Monday, December 13, 2010

Four Classes of Robotic Armaggedon

One estimate puts the number of robots dwelling among us at 11 million (as of mid 2010). If computers serve as guide, we can expect that number to increase rapidly as the years go by. Were the number of robots to increase at a rate of 10% a year, we'd have more robots than the present day human population by 2080. Self-replicating robots could cut that time frame dramatically.

Knowing that 11 million automated beings hide in factories and homes across this globe makes me a little worried. That's not an inconsequential army. Granted, almost all of those bots are highly specialized factory works who couldn't lift a gun if you wrote the software for them, but are we entering the era of the robot, and consequently, the threat of robot uprisings? When should we really start worrying, and what should we do if a mechanical judgment day comes?

The first step is, of course, precaution. The best way to avoid a robotic uprising is not training them to kill. We may have missed the boat on that one. At least the militaries of the world realize the importance of having a human making the shoot/don't shoot decision. Still, it's just a single feature requiring malfunction or tampering. The lack of strategic coordination among the robots also mitigates the threat, thus requiring a programming evil villain in the loop at present. You should be safe in the near term.

In the long term, who's to say? Of course, not all uprisings are created equal. The first question is if the robots have a shot at winning. Without access to heavy weaponry, extensive infrastructure support, and all-terrain movement, the uprising should turn out to be an inconvenience, not an Armageddon. What if we're not so lucky? I'd still divide the outcome into a few categories: bad, terrible, really-really-terrible, and not-all-bad. Let's hope for the last.

Robotic Uprising, the bad kind
This would be a low-intelligence, but highly effective attack by the robots. The most probable cause is haywire nuclear missile control, but a roboticized military turning against us isn't inconceivable. It's bad, because civilization gets destroyed. It's not terrible, because a clock starts ticking as soon as the attack begins. Robots break down. Nuclear arms are used up. As long as some humans living in remote locations make it a year or two, humanity can be rebooted. Even if we don't make it, the life left behind will have a chance to evolve its way to intelligence again. The most vicious nuclear onslaught is likely to leave life behind, if only in the depths of the sea. If surviving life evolves intelligence quickly, they'll even have the ruins of our civilization to learn from.

Robotic Uprising, the terrible kind
Much worse would be self-perpetuating robots with a dislike for biological sentience. Self repairing robots using solar energy could see to it that no new life takes hold as long as the sun keeps shining. Here, a small band of humans couldn't hold out past the end of days to see a new dawn: once the automatons take over, it's over. This scenario requires a much more sophisticated robotic ecosystem. The lesson, though, is that once we have self-perpetuating robots, we're moving into dangerous territory.

Robotic Uprising, Really-Really-Terrible kind
The last scenario had all life, or at least all life more advanced than a fish, being eradicated from the Earth forever. Is there really a more dismal scenario? Yup. I see it playing out much like the terrible version, with one crucial difference: robotic seeder ships. While we're still all buddy-buddy with the robots, we start constructing robotic settlement ships. They're built to fly to distant star systems, maybe construct a city and incubate a few humans when they arrive. Then they mine the local system, and set about building new probes to colonize new worlds. We'll explore and settle the stars!

Until the robots decide they don't like biological intelligence anymore. Then the seeder ships are re-purposed to seek it out and destroy it. In the "terrible scenario" we blotted out life on Earth, but we're just one of a trillion or more planets. In this scenario we set in motion an orchestrated effort to destroy all life anywhere. Whoops. Truly, a disaster of the greatest magnitude. If such a scenario seems at all possible, I hope we'll stockpile a planet destroying supply of fission, or anti-matter, bombs. Better that the Earth be turned into dust then risk eradicating life everywhere. Of course, once the seeder ships are out there, it might already be too late...

Robotic Uprisings: not all bad
I saved the least bad for last, so as to not end on the down note of universal extinction. I believe that the proper way to evaluate the consequences of any disaster are in terms of life, and in particular, intelligent life. The destruction of, say, a nation would be a tragedy, certainly. But in the grand scheme of things its a small blip. The miracle of Earth is first, life, and second, intelligence. The degree to which robots muck that up is the degree to which the uprising is bad, or really really really bad.

And the thing that makes life special is evolution. The biosphere is constantly changing, and usually improving. We went from microbes blindly reacting to environmental cues, through varying degrees of braininess, to the human mind, capable of unlocking cosmological secrets, capable of creative invention. Someday we may build a machine that's at least as capable of evolving as ourselves, where generation after self-replicating generation of machine is more intelligent, more creative, better than the last. Such a system could very well leave humanity behind, achieving intellect unlike anything we currently imagine. If such an improving, super-human creation were to turn against humanity, it'd just be Darwinism, in a way. Competition among species is as old as time, and if we create a truly superior specie, it might out-compete us in the end. I see nothing wrong with fighting such a creature: we need not go gently into the dark night. But, unlikely the other scenarios, mutual destruction would no longer be necessary. As long as life, be it biological or mechanical, is improving itself, things are well enough in the world. If we achieve any degree of artificial intelligence, I suspect we'll eventually reach this mastery of the art. The important thing, then, is seeing to it that we don't let the robots get out of hand, at least until that time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

An Ion Blast from Low Orbit

Sometimes I start to write about a topic, and every few sentences find myself resisting getting pulled down some new tangent. These topics can be approached in so many different ways, it's hard not to keep writing until a book comes out. Attempting to expose the backstory for the original point I wanted to make, I'll find myself repeatedly backing up, deciding there's something else I should tell the reader first.

Wikileaks is that topic d'jour. Why has its release of diplomatic cables caused so much more furious a response than anything else its leaked. What's the legal and moral implications of the event? How is everyone reacting, and where's it all leading?

But what I originally wanted to talk about is the fact that Anonymous is attacking the credit card companies.

Anonymous is hard to characterize, exactly. It's a loose affiliation of computer savvy individuals, who've taken on such organizations as Scientology and the RIAA. They fight against censorship, against perceived injustices perpetrated by major corporations against defenseless individual citizens. And lately they have dropped their attention from antipiracy organizations to focus on the financial behemoths behind the economy.

While previous leaks by WikiLeaks have created some controversy, the fallout over the release of classified diplomatic cables is somewhat unprecedented. Many members of many governments throughout the world have been falling over each other to condemn the organization in the strongest words possible. It's a terrorist organization whose members should be assassinated, according to some. Arguably in response to this rhetoric, companies with links to WikiLeaks have been quick to sever them.

Amazon dropped its hosting of the site. Paypal froze its account, refusing any new contributions. Mastercard and Visa have also banned any payments to wikileaks through there systems. The effect of all this is to deny the organization access to capital at the same time its facing major technical attacks and legal battles. It's an odd situation, legally. WikiLeaks has not been formally accused of any crimes, but the attempts to remove it from existence are not really government actions. Is Mastercard in the right deciding that certain organizations don't deserve access to donations? This is one of those tangents I'm going to avoid going down.

Anonymous has sided with Wikileaks, arguing that the companies are in the wrong for trying to cut off a whistle blowing organization, that regardless of the moral questions around the appropriateness of this set of leaks, it's not the government or private industries role to silence undesired speech, even the revelation of secrets. So it's attacking, in its own peculiar form. As a primary internet based group, it fights through the dissemination and stopping of information. Some see it as a illegal mob, others as modern activists: another tangent.

The primary weapon anonymous uses is the DDOS, a technique to bring websites down. A computer server can only handle so many requests for a webpage at a time. By running code to, in essence, refresh a webpage all day, you can slow the page down. By running that code on thousands of computers, you can block entry by anyone. So for much of today mastercard and visa websites (but not the transaction processing servers) were down.

The code in question is called the "Low Orbit Ion Cannon", and can be downloaded by anyone. I find people's participation very interesting. A DDOS attack is a crime. Participating could involve a multiyear jail sentence. Do they not know? Not care? Figure in such a large crowd they won't be singled out? The victim can easily log the requests coming in, and through subpoena's find out who the attackers were. But despite the risks, real or perceived or ignored, people download the code and let their computers bring down credit card websites.

Thinking about it, I've realized they may be protected by an odd ally: the virus. It's easy to view the computer as just an extension of the self, but it is not necessarily only in our control. A traditional DDOS is not a group affair, but the tool of virus writers. a DDOS requires many computers spread out between many networks. Virus ridden machines will often spring silently to life to attack a distant server, without the owner noticing anything except perhaps a slower than usual internet. These botnets are almost certainly also involved in the attack against the credit card companies.

So how do you know who was attacking, and who just had a secretive virus buried in their machine? I suspect computer forensics could tell, but after the first round of trials for this, that would change. Activists would just visit unsafe sites, download trojan-laced programs, knowing that they were helping the attack while retaining plausible deniability.

This technique doesn't stop there, either. There have been horror stories over the years of viruses that pull kiddy porn onto your machine. I suspect these are written by the purveyors of such filth to avoid having to host the content themselves: much safer to let anonymous infected computers handle that risk. But if it's not already used as a screen, I suspect it will be eventually: a virus that downloads inappropriate material to your machine for you. Thousands will be infected unknowingly, a few will seek out the computer infection for the files, and how do you ever tell the two groups apart?

Identity theft was just the start. With computers in between us, it becomes impossible to test for intention. As more of our lives go online, as more crimes are committed in the digital ether, detection of crime may become the easy part of law. The hard part would be figuring out who the computer committed the crime for.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Comcast and L3

I always read the comments on online news. I think it's a wonderful view into the process of society moving. Interactions, the spread of ideas: it's all stored in 1's and 0's for us to examine.

The internet feels nebulous, but it's built on very real hardware spread across the world. No one entity owns the internet, instead millions of companies and billions of people each own a little piece. The science and technology of the connections, the mathematics of the virtual information speeding down copper wires, the economic transactions between billions that makes it all work: it's an interesting topic, but in many ways an esoteric one. Like most other things in moden society, a small group of people specialize deeply in each aspect, and make it work.

So it's interesting when the small details are brought to the broader attention of the public. This happened recently in an ongoing dispute between Comcast and L3. Each presented a different set of facts to the public, and in online news and the related comments sections I've watched as consensuses formed. First, there was anger at Comcast, and accusations this was about stopping Netflix from replacing cable tv. Then Comcast's arguments were considered, and the discussion turned towards absolving Comcast. Maybe L3 was in the wrong here? People taught each other about peering and CDN's, short arguments were developed explaining sides, and last I saw people were solidifying their views, the debate seeming to be won by the L3 side, but with moderate disagreement as is always true in a controversy.

The very short of it is that Comcast, provider of internet to residential areas, and L3, who owns heavy duty connections between far flung ISPs, had a peering agreement. This said that since they were sending about the same amount of data to each other, there was no need to calculate detailed bills. It was a wash, they carried each others data for free. Netflix contracted L3 to stream movies for it, Comcast claimed L3 now owed it money, and L3 said Comcast is just trying to block Netflix.

It's murky, because there are two types of data transfers. If a Comcast customer sends an email to Verizon, and it travels across the L3 network, L3 gets paid. Comcast is paid by its customer, Verizon by its customer, but nobody is paying L3. In contrast, if Comcast and Verizon are directly connected, it's not clear either should pay. Even if Comcast is sending far more emails to Verizon, it's in both companies interest to make sure the email gets through. If not, both have angry customers.

So in that regard, Comcast is sending data across L3, but L3 is supplying Comcast with data it's customers explicitly requested. Comcast argues that the previous Netflix provider did provide them, and that L3 is looking for a unfair advantage. L3, and before it Aakamai, are acting as CDNs, Content Distribution Networks.

But again, the term is ambiguous. In one sense, both L3 and Akamai distributed content, so they're in the same business. But they did it dramatically differently. Aakamia essentially paid Comcast to host the content, acting as a middle man. L3 already has networks across the country, so it just places the computers on its network. In a sense, the computers just move a few miles. But now, they're moving around like the rest of the content on the internet, a middle man was just removed.

It's these subtle distinctions that define the situation. Is a CDN distributed content hosting, or is it a specific way of doing it, purchasing service from your customer's ISP? Is "peering" just traffic that passes across a network elsewhere, or does it include traffic destined for the other network. But these distinctions have the potential to dramatically change who makes billions and who goes under, what sort of internet you get and for what costs, even whether things like high fidelity video conferencing will change business or not.

It's been heartening to watch thousands of people online all unraveling, at least a little, the interconnections and implications of the topic.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Live Forever and Die Young

Life predates death, but just barely. At some point in the dim past, in a small pond or in the depth of the ocean, a twiggy bit of proto-RNA, or a fat globule stuffed with hydrocarbons, appeared. It was random chance, an unusual reaction, but with that life had begun. And like all familiar forms of life, this ancestor set off to make a copy of itself.

It succeeded. It may have succeeded a few times, starting a small extended family with total ignorance about death. Mostly, they lacked any organelles remotely capable of conceptualizing anything, especially abstract concepts like death. But there was also a lack of practical experience at play.

Then, death swirled his metaphorical bony finger in that pond, announcing his arrival. Perhaps torsion in the water ripped a creature in two. Perhaps the reproductive act failed, leaving two molecules trapped in a deathly embrace. But just moments after life, death was here.

Odds are pretty good that life and death will depart together, the last creature exiting, hand in hand, with the last death. Entropy isn't the swiftest foe, but its a dedicated one. Still, the rules of death are amenable to change. As long as a star is fusing elements together, there's energy a life can use to extends its existence.

The younger among us may live to see the day when medical technology possesses power to banish non-accidental death. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes even the middle aged will make it to that victory. Even if it comes centuries from now, some civilization is going to have to face the social repercussions of practical immortality. Our body does an impressive job keeping itself repaired, a little help from nanotechnology and the genetic engineering away of certain 'kill switches' in our genes, could push our maximum age back arbitrarily far.

The "replacement rate" for humans is currently somewhere around 2.3 children per woman. If every woman had 2.3 children, our population would remain constant. As we prevent childhood deaths and infertility, the number approaches 2. When we have more children than this, our population grows, and on a finite world we will eventually reach some maximum capacity for supporting life.

But the replacement rate assumes a constant rate of death as well. If nobody dies, there's no-one to replace, so the replacement rate falls to 0. Adding in voluntary death and accidents, a few babies become necessary, but a very small amount compared to our biological drive to reproduce. An immortal civilization will face very hard choices about how to handle birth and death, putting a choice once dictated by fate into human hands.

The most pleasant solution is pushing off the population cap. Immortality supplanted with the colonization of space could see each generation being sent to new, untapped worlds. Kurzweil predicts that the ability to upload the mind into a simulated Eden will avoid overpopulation issues. If the mind is just a physical pattern, and that pattern can be reproduced in bits, computers could provide a massive location for storing generations past, a location where the living could interact freely with the 'dead', removing the sense of loss from bodily expiration.

But its not clear that either of those solutions will come to pass, or provide a long term solution to geometric population growth. Absent new worlds, real or simulated, to keep our forefathers population balance will need to be provided by society. The fairest solution may be abstention: the technology to stop death exists, but isn't used. Or if the allure of an extra century or three of life is too great, life extension could be provided up until a point. At some predefined age, death is mandated.

Practically, the solution seems fair. Overpopulation is averted, and while the government will eventually have you killed, you'd have achieved a longer than natural life. Still, mandated death dates have a chilly, distopian feel to them. I suspect not everyone will go gently into that good night. And in a way its just another form of abstention, possessing life giving technology but refusing to hand it out.

What if we wanted to allow immortality, perhaps for the few? It'd be an interesting experiment at any rate: what would a youthful body 800 years old think of? Would they be like a species above us, masters of endless knowledge and skills? Or would their brain fill up, and their abilities fail to exceed our own? Would they become trusted advisers, fonts of first hand knowledge from centuries of civilization, or just a burden and source of jealousy for the rest?

Will we turn to the free market for a solution? Auctioning off slots to the next century? A free-market proponent could argue that wealth corresponds with an individuals contribution to society, and that the most contributing deserve more time on Earth, but the solution strikes me as too distasteful for adoption. While we already portion off life saving technology by wealth, I'm inclined to believe this discrepancy has a limit, and that the populace won't accept an immortal ruling class lightly.

There's one solution that frightens me most, because it feels so fair on the face of it. Immortal despots, death panels and brains encoded into 1's and 0's are very science fiction. They don't strike me as the sorts of solutions people would actually choose. But what if the 'replacement rate' was made more concrete? What if immortality is granted as long as you have no children? With the birth of a first child, some clock could be set, perhaps just the removal of age-defying treatments. The parent could live a traditional full life: 60 years, perhaps, to see the children grow up and make their own lives, before they need to pass on. Then death becomes a choice, a trade off for a deep biological need, and a morale obligation to give other lives a chance at realization.

Sounds fair doesn't it, or at least as fair as is likely when immortality is real? But what sort of world would this create? I suspect lots of people wouldn't wait much longer than they do now. Some would experience life for centuries, or longer, only passing on when they'd experienced all they wanted to experience in this life. But then there's the edge of the bell curve...

A few people would chose not to have children ever, preferring self preservation to reproduction. Perhaps sociopaths, having no concern for others, would see no need to create new life. The intensely narcissistic, the ego-maniacal, the greedy, seeing at no point in time an advantage in giving up their self-important life, would pass generation to generation. The well adjusted will accept death, sooner or later, as an integral part of being. Even if those self absorbed make up a minuscule fraction of the population, each generation would add a few more to their numbers. The good die, the bad live on. The good die, the bad live on. Then one day birth is all but gone, as only the self obsessed are left. Such a good meaning solution. Such a dreary end.

There's a theory that the reason we can't find signs of alien life is a tendency for civilizations to self destruct at some point in their evolution. This idea seems less popular now, being much more visceral during the threats of the cold war. I'd always dismissed it somewhat out of hand, as more a projection of fears than a reasonable theory. But on thinking about life extension, I can start to see the sort of seed that would rip societies apart. What if the technology was ubiquitous and strict rules could not be placed on the use? What if the solutions all require despotic control, the sort antithetical to a civilization's advancement? Will we adjust to the siren song of immorality? Do any species?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do We Have Gravity Backwards?

Electromagnetic radiation allows us to see the universe. From radio waves as long as football fields, up through the colorful wavelengths of visible light and on to high powered x-rays and gamma rays, electromagnetic radiation is our principle tool for observation. Even when we switch to magnets or touch we've just swapped one form of electromagnetism for another.

What if some forms of matter don't react with electromagnetic radiation? A very clear plane of glass is transparent to the colors we see, but still opaque to other wavelengths. What if a structure was totally invisible? You could pass through it without ever knowing it was there. The only evidence would be the slight tug of gravity.

A globule of the stuff on Earth might evade detection forever, presumably drifting down into the molten core of the planet for an even better hiding spot. But on galactic scales the impact of the gravity would be visible on other matter. And astronomers have detected just that. Galaxies with insufficient mass to mathematically hold together do anyways. When you tally the things we see with the gravity we measure, they don't add up. Science has named this discrepancy dark matter. The leading candidate explanation right now is exotic particles that just don't react to light.

Einstein taught us that gravity is a distortion of spacetime by a massive object. The universe is like a trampoline: when something is placed on it, it bends the structure around it. Another object placed down will tend to roll towards the first object, obeying the attractive force of gravity (As an aside I've never really liked this way of explaining gravity. Why does the trampoline distort around an object? Gravity is pulling the object down towards the Earth, and the trampoline is in the way. We explain what gravity does by alluding to gravity).

There's an alternative explanation I've come up with. We see regular matter at the bottom of gravity wells, in exact proportions to the strength of the gravity, and as the matter moves the gravity does too. So we say that the matter distorts space, creating the gravity. What if that's backwards? What if spacetime is curved all on its own, and matter just pools in the low places? That is, what if protons, electrons and the whole gang don't bend space around them, just follow the existing grooves? You'd still see lots of matter in very dense places, but the cause and effect would be reversed. Gravitational distortions wouldn't follow a sun around, the sun would roll around to keep inside the distortion. Dark matter stops being a mysterious particle, and just becomes a gravity well that hasn't been totally filled.

Physical theories need tests. The most straightforward one I can think of is looking for cases where a massive body is caught in the grip of even larger one: A star passing by a black hole perhaps. If the gravity well travels too close to the blackhole, it may fall in. But if it skirts by its ever so closely, ejecting around the other side, the energy pooled in the star might fall in while the gravity well continued on its way. Dark matter being produced by super nova might also be a clue, with the great explosion ejecting mass from the gravity well. Finer measurements of gravity might allow us to use more practical sized objects.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day

September 4, 1882 Thomas Edison turned on the world's first commercial electric power plant, lighting one square mile of Lower Manhattan. The following morning would mark the first observation of Labor Day in the United States.

From peasant uprisings, through strikes and political lobbying, labor disputes have been part of the fabric of civilization since its inception. But from the industrial revolution onwards they took a different tone. Work took a different tone. Man could now wield power external to his body.

Animals and fire served that role first, but the introduction of water wheels and the mastery of steam power greatly bolstered the force with which man could reshape his surroundings. Edison's electric station turned the electron to man's bidding, one more ally in reshaping the universe.

One of the defining questions of civilization is 'how should things be shared when want exceeds supply?' In a sense, this is the foundational question in politics and in economics. The basic answer we seem to always return to is: you deserve reward proportional to your contribution to the process of obtaining it.

But with mastery of the elements, and the introduction of repeatable, predictable, automatable processes, the balance of labor shifted. Within a factory, the ability of a man to produce was magnified immensely. Suddenly, measuring contribution becomes difficult.

Does the man toiling in a field not yet touched by automation suddenly deserve a much smaller portion of the society's goods? And what of the machinery's contribution? Does the man working the machine deserve the riches of the machine, or does the machine's inventor? Or the man who arranged to have the machine built?

The industrial revolution was a liquid period in human civilization. The rules were changing, new forces were at play. The labor movement was a series of physical battles fought between people to set the new rules of society. As the heat of change cooled, society started recrystallizing, new social norms in place for how to manage an economy in a world with electricity.

The story of the labor movement is filled with victories: the weekend, the slowly shortening workweek, rights for workers and comfortable wages. But in a sense, the entrepreneurs and investors won. They were the ones seen setting in motion progress. Society weighed down in favor of the idea that wealth mostly belongs to the inventor, to the machine owner, to the one organizing work.

Thirty-four years before Edison's factory opened, before Labor Day was observed, Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto. Marx believed workers would unite and claim ownership of the fruits of labor, destroying social strata and autocratic economic governance. That hasn't happened. Karl Marx's mistake, I'd argue, was believing that the 'crystallization' of society would keep proceeding at the rate it was during his life. That soon man would have invented what he was going to invent, that life would settle into pastoral routine of early ages, when each generation relived their parents' lives. Perhaps it will someday, and he was just early. But change is innate to complex organisms like a society. Technology can greatly disrupt established orders, but we manage to do so on our own even without it.

What Marx saw coming was a day when each generation looked exceedingly similar to the one before it. What would business be in such an environment? Each adult would have his role: keeping this machine functioning, seeing that coal was delivered from this mine to these factories. Businesses would not rise and fall, but plod along with predictable returns each year. In such an environment, of what use is the entrepreneur, of the investor, of the executives? The system today elevates them, treasures there ability to navigate in changing times, but that role is lost in a predictable environment.

His call for the workers of the world to unite never happened. Communist states appeared, but the brotherhood of the worker never overcame the social force of national identity. There was no need to question why grandchildren of businessmen deserved such power because technology kept everything changing, new inventions created new wealth. If anything change has been accelerating.

Labor Day celebrates the efforts of men and women in ensuring the quality of life of the worker, the right of the worker to exist as a powerful political and social entity. It's a story of struggle, requiring an antagonist, filled sometimes-fairly, sometimes-not by the executive. What's ahead in labor relations? I don't expect the struggle to ever end, really. Incredibly intelligent AI might achieve peace in labor relations, ending man's need to worry about such things. We may create a Matrix for ourselves, a simulation of world' without scarcity, man made gardens of Eden. But more strongly I suspect that our civilization will stretch out through the stars, and each passing millenia will see new battlefields for Labor Day remembrances.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Computers: Slightly Less Magic Than They Could've Been?

Our suspicions may have been confirmed: P may not have equaled NP all along.

The P=NP question has been the seminal problem in theoretical computer science since forever ago (for the computer value of forever: 40 years give or take). To simplify it past any resemblance of truth, P is basically the group of all 'easy' problems, and NP is the group of all 'easy to correct' problems. If I gave you a computer program and told you it could always win at chess, how would you go about confirming that's true? Not very easily. But if I told you there's a 3,000 mile car trip that visits every state capital in America, and tell you the roads to take, you'd just have to count up the miles to see if it's true. Proving a computer program does something is not in NP, but proving that there's a path of some length between cities is. The question, then, is if there's an easy way to confirm a solution is true, can you easily come up with the solution too? (If I give you a map, can you come up with the shortest path between all the state capitals?) Computer scientists have suspected 'no', but demonstrating this is true has been fraught with difficulty.

People try to prove this all the time, and they fail. Vinay Deolalikar apparently emailed a 100 page proof to a group of respected researchers, and the paper eventually ended up on the Internet. Then the Internet became abuzz, an article was written on slashdot, and tweets of 'Deolalikar' skyrocketed past any previous level he'd experienced. Daniel Lemire raised a good question: why? What about this proof has gotten such discussion, as opposed to countless other attempts at a proof? Which is a really interesting question in general.

News transmission requires two participants: someone to tell the news and someone to hear it. You're hearing, or rehearing, this news from me. All in all, I'll probably end up telling 15 or so individuals about this event. Each of you may pass the news on to someone new, or let this trail of the story of Deolalikar's proof attempt end.

Coincidently, just like in my last post linking auto-immune diseases, SEO and planted evidence there's a illness connection here. The study of news transmission began in the study of epidemics. Instead of giving you a disease, I'm giving you a fact. Sorry, antibiotics won't help this time. Maybe enough alcohol, consumed very quickly, will wipe the fact from your mind? On the plus side, P = NP would have been great news for robots, so Computer Science is arguably less likely to kill you now.

What was discovered in epidemics is that the crucial value for deciding if a sickness will turn into a pandemic is the average number of people a sick person passes the disease onto before dying or getting better. If they average, say, 0.9 people, then the disease will dwindle and vanish. But if the average is, say, 1.2 people, then it'll explode through the population, each day the legions of sick increasing. Same thing with zombies. Same things with news and memes.

The P=NP? proof is a particularly good example of this. The knowledge of this paper started out just in Deolalikar's head. He gave the paper to a few other researchers. If the proof was poorly done, it would have ended there. But it was exciting enough that the researchers wanted to share it with > 1 other person each. There was an initial outbreak of this knowledge, eventually reaching slashdot.

Slashdot, having a vast readership, is particularly apt at transmitting an idea. For an instant the average person told skyrocketed by its introduction. The analogy is that the virus has reached the water supply, or the zombies have entered New York City. There was a phase change in outreach.

Sometimes news sources provide stories that don't excite us, that don't have a viral spread > 1. These peter out of the public discourse. But the blog posts and tweets since the slashdot story demonstrate again that there's a viral nature to this story. And here I am telling you.

Viral spread isn't a constant value, as eventually the susceptible are all infected. And not everyone is susceptible, by genes or geographic isolation. Or in this case, interests. Not all the readers of this blog are computer science aficionados, so this is more likely to be the end of the line then the computer science-centric blogs I've read this story on. It still might have another major outbreak if it reaches a mainstream news source. Or alternatively, if other theoreticians can't find any problems with the proof the story will 'mutate', and grow even more viral. Million dollar prizes always make good stories.

Returning to Dan's question, what made the story viral? P=NP is about as pop-culture as unsolved mathematics can be. The proof is apparently plausible. Releasing the paper by email is novel and interesting. And "I am pleased to announce a proof that P is not equal to NP, which is attached in 10pt and 12pt fonts" is a great way to announce one of the pinnacle proofs of our time.

One of the interesting things about viral spread is how small the critical value is. 0.95 people per iteration is a non-story, 1.05 can spread across the world. Thus it may be that the font comment was enough to push it across, and without it we'd have had to wait for more actual confirmation of the proof before hearing about it.

I find networks to be an endlessly interesting topic, and this is a great practical example of it. It also shows a news source acting as a facilitator of a story with wide popularity rather than pushing a story because of the source's reach. It'd be an interesting metric to see what news sources respond to and create viral spread, and which just push ideas that couldn't hold up in an organic global discussion.

As cool as a P=NP world would be, best of luck to Deolalikar, I hope you've earned your way into the pantheon of computer science greats.