06. Jul 2019
Peter Watts: The Wisdom of Crowds / ŠUM#11
WELCOME TO THE STARFISH INITIATIVE
THE GREEN ICON ON THE MAP REPRESENTS THE REAL-TIME LOCATION OF AN UNMANNED HYPERSONIC GLIDE VEHICLE CARRYING AN EXPLOSIVE PAYLOAD OF 300 KILOTONS. YOU ARE ONE OF A MILLION PARTICIPANTS RANDOMLY SELECTED FROM THE ONLINE COMMUNITY TO CHOOSE ITS TARGET. USE YOUR KEYBOARD, JOYSTICK, OR SACCADAL INTERFACE TO MOVE THE FLASHING WHITE ICON TO THE SPOT ON THE GLOBE THAT YOU WOULD CHOOSE FOR GROUND ZERO. THE FINAL TARGET WILL BE ASSIGNED BASED ON A WEIGHTED BOOTSTRAP MODE OF ALL CHOICES.
IF YOU LEAVE THE VOTING POOL A REPLACEMENT WILL BE RANDOMLY SELECTED FROM THE ONLINE COMMUNITY. IF YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND AND SELECT A DIFFERENT TARGET, YOUR DEFINITIVE VOTE WILL BE BASED ON A DIALECTICAL BOOTSTRAP MEAN OF YOUR COMBINED CHOICES. TARGET COMMIT WILL OCCUR IN
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2215 GMT (T minus 6:45)
No one buys it at first. Obviously this Starfish Initiative thing is a promotional gimmick for some new Mindflix series, although it’s odd that there are no other online references. Most of the people who get the pop-up assume that it is the first volley of many, and that further events will be triggered at the end of the countdown.
There is some criticism of production values: a monochrome globe, transected by lats and longs; sparse tactical overlays obviously siphoned from Google Earth; a green triangle and white crosshairs. Even the most low-budget campaigns have higher standards. Maybe they’re going for some kind of retro verisimilitude.
Most selectees play along at first. But the pop-up offers nothing beyond a target to move, a globe to move it on, and an iconic starfish weaving a surprisingly erratic course around the world. It serves up no payoff but the sight of crosshairs in obedient motion. Clicking on any given set of coordinates appears to register the vote, but generates no other reward. Fifteen minutes into the exercise, nearly half the players have dropped out after button-mashing a random selection of targets in frustration.
2250 GMT (T minus 6:10)
Footage appears online purporting to show an HGV boosting out of atmosphere atop a dual-stage Changzheng 8, launched from Vostochny. The video is zoomed and grainy, obviously taken from a significant distance.
The story fails to get much traction despite moderate coverage on the usual feeds. Changzhengs are used by virtually every space-faring interest on the planet; it would be trivial to grab footage of a routine launch and deepfake the payload imagery. There’s a reason digital records of meatspace events are no longer admissible in the civilized courts of the world. These days, often as not, what you want to believe is as reliable a metric as any so-called “evidence” that might present itself online. The Kremlin’s diplomatic algos don’t even bother issuing a denial.
There is also the payload issue. If Starfish is real, who built it? Where did they get the warhead? Three hundred kilotons may not pack much of a wallop next to your garden-variety ICBM, but it would still require a significant amount of weapons-grade plutonium—and ever since the Melbourne Mushroom, every nuclear power on the planet has been very careful about their inventories. Surely, if some basement tinkerer had stolen that much ordnance, someone would know about it.
Someone points out that even an unarmed HGV could plausibly release three hundred kilotons of kinetic energy on impact all by itself, depending on the mass. A bunch of other someones say Yeah, right.
2348 GMT (T minus 5:12)
Crisanna Soria-Cruz, an amateur astronomer out of Salamanca, claims to have seen a bright, fast-moving object in the night sky corresponding to the Starfish icon’s location on the Initiative’s graphical interface. She is immediately set upon by trolls and naysayers who, in between comments on her race, sex and orientation, insist that no backyard 15-cm reflector could possibly track anything moving so fast and so erratically, and that anyone who wasn’t a total puta would know that. Soria-Cruz’s claim that she glimpsed the object through the finder—which has a wider field-of-view than the main telescope itself—is similarly dismissed.
A flame war breaks out when star-gazers in Algiers and Heraklion make similar claims. While some accept the additional reports as corroborative, most write them off as either part of the original stunt, or the work of attention-seeking opportunists.
0000 GMT (T minus 5:00)
Chinese state media pre-empts scheduled programming to reassure its citizens that China’s computational infrastructure is secure from “western terrorist malware”, such as Starfish, thanks to national firewalls; also that its antimissile defence systems are more than capable of dealing with any “associated potentially hostile hardware”, whatever its origin. China thus becomes the first political body to acknowledge the existence of the Starfish Initiative.
No other countries seem in any hurry to follow suit.
0017 GMT (T minus 4:43)
Sporadic high-energy bursts of EM static precipitate a series of telecommunications failures throughout western Central India. Almost immediately, Starfish—ostensibly passing over the Mumbai coast at the time—changes course and beelines directly toward New Delhi. The bursts end after two minutes and fourteen seconds; Starfish breaks off its approach shortly thereafter.
To some, this constitutes convincing evidence that the threat is real. India must have jammed the spectrum to disrupt Starfish’s communications, but given up once it became apparent that the vehicle is programmed to simply attack any nearby high-population target if it loses contact with its home base. Sceptics argue that the entire episode was staged; so far at least, all reports of communications breakdown track back to second-hand sources.
The Indian government neither confirms nor denies any of the events reported during this time.
0110 GMT (T minus 3:50)
Starfish (those remaining after Wasting Plague ravaged the Pacific, at least) are the animal kingdom’s purest example of true democracy. Their nervous systems—radial, rudimentary, brainless—outsource much of their decision-making to wormlike tube feet that pulse and squirm in their hundreds along the creatures’ undersides. Each foot has its own taxes, its own reflexes. Each can sense the chemical taste of food, for example, reach out along that gradient in a way that might be described as hungry. And so the whole animal moves forward—not under any central control, but as a plebiscite of body parts.
Ten minutes after someone posts this mini-dissertation on How The Starfish Initiative Got Its Name, someone else points out that “Star” is hardly the most unexpected name to hang on a craft that starts its journey by launching into space—and that if any kind of “fish” figures into this equation, it’s probably some species of sucker.
The sceptics lose a bit of ground at 0125 GMT, however, when the New York Times reports that the UN General Assembly has just been called into emergency session.
0130 GMT (T minus 3:30)
Multiple eyewitnesses report the manifestation of a brief, brilliant light in the evening skies above Colombia, coincident with (as it later turns out) an unscheduled firing of the Atacama Ground-based Laser Array three thousand kilometres to the south. Lázaro deJesús of Bogotá describes the display to an emergency-room doctor as “a tiny exploding star … so bright you could see it even if you closed your eyes.”
deJesús is one of a hundred-forty cases of blindness recorded over the following two hours. The most common diagnosis is severe photokeratitis and retinopathy—of the sort one would get from staring at the sun for an extended period—although patients insist that actual exposure to the light source was a fraction of a second.
Team Starfish, its numbers on the rise, spreads the word: the Powers That Be obviously haven’t learned a damn thing from India. Also, Starfish is apparently covered in mirrors.
0138 GMT (T minus 3:22)
Security analysts at MIT discover a copy of the Starfish interface running in one of their honey pots. It proves to be plug-in for the Deuterium blockchain client; it must have been untraceably seeded into millions of devices over a period of months. The fact that it has remained dormant until now is one reason it was not previously detected; it is also smart enough to bypass most popular antimalware, and to avoid devices whose defences it cannot subvert.
The plug-in registers votes by transacting an insignificant micropayment whenever the user clicks a target, using a public cryptographic key planted in the blockchain next to an embedded jpeg of a man having sex with a St. Bernard.
The MIT Team tries corrupting the key in their local copy of Deuterium. The plug-in continues to run unimpeded.
0144 GMT (T minus 3:16)
Chinese state media preempts scheduled programming to announce that any owner of a device running Initiative malware must immediately contact local authorities upon penalty of criminal prosecution.
0148 GMT (T minus 3:12)
A Breaking News item under the byline of famed journalist Sir Jon Evans appears on TechCrunch beneath the headline Starfish is Real—and the White House is Terrified. It contains the following quote from “a well-placed anonymous source” within the NASA/CIA Joint Open-Sky Network:
Whatever it is, it’s not ours. Not Moscow’s or Beijing’s either, far as we can tell. The Pakis blamed India, but that was before New Delhi almost got nuked. We’re shitting ourselves here. We think it might be an indie project.
TechCrunch remains widely-scrolled, despite the pedobot scandal of three years before; the Evans piece acquires eight million links over the next half-hour. Inspired surfers comb the archives of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and FundMyPhysics for potential candidates, but come up empty.
The article nonetheless proves catalytic, pushing social credibility past critical mass on a global scale. Starfish goes viral.
THE GUARDIAN INTERVIEW WITH “LOBSTERMAN619” (IP MASKED), STARFISH INITIATIVE SELECTEE. FIRST OF A SERIES.
THE GUARDIAN: I understand you’ve been in the voting pool for over an hour now.
LobsterMan619: Yeah, that’s right.
LM619: Whaddya mean?
TG: You’re voting on what city to destroy.
LM619: Doesn’t have to be a city. Could be anything. A mountain or a, a puddle.
TG: But you understand people could die. You’re literally deciding whether to kill people. Which people to kill.
LM619: Maybe. Maybe it’s not even real.
TG: Do you think it’s real?
LM619: I dunno. Not really the point, yeah?
TG: How do you mean?
LM619: Like, the whole thing could be bollocks. Just a bit of fun, you know. Chance to figure out who you’d take out, you know, who’s got it coming.
TG: But it could be real. A lot of people think it’s real.
LM619: Then you better make sure you get it right, yeah?
TG: And it doesn’t bother you that you’d be committing mass murder?
LM619: They gonna lock up everyone who clicked on this little map? Even if they do, what’s the sentence for one millionth of a murder charge? What’re the odds my pick would even make the finals?
TG: So why play at all?
LM619: What else I gonna do? And besides, even if it is bollocks …
Dead Air—3 sec
TG: Even if …?
LM619: Probably the closest I’ll ever come to doing anything that matters, innit? A millionth of something that might actually matter.
TG: Do you have a—a place in mind?
LM619: Haven’t decided yet. Got an ex over in Sackville, though, really fucked me over …
0210 GMT (T minus 2:50)
Suddenly there is nowhere Starfish cannot be. It soars over the smouldering forests of Costa Rica and the charred stumps of Amazonia. It looks down in passing at the derelict remains of New Orleans, jutting like rotten teeth from the encroaching Gulf. At the climate refugees piled up against the Pacific Wall; the quarantine zones of France and Santorini; the scoured, barren granite of western Greenland, still blinking in the sun after two million years under the ice. It hardly matters that few of these locations correspond to the trajectory etching its way across the official Initiative interface. Starfish has become mythic. It has decoupled from reality.
The noosphere fills with rumours of feints and countermeasures: interceptors scrambled from Vandenberg and Vladivostok only to be left in the dust; ion cannons in LEO, warming up to fire on a target already past line of sight. Pressed for a response, the United States’ Space Surveillance Network confirms reports of a UFO over the Gulf of Mexico at around 1730 CST; the European Space Situational Awareness Program and the Russian Main Space Intelligence Centre deny any knowledge. A spokesperson for the Joint Open-Sky Network does neither.
The newsfeeds fill with pundits and provocateurs, grumbling with incredulity that such an obvious threat to National—scratch that, Global—Security should be free to travel the world with impunity, evidently able to deal death and destruction wherever it chooses. What are the world’s antimissile defence systems for, after all? Talking heads—conscripted off the toilet, called from bed at a moment’s notice—wipe their eyes or their asses and point out that HGVs are not missiles. Unconstrained by conics and parabolas, they skip off the atmosphere like stones off a pond, change course with the tweak of a thruster. They are virtually impossible to intercept. That’s why they’re illegal. That’s why there’s a Trilateral Treaty for the Nonproliferation of Hypersonic Weaponry.
Remember also: G stands for Glider. So much momentum in that bogey; so little friction high in the thin, slippery air. If Starfish is truly an HGV it could stay up forever on half a tank. Reported speeds have scraped Mach 20 and never dropped below 15: it’s been twice around the planet already. It could come down anywhere, any time. By the time anyone figured out its target there’d be nothing left but to watch it hit.
By now over three hundred prediction markets are taking bets on Ground Zero. Each experiences a brief tumultuous infancy during which speculators push the needle from Mong Khet to the United Republic of Korea to the Zero-pointers’ doomsday enclaves over in New Zealand. It isn’t long before the markets converge, though. Four hours after Starfish appeared, they’ve settled on a single leading candidate at 6:1 odds.
0225 GMT (T minus 2:15)
The hacker collective Heisenberg Compensator reports the discovery of millions of keys in the Deuterium chain, functionally identical to the so-called “Dogfucker” previously documented by MIT; like the plug-in itself, these have also been seeded over a period of months. If the interface can’t find one key, it simply moves to the next.
While the keys could, in theory, be neutralized via the imposition of a forced fork on the blockchain itself, this would be logistically and politically impossible in the time available. It would also invalidate a ninth of all financial transactions conducted planetwide over the past year.
The Collective has further identified metadata peculiarities in Starfish’s voting micropayments, and used a known glitch in the chain’s anonymisation protocol to backtrack 57 suspected votes to their IP addresses. All are running the Starfish plug-in. Unfortunately, establishing that the users at those addresses actively voted—much less preventing them from voting in future—would have to involve the use of quantum computers which, the Collective points out wistfully, will be available Any Day Now.
Just not within the next two hours fifteen minutes.
JESUS FANDANGO (MASKED): I’m just hanging on to this vote. I’m not giving it away, I’m not using it, I’m just—keeping it out of circulation. This is sick. Even if it’s false, it’s sick. If all I can do is keep one lousy vote away from someone who wants to kill a few million people, so be it.
0250 GMT (T minus 2:10)
Israel announces a realignment of its suborbital ballistic arsenal to a common southwest bearing, increasing the intercept odds against any bogey approaching from equatorial latitudes. While the anticipated improvement in security is marginal, this action does have two significant short-term results. All roads out of Jerusalem—already congested by fleeing traffic at the ungodly hour of 5 am—seize up in total gridlock. Also, for the first time in over a decade, Palestinians are free to shop for food without running a significant risk of being bombed.
The prediction markets go crazy.
0315 GMT (T minus 1:45)
A technical note, credited to a Theorem Assistant out of Delhi, appears on the preprint page of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It suggests that voter selection within the Starfish Initiative is not blindly random, but stratified; sample strata are designed to select candidates minimally connected in social, tech and political networks. Starfish works by keeping its participants decentralised and relatively independent of each other, minimizing the chance of information cascades among voters.
The TA concludes that the entire Initiative is, in fact, an exercise in the “Wisdom of Crowds”: a peculiar phenomenon in which a group of people, carefully partitioned against groupthink, can outperform experts in a given field regardless of the expertise of its individual members. The common analogy is to neurons in a vast distributed brain; the network as a whole converges on insights far beyond the grasp of the relatively stupid cells comprising it.
That network is expanding. Even granting an instantaneous voting population of one million, turnover within that pool ensures that the total number of votes increases monotonically over time. With less than two hours remaining, estimates of the current total range from fifteen million to forty-five million votes cast. Confidence limits are wide for all estimates, however; even the best are little more than educated guesses.
The fact that a growing number of selectees are selling their votes to the highest bidder doesn’t help either.
S3xyGrandma4898235 (Miami): The diaperheads, if you must know. I hear Starfish almost took them out already and then backed off at the last moment. Story of my fucking life.
0330 GMT (T minus 1:30)
After two hours’ debate, The General Assembly of the UN votes to release a statement condemning the Starfish Initiative as “a cowardly act of wanton terrorism which will not succeed in its obvious goal of sowing discord and hostility among the world’s sovereign nations.” The statement further calls upon the architects of “this insane scheme” to immediately stand down, threatening undisclosed reprisals otherwise. The statement concludes by imploring all right-thinking citizens of Planet Earth to refuse to participate in such a “sick experiment”.
The motion passes with minor amendments, 189–0 with Kiribati, The Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu abstaining.
In the wake of the UN statement, Ground Zero prediction markets swing to briefly favour Manhattan before returning their gaze to the Middle East. The price of a vicarious vote skyrockets to as much as ¥38,000, despite rumours that the Initiative has begun to cancel accounts that scalp their voting privileges.
0400 GMT (T minus 1:00)
Passing over central Africa, Starfish makes a sudden northeast course correction a full hour before scheduled target commit. The new vector points unwaveringly toward Israel. Sirens wail above Jerusalem. Myriad discordant voices from three faiths call their flock to final worship. A thousand silos, none of which officially exist, open their mouths in the Negev Desert.
Starfish veers off just shy of the Tropic of Cancer and zigzags back down to lower latitudes. It doesn’t emit so much as a peep along any comms frequency. The Initiative behind remains silent and invisible. The message, though, is as unmistakable as it is galling.
Cr0cusK1ller (Bergen): Right here, actually. My bedroom. Fed in the GPS coordinates ten minutes ago. It was kind of a bet.
I mean, it’s not like it’s gonna really count for anything, right? It’s not like my vote’s gonna pull the bomb away from Washington or those shits out of Wellington. And hey, I wouldn’t ask anything from you lot I wouldn’t do myself, right?
0444 GMT (T minus 0:16)
Starfish makes its fourth crossing of the Antimeridian at 1744 Hawaiian time. Sightseers on the west coasts of Kaua’i and O’ahu, gathered to take in the sunset, sight twin contrails rising into the sky from somewhere near the horizon. One such witness is Tiarni Kirkham, an Australian firefighter in Hawaii on a seasonal firestorm contract; she’s on the phone to friends in Canberra, complaining about a mysterious and arbitrary grounding of local air traffic which has left her stranded. She likens the contrails to a sea-based missile launch.
Kirkham has spent the day scuba diving, and is unaware of the Starfish Initiative. Her friends are in the process of filling her in when the grid crashes.
Hawaii goes dark from Maui west. Over on the Big Island, Hilo and scattered southeastern communities experience significant disruption but retain partial, intermittent power. In the absence of solid information, speculation runs rampant:
Starfish hit Hawaii!
Someone hit Starfish!
Starfish can’t be hit.
Maybe not by missiles. An EMP—
They set off an airborne nuke to stop a measly 300-kiloton explosion?
Why would it have to be a nuke?
Look at Hawaii! What else could—
Maybe a capacitor bomb of some kind…
Of course, none of it really matters unless you happen to be on critical life support in a Maui hospital with no backup generator. As anyone with voting privileges can report: EMP notwithstanding, Starfish persists.
0453 GMT (T minus 0:07)
Famed journalist Sir Jon Evans awakens after sleeping off a hangover and—upon discovering one of his articles atop the TechCrunch hit list—posts a hasty disclaimer denying that he is the author. He points out certain peculiarities of phrasing, and suggests that the piece might have been written by some kind of Markov-tethered textbot.
No one notices.
Kaytlin Godfrey (masked): Oh God yes here it comes do it do it DO IT!
0500 GMT (Commit)
Hawaii fades in its rearview mirror. To all its addicted players, madly clicking last-second selections, it grants a single definitive pop-up:
VOTING HAS ENDED
as it continues implacably eastward. It has a destination now. It has three hundred kilotons of kinetic energy to unload, and it finally knows where.
It is only a matter of minutes before the rest of the world knows too.
Its course across the sky has always been erratic. Now though, closing on the Americas, it dips and dodges like a street fighter. Now it bears on Los Angeles; now, on Seattle. Residents of Phoenix and Vancouver and San Jose experience brief moments of gut-clenching terror. Starfish crosses the 25th parallel; the 10th. It streaks across the skies of Panama just after ten; people race outside and scan the heavens, hoping for a glimpse, fearing more, laughing in nervous relief when neither happens.
But they never really start breathing again until ten minutes later, when Starfish flares and dies on a million virtual globes scattered around the real one. Somewhere in northern Brazil, if these pixels are to be believed. One of the few remaining patches of rainforest that hasn’t yet been burned or mined or logged to shit. Text appears there, blinking cheerfully within a bright little border:
And, a moment later:
THANK YOU FOR PLAYING
In the next instant, every Initiative plug-in on the planet winks out and deletes itself.
Letitia Heinig (Toromilton): Oh God, I didn’t know. I didn’t think it was real. I didn’t even have a reason, I just … just closed my eyes and stuck a pin in a map and it was Brazil. But I didn’t—I …
I can’t talk now.
TRANSCRIPT OF POSTMORTEM DEBRIEFING, STARFISH INITIATIVE, DARPA BLACKBODY COUNCIL. LT-CMDR MARC BREYER (PHD), MAJOR KARLEN MANDEL, [REDACTED], GENERAL AMY POWELL, [REDACTED], [REDACTED] AND GENERAL JAGMEET NARASIMHAN IN ATTENDANCE.
Powell: So we’ve locked it down, then? There won’t be any—tourists, or microdrones from Der Spiegel sniffing around the site?
[redacted]: The coordinates aren’t exactly secret, after your little charade.
Breyer: But they are extremely remote.
Mandel: We’ve spoofed Google Maps, planted concentric rings of hunter-zappers around the site anyway. Just to be safe. Anything gets too close, we pulse it.
Narasimham: Brazil’s okay with that?
Mandel: Brazil was six weeks away from dumping five million tonnes of SO2 into the stratosphere. I’d need both hands and half my toes to count the number of international laws that would’ve broken. They know we can take it to the UN any time we feel like it.
Powell: Just as they can take our connection to Starfish. There’s—significant mutual benefit in both sides keeping their mouths shut at this point. I don’t think we have to worry much about Brazil.
Mandel: I’m more concerned about the countermeasures. People are going to notice if their drones start dropping every time they get within—
Breyer: I honestly can’t see that as an issue. Everyone knows the Initiative was a hoax by now, even if they don’t know who was behind it. Far as anyone can tell, the swarm just targeted some uninhabited chunk of forest to minimize loss of human life. Everyone’s wallowing in feel-good editorials about How This Proves We’re A Noble Species After All. Who’s going to travel to a dangerous third-world shithole and hike hundreds of kliks into some malarial swamp that didn’t even really get bombed?
Narasimhan: What I want to know is how a few million random proles—without access to any classified intelligence whatsoever—somehow figured out Brazil was building the damn thing in the first place. None of us had a fucking clue.
Breyer: Well that was the whole point of the exercise, wasn’t it? To see if human swarms could generate insights beyond the reach of conventional intelligence techniques.
[redacted]: And what I want to know is why this swarm of yours—once it figured out the Brazilian installation existed—decided to bomb it.
[redacted]: They were trying to mitigate climate change. Call me old-fashioned, but I would’ve thought reducing the number of firestorms and dustbowls and pandemics and hurricanes—I would have thought all that would’ve been a good thing. Why would your swarm, Dr. Breyer, choose to destroy something that could save so many lives?
Powell: Maybe it saw the project going wrong. Geoengineering’s a very risky business—lot of experts say it would only make things worse, that’s why nobody—
[redacted]: Thank you, Amy. My question was directed at Dr. Breyer.
Breyer: Major Powell’s right: nobody’s really nailed down the risks associated with injecting that much acid into the atmosphere. Ozone depletion, droughts—ocean acidification alone could ramp up coral bleaching, shell degradation of marine molluscs, plankton—
[redacted]: As I understand it, all those things are pretty much a write-off anyway.
Breyer: —not to mention that atmospheric carbon would continue to build up in the meantime. So if the injection project went offline in the future—if the facility were to be destroyed during a terrorist attack, for example—you could end up with the impact of decades of pent-up climate change happening literally overnight.
[redacted]: So you agree with Amy. The swarm made some—unconscious hive-mind calculation, and decided that the cure would be worse than the disease.
Breyer: That’s one possibility.
[redacted]: You have others?
DEAD AIR—6 SEC
[redacted]: Spit it out, Doctor. It’s not like this is going into any kind of official record.
Breyer: Well it’s not a cure, is it? Sir. It’s a—a cheat. A way to keep doing what we’ve always done, while escaping the consequences. Sure, it buys time to come up with a more permanent solution, but what are the odds we’d do that once the pressure was off?
[redacted]: I’m not certain I take your point, Dr. Breyer. Are you suggesting the swarm made some kind of—moral decision?
Breyer: I’ll grant you it’s not the sort of problem it was designed for. Starfish was set up with a multi-armed bandit scenario in mind. This would be a more—philosophical solution than we were expecting.
[redacted]: But you’re suggesting the swarm decided to keep us from cheating. Denied us an easy out, to—what? Force us to fix the mess we’ve made?
Breyer: Or to face its consequences, at least.
[redacted]: Which implies a sense of—discipline. Long-term thinking.
Breyer: Yes sir.
Breyer: I prefer “ethics”, sir.
[redacted]: None of which are traits our species is especially known for.
Breyer: No sir.
[redacted]: In fact, to put not too fine a point on it, people are selfish short-sighted assholes.
Breyer: Everything’s selfish, sir. Everything’s altruistic too, depending on the scale. Sure, people are selfish animals at the level of the individual. Go down a few orders of magnitude, though—well, billions of cells give their lives every day for the good of the organism. If our cells were as selfish as we are, we’d all be big blobs of cancer.
That’s if you look down. If you look up …
DEAD AIR—3 SEC
[redacted]: Don’t stop now, Doctor.
Breyer: Maybe the swarm doesn’t care about the welfare of its individual cells any more than we do. Maybe its selfishness concerns the welfare of the whole.
DEAD AIR—2 SEC
[redacted]: You’re suggesting that this—this computational method of yours—is intrinsically biased toward solutions that only benefit the whole species, over long timescales.
Breyer: I think it’s possible, sir.
Mandel: I think what Dr. Breyer is trying to s—
[redacted]: Would there be any way to, well, tweak it? Limit node selection, for example, to prioritize some members of the species over others?
Breyer: Prediction error scales inversely to diversity, sir. You’re talking about biasing the distribution in a way that—well, you do that, you might as well go back to hiring consultants and science-fiction writers.
Breyer: The technique has proven itself, sir. The protocols could be applied to a wide range of problems intractable to conventional expertise. They might be able to come up with real solutions to—
[redacted]: Still. Not much point in having a hive mind if we can’t even get it to choose our side.
[redacted]: Don’t take it too hard, Dr. Breyer. It was a good idea. Worth checking out.
So. Unless anyone else has something to add …?
DEAD AIR—4 SEC
Okay then. I guess that’s lunch.
Peter Watts, described by the Globe & Mail as one of the best hard-SF authors alive, writes science fiction informed by his background as a marine biologist. His work is available in 20 languages, has appeared in 29 best-of-year anthologies, and has been nominated for over 50 awards from a dozen countries. His (significantly shorter) list of 18 actual wins includes the Hugo, the Shirley Jackson and the Seiun.
This text is featured in ŠUM#11: Hypersonic Hyperstitions published in conjunction with the exhibition Here we go again…SYSTEM317 by Marko Peljhan at Pavilion of Slovenia, Venice Biennale.