What is time? There are so many ways to conceive of it.
Time as a River
One trope is that it’s a river that carries us along. In this metaphor, we are as helpless as so much flotsam and jetsam in the stream of time. Oh, we can decide what to with our time spent on the river, but–despite our atomic clocks and inflated egos–we cannot influence time itself.
Or perhaps time is inseparable from Einstein’s spacetime. In that case, it’s like as a huge loaf of bread, with all the events of our lives already baked in. Imagine that everything in history, including all the details of your life, already exist. In the final analysis, you and I can’t truly determine what we do with our time. Instead, we are travelers down Fate’s railroad (to mix in a yet another metaphor), going from one pre-existing stop to another.
Time as a Cosmic Web
Or maybe time is a reticulum. Annaka Harris, author of Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind, notes that some scientists believe time is not a fundamental reality. She cites Nima Arkani-Hamed, who said of his fellow theoretical physicists, “Almost all of us very strongly believe that spacetime really doesn’t exist.”
So what does exist? In her article “What Is Time?,” Harris tries to imagine what time looks like if its “flow” is truly an illusion.
[T]he closest visualization I’ve been able to create is that of a web of nodes in which we experience only one node at a time. At each locus, all the other nodes become inaccessible to us, as if a spotlight were continually traveling across this “web of time,” inch by inch, painting our reality. If you were to experience a structure on this web —such as node a, node a, node f; node a, node a, node f—you might interpret the experience as “two node a’s cause a node f” when, in fact, the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety. The implicit causality would not apply at a deeper level. Causality through time would still illuminate “connections,” it’s just that the underlying reality of these connections would reveal a structure vastly different from the one we intuit…
I’ve tried to wrap my mind around this “time as reticulum” idea. In a sense, it seems similar to the “time as bread loaf” notion in that “the whole web of nodes already exists in its entirety.” Except here we don’t even have the comfort of a linear-like-though-frozen concept of time. Instead, there is a dense web of pre-existing nodes that only give the illusion of cause and effect.
Because I am a fan of mythologies, I have given some thought to how the Fates (aka, Norns) would see time. The Fates are, of course, the three women who weave the fate of each human being. Each life is a thread and the Fates wind each one into the tapestry of our reality.
Is is just a coincidence that Harris’s notion of the “web of time” roughly corresponds to these ancient myths?
Perhaps. Or maybe there is some archetype at hand, some intuition about the “true” reality of time underlying the one we’ve evolved to experience.
Unstuck in Time
In Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel Slaughterhouse Five, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time.” That is, he travels along the thread of his own his life, experiencing moments of it in no particular order, never knowing where he’ll wind up next.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’ve recently been feeling–if not exactly unstuck in time–temporally looser within it, like a nail that seems in danger of slipping. One so loose you can turn it with your fingertips.
This started happening after my mother passed over a year ago. I’m still not sure why. Intimations of mortality, perhaps.
It’s hard to explain. It’s not just reminiscing or even being overwhelmed by certain memories. Nor are all my memories–or even most of them–associated with my mother.
Rather, there’s this strange sense in my gut–literally in the area of my midriff–of being connected to people I’ve neither seen nor even much thought about for decades. The feeling comes and goes in waves but is sometimes so strong I need to force my mind back into the present moment.
All of which makes me wonder whether we not only misperceive time but misperceive ourselves. What would we look like if, in fact, we ourselves were threads in a woven universe with dimensions we have yet to understand?
Imagine if we are not truly discrete but rather long yarn-like beings curled and tangled around one another in nearly infinite complexity. That is, the “I” that exists here and now is not truly a medium-sized biped animal moving through space but, rather, just one segment of a far larger being that stretches everywhere we’ve ever been and, perhaps, everywhere we have yet to go.
If that’s true, then we are all much vaster that we appear, living threads irregularly interwoven around the globe, which itself may be a cosmic thread woven into the galaxy.
This conjures the disturbing image of billions of pulsating worms in a multidimensional ball. Indeed, “worm balls” exist in nature. As the New York Timesreports, “A worm blob behaves as a solid and a fluid, like a ball of dough or a glob of shampoo. It only takes around 10 worms to form a coherent blob. A blob of about 100,000 worms resembles a lump of (red) pizza dough. There is no known limit to how many worms can form a blob, except, perhaps, your imagination.”
Okay, yeah, yuck!
Maybe we should go with “dragons” instead. Serpentine dragons are, of course, often referred to as wyrms (or wurms, worms or orms). Moreover, the common symbol for eternity is ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail.
Time and Again
In the end, I don’t know to what degree these various concepts and metaphors help us intuit the true nature of time. But I do believe that we are slowly groping our way to a better understanding of it. We now know, for example, that time can flow backwards as well as forwards at the quantum level, and, as mentioned previously, physicists are increasingly open to the idea that it doesn’t exist at all.
So, I suspect we’ll keep coming back these and other ideas time and again until we have a fuller understanding of what temporality is. But we need to prepare our souls for new discoveries in the event that a better understanding of time dramatically challenges our foundational ideas related to causation, free will, and even the nature of our selves.
I believe in Santa Claus. For sure. Not a doubt in my sugar-plummed head. But not as a person, or even merely a meme. I believe in Santa the network.
Okay, Yeah, There Was This Guy, Really Nice Guy
True, Santa did originate as a human being in the form of Saint Nicholas, a monk who was reportedly a serious do-gooder type back in the 3rd century AD in the part of the world that is now Turkey. Or maybe he was a bishop in the 4th century? Sources differ.
Whichever, he was known as being famously generous to the poor. Some say he had inherited money. One common story is that he provided dowries to three daughters of a fellow Christian so that they would not to sold into prostitution.
The Holy Bones of Old Saint Nick
So Nicholas was of local fame and might have stayed that way if the area hadn’t been subjugated by a Muslim dynasty hundreds in 1087. I don’t entirely understand their motivations, but a group of Italian merchants ended up taking large portions of Nicholas’s skeleton out of his sarcophagus in the Greek Orthodox church in Myra.
This action may have been the real start of today’s network. Nicholas’s bones were relocated to at least two other holy venues, and his fame seemed to spread as his bones were disseminated. Among the places we know about, the bones went to Bari (now in the Basilica di San Nicola) and to Venice (where a church to St. Nicholas was built).
With different sacred sites holding his relics and spreading his fame, Saint Nicholas somehow became a patron saint of various groups: archers, sailors, children and even pawnbrokers. His feast day on December 6th became a day of gift giving for children. Hundreds of years after his death, the man became a happy tradition, a time when people could be at their best.
The Wild Hunt, a Flying Reindeer’s Nightmare
But Saint Nicholas is not the only personage on whom Santa Claus is based. Eventually the feasting day of December 6th was moved to December 25th, which is of course associated with Christ’s birth.
And then there’s the less known role of the pagan god Odin. Before Christianity came to Northern and Germanic Europe there was the tradition of Yuletide. During this period, weird and supernatural things were likely to happen. This included the Wild Hunt, which was when Odin led a procession through the skies atop his eight legged horse Sleipnir.
In her book Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the World, Margaret Baker writes that “the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”
Nast Invents Our North Pole Nick
By the time the 1800s rolled around, it was a full blown network event. That is, Santa was a crazy quilt made up of various ideas, traditions, stories, myths, religious ceremonies, and artwork. This quilt incorporated huge numbers of people, who became more closely networked through the means of gift-giving, goodwill wishing, story exchanging, and more.
Then came the illustrations of Thomas Nast. As History.com reports,
Jolting Volts Into the Santa Network
If Nast and Harpers jump-started our modern Santa, then our new-fangled electrical networks send him into overdrive. Radio, cinema, television, digital: all helped ensure the global expansion of today’s Santa network.
But the network isn’t just made up of gaudy megabytes of mythology. Ultimately, it resides in our immense collective imagination and complex interactions.
The people who are part of this tradition (and I know it’s not everyone, though I imagine most people have at least heard of Santa Claus) are nodes in the network, zipping along our gift, gifs, and well wishes to another across continents and oceans. The folks in all those FedEx, UPS and USPS trucks? They are the connections incarnate among the all the nodes (and, of course, typically nodes themselves in their personal lives).
In short, we are Santa. Our network may have been sparked by a single, sainted individual living close to two millennia ago, but it is we who are–for at least for a short time each year–enacting the Santa myth, embodying its ideal. This Santa is indisputably real. At least as real as our networked minds and our networked societies and nations.
So, happy holidays to you and yours! And to all the gorgeous, living reticula collectively known as Santa.
The other day I came across an interview with theoretical physicist and science writer Carlos Rovelli. He was describing ideas from the relational quantum mechanics theory.
Upon a quick scan, one quote caught my eye: “the world is not a set of things with properties.”
Okay, professor. I’ll bite. What is the world?
“The world is a network of interactions,” he states.
Hmm, so, if there are no things with properties, what’s doing all that interacting?
Well, that’s the thing (or, I guess, the nothing?). There’s only the interacting. Nothing has properties until it interacts with something else.
Pretty Zen, right? Hold onto your hat. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Or, um, maybe you have?
Describing relational quantum mechanics, he states, “The idea is that what quantum theory is teaching us is that we should not think that the properties of something (for instance the kicked ball) are always defined. Rather, properties are just the way something affects something else. So, the ball has literally no properties–not even a position–until it affects something, the glass of the windows, for instance.”
Note the word “literally” here. This left me with oh so many questions, especially when he talks about objects. Can there even be objects? So what is an object?
Turns out an object is “the ensemble of the ways in which it affects other objects around itself. An object exists reflected in everything else.”
Got that? No objects unless they interact with other objects. But if there are no objects to start with, where do the other objects come from?
I know some of this is just the inability of language to capture difficult-to-express ideas about quantum mechanics.
Forced to Read Rovelli (Again)
Once I got to that point in the article point, I knew he had me. I had gone and interacted with his ideas. I could have avoided them. I could have become a human quantum eraser of Rovelli readings.
But no. The ideas and I had interacted and so we both took on properties, I guess. I was then forced to read his next damned book.
Suddenly, thanks to the instant gratification allure of the Kindle, I was reading Hegoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution. After providing a few character sketches of the originators of quantum theory (Heisenberg, Bohr, Jordan and Dirac) and the key contributions of Schrodenger (who disconcertedly turns out to be a pedophile?), Rovelli quickly outlines the basics of quantum theory, jumps into the famously bizarre implications of the double-slit experiment, and briefly outlines various interpretations of quantum theory, with a rhetorical eye on gently undermining them.
But this is all appetizer stuff, preparing readers for the main course: the relational interpretation of quantum physical.
Well, Rovelli ups the ante on the relativity concept, basically going all in. It’s not only time and space that are relative. It’s everything in the whole of creation!
You Are the Eyes of the Universe
A key part of the original idea is that quantum systems are dependent on observers. That is, the state of the system boils down to a relationship between the observer and the heretofore mentioned system.
Confused? Me too.
Are the observers only conscious beings? Are the ball and window observers unto themselves? That is, do the ball and widow become “real” and interact even if I don’t see them do so, or at least see the outcome (that is, the broken window)?
Reality Is Literally Relative
In Hegoland, Rovelli tries to explain his point of view:
What quantum theory describes…is the way in which one part of nature manifests itself to any other single part of nature….The world that we know, that relates to us, that interests us, what we call “reality,” is the vast web of interacting entities, of which we are a part, that manifest themselves by interacting with each other. It is with this web that we are dealing.
One thing he does try to clear up is the role of the observer, saying that “any interaction between two physical objects can be seen as an observation.” So, I guess that we don’t need a person to see the interaction between a ball and window. They are both observers so their interactions make them take on their respective properties.
At least, I think that’s what he’s saying.
But it’s all relative. For you, a fact may be real yet still not be real for me. That’s the real mind-bender in all this.
The fact that some properties exist only with respect to something else should not overly surprise us. We already knew as much. Speed, for example, is a property that an object has relative to another object. Speed does not exist without being anchored (implicitly or explicitly) to something else. It is a relation between two entities. The discovery of quantum theory is only slightly more radical: it is the discovery that all the properties (variables) of all objects are relational, just as in the case of speed.
The Nodes Are the Links?
According to conventional wisdom, networks are made up of nodes and links, with nodes being connecting points joined with other connecting points via those links. Rovelli writes, “Objects are such only with respect to other objects, they are nodes where bridges meet.”
So, in his view, the links between the nodes only exist when the nodes intersect somehow. I think. So….the links don’t exist and then suddenly they do when the nonexistent objects intersect.
Or, something like that…
Part of my confusion is the fact that objects seldom if ever exist in a vacuum. The ball that’s flying toward the window is, as it travels, intersecting with air molecules, photons, water vapor, and so much more. Are all these things “observers” in Rovelli’s conceptualization?
I think so.
If I’ve got this right, it is the intersection of two no-things that causes something to exist. But then he states, “Entanglement is not a dance for two partners, it is a dance for three.”
The Mysterious Third Dancer
Who or what is the third dancer?
It’s what he refers to as a correlation. That is, anytime there is an interaction between two things, there’s a correlation between them, which he also refers to as an entanglement. Is this related to spooky-action-at-a-distance entanglement? He doesn’t say.
Here’s how he defines it: “Entanglement…is none other than the external perspective on the very relations that weave reality: the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual.”
So, I see a butterfly and, presto, the butterfly and I are entangled. Our reality is the product of that entanglement. Sure, we may have already been entangled with other stuff. For example, the butterfly may have already been entangled with a flower in my neighbor’s garden and I may have already been entangled with my sneakers (among other things) but the butterfly and I literally don’t exist for one another until there’s an entanglement.
At that point, I guess, my sneakers are entangled with me, which is entangled with the butterfly. Am I entangled with the flower on which the butterfly landed before I saw it? Rovelli leaves me guessing on that score.
Whence Lies Objectivity?
You may be asking yourself, “If the butterfly didn’t exist for you until you interacted with it, then why, once Itoo have seen the butterfly, do you and I agree on its characteristics?”
He tries to answer it.
If I know that you have looked at the butterfly’s wings, and you tell me that they were blue, I know that if I look at them I will see them as blue:this is what the theory predicts, despite the fact that properties are relative [his emphasis]. The fragmentation of points of view, the multiplicity of perspective opened up by the fact that properties are only relative, is repaired, made coherent, by this consistency, which is an intrinsic part of the grammar of the theory. This consistency is the basis of the intersubjectivity of our communal vision of the world.
The Mind of God
I don’t know how things that don’t exist (or, at least, don’t have properties) can interact with one another. If he explains that, I somehow missed it.
Maybe groups of realities exist (for example, one with a butterfly and a flower and another with myself and my sneakers) in which all the nodes are interacting with one another. Then somebody (let’s say the butterfly) who has been made real in one reality (by virtue of its interactions) is able to interact with somebody (let’s say me) from a separate reality because of some clash between group/interaction-based realities.
Uh-huh. Even I don’t quite know what that means. I think the holes in Rovelli’s narrative leave me guessing.
Are we all just conceits in the mind of God, with no reality of our own?
His ideas also touch on our sense of self. That is, we do not exist in ourselves. Rather, we are made up of a vast reticulum of phenomena, each link and node dependent on others.
Rovelli tries to elucidate further by delving into the ideas of Nāgārjuna, an Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher who wrote The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way in the second century CE. “The central thesis of Nāgārjuna’s book,” Rovelli writes, “is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself independently from something else. The resonance with quantum physics is immediate.”
(Well, we should note that the resonance is particularly with his theory of quantum physics, but perhaps it’s churlish to point that out.)
The absence of some core, independent entity is known as śūnyatā, which tends to be translated as “emptiness.” So everything, including you and I, are part of this emptiness. He explains:
[L]ooking at a star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one, says Nāgārjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I conventionally call my “self.”
Networks In and Out
Honestly, I can’t tell if we are literally or metaphorically discussing networks here, but it is interesting to think about the connections between our brains, our physical selves, and our quantum existence.
Our brains are networks, with our sense of self largely being emergent out the electrochemical patterns of neurons. Likewise, the rest of our physical selves are emergent from complex adaptive systems. Now, if Rovelli is on the right track, the whole of the universe is a constantly shifting and flowing network of realities. Reality is only seemingly objective. It is actually contingent and relative.
Everything else is emptiness.
I don’t know if that’s the truth of it, but so sayeth the scholar-saint physicist philosopher Carlos Rovelli. Or, at least, that’s the reality I’ve taken away from our interaction.
How it strikes you is no doubt destined to be different. Still, though our realities must be unique, we are now theoretically entangled: you, me, Rovelli and his thousands of other readers. Luckily, however, emptiness is everywhere, so none of us needs to feel the least crowded. Feel free to stretch out and ponder on your own.
It’s hard for someone who watched the gorgeous clusterfucks of Web 1.0 and 2.0 to get starry-eyed about Web3 (or Web 3.0, or whatever we’re calling it this week).
But a daily dose of cynicism is among the sundry bitter pills that older generations take with their morning coffee. You know, to stay regular.
So, I wanted to use this post as a reason to give the W3 champions the benefit of the doubt and educate myself better about the latest “new and improved” world wide reticulum.
Blockchains: Ledgers for Liberté!
Many of the folks espousing blockchain and cryptocurrency are enthusiastic to the point of mania, seeing the tech as pivotal to forging a brave new Web3 world. Most other people are, however, blockchain agnostic or just plain apathetic. It seems like too much trouble to figure out how the damned thing works. (Then throw NFTs into the mix and you have a whole new level of bafflement.)
So let’s indulge in some obligatory but necessarily incomplete descriptions before we continue.
WTF Is a Blockchain?
A blockchain is a glorified ledger. It records debits, credits, and closing balances. The magic word is “transactions.”
If you’re old enough to remember balancing a checkbook, then it’s a lot like that, except it’s digital. And somehow going to save the world.
So it’s a spreadsheet? Kind of. Maybe database is more accurate. The data are stored in virtual “blocks” that are virtually “chained” together. Thus, of course, the name.
Bored yet? Hang on. That chain thing? In theory, you can’t break or modify it. So, the database can’t be changed. Fraud is, therefore, tough, and you don’t need some trusted third party to vouch that everything is on the up and up. No traditional contracts and middlemen. In that sense, it’s decentralized. It’s all about the network, baby.
One common trope is that it’s tech forged by libertarian nerds who hate big government, big business and bureaucracies in all their nefarious forms. Therefore, we wind up with an amalgamation of something that pushes all their hot buttons: software plus finance plus ciphers plus decentralization plus implicit political ideology.
So, no, not a sexy look.
But make no mistake. Blockchain is not just for geeks. Not anymore. In fact, whole industries have bought into it. For example, energy companies use it to build peer-to-peer energy trading platforms so that homeowners with solar panels can sell their excess solar energy to neighbors.
Therefore, blockchain becomes solar chic.
Cryptocurrency Runs on Blockchains
Blockchains and cryptocurrencies aren’t synonymous, but they often go hand in hand. Cryptocurrencies are digital money that’s kept secure via cryptography so there’s no counterfeiting them. Most of these currencies are housed on decentralized systems where financial records are maintained and transactions are verified via blockchains.
Got it? Blockchains are the motors that make cryptocurrencies run.
A Very Short History of Cryptocurrencies
The first and best known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin (or BTC), is part of a longish history with its own mythology. The second most common and well known cryptocurrency is ether, or ETH, which is based on Ethereum technology. But these are just the big guns. Other currencies have been popping up like Mario mushrooms after a virtual rainfall. In fact, there are now more than 12,000 cryptocurrencies.
1991: Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta introduce blockchain technology to time-stamped digital documents, making them “tamper-free”
2000: Stefan Konst publishes his theory of cryptographic secured chains
2004: Hal Finney introduces a digital cash system that keeps the ownership of tokens registered on a “trusted” server
2008: Mystery person Satoshi Nakamoto comes up with the concept of “distributed blockchain,” which provides a peer-to-peer network of time stamping
2009: Satoshi Nakamoto releases the famed white paper on the subject of bitcoin
2014: Various industries start developing blockchain technologies that don’t include cryptocurrencies
2015: Ethereum Frontier Network is launched, and along come smart contracts and dApps (for decentralized applications)
2016: Someone exploits a bug in the Ethereum DAO code and hacks the Bitfinex bitcoin exchange.
2019: Amazon announces its Managed Blockchain service on AWS
2021: In 2021, a study by Cambridge University determines that bitcoin used more electricity than Argentina or the Netherlands. El Salvador becomes the first country to make bitcoin legal tender, requiring all businesses to accept the cryptocurrency.
2022: The University of Cambridge estimates that the two largest proof-of-work blockchains, bitcoin and ether, together use twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. The Central African Republic is the second nation to make bitcoin legal tender.
Raise a Glass to the WWW 3.0
Okay, with all the crypto and blockchain out of the way, let’s get back to Web3.
(Oh, wait, I forgot NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are like one-of-a-kind digital objects that can be worth big money as collectables. These seem insane to me, which probably means they’ll play some pivotal economic role in the future).
These are the chief technologies and implied principles of Web3. As with the previous two iterations the Web, the advocates for Web3 argue that just they want to make the world a better place (even if they happen to make a killing along the way).
The main argument against the status quo is that our current systems are too centralized and corporatized. Financial institutions want to control money, governments want to control legal frameworks, and the biggest tech companies want to control data. Daniel Saito sums it up well here:
The problem with this system is that is leads to inequality and injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The powerful get more power while the powerless are left behind. The web 3.0 economy, on the other hand, is based on a decentralized system. This means that there is no central authority or institution that has control over the system. Instead, it is a network of computers that are all connected to each other.
This makes me smile and sigh. Meet the new techno-idealist, same as the old techno-idealist.
Taking a More Skeptical Approach
Does anyone really believe that the venture capitalists are funding this stuff for the good the humanity? Do we really expect, sticking with an example that Saito uses in his article, that the Nimbies are going away and making room for high-speed rail just because someone’s throwing bitcoins at the project?
At the same time, hope springs eternal. I truly want to think that these technologies will make things better in some ways. Maybe we can avoid a certain amount of corruption, fraud, and concentration of power through blockchains. I want to believe.
A …. potential cause for concern is the shift away from centralized exchanges, which are required to conduct identify checks for customers, to decentralized exchanges like dYdX and Uniswap, which is estimated to be the largest such exchange. Decentralized exchanges rely on peer-to-peer systems to operate. This means that several computers serve as nodes in a larger network, in contrast to centralized exchanges that are operated by a single entity. Decentralized exchanges make it easier for traders to anonymously buy and sell coins; most such exchanges do not currently comply with “know your customer” laws, which means that it can be cumbersome for government officials to identify the parties involved in cryptocurrency transactions. Because these exchanges are not run by a single entity, they can be exceedingly difficult to police and lack the sanctions-enforcement mechanism of more centralized exchanges.
Look, people are people. The worst ones want to accrue and maintain power at the expense of others. To the extent that Web3 makes this less likely, good.
To the degree it reduces accountability, however, we could wind up with greater concentrations of power. Power that can’t be changed–even theoretically–at the voting booth. Careful what you wish for.
Stay Hungry and Hopeful…But Also Skeptical
I like webs and networks (and wouldn’t have a blog called The Reticulum otherwise). I think networks are fundamental to the universe whereas hierarchies are only emergent.
So, to the degree we can move in the direction of efficient and effective networks, I’m all in. But don’t ask me to believe that Web3 is going to solve the world’s ills via the mechanics of blockchain and crypto. It won’t. The best we can hope for is movement in the direction of a fairer, more just and saner world free of power-hoarding, dangerous-tech-wielding dictator types. (We’re looking at you, Vladimir)
Free markets absolutely have their place. So do collectives. Ultimately what we want are socioeconomic and technical systems that allow us to find the right balance, one that keeps the network from stumbling into disastrous chaos on one hand or frozen intractability on the other hand. Both spell doom.
When I was a kid, we had this huge book of prints by Leonardo da Vinci. I loved it. Still do. So, just for fun, I used Stable Diffusion AI to get 30 images of 20th and 21st century political and business leaders as they might have been drawn by da Vinci. Check them out and see if you can identify your leaders. (And, by identify your leaders, I don’t mean to infer that these are all people that you personally would consider your leaders.)
I am pretty amazed at how well generative AI handles this task. And there’s the added bonus that we are using an artist who can’t make any copyright complaints. I fact, I wonder what da Vinci would say. I imagine he’d be both intrigued and appalled. Our of all the great artists of his age, I think da Vinci would fit best into the 21st century. I don’t know if he’d be a solitary iconoclast artist or the billionaire owner of a technology firm, but either way he’d be make his way.
You’ve heard of quantum entanglement and maybe even quantum networks, if only in the context of Star Trekian jargon-laden sci-fi expositions like those spouted by Lieutenant Commander Data.
Unlike tribbles and Klingons, however, quantum entanglement is unnervingly real. That is, you have two or more particles that are tangled up in such a way that, even when they’re separated by a long distance, the quantum state of one of them is somehow effected by or reflected in the states of the others.
Weird and a kind of spooky, right? Which is why Einstein dubbed it, with a degree of mockery since he wasn’t quite buying the reality of it, “spooky action at a distance.” Since then, of course, entanglement has been tested many times. At this point, it’s no longer a theory but a practical fact, spooky or no.
Entangling the Big, Hairy Stuff
But what scientists have not done as often is apply quantum entanglement to big stuff: you know, like your hair.
Some recent experiments have worked with two aluminum “drums” that are huge by comparison to subatomic particles: the size of a fifth of a human hair. That is, 20 micrometers wide by 14 micrometers long and 100 nanometers thick, weighing in a whopping 70 picograms (okay, so small, but still macroscopic).
ScienceAlert describes the process as follows: “Researchers vibrated the tiny drum membranes using microwave photons and kept them in a synchronized state in terms of their position and velocities. To prevent outside interference, a common problem with quantum states, the drums were cooled, entangled, and measured in separate stages while inside a cryogenically chilled enclosure. The states of the drums are then encoded in a reflected microwave field that works in a similar way to radar.”
“To verify that entanglement is present, we do a statistical test called an ‘entanglement witness,’’’ NIST theorist Scott Glancy said. “We observe correlations between the drums’ positions and momentums, and if those correlations are stronger than can be produced by classical physics, we know the drums must have been entangled.”
John Teufel, a physicist at NIST and a co-author of one of the papers on this topic, said, “These two drums don’t talk to each other at all, mechanically. The microwaves serve as the intermediary that lets them talk to each other. And the hard part is to make sure they talk to each other strongly without anybody else in the universe getting information about them.”
So, Take That, Heisenberg!
This is clearly cool on multiple levels. First, of course, quantum entanglement at the macroscopic level! What? Is that a thing?
Why, yes. Yes it is. In fact, this isn’t the first time it’s happened.
But, second, this time physicists worked the system in order to (sort of) get around the impossibility of measuring both position and momentum when investigating quantum states.
Glancy states, “The radar signals measure position and momentum simultaneously, but the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that this can’t be done with perfect accuracy. Therefore, we pay a cost of extra randomness in our measurements. We manage that uncertainty by collecting a large data set and correcting for the uncertainty during our statistical analysis.”
Tap into Your Quantum Network
The concept of a quantum network is, of course, like catnip to people interested in reticula. In the future such networks could “facilitate the transmission of information in the form of quantum bits, also called qubits, between physically separated quantum processors.”
For now, these quantum networks are mostly fiction, but they potentially have a lot of communication and computation applications. One is that they become the backbone of unhackable computer networks. In fact, Mara Johnson-Groh writes that it’s already the case that “basic quantum communications called quantum key distributions are helping secure transmissions made over short distances.”
Johnson-Groh predicts that “quantum networks will be important in scientific sensing first” and highlights the idea of optical telescopes from all over the world connected via a quantum network. The goal would be dramatically improving resolution, resulting in “ground-breaking discoveries about the habitability of nearby planets, dark matter and the expansion of the universe.”
The Entangled Reticulum
There’s something poetic about using a quantum network in order to more clearly see the Reticulum constellation (aka, the net) among other things.
But the poetry runs deeper than that. They say quantum entanglement occurs naturally. Assuming this to be true, I can imagine countless entangled particles streaming off in opposite directions through the universe, encompassing distances that would put the length of a single galaxy to shame.
Large portions of our universe are entangled. The spin of one photon–zinging at lightspeed well beyond the ken of our greatest telescopes–could be entangled with a local photon that happens to meet your retina on a starry night. Thus, the universe is an infinitely complex reticulum of star stuff lighting our consciousness with instantaneous connections from unimaginable distances.
Featured image: Star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.
The short answers are “it depends who you ask” and “nobody knows.” The longer answers are, well…you’ll see.
Wikipedia provides a good basic definition: “The technological singularity—or simply the singularity—is a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth will become radically faster and uncontrollable, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.”
The technological growth in question usually refers to artificial intelligence (AI). The idea is that an AI capable of improving itself quickly goes through a series of cycles in which it gets smarter and smarter at exponential rates. This leads to a super intelligence that throws the world into an impossible-to-predict future.
Whether this sounds awesome or awful largely depends on your view of what a superintelligence would bring about, something that no one really knows.
The impossible-to-predict nature is an aspect of why, in fact, it’s called a singularity, a term that originates with mathematics and physics. In math, singularities pop up when the numbers stop making sense, as when the answer to an equation turns out to be infinity. It’s also associated with phenomena such as black holes where our understandings of traditional physics break down. So the term, as applied to technology, suggests a time beyond which the world stops making sense (to us) and so becomes impossible to forecast.
How Many Flavors Does the Singularity Come In?
Is a runaway recursively intelligent AI the only path to a singularity? Not if you count runaway recursively intelligent people who hook their little monkey brains up to some huge honking artificial neocortices in the cloud.
Indeed, it’s the human/AI interface and integration scenario that folks like inventor-author-futurist Ray Kurzweil seem to be banking on. To him, from what I understand (I haven’t read his newest book), that’s when the true tech singularity kicks in. At that point, humans essentially become supersmart, immortal(ish) cyborg gods.
But there are other possible versions as well. There’s the one where we hook up our little monkey brains into one huge, networked brain to become the King Kong of super intelligences. Or the one where we grow a supersized neocortex in an underground vat the size of the Chesapeake Bay. (A Robot Chicken nightmare made more imaginable by the recent news we just got a cluster of braincells to play pong in a lab–no, really).
Singularity: Inane or Inevitable?
The first thing to say is that maybe the notion is kooky and misguided, the pipedream of geeks yearning to become cosmic comic book characters. (In fact, the singularity is sometimes called, with varying degrees sarcasm, the Rapture for nerds.)
I’m tempted to join in the ridicule of the preposterous idea. Except for one thing: AI and other tech keeps proving the naysayers wrong. AI will never beat the best chess players. Wrong. Okay, but it can’t dominate something as fuzzy as Jeopardy. Wrong. Surely it can’t master the most complex and challenging of all human games, Go. Yawn, wrong again.
After a while, anyone who bets against AI starts looking like a chump.
Well, games are for kids anyway. AI can’t do something as slippery as translate languages or as profound as unravel the many mysteries of protein folding. Well, actually…
But it can’t be artistic…can it? (“I don’t do drugs. I am drugs” quips DALL-E).
Getting Turing Testy
There’s at least one pursuit that AI has yet to master: the gentle art of conversation. That may be the truest assessment of human level intelligence. At least, that’s the premise underlying the Turing test.
The test assumes you have a questioner reading a computer screen (or the equivalent). The questioner has two conversations via screen and keyboard. One of those conversations is with a computer, the other with another person. If questioner having the two conversations can’t figure out which one is the computer, then the computer passes the test because it can’t be distinguished from the human being.
Of course, this leaves us with four (at least!) big questions.
First, when will a machine finally pass that final exam?
Second, what does it mean if and when a machine does? Is it truly intelligent? How about conscious?
Third, if the answer to those questions seems to be yes, what’s next? Does it get driver’s license? A FOX News slot? An OKCupid account?
Fourth, will such a computer spark the (dun dun dun) singularity?
The Iffy Question of When the Singularity Arrives
In a recent podcast interview, Kurzweil predicted that some soon-to-be-famous digital mind will pass the Turing Test in 2029.
“2029?” I thought. “As in just 7-and-soon-to-be-6-years-away 2029?”
Kurzweil claims he’s been predicting that same year for a long time, so perhaps I read about it back in 2005 when his book The Singularity Is Near (lost somewhere in the hustle bustle of my bookshelves). But back then, of course, it was a quarter of a decade away. Now, well, it seems damn near imminent.
Of course, Kurzweil may well turn out to be wrong. As much as he loves to base his predictions on the mathematics of exponentials, he can get specific dates wrong. For example, as I wrote in a previous post, he’ll wind up being wrong about the year solar power becomes pervasive (though he may well turn out to be right about the overall trend).
So maybe a computer won’t pass a full blown Turing test in 2029. Perhaps it’ll be in the 2030s or 2040s. That would be close enough, in my book. Indeed, most experts believe it’s just a matter of time. One survey issued at the Joint Multi-Conference on Human-Level Artificial Intelligence found that just 2% of participants predicted that an artificial general intelligence (or AGI, meaning that the machine thinks at least as well as a human being) would never occur. Of course, that’s not exactly an unbiased survey cohort, is it?
Anyhow, let’s say the predicted timeframe when the Turing test is passed is generally correct. Why doesn’t Kurzweil set the date of the singularity on the date that the Turing test is passed (or the date that a human-level AI first emerges)? After all, at that point, the AI celeb could potentially code itself so it can quickly become smarter and smarter, as per the traditional singularity scenario.
But nope. Kurzweil is setting his sights on 2045, when we fully become the supercyborgs previously described.
What Could Go Wrong?
So, Armageddon or Rapture? Take your pick.
What’s interesting to my own little super-duper-unsuper brain is that folks seem more concerned about computers leaving us in the intellectual dust than us becoming ultra-brains ourselves. I mean, sure, our digital super-brain friends may decide to cancel humanity for reals. But they probably won’t carry around the baggage of our primeval, reptilian and selfish fear-fuck-kill-hate brains–or, what Jeff Hawkins calls our “old brain.”
In his book A Thousand Brains, Hawkins writes about about the ongoing frenemy-ish relationship between our more rational “new brain” (the neocortex) and the far more selfishly emotional though conveniently compacted “old brain” (just 30% of our overall brain).
Basically, he chalks up the risk of human extinction (via nuclear war, for example) to old-brain-driven crappola empowered by tech built via the smart-pantsy new brain. For example, envision a pridefully pissed off Putin nuking the world with amazing missiles built by egghead engineers. And all because he’s as compelled by his “old brain” as a tantrum-throwing three-year-old after a puppy eats his cookie.
Now envision a world packed with superintelligent primate gods still (partly) ruled by their toddler old-brain instincts. Yeah, sounds a tad dangerous to me, too.
The Chances of No Chance
Speaking of Hawkins, he doesn’t buy the whole singularity scene. First, he argues that we’re not as close to creating truly intelligent machines as some believe. Today’s most impressive AIs tend to rely on deep learning, and Hawkins believes this is not the right path to true AGI. He writes,
Deep learning networks work well, but not because they solved the knowledge representation problem. They work well because they avoided it completely, relying on statistics and lots of data instead….they don’t possess knowledge and, therefore, are not on the path to having the ability of a five-year-old child.
Second, even when we finally build AGIs (and he thinks we certainly will if he has anything to say about it), they won’t be driven by the same old-brain compulsions as we are. They’ll be more rational because their architecture will be based on the human neocortex. Therefore, they won’t have the same drive to dominate and control because they will not have our nutball-but-gene-spreading monkey-brain impulses.
Third, Hawkins doesn’t believe that an exponential increase in intelligence will suddenly allow such AGIs to dominate. He believes a true AGI will be characterized by a mind made up of “thousands of small models of the world, where each model uses reference frames to store knowledge and create behaviors.” (That makes more sense if you read his book, A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence). He goes on:
Adding this ingredient [meaning the thousands of reference frames] to machines does not impart any immediate capabilities. It only provides a substrate for learning, endowing machines with the ability to learn a model of the world and thus acquire knowledge and skills. On a kitchen stovetop you can turn a knob to up the heat. There isn’t an equivalent knob to “up the knowledge” of a machine.
An AGI won’t become a superintelligence just by virtue of writing better and better code for itself in the span of a few hours. It can’t automatically think itself into a superpower. It still needs to learn via experiments and experience, which takes time and the cooperation of human scientists.
Fourth, Hawkins thinks it will be difficult if not impossible to connect the human neocortex to mighty computing machines in the way that Kurzweil and others envision. Even if we can do it someday, that day is probably a long way off.
So, no, the singularity is not near, he seems to be arguing. But a true AGI may, in fact, become a reality sometime in the next decade or so–if engineers will only build an AGI based on his theory of intelligence.
So, What’s Really Gonna Happen?
Nobody know who’s right or wrong at this stage. Maybe Kurweil, maybe Hawkins, maybe neither or some combination of both. Here’s my own best guess for now.
Via deep learning approaches, computer engineers are going to get closer and closer to a computer capable of passing the Turning test, but by 2029 it won’t be able to fool an educated interrogator who is well versed in AI.
Or, if a deep-learning-based machine does pass the Turing test before the end of this decade, many people will argue that it only displays a façade of intelligence, perhaps citing the famous Chinese-room argument (which is a philosophical can of worms that I won’t get into here).
That said, eventually we will get to a Turing-test-passing machine that convinces even most of the doubters that it’s truly intelligent (and perhaps even conscious, an even higher hurdle to clear). That machine’s design will probably hew more closely to the dynamics of the human brain than do the (still quite impressive) neural networks of today.
Will this lead to a singularity? Well, maybe, though I’m convinced enough by the arguments of Hawkins to believe that it won’t literally happen overnight.
How about the super-cyborg-head-in-the-cloud-computer kind of singularity? Well, maybe that’ll happen someday, though it’s currently hard to see how we’re going to work out a seamless, high-bandwidth brain/supercomputer interface anytime soon. It’s going to take time to get it right, if we ever do. I guess figuring all those details out will be the first homework we assign to our AGI friends. That is, hopefully friends.
But here’s the thing. If we ever do figure out the interface, it seems possible that we’ll be “storing” a whole lot of our artificial neocortex reference frames (let’s call them ANREFs) in the cloud. If that’s true, then we may be able to swap ANREFs with our friends and neighbors, which might mean we can quickly share skills I-know-Kung-Fu style. (Cool, right?)
It’s also possible that the reticulum of all those acquired ANREFs will outlive our mortal bodies (assuming they stay mortal), providing a kind of immortality to a significant hunk of our expanded brains. Spooky, yeah? Who owns our ANREFs once the original brain is gone? Now that would be the IP battle of all IP battles!
See how weird things can quickly get once you start to think through singularity stuff? It’s kind of addictive, like eating future-flavored pistachios.
Anyway, here’s one prediction I’m pretty certain of: it’s gonna be a frigging mess!
Humanity will not be done with its species-defining conflicts, intrigues, and massively stupid escapades as it moves toward superintelligence. Maybe getting smarter–or just having smarter machines–will ultimately make us wiser, but there’s going to be plenty of heartache, cruelty, bigotry, and turmoil as we work out those singularity kinks.
I probably won’t live to the weirdest stuff, but that’s okay. It’s fun just to think about, and, for better and for worse, we already live in interesting times.
Featured image by Adindva1: Demonstration of the technology "Brain-Computer Interface." Management of the plastic arm with the help of thought. The frame is made on the set of the film "Brain: The Second Universe."
Now things get weird. In the first post about Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems, we focused on atoms. Despite the strange fact that medieval Christians tried to censor the concept of atoms, they do not score very high on my weird-shit-o-meter. I was brought up with them, so they seem as friendly as eating potato chips on a comfortable couch.
In the second post, we got into electromagnetism. But, considering that most of us live enmeshed in cocoons of wire and wifi, it’s hard to see that topic as outlandish, however much our forebears would have been astonished.
But in Rovelli’s third chapter, the topic of this post, we’re forced to choke down a red pill if we want to enter the spacetime reality of Albert Einstein’s mind, thereby exiting The Matrix of our comfortable everyday reality where time and velocity seem as easy to grasp as a digital readout.
You’d think that by now we’d be accustomed to the original Weird Al’s big brain. I mean, we’ve had a century or so to get acclimated to this stuff. But, speaking for myself, I’m still struggling to cope with the idea that the world is not what it seems.
Present But Not Accounted For
Rovelli tries. But, despite the cartoons, his section on the “extended present” is hard to swallow. How and why has the present moment been extended by the Special Theory of Relativity?
I assume it has to do with the speed of light and relative time, but you’ll need to take it on faith within the context of this chapter. Here’s an example:
[O]n the moon, the duration of the extended present is a few seconds, and on Mars a quarter of an hour. This means we can say that on Mars there are events that are yet to happen, but also a quarter-of-an-hour of events during which things occur that are neither in our past nor in our future.
I find this hard to wrap my brain around and wish Rovelli had gone to greater lengths of explain the details. I remember getting a deeper glimpse of time relativity when pondering the ideas in the book Why Does E=mc2 (And Why Should We Care?), but I’ve since lost it (the glimpse, not the book). And now I’m wondering if I’ll need to bear down on that text again in order to grasp Rovelli’s arguments. We’ll see.
Space Is a Monster Mollusk
Okay, let’s put the “extended present” into a box (perhaps along with Schrodinger’s cat) and come back later to see what happened. For now, I want to focus on another statement in Chapter Three:
What if Newton’s space was nothing more than the gravitational field? This extremely simple, beautiful, brilliant idea is the theory of general relativity…. Newton’s space is the gravitational field. Or vice versa, which amounts to saying the same thing: the gravitational field is space….We are not contained within an invisible, rigid scaffolding: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible mollusk (the metaphor is Einstein’s).
Okay, despite the Cthulhu vibe, I understand this better than the concept of extended present. I get the whole spacetime-curved-by-big-hunks-of-matter idea. I get that everything’s moving and has speeds only relative to everything else and everything is in constant flux. I even kind of (though not really) get the idea that time flows faster at the top of a mountain rather than in a valley.
But spacetime is the same thing as the gravitational field? Was that originally part of the Theory of Relativity? Apparently I’m not the only one confused. I wonder if that’s part of scientific history or just a tenet of the quantum gravity hypothesis, which is the ultimate subject of the book.
A Universe Designed by Escher
The latter sections of Chapter Three are mostly focused on how the universe may be a humongous globe with an extra dimension stuck in there. Einstein conceived a way in which the universe might be finite while still having no discernable boundary. Rovelli uses the metaphor of a globe:
On the surface of the Earth, if I were to keep walking in a straight line, I would not advance ad infinitum: I would eventually get back to the point from which I started. Our universe could be made in the same way. I fly around the universe and eventually end up back on Earth. A three-dimensional space of this kind, finite but without boundary, is called a “3-sphere.”
Although he goes on for another 12 pages or so, for me the above is the essence of the discussion. And, I kind of get it, or at least think I do, because we all understand the metaphor of the globe. Whether I can can truly conceive the shape of the universe like this, however, is another matter. It’s something to work on.
It’s Networks All the Way Down
Boiling it all down, I take away two main insights from this chapter. First is the idea that space as we (or at least I) sometimes think of it doesn’t exist. There are no vast empty spaces in space. It is jam-packed with gravitational and electromagnetic fields light waves, radio waves, gamma rays, microwaves, etc. In fact, maybe space is nothing more nor less than an unthinkably immense gravitational field.
Whatever space is, however, it’s certainly not mostly empty. It is a packed and fluctuating landscape in its own right. Jupiter is a not a planet but a mountain, one that we can climb and look down at the curved and rippling real estate of our solar system, if we’re willing to see beyond the merely visible.
My second insight is that network describes the scene even better than landscape. In my mind’s eye, I see block-and-tackle pulleys everywhere, connecting everything in our solar system (and the greater universe, of course) in a constantly shifting network.
Some mythologies have it that the Earth is supported on the back of a giant World Turtle. But what does the turtle stand on? There’s the old joke that, well, it’s “turtles all the way down” in a kind of infinite regress.
Perhaps it’s less of a joke to say that the universe is a network of networks. What do the networks attach to? Well, other networks via gravitational forces. I guess we could say it’s networks all the way down.
Featured image: Artist's concept of the Interplanetary Transport Network. The green ribbon represents one possible path from among the infinite number possible within the larger bounding tube. Constricted areas represent locations of Lagrange points. Wikimedia Commons