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.




An update:  some scientists have proposed a method to hide Earth from detection via transition.  Shared fears?


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 usually a celebration of our current shared economic prejudices.  (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.

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So I read Eggers’s The Circle.  It is our time’s Brave New World.  It insidiously takes you step by step — where each step seems reasonable, if not inevitable — from a situation essentially indistinguishable from our own to a terrifying dystopia.

713B9OMXmoL._SL1500_It also makes a interesting pairing with Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future.  The two books together constitute an ominous and convincing warning.


So, I read Cory Doctorow’s Makers, and I decided that, if he is not the muse of the zeitgeist, he is a muse of a zeitgesit.  This novel captures an ethos unique to our time, in which a kind of labor constitutes a kind of person, with its own virtues and its own aspirations.  In a classical sense, in fact, it offers a new kind of heroism.

In the old days, the ethos embodied here was called “hacking,” but the popular media utterly annihilated that meaning for “hacking.”  So, Doctorow rightly coins another label:  makers.  The ironies here are immense for an American (e.g., such as myself), since we just had an election in which one of the parties offered an Ayn-Randian vision of the makers and the takers — a vision which is mostly (though not entirely) antithetical to that of Doctorow’s makers.  For this reason, I think Doctorow’s novel is an important alternative vision to that hoisted upon us by an inanely unreflective media.

And it’s a very human novel, one without easy answers.  Even if you don’t like it, you’ll find it generates in you an empathy for a certain vision of the world, of our economy, and of our possibilities.  And what could be better than that?  I recommend it.