[ExI] we stand on the shoulders of giants

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Fri Jul 3 16:14:30 UTC 2009

2009/7/3 spike <spike66 at att.net>:
> An earlier comment about 1000 humans on an island caused me to recognize
> that we, like the ants, carry most of our knowledge externally.

Spike, I enjoyed your thought experiment thoroughly. I wonder whether
or not you are aware of the main project that I have been throwing
myself at for the past few months. In the software realm, there's an
exactly analogous problem as "being thrown on to an island". Every
computer, when you buy it, is an island. Without an internet
connection, there is usually little to no software on it. In the free
software world, there are CDs and DVD sets these days that you can use
to bootstrap all the way back up to modern civilization. Gentoo
enthusiasts like to be able to recompile everything "from source",
meaning that nothing is "given", except the source code, and their
machines rebuild everything since the dawn of the open source (ok ok,
not really, there are some cheats, but that's the general feel). Other
linux distributions (unlike gentoo) do not recompile
everything-under-the-god-damned-sun and instead just install binaries
compiled for particular computer architectures (i386 and amd64 comes
to mind). Truly, if you like these types of thought experiments, I
suggest downloading an ubuntu live CD one of these days and rebooting
your computer with it- there are many videos on youtube that will
explain how to do this, or many text documents on the web if you
prefer the written word. The project that I mentioned earlier is
'skdb', or 'social knowledge database'. It's meant to be analogous to
the "apt" and "yum" and "yast" and "portage" systems of the linux
distributions. Instead of being just for software, however, it's for
hardware, and for those nuggets of knowledge in civilization that we
"depend on", in the same sense that we are "standing on the shoulders
of giants" (or, rather, very large ant hills). There has been some
minor progress recently. The hard part is explaining what the hell I
am doing to others, and why I am bothering.

> Thought experiment: Q decides to see if modern humanity can be placed on an
> earthlike planet devoid of technology to see if we can bootstrap ourselves
> back to modernity, or if we would fall back to the prehistoric mean
> existence in which we spent so much of our history.  He takes an unlikely
> subset, those who read ExI-chat and poofs them to a pristine earth-like
> planet, along with their mates and children, but none of their books or
> technology.  He realizes the odds are against us, so he puts them in a
> friendly temperate environment, with lush vegetation, optimal rainfall,
> tasty beastage and so forth.  Q is a cruel bastard, but he wants to give
> them a fighting chance, so he poofs them with the clothing they are wearing
> right now, and if you read ExI-chat nude, well your first few days are
> likely to be unpleasant.
> Assume a few hundred of us proles and our mates and children, with only the
> knowledge we currently carry in our heads.  (If you are single, assume the
> mate of your choice, not a fantasy woman, but rather someone you already
> know, with their knowledge.)  We already have one technological advantage
> you perhaps hadn't even considered, for we stand on the shoulders of very
> tall giants: we share a common language.  We share a roughly congruous
> ethics system, so we don't immediately begin devouring each other.  We share
> a common goal: to bootstrap humanity back to where we were before the
> bastard Q showed up with his experiments.
> OK fine, we can teach each other what we know.  I am a rocket scientists,
> specializing in control systems.  But most of my knowledge is in the form of
> books in my office.  I can't build a control system from that which is in my
> head.  But it doesn't matter because I can't build a satellite anyways, nor
> a rocket to lift it.  But I do know how to slay a beast and prepare it to
> be devoured.  But can I catch it with no tools?  And if I do, can I dress
> it?  No.

Surely you can build tools to help you build more tools. But which
tools do you want to build first?

> A lot of us here are code jockeys.  We want to record what we know, but do
> you know how to build a computer?  Do you know how an integrated circuit
> works?  Could you write down for the next generation the basics?  How would
> you write it?  On what, with what?

These are exactly the right questions. But to what extent do you want
to do "pure bootstrapping" from the chemicals and elements in the air,
versus using the trash and muck that our modern civilization has left
to the dumpsters?

> Assume a lake or sea.  Can you catch a fish without any hooks or string?  If
> you catch one, then what?
> Do you have any guess how the first humans melted iron?  Don't google on it,
> think, how would YOU do it?

How did they find iron?

> We stand on the shoulders of giants, and most of the time we don't even
> realize it.

How could you make it more obvious?

- Bryan
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