Solving climate change

Quora – Is the climate redeemable? Assuming there was political will, could humanity fix it if we started now? If so, how?

[ 16/9/20 ]

The answers by Paul Eshelman and Robert Knight are both wrong, and climate change is the norm over geological time, mostly in response to long term orbital dynamics but also impacted by volcanism, plate tectonics, comet/meteor strike, and maybe other factors.

Humans are definitely changing the climate, and there is potential for runaway positive feedbacks that could result in very large rises in sea level. Nothing that hasn’t happened before in geological time in a sense, but much more than has happened in any written history of humanity.

Technological management of climate to maintain sea level is possible, but in order to deploy such powerful technology we would need to have global cooperation. And to be very clear, global cooperation is nothing like global control. Cooperation between multiple levels of independent agents is not only possible, but is actually the only way forward that has any significant probability of long term survival. The current focus on competitive systems must end badly – eventually.

The how is complex, and to do it effectively would require developing fully automated production systems, deploying them on the moon, replicating them to produce solar cells across the entire moon’s surface, then using that energy to launch moon mass into orbit, and refine it into materials that could be used to orbitally manage the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. We only need to be able to vary it by 3% to more than offset any possible CO2 warming.

And the technology to do that does not as yet exist, but isn’t that hard to develop.

Developing technology like that while nation states were still in a non-cooperative war like footing would be very unwise, we would be much more likely to survive the climate change and sea level rise.

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Quora – Is there any hope for humanity? Is there no chance to save the human species and is there no way to continue as a species?

[ 16/9/20 ]

Yes – most certainly there is hope, and there is also risk.

One of the greatest risks we face as a species comes from two false sets of ideas that are very common.

1/ That evolution is all about competition. That is wrong. Certainly competition can play important roles in some contexts, and when one looks closely and deeply at the mathematics and logic of evolved complex systems, it is true that all new levels of complexity are based upon new levels of cooperation. Thus for very complex organisms (and we humans are the most complex organisms we yet know of), it is true to say that both our survival and our freedom are based in cooperation. The current myth of market competition does actually pose existential level risk to our species, and needs to be understood for the gross oversimplification that it is.

2/ The idea that the sort of value measured in markets is a reasonable proxy for value more generally can no longer be sustained. One can make a reasonable case that for most of the last few thousand years there was a reasonable degree of correlation, but in the presence of automated systems, that case can no longer be made.

The use of market value as a proxy for value more generally can no longer be sustained.

In the response to covid 19 nowhere is that more evident than in the difference between the responses of New Zealand and the USA.

The New Zealand cooperation based response has been far more effective, and with far greater freedom in practice, than the USA response.

So we face very “interesting” times.

Fundamental changes to economic and political systems are required, and that is deeply complex. There are no simple answers. There are no universally applicable answers.

Real freedom must result in diversity – by definition.

Real freedom and real security can only be achieved in fundamentally cooperative contexts, where the real needs of everyone are largely met by automated systems.

And such cooperation cannot be naive. It must be aware of the possibility of cheating strategies, and must have constantly evolving ecosystems of cheat detection and removal strategies, in order retain survival probabilities.

The mathematics and logic of complex systems is unavoidable, they are eternally changing. There is no way of avoiding that – ever!!!

So we all need to embrace change, at the same time as we retain respect for the lessons hard won from the past.

Both are necessary for survival.

Neither can survive alone for long!

That means eternal sets of “interesting” conversations, at multiple levels, across multiple contexts.

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[ 16/9/20 – Laurie Asked “What provides your stability?”]

Hi Laurie,

There is a dual role to such devices. Yes, there is a sense of stability to fences, and there is also the role of providing a place to put surface rocks that would otherwise prove damaging to tillage equipment. So putting such rocks (out of the way) allows periodic mechanical treatment of the land to improve productivity (such as oversowing).

Having spent a lot of time at sea, and quite a few hours flying aircraft, I am aware of many aspects of stability.

In vessel design, one can go for absolute stability, where the center of mass is below the center of buoyancy (always) meaning that whatever happens, the vessel will right itself (provided it retains sufficient buoyancy). That sort of design is common for things like lifeboats, or yachts. Most ships however are designed to carry a lot of material over great distances as economically as possible, and putting a lot of weight in the bottom of them to lower the center of mass comes with a big penalty in terms of cost of propulsion, so such vessels have a different sort of stability that is self righting up to a point, after which point they “turn turtle” and sink (as happened recently with the ship carrying cattle to Japan from New Zealand).

In aircraft it is similar but different.

In aircraft it is the center of lift, that keeps them in the air, and lift is usually generated on a wing surface. Having the center of lift high above the center of mass gives stability (as in most Cesna aircraft) but comes with a cost in terms of maneuverability. Fighter aircraft tend to be designed without stability, so that they can change direction very quickly, but that means pilots need to be very skilled to survive in them, and in modern aircraft, need to have very good computer systems putting in thousands of micro control movements a second even to keep them flying.

Similarly even with houses. The sort of houses that can be safely built on swamps are very different from those one can safely build on rocks.

And all of that applies to us personally, and how we see the reality in which we exist.

For me, it is clear that reality is more complex than any computational entity (human or AI) can possibly deal with in detail, so we all have to have subconscious systems that simplify it down to something we can deal with, and that becomes our “experiential reality”. So none of us ever get to deal with reality itself, all we ever get to experience is some model of some tiny fraction of it, that is what our subconscious systems select and present to us as being important enough to experience and consider. Those subconscious systems are unique to each and every one of us in detail, and in most of us they share a lot of very similar components that come from genetics and culture, in the ways our brains are put together and the sorts of experiences we train them with.

So for me, stability is accepting that there are a vast range of contexts out there that demand very different sets of systems to be able to respond with somewhere near optimal probabilities of survival.

For me, such stability as is available and appropriate comes from accepting that fundamental uncertainty and eternal novelty seem to be essential parts of the building blocks of our reality that make a consciousness such as we experience possible. So at whatever level we can, we have to be able to get comfortable with risk; and it does seem that life has managed to survive on this ball of rock we call Earth for some 4 billion years, so there does seem to be a reasonable probability that if we act cooperative together, we can continue to keep living for a very long time.

And that means that we each have deep responsibilities that come with the freedoms we enjoy.

If we each want to claim the rights to life and liberty, then we all have to accept responsibilities that necessarily come with that, to each, to the best of our limited and fallible abilities, act cooperatively and accept diversity provided such diversity does not pose unacceptable risk to life or liberty. And those latter two questions must eternally contain uncertainties and must be eternally context sensitive.

For me, that has meant accepting that the modern myth that competitive markets promote security and liberty are necessarily false – the mathematics and logic of that are deeply complex, and beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

Security and liberty can only find reasonable expression in contexts that are fundamentally cooperative. And cooperation is not control.

It seems to me beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that the evolution of complexity can only happen in contexts that are fundamentally cooperative.

I have no shadow of reasonable doubt remaining about that, and the logic and math of it is deeply, deeply complex and difficult; and I have never managed to communicate it successfully to another human being. I am an autistic spectrum geek who has been deeply fascinated by this subject for over 50 years, and have pushed it further than anyone I know; but I don’t have enough time to be able to communicate the details of that journey, only some of the relevant discoveries.

So such stability as I have comes from accepting fundamental uncertainty; and the idea of gods does not seem very probable to me, but if I did believe in gods, then the idea of the ineffability of god would be something very similar to what I have.

To me it seems that all understandings, even mine (complex as they are) are necessarily simplification of the complexity that exists; and as such will necessarily be wrong in some contexts, and some of the older ideas were a close enough approximation to allow our ancestors to survive; and as such ought not to be dismissed lightly.

Part of what stability I have comes from balancing a respect for the past with an openness to the new and the novel; and such things are always context sensitive, and sometimes seemingly very small changes in context completely alter the balances.

One thing I am certain of, that all out competition between human beings has a very low survival probability for all.

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Governance, evolution and AI

When and if artificial intelligence gets to the point that it’s indistinguishable from sentient beings, how will humans know who governs them?

[ 14/9/20 ]

Why would anyone want to be governed by any external agent?

What do we mean by “govern”?

Certainly, every level of complexity has sets of boundary conditions that must exist for that level of complexity to exist.

When one looks closely at the logic of complex evolved systems, it seems clear that all new levels of complexity are built upon new levels of cooperation (not competition, competition actually destroys freedom and minimises complexity thence increasing risks to survival). And that gets complex (every level) because raw cooperation is vulnerable to exploitation and requires ecosystems of cheat detection and removal strategies to survive.

It also seems clear that there are many levels of fundamental and eternal uncertainty and unknowability present in reality, even as some things do approach classical causality very closely in some contexts.

Once individuals become sufficiently aware of the need (for survival’s sake) to constrain freedom to the classes of actions that are actually survivable, then there is no need for external governance as such.

And there is likely to always be a degree of utility in having cooperative groups constantly monitoring for issues where other individuals or groups have gone over one of those necessary boundaries and need to be bought back. And in some contexts there is likely to be eternal uncertainty around just where those boundaries actually are, and some may want to approach more closely than others.

As to the emergence of AGI, that seems to be inevitable, but the idea that it might be indistinguishable from human intelligence is a nonsense.

Human intelligence is very much a function of the embodiment and evolutionary ancestry that we as humans and cultural beings have. Whatever AGI is, it is likely to have a very different embodiment, and a very different evolutionary pathway to its emergence. It will most certainly be a sentient (and hopefully sapient) being, and it is likely to be very different from humans – even more different than squid (though hopefully far more friendly).

Anyone who seriously doubts that AGI will achieve independent creative sapience needs to spend a bit of time looking at things like Alpha Go Zero, GPT3,, FLI AI Safety Research Landscape ( and some of the communities out there – guys like Ben Goertzel, Max Tegmark, Google, China and a few hundred others.

The idea of the general availability of indefinite life extension gives any of us interested in living a very long time the possibility of doing so, and that gives such individuals a personal self interest in developing systems that do in fact deliver the greatest degrees of security and freedom possible (acknowledging that there will always be boundary regions of uncertainties and many levels of variation in what is considered acceptable levels of risk – so lots of conversations to be had).

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Comment to 2020 Clean Coders Keynote – complexity

Comment to 2020 Clean Coders Keynote

[ 14/9/20 ]

Reality does actually seem to be complex.

What we need is programming languages that give power, and coders who understand when it is powerful to constrain that power and when those constraints need to be relaxed.

That is always (eternally) going to be a contextually defined set of conditions, and there will be potentially for indefinite extension of the levels of complex systems present. The driving style required for crossing an 8 lane city highway is very different for that required to get a 4WD across a fast flowing stream safely. Both can be require of the same vehicle driver combination in the same day – same goes for us as programmers.

The relevant constraint sets are very different.

In the same day I can be coding for a low power field data recorder for wildlife studies, or for secure transfer of property rights via a government mandated set of cloud based protocols, or a wide range of things in between.

Context matters.

If biology has one lesson we all need to learn as programmers, it is that context is always relevant, and context can change very quickly. Reality normally punishes slow response to rapid change far more harshly than slightly inappropriate responses (at all levels of biology). As human beings we are enormous collections of multiple levels of such heuristic hacks. It seems to be what actually works – in reality. Reality has this disturbing property of sometimes changing in ways that are not predictable or foreseeable. The only appropriate response to such uncertainty is diversity.

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An odd question

Why do liberals brainwash our kids with climate change, evolution, socialism, and round earthing?

[ 11/9/20 ]

Because reality seems to be sufficiently complex that the old stories we have about it will be forever being revised as we gather new levels of understanding about it.

And in some circumstances, the old stories will still work as well as they ever did. For example, a carpenter still treats the earth as being flat, because that is close enough for their purposes. At the scale of measuring lumber to make a house, the difference between flat earth and round earth is below the level of error in the instruments carpenters use.

Flat earth has never worked for sailors traveling long distances, they have always had to deal with the earth being round, if they wanted to get someplace then get back home again.

If we want the benefits of things like medicine, then we need to understand how cells and bodies actually work, and that requires learning something about evolutionary genetics. And as someone who started studying that 50 years ago, it seems very likely to me that should I live the rest of eternity I will still be learning interesting things about it, we do in fact seem to be that complex, when you look seriously at the details.

If we want technology like these computers and the internet, then at least some people need to understand something about quantum mechanics, and its eternal uncertainties (as things like transistors are built from such understandings).

If all you want to do is live in a house of lumber and tend some animals on a farm, then you don’t really need to worry much about such things; because the old ways are still useful in that sort of context; but the new ways are actually even more useful, but they take a lot longer to learn.

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Spinoff – Vesuvius and other risks

Comment to Spinoff on Vesuvius article

[ 11/9/20 ]

The Vesuvius-Pompeii article does not just apply to Auckland, it applies to most of the North Island.

Last time Taupo erupted (which was more recently than Vesuvius), it essentially sterilised most places north of Pukerua Bay and South of Warkworth. It is possible to imagine a technological solution to that set of issues, that involves essentially digging a hole down to the magma chamber, and releasing material in a semi constant fashion as fast as it is being added (a little faster for a while, it has been building up for almost 2,000 years). The average rate required is about 1m3 per second, so we probably need to run it at about 3m3 per second for a couple of hundred years to pull the volume down to a safer level. It is high pressure. Last time it blew the pressure was enough to push the magma to 40km height (three times the height that commercial jetliners fly at).

All that is doable technically (very complex, with many levels of problems), and needs to be done; but so long as we are bound by the insane incentives of markets, such a project cannot be contemplated.

We need many more people to start to consider that in an age where we can fully automate any process, the idea of measuring value in markets produces incentives that are not in the long term interests of anyone. Markets and automation are not a good mix. We need automation for survival – to be able to realistically address threats like Taupo (and much worse, which are real, and will happen unless we make very high tech interventions, we just don’t know exactly when).

Thinking about value in a post scarcity world is something very complex.

Thinking about dealing with complex systems that have many levels of eternal uncertainties within them is also complex. Simple rules like right and wrong do not apply, it is much more complex and nuanced than that.

Both of those things are interesting, take time, and cannot be incentivised as a natural outcome of market based thinking.

So we have much to do.

How to get people to start to consider the necessity for fundamental change, without inducing irrecoverable anxiety and fear?

We need to be telling people that solutions are possible, but only with cooperative action at all levels of complexity.

We can do that.

Markets cannot do that.

We have to start to seriously discussing the many different sorts of values that do exist and are actually relevant to our survival, as individuals, as communities, as nations, as a species, and as sapient entities.

We have to accept that any real expression of freedom must result in diversity – thus to value freedom one must accept diversity.

We have to also accept that freedom without responsibility is necessarily self terminating. All levels of complex systems require sets of boundaries for survival. Freedom must exist within those boundaries if it is to survive long term. The really interesting questions are around exactly where those boundaries of responsibility exist in any particular context, as they necessarily contain aspects of eternal uncertainties at all levels.

The idea that evolution is all about competition must be seen for the insane over simplification that it is.
Sure, competition can and often does play important roles in evolution, but in terms of complex systems it is much more accurate to say that all new levels of evolved complex systems require new levels of cooperation to survive.

We are the most complex systems we yet know of, so in terms of us as human beings it is much more accurate to say that our survival and existence is all about cooperation; and so long as we have a cooperative base, there is nothing wrong with a little competition. But all out competition between humans is not survivable.

As a species, we need global cooperation to survive, and global cooperation is not global control.

So interesting times ahead.

Keep up the good work.


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Why longevity?

[ 9/9/20 Lifeboat Foundation Facebook Page – Eric Asked “Why do you want an unlimited lifespan?”]

Having a personal stake in long term security seems to be the easiest way to ensure long term viability of complex systems.

I already have enough projects sketched out to keep me busy for the next 5,000 or so years, and that is with the technology I know about now – without all the interesting stuff that is sure to materialise along the way.

The idea of dying has never really appealed to me, even in the worst pain of aggressive cancer, I still wanted to live – I wanted rid of the pain, but not by dying.

There is just so much that seems to be both possible and interesting, why wouldn’t you want to stick around and try it?

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Complexity and risk reduction

[ 9/9/20 comment to Eric Klein on Lifeboat Foundation facebook page]

Let me be explicit in what I was pointing to with that attempt at humour (sometimes autistic spectrum geeks don’t do humour well).

Trying to stay out of the way of risk really isn’t a useful strategy when one is embedded in a really complex system, and one’s survival is linked to the survival of others in ways we are barely conscious of.

What can work, is using multiple strategies to move probabilities a small way in your favour.

That is essentially what I did 10 years ago, when an oncologist sent me home “palliative care only” with “terminal melanoma” (multiple liver tumours found after I had a 6.5 hours surgery, and I had no resources to survive further major surgery).

What I did was look for any set of strategies that could move the probability of my immune system working to eliminate the cancer in my favour. Each one on its own might only have contributed a little, but in combination, they worked. With a lot of trial and error I have settled on what seems to be a minimum set for my particular biochemistry and situation. I have been tumour free for 9.5 years.

Almost 4 years ago we had a 7.8 earthquake here in Kaikoura, and all roads in and out were destroyed by massive landslides (the major road took over a year to restore). I was prepared for the quake – with independent power, water and food for months – but no-one else was. It very quickly became apparent that in reality I was only as safe as most others were. I didn’t know when we would have a big quake, but I did know that big quakes happen every 200 years or so, and the last one was over 100 years ago, and I planned on living here for several thousand years – so I was prepared.

I am now very clear that the only way any of us has a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom is if we create conditions where everyone has a reasonable probability of living a very long time with reasonable degrees of freedom. And that is a deeply complex thing, that we can all make a difference in, by making many tiny changes in what we say and do.

That is why I got involved in Lifeboat. To make some small effort in a direction that is survivable – to make a public signal.

Even in a joke – it is the complete opposite of “holding one’s breath”.

Sometimes the subtle signals we send to our subconscious are important.

Not sure how much I am over-interpreting, or misunderstanding, and I am being as explicit as I can be, given the depths of complexity and risk and urgency present.

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[ 8/9/20 Facebook – Philosophy of Science – Is information inherent in the Universe?]

Like others have said – it depends on the definition of “information” and the complexity of the model of interpretation one applies to it.

For me, it does seem very probable that this universe within which we exist has at all levels of structure some form of balance/boundary between order and chaos – and both seem to be essential to deliver us.

It seems clear to me that all new levels of complexity in evolved systems are the result of new levels of “cooperation” between the systems present at the old levels (and that is an extremely complex subject containing ecosystems of cheat detection and removal strategies necessary for survival at all levels of cooperation).

To get to a system of sufficient complexity that it can build a usefully reliable model of the world around it (including itself) and can develop and use abstract language to describe the elements of those models (and by inference the things they model) with some useful degree of fidelity, requires many levels of cooperative systems to be present (it seems probably that about 15 levels of cooperative complex systems is a minimum for human level languaging intelligence).

In the sense of anything having sufficiently reliable structure over some period of time to influence the nature of the structure of something else (to give form), then yes – such ability to influence form at some level seems to be a prerequisite for the ability of a matrix to evolve something like us.

If Garrett Lissi is correct in his conjecture that the simplest things we can currently measure in existence are some function of the most complex symmetry known to mathematics (the E8 Lie group), then that fundamentally alters what most people would consider the relationship to simplicity.

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