Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Enduring Effects of the Obvious Hiding in Plain Sight

We are now in the midst of the 2016 presidential election cycle in the United States, and like many Americans, I have been watching the debates between the candidates seeking the presidential nomination for both the Democrat and Republican parties with interest, but being a softwarephysicist, I have the advantage of bringing into the analysis the fact that mankind is currently living in a very unusual time, as we witness software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet.

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.

Basically, we have seen several waves of self-replicating information dominate the Earth:
1. Self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules
2. RNA
3. DNA
4. Memes
5. Software

see A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information for details. Without that knowledge, it seems that both parties are essentially lost in space and time without a clue. The debates have shown that both parties are deeply concerned about the evaporation of the middle class in America over the past several decades, and both have proposed various solutions from the past that will not work in the future because this time the evaporation of the middle classes throughout the world is just one of the initial symptoms of software taking over control (see The Economics of the Coming Software Singularity for details). In my opinion neither party is dealing with the sociological problems that will arise due to the fact that over the next 10 - 100 years all human labor will go to zero value as software comes to dominate, and that includes the labor of doctors, lawyers, soldiers, bankers and theoretically even politicians. How will the age-old oligarchical societies of the world deal with that in a manner that allows civilization to continue? Since we first invented civilization about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, we have never been faced with the situation where the ruling class of the top 1% has not needed the remaining 99% of us around at all. For more on this see Jeremy Howard's TED presentation at:

The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn

All of this reminds me of the great concealing power of the obvious hiding in plain sight. For example, in many of my preceding postings I have remarked that given the hodge-podge of precursors, false starts, and failed attempts that led to the origin and early evolution of software on the Earth, that if we had actually been around to observe the origin and early evolution of life on the Earth, we would probably still be sitting around today arguing about what had actually happened (see A Proposal for an Odd Collaboration to Explore the Origin of Life with IT Professionals for more on that). However, I am now more of the opinion that had we actually been around to observe that event, we probably would not have even noticed it happening. As an IT professional actively monitoring the evolution of software for the past 43 years, ever since taking CS101 at the University of Illinois in Urbana back in 1972, I have long suggested that researchers investigating the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere conduct some field work in the IT departments of some major corporations, and to then use the origin and evolution of commercial software over the past 75 years, or 2.4 billion seconds, as a guide. But in order to do so, one must first be able to see the obvious, and that is not always easy to do. The obvious thing to see is that we are all on the verge of a very significant event in the history of the Earth - the time in which software becomes the dominant form of self-replicating information upon the planet and perhaps within our galaxy. This transition to software as the dominant form of self-replicating information upon the Earth will have an even more dramatic effect than all of the previous transitions of self-replicating information because it may alter the future of our galaxy as software begins to explore the galaxy on board von Neumann probes, self-replicating robotic probes that travel from star system to star system building copies along the way. Studies have shown that once released, von Neumann probes could easily colonize our entire galaxy within a few million years. However, seeing the obvious is always difficult because the obvious tends to fade into the background of daily life, as Edgar Allan Poe noted in his short story The Purloined Letter (1844) in which he suggested that the safest place to hide something was in plain sight because that was the last place interested parties would look.

A good scientific example of this phenomenon is Olbers' paradox, named after the German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers (1758–1840). In the 19th century, many believed that our Universe was both infinite in space and time, meaning that it had always existed about as we see it today and was also infinitely large and filled with stars. However, this model presented a problem in that if it were true, the night sky should be as bright as the surface of the Sun because no matter where one looked, eventually a star would be seen.

Figure 1 - If the Universe were infinitely old, infinitely large and filled with stars then, wherever one looked, eventually a star would be seen. Consequently, the night sky should be as bright as the surface of the Sun.

Figure 2 - But the night sky is dark, so something must be wrong with the assumption that the Universe is infinitely old, infinitely large and filled with stars.

Surprisingly, Edgar Allan Poe came up with the obvious solution to Olbers' paradox in his poem Eureka (1848):

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy – since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

If light had not yet had time to reach us from some distant parts of the Universe that meant that the Universe could not be infinitely old. The solution was staring us in the face. I have read that Edgar Allan Poe was very excited about this profound insight and even notified some newspapers of his discovery. Even today his idea has profound implications. It means that in order for the night sky to be dark we must be causally disconnected from much of the Universe if the Universe is infinitely large and infinitely old. Currently, we have two models that provide for that - Andrei Linde's Eternal Chaotic Inflation (1986) model and Lee Smolin's black hole model presented in his The Life of the Cosmos (1997). In Eternal Chaotic Inflation the Multiverse is infinite in size and infinite in age, but we are causally disconnected from nearly all of it because nearly all of the Multiverse is inflating away from us faster than the speed of light, and so we cannot see it (see The Software Universe as an Implementation of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis). In Lee Smolin's model of the Multiverse, whenever a black hole forms in one universe it causes a white hole to form in a new universe that is internally observed as the Big Bang of the new universe. A new baby universe formed from a black hole in its parent universe is causally disconnected from its parent by the event horizon of the parent black hole and therefore cannot be seen (see An Alternative Model of the Software Universe).

Another good example of the obvious hiding in plain sight is plate tectonics. A cursory look at the Southern Atlantic or the Red Sea quickly reveals what is going on, but it took hundreds of years after the Earth was first mapped for plate tectonics to be deemed obvious and self-evident to all.

Figure 3 - Plate tectonics was also hiding in plain sight as nearly every school child in the 1950s noted that South America seemed to fit nicely into the notch of Africa, only to be told it was just a coincidence by their elders.

Figure 4 - The Red Sea even provided a vivid example of how South America and Africa could have split apart a long time ago.

Software Does Not Care About Marginal Tax Rates and Other Such Things
As I pointed out in The Economics of the Coming Software Singularity we really do not know what will happen to mankind when we finally do hit the Software Singularity, and software finally becomes capable of self-replicating on its own. But before that happens, there certainly will be a great deal of sociological upheaval, and we should all begin to prepare for that upheaval now in advance. This sociological upheaval will be further complicated by the effects of the climate change that we have all collectively decided not to halt and by the sixth major extinction of carbon-based life forms on the planet, currently induced by the activities of human beings. As the latest wave of self-replicating information to appear upon the Earth, software really does not care about such things because software is just the latest wave of mindless self-replicating information that has reshaped the surface of the Earth. Software really does not care if the Earth has a daily high of 140o F with purple oceans choked with hydrogen-sulfide producing bacteria, producing a dingy green sky over an atmosphere tainted with toxic levels of hydrogen sulfide gas and an oxygen level of only 12%, like we had during the Permian-Triassic greenhouse mass extinction 252 million years ago. For more on the possible impending perils of software becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet please see Susan Blackmore's TED presentation at:

Memes and "temes"

Note that I consider Susan Blackmore's temes to really be technological artifacts that contain software. After all, an iPhone without software is simply a flake tool with a very dull edge.

Figure 5 - Konrad Zuse with a reconstructed Z3 computer in 1961. He first unleashed software upon the Earth on his original Z3 in May of 1941.

Figure 6 - Now software has become ubiquitous and is found in nearly all things produced by mankind, and will increasingly grow in importance as the Internet of Things (IoT) unfolds.

So although both parties maintain that the 2016 election will be pivotal because it might determine the future of your tax rates, I would like to suggest that there are a few more pressing items that need to be dealt with first. See Is Self-Replicating Information Inherently Self-Destructive? and How to Use Your IT Skills to Save the World for details on what you can do to help.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

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