Feb 28, 2007

Watch out for the grey goo

The president of the World Transhumanist Association (what a name!) has a blog entry about the inability to manage various types of hackers in virtual reality worlds such as Second Life. Particularly strange is the saga of the "grey goo," an attack that resulted in items inside the game replicating so fast that they turn into an amorphous blob.

George Dvorsky, the blogger, makes the claim that "the digital life" will simply be so complex and specialized that human efforts to prevent hackers will be impossible:

Moreover, an uploaded society would conceivably face more problems in digital substrate than in the cozy confines of the analog world. We can't 'hack' into the code of the Universe (at least not yet). As a consequence our existence is still very much constrained by the laws of physics, access to resources, and the limits of our information systems (i.e. our accumulated body of knowledge). That said, we do a fairly decent job of soft-hacking into the Universe, which is very much the modus operandi of an intelligent species.

But the soft-hacking that we're doing is becoming more and more sophisticated — something that could lead to over-complexity. We're creating far too many dangerous variables that require constant monitoring and control.

As for the digital realm, it is already complex by default. But like the analog world it too has constraints, though slightly different. Virtual worlds have to deal with limitations imposed by computational power, algorithmic technology and access to information. Aside from that, the sky's the limit. Such computational diversity could lead to complexity an order of magnitude above analog life.

Hackers and criminals would seek to infiltrate and exploit everything under the virtual sun, including conscious minds. Conscious agents would have to compete with automatons. Bots of unimaginable ilk would run rampant. There would be problems of swarming, self-replication and distributed attacks. And even more disturbingly, nothing would be truly secure and the very authenticity of existence would constantly be put into question.
I tend to think he's being a bit too cynical here. Humanity's thousands of years of existence here on Earth (the analog world, natch) have mostly been defined by search for ways to bring order and control to our world. While here in regular life, we can't hack the laws of physics, even in our most orderly and modern societies we're a pretty anarchic and uncontrollable species. Still, we manage, in most cases, to shape a reality that's sustainable. As a tribe, we don't simply run off a cliff like the buffalo.

These virtual reality worlds will find ways of reaching equilibrium that will quickly put a stop to these kinds of attacks. Much in the way that open source software developers fix bugs when they arise and millions of amateur Wikipedia editors fix factual errors, there's no reason to think that for every virtual reality terrorist, there are 100 virtual cops willing to police places like Second Life.

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