Charlie Stross: February 2013 Archives

You know how it's always the most overtly, loudly homophobic conservative politicians who are found with their trousers down and a rent boy in an airport toilet cubicle?

It's not just politicians.

Evidence exists that a large natural nuclear reactor formed and operated on Mars in the northern Mare Acidalium region of Mars. However, unlike its terrestrial analogs this natural nuclear reactor was apparently much larger, bred 233U off of thorium, and apparently underwent explosive disassembly, ejecting large amounts of radioactive material over Mars' surface.

Source (PDF).

(See also: Natural nuclear fission reactor. Only, on Mars, all geological features seem to be supersized ... I don't care if this is implausible, it's bloody going in a novel. OK?)

Those whacky extropian types have been hitting the nightmare sauce again. This time, while I was having a life and not paying attention they came up with Roko's Basilisk:

Roko's basilisk is a proposition suggested by a member of the rationalist community LessWrong, which speculates about the potential behavior of a future godlike artificial intelligence.

According to the proposition, it is possible that this ultimate intelligence may punish those who fail to help it, with greater punishment accorded those who knew the importance of the task. This is conventionally comprehensible, but the notable bit of the basilisk and similar constructions is that the AI and the person punished have no causal interaction: the punishment would be of a simulation of the person, which the AI would construct by deduction from first principles. In LessWrong's Timeless Decision Theory (TDT), this is taken to be equivalent to punishment of your own actual self, not just someone else very like you.

Roko's basilisk is notable for being completely banned from discussion on LessWrong; any mention is deleted. Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of LessWrong, considers the basilisk would not work, but will not explain why because he does not want discussion of the notion of acausal trade with unfriendly possible superintelligences.

Leaving aside the essentially Calvinist nature of Extropian techno-theology exposed herein (thou canst be punished in the afterlife for not devoting thine every waking moment to fighting for God, thou miserable slacking sinner), it amuses me that these folks actually presume that we'd cop the blame for it—much less that they seem to be in a tizzy over the mere idea that spreading this meme could be tantamount to a crime against humanity (because it DOOMS EVERYONE who is aware of it).

The thing is, our feeble human fleshbrains seem rather unlikely to encompass the task of directly creating a hypothetical SI (superintelligence). Even if we're up to creating a human-equivalent AI that can execute faster than real time (a weakly transhuman AI, in other words—faster but not smarter), we're unlikely thereafter to contribute anything much to the SI project once weakly transhuman AIs take up the workload. Per Vinge:

When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale.
Roko's Basilisk might (for some abstract game theoretical reason) want to punish non-cooperating antecedent intelligences capable of giving rise to it who failed to do so, but would it want to simulate and punish, say, the last common placental ancestor, or the last common human-chimpanzee ancestor? Clearly not: they're obviously incapable of contributing to its goal. And I think that by extending the same argument, we non-augmented pre-post-humans clearly fall into the same basket. It'd be like punishing Hitler's great-great-grandmother for not having the foresight to refrain from giving birth to a monster's great-grandfather.

The screaming vapours over Roku's Basilisk tell us more about the existential outlook of the folks doing the fainting than it does about the deep future. I diagnose an unhealthy chronic infestation of sub-clinical Calvinism (as one observer unkindly put it, "the transhumanists want to be Scientology when they grow up"), drifting dangerously towards the vile and inhumane doctrine of total depravity. Theologians have been indulging in this sort of tail-chasing wank-fest for centuries, and if they don't sit up and pay attention the transhumanists are in danger of merely reinventing Christianity, in a more dour and fun-phobic guise. See also: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov.

(Per the dictionary on this here laptop)


verb (stupefies, stupefying, stupefied) [ with obj. ]

* Make (someone) unable to think or feel properly
* astonish and shock

That first definition fits me like a glove right now. Here's why:

One of the most chilling novels I read last year was "Bitter Seeds", a coldly analytical exploration of a very different wizard war—the occult conflict between Nazi ubermenschen and British necromancers during the second world war. It's the start of a trilogy, and the second book, "The Coldest War", is on my to-read stack.

If I was's recommendation engine, I'd be saying "if you liked Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels, you'll like the Milkweed trilogy". But I'm not; and anyway, Ian is much better able to explain what's going on than I am. He interviewed me for Orbit, our UK publisher; now, by return appointment, here he is as a guest blogger. I'll let him introduce himself in his own words:

Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other disreputable types. By day he works at Los Alamos National Laboratory; by night he is the author of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War (due in July), and the forthcoming novels Necessary Evil and Something More Than Night. His website can be found at

So, this coming weekend is the 50th Boskone, Boston's main non-media SF convention. (I'd have said main literary SF convention except Readercon pretty much has the rights to that title, even though it's about an hour's drive out of town.) I am, of course, over-programmed.

Random meta-political noodling here ...

For a while I've had the unwelcome feeling that we're living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It's obviously subtle — we haven't been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we've somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What's happening?

Here's a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what's happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There's a hidden failure mode, we've landed in it, and we probably won't be able to vote ourselves out of it.

Get your hot new conspiracy theories here! Guaranteed true! Wake up, sheeple! And hit the "reload" button in your browser frequently.

(In related news, see also.)

The text bots are gaining on us. They're even publishing books. How much longer will it be until I join the buggy-whip makers and paper-tape changers on the great occupational scrap-heap in the sky?

(In other news: I am tired, and taking a few days off to recover my energy before I launch into yet another final edit pass through "The Rhesus Chart". Oh, and tonight I'm going to see Chris Brookmyre read from his first SF novel (and fifteenth book), Bedlam. Which I have read, and hereby pronounce my satisfaction with. Oh, and that Iranian space monkey? Conspiracy here! Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad attempts to one-up Vladimir Putin and/or Ziggy Stardust. I think. I'm not sure which, it's been one of those weeks ...)

January 31st and February 1st this year saw the launch and inaugural conference of CREATe — the RCUK research centre for copyright and new business models in the creative economy. It's a seven-university, national scale academic consortium primarily led by law academics, intended "to help the UK cultural and creative industries thrive and become innovation leaders within the global digital economy".

I was invited along as one of the speakers, with a brief slot in which to describe how the analog to digital shift in the creative media has affected me. The conference was frenetically paced: I don't think I'll surprise anyone else who was there if I confess that I came away with my mind churning, but physically exhausted. As nobody got more than six minutes on stage during the case studies session, I had to deliver an abbreviated version of my talk. So I'm publishing the whole thing here, below the fold ...



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