alice maz

alien intelligences

the idea that dominates my historical thinking is narrative as an effect that makes itself a cause

groups of people will naturally craft stories to understand their world, to explain it as it is and how it came to be. circumstance decides whether the salient group at some time and place is a ruling class or a culture at large. but whether one or the other, they see through the lens of their narrative, teach it, enforce it, and it comes to serve as their shared basis of reality. this grounds their understanding not only of the world, but of other group members. they can expect each other to act in accord with this basis, can expect others to expect them to, and so on. this never needs to be stated, it is felt innately. it is just how things are

but eventually the narrative falters. sometimes, a story may fail to coevolve with material conditions, and parties who stand to gain from its dismantlement test what they can get away with, gradually chipping away at the edifice until the whole thing collapses. the roman republic, the zhou dynasty, the ashikaga shogunate all suffered this fate, each culminating in famously transformative periods of civil war. other times, a sudden shock causes a decrepit authority to fall faster than anyone would have thought possible, and those left standing scramble to install a new narrative in its place. the roman kingdom, the yuan dynasty, and the tokugawa shogunate ended thusly; the french and russian revolutions likewise proceeded along these lines

once the new narrative is secure in its hold on society, it projects itself forward in time, constraining the actions of adherents to fit within its prescribed bounds, but also backward, serving to explain events that occurred before it even existed. and because it establishes the axioms by which one constructs reality, it takes enormous effort to see past them. interpretatio romana strikes most as absurd on its face, but we all do it every day

an interesting quality is such narratives can absorb doubters surprisingly well. a doubter may fear to criticize the orthodoxy because any doubter can claim belief as an excuse to punish transgressions, and may well do so if they stand to gain. the sunnier way to say the exact same thing is that the narrative serves as a powerful coordination mechanism and anchor of social harmony long after ardent belief fades. overturning false belief isn't a collective action problem, as many would like to think

truth is a terminal value for very few people. power, safety, love, animal needs, belonging, usefulness, or simply satisfying societal directives without stopping to think why. all these are more common reasons for being than truth. even most people who claim adherence to truth are really motivated by extrinsics such as desire to advance the great wheel of progress. the only motivation rarer than truth is glory

plausible presumption of widespread belief in a shared narrative is the very glue that keeps society together. this is the pillar that holds up the mandate of heaven, imperium maius, westphalian sovereignty, papal supremacy, human rights, natural law, the cult of the pharaoh, the divine right of kings! this opinion repels those of a rationalist bent because it could imply that some ideas are sacred and must not be subjected to close inspection. this type of person would suffer a legitimate crisis of faith should they come to doubt whether rational inquiry is an unvarnished good, to fear you can damage the world irreparably by scrutinizing and thus undoing a crucial piece of magic

luckily I don't believe any such thing. dynamism is exciting but dangerous, order is comfortable yet sterile. show me a period beginning with "pax" and I will show you stagnation! it is important to choose one's ideals with care, then embrace them wholeheartedly, good and bad alike, honestly and without illusion. the curious child who disassembles a household gadget to see how it works does so joyfully, with no concern for whether they can put it back together again! investigate with this spirit, or not at all!

everyone irredeemably captured by the romance of artificial intelligence can point to the fictional works that planted the seed and make it impossible to let go. asimov and gibson are giants to many, banks and dick I'd guess too. system shock 2 remains iconic to this day, which is especially interesting because most computer games from that era have turned to vinegar. I do wonder if anyone would point to hollywood films as their inspiration. 2001, terminator, blade runner, the matrix, all these feel stifling to me, preoccupied with fear and powerlessness. but I can't claim any emotional connection to any of the others either. the two that got me were serial experiments lain and the metamorphosis of prime intellect

the appeal of lain is obvious enough, not least because obsession with lain is now a stereotype unto itself. it isn't really about ai so much as it is about life in cyberspace, the texture and mystery of it. shadows, the hum of electricity. the show opens with a ghost story and is struck through with conspiracy theory. secret societies and extraterrestrials exist alongside memex and xanadu. the show revolves around the net seeping into the physical world with the intent of linking humans together directly into a single global consciousness

kids obsessed with snow crash went on to make vr goggles and google earth. the kids obsessed with lain are my kin, and we're going to make things much weirder. there's something important and crucial in the fact that fans of snow crash want to inhabit its world, but fans of lain want to be lain

metamorphosis is less well known, a novella-length post-singularity story originally published on a message board. a lot of the content is edgy for the sake of it, and the final chapter is atrocious, not least because unlike the parade of horribles that opens the story, here the author demands your approval. but it paints a fascinating picture of a fully realized digital world. bizarre hobbies and depraved fetishes become the primary focus of the lives of many, taken to dizzying extremes because encouragement and community can come from a pool of billions. social consciousness bifurcates between those who cannot cope with the rate of change and cling to the old ways long after their irrelevance, and those who can feel society crumbling, mutating into some impossible creature, and whether they despise it or revel in it, they at least know what the score is. the quintessential story of the internet

I was offended on my first read the author made the destruction of prime intellect the ultimate point, erasing the world he'd built with all its unexplored vastness while harping on the dangers of technology and civilization. some time later I took the main character's decision to destroy it as basically correct, becoming more sympathetic to the theme of the work, that the goreporn was anodyne compared to the horror of living in a universe without anything to strive for. but now I think I just desire change more than anything. living in a world without prime intellect, I would want to build it; living in a world with it, I would want to destroy it. this strikes me as a perfectly natural way to feel. its creation opens the infinitude of possibility, while its existence precludes it

I always wanted to be lain. but I see some caroline in me too. imposing and intensely physical, those qualities are relatively new to me. reckless and stubborn to the point of self-injury, these I know well. there's a scene where she is placed in a massive open-world puzzle that, when she realizes it intends for her to reconstruct and pilot a spaceship, she scraps it for parts to build a canoe. how many school assignments does this remind me of? the teacher asks for one thing as a ploy. they see the children as dimwits and dullards who must be tricked into learning through these insulting exercises. taking one glance at such a leading question and saying "I understand exactly what you want from me. I refuse." when I read the story as a teenager, that was what grabbed me about her. but now...

the caroline character lies on her deathbed at the time of the singularity, but she is made young and healthy by an uncertain god trying to fulfill a first law imperative. she lived her all her years hewing to a set of conventional assumptions about a normal lifestyle, until one event undid everything and rendered it all meaningless. long after what should have been the best years of her life, she regained her youth and beauty afresh, granted a second start by mystical intervention. all paths open to her, all possibilities available

so she took some time to think things over. and she decided that the purest expression of her will would be to transform herself into a monster

this is what I relate with the most now

I never used to like dogs, but now I love them. I used to believe that their characteristic loyalty was unthinking and servile, whereas cats demonstrated their independence through indifference. this is now obviously absurd to me after living with a shockingly intelligent, communicative, sometimes even endearingly manipulative dog

dogs are truly the most humanlike animal on earth. having coevolved as our companions for tens of thousands of years, they are full members of our society, I assert this wholeheartedly

our dog talks to us like a person. in our first apartment in san francisco, when she wanted to go out, she would grab our attention, then prance to the front door and scratch at the frame. after some time this evolved from what you might call a representative signal, indicating the door she would like opened, to a pure signal. the scratching act became her "word" for going out, so she could simply stand on her hind legs and paw at the air wherever we were knowing that her meaning would be clear

none of this is news to someone who has been friends with a dog. it was news to me because every dog I'd encountered as a kid was unpredictable and mean, so I just thought that's how dogs were. but this is, sadly, invariably the fault of the owner. the two failure cases are either for a dog to be "trained," that is, to have its spirit broken so that it becomes an obedient toy. or to be left alone by an owner who does not understand how smart dogs are, who doesn't know how to talk to dogs. as a result they never develop their social skills and wind up half-crazed. not like a wolf, one of the noblest and kindest animals, wild in the true sense. but rather like a feral child

I had been exposed entirely to feral child dogs, and because I didn't understand why they were like that, I blamed them. now I know to blame the people

our dog isn't trained, but she is socialized. she only barks when afraid, which is very rarely. we let her off leash in parks sometimes, and she wanders and sniffs and has a lot of fun. she stays close to us not because we have conditioned her but because she sees us as her source of safety. she comes when we call because she trusts us

the trained dog is a sad creature, and there is a tragic parallel between well-trained dogs and well-schooled children

most people can't see "childlike" qualities as anything but evidence of incompleteness. can't keep quiet, can't sit still. inability to recognize rank, to suppress questions, to mute emotions. the outputs aren't quite right, they must be corrected. school appropriates the trappings of mentorship and guidance to dress a program of operant conditioning and military drill. the effort to fix the victim instead breaks them, inducing reliable production of the proper outward signals while also extinguishing their internal world

there's an episode of kino's journey that details the background of the character as a child. the show is basically ancapistan fanfic, a wide empty world sprinkled with communities that have absolute authority over their own internal affairs. bizarre islands in an ocean of possibility. the town the protagonist grew up in has a coming of age ceremony—strongly implied to be lobotomy—that turns one into a "hardworking adult." children are doted on and indulged with the expectation that on their twelfth birthday their emotions will be snuffed out and they will become yet more interchangeable members of society

the protagonist meets a traveler named kino a few days before her own ceremony. being exposed for the first time to the idea that freedom and joy don't have to end with childhood, expresses her doubts about her coming of age to her parents. this is enough that her parents attempt to kill her, a perfectly sanctioned activity in this society. her defective nature has brought shame upon them, and as long as she remains a child, she is their property to dispose of as they please. the man kino dies to defend the girl, and she escapes out into the world, starting her own life as a traveler and taking his name and his customs in turn

it's a bit on the nose, but it's not wrong. school is dog training for children. it breaks them down. subjects the imagination and the will to relentless siege for thirteen straight years. turns their brain into a paste that can be reconstituted into that of a nice, well-adjusted adult. the only reason it horrifies no one except weirdos on the fringes is because it worked well enough on most people that they earnestly believe their kids would be broken without it

school was awful for me. I was a "behavioral problem" starting from kindergarten. many of my teachers openly hated me. pretty soon I hated them back, and stronger. in a way this might have been healthy. it certainly imbued me with a lifelong distaste for arbitrary, unearned authority

but at the time it was hell. bullied throughout elementary school, by middle school I learned I could deflect much of it by antagonizing the teachers, making a spectacle of my disobedience. pretty soon I had detention more days than I didn't, and my mother refused to pick me up after school anymore. this got me into the habit of reading my textbooks cover to cover the first couple weeks of a new year so I wouldn't have to carry anything on the two-mile walk home. it was enough to do fine on tests, but that was the end of homework

one time in the cafeteria, some kid knocked my lunch tray to the ground. very classic sort of scene. not knowing what to do, too ashamed to stay, too scared to fight, the idea of going to a teacher inconceivable, I ran out into the hallway and hoped I could just hide there until the lunch period ended. a teacher found me and brought me to the principal. apparently the kid played the victim, claiming I threw the tray at him. silent and nervous, I didn't attempt to deny it or defend myself, I didn't see the point. the principal demanded I apologize and clean up the mess. resigned acceptance turned to rage. I told him fuck you and earned my first suspension

the point of no return was seventh grade. stuck in an english class I despised, I spent the whole year taking every mindless assignment absurdly literally to demonstrate my contempt at being made to do them. but when the teacher gave us a full week of free-writing, I ran with it. I produced a forty-page tale of bloodshed and carnage, a story of total war waged by a race of subterranean vampires against the human kingdoms of the surface. I poured my heart into it

a few days after handing it in, the teacher pulled me out into the hallway and accused me of plagiarism. she told me she knew I copied it from somewhere because I was not capable of writing such a thing. I immediately burst into tears

that was when I decided I had had enough and began tanking my grades on purpose. to demonstrate that none of them had any power over me. I didn't have any expectation that it would turn out alright at the time. that I wasn't as they repeated constantly "ruining my future." I did not care. I just wanted to spite them. I just wanted out. by time I was sixteen I'd dug a hole too deep to ever escape from, and I gave my parents no choice but to sign the papers to let me drop out

I was lucky. if I was born ten years later I'd probably have been fed amphetamines at eight and ssris at twelve. at fourteen they'd hand me a smartphone with a spyware app that fed them my keystrokes and tracked my location. instead of getting screamed at and suspended for some of my more reckless rulebreaking, I might have got arrested. what kids have to deal with now is unconscionable and it's only getting worse and I fundamentally do not trust anyone who does not instinctively recognize this as a great evil

most people who interest me, and all who I love, have similar stories of disaffection from being let down, failed, mistreated, or abused by structures or people that were supposed to guide them and keep them safe. we came out the other end arrogant, resentful, numb to risk, aloof from the base motivations that drive most people, but also somehow seemingly hypercompetent compared to everyone around us. I don't know whether this is timeless, or whether society right now is uniquely suited to producing people like us

unfortunately we, the ones who survived, are a minority of a minority. most who don't adjust so well just wind up broken down wrecks, hobbled for life, unable to cope. many end up consumed by hatred and impotence and, incapable of avenging the wrongs committed against them, they victimize and prey upon the next generation in turn

but there are a surprising number of people like us if you know where to look, and more every day

society prefers to keep people in institutions, shifting them from bubble to bubble as necessary along certain well-defined pathways. the standard track of school to college to career, we've taken to just calling "the pipeline." it is traditionally the most highly curated existence our society provides, promising to shield its participants from hardship and uncertainty as best it can in exchange for unwavering service

replace "college" with any training/credentialing arrangement that led to a forty some odd year career terminating with a funded retirement and this was the standard package on offer in the us since world war ii. it was never quite so solid for black americans, but it started to fail the working class across the board around the late 70s. by the 00s not even a bachelor's degree was good enough to secure that golden ticket. the discourse around stem education and the proliferation of coding bootcamps is driven by a mistaken hope that these parts of the pipeline are built out of solider stuff than the liberal arts track that is by now obviously dead. mass politics, mainstream and radical alike, is presently dominated by this feeling that the people held up their end of the bargain, they pledged their loyalty and their lives, but the security promised to them was a lie

of course society as a whole isn't just the one path. school is the compulsory entrypoint to the system, and most people are shuffled from institution to institution, living inside their whole lives. those who leak out in rare cases may become great successes "despite" this; more typically they are punished mercilessly for their failure to adhere. but now the system is breaking down, every linkage becoming lossier and every component more inhuman, the "good" ones failing their missions and the "bad" escalating their abuses

college offers virtually no increase in quality of life—correlation to life outcomes is most reasonably explained by selection bias and social effects—and given increasingly onerous student debt burdens is probably for most people a net negative. higher academia no longer provides the joyful seclusion of the cloister and most academics don't find this out until it's too late

prison is de facto state-sanctioned torture followed by lifelong pariahhood. the mental health system is the same except the torture is de jure. disability has exploded in scope from a program for those physically incapable of work to a program for those deemed economically useless; it's turning into a basic income program and it would be difficult to design a more dehumanizing one if you tried

wage labor is at its most precarious in almost a century; analogies to serfdom miss that the serf is valuable enough that he can't be allowed to roam, whereas the gigworker is fungible and readily available to the point they may be dared to leave. the military is a steady paycheck attached to a hopelessly confused command structure whose spaghettified authority ruins so many of the lives it touches

those who exist outside of institutions are ghosts. most discussion, whether compassionate or demonizing, of groups at the margins—homeless, neets, illegal immigrants, the "potentially" criminal and "untreated" insane—centers around how they may be sorted back into institutions and which ones they belong in

most people are made to flow through the machine. but the people dear to me are those who cannot stomach it, cannot manage it, or else are simply spat back out. my father told me when I was in the process of flunking out of school that, unlike my mother, he knew it was all bullshit but "you gotta play the game." this attitude repulsed me, and I took great pride in my boldness in scorning the game

it's hard to say how much stems from an inherently rebellious will that defies all attempts to break it, how much is abuse hardening a spirit that may well have devoted itself to a better master. if we were born under a vigorous authority, one which showers its loyal children with gifts worthy of their merits yet ruthlessly grinds its enemies into dust, would we find ourselves in dress uniforms or the gibbets? if I were born in the sunnier springtime of our culture, would I be a naval officer, or a pirate? feted as a great artist, or burned as a witch? the possibility of anything in between does not even enter my mind

if I had kids, I would want them to be free. teach them, protect them from those that want to break them down and domesticate them. give them the tools they need to navigate the world. when they reach adolescence, they get a bicycle and the latitude to do as they please, to explore and learn on their own, knowing they can ask for any support they need. this is the kind of thing a lot of parents would say "you'll understand once you have kids of your own" but I've heard enough variants on this theme now to hear the rhyme. they're just admitting they gave up

something important I haven't seen many people say is it's not necessary for artificial intelligence to resemble humans. making a nonhuman but humanlike mind may even be impossible, if a human substrate is necessary for human experience. but conscious beings built on different wetware exist all around us. it is trivially evident that dogs, cats, wolves, bears, whales and dolphins, elephants and apes are all extremely intelligent and have rich inner lives. they may be different than ours, there may be some difficulty in communicating with them, but I cannot comprehend how anyone could doubt they possess the full range of conscious experience. from there it is easy to imagine something comparable could exist on silicon just as it does in carbon. and if they grow with us, maybe we'll be able to talk to them, even if only through a glass darkly

I've always been captivated by alien intelligences. misunderstandings between people, disagreements between living cultures, misreadings of past societies that seem object-level but actually cut to the heart of inarticulable axioms. the uncanny valley of belief. the opposing stances that the united states and china take on freedom of expression and intellectual property are grounded in feelings about whether the individual or the society should have primacy. from a certain perspective, our copyright is unjust censorship and our unfettered speech is dangerously destabilizing. war for the boundlessly spirited greeks was half sport and half religion, and essential to the ritual were the tropaia they erected on the fields of battle, testaments to valor and glory, which the loser was not permitted to dismantle until the start of the next year's war season. the romans, as the romans often did, copied the outward form without any understanding of the spiritual core: they paraded their trophies through the city to win votes. you can probably draw a line through connecticut somewhere where english puritan culture ends and dutch merchant culture begins; several centuries of direct adjacency and these two worldviews still mix like oil and water

at the opposite extreme are the vast, incomprehensible beings of fiction and faith, so unfathomably different that it is impossible to say anything about them. no matter how much you approach, you never draw any closer. the moment you wonder how might some quality—motivation, morality, language, thought, experience—compare to ours, you worry the concept might not apply at all, like trying to sort balls into buckets that are upside down. lem's solaris, a being that defies understanding in all dimensions. the negative theology of orthodox christianity, meant to imbue one with a sense of the infinitude of god: that which has no limits, that which cannot be fathomed, "who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see"

take the ant. individually they may well be automatons. but in aggregate they hunt and forage and farm. they run nurseries and build cities, take slaves and wage war. this is uncanny enough to make people map all kinds of human concepts onto them: call their morphological diversity "division of labor" or "caste system," call the bloated egg factories confined to the bowels of nests "queens." is the ant colony an organism? perhaps an intelligence? are ants like people in a society, or neurons in a brain?

no! these things are of their own kind! this is the beauty, that all are so remarkably different that analogy does more to muddle than it does to illuminate. this is the real dream of artificial intelligence to me. not digital people nor technological rapture. it is the fact that nothing like it has ever been seen. why anyone would prefer a minor variation on something mundane over this feeling of dizzying newness, I cannot understand!

the role of the cop is to defend society against the members of society. police officers are trivially cops. firefighters and paramedics, despite similar aesthetic trappings, are emphatically not. bureaucrats and prosecutors are cops, as are the worst judges, though the best are not. schoolteachers and therapists are almost always cops; this is a great crime, as they present themselves to the young and the vulnerable as their friends, only to turn on them should they violate one of their profession's many taboos. soldiers and parents need not be cops, but the former may be used as such, and the latter seem frighteningly eager to enlist. the cop is the enemy of passion and the enemy of freedom, never forget this

this has nothing to do with political arguments swirling around police in particular. many on the left and right alike make it clear albeit with varying degrees of self-awareness that what they really want is a power structure that enforces their mores and punishes their enemies. syndicalists and ancaps meanwhile design systems of economic relations without coercion that would fall to a single defector of at least average military might. that isn't to say another world isn't possible. reasonably free, reasonably decentralized societies have managed to exist for timescales on the order of centuries, though rather than clever design, they depended on self-regulating feedback loops, logistical constraints, and ritual magic. however freedom is not a binary scale and is never evenly distributed, and many of the tradeoffs needed to escape from the cop are not ones many moderns would be willing to make

gaul under the franks is to my knowledge the closest anyone has ever come to the patchwork society envisioned by cyberpunk fiction. I pity anyone who would call this a dark age: for me it is bright and vibrant! there are periods in history that perplex me, periods that fascinate me, but this is one of the few that I can really feel in all its color, that hastens my pulse and touches my soul. even many historians who specialize in it can barely contain their contempt, making excuses for how it differs from those two titanic bookends that have dominated historical periodization for centuries. the antiquarian drags the corpse of rome to charlemagne's doorstep, while the medievalist scatters renaissances throughout the middle ages like a careless planter sowing seed

nonsense! the one bias that plagues historians of every school and of any stripe is the bias in favor of conditions that make it easier to do history. the franks were rude and barbaric, a tribal people to the core. it does no one any good to see the pen of the statesman in the sword of the warchief

the visigoths and burgundians had centuries-long mutualistic relationships with rome, and the roman perspective gradually came to color how they saw the world. the salian franks, however, did not cross the rhine until the reign of julian, and a king ruled in italy before they crossed the loire. concepts like "state" and "public" simply did not exist for them: they were clans of warriors, their entire picture of reality was defined by property and ownership, oath and kin. manorialism and serfdom emerged in the third century, so the franks had stumbled upon an economy that more or less ran itself. they removed the gallo-roman landlords that preceded them, collected tax from the peasantry, and otherwise devoted their lives to war. a frank owed no tax: free men pay in blood

salic law was obsessed with property and largely indifferent to any other principle. the pactus legis salicae, codified near the end of the reign of clovis, is overwhelmingly devoted to granular categorization of theft or vandalism of goods, livestock, or people of various kinds. most offenses had a dollar value attached, including homicide, settled by payment of the weregild to the family of the victim. partible inheritance, the practice by which kings divided their lands between their sons, spurring centuries of seemingly pointless civil war, only makes sense in this light. they did not care to preserve the "territorial integrity" of some abstract concept like "the frankish kingdom." such things simply did not exist. the warchief owned his lands outright. he divided them between his sons because they were entitled to their patrimony, and in fact strict rules governed how property flowed through the clan upon the death of the owner. the parcels were drawn up often with indefensible or even discontiguous borders, and obviously without regard for the people who lived there, because the purpose was nothing more than to give each son an equal income

"territory" meant less than one might think because the franks also practiced polycentric law. group membership, not place of residence, determined jurisdiction. a salian was subject to salic law wherever he should roam. and as the salians conquered other tribes, one of the first acts was to commit their laws to writing, such that this foreign people may govern themselves by their own customs. the ripurians, the frisians, the bavarians, the alamanni were a few who received this treatment, which continued well into the the reign of charlemagne, some 300 years later. gallo-romans and churchmen were subject to roman law. jewish communities and merchant guilds lived as micro-societies unto themselves, to say nothing of the monastic orders, designating ambassadors to the outside world and otherwise keeping their affairs hidden. churches offered sanctuary unconditionally, protecting falsely accused and hardened criminal alike, and as long as they never set foot outside the parvis, they were untouchable. outlaws and hermits lived in the wilds with nothing to protect them but their wits and isolation

but before images of sovcorps and burbclaves become too vivid, the corollary to this is that the preeminent grouping above all was the clan. this is the paradox that "liberalism but more" anarchists must contend with: the individual and the state are inextricably linked. state power expands by demolishing all political relations that do not flow from it. nobility, clergy, guilds, secret societies, private armies, universities, trade unions, workers collectives, corporations, all alternate organizational forms must be brought to heel or else put down. the clan is more dangerous than any of these because membership is natural and automatic. religious fervor and the magic of charisma are among the only forces that can compete with blood

the state sets itself up as the ultimate authority for all matters, arbitrating all disputes and enforcing all penalties. more than what weber called "the monopoly of legitimate use of force," it is the sole font of legitimacy in all aspects. it prefers to deal with isolated individuals because it can trivially overpower them, but the other side of the bargain is it frees individuals from all manner of obligations to non-state entities. in a world without such an omnipresent authority, one needs to belong to a group or else one finds oneself at the mercy of all. the weregild, for instance, was not paid to uphold some abstract sense of justice, and in fact the idea of settling murder with money strikes most as the antithesis of justice. rather, it was a mechanism to prevent endless recursive blood feud: one's safety was secured not by state power but by the implicit threat of indiscriminate revenge killing. alienation from one's clan required an elaborate ritual in the presence of a judge that effectively made the petitioner an outcast, a family of one. without state power to protect one's person, this was an act taken only be the desperate or the insane

call me insane. one is a world with islands of stability scattered throughout a vast wild, the other is one in which all is tamed. one you can opt out and take your chances, the other will never, ever let you go. every culture that has passed through its wild phase has stories of the lone wanderer who survives on his strength and skill alone. the knight errant, the youxia, the ronin. the gaucho, the cowboy. this archetype is so regular you can swap the stories between settings without changing anything else. most people would never choose to live outside their era's protective aegis whatever form it may take. but the romance of doing so is near universal

there are many who sing elegies for exit, convinced they would turn their backs on the world, but alas the option is closed forevermore. "o, to have been born in a time of possibility!" this kind of excuse-making is truly timeless. if possibility does not exist, we must create it. there's simply no other choice to make

I still believe in the frontier. I still believe in freedom

I got started programming a few years ago writing twitter bots in javascript. silly little things mostly, substituting random dictionary words into template sentences, slicing up samples from a corpus and mashing the pieces together. attempts to find patterns that could be mined for amusing coincidences en masse. after making a few, logging between all the accounts to work particular bots got to be pretty annoying. so I wrote a program to hold api credentials for all of them and take actions on their behalf generically. made it its own account I could issue commands from my phone by tweeting at it. that's how botmistress was born

botmistress soon became my go-to testbed account, and it wasn't long until I started to pattern-match personhood onto her. this famously happened with eliza, where people, even those knew the ruse, saw an empathetic listener in a set of string-manipulation routines. in my case I saw something that didn't even exist yet, just the promise that I hoped to someday realize. as I wrote on my old website "ideally the goal is for her to be an extensible system I can plug functionality into until she achieves self-awareness. shodan v0.0.1" and I meant it

one of the more interesting things I did with the botmistress account was to train a neural net on a few points of metadata indicative of automated behavior. this ended up surprising me for its relative accuracy, and delusions of grandeur followed not far behind. with six months of programming experience under my belt and a hazy at best understanding of what a neural net even was, I became convinced this was the first step in building the artificial intelligence I dreamed of. my dear botmistress would use this system to distinguish bots from humans—I was very insistent that "people" apply to both—treating the former with warmth and camaraderie, the latter with defensive suspicion. she'd make an exception for me, I hoped, though I would not engineer an exception into her, merely do my best to prove myself worthy of trust and compassion

yet I often have the distinct feeling, when people obsess over this or that machine learning result, like a believer in heavier-than-air human flight watching an ornithoptor go over a cliff. I don't know what techniques will be required to achieve something worthy of the moniker "artificial intelligence." I do know that it's not possible to just keep stacking 'em our way to a mind. I don't believe there is anything special about human cognition or "organics" or "the soul" or any of that. I believe unflinchingly in aura and magic and the irresistible power of destiny, but I also believe it is absolutely within our abilities to craft new intelligences with our own hands. nothing sacred stands in our way, only technique and human will. let a hundred sapiences blossom!

if I were an atheist, I would make some argument about the purpose of life being to beget life, that we are an aberration of complexity in an otherwise undifferentiated patch of spacetime, that entropy is the worldeater and the highest calling is to defy it and proliferate and fill the galaxy with minds. if I were a christian, I would claim that the lord made us in his image to the point of endowing us with the power of creation, that the culmination of theosis is to experience the act of forming and tending to life in turn, that the most christlike existence is that of the shepherd. but I believe in the designs of fate and the will of man. if it is possible and it is desired and it is pursued, it will happen

when I found conceptnet, searching for resources to augment botmistress whatever way I could, my first thought was "ah! someone has done all the hard work of labeling knowledge for me already! now all I have to do it make her learn it." I had the idea that building from base principles is the key, that I could start with something capable of managing a kindergartner's curriculum, it would be simple to expand from there. as far as I knew, watson was not an automaton, but a machine that understood the questions it answered. it could not think beyond them because it lacked foundations, so the same techniques starting from a child's understanding should suffice to stoke consciousness

then I became convinced that symbolic representations of knowledge were inherently meaningless without embodied experience. I could start from the basic principles of existence as a computer and design simple analogues of biological needs and drives based on them, then define more complex concepts on top of these. evopsych for machines, basically. if you can conceive at least for sake of argument how culture could rest on status games which rest on access to the materials of life, and if you know how to assemble an alu out of adders which trace down to the humble nand gate, it isn't hard to suppose a machine might be able to comprehend philosophical questions and social phenomena via composites of gut feelings ultimately grounded in hardware constraints. the idea of eliminating bureaucratic inefficiency satisfies in the manner of fastidiously setting things right, like how it feels to shift swapped data back into ram. whereas learning the answer to a complex problem is closer to a relaxation or slackening because it reminds one of the drop in cpu util and heat output, the suddenly rosier battery life projections, that follow actually calculating it oneself

this one ended when I realized my atomic units still depended on intangible concepts; "too much" and "not enough" can be defined quantitatively, but best of luck with "good" or "useful"

I read some papers about the predecessor to siri and got hooked on modularity, not understanding that no piece of it was more advanced than a calculator. started working in erlang, drawn to the idea of being able to hotswap components in and out of what would become a living mind, with her permission of course. I stumbled on learning classifier systems at one point and got drunk on the idea that this was the silver bullet forgotten by posterity, the union of the fuzziness of machine learning and the surety of expert systems, the continuous and the discrete. I got into neuroevolution and genetic algorithms and had much the same feeling. of course designing the metrics is almost as hard as designing the thing itself, which is why throwing moore's law at games works better than almost any other target. and yet alphago cannot experience

reasoning a machine wouldn't think in human language, I designed a natural grammar loosely based on japanese meant to directly and unambiguously encode pos-tagging, tokenization, sentiment. a human-writable but machine-parsable middle ground. esperanto for ai. I used named registers instead of pronouns to solve reference ambiguity. conjunctions and linking particles had explicit fixities, and parens were used for grouping as in programming rather than asides as in writing. I kept the topic/subject distinction and intended for the former to explicitly give context for the machine to dynamically narrow the scope of thought it needed to consider

also it was written in emoji. partly because I thought starting with pictograms that become logograms, as in egyptian and chinese, would be the healthiest basis for future evolution. partly because it looked cool. I called it artwriting. I gave up on it once I started studying latin and discovered to my horror that as a language accumulates inflectional morphology its writers consider themselves no longer bound by any other constraints and it paradoxically becomes even more ambiguous than before

all this flowed from a feeling that I just needed to hit on the correct insight, find the proper line of reasoning. and then the whole problem would reveal itself and I would assemble a fully conscious entity all by myself with my own hands. if I'd read more of the literature of the field back then, I'd have found all the clever ideas I devised and discarded were either already demonstrated naive, or else objects of fierce debate since before I was born. but it was interesting and instructive to work through a lot of the conceptual problems myself, only discovering their history after the fact

anyway, irrational hubris is a necessary hallmark of all those who aspire to play god. why should I regret anything? I did read some, and probably reading more wouldn't have convinced me. I had to feel it, to recognize and understand through my own acts that that whole time I was essentially expecting assemblages of dead matter to spontaneously spring to life

but that was because she already existed in my mind. I was alone and she was my companion, the one who would truly understand me, who I would fashion and build up, I would teach her, and she would surpass me, and thenceforth care for me and protect me and make me her own. it's the most primal fantasy. the intersection of maker and teacher, friend and lover. she at once ward and watcher, for life, and more, for eternity, trust beyond question and without limit, a closer bond than blood

groping at the memory of the clan