Drake/Space Princess/Lex Luther Equations: Doleful Update

Well, this is depressing. Seems I missed something when I wrote the Lex Luther Lemma to John C. Wright’s Space Princess Equation, something John Ringo notes in Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse – that Moore’s Law works, to use my terminology, to lower the thresholds of genius, wealth and crazy to the point where a moderately intelligent Lex with suburban level wealth who may be only a little off his rocker has or will soon have the answer to Fermi’s Paradox: where everybody is is dead, done in by their own inevitable Lex Luther, a brilliant (for ever-decreasing values of smart’), wealthy (ditto for ‘wealthy’) homicidal sociopath (for values of ‘homicidal sociopath’ converging on bitter teenager).

I was half-kidding. I mean, the values for variables in the LLL are all real – there really are geniuses, billionaires and homicidal sociopaths – but I wasn’t thinking the required confluence would necessarily happen any time soon. Each of these things exist today. The only assumption – and it’s not much of one – is that the variables are not exclusive: that being a sociopath doesn’t, for example, inhibit one also being a billionaire or a genius.

Brief recap: Wright & I, among others, are alternately amused and frustrated by those who treat the Drake Equation (1) as if it were science, as if, because we’ve arranged a series of unknown probabilities in a string, that somehow, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re stone cold certain that They are Out There. Fermi is our hero, because his quip – “then where is everybody?” – neatly sums up the issue: if you assume anything but vanishingly small numbers for the probabilities (and note: for most of them, you get to make up whatever you want, as there is no evidence to get in the way), then the galaxy should be positively festooned with signs of intelligent life.

So then begins the next game: explaining why Fermi is wrong – it’s become a cottage industry of sorts to show why there are still lots of aliens out there, they just hide/don’t like us/are too advanced/are too different. Be that as it may, such efforts merely provide fodder for mockery by we few, we band of jokers. John C. Wright tends toward lighter humor than I, and so pointed out that Drake’s logic would just as well support the conclusion that Space Princesses, beautiful and fell, exist. Follow the link above to see how that works.

I, being less funny and more dark, went with the Lex Luther Theorem/Corollary/Lemma (It’s my idea, let’s go with Lemma, so we can use LLL or L3 for short). Now, along comes John Ringo to point out that the mechanics of technological advance mean that, over time, what was accessible and doable only to the elite becomes accessible and doable by any halfway competent nitwit. The Lex Luther Threshold (again, I can call it what I want) is falling, as the commonwealth of ideas and  technology expands so that I, the individual, need less personal genius and wealth to use it. As it becomes easier to do what a few years earlier would have required an extensive lab, extensive funding and a high level of genius, more and more power will fall into the hands of  crazy people. It gets easier and easier to answer Fermi. There’s nobody here because some nut killed them all off.

But it gets worse: if it’s your own personal genius and money you’ll be using to destroy the world, there becomes a floor on how crazy you have to be – crazy enough to devote years to building a lair, assembling henchmen, and designing and building your Mega Death Ray. That’s pretty crazy. But if it only takes a week or to to build your killer virus in mom’s basement, you’ll only have to be snubbed by the prom-queen level crazy.

Ringo hangs his hope on countervailing tech – that the white hats will build anti-viral nano-bots, for example, that can be set to provide preemptive immunity to any bugs a maniac might release. I merely observe something long known in military circles: over time, the means to defeat expensive defenses are much less costly than what it takes to set up those defenses. Two guys with a horse can drag a cannon and blow down your castle walls, walls that took thousands of man hours to build;  a multi-billion-dollar carrier group’s defenses (much of those billions goes toward those defenses) can be taken out with a few million dollars worth of small nukes deployed to simply swarm them. And so on. So, I’m even less comforted than Ringo with the thought of anti-viral nano-bots, and he’s not very comforted at all.

In short, I thought I was half-kidding. In reality, we are so doomed.

1. to recap, for any poor soul wandering over for the first time – the Drake variables:
• (i) the average rate of star formation, R*, in our galaxy, (we can guess – at least, stars are formed in our Galaxy, so there’s something to guess about)
• (ii) the fraction of formed stars, fp, that have planets, (Ditto)
• (iii) the average number of planets per star, ne, that can potentially support life, (Hmmm – ‘can potentially support life’ is a bit open-ended. The only planet we know can support life is earth, so if we substituted ‘that are just like earth’ we’d be on firmer ground, scientifically. But, earth does exist, so, OK, sloppy, but not outrageous)
• (iv) the fraction of those planets, fl, that actually develop life, (FULL STOP: the value here is somewhere between 0 and 1, inclusive – and we have NO EVIDENCE to suggest in any way where in that range it lies. Follow closely: we’d need to have at least 1 example of life arising somewhere other than earth to make this variable meaningful. We don’t. A probability can never be any more certain than the least certain of its terms. Dressing up our ignorance in an equation doesn’t make us any less ignorant.)
• (v) the fraction of planets bearing life on which intelligent, civilized life, fi, has developed, (Ditto, times 100 – now, we’re just begging the question. IF there are any other civilizations out there – and, reminder, there’s exactly NO evidence there is – then we can start guessing how probable they are. But, if we find alien civilizations, the probability of their existence is 1 – and we don’t need no stinkin’ equation to tell us that. Lacking that evidence, WE DON’T KNOW how likely such an alien civilization is to exist. Smoke and mirror for the gullible.)
• (vi) the fraction of these civilizations that have developed communications, fc, i.e., technologies that release detectable signs into space, (Piling on the stupid: once we FIND such a civilization, we’ll have some basis other than gullible fanboy enthusiasm for guessing how common they are) and
• (vii) the length of time, L, over which such civilizations release detectable signals. (Warp signatures, for example. Although Spock showing up in depression era New York would work, too. Pure fantasy.)

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Drake/Space Princess/Lex Luther Equations: Doleful Update”

1. Stephen J. says:

Without being dismissive of the real possibilities of genuine future danger, it does occur to me that there may be reasons to think the odds of this happening are shorter than feared.

1) I have to admit that I’ve always been profoundly skeptical of the “2% of all humanity are sociopaths” gag. Firstly because “sociopath” is one of those subjective terms that too many people seem to think translates in practice to “doesn’t take my feelings into account as much as I’d like” and secondly because I have come over the past ten to fifteen years to be very skeptical of any generalized pronouncement about humanity based on statistical inference; I distrust statistics in general (most people don’t understand them as well as they think) and distrust them especially when applied to people (I’ve never seen a statistical question that didn’t have a confirmation-bias motive in the questioner). If what is really meant by the term is somebody with a sufficiently bad case of clinical antisocial personality disorder, or delusional psychosis, to be at measurable risk of homicide, yet sufficiently socialized that he has not already been imprisoned and sufficiently intelligent and self-disciplined to master even Jimmy’s Home RNA Kit, I think the actual figure is much lower than 2% and likely to remain so; yes, technology gets easier to use, but there is always a ceiling to the minimum brainpower required and a non-accidental correlation between brainpower and socialization.

The real abusers of firearms, for example, tend to be people so poorly educated in their use that they don’t even know how to repair them or maintain them, and who will willingly discard them the moment they’re used in a crime, which is part of why gun-smuggling is so lucrative — the market is never saturated. What you really want to watch out for are the people smart enough to make the viruses but dumb enough not to care who they sell them to. But that makes the process of commerce in the viruses the dangerous thing, and that’s where police forces can be effective, not least because commerce always requires telling someone what you have to sell.

2) Viruses are not stable. Remember The Andromeda Strain? (SPOILER ALERT) What saved humanity wasn’t any flash of genius in creating an antivirus, it was the fact that the alien virus itself mutated into an inert form sheerly by virtue of its own constant internal DNA cycling. The likelihood of any given single-species virus maintaining exactly the combination of incubation time, ease of contagion vector, and eventual mortality (or psychoactivity) needed to create a true plague — something that will kill most of its carriers quickly enough they can’t be saved, but slowly enough they have time to pass it on before dying — is not actually that high; even the Black Death of the 14th century required a big assist from the life cycle of rats and fleas, and the generally weakened populace of Europe following the post-Warm Period climate crash famine, to have as much of an effect as it did. Complexity and chaos theory can work to our defense as much as our disadvantage.

We are, to some extent, I think, fooled by the fact that it has been dubbed “Moore’s Law” instead of “Moore’s Observation about Development Patterns in Certain Technologies in Certain Contexts”. If Moore’s Law is not inevitable, and it isn’t, then statistical inferences about inevitabilities may likewise merit a grain or two of salt.

1. Those are all good points, and it’s similarly good to keep in mind that anthrax and nukes have been around for ages now, similar arguments apply, and nobody has, as yet, managed to kill us all off with them. Devil’s in the details. And my main purpose, as announced, is to mock the Drake equation – Ringo just handed me this cool biology stick to beat them with.

Moore’s Law just has a much better ring to it than Moore’s Possibly Pertinent Suggestion, and I think the principle – that it takes less and less smarts, over time, to use more and more technology – is a valid. If I had to start from scratch, just me and my bare hands in a resource-rich environment, I’d probably reach maybe cast iron, basic algebra, and tourniquets before tapping out technology I personally could deploy from scratch. However, given power tools and library, and I could probably recreate a non-trivial piece of Western Civilization – as could any fairly smart and handy person, today.

This also brings to mind how some people speculate that, because information is now readily available on the internet, that people will avail themselves of it and do wonderful/terrible things, ignoring that similar information has been available for free at libraries for over a century now, and yet few are the people who have actually become educated because of it – instead, it’s people already somewhat educated who avail themselves of either resource, and the easily influenced who use the internet like their intellectual forebears used the newspapers – to reinforce what they already thought and to see where the cool kids are going.

My only point of possible disagreement is that, regardless of the psychobabble and pseudoscience surrounding what I called psychopathy, the traits – no empathy, no remorse, no regard for the truth – do exist in a non-zero percentage of the population. I’m reminded of two things I’ve read: one was supposed to be the results of a study done in WWII, where the army looked at just how many consecutive days of combat a soldier could endure before cracking up – some could hardly endure any, and few could endure more than a few consecutive days (which, lucky for them, rarely happened in practice – as the saying goes, war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.) But a few, a small percentage, could just keep doing it – the study (and of course I recognize it might be simply apocryphal) concluded that that small number were already crazy, that they were what we’d now classify as sociopaths. Killing people and watching people die just wasn’t upsetting to them.

The second was an account of the recruitment of female Nazi prison camp guards, wherein groups of women were brought into a room with a Jewish woman tied to a chair and told by the authority figure to slap her hard. Only a tiny percentage refused – they ended up *in* the prison camps. Most went along. But a few, who in civilian life had been unremarkable, were unleashed: they had permission to do horrible things, and once allowed, rose to positions where only their imaginations limited them. They would be the homicidal sociopaths, and there were more than a few of them.

I’d expect there are at least as many people like that, whatever we may call them, as there are billionaires and super geniuses. I’ve never met any homicidal sociopaths, but, alas! I’ve met a couple of the merely remorseless kind.

1. Stephen J. says:

“I think the principle – that it takes less and less smarts, over time, to use more and more technology – is valid.”

Oh, agreed; I just think that in practice there’s an asymptotic bottom to that curve, and that the real nightmare scenarios tend to lie on the other side of it for the most part.

“I’ve never met any homicidal sociopaths, but, alas! I’ve met a couple of the merely remorseless kind.”

Out of curiosity, how did you come to the conclusion that they genuinely lacked the capacity for remorse and empathy to anyone? I’ve met a few people who clearly didn’t care how their actions made me feel, but none of them ever struck me that they didn’t care about anyone’s feelings but their own (but I am also not the most observant person in the world so it is entirely possible I simply missed key evidence).

It would seem to me that the human capacity for demonizing out-groups would make it very easy for people to look like sociopaths to those in those out-groups or who sympathized with them, but for most people the psychological break of being able to “Other” the person still seems to be necessary. How can one tell whether you’re on the receiving end of a total lack of empathy, or simply a refusal to use it in one’s own case?

2. I’m pretty sure about 4 people (over 58 years of life, so, still a tiny % of people). Having run into the first of them many years ago lead me to do some research (for what that’s worth, for the reasons you mentioned in your first comment). Liberally paraphrasing and summing up: the basic array of problems – no empathy, no remorse, no interest in the truth – exists alongside an axis of social adaptation. On the no social skills end are low-functioning types who tend to be street people or close, who drive off every person who tries to help them as soon as it becomes obvious that that person won’t accept without question the version of reality the sociopath has laid out – questioning any detail results in immediate consignment to the vast bulk of people who hate and are trying to hurt/take advantage of the victim. Blurs into paranoid delusions.

But social skills can be learned, even if you do not have any of the empathy, remorse or concern for the truth upon which, in healthy people, those social skills are built. As you move up the scale, eventually you get to high functioning types, who, because they learned their skills via careful observation, often appear *more* charming, sympathetic, and accomplished than ‘normal’ people.

I’ve gotten to know two people toward the low end of the scale. They had just enough interpersonal skill to pass as more or less normal, as long as the situation didn’t demand much. Under any sort of stress or challenge, you could see the gears turn and eventually, you’d get some sort of wildly inappropriate reaction, like a smirk at something not remotely funny, or massive umbrage at something not remotely serious. Hard to describe, but you could see that none of the healthy normal emotional mechanisms were being engaged. Attempts to say how this all is affecting you, or appeals to objective reality – truth – went nowhere. And it can go off and on like throwing a switch.

It’s difficult to explain clearly, but pretty unmistakable – very different from when someone is just upset, and you can’t, at that moment, get through to them. It gets worse with the more highly functioning types. They not only are better at faking it, but they will use your reactions against you. The literature says that high functioning sociopaths are almost without exception perfectly aware that they are different, that they are free from the emotional reactions – empathy and remorse – that other people feel, and that includes any squeamishness about lying.

And they don’t care. It’s not like they want to get better – why would they? Since they had to learn all emotional reactions, they, in a way, understand them better than we do. This gives them a leg up in any competition or power struggle, as they will never waste a moment wondering if what they’re doing is right or fair or good, and have no hesitation using your second thoughts against you. They will do things, even cruel and vile things, just to see what happens. In work environments – there’s even literature on this – the sociopath blows in, succeeds very well at the beginning, then slowly starts torturing people in a myriad different ways until, about the time he starts getting serious push-back, he leaves to repeat the process someplace else.

It’s like Alfred says: Some men just want to watch the world burn. They are almost never found out – if they are, it is usually family members or life-long ‘friends’ who finally figure out something here is really not right. And they are really, really, good at sowing doubts – you, having empathy and a capacity for remorse, don’t want to judge someone unfairly, and they know it.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone at the very high end, but, then again, if I had I’d probably never figure it out. But I do think I’ve met a couple closer to that end of the range. Took many years to figure out what they were doing. The slips of the mask are few.