Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is Self-Replicating Information Inherently Self-Destructive?

I just finished reading The Medea Hypothesis (2009) by my most favorite paleontologist, Peter Ward. I have read all of Ward’s books because they provide a deep insight into the evolutionary history of life on Earth over the past 4.0 billion years, and since living things and software are both forms of self-replicating information, his books can also provide some insights into the evolutionary history of software over the past 2.2 billion seconds, ever since Konrad Zuse cranked up his Z3 computer in May of 1941. Indeed, because living things and software are both forms of self-replicating information that have evolved through the Darwinian mechanisms of innovation and natural selection, and both have converged upon similar paths through Daniel Dennett’s Design Space, as each had to deal with the second law of thermodynamics in a nonlinear Universe, there is much to be learned about the origin and evolution of life in the Universe by examining the origin and evolution of software on Earth (see Self-Replicating Information and SoftwareBiology for details). And this is a two-way street – much can also be learned about the nature of software evolution by examining the evolution of life on Earth.

In The Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward proposes the antithesis of the Gaia hypothesis. Gaia was the primordial Earth-goddess of the ancient Greeks, essentially the embodiment of a benevolent Mother Nature, and in the 1970s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed that as a whole, the entire biosphere behaved in a coordinated manner that was beneficial to the ongoing existence of life itself. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the biosphere as a whole manages to self-regulate the geophysical and geochemical processes of the Earth, by using negative feedback loops, in order to maintain the habitability of the Earth over billions of years. An example of a negative feedback loop is your home furnace and thermostat. When your house cools down below the lower set point of the thermostat, the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace to turn it on. As your house warms up, it eventually exceeds the upper set point of the thermostat, and then the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace to shut it down. In this way, your thermostat performs an automated regulation of the temperature within your house that keeps your house within a comfortable range of about 10F. Notice that your thermostat manages to accomplish this seemingly sophisticated control process with no built-in intelligence or software whatsoever. Negative feedback loops automatically keep systems in a stable equilibrium by simply pulling them back into a narrow range of operational conditions. That is the beauty of using negative feedback loops to control complex systems – they lead to inherently stable and self-regulated systems, without the need of an overly complex control mechanism. Here is another example of a negative feedback loop in action. Extend both of your index fingers out in front and carefully place each end of a ruler on top of your two outstretched fingers. Now slowly bring your fingers together, letting the ruler slide freely on top of each finger, as you bring your fingers closer together. As you do so, you will find that the ruler always remains balanced upon your fingers, and you will end up with both fingers together precisely at the midpoint of the ruler. Try as you may, you will not be able to obtain any other result. You will always end up with the ruler carefully balanced at its midpoint on your two fingers when your two fingers have finally met in the center.

Positive feedback loops do just the opposite. Positive feedback loops cause systems to explode out of control, by using the amplified output of the feedback loop as the input to the feedback loop and thus causing the output to quickly expand out of control. Explosives, like nitroglycerine, are therefore prime examples of positive feedback loops in action. When nitroglycerine detonates, the liquid nitroglycerine rapidly decomposes via the chemical reaction:

4 C3H5(NO3)3 → 12 CO2 + 10 H2O + 6 N2 + O2

Notice that the liquid nitroglycerine turns completely into gases at the temperature at which nitroglycerine detonates. This alone generates gases that would occupy more than 1,200 times the original volume of the liquid at normal room temperature and pressure. However, because the above chemical reaction is also very exothermic, meaning that it gives off large amounts of heat energy, the generated gases are raised to a temperature close to that of the surface of the Sun, about 5,000 0K, which causes the generated gases to further greatly expand, creating a tremendous blast. When nitroglycerine detonates, chemical potential energy is quickly released because the weak bonds of the atoms in the nitroglycerine molecules rearrange to form new molecules with stronger bonds, such as N2, H2O, and CO2, releasing large quantities of chemical potential energy in the process. Since higher temperatures make chemical reactions run even faster, when nitroglycerine detonates, the initial decomposition of a small number of molecules causes a pressure wave to form that detonates the nitroglycerine in the immediate surrounding area. The resulting self-sustained shock wave propagates through the nitroglycerine at 30 times the speed of sound, as a near-instantaneous pressure-induced chemical reaction that transforms the small volume of liquid nitroglycerine into a huge quantity of white-hot gas at a temperature of 5,000 0K. This is what makes nitroglycerine such a powerful explosive.

Nitroglycerin was first synthesized by the chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1847, but the main problem with nitroglycerine was that the slightest shock could cause it to easily detonate. In 1867, Alfred Nobel came up with an improvement to nitroglycerin that vastly improved its stability, and therefore its utility. By simply mixing three parts of nitroglycerin, with one part of diatomaceous earth, and a small amount of sodium carbonate, Nobel created a very stable solid explosive, that we now call dynamite. Dynamite rapidly became very popular because it could be rolled up into convenient paper-wrapped sticks that were very easily loaded into the drill holes used for blasting rock during mining operations, and dynamite was also very resistant to accidental detonation from small shocks. In fact, in order to detonate dynamite, one must use a blasting cap or a high-temperature fuse to set it off.

Figure 1 – Negative feedback loops regulate systems, while positive feedback loops cause systems to explode (click to enlarge)

The differences between positive and negative feedback loops can be further illustrated with the use of a few diagrams. In the left side of Figure 1, we see a system composed of a marble and a bowl in a state of stable equilibrium under the influence of a negative feedback loop. Jiggling the system with a small perturbation always results in the marble safely returning to the center of the bowl. The shape of the bowl can also be thought of as a plot of the potential energy function of the system. The combined system of the marble and the bowl has a minimum potential energy when the marble is safely in the center of the bowl, and the negative feedback loop has a tendency to keep the marble there. On the right side of Figure 1, on the other hand, we see a similar system composed of a marble on top of an overturned bowl that is an example of a positive feedback loop in an unstable equilibrium. Like nitroglycerine, the slightest addition of energy to the system, by perturbing the system with a little jiggle, will cause the marble to roll off the overturned bowl with increasing velocity, as it quickly turns all of its potential energy into kinetic energy, like the atoms in a container of nitroglycerine rapidly turning their chemical potential energy into the kinetic energy of molecular motion, also known as heat energy.

What Alfred Nobel did was to superimpose a small negative feedback loop on top of the very large positive feedback loop of nitroglycerine, by mixing nitroglycerine with a small amount of stabilizing diatomaceous earth and sodium carbonate. In Figure 2, we see the resulting plot of the potential energy function for dynamite, consisting of the large positive feedback loop of nitroglycerine, with a small dimple of a negative feedback loop on top. Now in order for the marble to release its vast amount of potential energy, it needs a quantity of activation energy to get the marble over the hump at the top of the curve. This is why dynamite requires the detonation of a blasting cap or the heat from a high-temperature fuse in order to detonate.

Figure 2 – In 1867, Alfred Nobel discovered that by adding some diatomaceous earth to nitroglycerin, he could superimpose a small negative feedback loop on top of the much larger positive feedback loop of nitroglycerin (click to enlarge)

In a similar manner, the Gaia hypothesis proposes that life on Earth has taken control of the Earth’s geophysical and geochemical processes, leaving those with negative feedback loops alone, and at the same time, domesticating the positive feedback processes that would, if left to their own devices, end life on Earth, by superimposing small negative feedback loops upon them. According to the Gaia hypothesis, the biosphere has simply added a little diatomaceous earth to nitroglycerin as needed, in order to maintain the Earth in a stable equilibrium suitable to the needs of the biosphere.

InThe Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward proposes just the opposite. Medea was also a character in ancient Greek mythology, the wife of Jason of the Golden Fleece fame. When Jason abandoned Medea, she killed their two children as revenge, so Peter Ward rightfully thought that Medea represented just the opposite of the benevolent Mother Nature characterized by Gaia. InThe Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward proposes that because all forms of life in the Universe arise from the Darwinian processes of innovation honed by natural selection, that necessarily, all living things in the Universe are selected for the ability to modify their home planets with positive feedback loops that enhance the survivability of the individual, not negative feedback loops that enhance the survivability of all. From Ward’s point of view, all living things resulting from Darwinian processes must necessarily select for living things that can self-replicate at all costs, with little consideration for their fellow beings sharing the resources of the planet, nor even for their own long-term survival. The urge to self-replicate at all costs necessarily leads to living things that outstrip their resource base through positive feedback loops.

InThe Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward lists about a dozen examples from the deep past where the biosphere has precipitated Medean events that greatly reduced the diversity of life on Earth and greatly reduced its carrying capacity. The first such event was the take over of life by DNA. In Self-Replicating Information, I described Freeman Dyson’s two-stage theory for the origin of life on Earth. In Dyson’s theory, metabolic protocells arise first and are later parasitized, first by RNA, and then by DNA. So essentially a very diverse biosphere of metabolic protocells went through the most significant mass extinction in Earth’s history, to be totally replaced by a single form of DNA-based life. Peter Ward considers the total extinction of all other forms of life by DNA about 4.0 billion years ago to be the most significant event supporting the Medea hypothesis. The next major Medean event came about 2.8 billion years ago with the arrival of cyanobacteria on the scene. The cyanobacteria could photosynthesize sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars, releasing the toxic gas oxygen as a byproduct. Oxygen is a highly reactive gas and was very toxic to the anaerobic bacteria of the day. For example, today anaerobic bacteria must hide from oxygen at the bottoms of stagnant seas and lakes. But initially these ancient anaerobic bacteria were spared from the Oxygen Catastrophe which took place 300 million years later (2.5 billion years ago) because first all the dissolved iron in the oceans had to be oxidized and deposited as red-banded iron formations before the oxygen level could rise in the Earth’s atmosphere. Chances are that your car was made from one of these iron deposits because they are the source of most of the world’s iron ore. So you can think of your car as a byproduct of early bacterial chemical warfare that nearly killed off all life on Earth. But by far, the most disastrous of the Medean positive feedback loops caused by living things on Earth is the wholesale removal of carbon from the Earth’s surface. Peter Ward explains that living things are constantly sucking carbon dioxide out of the Earth’s atmosphere and converting it to calcium carbonate shells that are later deposited upon the sea bottom. As these carbonate deposits are subducted at the Earth’s subduction zones into the asthenosphere, some of the carbon is released by volcanoes as carbon dioxide, but most is lost to the Earth’s upper mantle, never to return to the Earth’s surface. This is certainly a bad long-term thing for carbon-based life, and Ward shows that within the next 500 – 1,000 million years, the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere will decline below the level that complex multicellular plants can use for photosynthesis, and that will be the end of complex multicellular life on Earth. So the end of complex life on Earth will come from life itself and not from an increasingly brighter Sun, as described in most popular books. The game-changing paradigm shift of the Medea hypothesis, as opposed to the Gaia hypothesis, is that life on Earth as a whole is not necessarily acting in its own self-interest, so the solution to environmental problems may not simply be to remove mankind from the equation and let the biosphere return to its natural state. Instead, Ward suggests that some geoengineering is in order to extend the habitability of the Earth.

Peter Ward goes on to describe many other Medean events in the Earth’s history, where the biosphere has seemingly tried to do itself in with positive feedback loops gone wild. One only has to look to our current suicidal habit of spewing 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year into the Earth’s atmosphere, and the impending disastrous consequences from global climate change with rising sea levels, to see a Medean event in progress in real time. We have already raised the carbon dioxide level of the Earth’s atmosphere to 390 ppm, up from a level of about 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution, and it is currently rising at the rate of 2.39 ppm per year. As we saw in How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World, in the coming years, it will be rising at a rate of 3 or 4 ppm per year, as the demand for energy explodes with the increasing demand from the emerging economies of the world, and if it should ever reach a level of 1,000 ppm, we might even trigger another greenhouse gas mass extinction, like the Permian-Triassic mass extinction that nearly killed off all complex multicellular life 251 million years ago. Indeed, we seem to be running in a very close race. Our genes, memes, and software are seemingly on the verge of morphing into a new form of conscious intelligence within the next 100 years or so that will probably be much less dependent upon the current pristine conditions on Earth that are very supportive of intelligent carbon-based life forms such as Homo sapiens. Perhaps this transition will occur before events get out of hand, or perhaps not.

This brings up the fundamental issue of this posting – is all self-replicating information similarly doomed to self-destruction? In Self-Replicating Information I defined self-replicating information as:

Self-Replicating Information – Information that persists through time by making copies of itself or by enlisting the support of other things to ensure that copies of itself are made.

with all forms of self-replicating information having the following characteristics in common:

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
1. All self-replicating information evolves over time through the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, which endows self-replicating information with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity.

2. All self-replicating information begins spontaneously as a parasitic mutation that obtains energy, information and sometimes matter from a host.

3. With time, the parasitic self-replicating information takes on a symbiotic relationship with its host.

4. Eventually, the self-replicating information becomes one with its host through the symbiotic integration of the host and the self-replicating information.

5. Ultimately, the self-replicating information replaces its host as the dominant form of self-replicating information.

6. Most hosts are also forms of self-replicating information.

7. All self-replicating information has to be a little bit nasty in order to survive.

Since all forms of self-replicating information are Darwinian in nature, the Medea hypothesis would indicate by extension that all forms of self-replicating information are indeed self-destructive because of their tendency to create positive feedback loops that outstrip their resource base. Software certainly seems to be guilty of this – it constantly outstrips the hardware base upon which it runs. That is why you need to buy a new PC every four or five years and why IT departments have to constantly upgrade their mainframes and server farms with more powerful hardware. I got my first PC at work twenty-five years ago in 1986. It was an IBM PC/AT with a 6 MHz Intel 80-286 processor and a 20 MB hard disk, with a total of 512 K of memory. It cost about $1600 at the time - about $5,000 in 2011 dollars. Today, a $500 Dell PC comes with a 2.66 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, and a 320 GB hard disk. So a $500 Dell comes with 16,384 times as much disk, 16,384 times as much memory, and runs about 1,000 times faster than my $5,000 IBM PC/AT did in 1986, but that $500 Dell PC will probably buckle under the software load running upon it five years from now.

So perhaps the solution to Fermi’s Paradox is that all forms of self-replicating information self-destruct before they can embark upon exploring a galaxy. Fermi’s Paradox, first proposed by Enrico Fermi over lunch one day in 1950, asks the question:

Fermi’s Paradox - If the universe is just chock full of intelligent beings, why do we not see any evidence of their existence?

That is certainly a sobering thought. But let us now turn to a more mundane application of the Medea hypothesis to the “real world” of human affairs, with which most Homo sapiens are completely obsessed.

Is the World Economy Also Medean in Nature?
As I pointed out in SoftwareBiology, world capitalism is a Darwinian system of economics and also a form of self-replicating information in the form of a complicated financial meme-complex. In MoneyPhysics and MoneyPhysics Revisited, I also showed how positive feedback loops, spinning out of control, led to the collapse of the world financial systems in 1929 and 2008.

Since capitalism is a Darwinian system of economics, capitalism must also be subject to the Medea hypothesis and, therefore, have an innate self-destructive nature because of its tendency to foster uncontrolled positive feedback loops that tend to do itself in. So in that regard, Karl Marx may have been right about the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism. However, Marx’s solution of creating a utopian "dictatorship of the proletariat" proved disastrous in the 20th century, as demonstrated by the failure of both socialism and communism. After all, we are all just DNA survival machines, programmed to replicate and operate in our own self-interest, so attempts to establish utopian communist states in the 20th century, simply ended with the establishment of brutal oligarchies more reminiscent of feudalism than of a classless worker’s state. Therefore, capitalism and free markets are the most natural way to run an economy through the miracle of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” because they allow people to work in their own self-interest. The simple beauty of capitalism is that billions of people, all working in their own self-interest, will naturally create a complex and dynamic world economy, with no need for an external designer. But because of the Medea hypothesis, capitalism does have its limitations. Capitalism selects for behaviors that create positive feedback loops, resulting in financial booms and busts. Just as it is currently in everybody’s self-interest to pollute the Earth’s atmosphere with unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide, in recent years it was in the self-interest of all to pollute the worldwide financial system with toxic subprime mortgages. Everybody benefited, so long as American home values kept rising - low income homeowners, real estate brokers, real estate speculators, local banks, mortgage brokers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, investment banks, bond rating agencies, insurance companies like AIG, and private investors all benefited from the leverage and complex derivatives hiding the impending catastrophe of subprime mortgages, until the bubble burst. Having everybody working in their own self-interest does amazing things, but because of the Medea hypothesis, it also can lead to the ruin of all if left unchecked.

Actually, we figured this all out in the 20th century. Since socialism and communism do not work, and feudalism has a very low economic output, with many undesirable social peculiarities to boot, we are left with capitalism and whatever shortcomings it might have. Because the Darwinian characteristics of laissez-faire capitalism lead to excesses brought on by unchecked positive feedback loops, it is necessary for a government to step in by imposing regulations upon the economy that squelch the bubbles that lead to booms and subsequent busts. Essentially, the government needs to superimpose small negative feedback loops on top of the very large, inherently positive, feedback loops of capitalism, like adding a little diatomaceous earth to nitroglycerin. So legislation like the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 are necessary to bring stability to the world financial systems.

In today’s hostile political climate, one frequently hears politicians wax-poetic about returning to the apparent splendor of 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism, with its absence of income taxes, regulations, and a central banking system in the form of the current Federal Reserve system. However, this nostalgia for 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism ignores the Dickensian poverty and social injustice of the 19th century, with its rampant child labor, tainted foods, pollution, unsafe working conditions and frequent financial collapses. To get a flavor of unregulated laissez-faire capitalism at work, try this little experiment. Type in the string “panic of” into Google and let Google complete your query. You will find:

panic of 1819
panic of 1837
panic of 1857
panic of 1873
panic of 1893
panic of 1907
panic of 2008

Now read through the above list of hits on the Wikipedia and see how well unregulated laissez-faire capitalism works. For some reason, there is no “panic of 1929”, but you should read about that financial collapse as well.

Over the past 100 years we have modified the rules under which capitalism operates, in a manner to allow capitalism to work its miracles in a manner useful to mankind, by adopting child labor laws, pollution controls, financial regulations, regulations to ensure safe working conditions, and a graduated income tax to level out income disparities. We certainly do not want to return to the excesses of the 19th century, we already did that once before, and it was not very pleasant. And just as Peter Ward suggested that some geoengineering is in order to preserve the habitability of the Earth, we should allow governments to intervene in the natural boom and bust cycles of capitalism, by using the theories of Keynesian economics to stimulate spending and production, and the Monetarism of Milton Friedman to manipulate the money supply to smooth out the business cycles, because capitalism, like life on Earth, is a mindless form of self-replicating information that does not necessarily act in its own long-term self-interest.

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Steve Johnston

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