November 29, 2012


Overheard at the Oxford Science Society meeting yesterday:


"It's entropy, just deal with it"

"Thats the least useful answer ever. It is the answer to every single question in the history of the universe."

I also learned that blind mole rats are cancer-resistant like the naked mole rats, but thanks to a different mechanism. That is useful.

Posted by Anders3 at 12:26 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2012

Energy equals absement times yank

Fast forwardCan you name what comes after position, velocity, and acceleration?

LOG#053. Derivatives of position. « The Spectrum of Riemannium - a very fun post on a very promising blog dealing with the derivatives and antiderivatives of position.

We do care about jerk in real life: elevators or cars that change acceleration too quickly are unpleasant. I am less certain jounce is of practical concern.

Overall, most of physics seems to happen between triple integrals and double derivatives: beyond that higher derivatives show up mainly as Taylor series. Is this because physics actually does happen at low derivatives, or is it just because we haven't explored it very deeply?

Posted by Anders3 at 01:39 PM | Comments (0)

November 13, 2012

Where are they? I was at Balliol, anyway.

Last week I gace a talk at the Oxford Transhumanist's meeting titled Where are they? Alien intelligence, existential risk and the limits of technology.

Slightly bad sound, unfortunately. This talk sums up some of the research strands I have been pursuing this summer, including interstellar communication game theory, spamming the universe, and deadly probe ecology. Coming soon to academic journals near you.

Posted by Anders3 at 05:09 PM | Comments (0)

November 12, 2012

Review time

Book SculptureTime to review some of my newly finished reading:

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks: A good old action-packed Culture novel. Snarky ships with humorous names, people with odd biologies, decamillennia-spanning intrigue, and the etiquette of transcending the universe.

It is not among the top ones (it is hard to beat Use of Weapons, and I have a very soft spot for The Player of Games), but a solid read. I especially enjoyed the various strange hobbies and art projects going on: whether sand-sculpting (including quality control of individual grains), the most overwrought party/orgy since the flying party in Douglas Adam's Life, the Universe and Everything), doing alchemy in virtual chemistries, or indeed, the titular piece of music.

Activating epileptic tree mode (some spoilers ahead): I think the events of the novel were actually something akin to the Hydrogen Sonata. On the surface the plot is driven by the secret of the Book of Truth, which itself is a bit like the Sonata: an academic experiment of little importance in itself, but given far greater importance by the people caught up in it. The doing is important, while the end result does not matter much. However, there are also signs that there might be more going on. What is Zoologist really doing, and why did it disappear? Why did QiRia's memory behave like it did, and why did he choose to do what he did? Why did the ship help the Ronte like it did, making a tragic confrontation unavoidable? Aren't Pyan and the Marshall subtly influencing - perhaps without noting - their principals? An obvious interpretation of this paranoid line of thought is that the whole thing is a bigger Sonata, orchestrated from outside. Perhaps it makes sense from the Sublime. In one sense this is obviously true: the events form a novel in our universe, where their pattern make sense to the author and the readers. Again, it is the reading rather than getting to the end that is enjoyable and important.

I got inspired by the novel to make my own atrociously pointless and piece of music. It is going to be a doozy. Just one hint: the ultrahyperbolic wave equation.

The Optics of Life by Sönke Johnsen: I like reading introductory books on random subjects. This one is a great introduction to light from the perspective of a biologist.

It covers a lot of the practical details like the plethora of confusing units and what to do about them. It discusses many of the pitfalls that dot the field, like the subtle problem that light spectra are histograms and hence does not behave quite like they should when you shift between wavelength and frequency (it is not enough to just recalculate the wavelengths into frequencies or vice versa, since the bin size and hence the height of the curve will be changed non-linearly).

What I enjoyed was that I learned new things on every page, despite being (I thought) somewhat well read in physics and not too ignorant of biology. There were plenty of little 'aha!'-moments where an everyday phenomenon got its explanation (why does wet objects often look dark? why does saturation of pigments change when they get thicker? how does the light spectrum really change as twilight sets in? why do we not see beams travelling past us in scattering media, if every scatterer supposedly radiates waves isotropically?) And conversely, there are many intriguing open problems: why are there so few bioluminescent freshwater species? Why are there no visual pigments that peak in the deep red, and why do some deep-sea fishes go for red bioluminescence? What is up with the visual world of mantis shrimp?

The book is full of strange biological solutions, like how moth eyes use nipple arrays to control effective refractive index and hence reduce reflection or the tricky arrangements of photoreceptors in insect eyes to get polarisation sensitivity. Not to mention hilarious asides, such as the problems of getting truly light-pollution free measurements when the Coast Guard thinks your darkened boat is smuggling drugs.

Even if you are never going to do biological optics, this is very worth reading.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi: The sequel to The Quantum Thief. Not quite up to its predecessor's perfect pacing, but still filled with a dense lattice of fresh and intriguing ideas for a post-human world.

It feels very much like the author has been quietly listening in to some of our FHI office discussions, figuring out how to turn our research issues into plot points, asides or just background decorations. It gives a bit more information about the solar system of the setting, filling in just enough background details to help make out the overall back-story but still leaving plenty of voids for the imagination to fill. I am less convinced about the physical or computational feasibility of some of the goings-on than in the previous novel, but I think one can easily get a firm suspension of disbelief when one considers that this is a solar system a lifetime or two beyond the singularity. Our ancestors would likely have laughed at the idea that mere coal could become super-strong carbon fibre: maybe there are sneaky ways of getting that much bandwidth too.

If there was anything problematic about it, it was the ending. Just like the previous novel it ends in a grand rush with world-changing events happening over just a few pages. In this case there is also a pretty major and character-changing revelation that better be scrutinized or handled well in the sequel. Rajaniemi certainly doesn't make his job easier for himself.

The quantum boxing method was a real "why didn't I think of it?!" moment for me, given my past paper on AI boxing. It seems quite doable (assuming you have AI and quantum computers), although if *every* evolution of the AI manages to set certain registers into the same states it might be able to write a classical message to a side channel. However, I am not sure this can actually be done: worth doing a bit of proving about. I love when novels produce research topics *and* are page-turners!

Posted by Anders3 at 09:25 PM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2012

Pride and Prejudice and Philosophical Zombies

Finally a reimagining of a classic with monsters worth reading: Pride and Prejudice and Philosophical Zombies. Yes, they retell Pride and Prejudice without qualia. Try to spot the difference!

Posted by Anders3 at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2012

Can governments counter the Moore's law of mad science?

8 of Information: Trillicom Arms Inc.Personalised weapons of mass destruction: governments and strategic emerging technologies - I blog about personalized biowarfare, extrajudical killings, cyberwarfare, EMP weaponry and other thriller-fodder. Except that these are real issues now and in the near future. My main argument is that the US (and other governments) are pursuing technologies that are potentially most effective in destabilizing their own societies.

Yesterday I had a very stimulating talk with a knowledgeable expert on cybersecurity and strategy. One of the main conclusions from our discussion - filled with historical overviews and interesting anecdotes about the Pentagon lifestyle - was that governments can be amazingly naive and biased about matters of national security, the one area where you would assume they would be coldly rational. The problem is not just individual folly, but institutionalized endemic folly that do cost nations wars and megadeaths. Oops.

As technology advances, individual destructive power goes up (strictly speaking, it is the tail of the power distribution that goes up - the median person is still pretty meek) and this leads to increasing risks when individuals or groups go bad.

  • One approach is to try to reduce the risk by increased control and monitoring, a very popular strategy among governments. But many of the potentially problematic technologies are general purpose technologies essential for the economy. It is hard to ban ammonium nitrate when it is needed for mining and farming, trucks with concentrated ammonia (industry and large-scale freezing), or the Internet (business and cat videos). Governments are bad at predicting which technologies are going to be winners or produce surprise risks, and many problematic technologies are small-scale and cannot be monitored like nuclear facilities - finding a basement biolab or the laptop where somebody is developing malware is nearly impossible.

  • Another approach is to try to improve people. Freer, richer and nicer people are less likely to blow up things. As Julian Savulescu and Ingemar Nordin have argued, moral enhancement is a good idea to pursue before we get to major cognitive enhancement. But it is the tails that are dangerous, and even if the median person is nice it only takes a few in the extreme tail to cause big trouble.

  • A third approach is to try to make things more resilient. Make it harder to take out governments, cities or social networks with a single strike. Make systems that are self-healing and self-correcting. As long as damage is local, repairable and leads to a rational learning response that makes it hard to repeat the same trick it will be manageable.

None of these approaches are good enough. In theory the monitoring and control approach could be extended to a global surveillance regime with AI support that kept everybody under watch and prevented certain bad behaviours. But such a singleton would be best at handling well-defined risks rather than entirely new ones (so the only really safe approach would be to stop free innovation), and lend itself to totalitarian uses. Moral enhancement might make some groups even more motivated to bring drastic moral change about or become willing to risk all for an ideal. Resiliency is expensive and likely too local to handle certain global catastrophic risks or existential risks - while the approach makes things better, it doesn't provide the coordination needed to meet them.

Most likely we will have to muddle through with a mixture of approaches, imperfect implementations and occasional failures. That is OK. What is not OK is when the strategic technology policy (or the global disaster policy) is irrational: it does not matter if intentions are good if they are not applied rationally to the world. And that suggests an interesting meta-problem: how do we overcome institutionalized endemic folly? Figuring out better ways of making large-scale decisions is probably one of the most high-impact research topics imaginable right now.

Posted by Anders3 at 10:07 PM | Comments (0)