Scene at the Pool, in the Greater Kruger, 2008
One of the more interesting constructs in thermodynamics, and by extension, how we create information and meaning, which this blog is dedicated to, is the concept of Maxwell’s Demon of the First Kind. Maxwell’s Demon was a hypothetical construct, proposed by the famous mathematician and scientist James Clerk Maxwell, on how the Second Law of thermodynamics could be violated. The Second Law is famous because it says “you can’t break even” when it comes to energetics. If you do something, there’s going to be waste energy, and so you can’t get to some higher state of order without putting in some energy.
Temperature in a given substance, like air, is characterized by the oscillation of molecules inside some given space. Maxwell proposed that if we had a closed container with two chambers, we could invent a Demon — some little dude, sitting on top of the box. The Demon controls a door between the two. When he sees a rapidly moving molecule, he shunts that toward the right chamber. For the ones that are moving slowly, he keeps them on the left side of the chamber, and only opens the door if he thinks the cold ones on the right can move to the left. Over time, the right side gets hot, and the left side becomes cold.
Maxwell proposed this as some kind of perpetual motion machine, and there are lots of debates you read about this thought experiment. The simple argument against this being a perpetual motion machine is that the little green dude needs energy to operate the door, and as such, that energy has to come from somewhere. So the Second Law of Thermodynamics — you can’t break even — is preserved.
This concept was picked up and used in one of my favorite books — The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem. It’s a part of the sophisticated canon of science fiction for geeks, and one of the most deeply insightful, as far as trends and meta-trends, of all the early science fiction books ever written. It’s full of word play so math geeks can feel good about themselves as well (we need that now and again!)– though the book, written as kind of its own divine comedy, is much more profound upon multiple readings.
The plot of the book revolves around two meta-robots, called constructors, Klapaucius and Trurl, and their various adventures across the galaxy. The general plot thesis is that Klapaucius and Trurl end up in a pickle, and then build some kind of infernal device or robot to get themselves out of it. Lem explores different scenarios in AI, logic, and interestingly enough, societal development, with humor and insight, through these short stories. My favorite out of all of these is “The Sixth Sally, or how Klapaucius and Trurl create a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg.” On one of their trans-galactic adventures, our heroes meet the Pirate Pugg — a very different kind of pirate. He is a pirate with a Ph.D., and instead of wanting jewels or gold, he desires only to steal information. He captures the two, and holds them for ransom. Klapaucius and Trurl even offer him a magical machine to create gold out of constituent atoms, but the Pirate Pugg is too smart. He realizes that once he can create gold consistently out of anything, it will be worthless.
But information? That’s a different story. So the robot constructors, in order to free themselves, strike a deal with Pugg. They set out to create Maxwell’s Demon of the Second Kind. Different than our more simplistic Demon of the First Kind that only sorted hot and cold, this Demon was designed by our heroes to look into a box of foul air in an old barrel, and out of the infinite number of coalescing and diffusing patterns, pull out only the ones with meaning. Our Demon of the Second Kind is also equipped with a pen nib, and a roll of semi-infinite paper. Upon discerning the pattern, the Demon writes furiously (lots and lots of disconnected facts are scrolling by!) and buries the Pirate Pugg in paper. Pugg has a thousand eyes, and as he is furiously reading all the little snippets of information, tangled in paper, our heroes make their getaway.
from http://english.lem.pl/arround-lem/doodle, by Daniel Mroz (I think!)
What interests us today — to give you a glimpse where this is going with regards to Pugg, the Internet, and, believe it or not, empathy — is the idea of a Demon. In particular, how would we characterize one? Our First Demon sits up there, eating snacks, essentially coding out a binary sequence of hot and cold on top of his box. That’s the lowest, and only level of information the Demon can parse out of this scenario, only controlling one box. The time scales are short — the Demon has to be pretty fast to guess whether the molecule needs to go left or right. And the spatial scales are down on the molecular level.
How about the energetics? Well, those have to be pretty low, too, or we’re gonna have some problems with another famous law of physics — Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. That says when you try to measure something (like the temperature of a given molecule) you’re going to distort the measurement in direct relation to how much energy and time you put into measuring that quantity. I don’t want to get bogged down in the essential physics here, but the short version of our powered, snack-eating Demon is this: he’s got to be quick, he’s got to be focused, and he can’t spend much energy on each individual molecule, or it will mess everything up.
Now we move up to our Cyberiad heroes, Klapaucius and Trurl. They are desperately trying to deal with the Pirate Pugg, a most pernicious Pirate with a Ph.D. He wants facts, and the primary thing about those facts is that he wants them to be true. Similar to Maxwell’s Demon of the First Kind, which measures atomic oscillations and therefore temperature, Maxwell’s Demon of the Second Kind is grounded deep in reality. But Pugg, with his thousand eyes, wants lots of facts. He’s not going to be happy with just the temperature equivalent of binary 1s and 0s. Each of those eyes is self-pivoting, hungry for information, with the mental model of how we traditionally think of information — disconnected fragments. How does that work?
The Pirate Pugg, by Daniel Mroz for the original Lem text
“and little by little his hundred eyes began to swim and it dawned on him that all this information, entirely true and meaningful in very particular, was absolutely useless, producing such an ungodly confusion that his head ached terribly and his legs trembled. But the Demon of the Second Kind continued to operate at a speed of three hundred million facts per second, and mile after mile of tape coiled out and gradually buried the Ph.D. irate beneath its windings, wrapping him, as it were, in a paper web, while the tiny diamond-tipped pen shivered and twitched like one insane, and it seemed to Pugg that any minute now he would learn the most fabulous, unheard-of things, things that would open up to him the Ultimate Mystery of Being, so he greedily read everything that flew out from under the diamond nib, the drinking songs of the Quaidacabondish and the sizes of bedroom slippers available on the continent of Cob, with pompons and without, and the number of hairs growing on each brass knuckle of the skew-beezered flummox…
And on, and on. You get the idea. Pugg, our Ph.D. pirate says he craves truth. But what he really wants is data, with an emphasis on maximizing reliability. Pugg, imbued from saw nose to tail with the Authoritarian v-Meme, is wildly, deliriously ecstatic with the efforts of his Maxwell’s Demon of the Second Kind. He doesn’t care if there is no shared meaning– he’s an Authoritarian, and he gets to decide, in his own egocentric way, if the facts matter. And there’s no one in that part of space besides himself anyway.
Because the Maxwell’s Demon of the Second kind is devoted to parsing true knowledge (or what we might call simplistically known knowledge) out of dirty air in a barrel, it is giving him this in the form of knowledge fragments. These fragments map back to the social/relational empathetic structure (or lack of an evolved one!) with all its silos and lack of synergy extant in the modern academy, in Pugg’s brain. Or in the case of Pugg, the post-modern academy, Pugg himself having been invented far in the future after all the humans are extinct. That’s the thing about Authority-based relational structures — they aren’t designed to change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Like Maxwell’s Original Demon, Lem’s Demon of the Second Kind has inherent temporal, spatial and energetic scales coded into its existence. Time is short — the Demon has to be able to decipher a true fact in a micro-second, before the pattern dissolves. Spatial scales are small. The Demon looks in a barrel of dirty air. That’s pretty constrained. And finally, energetically, the Demon has some ability to judge the various strings of molecules. But most of the energy is spent running the paper tape writer, which very quickly engulfs our Pirate with a Ph.D.
I had originally read The Cyberiad as a graduate student, upon recommendation of my office mate — Wayne Miller, now a Deputy Director of High Performance Computing at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, in California. I had put it aside in my mind until about 20 years ago, a period when I was doing environmental activism. A friend gave me another book, The Last Extinction, a collection of essays on biodiversity loss. In the final essay by David Ehrenfeld, one of the founders of the field of conservation biology, he compares the Internet to the Pirate Pugg’s Maxwell’s Demon of the Second Kind, saying if we think we’re going to find the answers on, or because of the Internet, we’re not. We can get inundated with facts and information from all over the world, and it won’t make any difference. It was — and is — a compelling argument to many, including myself at the time. Like Pugg, in our modern age, we are buried in the paper tape coming from our Demon of the Second Kind. We cannot extricate ourselves.
But it is a view that is deeply flawed. We may still be screwed, extinction-wise. With increasing population, biodiversity loss, and global warming, there are plenty of days where I’ve got that bad feeling. But that’s not the Internet’s fault.
A better question to ask is why Ehrenfeld’s view of the Internet is what it is — and why that mental model of the Internet is still so popular. Why does he think the way he does? Ehrenfeld was writing this back in 1985, when the Internet was still in its infancy. Almost no one had any inkling that the Internet would be what it is today. Yet the notion of the Internet as facts, disconnected, and unable to provide meaning, flows naturally from the Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme set that Ehrenfeld occupies. It’s what the v-Memes in his head say he HAS to say. And the other idea — that those flows of information are what will provide answers because individuals with egalitarian access to those perceived knowledge fragments may act on them doesn’t even occur to him. From the viewpoint of those imbued with status from knowing ‘known knowns’ — where Ehrenfeld and most scientists occupy — individuals don’t have agency to make change. It doesn’t even occur to him that there might be the possibility that other people, being informed might make a difference, or that even the low-level data itself would make a difference to endangered species.
As far as the collective mind of the Internet, which plays out in literally billions of ways on a daily basis, from a molecular physics discussion board, to Yelp, to real-time tracking of sea turtles, there is no conception. Ehrenfeld, himself a professor with a Ph.D., and compellingly, being a founder of conservation biology — a field wholly devoted to connections in nature — identifies himself as the anti-Pugg. Yet to him, there are no Demons that can be invented greater than a Demon of the Second Kind.
But Spiral evolution, mapped with Conway’s Law and the Intermediate Corollary, tells us that this not true. We can’t know what we don’t know, and we’re limited in understanding what knowledge structures we ourselves can process by the complexity of the social structures, coupled with empathetic development, that we can comprehend. In fact, we can be part of something bigger than ourselves and still not be aware of what the larger consequence is for aggregate intelligence. That’s a function of our own empathy. To use an aviation example, no one person can, any more, know every subsystem in a commercial aircraft. But a large group of them, structured appropriately, can make one of the most complex systems available to mankind.
So — trust me. There are higher level Demons.
What would a Demon of the Third Kind look like? Our theory of Empathetic Development and Spiral Dynamics point the way. That Demon would collect data from off the internet, and process this data with a set of defined algorithms, generating useful meaning or validity. In fact, this happens in many forms today. In Alex Pentland’s book, Social Physics — how Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter , he details the next transition in the v-Meme set of the cutting-edge scientist’s mind. Pentland, himself a professor at MIT, discusses algorithms and applications that sample data (some of it real-time) and construct adaptive models for sensing cities, how people pick restaurants, and how to predict stock market behavior. Pentland is busy creating Maxwell’s Demons of the Third Kind, differentiated from Klapaucius’ and Trurl’s creation, by watching the atomized molecules of humanity, running about their daily lives, and processing them through a combination of both algorithms and scaffolded heuristics, to give conclusions that are reliable (they can be repeated) and valid (the results actually mean something in the Real World.) In the case of disasters, such systems could re-route individuals away from areas in crisis, as well as tell you which parts of a given city are going to be too crowded to get a table at your favorite type of restaurant.
We can go back to the scaling properties discussed earlier with these types of systems to understand how these Demons of the Third Kind have to work. Most of the applications discussed in Pentland’s book, as far as being reactive, are temporal short-scale, and variable spatial scale. Information can be collected from all over the country, but it’s typically knowledge fragments from a specific category that are collected. Energetically, that’s pretty small. And there are few connections, or modes of being, that are being processed. It wouldn’t surprise us, once we understand evolution of sentience, for that to be the case. Taking knowledge fragments and actually extracting meaning from them is a big step up from Pugg and his Demonic pet, whose only raison d’être was to bury the Pirate in paper.
But it’s still not very connected, or empathetic. Connections in Pentland’s models are explicit, and only imposed by the rule set coming from him and his crew of experts. And while he pokes and prods at the borders of empathetic understanding, there’s not a single time in the book he even mentions the word. Not surprising, considering its relative lack of importance in his own social organizations, as well as the fact that he’s collecting points of data off of mobile phones. Not much opportunity to judge the individual coherence of independent interactions. He bases many of his beginning arguments on Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow’ non-empathetic thinking, regarding giving people agency. Guess what — they don’t have much. Pentland comes down on the side of impulsive ‘fast’ for most thought processes. But because of the fundamental fuzziness and uncertainty in the analysis, he can’t shake any way of classifying humans as connected networks other than lumping them into finer and finer demographic groups.
What that means is that there is plenty of headroom for the invention of a Maxwell’s Demon of the Fourth Kind. What would that look like? A Demon of the Fourth Kind might proceed with a base set of heuristics and look to larger behavioral trends to create deeper understanding of decision-making processes. Such a Meta-Demon would have to be receptive to identifying emergent strategies — not just data trends — and show connections across social/relational classes. One might step up from meaningful data aggregation with some kind of functional aggregation, looking at how networks react, and charting information flow. It’s something to think about.
And if there’s a Demon of the Fourth Kind, it means that there’s a Demon of the Fifth Kind — the Internet itself. In the Internet, all sorts of people, information, groups, heuristics, and algorithms are integrated — from our Pirates Pugg to Daoist masters. It functions at multiple levels, creating coherences and meaning that are at some level easily identifiable, like the best pizza joint in town, to the principle that school girls, no matter if they live in Nigeria or the United States, should not be raped and captured. It embodies the empathy of the actors, because that empathy is intrinsic in the social networks that create at least part of it. In the last week, it was the Internet that exposed beatings of partygoers in Iran, as part of another Islamic crackdown. It also helped create Donald Trump as we know him. Not surprisingly, for this particular Demon, empathetic and evolved in ways we can’t understand, timescales are long, and spatial scales extend out to near-Earth orbit, with tiny windows on the galaxy from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Energetics are summed on a global scale.
I think it’s easy for people to comprehend the fact that the Internet stretches across the Earth. But when it comes to seeking higher truth — that nested expression of validity, infused with reliability — we have to understand that time scales also are long. We have a lack of self reflection toward our own personal evolution if we expect larger truths to pop up overnight, like whether or not Donald Trump should be president. But that’s not the way that our Demon of the Fifth Kind can operate, and obey the fundamental laws of Thermodynamics. It takes time for larger coherence to emerge out of chaos.
As far as whether our Maxwell’s Demon of the Fifth Kind will save the planet, I’ve got no definite answers. If I did, it would demonstrate my own lack of metacognition! And one must remember that Maxwell’s Demons — all of them — only create a given level of scaffolded truth that has to inform our actions. Yet I’m pretty sure that it’s safe to say we can’t save the planet without it.
What’s Maxwell’s Demon of the Sixth Kind? Now we start reaching into James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The interested reader can pursue the Wikipedia article. But I’ll stop here! I’m just not enlightened enough to suggest anything past that!
Takeaway: We are, of course, all Maxwell’s Demons. Think about that for a while! Bring snacks!