[ExI] Chain of causes

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Fri Mar 18 11:02:41 UTC 2011

On 2011-03-18 01:04, Max More wrote:
> If you have 3min 54 secs to spare, this music video is fun:
> http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=qybUFnY7Y8w
> Interconnectedness at its best.

It is an interesting situation. In most parts of our environment if we 
interact with it a bit we will cause very brief chains of events - a 
piece of paper moves a centimeter and produces some minimal heat, a pen 
falls to the floor and rattles for some tenths of a second, a branch is 
pushed back, released and oscillates for a second or so, dropping some 

However, when I press a key on my keyboard there is a long chain of 
events in the keyboard, operating system and (in this case) email 
editor, potentially including an even vaster chain where this email gets 
sent to a large number of servers worldwide, possibly read and possibly 
responded to. It is a lot more like the music video.

The main mechanism is that we have arranged systems so that small causes 
can make metastable states to break down, either in roughly one way (the 
video) or a few discrete ways (my computer). There are other ways of 
getting chains with "long memories" like including a chaotic system, but 
they tend to also include noise. The problem with making that video was 
likely that even a minor disruption somewhere might trigger the whole 
chain accidentally - the discreteness of my computer makes accidents 
less likely. Suitable feedback loops like error correcting codes can 
also keep the chain of events on track.

Designing useful chains of events is a key human skill. Knowing what 
components produce what kind of behavior - an expansion of force, a 
reduction of noise, a persistent change, a reversible change etc. is not 
just engineering but what we do in much of our everyday life. This is 
why our human environment is full of these unlikely metastable states 
where a small input can produce an extremely far-reaching chain of 
events - press a button and you turn on the light, send an email or blow 
up a building.

The real problem is of course that our evolved understanding of chains 
of events likely is limited. We have a pretty good folk physics 
understanding, but most of our current tech runs in different domains. 
So we should expect our intuitions of cause and effect to be weak when 
dealing with our new technologies. We are certainly trying to design 
them to work according to easy cause-effect relations, but many of the 
truly important ones cannot be designed that way. They are systems, 
often adaptive and autonomous. A modified organism, an artificial 
intelligence or a company will do as they damn well please. Designing 
such systems requires some other abilities, abilities we might not even 
have evolved as a species.

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford University

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