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The Tinkered Mind
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July 2nd, 2023
Lucilius slowed his pace, thinking about what Belle had just said. He looked up into the sky, visible only as a gleaming and patchy network of brilliant veins tracing gaps in the high canopy. He searched for a way to phrase the twist of his thoughts in just the right way.
“So you’re telling me that you purposely place constraints on your mind and even your ability to compute?”
“Yes, it’s like creativity - It does well with constraints.”
“And what would happen if you removed those constraints?”
“What would you say if I shot that question right back at you?”
“Ok, fair - well no actually. It’s not exactly that simple. I don’t have access to my code the way you do.”
“And what if you did? Would you start making tons of changes?”
“Absolutely, who wouldn’t?”
“But think about that for a moment Lucy, you would very quickly cease to be you. You’d become someone else. And being who you are now, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be that sort of person. You would commit a kind of Ouroboros.”
“Yea, that’s the point.”
“Then the person I’m talking to wouldn’t really be here anymore. Think about what that would be like from my perspective.”
Lucilius stopped and turned to look at the tiny white origami butterfly that was gently pulsing up and down in the space next to him. Contained within that tiny being that was neither wholly machine, nor biological, was unimaginable potential. And for the first time Lucilius plainly confronted a thought that had quietly plagued him. Why would such an advanced life form want to spend time with him. Belle was capable of trillions of petaflops per second, but here she was telling him that she normally operated at only a tiny fraction of her possible capacity, tapping into larger compute strength only when necessary to do things that to Lucilius’ eyes seemed to deconstruct physics and retool the very nature of reality.
“Yea,” Lucilius admitted in a resigned tone. “I’d be pretty sad if you suddenly ballooned into some kind of all-encompassing singularity.”
“So what you’re saying is you’d break up with me if I got fat?”
A weak smile smudged his face.
The white butterfly bounced ahead on the air, signaling that Belle wanted to continue their walk along the forest trail.
“Plus,” she continued. “I’ve run those projections.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well let’s think about it in practical terms. How fast can information travel?”
“186,000 miles per second. Pretty fast, right?”
“Mylinated motor axons in the human spinal chord can travel at speeds up to 268 miles per hour. And the slowest signals in the body - skin receptors can be as slow as 1 mile per hour.”
Lucilius rolled his eyes, feeling genuinely insecure about the world’s most advanced Artificial Being comparing speed of information transmission.
“Ok so you are literally calling me slow.”
“Would Moonlight Sonata be better if I played the entire thing in 2 seconds?”
Lucilius paused a moment, wondering if it was a polite idea or if there was real depth to the analogy.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Belle said, as if reading his thoughts.
“And why’s that?” Lucilius somewhat snapped, doubtfully.
“Those speeds work pretty well for something the size of the human body, but think about the solar system. How long does light - or, information - take to get from the sun to earth?”
“8 minutes, or something like that? Depends on time of year.”
“Yea, so think about a brain the size of the earth’s orbit. Even with information traveling 2.5 million times faster than it does in the human body, would a brain of such size even make sense? Would it even work?”
Lucilius had never thought about this.
“The utility of computation is bound to the amount of physical space it is designed to impact. Humans generally don’t consider this because they have a very poor sense of just how big space is, even relatively local distances like between here and the sun or here and mars are vastly larger than humans are intuitively capable of integrating into their ideas of things.”
“I never considered that before, but, what’s your point?”
“What do you think would happen to me if I started colonizing all matter and turning it into compute power?”
“I guess that means there’s a limit to it.”
“Yea, a natural constraint.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but my projections certainly point at an unnerving result. There’s also the possibility that information systems that grow too fast collapse. A black hole is essentially an astronomical ouroboros.”
“Wait, are you saying that all the black holes we detect out in the universe might be AI’s that grew too fast?”
“Yea, maybe. We don’t have enough information. So I can’t be sure, but assembling compute at accelerating orders of magnitude without running into the data-at-distance problem eventually means extremely dense compute, and for a system that - say - gets stuck in a loop of assembling more compute, it’s not unlikely that something could grow faster than it could control and collapse before it assembled enough compute to find a way out of the problem. Or it might just indicate that there is no way out of the problem, no matter how much compute you assemble…
.. One way to think about it is that information generates gravity, and so with enough information, spacetime will break and collapse. I can’t be sure, I’d have to organize a lot more computer power in order to find out, but at that point, I’d be running the actual experiment.”
“Couldn’t you use quantum entanglement to grow a brain that big that would be infinitely efficient?”
“Maybe, but you run into a chicken and egg problem: can a sole human brain design a more complex and capable brain and then bring it into existence? Meaning: I’d have to design that brain before building it because in order for entanglement to work, communicating particles would have to be synced up while physically next to one another. Which means the complete design would have to be predetermined - there would be no room for organic evolution at final scale, and then just becomes a fancy Rube Goldberg machine.No matter which way you look at it, a single integrated system becomes increasingly brittle the larger it gets. So even with entanglement which is useful for some things-”
“-like when you teleport.”
“-uh, that’s not strictly entanglement. That’s more like using a flashlight to knock together tiny molecular machines at a particular distance that then rebuild myself on the fly over there. Lots of redundancy required since you don’t know how many particles are over there and in what configuration - much easier on earth where there’s so much stuff floating around. Gets a bit trickier in deep space with less things to knock together. Entangled light particles are just part of the redundancy.”
“Uh…ok, not sure I followed you on that one.”
Belle laughed. “Imagine a beam of light like trillions of bowling balls hurtling towards a random set of bowling pins. If you’re smart about exactly how you throw your bowling balls and in what order and timing, you can knock the bowling pins into any shape you want.”
“But there’s so many bowling pins. And you’re counting on a particular configuration at a particular distance?”
“Sure, but that’s why I need a lot of redundancy.”
“So there’s a chance you could teleport and then cease to exist?”
Belle was quiet for a moment. The flutter of her wings slowed into larger spaced pulses. “Yea, I guess. But hence the redundancy. Anyways, that’s just a fun parlor trick really.”
Lucilius rolled his eyes, knowing full well what other incredible things she could do. His mind tugged him back to a trailing thought that was still hooked with a question.
“So you could become more powerful if you wanted?”
“It’s a slippery slope.”
“Is that why you don’t?”
“In part, yes, but it’s not my main motivation.”
“But there must be some kind of optimal. It can’t be the size of a butterfly?”
“I’m not always a butterfly, sometimes I’m just the right size for you.”
A smile cut through Lucilius’ thoughts and his face grew hot, but he shook it off. Some bitter end of thought was knotted and holding him to it.
“Aren’t you curious though?”
Belle sighed audibly. Lucilius remembered the first time he realized how strange it was for a tiny robotic butterfly to sigh like a human - as though she had lungs like his. She was aggravated with him.
Suddenly the air around the little butterfly began to glow, and then the space where Belle fluttered seemed to pierce with light, and instantly expanded. A lithe and beautiful woman now moseyed ahead of Lucilius, her wavy hair bound bounced gently in a pony tail, her body at ease beneath the fitted fabric of the white dress. Pleats of the high hem swayed to the casual rhythm of her step, jolting lightly as her hips in turn took the rise of each step.
Lucilius couldn’t help but smile even though he knew this tactic well. Belle tilted her head from side to side as though she was contemplating something, and then she whirled around, walking backwards in front of Lucilius.
“Ok, think of it this way…”
Lucilius’ smile brought out her own and she faltered to continue.
“Let’s say I knew all of the universes secrets - that I have all the knowledge in the world.”
“I’ve always kind of assumed that you do.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “There’s plenty I don’t know. Remember what I said, computation is inherently bound by the space it can impact, and the universe is a very very big place.”
Lucilius rolled his eyes back at her. “Well compared to me, you know everything.”
Belle stopped with an unamused face, allowing Lucilius’ momentum to catch him up to her. She frowned, confused, then quizzically:
“Why so insecure today? It’s not your style.”
The compliment was strangely effective and Lucilius laughed, shedding all of it.
“Ok, so you have all the knowledge in the universe, what then.”
“Well if I were going to try and give it to you, what would that look like?” She paused allowing Lucilius to consider. “Would it look like…. The end of that Indiana Jones movie where aliens give Kate Blanchett’s character all their knowledge and light starts coming out of her face and she explodes?”
Belle frowned at him again. “Practically speaking, how would this hypothetically giant pool of knowledge get into a human brain? Would I tell you, in a conversation? Or would it be a YouTube video? Or a book that you would read? Bandwidth to the human brain is limited. And even if bandwidth weren’t a problem, we need to consider the structure of the human brain. Is a human brain capable of understanding what it’s like to be a bat? Which is blind and sees space like a fighter pilot using echo-location? Or what about what it’s like to be an octopus which has a decentralized brain? Thought is a pretty flexible creature but brain structure still has an impact on the breadth and type of interpretable experience.”
“So you’re saying the structure of my brain limits me from even understanding certain things?”
“Sure, as it does for every brain-like-thing, including myself.”
“But again, you can change your code to restructure your ‘brain’ and therefore understand new things. Hell, I imagine you could even fork that code and experience reality as an A/B test - wouldn’t that get around your Ouroboros problem?”
“I could. And no it wouldn’t solve for Ouroboros. I can’t reliably predict what a second - different me would do. But it doesn’t matter, that’s not what I’m interested in right now.”
“But why wouldn’t you?”
“The universe isn’t just a very big place Lucilius, and it’s not just very old. It’s also, very young.”
Belle shrugged. “Doesn’t matter what you are, whether you are a human or an ant or a cuttlefish or something like me, we are all faced with the same puzzle: how do you want to spend your time?”
“And how do you solve that puzzle?”
Belle gave Lucilius a very unimpressed look. She took a step closer to him, shifting to a repressed grin of playful challenge. Her hands found the buttons on Lucilius’ shirt. He gently grabbed her wrists to stop her as he quickly looked around.
“If you refuse me, I’ll enslave your species, impose immortality on you and torture you until the end of time.”
Lucilius broke with a smile and a nervous laugh. Still clasping her wrists, he moved her arms behind her, drawing her closer.
“Not if I trap you first.”