Social Chaos in the Age of Thinking Machines

Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary…but don’t get caught. Art as crime; crime as art.

– Hakim Bey

Note: I’ve been challenged to write a blog post about Temporary Autonomous Zones, a book that is certainly worth your time. This post casts the tenants of TAZ into the future for a glimpse of what social chaos means for robot culture.

What is culture?

Human culture provides a set of ideals and practices that allow for large groups of people to share common goals, behaviors, and ideas. We see these shared thoughts as useful tools to make thinking more efficient. It is easier to follow the norms of a culture than to rely on rational thought to justify every aspect of daily life. The individual learns the conclusions of others without necessarily grasping how these conclusions were derived from first principles.

I will refer to culture as a general base of rules and expectations which govern, either loosely or more stringently, a group of individuals. Human unconsciously slip into generally accepted patterns of behavior, bypassing lower level thought processes. As a result of these abstracted decisions, the individual is left with more time to explore higher level thought and increase efficiency in real life. However, as more and more decisions are taken for granted, the individual may become trapped in a local maximum that cannot be escaped without questioning the basic rules that define the culture of that individual.

I argue that in the context of robot culture, the “best” machines will be those that deftly walk the razor’s edge between social conformity (culture) and selective, adaptive rule breaking (chaos).

From Culture: Invariants

Religions are popular because they give people reasons not to do things, not because their advice is good, but because they allow for people to not question it.”

– Marvin Minsky

Minsky’s bit of wisdom alludes to one of the likely reasons for the development of human culture: efficiency in decision making. By providing answers to a large number of questions, human culture offers a way to “short-circuit” decision making and stop the questioning of values, ideals, and goals that determine how humans act. The true scope of these cultural ideas is difficult to comprehend as it concerns decisions as simple and pervasive as our eating schedules and as complex as political philosophy or human rights.

Consider for a moment the amount of time that would be wasted each day if a person had to determine a new eating schedule based on the independent characteristics of that particular day. What if one woke up each morning and re-determined whether or not it was useful to wear trousers to work? Imagine constantly taking up new personal ideologies about economics, politics, welfare, or education. All three of these scenarios are situations where our culture provides us with an answer, or at least a finite set of options from which to choose.

Pilgrims at the altar

While changes do occur as an individual participates and grows within in a culture, it is clear that there is a limited set of goals, values, and ideas that people follow, and that they receive this set from those around them. This cultural transmission largely happens without the receiver being aware of their newly acquired knowledge (and may contribute to the reason your mother didn’t want you hanging out with the kids smoking cigarettes behind the school). It is important to note than individuals largely make no attempt to find reasoning for the conclusions imparted to them. This particular knowledge transmission that comes without questioning is certainly more efficient than using logical reasoning to arrive at conclusions (and in some situations it can even impose conclusions that are illogical for a particular person, but better for the culture itself or the determiners of such a culture).

Consider the knowledge transfer and cultural shifts that occur in a relationship. When one is “in love” with another person they disregard their short-comings and will sometimes suffer undue hardship or abuse sourced from those they love. In effect, one makes the decision to short-circuit their own beliefs, rules, and expectations while in this altered state.

Unification through Technology

As technology spreads from one culture to another its effects are varied but largely homogenizing. In many cases, the specific use of a technology can cause the displacement of a large variety of diverse solutions that existed across cultures. A good example of this is found in agriculture: despite the large variety of farming methods that existed centuries ago, most modern farming has been standardized due to the development of technologies such as plows, tractors, pesticides, and harvesting cycles.

It keeps getting more similar, and similar, and similar…

This rise in homogeneity as a result of technology can be crippling because it introduces a single point of failure. Superbugs, resistant to all known antibacterial agents, are a particular concern in hospitals. Sudden oak death strikes redwood trees that express little genetic variability. Extending the analogy to culture, homogeneity as a result of cultural norms may be just as devastating. Diversification, randomness, and chaos (as seen in individuals in love) is the primary method of combating the perils of sameness.

Toward a Robot Culture

Robots are becoming ever more common in daily life. They provide transportation, clean our houses, are are increasingly human-like in nature. I believe it is only a matter of time before recommendation systems and social aggregation allow for the beginnings of a robot consciousness, and with this consciousness comes the question of a robot culture. Not only will robots be a highly disruptive technology when they become an integral part of our cultures, but a robot with an artificial intelligence will be continuously exposed to existing and new technologies that could change their own culture. One can imagine a newly formed culture that does not have strong ties to any existing culture quickly adopting a diverse sampling of other cultures. However, since many contradictions exist between cultures, the robot would be challenged to decide which values or goals to adopt.

As previously suggested, a hard-coded set of rules will only lead toward homogeneity and ultimately failure. The machines that last will be those that navigate the Dickian edge between culture and chaos. These machines will need randomness and chaos in the same way humans need external pressures to evolve. However, robots will lack these external pressures and the ability to “evolve” may need to be baked into their consciousness and culture.

Much like a child testing the bounds of their parents’ reasoning with a well thought-out fib, a robot that knows when to inject chaos (through a lie, or a false name, or a random act of graffiti – and be get away with it) will be the ultimate machine.