The Cixin Liu Game

It was an honor to vote for Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem for the Hugo.  I was pleased when it won.  Barring some fantastic additional book this year, I will nominate the sequel, The Dark Forest, for the first Hugo slot this year.  For his vision and his creativity, Cixin Liu can only be compared to Asimov.

51502L5+3mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book is exploding with interesting ideas, but one of the most interesting is a new answer to the Fermi Paradox.  Liu assumes that life and technological advancement are common in the universe, and that technologically advanced life tends to expand and use resources at an exponential rate, creating a scarcity of resources and the conditions for conflict.  From this, and some conditions that arise from interstellar distances, he derives a game where the equilibrium is to remain hidden, and attack those who are not hidden.  The reasoning appears valid.  Here I’ll reconstruct the game, in extensive form, as I understand it.

The first move is whether to announce yourself and your location to the universe.  The first player is an arbitrary technological civilization that has radio communication and other technologies.  If it doesn’t announce, no interaction occurs.  For utility values, I’ll use some arbitrary numbers that are meant to represent some divergence from the current situation, listed as (FIRST PLAYER, SECOND PLAYER), as is the norm.  So, if the first player doesn’t announce, nothing changes for that civilization, and nothing changes for our arbitrary second civilization.  Utility change is thus (0, 0):

Slide1But if civilization 1 does make a move to announce itself, an extreme game begins if any other civilization hears the message.  First, this civilization 2 must decide, should it announce itself to the civilization 1 or not?

Slide2Now consider the reply fork.  The civilizations are now in communication and are aware of each other.  If they cooperate with each other benevolently, then they might both be better off to some degree.  We don’t know how much this expected benefit is; call it +C.  However, if one or the other is malevolent, then that civilization can destroy the other civilization.  Here lies an important set of assumptions in Liu’s model:  technology grows quickly, and stars and planets and ships are fragile.  For these reason, he assumes, it is always possible to annihilate another civilization.  Being destroyed is the worst possible situation.  We represent it as -Max.  So civilization 1 must decide whether to cooperate or attack.

Slide3Civilization 2 must make a similar decision.

Slide4The results of one final set of pathways are complete.  If civilization 1 cooperates, it could earn some benefit.  But it also might just be vulnerable to total destruction.  Given interstellar distances, it will be hard to learn enough about the other civilization in order to determine, in the immediate period after first contact, whether they are malevolent.  And, no matter how small the odds that civilization 2 will attack, this would seem to be too terrible a possible cost.  The result would seem to be that the best move for civilization 1 is really to attack:

Slide5This ensures them that the status quo is maintained for civilization 1, although it earns the worst possible outcome for civilization 2.

Of course, civilization 2 can see all this.  So they will not, at the second move in the game, reply.  They will, instead, remain silent.  That would seem to be the end of the game, but Cixin Liu argues that it is not.  Instead, he assumes, civilizations tend to grow exponentially, spreading out.  That means that, from the perspective of civilization 2, the situation is one where they now know that after some delay of time (represented below with “…..“), they may be encountered by civilization 1, which will then have to play the same game again.  (I remove the moves in the game described above, to simplify the diagram.)

Slide6So civilization 2 reasons that eventually civilization 1 will find them, and will attack. This means that civilization 2 won’t wait.  Instead, the game is the following.

Slide7And thus civilization 2, unable to determine with certainty that civilization 1 is benevolent, and wanting to avoid even the possibility of the worst possible outcome, will attack.  In sum:  taking all this into account, as every civilization should, each civilization both remains silent and attacks those who identify themselves.

There are a lot of assumptions here that we can question.  For example, whether it really is so easy to destroy other worlds and civilizations.  And, Liu holds that interstellar distances eliminate chances for safe interaction.  A civilization is either at a valuable world or cannot communicate.  But perhaps one could get around this, by using some location as a neutral place to start communication.  And, there is a meta-game:  the universe is so dangerous as he describes it, that it might be safer to form large alliances than to wait to be found alone and thrust into the game as described above.  (Also, I’ve left out some important details–Liu is fascinated by the complexities of self-referential reasoning, of a kind that requires strange logics to study.)  But, even simplified, his argument is very provocative.  It suggests that the universe is a dark forest, full of hiding civilizations that will destroy any other civilization that makes itself known.  It’s an important achievement:  a new hypothesis in answer to Fermi’s paradox.

I hope his argument is unsound.  But, given the stakes, we should consider whether he might be on to something.

Support the Arts! See how theatre is made! Enjoy the view!

UPDATE:  this event has been postponed until the Spring, when the Gell Center opens for nice weather….


I’m participating this year in a program with Bristol Valley Theatre and Writers & Books.  Here are the currentest details:

Behind the Scenes at The Gell Center
Saturday, October 10th
11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
$5.00 admission
Location:  Gell Center
How does a play go from the page to the stage? Watch as two local playwrights, Craig DeLancey and Len Messineo, hand over their plays to Bristol Valley Theater’s directors Karin Bowersock and David Shane, who will work before your eyes with the playwrights and local actors to prepare and present on-the-spot readings of both new works.  This enlightening event will give you an insider’s view into the creative process and the writer/director/actor relationship.  Light refreshments will be available.  Call 473-1590 x 107 to make your reservation, directions to the Gell Center will be emailed or mailed to you.   Coffee/tea/cookies will be served.  Feel free to bring your lunch.


Four hours of dramatic education and entertainment for $5?  That’s ridiculously cheap.  Why would anyone be anywhere else?  And all the money will go to helping two great local non-profits.

My play will be “My Tunguska Event,” which was once a finalist for the Heideman Award.  It has astrophysicists, entropy, meteors, black holes, death, birth — all in 10 minutes.

A view from the Gell Center

One of many dramatic views from the Gell Center.


UPDATE:  the poster:



Prometheus did not write apps. A reflection on Venkatesh Rao’s “Breaking Smart.”

“Breaking Smart” offers now the first “season” by Venkatesh Rao, former “philosopher in residence” at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz (How does someone get such a job?  Can I find a position like that on LinkedIn and do it part time?).  This “season” is self-described as philosophy.  It cites a lot of SF.  But what I find most interesting is where it fails.

It sets up a dichotomy between the Pastoralists and the Prometheans, as a framework for an optimistic futurism based on the claim by patron Marc Andreessen that “software is eating the world.” (Why would they think this claim is attractive?  Even to say, for example, “Justice is eating the world” makes justice sound sinister.  Is the goal to be a little scary?  To seem a tough realist?)


A hand up for humankind, before software eats the world….

We learn in this “season” that programmers and the businesses that work with them (e.g., VCs) are the Prometheans who bring us a bold new future in which everything is better.  The Pastoralists are the foot-draggers who are holding us back.  Prometheans love Uber.  Pastoralists want to protect taxis.

All this is rather strange from Rao, whose other bloggings are Nietzschean paens to “sociopaths” (his name for CEOs and others in pinnacle management) who create fictitious values in a meaningless world, to which the rest of us cling (we 99% are divided into either the “clueless” or “losers” — here even Nietzsche would cringe).  Is the Promethean a sociopath?  Is this whole first season of “Breaking Smart” all noble lies, meant to inspire us?  We’ll have to tune in next season to get the answer.

What strikes me as most interesting in this “season” is the gaping hole in the center of this panegyric to our Silicon Valley Titans.  The future of technology is unlimited.  All shall get better.  Uber shall turn out to be wonderful, software will feed everyone, creative destruction will prove creative.  Only, what about our social technologies — that is, what about our economy, our collective mores, our politics?  And what about the problems we face now:  inequality, surveillance, other abuses of technology?  Here the Promethean stuns us:

Broken though they might seem, the mechanisms we need for working through “inequality, surveillance and everything” are the generative, pluralist ones we have been refining over the last century: liberal democracy, innovation, entrepreneurship, functional markets and the most thoughtful and limited new institutions we can design.

This answer will strike many as deeply unsatisfactory and perhaps even callous. Yet, time and again, when the world has been faced with seemingly impossible problems, these mechanisms have delivered.

Beyond doing the utmost possible to shield those most exposed to, and least capable of enduring, the material pain of change, it is crucial to limit ourselves and avoid the temptation of reactionary paths suggested by utopian or dystopian visions, especially those that appear in futurist guises.

That last bit is just ad hominem. If “reactionary” means someone who opposes change and may even want to return to some (imagined) earlier state of affairs, then those with utopian dreams are not reactionaries.  To call them such is without content.  And as for “these mechanisms have delivered” — that’s true of the lowly taxis that the Promethean disparages.  That’s true of the horse and buggy, of the ox-drawn plow.  So this too is without content.

We have a blatant contradiction.  Machine and software technologies must be ever innovated.  Pastoralists are reactionaries to say that these machine and software technologies should be controlled or directed or regulated because of their danger.  But the Promethean tells us that social technologies are done, complete, as good as it gets; only dangerous utopians think that social technologies can be innovated.

The moment Rao turns his attention from promoting more code, to considering moral codes, his imagination not only fails — he becomes a reactionary (and here, by the definition with content:  he wants to protect the status quo, and even praises the glories of liberalism’s earlier accomplishments).  Fukuyama was right!  History has ended!  Neoliberalism is the (not perfect, but best and so final) solution to all social problems.

It is terrible, that we find it so easy to imagine more machine and software technologies but we find it nearly impossible to imagine a better social system.  This kind of lack of imagination can only be created by force.  That is, it must be continually reinforced.  Imagining a different social arrangement is as difficult for the contemporary citizen of neoliberal society as, say, it was for a medieval European peasant to imagine a life without God.  The Church made civilized atheism inconceivable for the medieval peasant; our ideological engines make a better alternative to neoliberalism inconceivable to us.

When Ursula LeGuin said we need SF writers to imagine new futures for us, I think she meant it as a plea.  She knows that SF is one of the few places where someone might imagine some alternative way of living.  Most SF is comfortably neoliberal or reactionary, of course.  But the goal is to imagine possible futures.  And so maybe someone dedicated to this goal will see a little over the walls of our mental prison.

But then again, what do I know?  I’m either a loser, or, at best, clueless.

Jodo’s Dune, Hollywood’s Franchisosaurus

gallery2I finally saw Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary that describes Alejandro Jodorowsky’s project to make a film of Dune.  One comes away awed by the relentless passion of Jodorowsky.  He is one of those people who strive to make art happen on a grand scale through sheer force of faith and will.  You cannot help but find him inspiring.

Three things are striking about this documentary.  First, it illustrates the difficulty of making something daring under the funding mechanisms of the Hollywood model.  I was reminded that Orson Welles (who would have played Baron von Harkonen) had more projects canceled by funding problems than Andrei Tarkovsky (working under Soviet censors) ever had cancelled for any reason.  This is not censorship; but it is a kind of very powerful and very effective compression of the imagination.  Capital chases banality.  Second, Jodorowsky had a healthy independence with respect to the text of Dune.  He was going to change the plot left and right, to make the movie he envisioned.  The result would have been a fantasy inspired by Dune, but it would have been his own movie.  This is a good thing.  Dune the novel will always be there; a free adaptation can do no harm to the original text.  The textual puritanism that has much influence in fan culture today is reactionary.  Artists should ignore it.  Third, one wonders what speculative film would be like if Jodoworsky had succeeded in making his movie with an original Pink Floyd soundtrack, with Orson Welles and Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali and David Carradine acting, with Giger and Moebius and Foss art.  It may have created a whole different perception of the possibility and potential of speculative film.

Hence one comes to Jurassic World.

The dinosaurs are beautiful; but all (literally all) of the creativity of the film is in the special effects.  And, oh, how the camera strives to get the grill of a Mercedes into every damn shot.

It is a common claim that most of what comes out of Hollywood is leftist. This is not true; most of what comes out of Hollywood is neoliberal.  (For example, the criticisms of corporate greed that form a staple of thrillers, and make some kind of vague subplot in this movie, are always safely abstract and unrealistic, and completely removed from real corruption and greed.  The result is that these apparent criticisms are both smug and misdirection.)

If we can find a message in this latest installment of the Jurassic-franchise product placement vehicles, it is this:  science is bad when it is daring, when it attempts bold dreams.  Science is only good when it is producing consumer products of a familiar kind, for familiar brands.  Another world is not possible.

Let us imagine an alternative film:  Jodoworsky’s Jurassic Planets.  In it, the dinosaurs escape their consumerist nightmare park and they breed, covering the world.  Humanity develops radical new technologies (force fields, powerful stun weapons, etc.) to enable people to live in safety and in harmony with the dinosaurs.  The velociraptors learn to read and adopt our technology; they form an anarcho-syndicalist collective with sympathetic humans, and decide, first, to bring back all the organisms that humanity pushed into extinction and, second, to spread all of Earth’s life into the universe.  The long closing shot is an exterior of a terraformed Mars.  Not a single Mercedes rolls over the red planet, not a single Coca Cola is drunk there.  Instead, passenger pigeons fill the sky over a crimson savannah where woolly mammoths roam.

From poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies


David Graeber has the most interesting take I have read on why you don’t have your flying car:

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit

Graeber’s hypothesis is that our economic system is run with a preference for fostering bureaucracy over creation, and this stifles innovations that do not themselves result in more bureaucracy.

I find his thesis provocative and plausible.  For example, it is consistent with my experience of what is happening to academe in the United States.