not convinced that the singularity isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I am deathly tired of the cheerleader squad approaching me and demanding to know precisely how many femtoseconds it’s going to be until they can upload into AI heaven and leave the meatsack behind.”

As these remarks indicate, there’s more irritable gesticulation than structured case-making in Stross’ post, which Robin Hanson quite reasonably describes as “a bit of a rant – strong on emotion, but weak on argument.” Despite that – or more likely because of it — a minor net-storm ensued, as bloggers pro and con seized the excuse to re-hash – and perhaps refresh — some aging debates. The militantly-sensible Alex Knapp pitches in with a threepart series on his own brand of Singularity skepticism, whilst Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence responds to both Stross and Knapp, mixing some counter-argument with plenty of counter-irritation.

At the risk of repeating the original error of Stross’ meat-stack-stuck fan-base and investing too much credence in what is basically a drive-by blog post, it might be worth picking out some of its seriously weird aspects. In particular, Stross leans heavily on an entirely unexplained theory of moral-historical causality:

“… before creating a conscious artificial intelligence we have to ask if we’re creating an entity deserving of rights. Is it murder to shut down a software process that is in some sense ‘conscious’? Is it genocide to use genetic algorithms to evolve software agents towards consciousness? These are huge show-stoppers…”

Anissimov blocks this at the pass: “I don’t think these are ‘showstoppers’ … Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.” The question might be added, more generally: In which universe do arcane objections from moral philosophy serve as obstacles to historical developments (because it certainly doesn’t seem to be this one)? Does Stross seriously think practical robotics research and development is likely to be interrupted by concerns for the rights of yet-uninvented beings?

He seems to, because even theologians are apparently getting a veto:

“Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.”

This is so deeply and comprehensively gone it could actually inspire a moment of bewildered hesitation (at least among those of us not presently engaged in urgent Singularity implementation). Stross seems to have inordinate confidence in a social vetting process that, with approximate adequacy, filters techno-economic development for compatibility with high-level moral and religious ideals. In fact, he seems to think that we are already enjoying the paternalistic shelter of an efficient global theocracy. Singularity can’t happen, because that would be really bad.

No wonder, then, that he exhibits such exasperation at libertarians, with their “drastic over-simplification of human behaviour.” If stuff – especially new stuff – were to mostly happen because decentralized markets facilitated it, then the role of the Planetary Innovations Approval Board would be vastly curtailed. Who knows what kind of horrors would show up?

It gets worse, because ‘catallaxy’ – or spontaneous emergence from decentralized transactions – is the basic driver of historical innovation according to libertarian explanation, and nobody knows what catallactic processes are producing. Languages, customs, common law precedents, primordial monetary systems, commercial networks, and technological assemblages are only ever retrospectively understandable, which means that they elude concentrated social judgment entirely – until the opportunity to impede their genesis has been missed.

Stross is right to bundle singularitarian and libertarian impulses together in the same tangle of criticism, because they both subvert the veto power, and if the veto power gets angry enough about that, we’re heading full-tilt into de Garis territory. “Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it” Anissimov insists, as any die-hard Cosmist would.

Is advanced self-improving AI technically feasible? Probably (but who knows?). There’s only one way to find out, and we will. Perhaps it will even be engineered, more-or-less deliberately, but it’s far more likely to arise spontaneously from a complex, decentralized, catallactic process, at some unanticipated threshold, in a way that was never planned. There are definite candidates, which are often missed. Sentient cities seem all-but-inevitable at some point, for instance (‘intelligent cities’ are already widely discussed). Financial informatization pushes capital towards self-awareness. Drone warfare is drawing the military ever deeper into artificial mind manufacture. Biotechnology is computerizing DNA.

‘Singularitarians’ have no unified position on any of this, and it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just people – and people are nowhere near intelligent or informed enough to direct the course of history. Only catallaxy can do that, and it’s hard to imagine how anybody could stop it. Terrestrial life has been stupid for long enough.

It may be worth making one more point about intelligence deprivation, since this diagnosis truly defines the Singularitarian position, and reliably infuriates those who don’t share — or prioritize — it. Once a species reaches a level of intelligence enabling techno-cultural take-off, history begins and develops very rapidly — which means that any sentient being finding itself in (pre-singularity) history is, almost by definition, pretty much as stupid as any ‘intelligent being’ can be. If, despite the moral and religious doctrines designed to obfuscate this reality, it is eventually recognized, the natural response is to seek its urgent amelioration, and that’s already transhumanism, if not yet full-blown singularitarianism. Perhaps a non-controversial formulation is possible: defending dimness is really dim. (Even the dim dignitarians should be happy with that.)


Bits and Pieces

P2P or not 2P, that is the question

As the US dollar reaches depths of debasement that would have stretched the imagination of Caligula, people have been searching for alternative candidates for a global reserve currency. The problem is formidable. The Euro and Japanese Yen face comparable calamities of their own (mixing debt crisis and demographic collapse), the Chinese Yuan is non-convertible, and the IMF’s hybrid Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) merely bundle together a group of troubled fiat currencies under a technocratic acronym.

Precious metals enthusiasts have an obvious option, and one that is already being spontaneously exercised. Yet whilst growing numbers will no doubt cling to gold and silver as financial lifeboats, their wider use as currency (as opposed to stores of value) is obstructed by an intimidating range of technical and political problems. They are not digitally transferable without complicated mediating instruments, and they remain exposed to extreme political risk – financial crises have been regularly accompanied by seizures and controls directed at private precious metals holdings and transactions.

To overcome such problems, a currency would need to be structurally immunized against the depredations of central bankers, to share the deflationary bias of precious metals, and to participate fully in the technical trend towards mathematical abstraction and electronic communicability, whilst also enjoying strong cryptographic protection against surveillance, expropriation, and fraud. Astonishingly, such a currency seems already to exist. Its name is ‘Bitcoin’.

The twin, interactive drivers of modernity – commerce and technology – come together in Bitcoin with unprecedented fusional intensity. This is a currency that is simultaneously an open source computer program, entirely native to cyberspace, and a financial innovation, conducting a real-time experiment that is at once social, technical, and economic. Built on the foundations of public key encryption (PKE), it creates a peer-to-peer open network – without any controlling node or discretionary human management – to sustain a radically decentralized monetary system.

Originally devised by Satoshi Nakamoto (whose outline paper can be found here), Bitcoin disconnects trust from authority. In particular, it is designed to overcome the problem of double spending.

Because digital ‘goods’ can be replicated at near-zero cost, they are economically defined as ‘non-rivalrous’. If you sell me a computer, I now own it, and you do not. As with all rivalrous goods, ownership implies exclusion. If you sell me a computer program, on the other hand, there is no reason to assume that you have not kept a copy for yourself, or that the ‘same’ program could not be sold to multiple purchasers. Such non-rivalrous goods pose numerous intriguing economic questions, but one thing is entirely clear: non-rivalrous money is an impossibility. Without scarcity, or exclusive exchange, the very idea of monetary quantity loses all sense, as does monetary value, spending and investment, and consumer choice.

The Bitcoin algorithm makes a digital currency rivalrous, and thus effective as money, without recourse to any administrative authority. It does so by initiating an automatic or spontaneous ecology, in which computers on the network authenticate Bitcoin exchanges as a side-effect of ‘mining’ for new coins. Nodes earn new coins, at a diminishing rate, by solving a difficult digital puzzle – accessible only to a brute force, computationally-intensive approach – and thus exhibiting proof-of-work. This test screens the system from malicious interventions, by establishing a practically insurmountable barrier to any user who seeks to falsify the record of exchanges. Competent discussions can be found here, here, and (most diversely) here.

This problem, and solution, is very far from arbitrary. It is precisely because existing fiat currencies have taken on disturbingly non-rivalrous characteristics that alarm about currency debasement has reached such a pitch of exasperation. When a central bank, in the course of running a typically loose monetary policy, can simply speed up the printing presses or (still worse) the electronic equivalent, the integrity of the money supply is devastated at the root. Bitcoin rigorously extirpates such ruinous discretion from its system, by instantiating a theory of sound money as a precisely and publicly defined electronic experiment.

Unsurprisingly, the Bitcoin monetary aggregate is modeled on precious metal, generated by miners from a finite global reserve, with rising extraction costs. The reward for coin mining falls over time at a logarithmic (Zenonian) rate, towards a limit of fractionally under 21,000,000 BTC. Each Bitcoin can be subdivided to eight decimal places, to a total of over two quadrillion (2,100,000,000,000,000) fragments, equivalent to 210,000 Bitcoin ‘quanta’ for each of the 10 billion people making up the earth’s anticipated climax human population. A Bitcoin quantum (0.00000001 BTC) is named a ‘Satoshi’ (after Satoshi Nakamoto), although amendment to the system allowing for further sub-division at some future stage is not foreclosed. (For the total size of the Bitcoin economy look here.)

Bitcoin is programmed for deflation (of a sort). This is a source of delight to hard money types, and of outrage to those in the loose money (inflationary) camp. As an experiment, the great merit of Bitcoin is to raise this antagonism beyond the level of reciprocal polemics, to that of potential historical evidence — and real choice. Austrolibertarians have long claimed that free money systems are biased to deflation, and that central banking encourages inflation as a surreptitious mechanism of economic expropriation, to ultimately disastrous effect. Keynesians, in contrast, deplore deflation as an economic disease that suppresses productive investment and employment. Empirical testing could soon be possible.

Numerous other questions, theoretical and practical, present themselves. At the practical level, such questions work themselves out through speculative volatility, institutional adaptations, and technical challenges. Since the entire Bitcoin economy remains very small, relatively modest shifts in economic behavior yield wild swings in BTC value, including bubble-like surges, precipitous collapses, incontinent hype, and extravagant accusations. Despite the resilience of the core algorithm, the peripheral institutions supporting the Bitcoin economy remain vulnerable to theft, fraud, and malicious interventions. As with any revolutionary experiment, the developmental trajectory of Bitcoin is likely to be tumultuous and highly unpredictable.

The theoretical questions can be entertained more calmly. The most important of these concern the essential nature of money, and its future. Does Bitcoin successfully simulate the significant features of precious metals, such that their substance can be discarded from the monetary equation as irrelevant dross? How powerful are the forces leading to monetary convergence? Will first-mover advantage ‘lock-in’ Bitcoin at the expense of later alternatives? Or will multiple money systems – perhaps ever more heterogeneous ones – continue to co-exist? Is Bitcoin merely one stage in an open-ended sequence of innovative money systems, or does it capture the essential features of money quite definitively (leaving room only for incremental improvements, or tinkering)?

Supporters of the monetary status quo might insist on a further, more derisive line of questioning: is Bitcoin a dead end, an irrelevance, or a deluding libertarian cipherpunk fantasy, to be judged eventually as something akin to a hoax? Which is to note that, ultimately, the largest questions will be political, and the most heated discussions already are.

Can governments afford to tolerate unmanaged, autonomous currencies? We’ll see.


Edward Glaeser on Triumph of the City

that’s Shanghai interviews the world’s most topical urbanist

Shanghai isn’t one of the featured cities in your book. It’s massive and massively high-rise. Did you ever consider writing about it?

Shanghai is one of the world’s great cities, but I don’t know the city well enough to write about it. I hope to get to know the city better and feature Shanghai’s successes in some later work.

China is a place where cities have grown incredibly quickly and there’s been a massive exodus from the countryside to urban life. What do you think China’s cities should focus on as they grow?

Cities, today, succeed as forges of human capital and engines of innovation. China clearly recognizes this and is investing massively in education. That should continue. Just as importantly, China needs to focus on fostering more entrepreneurship by eliminating any remaining barriers to small start-ups.

You talk about how cities should be seen as “masses of connected humanity,” rather than agglomerations of buildings. Do you think this is well understood at this point, or are too many places still attempting to “build their way back to success”?

Unfortunately, too often political leaders try to garner headlines with a splashy new structure. The key is to focus on those infrastructure investments that will really benefit the people in the city.

Are you optimistic about city planners around the world finding the balance between Paris and Mumbai, i.e. between Haussman-style central planning that risks sterility and a chaotic free-for-all?

That’s the 10 trillion dollar question. I wish I could be more optimistic, but city planning is hard and many governments are either unable to manage chaos or too inclined to central control. This requires not just knowledge but political strength and that’s a rare combination.

Which cities around the world are getting it right? Which aren’t?

I believe that Singapore is the best-managed city in the world – good schools, a superb transportation policy, and a sensible approach to regulation. But Hong Kong is also quite impressive, and I personally prefer it’s somewhat more chaotic style.

The west has many urban powerhouses, but few of them are really models of perfect management. For example, I am a big fan of Mayor Menino in Boston, but despite more than 15 years of hard work, Boston’s schools are still struggling.

Obviously, Barcelona, Paris, and Milan are all lovely, wonderful cities, but they are not necessarily models of good management.

You’re cautiously optimistic in your book, but what worries you most about the future of the city?

The biggest challenges are in the mega-cities of the developing world, especially Africa. We are a very long way from providing even the core essentially like clean water in many places.

In the US, we have huge problems of fiscal mismanagement that need to be addressed. Moreover, there is always the possibility of really major physical disasters – either natural or man-made.

Is there any way around the fact that the most vibrant cities also become the most expensive – or, as you say in the book, is this simply the price of good urban health?

The laws of supply and demand cannot be repealed. If a city is attractive and productive, demand for its real estate will be high. The best antidote for that is abundant supply, but it is a mistake to subsidize urban housing. The best path towards greater affordability comes from private housing construction that is regulated only as much as is absolutely necessary. Still, building up can be expensive and that will always make prices in successful cities more expensive.

By functioning as engines of economic opportunity and as refuges, cities tend to concentrate economic disparity. Do you think a case might be made that such inequalities could be interpreted as a symptom of urban success? Might you be subtly suggesting this in your own work?

I am suggesting just that. National inequality can be a real problem, but local inequality can be a sign of health. Cities don’t typically make people poor they attract poor people. The inequality of a city reflects the fact that it attracts rich and poor alike, and that’s something to admire.

How can cities strive to control inequality and avoid ghettos of rich and poor? Should they even be trying to?

Education is the best weapon against inequality. Cities should be striving to make sure that the children of every parent have a chance of being successful.

Some degree of stratification by income is inevitable, but segregation can be quite costly because such separations mean that isolated people lose the urban advantages of connection. There aren’t great tools for reducing segregation, but governments should make sure that their policies do not exacerbate segregation.

Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute has been studying cities as ‘complex systems’ and identified a number of reliable and quantifiable patterns on this basis. Do you find this type of analysis informative or relevant to your work?

Cities are indeed complex systems.

Even in the modern world, with nationalism ascendant, city states seem to be unusually successful. Do cities provide a challenge to dominant conceptions of large-scale political organization? How do you rate the prospects of devolutionary politics, with a municipal emphasis?

I don’t think that nation-states will be likely to surrender all that much power, and cities can remain economically dominant but politically weak. The path in the US has continued to be towards more, not less, national power and I think that is probably a mistake. In many cases – such as Mumbai – local choices would surely be better than the choices imposed on cities by above.

Other than your own work, who do you consider to be the most important writers on cities today?

I deeply admire the Columbia historian Kenneth Jackson.


Can’t kick the habit …

… but at least we can kick the can

“The economic catch phrase of the year has become ‘kicking the can down the road’, applied to all the problems that are not being solved, but are simply kicked further down the road. It’s an apt description, as it is exactly what’s happening.”

“There are already elements of fragility,” [Nouriel Roubini] said. “Everybody’s kicking the can down the road of too much public and private debt. The can is becoming heavier and heavier, and bigger on debt, and all these problems may come to a head by 2013 at the latest.”

“This week we turn from the crisis brewing in the U.S. to the one that is coming to a slow boil in Europe. We visit our old friends Greece and Ireland and ponder how this will end. It is all well and good to kick the can down the road, but what happens when you come to the end of the road?”

“Sovereign debt in Europe is on everyone’s mind. Three of the seventeen members of the Euro system are in trouble; Greece is a basket case. There is universal agreement that Greece is now illiquid and insolvent. The latest compromise is another temporary bandage. Our American idiom ‘kicking the can down the road’ fits perfectly.”

“An irreverant official at the International Monetary Fund recently installed a jarring ringtone on his mobile phone. It is the sound of cans being kicked down a road. That, alas, is what Europe’s politicians and the IMF look set to do with their latest rescue plan for Greece.”

“Kathleen Brooks, research director at Gain Capital wrote in a note yesterday: ‘There is a growing sense that a bespoke solution to Ireland’s crisis is only kicking the can of peripheral financial worms further down the street. Until there is a convincing automatic default mechanism for all eurozone members then we could see other debt flare ups over the medium-term.'”

“‘[Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund] might secure 2 trillion yen by bank lending to finance part of the payout shortfall, the Nikkei said.’ This will have two effects, neither of which is positive for dealing with the funding problem. The first is that it will merely kick the can down the road which seems to be the standard response from Japan, Inc over the last two decades. The second is that it reduces the income – and thus the funds holdings – as they turn from earning interest on their investments to paying interest on these loans which rather has the effect of shortening the road down which they are kicking the can.”

“We live in a world profoundly addicted to debt-financed consumption. Today, many people, companies, and countries borrow with no evident intention to repay. When the debt comes due, they will replace it with new (and often larger) debt. Kick the can down the road, again and again. But inevitably the road ends abruptly with a wall, much like the ones at the end of a crash testing site.”

“Speaking to a room full of reporters at the National Press Club Thursday, Bernanke said that without an increase in the debt limit, the United States could potentially default on its debt, an outcome he referred to as ‘catastrophic.’ … ‘There’s only so far that we can kick the can down the road,’ he said in response to a question about the deficit.”

“Monetary reform never takes place because everyone wants to defer final judgment. Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everyone wants a stable economy with growth. No one wants recession and increased bankruptcies to re-price capital goods. So, kick the can always results in another round of monetary inflation. The boom-bust cycles repeat. … This is continuity in the modern fiat money economy. The voters want it. The debtors want it. The banks want it. Businessmen want it. … The result: American prices as measured by the consumer price index have risen by a factor of 20 since the Federal Reserve System began operating in 1914. The dollar has depreciated by about 95%.”

“The voters want the government to guarantee them a safe retirement, Medicare benefits, and a stable dollar. But the government is already so far down the road to default that it can only play kick the can.”

“Dana Milbank of the Washington Post chides Democrats, Republicans and DC elites for ‘kicking the can‘ of deficits and debt to future generations. This is an inherent defect of all democracies. Elected politicians buy votes today and affix the burden on future generations.”

“It’s ridiculous that, as often as we get speeches about how we need to stop kicking the can down the road on the debt and the deficit, we get more can-kicking.”

“We’re going to keep kicking the can down the road for as long as we can see the road and the can ahead. Then all of a sudden – Oooops! No more road!”

[K]icking the can down the road won’t work: there is no more road.”

“There are an awful lot of Cans on this road and our leaders keep kicking them and kicking them. I can’t help the feeling that we are near the end of this road.”

Can-kicking, rather than problem-solving, is the political method of dealing with big and small problems. Problems do not get solved so much as they get hidden. Political hoopla and self-congratulations accompany each can-kicking action. The spectacle and declaration of problem-solved is usually enough to satisfy the concerns of the public, the only consideration that matters for the political class.”

“Essentially, all we are doing is kicking the can down the road.”

“Two years ago in a speech to U.S. House Democrats, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted that America was headed for ‘a fundamental economic reset.’ According to Ballmer, for 25 years our economy grew on unrealistically cheap debt. That is over. … Since Ballmer’s remarks, our national debt has continued to grow and now surpasses $14 trillion, President Obama and Congress are struggling with massive federal budget deficits, state and local governments are drowning in red ink, and protesters are massing at state capitols demonstrating against wage and benefit cuts. … Elected officials have no choice. They must trim spending and make some very difficult choices. As Gov. Chris Gregoire has repeatedly told state lawmakers, we have to make fundamental changes and do things much differently. We have to quit kicking the can down the road in hopes that somehow our problems will magically disappear.”

Can-Kicking toward the Double Dip”

“Same Kick, Same Road, Bigger Can

Can kicking continues for real estate and banks”

“In general, the capacity of large wealthy societies to allow festering problems to go un-addressed seems perennially underrated. I’ll be thirty next week and for as long as I can remember people have been talking about how the United States needs to address entitlement spending and trade imbalances. And as best I can tell, we do need to address those things. Presumably at some point something will happen. But in practice we’ve managed a great deal of can-kicking, seem to have more can-kicking in us, and actually the public and the political elite alike are quite averse to the kind of steps that would address these issues.”

“The House GOP is considering a vote to extend the debt ceiling through the end of 2012. This is kicking the can down the road …”

“‘The debt ceiling is supposed to be a mechanism to force Democrats and Republicans to come together and cut spending,’ Congressman Kingston said. ‘Instead, what does Congress do? We push the ceiling further and further up. Instead of moving the ceiling, we need to cut spending and quit kicking the can down the road for another Congress, another election and another generation.'”

“If history is any guide, there will be no problem raising the debt ceiling once again in 2011. And that’s what’s called kicking the can down the road. You don’t have to be a U.S. Republican (I’m neither) to care about U.S. debt levels. Any chimpanzee can see the problem (yes, even if the U.S. can just keep on printing its own money. That’s the problem).”

Kicking the can down the road by increasing debt limits is not a solution. It just allows Washington politicians to continue to feed their spending habits.”

“During the current state budget crisis we’ve heard a lot about ‘kicking the can down the road.’ … It didn’t have to be this way. Had the state accounted for its promises rather than kicking that can down the road, true costs would’ve been revealed, proper funding would have been required or no such promises would’ve been made, and discretionary programs would’ve been protected. But instead, politicians chose to kick the can, and down a very low road. … California has kicked that can into a $200-300 billion obligation that grows every year that it’s kicked down the road again.”

“The phrase ‘kick the can‘ refers to a specific form of procrastination: to delay making a decision regarding a problem that can be deferred but cannot be avoided indefinitely. With each kick of the can, the problem grows worse. The problem compounds. The resources required to solve it do not compound at an equally high rate. The can-to-foot ratio grows larger.”

“Maybe all of this can-kicking will produce the desired outcome. But the more likely scenario is that the U.S. government will continue to throw newly printed dollars bills at the problem until eventually something that looks like a lot like a recovery will appear. Shortly thereafter, the recovery will yield to something that looks a lot like debilitating hyperinflation.”

“Metaphorically things are getting just about as tedious as the downturn in the global economy. The operative ‘kicking the can down the road’ continues to proliferate, alarming[ly] so. A search on the Google (U.S.) News site on June 13, 2011, for this phrase listed 2,805 citations embedded in news texts during the previous week.”


Hard Futurism

Are you ready for the next big (nasty) thing?

For anyone with interests both in extreme practical futurism and the renaissance of the Sinosphere, Hugo de Garis is an irresistible reference point. A former teacher of Topological Quantum Computing (don’t ask) at the International Software School of Wuhan University, and later Director of the Artificial Brain Lab at Xiamen University, de Garis’ career symbolizes the emergence of a cosmopolitan Chinese technoscientific frontier, where the outer-edge of futuristic possibility condenses into precisely-engineered reality.

De Garis’ work is ‘hard’ not only because it involves fields such as Topological Quantum Computing, or because – more accessibly — he’s devoted his research energies to the building of brains rather than minds, or even because it has generated questions faster than solutions. In his ‘semi-retirement’ (since 2010), hard-as-in-difficult, and hard-as-in-hardware, have been supplanted by hard-as-in-mind-numbingly-and-incomprehensibly-brutal – or, in his own words, an increasing obsession with the impending ‘Gigadeath’ or ‘Artilect War‘.

According to de Garis, the approach to Singularity will revolutionize and polarize international politics, creating new constituencies, ideologies, and conflicts. The basic dichotomy to which everything must eventually succumb divides those who embrace the emergence of transhuman intelligence, and those who resist it. The former he calls ‘cosmists‘, the latter ‘terrans’.

Since massively-augmented and robotically-reinforced ‘cosmists’ threaten to become invincible, the ‘terrans’ have no option but pre-emption. To preserve human existence in a recognizable state, it is necessary to violently suppress the cosmist project in advance of its accomplishment. The mere prospect of Singularity is therefore sufficient to provoke a political — and ultimately military — convulsion of unprecedented scale. A Terran triumph (which might require much more than just a military victory) would mark an inflection point in deep history, as the super-exponential trend of terrestrial intelligence production – lasting over a billion years — was capped, or reversed. A Cosmist win spells the termination of human species dominion, and a new epoch in the geological, biological, and cultural process on earth, as the torch of material progress is passed to the emerging techo sapiens. With the stakes set so high, the melodramatic grandeur of the de Garis narrative risks understatement no less than hyperbole.

The giga-magnitude body-count that de Garis postulates for his Artilect (artificial intellect) War is the dark side expression of Moore’s Law or Kurzweilean increasing returns – an extrapolation from exponentiating historical trends, in this case, casualty figures from major human conflicts over time. It reflects the accumulating trend to global wars motivated by trans-national ideologies with ever-increasing stakes. One king is (perhaps) much like another, but a totalitarian social direction is very different from a liberal one (even if such paths are ultimately revisable). Between a Terran world order and a Cosmist trajectory into Singularity, the distinction approaches the absolute. The fate of the planet is decided, with costs to match.

If the de Garis Gigadeath War scenario is pre-emptive in relation to prospective Singularity, his own intervention is meta-pre-emptive – since he insists that world politics must be anticipatively re-forged in order to forestall the looming disaster. The Singularity prediction ripples backwards through waves of pre-adaptation, responding at each stage to eventualities that are yet to unfold. Change unspools from out of the future, complicating the arrow of time. It is perhaps no coincidence that among de Garis’ major research interests is reversible computing, where temporal directionality is unsettled at the level of precise engineering.

Does ethnicity and cultural tradition merely dissolve before the tide-front of this imminent Armageddon? The question is not entirely straightforward. Referring to his informal polling of opinion on the coming great divide, de Garis recalls his experience teaching in China, remarking:

I know from the lectures I’ve given over the past two decades on species dominance that when I invite my audiences to vote on whether they are more Terran than Cosmist, the result is usually 50-50. … At first, I thought this was a consequence of the fact that the species dominance issue is too new, causing people who don’t really understand it to vote almost randomly – hence the 50:50 result. But gradually, it dawned on me that many people felt as ambivalently about the issue as I do. Typically, the Terran/Cosmist split would run from 40:60 to 60:40 (although I do notice that with my very young Chinese audiences in computer science, the Cosmists are at about 80%).



Human history is geology on speed

Complex systems, characterized by high (and rising local) negative entropy, are essentially historical. The sciences devoted to them tend inevitably to become evolutionary, as exemplified by the course of the earth- and life-sciences – which had become thoroughly historicized by the late 19th century. Perhaps the most elegant, abstract, or ‘cosmic’ comprehension of this necessity is found in the work of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945), whose visionary writings sought to establish the basis for an integrated understanding of terrestrial history, conceived as a process of material acceleration through geochemical epochs.

Despite the philosophical power of his ideas, Vernadsky’s scientific training as a chemist anchored his thoughts in concrete, literal reality. The acceleration of the terrestrial process was more than an anthropocentric impression, registering socially and culturally significant change (such as the cephalization of the primate lineage leading to mankind). Geochemical evolution was physically expressed through the average velocity of particles, as biological metabolism (biosphere), and eventually human cultures (noosphere), introduced and propagated ever more intense networks of chemical reactions. Life is matter in a hurry, culture even more so.

Whilst Vernadsky has been sporadically rediscovered and celebrated, his importance – based on the profundity, rigor, and supreme relevance of his work — has yet to be fully and universally acknowledged. Yet it is possible that his time is finally arriving.

The May 28 – June 3 edition of The Economist devotes an editorial and major feature story to the Anthropocene – a distinctive geological epoch proposed by Paul Crutzen in 2000, now under consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the “ultimate adjudicator of the geological time scale”). Recognition of the Anthropocene would be an acknowledgement that we inhabit a geological epoch whose physical signature has been fundamentally re-shaped by the technological forces of the ‘noosphere’ or ‘ethosphere’ – in which human intelligence has been introduced as a massive (and even dominant) force of nature. Radical metamorphosis (and acceleration) of the earth’s nitrogen and carbon cycles are especially pronounced Anthropocene signals.

“The term ‘paradigm shift’ is bandied around with promiscuous ease,” The Economist notes. “But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real.”

Third Reich master architect Albert Speer is notorious for his promotion of ‘ruin value’ – the persistent grandeur of monumental constructions, encountered by archaeologists in the far future. The Anthropocene introduces a similar perspective on a still vaster scale. As The Economist remarks:

The most common way of distinguishing periods of geological time is by means of the fossils they contain. On this basis picking out the Anthropocene in the rocks of days to come will be pretty easy. Cities will make particularly distinctive fossils. A city on a fast-sinking river delta (and fast-sinking deltas, undermined by the pumping of groundwater and starved of sediment by dams upstream, are common Anthropocene environments) could spend millions of years buried and still, when eventually uncovered, reveal through its crushed structures and weird mixtures of materials that it is unlike anything else in the geological record.

As terrestrial history accelerates, the distinctive units of geological time are compressed. The Archean and Proterozoic aeons are measured in billions of years, the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic eras in hundreds of millions, the Palaeogene and Neogene periods in tens of millions. The Holocene epoch lasts less than 10,000 years, and the Anthropocene (epoch or mere phase?) only centuries – because its recognition is already an indication of its end.

Beyond the Anthropocene lies the Technocene, distinguished by nanotechnological manipulation of matter — a geochemical revolution of such magnitude that only the assembly of (RNA and DNA) replicator molecules is comparable in implication. Within the coming Technocene (lasting mere decades?), the carbon cycle is relayed through sub-microscopic manufacturing processes that utilize it as the ultimate industrial resource – feedstock for diamondoid nanomachine fabrication. The consequences for geological deposition, and thus for the discoveries of potential distant-future geologists, are substantial but opaque. On the far-side of nanomachined age, femtomachines await, precisely assembled from quarks, and decomposing chemistry into nuclear physics.

For the moment, however, even the origination of the Anthropocene – never mind its termination – remains a matter of live controversy. Assuming that it coincides with industrialization (which is not universally accepted), geologists will find themselves enmeshed in a debate among historians, as the fraught term ‘modernity’ takes on a geochemical definition. Whatever the outcome, Vernadsky is back.



Betting everything that the casino will burn down

Harold Camping’s Family Radio warned its listeners to expect some unusually dramatic spring events:

By God’s grace and tremendous mercy, He is giving us advanced warning as to what He is about to do. On Judgment Day, May 21st, 2011, this 5-month period of horrible torment will begin for all the inhabitants of the earth. It will be on May 21st that God will raise up all the dead that have ever died from their graves. Earthquakes will ravage the whole world as the earth will no longer conceal its dead (Isaiah 26:21). People who died as saved individuals will experience the resurrection of their bodies and immediately leave this world to forever be with the Lord. Those who died unsaved will be raised up as well, but only to have their lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. Death will be everywhere.

Clearly, prediction can be a perilous business.

Yet, as Karl Popper noted with respect to scientific theories, falsifiable predictions also serve a valuable – even indispensable – purpose. Any model of reality that is able to make specific forecasts earns a credibility that vaguer ‘world-views’ are not entitled to, although at the price of radical vulnerability to devaluation, should its anticipations prove unfounded.

Much like Marxism, the Libertarianism of Austrian School economic theory combines historical expectations (of greater or lesser exactitude) with a core of philosophical, political, and even emotional commitment that is comparatively immunized against empirical refutation. Both Marxism and Austrolibertarianism are large, highly variegated ideologies, with complicated histories, expressing profound discontent with the dominant order of the modern world, and prone to utopian temptations. Both are (often indignant) moral-political doctrines extrapolated in very different ways from Lockean natural-law property rights (to one’s own body and its productive activity). Both attract a wide spectrum of followers, from sober scholars to wild-eyed revolutionary advocates, who see in the unfolding drama of history the possibility of definitive vindication (much as the faithful of millenarian theologies have always done, and – as the Camping case demonstrates – continue to do).

The Western roots of both Marxism and Austrolibertarianism reach down into Jewish redemptive eschatology and Greek tragedy (it is perhaps noteworthy that Karl Marx and Ludwig von Mises shared intriguing biographical features, including highly-assimilated German-Jewish backgrounds, steeped in European high-culture). Statist-Capitalism is portrayed as the Satanic-Promethean antihero of an epic narrative, describing a sustained violation of justice that finds itself held accountable in a final apocalyptic moment giving meaning to history, and a seemingly unconstrained hubris that meets its eventual nemesis. The high is brought low, through a crisis whose mere prospect offers overwhelming psychological satisfaction, and thus extraordinary emotional attachment.

Since the 1980s, Marxism has tended to retreat from the predictive mode. Its enthusiasts no doubt remain committed to the prospect of a terminal crisis of capitalism, perhaps even an imminent one, but Marxist prophecy seems timorous and uncertain today, even under conditions of unusual global economic dislocation. The Austrolibertarians, on the other hand, are being drawn out onto a prophetic branch – possibly despite themselves – with incalculable consequences for their future credibility. Their fundamental assumption, that governments are by essence incompetent and unqualified to run the monetary systems required by advanced economies, leads them to an almost inescapable conclusion: hyperinflation.

Hyperinflation might be the sole economic example of a true singularity: a hyperbolic approach to infinity (in finite time), producing a punctual discontinuity. When hyperinflation strikes, it escalates rapidly towards a hard limit, where money dies. In the economic sphere, it is the unsurpassable example of regime incompetence. How could Austrolibertarians – whose apocalyptic inclinations are matched only by their disdain for political authority – not be irresistibly attracted to it?

John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics blog is not easily characterized as hardcore Austrolibertarian site (Williams describes himself as a “conservative Republican with a libertarian bent”), but the prognosis outlined carefully in its Hyperinflation Special Report (2011) exemplifies the tendency to predict imminent nemesis for command-control monetary policy. Williams subscribes wholeheartedly to the Austrian certitude that ‘kicking the can’ (up the road) – the central feature of Keynesian macroeconomic policy – guarantees eventual catastrophe, and ‘eventual’ just got a whole lot closer. Nemesis is coming due.

Both the federal government and the Federal Reserve have demonstrated that they will not tolerate a systemic collapse and a great deflation, as seen during the Great Depression. … those risks are being fought, and will be fought, at any cost that can be covered by the unlimited creation of new money. It was a devil’s choice, but the choice has been made. Extreme systemic interventions, and formal measures to debase the U.S. dollar through the effective unlimited creation of money to cover systemic needs and the government’s obligations, pushed the timing of a systemic collapse — threatened in September 2008 — several years into the future. The cost of instant salvation, though, was inflation. Eventual systemic collapse is unavoidable at this point, but it will be in a hyperinflationary great depression, instead of a deflationary one.

Williams isn’t afraid to lock down some dates, with 2014 proposed as the outer limit of possibility – and sooner is likelier:

At present, it is the Obama Administration that has to look at abandoning the debt standard (hyperinflation) and starting fresh. Yet, the Administration and many in Congress have taken recent actions suggestive of hoping only to push off the day of reckoning for the economic and systemic solvency crises until after the 2012 presidential election. They do not have that time.

As he elaborates:

Actions already taken to contain the systemic solvency crisis and to stimulate the economy (which have not worked), plus what should be renewed devastating impact of unexpected ongoing economic contraction on tax revenues, have set the stage for a much earlier crisis. Risks are high for the hyperinflation beginning to break in the months ahead; it likely cannot be avoided beyond 2014; it already may be beginning to unfold.

It is in this environment of rapid fiscal deterioration and related massive funding needs that the U.S. dollar remains open to a rapid and massive decline, along with a dumping of domestic- and foreign-held U.S. Treasuries. The Federal Reserve would be forced to monetize further significant sums of Treasury debt, triggering the early phases of a monetary inflation.

Under such circumstances, current multi-trillion dollar deficits would feed rapidly into a vicious, self-feeding cycle of currency debasement and hyperinflation. With the economy already in depression, hyperinflation kicking in quickly would push the economy into a great depression, since disruptions from uncontained inflation are likely to bring normal commercial activity to a halt.

What happens next is anyone’s speculation.

The hyperinflationary destruction of the world’s reserve currency would be a decisive event. The mere possibility of such an occurrence divides the set of potential futures between two tracks. On one, in which the US Dollar (FRN) survives, Austrolibertarian alarmism is humiliated, the economic competence of the US government is – broadly speaking – confirmed, and the principles of fiat currency production and central banking are reinforced, along with their natural supporters among neo-Keynesian anti-deflationary macroeconomists. On the other, the Austrolibertarians dance in the ashes of the dollar, precious metals replace fiat paper, central banks come under withering political attack, and the economic role of government in general is subjected to a major onslaught by energized free-marketeers. At least, that’s what a just universe, or a fair bet, would look like.

Betting on a just universe could be the big mistake, however – and that’s a temptation the morally-charged Austrolibertarian grand narrative finds hard to avoid. In a morally indifferent universe, Nemesis is non-redemptive, and the entire bet is an inverse Pascal’s wager, with downside on every side. Make a brave prediction of hyperinflation, and you either lose, or you lose – gloating neo-Keynesians, greater indebtedness, and fatter government on the one hand, or some yet unconsolidated species of neo-totalitarian horror on the other. (It’s noteworthy that a tour through the history of post-hyperinflationary regimes doesn’t pass through many examples of laissez-faire commercial republics.)

So is the dollar going to die? — Quite possibly. Then things could really turn nasty – more Harold Camping than Ludwig von Mises: “lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. Death will be everywhere.”



A new world order hits the buffers

“For nearly 30 years we have had two Global Strategies working in a symbiotic fashion that has created a virtuous economic growth spiral. Unfortunately, the economic underpinnings were flawed and as a consequence, the virtuous cycle has ended. It is now in the process of reversing and becoming a vicious downward economic spiral,” writes Gordon T. Long, in a guest post at Zero Hedge. “One of the strategies is the Asian Mercantile Strategy. The other is the US Dollar Reserve Currency Strategy.”

The system that Long sees unraveling has been dubbed ‘Chimerica’ by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick, in reference to the mythical hybrid beast of antiquity. Chimerica emerged through the dynamic coupling of the US and Chinese economies, dominating the wave of globalization in the post-command economy world. It has served as a powerful engine of development, spreading prosperity beyond the narrow enclave of the (Euro-American) ‘First World’ and facilitating the global roll-out of digital network technologies, from personal computing and mobile telephony to the Internet. In recent years, however, its unsustainable features have become prominently visible.

Stripped to its fundamentals, Chimerica amounted to something akin to an informal geopolitical ‘deal’ that simultaneously promoted the international status of the US Dollar and domestic Chinese industrialization. The principal financial mechanism was the recycling of Chinese trade surpluses into US Treasury Bonds, in a process that accentuated Chinese competitiveness (by restraining the rise of the Yuan) and suppressed US inflation (preserving the credibility of the USD). This enabled Chinese industrial expansion to proceed at a far greater speed than its domestic market could have supported, whilst providing US governments with the latitude to run a chronically loose monetary policy immunized against the prospect of currency collapse. The Chinese manufacturing and US banking sectors were the most obvious beneficiaries. Both prospered conspicuously.

As Niall Ferguson wrote in November 2008, in the early days of the world financial crisis:

“At the heart of this crisis is the huge imbalance between the United States, with its current account deficit in excess of 1 percent of world gross domestic product, and the surplus countries that finance it: the oil exporters, Japan and emerging Asia. Of these, the relationship between China and America has become the crucial one. More than anything else, it has been China’s strategy of dollar reserve accumulation that has financed America’s debt habit. Chinese savings were a key reason U.S. long-term interest rates stayed low and the borrowing binge kept going. Now that the age of leverage is over, ‘Chimerica’ — the partnership between the big saver and the big spender — is key.”

Having reached a state of crisis, Chimerica seems certain to unwind. This might occur either through a measured rebalancing that increases Chinese domestic consumption whilst reducing US deficit spending, or as a messy disintegration — involving sudden demand contraction, currency wars, and escalating mutual recrimination. Whatever the eventual outcome, a refashioned world order is an inevitable – which is to say, definitional – result.

Whilst Ferguson hedges his bets, Gordon Long spells out a specific and ominous forecast, in which the virtuous cycle of Chimerican globalization reverses into a vicious ‘death spiral’. As ‘debt saturation’ closes down the option of policy continuity, the actions of the US Federal Reserve become manifestly ineffective, self-contradictory, and ultimately paralyzed. The long-postponed process of currency destruction then begins in earnest. Long offers a useful checklist of milestones on the road to ruin (proceeding from financial, through economic, to political calamity):

1. A deteriorating US dollar

2. Rising US interest rates

3. Sustained and chronic US unemployment

4. Asian inflation, especially in food where 60% of Asian disposable income is spent

5. Pressures on Asian currency pegs

6. Collapsing values of US Reserve holdings

By the end of this process, the world will have been violently catapulted out of a financial architecture dating back 70 years, and a dominant monetary philosophy that has prevailed over the course of centuries.

“The eventuality of a fiat currency crisis is ordained and has been since the early warnings in 2007 of the Financial Crisis,” Long insists. “The roadmap has been clear to all that actually wanted to look.”