The Political Imperative of a Sustainable Future

I went to the aquarium recently. It felt as if I was looking into samples from an alien world as I went from tank to tank seeing the dazzling variety of fish and sea life that can be found throughout the world’s oceans. From ancient animals with simple bodies that lie somewhere between plant and animal, to huge underwater insects that crawl along the ocean floor, to multi-limbed soft bodied creatures that can change shape and texture to blend into their surroundings.

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It struck me that as people are getting increasingly excited about the necessity and potential of a human future in space (something I whole heartedly support) we should not forget how amazing the planet we live on already is. While I am not suggesting that we turn away from exploring of the remainder of the universe, I simply wish to stress how special the planet we currently exist on is, and underline that its protection should be our first priority.

The need for us to be more conscious of the health of our planetary ecosystem goes far beyond aesthetic considerations, the interconnected web of life upon planet earth is the life-support system we rely on. We would have nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and nothing to breathe if not for the properly functioning ecosystem. We cannot afford to experiment with the dials on our life support system.

The world’s oceans are a case in point for the human factors which have pushed natural systems to the brink. Much of the carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has dissolved into the world’s oceans. Because of this the oceans have become some 30% more acidic, resulting in a lessening of the ability of tiny ocean animals to form shells.

Changes in ocean acidity and temperature in turn threaten coral reefs around the world. Coral reefs are the areas of the oceans with the highest levels of biodiversity, they are the rainforests of the oceans. If coral starts to die off it will be a tragic loss of natural beauty, but more importantly this will have unforeseen consequences for the entire ocean ecosystem. Add to this the devastation of overfishing and make no mistake, the oceans are in trouble. On a world that is 80% covered by oceans, a catastrophic collapse of the oceanic ecosystem will have very big implications for those animals living on land as well.

If the oceans die, we die.

The message that the oceans are absolutely vital to the health of the planetary ecosystem was clear in the exhibits at the aquarium, but I felt there was a disconnect. While talk of the  the problems of the oceans was persuasive and sophisticated, the question of what to do about these problems gave way to oversimplification and platitudes. How exactly is turning off the tap while I brush my teeth supposed to help maintain ocean biodiversity? I know this message is aimed at families, but this is ridiculous.

This type of baby steps approach to solving looming environmental crises is fairly consistent across the world of environmentalism. Change a light bulb, save a tree. On one level I understand why we do this. We don’t want these problems to seem intractable, so in the interest of optimism we find small changes that people can make in their own lives to better the earth. We also want to make this optimistic message as politically agreeable as possible, thus we avoid talk of bigger issues like pipelines and energy infrastructure even when these types of things can have a much larger impact on ecological health then recycling programs and high efficiency lightbulbs.

Yes, small changes can and have added up to larger benefits, but these small green steps might have a darker side as well. If by making sure to recycle every week, people can begin to convince themselves that they are good green citizens then they can ignore the need to push for larger societal level changes towards a more sustainable future.

There may have been a time when simple changes were needed in order to shift people towards more thought about the environment, but that time has passed. Green has gone mainstream. Now is the time to be political. Sustainability is absolutely possible, but it will not happen without a strong and consistent demand for it. It is time that organizations interested in a long term future for the environment stop shying away from the hard arguments.

Arguments against political change to protect the environment are usually simple and highly predictable. They almost always focus on an unbearable cost to the economy. This is a surprisingly cynical view, especially coming from people who so often extol the virtue of innovation within the private sector. Enacting environmental laws does not put fundamental limits on the economy, it simply puts limits on how much damage can be done to the environment in realizing economic benefit. It is then up to the private sector to innovate means of realizing profit within these environmental boundaries.

Collectively, we must decide on the boundaries within which it is acceptable for the economy to operate, something we have done before. In Victorian England a large percentage of the work force was made up of children. As concerns mounted and the push for child labor laws increased over the course of the 1800’s, some industrialists argued that it would be disastrous to the economy to take children out of the work force. The first child labor law set the minimum working age to just 9 years old!

In this day and age, we readily accept that government should act to place limits on the social costs of economic activity. No matter how good it would be for the economy, we are not going to put children back into the coal mines. Society is ready for a similar shift in our relationship to environmental costs of economic activity. We are ready to move the economy towards a more sustainable way of doing business.

Over the last 20 years, we have moved from a mostly ignorant view of the environment, to an almost ubiquitous awareness of the damage we are doing all across the world. In the next 10-20 years we must push for a permanent political change to the relationship of business with the environment.

By harnessing the innovative power of the private sector for the greening of industry, good government regulation can make capitalism the best friend of the environment. I am confident that through innovation we can and will find better ways of servicing the human needs and wants that drive the economy forward. I do not accept the argument that we cannot have what we want because of the environmental cost, we simply need to find better ways of getting the things we want.   

It is time for those of us who wish to call ourselves good stewards of the planet to shed our reluctance to agitate for political solutions to environmental problems. Changing our lightbulbs alone is not going save us from environmental collapse. We must do more. The most important political fight of this day and age is to irreversibly conjoin the fate of the economy to that of the environment.

We can have economic prosperity and environmental sustainability, but unless we have both we are going to end up with neither.

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The Quantum Court: Assigning Blame in an Intelligent World

What is right? Or more specifically, what is the right thing to do when things go wrong? It is a question that we have grappled with since the dawn of civilization. We have devised elaborate systems of government and laws to help us navigate the muddy waters of right and wrong.

In the future technology will made it easier to understand, mitigate, and control the unexpected. The evolution of high speed communication between the “web of things” will allow our world to devise plans and continually reassess the optimal way to respond when things go wrong.  Nonetheless, physics tells us that technology will never allow us to completely outrun the chaotic nature of the world. In a world where we will understand why things happened better then ever, the idea of blame will become increasingly difficult to assess, and may become better suited to highly powerful computers.

The following is a short story aimed at highlighting how technology could change how decisions of right and wrong will be made in the future. In a previous post I introduced the concept of Artificial Intelligence Agents (AIA) which will help us in our day to day lives. In addition to rather mundane tasks like a job hunt, interactions of our AIAs will also be important when things go wrong. They will share and store information in a way that will make dealing with the unexpected much easier. The continual stream of data collection performed by these AIAs will also make it much easier to understand the reasons why things go wrong, but unlike the world of today we will need to drill deeper and deeper into causality to find the reason that things go wrong. One day, it may even become impossible to find a fault at all…

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Case #198-78657-ZZVGH
20:28:24 – 20:29:13 December 18th, 2028
1st Digital Court of British Columbia, Canada
Quantum Computer D1078 Presiding

Simplified digest of case details and AI proceedings for public release

The following outlines the agreed details presented during the testimony of the AIAs of one Mr. Black and one Ms. White (names redacted for privacy).

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

The series of unexpected events that led to the tragic accident began at exactly 10:34:33 am on the date of December 18, 2028. Mr. Black’s GM (Google Motors) 2026 model x-1000 was travelling under the control of his AIA, Clara, at a speed of 85 km/h in the northbound direction in accordance with recommendations based on road conditions and local regulation.

A number of heat signatures were being tracked within 100 meters of the roadway in front of the vehicle. Size of heat signatures was consistent with large ruminants, which were later confirmed by visual data to be several common deer. Cross-referencing with the species importance archive showed that common deer are not endangered and under no special protection. Special notes show that deer are esthetically pleasing to people, and their presence has been listed as a desirable reminder of “natural beauty” by park planning authorities.  Within the margin of safety, collision with the animals should be avoided.

It was assessed at this time that the animals were highly likely to remain in their immediate vicinity and no adjustments to speed or course of travel were warranted. 

As the vehicle approached the area of the animals, one deer unexpectedly began to move at a high rate of speed towards the roadway.  At this time it was assessed that collision with the animal remained highly unlikely, but that a slowing of the vehicle and an 18° turn of the front driving tires would minimize the chance of collision with the animal.

Given the current traffic conditions it was determined that this maneuver would achieve an approximately 97.87% chance of avoiding collision with the animal.

In order to maintain the chance of human injury below the legally stipulated threshold of 0.2% this would also require evasive manuvering on the part of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. Vehicles travelling in the opposite direction were contacted successfully. A full breakdown of communications between the vehicles is provided in appendix A of this document. Optimal manuvering based on the developing probability profile was agreed upon at 10:34:38 am with the closest vehicle travelling in the opposing direction, that of one Ms. White. Diagram shown below.

Figure 1

A small amount of mixed rain and snow was falling on the road. In addition, a sudden gust of wind outside the 95% range of expected wind speeds for this day was blowing across the car. These factors conspired to create a sudden and unpredicted decrease in traction which was detected at 10:34:41. Given tractional changes, the possibility of collision between the vehicles of Mr. Black and Ms. White was determined to be in the range of 14.7%.

It was determined that these conditions justified extreme action. At 10:34:42 contact was again made with the vehicle of Ms. White and adjusted maneuvering was proposed to minimize likelihood of collision.

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Ms. White was travelling in her 2023 Tesla Model Tx under the control of her AIA, Jin, at 85km/h in the southbound direction in accordance with local regulation. At exactly 10:34:37, contact was made via distress frequencies with the vehicle of one Mr. Black. A deer had been detected moving towards the road, and evasive maneuvering would be required to minimize the possibility of collision between the vehicle of Ms. White and that of Mr. Black

The direction and speed of the moving deer was confirmed with sensory data feed from Ms. White’s vehicle. Maneuvering consistent with that shown in figure 1 was agreed upon at 10:34:38, and a 1.4g deceleration and 19.6° turn of the front tires was initated at this time.

At exactly 10:34:39, an updated information feed from the vehicle of Mr. Black indicated that unexpected changes in the traction conditions brought the likelihood of collision to 14.7%. Recalculation of this value showed that likelihood of collision was increasing as more sensory data was fed into the developing model of events. It was agreed that drastic action needed to be taken at this time.

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

A number of simulations of head on collisions between the vehicles of Mr. Black and Ms. White were run to examine the possible outcomes. It was determined at the time that injury to both parties was highly likely, and severe injury or death to one or both parties was unacceptably high.

To avoid the possibility of head-on impact between the vehicles, an alternative model wherein the vehicle of Ms. White would move completely off of the road surface was proposed. Under this model the likelihood of loss of control and damage to Ms. White’s vehicle was determined to be high, although the likelihood of severe injury or death to Ms. White remained below the threshold of 0.2%.

At 10:34:40, the alternative model of action was proposed to Ms. White.

Figure 2

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Between the time of 10:34:39 and 10:34:40, several simulations of the developing situation showed the possibility of head on collision and injury to be unacceptably high. This was confirmed by simulations run by the AIA of Mr. Black.

An alternative model wherein Ms. White would leave the road surface completely was proposed by Mr. Black. Simulations agreed upon by both parties showed a high potential that the vehicle of Ms. White would lose control and suffer damage, although the probability of severe injury or death remained below the acceptable threshold of 0.2%.

At 10:34:41, it was agreed that this alternative model of action would minimize potential for injury and property damage in the developing situation.

At this time an additional 12° movement of the front tires was initiated to guide Ms. White’s model Tx off of the road surface. An optimized adaptive breaking pattern was used to decrease the forward velocity of the car while maintaining control of the vehicle.

At 10:34:42, as Ms. White’s vehicle began to steer away from the road surface there was a highly unanticipated failure of part number 371X-442 in the front axle assembly.  Calculated stresses and sensor reading for the front left wheel were well within the defined safety margins and this type of failure was of very low probability (<0.001%). It is deemed likely that a molecular fault in the part was the reason for the failure.

The failure of part 371X-442 led to a catastrophic failure of the entire wheel assembly. This in turn caused the front axle of the vehicle to dig into the soft shoulder which initiated a transverse roll of Ms. White’s vehicle. As the vehicle began to roll, safety measures within the cabin of the vehicle were deployed strategically in order to minimize injury to Ms. White.

During the high velocity rolling of her vehicle, Ms. White was subjected to high G forces that caused contusions as her unrestrained limbs came into contact with solid parts of the vehicle. Ms. White suffered an extreme fracture of her right femur, and a cracked cervical vertebrae. In addition to the blunt trauma, the extreme stress of the incident caused an undiagnosed weakness in one of Ms. White’s cerebral blood vessels to rupture, causing blood to begin to leak into Ms. White’s left frontal lobe.

At this time the microimplants in Ms. White’s body were activated to release factors targeting the burst vessel. NanoGens were activated at the specific site within 12 milliseconds of the blood vessel rupture but because Ms. White was not equipped with any specialized mechanisms to deal with cerebral hemmorhage they were of limited use. Ms. White’s NanoGens were able to place Ms. White in an unconscious state and slow blood flow to her brain in order to limit damage.

Ms. White’s vehicle finally came to stop after rolling one and a half times, coming to rest on its roof.

Mr Black via AIA2023-AHGTOHDN (Clara):

Mr. Black’s vehicle regained control following a short skid and came to a stop approximately 78 metres from where Ms. White’s vehicle had rolled over and come to a rest on its hood. Mr. Black was instructed to exit the vehicle and approach Ms. White’s vehicle.

Figure 3

All traffic on the road was warned of the accident and requested to come to a stop. The next closest vehicle, carrying the Green family, was requested to carefully approach the scene and provide assistance as necessary.

As Mr. Black approached the vehicle of Ms. White, he was informed of the medical situation of Ms. White. Consistent with best medical practices for a cerebral hemmorhage, Mr. Black was instructed to carefully let Ms. White down from her restraints so as to limit blood flow to her head.

Upon his arrival at the accident scene, Mr. Black found Ms. White to be unconscious. Mr. Black was then instructed to brace Ms. White as her restraints were released, and he carefully laid her down on the ground beside the accident scene.

The rapid response micro-medical team arrived within 3 minutes of the accident. A nanoswarm of medical robots was released and began treatment of Ms. White at precisely 10:38:09. A larger response team capable of transporting Ms. White to hospital was present on the scene by 10:43:22.

Ms. White via AIA2022-AGTYGJH (Jin):

Ms White was transported to the closest fully equipped medical facility where medical treatment was administered. It is expected that Ms. White will make a recovery over the next year, but she is expected to suffer permanent memory loss.

At this time, Ms. White is seeking damages for her lost income during recovery and for her pain and suffering as a result of memory loss.

Quantum Computer D1078 Ruling:

Following 10 seconds of testimony, 39 seconds of deliberation, the honourable D1078 has come to the following ruling consistent with case precedents as listed in the legal appendix:

(1) It is determined that Mr. Black via his AIA (Clara) acted appropriately and rationally throughout the incident. Probabilities generated by simulations described at various points during the accident are consistent with those calculated by more complex modelling after the accident. It is determined that Mr. Black should not be held at fault for this accident. Nonetheless, his own avoidance of injury occurred thanks to the selfless actions of Ms. White via her AIA (Jin). Thus, it is determined that Mr. Black should shoulder 18% of any financial burden placed upon Ms. White.

(2) It is determined that the Parks service should shoulder 13% of the financial burden incurred by Ms. White. Furthermore, it is ordered that the Parks service should investigate their policies regarding large animals near the roadway. In particular, it is suggested that the Parks service reassess their policies in terms of vehicle speed when near large animals. 

(3) It is determined that the manufacturer of part 371X-442 should shoulder 28% of the financial burden incurred by Ms. White. The manufacturer is also ordered to launch an immediate study to assess the integrity and consistency of part 371X-442. Further action in the form of product recalls or changes in production methods will be determined following this investigation.

(4) It is determined that Ms. White’s health monitoring provider should shoulder 33% of the financial burden placed on Ms. White. According to medical testimony recorded in the appendix, the weakness in Ms. White’s cerebral blood vessel should have been easily diagnosed. The presence of hemmorhage mitigation technology in Ms. White’s implants could have significantly decreased damage incurred to Ms. White, likely bringing it below the threshold of detection. This company is ordered to undergo a complete audit of their policies to identify the flaws in their systems that allowed this accident to happen.

Summary of Judgement: It is determined that the decisions made by entities cited above in the time leading up to and during the accident were made consistent with best practices. Nonetheless, harm has been done to Ms. White and blame has been determined as outlined above.  It is the sincere opinion of this court that the chance of such an accident occurring can be significantly decreased through the investigations and reforms outlined above.

Hierarchies of Chaos and Order

There is a natural tension in everything. The forces of chaos and order are locked in a constant battle that lies at the heart of creation. We are surfing a wave at the interface of order and chaos.

The biological world provides a perfect example of this tension between order and chaos. If there were no order, life could not exist. The complex systems of chemicals, proteins, cells, organs and organisms that are life could not persist if our reality was too disordered. On the other hand, life would also be impossible if not for the some force of chaotic change pushing the world forward.

The careful balance of order and chaos necessary for the evolution of complex life is highly dependent on the amount of energy in a given system. Too much energy and chemical reactions would be too energetic and vigorous for delicate complex molecules to emerge. Too little energy and chemical reactions will be too slow to drive the evolution of new forms of life.

It is an interesting aside to consider what kind of life could potentially evolve (or perhaps be created) in such extreme conditions. Collections of self-aware plasma on the surface of a star; highly dense ice based creatures sluggishly evolving in the outer reaches of the solar system. Notwithstanding such fanciful notions however, the appearance of life seems to be restricted to a narrow ‘Goldilocks zone’ between order and chaos. We require a liquid cradle – one which is neither too hot nor too cold.

Still, even if a system does find itself with an appropriate balance of order and chaos which favours the emergence of self-replicating matter (aka Life) the question remains as to why such a system should produce complexity? Given that organisms which reproduce most efficiently would have a significant evolutionary edge, should the system not tend towards a simple, uniform state? Why are we not taken over by some naturally occurring form of grey-goo?

The simple answer is that a uniform population lacks the ability to respond to natural environmental changes. Take for example a bowl of soup containing a population of bacteria. Let’s say the bacteria are perfectly suited to feeding on one of the nutrients in the soup. These bacteria will continue to feed on the soup, multiplying and growing until they totally consume said favourite nutrient. At this point, a population of bacteria that is totally uniform would be unable to adapt and start feeding on different nutrients. However, if there is some chaotic variation in the population, then some of the bacteria might have some ability to start eating other nutrients.  If change from one nutrient epoch to the next is slow enough, then the bacteria with an ability to digest alternative nutrients can be selected for survival.

Fascinatingly, research has shown that biological organisms have even evolved the ability to tune their rate of evolution based on how well suited they are to their environment. If an organism is experiencing chronic stress, then it is a sign that it is poorly adapted to its environment. Through a number of recently discovered genetic mechanisms, stressed organisms can increase their rate of mutation in hopes that they can become better adapted to their environment. This type of effect has now been well documented in bacteria, plants and even insectsThus, biological chaos is able to ramp up if an organism is unsuited to a particular environmental change.

Rate of evolution

Whereas well adapted organisms show slow change in their populations, poorly adapted and stressed organisms show higher rates of mutation. 

In this way, biological systems have harnessed a chaotic process (mutation) to apply order to the chaotic natural world. Through iterative cycles of selection, biology has driven the evolution of all the wonderful forms of life we see around us. Biology “learns to understand” the world by continuously testing out randomly generated organisms for their adaptation to it.

Biological change is beautiful, but it is also subject to important limitations. Firstly, when viewed from the context of a human lifetime it occurs at an almost imperceptibly slow pace, over the course of generations. Take the soup of bacteria we referred to earlier and heat it up 20 or 30 degrees and you will kill all of the bacteria inside. You would need to heat the soup over weeks or months to even have a chance to allow the bacteria to evolve resistance to heat and hope for any survival.  Even more importantly, the potentiality of a biological system is also fundamentally limited by its nature. Biological systems can only accomplish what is inherently possible using the tools of DNA, RNA, protein and lipids.

From biology a new evolutionary paradigm of chaos and order has now emerged – that of ideas. Random shifting and mixing of ideas within and between individuals creates a chaotically varying population.  As Matt Ridley puts it, ideas can have sex. From this population of randomly generated ideas, ideas must compete for the limited resources of human brains. Just as a virus must jump from person to person to survive, ideas must also cross the gaps between us.

We are infected with thoughts.

Also just like biological systems, our ideas seem to respond to how well adapted they are to their respective environment, our minds. An idea which does not resonate with us will be subject to manipulation and modification. Ideas will mutate to fit into our understanding of the world, and we spit them back out to see how this newly modified idea will resonate in the minds of others.

Thought infectionpngSimilarly to biological systems it seems possible that our mind mutates ideas to make them resonate with our world view. 

In this new paradigm, a bewildering landscape of ideas is driving our man-made world forward ever faster. A new tension of chaos and order has been established in the world of ideas, and unlike biology, the potentiality of ideas seems not to be restricted by the limitations of reality. But, as we look forwards at an age where ideas may soon leave biology behind completely, an imponderable question does creep into mind. Will we one day reach the end of what is possible with ideas?

– Addendum –

So I have been thinking a little bit deeper about the relationship of systems of chaos. I am not sure about this part, but I wonder if in order for one chaotic system to harness another, whether it must have a wider ‘spectrum of potentiality’ then its underlying system. For example, for biological systems to harness or ‘understand’ a chaotic chemical system the possible permutations of biology must supersede what is possible within the simple chemical world (ie lacking biomolecules). In following, perhaps the spectrum of potentiality of the ideas within the mind must be wider then that of the biological world for us to be able to understand biology. Finally, a new paradigm may be emerging from electronic life wherein the spectrum of potentiality within the human mind will be inadequate to grasp the ‘post-ideas’ it will create. 

Possibility Spectrum

I can’t be sure if I am talking gibberish at this point but what really blows my mind, is that each of these ‘spectrums of potentiality’ may actually be infinite, they are just different sized infinities.

Short Thought About Cultural Productivity

No full post this week, sorry, but I am working on something a bit different for next week.

I will give this little though infection though.

Here is a fascinating video about Yogi bear’s collar, and the Hanna Barbera cartoon factory. It is a great example of how innovation in the cultural sector has in the past lead to great increases in productivity and cultural output, a trend continues in some ways today.

It is intriguing to think about what might happen as this continues on into the future. One day it may be even possible for a computer to generate an animated film version of any story… What would the cultural landscape look like if computer aided story telling can enable a single person create a full film?