OneMachine Doppelganger

Kevin Kelly has long discussed the OneMachine: the essentially unified, single distributed computer built up from all our networked PCs, PDAs, cell phones, digital cameras and other personal electronics (see e.g. “Tap Into the 12-Million-Teraflop Handheld Megacomputer,” Wired, vol. 16, no. 7, June 2008; “Dimensions of the One Machine,” The Technium, 2 November 2007; “One Huge Computer,” Wired, vol. 6, no. 8, August 1998).

Last week The New York Times ran an article on how below the surface, and running on the very same computers as the productive, life-enhancing OneMachine is a nefarious parallel network, OneMachine’s dark doppelganger, the BotNet (Markoff, John, “A Robot Network Seeks to Enlist Your Computer,” 20 October 2008, p. B1):

Botnets remain an Internet scourge. Active zombie networks created by a growing criminal underground peaked last month at more than half a million computers, according to, an organization that tracks botnets. Even though security experts have diminished the botnets to about 300,000 computers, that is still twice the number detected a year ago.

The actual numbers may be far larger; Microsoft investigators, who say they are tracking about 1,000 botnets at any given time, say the largest network still controls several million PCs.

“The mean time to infection is less than five minutes,” said Richie Lai, who is part of Microsoft’s Internet Safety Enforcement Team, a group of about 20 researchers and investigators. The team is tackling a menace that in the last five years has grown from a computer hacker pastime to a dark business that is threatening the commercial viability of the Internet.

I have already written about how when the singularity occurs, it may not be what we expect. My suspicion is that either it will be overtly evil, or merely a recreation of the chaos of biological nature in a more durable, powerful and virulent form (“A Few Heretical Thoughts on the Singularity,” 19 August 2008).

What do phenomena like the BotNet suggest about the singularity? What comes will grow out of what is and what is will bequeath its characteristics to what comes — at least initially. Between the various military establishments and the criminal underground, we are instilling our machines with hostile, aggressive tendencies. But we are also making numerous, competitive systems. Will there be “the singularity” or will it, like in the novels of Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross, come in secretive, uncertain fits and starts? Will there be multiple singularities? Will one system cross the threshold, followed by another, then another. It makes sense to speak of “the singularity” when one is imagining a unified system, but when one is considering a multitude of contending systems, crossing the threshold of the singularity is but one move in a strategic game. Perhaps the machines will be hostile to predecessor biological life, but perhaps they will be so consumed in competition with their fellow AIs as to be merely indifferent to us, as we are to, say, pigeons or squirrels.

And how goes the strategic competition between OneMachine and BotNet? We ought to know. What portion of computational capacity, bandwidth, energy consumption, hours of their masters’ time are the two consuming? Qualitatively, how are they matching capabilities? Kevin Kelly has managed to make some calculations for the former, but what of the latter? Of course this would subject to the usual problems of surveillance of those who do not want to be surveyed.

Organizations like McAffee, Norton and the International Botnet Taskforce are attempting to build something akin to an immune system for the Internet, but the billion-year persistence of the arms race between host immune systems and the various infectious agents suggests that dampening catastrophe is probably the best outcome we can hope for. It’s an example of co-evolution where competition between host and agent drives the development of one another. Viruses don’t kill their host by design, they merely seek to hijack their reproductive machinery to their own purposes. Killing the host, or at least killing them too quickly, or the epiphenomenon of killing too many of them too quickly, are all suboptimum in that they result in diminished opportunity for continued infection and reproduction. Ebola gets it wrong. HIV gets it really right. But virus behavior as a whole is not intelligent. Occasionally a virus goes super virulent or hits a particularly vulnerable population and massive outbreak occurs that wrecks havoc for host and infectious agent alike. I presume that BotNets will continue to act something like this.

And since one third of known biological species are parasites and the proportion seems to be growing, it would seem that there is something fundamental about the strategy of parasitism. We should anticipate its continuance, both in genetic and electronic space.

The Jules Verne of the Future Will be a Computer Scientist

Wired Magazine’s cover story this month on The End of Science / The Dawning of the Petabyte Age (Anderson, Chris, vol. 16, no. 7, July 2008, pp 107-121) has a very mundane answer to John’s enthusiasm: just scoop up tones of seawater, sequence every piece of DNA that you find, and compare it to a database of known DNA. The system will be able to flag each strand as existing species / new species.

We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

The best practical example of this is the shotgun gene sequencing by J. Craig Venter. Enabled by high-speed sequencers and supercomputers that statistically analyze the data they produce, Venter went from sequencing individual organisms to sequencing entire ecosystems. In 2003, he started sequencing much of the ocean, retracing the voyage of Captain Cook. And in 2005 he started sequencing the air. In the process, he discovered thousands of previously unknown species of bacteria and other life-forms.

Unfortunately this doesn’t do much to tell us about what the creature is like.

If the words “discover a new species” call to mind Darwin and drawings of finches, you may be stuck in the old way of doing science. Venter can tell you almost nothing about the species he found. He doesn’t know what they look like, how they live, or much of anything else about their morphology. He doesn’t even have their entire genome. All he has is a statistical blip — a unique sequence that, being unlike any other sequence in the database, must represent a new species.

This sequence may correlate with other sequences that resemble those of species we do know more about. In that case, Venter can make some guesses about the animals — that they convert sunlight into energy in a particular way, or that they descended from a common ancestor. But besides that, he has no better model of this species than Google has of your MySpace page. It’s just data.

But who knows, soon enough we’ll have software that will take a DNA sequence as input and produce a virtual model of a creature complete with visualization and tables of physiological data (bone density, blood chemistry, synapse count, etc.). We’ll never even have to find an instance of the creature.

Update, 25 June 2008: I think I’ve got my references a little crossed here. I titled the post The Jules Verne of the Future Will be a Computer Scientist for symmetry with John’s post, but Jules Verne is the author of the exploration stories, not the explorer himself, whereas the hypothetical computer scientist to which I am referring would be one of Jules Verne’s characters. The proper title should have been The Captain Nemo of the Future Will be a Computer Scientist.

My Apocalyptic Vision is Very Narrow

More than ten years ago I read Kevin Kelly’s interview with Vernor Vinge in Wired (“Singular Visionary,” vol. 3, no. 6, June 1995) and I have been repeating Mr. Vinge’s formulation of the robot apocalypse almost word for word ever since. But I was never able to locate the original article. Anyway, while reading around the wikipedia page on the technological singularity today I came across a reference to Mr. Vinge and recognized it as the long lost name. A few strokes of the keyboard at Google revealed my favorite dystopian vision:

Kelly: In your books, you sometimes focus on the idea of a singularity — the point at which a mathematical function goes infinite. What does that mean to you in terms of a cultural singularity?

Vinge: All sorts of apocalyptic visions are floating around, but mine is very narrow. It just says that if we ever succeed in making machines as smart as humans, then it’s only a small leap to imagine that we would soon thereafter make — or cause to be made — machines that are even smarter than any human. And that’s it. That’s the end of the human era — the closest analogy would be the rise of the human race within the animal kingdom. The reason for calling this a “singularity” is that things are completely unknowable beyond that point.

Kelly: Do you see any evidence that we are headed toward a singularity?

Vinge: I think the singularity may explain Fermi’s paradox: where is all the other intelligent life in the universe? For years, there have been two theories: the first is that civilizations exterminate themselves, and the second is that these outer civilizations are so weird there’s no way to interact with them. That second explanation has gained a lot of weight in my mind, because I can see us becoming weird — before my very eyes.

The striking thing to me is that qualification, “or cause to be made.” We won’t make the machine smarter than we are. We will only make the machine as smart as we are and then that machine will make the machine more intelligent than us. And then each more intelligent machine will be capable of making another even more intelligent still. Machine evolution will take over and, with software having reproductive cycles that will make bacterial reproduction glacial by comparison, will quickly outstrip human capability or comprehension.