Blog: When is it “Smart” to be “Stupid?”
On a fine spring day, my sixth grade teacher announced that the class would hold a math competition. Two students would stand at the whiteboard, write down the problem as read by the teacher, and the first student to solve the problem correctly would be announced the winner. The winner would stay at the whiteboard and the next student in line would take the place of the loser. The winner would stay at the whiteboard, without limit, until defeated. The rest of the class would stand in line and watch the competition.
There’s no not-slightly-smug way to say this, but after I got my chance at the whiteboard I stayed there until the competition ended. I cycled through the rest of the class about three times. I made no errors and it usually took me no longer than a second to calculate any number.
After I beat the entire class once, the teacher announced that the competition would not end until I was defeated. We would stay right there, in the classroom, until someone could rise to my challenge. We missed recess by over half an hour.
I felt unbeatable and invincible, like I existed in an entirely different intellectual realm than my peers. I was alone, yes, but I had been born with great power. Such, I consoled myself, was the burden of great intellect. I was different and lonely, but I was all powerful and nothing could stop me.
Then the special needs students returned to class.
Seeing the special needs students always gave me a secret, shameful feeling. In the first grade, I had been sent to the special needs room after I had a panic attack during a placement test and given nonsensical answers. The teachers running the placement test had asked us to write capital letters, but in a moment of agoraphobia-fueled paranoia, I determined this was a trick. It was way too easy. Instead, I wrote the state capitol of a state that started with each given letter. Thus, when given a letter like “Z” I would tear up and write nothing, because there is no state that starts with “Z,” but when given the letter “M” I would write “Montpelier” as this is the capitol of Maine and also began with an “M.”
It took three life-changing days, and an angry call from my mother, to discover that I was not in fact mentally handicapped. Or, at least, not quite in the way that the special needs class had been designed to accommodate. Rather, I was only emotionally handicapped, which did not require any special classes. Still, I had always held onto the feeling that the special needs class was where I truly belonged, and that the rest of my life had been a lie somehow.
The special needs students stood at the door and asked what everyone was doing and also why was I standing in front of the whiteboard?
The teacher announced that the special needs students would each face me. It was, I thought, remarkably cruel. Others seemed to think so as well. Perhaps it was even intended to be cruel, as a way to banish mild boredom. Everyone had watched me beat everyone else three times. Now they would presumably watch me really, really beat someone else. The teacher announced if none of the special needs students could beat me, that he would end the competition and take us to recess.
The first of the special needs students to face me would be a boy who wore an all-red sweatsuit to school every day, had once had a single piece of pepperoni stuck to his cheek for two days like a beauty mark, and was at least a little bit convinced that he could talk to birds with his mind.
The teacher read the problem out loud. My hand moved independently of my mind as I began to work from right to left. I calculated almost as quickly as I wrote, but staggered for a moment when the teacher asked me to multiply two four digit numbers. I lagged for perhaps three seconds on this mathematical operation, and gave no special attention to the fact that the teacher’s final instruction had been to multiply the entire quantity by zero.
“Zero!” the boy in the red sweatsuit shouted.
“Zero!” I said, a moment later.
It sunk in, after the class gasped in shock, that I had lost.
It was not until much later that I realized what had happened.
While I had dived into the beginning of the problem, tackling it from one end to the other, the boy in the red sweatsuit had stared helplessly at the problem until the entire problem became apparent. He’d had no other choice, as he stood no chance of working it from end to end. So he had simply waited and until the complexity simplified itself, and defeated me. He hadn’t fully understood the order of operations, but hadn’t needed to understand the order of operations. It was wasted effort to know the order of operations. All he had needed was to understand that anything multiplied by zero is zero.
In other words, my supposed “intelligence” had been stupid, and his supposed “stupidity” had been intelligent. Our “intelligence” was context sensitive. This remains one of the most profoundly important lessons I have ever learned about life, and informs much of my thinking about machine intelligence.
I lost the competition not because I was slower than the boy in the red sweatsuit, or because I could not understand complexity, or because he knew something which I did not. I lost because of those things. I lost because the shape and speed of my thought processes were less fit to solve that particular problem than my opponent’s thought processes. For the boy in the red sweatsuit, the four digit stumbling block hadn’t even existed. He had simply bypassed that portion of the problem as impossible and let the problem answer itself.
I was in no way “smarter” in some all-encompassing manner than the boy in the red sweatsuit, nor he than me. There is no such thing as “all-encompassing” intellect. We were both just differently adapted to different contexts. And his adaptations to that circumstance were better than mine.
When does Roman Cosplay Make Sense as a Way of Life?
Have you ever been in the middle of a book like Dune, or Red Rising,* or some other work of science fiction that has a heavily inspired Roman setting, and thought, “At what point in the future does everyone start to take Roman cosplay really, really seriously?”
Like, super seriously. To the point where no one breaks character even in life or death situations. No one talks about watching old historical films like “Saved by the Bell” or “Duck Tales” in their domus or insulae. No one plays ultimate frisbee in the coliseum. No one brings up going to the movies or flushing a toilet or searching for love interests on tinder. No, they watch plays, or have “mummers troupes” doing fancy stuff in gardens, while they exchange letters with wax stamped by their sigil rings and play at weird house politics. The kind of house you bring honor to, by the way, not that you live inside.
I mean, have you ever been sitting around with your friends and said, “Listen, I was thinking we should go grab some togas, some laurel crowns, get a leather bag with some gold coins in it, and just have that be our lived truth from this day onward?”
Why would anyone ever do that?
Except, in Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio, the retreat back to Roman standards makes perfect sense. In fact, the ultra-Roman future of Empire of Silence is, from a certain perspective, the likeliest future we will see in the real world. When we peer behind the curtain of true machine intelligence, what we see lurking backstage makes it likely that the future will be forced to retreat into the past.
There’s no other way for humans to survive. At least, no way to survive as anything that could be recognized as human.
I’ve never read a novel that struck so eloquently, and subtly, at the paradox of human destiny: to achieve our ultimate human potential, can we remain human? And if not, how can that truly be our ultimate potential?
Intended or not, every page of the novel speaks to a horrifying truth. Humanity is approaching a time of rapid, unimaginable, and unmanageable change. So much will become possible, so rapidly, that nothing will be stable. In that future, we will not have the benefit of eons to test the sustainability of each new paradigm through evolutionary cycles. Instead, we will be forced to attempt the impossible work of refining each new possibility, in the span of moments, as it would have previously been honed through ages.
How long until one of those realized, but untested, possibilities spells the doom of humanity? How long until some new technology is game-theoretically incompatable with human life? How will future humans protect themselves from extinction?
In the Empire of Silence a simple answer is presented for how the future deals with this nightmare of maximal recursion. The “future” fails. The “future” fights to fail for hundreds of years. Because there is no other sustainable choice, the “future” fights to fail deliberately.
In the universe created by Christopher Ruocchio, human society has turned itself to the purpose of slowing change as much as possible. No expense can be spared to stall the engine of progress. It is justifiable to wipe out entire solar systems to prevent a single computer from becoming sapient. Scientists are technologically crippled and forbidden any tools that would help them see too far into the heart of reality. The building of advanced machinery outside of strict guidelines is highly illegal and punishable by death. Nobles, who run the society, are even more strictly controlled. Their entire genome, their whole lifecycle, is controlled by a centralized authority. The Nobles have scant hope of successful reproduction without assistance. Not only that, but the Nobles are granted monopoly rights by the central authority as once happened in the distant past, as if some far distant economist purposefully destroyed free market innovation in order to crystallize society.
In the future of Empire of Silence, the best technology available for mankind’s future is the past. A particular kind of intentional stupidity has become the greatest form of intellect. The culture of a long-standing and stable technological society, in this case the society of ancient Rome, is co-opted by the central authority and used as a template for control. And it makes sense and appears prudent, because the smartest move for life in a universe in which it is possible to build black-holes, or machine-gods who can do literally anything from the moment of their birth, is to force humanity to be too stupid to build black-holes or machine-gods. There is no way for humans to live side by side with the singularity and remain human, so in order to survive humans must continuously extinguish the singularity.
Hadrian, the main character of Empire of Silence, is born into a world where the solution to all these problems have been long established. The new Roman society is in full swing and has been for thousands of years. Longer, actually, than any ancient society of Earth. Almost as long as the rest of the history of civilization. The society is perhaps the most stable structure that humanity has ever built, every bit of it designed to be self-reinforcing toward that stability. Stability is paramount. Change is anathema. The problems the society was built to solve are so big, so inherently known, that almost no one even thinks about them. Except as Hadrian’s story unfolds, he encounters the edges of these problems, and finds that as hard as humanity tries to hold out the deep mysteries of the universe, mystery is always there lurking in the corner.
For perhaps, some other race, somewhere buried in the folds of Cosmic time, yet still living, found a way through the singularity.
The writing is superb, evocative, and of a piece with the story. Moody and classical unfolding into the futuristic and philosophical. The talent of a titan was squeezed into these pages. Oh, and the guy who wrote it is only twenty-two.
Long-life and good-wishes, Mr. Ruocchio. I look forward to reading your next work.
*no offense meant, and in fact, I see a lot of parallels between Pierce Brown’s and Franks Herbert’s explanations for their proposed futures (Butlerian Jihad, Iron Golds, etc) and Ruocchio’s. It’s just more central and explicit in Ruocchio’s proposed future.