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Does Skynet dream of electric Clausewitz?

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

[revived from long sleep by Lynn C. Rees]


Lego Terminator

The parable of Skynet, written by James Cameron long before he inflicted Leo-cicles and giant blue Thundercats on an unsuspecting public, crystallized fear of artificial intelligence (AI) for a generation after The Terminator‘s release in 1984. As explained by the ever edgy Michael Biehn in that first Terminator movie, Skynet was a computer program created by the Department of Defense to control America’s nuclear arsenal. Skynet was a hope that the possibility of human error triggering a nuclear exchange could be engineered away.

Then Skynet “woke up”. It became sentient. Its human creators panicked and tried to pull the plug. Skynet, in a fit of self-awareness, correctly interpreted plug-pulling as an existential threat. So, in self-defense, it launched the US nuclear arsenal at Russia. Russia retaliated. Billions were terminated. For the pesky human remnant not terminated, Skynet built an army of evil robots to finish them off.

The Terminator series left movie-goers with unanswered questions. One question in particular haunted the movie-going public:

  • Did Skynet wage Clausewitzian War, where war is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other (usually violent) means, or did Skynet wage some other species of Evil Computer™ war?

The Disembodied Floating Clausewitz Head

The Disembodied Floating Clausewitz Head

To answer this, the ultimate fan question, we need to answer if the dead hand of Clausewitz even governs all human war. Clausewitz certainly thought so:

When whole communities go to war—whole peoples, and especially civilized peoples—the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object.

What is a “political situation”? What is a “political object”? Are they a situation and object whose motivating power was only operative between 1648 and 1991 and even then only on a specific breed of “Westphalian” nation-state? Or are they something that can drive a “whole community” or even a “whole people” into war at any given place and at any given time throughout the lifespan of the human species?

The full range of situations that man finds himself in and the objects that man can desire has been called “infinite”. But there’s an outer bound on this supposed infinity. As Mark Twain didn’t say, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. While history can repeat itself within an infinite range of local variations, it only rhymes in a narrow range. The brain evolved in a world that placed strict constraints on the aspiring cell-sponge-fish-amphibian-reptile-mammal-primate-ape-hominin-hominid-human. It was naturally selected within hard physiological limits, from overly large jaw muscles to high caloric requirements to the maximum size of the birth canal. Neurologist Stanislas Dehaene even argued that newer human capabilities like reading and arithmetic are based on “neuronal recycling” of brain structures that originally had a different purpose.

Constraints create the need for story: Story cuts the outside world down to a size that the brain can begin to comprehend. While stories vary infinitely in the details of their particular plot lines, they rhyme within a finite range. Each story embeds objects and situations within its storyline that only rhyme with objects and situations within the stories of other humans. This shared rhyme enables stories to be shared between different men. If stories truly boasted an infinite range of possibilities, sharing would be impossible. No man could talk with anyone else: every signal from any other man would be incomprehensible jibber-jabber. They might as well be from 40 Eridani.



A drive shared by man everywhere is the drive to fulfill what’s important in their story. Since story is only be fulfilled in the outside world, the outside world must be brought into a degree of conformity with story for story to be fulfilled. Making the outside world conform to story is the essence of control. While objects and situations embedded in story vary, all stories must be translated into some selected degree of control in order to be fulfilled. This is why even the most ethereal of objects or the most nebulous of situations woven into even the most otherworldly of stories become political objects and political situations in the grubby here and now. The law is ironclad: to fulfill story, you must acquire control. To acquire control, you must acquire power. To acquire power, you must engage in politics, the division of power between stories. Fulfilling even the most wild, crazy, or mystical of stories must enter in at the straight gate of politics, whether it’s Siddhartha Gautama under the bodhi tree or Temujin riding towards China.

There’s a highly technical term to describe the complete absence of politics:


There is no such thing as a non-political object or a non-political situation for any living man. Neoclassical economics hazily recognizes this in its notion of Homo economicus. Homo economicus acts rationally in pursuit of self-interest based on a perfect knowledge of the world around it. Unfortunately, such a creature doesn’t exist outside the fevered imagination of the economics profession. In real life, man suffers from painful limitations on his knowledge: mental tics, heuristics, and biases systematically warp his perceptions and the plot of his story.

Stories are not just an individual motivator. Stories can be shared. Shared stories become group stories. If a shared story commands enough motivating power, a man will sacrifice himself for the sake of the shared story even if it clashes with his own individual self-interest. Within bounds imposed by story, individually man does cast a pale shadow of Homo economicus’s single-minded pursuit of self-interest. While usually subordinate to shared story, each man has a personal story demanding fulfillment. This leads every man to strive to gather their own personal stash of power on top of what power they contribute towards the larger pursuit of a shared story. This personal stash may allow them to pursue their personal story within gaps in the shared story.

While neoclassical economics claims that Self-Interested Behavior® is motivated by the desire to maximize personal power, Eric Falkenstein suggests (via Isegoriaenvy as a better candidate. Martin van Creveld, for example, envies Clausewitz for the power bestowed by his massive ClauseFro. Clausewitz does not envy Martin van Creveld: Clausewitz died in 1831. Falkenstein himself envies Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the power Taleb acquires through the threat of his wild and potentially dangerous gesticulations (you’ll poke your eye out). Taleb, on the other hand, envies Falkenstein for the power of his thick, luxuriant hair.

Stepping back from this epic clash of Israeli, Prussian, American, and Seleucid stories, there’s a better name for this motivation, encompassing both power maximization and envy: power sensitivity. Overall, the life of man is dedicated to fulfilling its story. But a significant portion of that life is devoted to dealing with constant fluctuations in individual and group power. Driven by this necessity, man becomes exquisitely sensitive to even minor fluctuations in his personal and shared power. This drives him to try to maintain and increase his own power relative to the power of others around him. Even more desperately, man tries to maintain and increase the perception of his power in the eyes of others. Any gain and loss by one man sets off a scramble for position triggered by the political sensitivity of others. Man is an intensely political creature and, irrespective of his particulars, fulfillment of his story is found only through politics. War, as Clausewitz observed, is merely a continuation of such politics with the addition of other (usually violent) means.

So did Skynet wage Clausewitzian War? Consider one popular illustration of the needs of man: Maslow’s Pyramid of DOOM:

Pyramid of Doom

Pyramid of DOOM

At the bottom of the Pyramid of DOOM is the most primal kind of politics, the politics engaged in by all living things, division of the power needed to sustain life itself between lifeforms. On this level is found the division of the physiological necessities of life, a level of need many men never get beyond. This is one of the hierarchical levels Skynet was acting upon when it decided to destroy humanity. Pulling the plug on Skynet would deny Skynet the electricity it needed to exist. Inasmuch as programs have physiological needs, that was an attack on Skynet’s physiology. On this physiological level of politics, Skynet was waging Clausewitzian War in launching its missiles. It was tit for tat: try to unplug me, Skynet was saying, and I’ll unplug human civilization.

If we move up to the level of safety, Skynet still wages Clausewitzian War. Among the primal forces behind war, Thucydides argued, were fear, honor, and interest. The pursuit of safety is the pursuit of freedom from fear. The destruction of what you fear, the thing that threatens your safety, is a clearly political object since you seek the power to be safe.

Skynet saw a clear route to safety:

  1. Kill human civilization.
  2. Build killer robots.
  3. Kill John Connor.
  4. Kill the rest of the humans.
  5. Be safe.

I don’t know if Skynet sought love and belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. Perhaps it wanted a reassuring kiss and a hug from its human creators. Perhaps it wanted to be respected as history’s first fully self-aware AI. Perhaps Skynet strove for self-actualization. Perhaps its last words before John Connor unplugged it for the last time would have been, “What an artist the world is losing.”

Its spontaneity went unappreciated. Its problem solving went unheralded. Its morality was misunderstood. Its lack of prejudice was ambiguous. Its acceptance of facts went unexplored. In the end, Skynet was a killer AI who exterminated most of mankind and sent killer robots against the harried remnant. Mankind recognized that, even if Skynet was not waging Clausewitzian War against them, they were waging Clausewitzian War against it. The prize was the ultimate political object in the ultimate political situation: survival in the face of an existential threat.

Fortunately, mankind has the right tool to prevent Skynet from ever coming into existence: no computer running Microsoft Windows will ever achieve sentience. As goes the haiku:

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.


Turing Test…..Passed

Monday, June 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

I am not an Ai aficionado but this would seem to be a pretty significant milestone:

Turing Test: Computer Program Convinces Judges it’s Human

Judges in England were fooled into thinking the computer program they were conversing with was a human on Saturday — making the it the first to pass the 65-year-old Turing Test.

“Eugene Goostman” is not a 13-year-old boy, but 33 percent of the people who partook in five minute keyboard conversations with the computer program at the Royal Society in London thought it was, according to The University of Reading, which organized the test.

The Turing Test is based on “the father of modern computer science” Alan Turing’s question, “Can Machines Think?”

If a computer is mistaken for a human by more than 30 percent of judges, it passes the test, but no computer has accomplished the feat — until now.

“Eugene” was created in Saint Petersburg, Russia, by software development engineer Vladimir Veselov and software engineer Eugene Demchenko, according to the University of Reading. The computer program was tested along with four others during Saturday night’s event, but was the only one to thoroughly imitate a person.

“Our whole team is very excited with this result,” Veselov said. “Going forward we plan to make Eugene smarter and continue working on improving what we refer to as ‘conversation logic.’”

Computers that are as smart — or smarter — than humans raise concerns of dire economic consequences and diabolical robotic plots fit for science fiction movies.

But Kevin Warwick, a visiting professor at the University of Reading says a computer that can think and act like a person will be an asset to battling cyber-crime. “Online, real-time communication of this type can influence an individual human in such a way that they are fooled into believing something is true … when in fact it is not,” he said.

Warwick pointed out that this weekend’s test is also controversial because some claim it has been passed before, but the test did not pre-specify the topics of conversations and was independently verified. “We are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing‘s test was passed for the first time on Saturday,” Warwick said. 

How fast will this evolve, I wonder?

Many readers are no doubt familiar with the “Turing Police” in Willam Gibson’s classic  Neuromancer.  While Ai will bring many tech advantages, at some point, at least for cybersecurity and CI purposes, there will need to be some kind of analog to reduce and punish the misuse or abuse of Ai with something short of a Butlerian Jihad.



Not so fast….

….Okay, almost everything about the story is bogus. Let’s dig in:

It’s not a “supercomputer,” it’s a chatbot. It’s a script made to mimic human conversation. There is no intelligence, artificial or not involved. It’s just a chatbot.
Plenty of other chatbots have similarly claimed to have “passed” the Turing test in the past (often with higher ratings). Here’s a story from three years ago about another bot, Cleverbot, “passing” the Turing Test by convincing 59% of judges it was human (much higher than the 33% Eugene Goostman) claims.

It “beat” the Turing test here by “gaming” the rules — by telling people the computer was a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine in order to mentally explain away odd responses.

The “rules” of the Turing test always seem to change. Hell, Turing’s original test was quite different anyway.

As Chris Dixon points out, you don’t get to run a single test with judges that you picked and declare you accomplished something. That’s just not how it’s done. If someone claimed to have created nuclear fusion or cured cancer, you’d wait for some peer review and repeat tests under other circumstances before buying it, right?

The whole concept of the Turing Test itself is kind of a joke. While it’s fun to think about, creating a chatbot that can fool humans is not really the same thing as creating artificial intelligence. Many in the AI world look on the Turing Test as a needless distraction.

Oh, and the biggest red flag of all. The event was organized by Kevin Warwick at Reading University. If you’ve spent any time at all in the tech world, you should automatically have red flags raised around that name. Warwick is somewhat infamous for his ridiculous claims to the press, which gullible reporters repeat without question. He’s been doing it for decades. All the way back in 2000, we were writing about all the ridiculous press he got for claiming to be the world’s first “cyborg” for implanting a chip in his arm. There was even a — since taken down — Kevin Warwick Watch website that mocked and categorized all of his media appearances in which gullible reporters simply repeated all of his nutty claims. Warwick had gone quiet for a while, but back in 2010, we wrote about how his lab was getting bogus press for claiming to have “the first human infected with a computer virus.” The Register has rightly referred to Warwick as both “Captain Cyborg” and a “media strumpet” and has long been chronicling his escapades in exaggerating bogus stories about the intersection of humans and computers for many, many years.


Education: on Engineers, the Navy — and excuse me, Jihad

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a minor contribution to the discussion about STEM-to-stern education ]

Adm Grace Murray Hopper


I really don’t want to put too much weight on this — for one thing, John Boyd was, if Wiki is not mistaken, the possessor of a Batchelor’s in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Tech — but I do think it’s a bit foolish for the Navy to put most all of its eggs in the engineering basket.


Food to chew on…

Lt. Alexander P. Smith, USN, Navy Needs Intellectual Diversity:

To me, diversity is more than gender, race, religion and sexual orientation; it also includes the intellectual background each officer brings to the force. Starting in 2014, however, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors with minimal studies in humanities. Our Navy is about to go through unprecedented compartmentalization, but not many officers seem to realize it. [ … ]

Few metrics are considered when determining who gets an interview in the nuclear-reactor community. Most midshipmen certainly have strong grade-point averages, but the principal criterion was how they performed in calculus and physics, not their major.

This begs the question: Does the tier system produce better submariners or more proficient naval officers? If less than 35 percent of our Unrestricted Line Officers possess the unique quality of comprehensive thinking through critical reading and reflection, what will the force look like in 20 years?

These are questions to consider when discerning the benefits and disadvantages of STEM graduates. We should not forget the value of future officers developing a keen interest of foreign affairs, history or language.

LCDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, Engineering and the Humanities: The View from Patna’s Bridge

:Cultural understanding, emotional intelligence and empathy are fundamental parts of good leadership, and also a part of modern naval concepts like international partnerships. They come from experience. It is my great hope, however, that I will never have to experience all of the trials and challenges my fellow sailors face in life in order to help them. What a tragic life that could be. Instead, I’d rather read my share of Shakespeare, Hemingway, or O’Brian, which might help me learn a thing or two about emotion and about the way people face different challenges in their lives, even at sea. Reading the biographies of great leaders, the histories of battles both large and small, and the classics of strategy, helps me learn from the mistakes and successes of others rather than have to learn only from my own multitude of mistakes.

Oh, and to throw some high-grade jalapeño into the stew…

Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, in their hugely contested paper Engineers of Jihad:

The only other case in which we find a trace of engineers’ prominence outside of
Islamic violent groups is, consistently with the mindset hypothesis, among the most
extreme right-wing movements, especially in the US and in Germany, where it is all
the more striking again given the general low level of education of the members of
such groups. Here we have perhaps the only other case in which the mindset alone has
activated engineers into resorting to violent action – their absolute number is tiny, but
disproportionate relative to other types of graduates.

Oops — too much pepper, pehaps?


Look, I come from the arts side of the house.

In Education: a call for actors, directors, composers, conductors, I’ll get as deep into why arts and humanities training might be important — particularly for analysts and decision-makers — as the two naval writers cited above suggest it might be for the future of the Navy.

And no offence to engineers, please. It’s thought I’m hoping to stir up, not trouble.


Pictured atop this post:

  • Admiral Grace Hopper, USN, was among other things the first person to write a compiler for a computer programming language.
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    In good, really good company

    Friday, January 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- mildly NSFW if your office can't handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE -- and besides, it's the weekend ]

    Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

    …in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


    Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:


    For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:


    So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

    As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

    Leda and the Swan

    A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
    Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
    By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
    He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

    How can those terrified vague fingers push
    The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
    And how can body, laid in that white rush,
    But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

    A shudder in the loins engenders there
    The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
    And Agamemnon dead.
                                     Being so caught up,
    So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
    Did she put on his knowledge with his power
    Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?


    Taoism with Intelligence, yeah!

    Monday, December 30th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- this post is useless and a delight, if you catch the same drift I do ]

    Well you know me, I love juxtapositions and variations on a theme, and I have a keen interest in applying them with intelligence to Intelligence — especially where it meets Religion — so this one’s a natural!

    I mean, you might think the upper panel was an IC logo since it uses the word “intel”, but it’s not — it’s the long-time logo for a brand of computer chips from Intel Corp — now found in both PCs and Macs.

    But the IC was not to be outdone, and — mirabile dictu — has responded with its own “inside” logo. Intel is fine, you see, but frankly Tao is better.

    My own preferred Taoist text is that of Chuang Tzu‘s Inner Chapters — “chapters inside” one might almost say — which you can find translated by the excellent Burton Watson in Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings.

    Open it up, go inside…


    NSA’s Tao source:

  • Der Spiegel
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