Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

To the ends of the earth

Jerry Stratton, April 29, 2008

Over on the MIT Technology Review, Nick Bostrom writes about the Great Filter (hat tip to Hit & Run). The Great Filter is one side of possibly the most important question for humanity. The problem is that some of us are violent creatures who want to cause mass destruction. And some of us are short-sighted creatures who do so by mistake. The means of causing mass destruction always get easier, never more difficult. The amount of mass destruction we know how to create always grows.

Presumably, we don’t want this to happen, but how to stop it? Prohibition laws don’t work. Whether it’s marijuana or nuclear weapons or a deadly supervirus, anyone with the wherewithal to acquire it and the desire to acquire it can and probably will acquire it. For nuclear and other population-destroying weapons, the wherewithal barrier is still fairly high. But it gets smaller every year. Someday it will be easy for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons; soon afterwards it will be easy for other criminals to acquire them. At some point it will be easy for any depressed individual on your block to get or make something or buy something that will destroy millions or billions of people.

Laws have failure rates. Usually fairly large ones or, catch-22, they wouldn’t need to be laws. Unless the failure rate is under one in ten billion, they don’t matter to the Great Filter. Because, like the Internet, with these kinds of technology, it only takes one person to get past the laws and destroy humanity.

Laws will not stop them. We need to make sure that by the time the wherewithal barrier gets that low, the desire barrier has risen to the point that nobody wants to breach it. We need to ensure that nobody wants to use these kinds of destructive technologies, and we need to do so before it becomes so easy to make them that anybody who wants them can have them.

October 6, 2017: How do we keep this from happening again?

Imagine this: you’re a police chief or an FBI district chief, and you get a notice from the automated warning system: a man who has twice been investigated because he threatened a terrorist attack has just bought a couple of firearms.

Do you investigate? Of course you do. And when you investigate, you find out that he also tried to buy body armor.

There is no question that you will act immediately to stop this terrorist attack before it happens.

This is the way that the Pulse nightclub attack should have been stopped. In the immediate aftermath, the left tried to turn the attack into a call for more gun control, but when the facts came out it turned out the terrorist would not have been affected by more gun control. He didn’t want to commit a gun crime. He wanted to kill people at a gay bar.

But also when the facts came out, we discovered that law enforcement should have been warned about him ahead of time. The terrorist had twice been investigated for threatening terrorism. The investigation came up inconclusive, with, according to the authorities, not enough evidence to put him in jail or even put him on the no-fly list. But it certainly seemed that there was enough to keep him on the lesser watch list that notifies law enforcement whenever there’s further suspicious activity.

Unfortunately, he was removed from that list.1 So law enforcement was never notified. Conservatives suggested fixing that; the NRA suggested fixing that; the people who had been calling for more gun control moved on to something else. If this has been fixed, I’m unaware of it; FBI Director Comey publicly stated that he didn’t think anything needed to be fixed, once it came out that it was the FBI that had removed the terrorist from the notification list.

The same is true of the Charleston church murderer last December. The law already should have kept him from buying his gun and should have notified law enforcement that he tried, because he had a previous felony narcotics charge against him. But laws to keep people with a record from buying guns don’t work if the records themselves aren’t appropriately handled. There was an obvious fix that would have stopped that shooting, and it did not involve new gun bans. But, again, if it’s been implemented, I’m not aware of it, although at least this time Comey didn’t act as though they’d done nothing wrong.

April 6, 2016: Europe, the West, and the graphs of destruction
Nedā Āghā-Soltān

Her children will never speak against tyranny in Iran.

The significance of the graphs of destruction is that they empower individuals and small groups to cause mass destruction. Only one line on that graph is subject to alteration. The march of progress in medicine, biology, technology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics ensures that the technological line will always move down—it will always be getting easier for individuals to cause mayhem. Even improvements in our ability to travel quickly also improve the ability of people who want to kill to move to where they want to kill.

Our only hope is that people—our euphemistic “non-state actors”—don’t want to use new and easier technology for destruction when it becomes available.

We have, for the last eight years at least, been going about it wrong, 180 degrees from what we should be doing to affect the graph’s line of desire. It isn’t Iran that we have to worry about in the long run. It’s Iranians. Not Syria, but Syrians. Not China, but the Chinese. If we want to affect that line positively, we need to support the Green Revolutions, not their oppressors. The librarians of Cuba, not the Castros. The people of Iraq who voted Maliki out, and not Maliki. The people of impoverished countries and not their corrupt governments.

It is the children of the Green movement in Iran who will grow up abandoned by the United States who will cross the graphs of destruction. The children of Cubans who we threw to the Castros in favor of improving state relations.

Almost every aspect of our top-down foreign policy is wrong, from charitable organizations that put charity in the hands of corrupt governments to diplomats who prefer appealing to dictators rather than to the people the dictators oppress.

January 2, 2012: California arson and the Great Filter

Two graphs converging: ability and desire. Over the last several days, an arsonist or group of arsonists has started thirty-nine fires in the Los Angeles area.

“Whoever is doing this is really messing with people’s lives,” said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Jamie Moore.

That’s an understatement.

What’s surprising isn’t that it’s happened, it’s that it doesn’t happen more often. I am amazed every time I go driving just how orderly people act in public. Watch the people driving on the other side of the road. Any one of them—all it takes is one—could cause massive death and destruction simply by swerving a few feet to the left.

Fires are incredibly easy to start, and if done randomly the culprit would probably never be found. If this arsonist had stopped at one, two, or even three, they’d probably never be caught. (Thirty-nine, I’m guessing they will. There’s too much opportunity for them to be seen.)

But not as quickly as they should have been. Listen to this from CNN:

Police are asking residents in the area to bring forward any surveillance video from their properties that might show suspicious activity. Residents are also being encouraged to follow the “see something, say something” motto and report suspicious behavior to authorities.

The police shouldn’t have to ask. Unfortunately, we’ve created a culture, especially in the cities but spreading to rural areas as well, that believes keeping order is something best left to the police, that there is no reason to get involved.

There is no way for the police to stop people who want to commit random acts of attempted murder like this before the attempt happens. Even the biggest police state can’t forbid or track all flammable materials. Cameras on every street corner still need people on every street corner to watch them; at best, computer heuristics could be reactive, making it easier to catch someone who has already started a fire, but even that assumes that the cameras themselves don’t become targets.

The only people who can stop a crime are people who are already there, either by stopping it or by immediately reporting it.

Random killers commit their crimes because they can, and because they want to, and because the repercussions of criminality are lower than their desire to be criminals. We can’t take away their ability to start fires; technology passed that point centuries ago. What we can do is slow down the increased population whose desire to start fires—or commit other forms of mass murder—exceeds the social barriers in place against starting fires.

September 11, 2011: The graphs of destruction
The Mirror, October 10, 2001

This looks like a science fiction magazine from the fifties.

Over on the Ace of Spades HQ, ArthurK mentions the technological singularity in passing as a way to talk about the social singularity on 9/11. He posts a newspaper front page from a month after 9/11 that would, to some pre-9/11 coma victim, look like a science fiction magazine.

The technological singularity is, basically, technology that advances so rapidly that we can’t recognize what’s on the other side. The technological singularity intersects with Arthur’s social singularity. Every year it is easier to kill more people: every year it is easier to make more advanced and powerful things—including things that can be used for attacks that will kill millions.

Imagine a graph along the years with two lines on it: “the resources necessary to kill millions” and “the resources of people who want to kill millions”. The lines haven’t normally crossed. The kind of person who wants to commit attacks of mass destruction doesn’t have much in the way of resources1.

The problem is that the line for “resources necessary” is dropping. It will eventually drop below the “resources of” line, at which point we’re screwed, and bad. In some cases the line is already dangerously close. We have to watch it not just in areas like “resources necessary to build a nuclear weapon” or “resources necessary to create a supervirus” but also in areas we don’t even foresee as killing areas. It isn’t just that it’s easier to make nuclear weapons or biological weapons. The cheapness of computers made flight simulators cheap, which increased the availability of flight training. It became cheaper to learn to fly airliners, and class sizes became large enough that instructors didn’t necessarily know every student.

  1. <- Primary Polygamy
  2. Proposition 98 or 99? ->