Monday, April 23, 2007

Another Step Towards the Maelstrom

Those of you who read Maelstrom might remember what that book was named for: the frenetic chainsaw fast-forward jungle that the Internet had evolved into, infested by the virtual predators and parasites that evolved after we gave genes to spambots and let them breed at 50 generations/sec. (Those of you who didn't read Maelstrom can still give it a shot, if you're up for the challenge.) Here's another benchmark on the way to that future: net bots competing for host machines to zombify, repairing the security holes that they themselves exploited so that competitors can't get in the same way. Imagine a beast that actually installs necessary Windows patches onto your machine-- but only after it's already built anest behind your firewall. It's vaguely reminiscent of those male insects with genitals that look like pedestals of dental instruments: once they inseminate the female, they secrete a kind of crazy glue and spatula it over her genital pore to keep competitors from messing with their sperm. Or the even cooler (albeit possibly apocryphal) case of reproductive homosexual rape in hanging flies; the really successful males don't even bother to inseminate females directly, they bugger other males. Their sperm then migrate to the gonads of their victim, and when said victim finally makes it with a female, he inseminates her with the sperm of the male who raped him. (More than one clergyman has told me that you can learn a lot about the mind of God by studying His creations. I wonder what they'd make of these guys.)

Of course, this is still special creation, not evolution. The bots are intelligently designed; nobody's given them genes yet (or perhaps the coders themselves are a kind of "extended genotyope", albeit a Lamarkian one. Life always hits you upside the head with this recursive chicken/egg stuff whenever you look too closely.) (Hey-- maybe there's a story in that...)

Still, it's another step in the right direction. It's part of the arms race. Only a matter of time before someone figures out that a random number generator and a tilt bit here and there can unleash these things to evolve on their own, without always having to get respawned from the shop.

Personally, I think they're taking way too long. I can hardly wait to see what happens.

(Thanks to Raymond Neilson and Alistair Blachford for the link.)

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Blogger chelsea.polk said...

it is completely irrational of me, but I have a negative attitude toward insects that practice traumatic insemination.

oh, I know it's dreadfully silly to criticize the reproductive strategy of a bug. but still.

April 24, 2007 7:56 AM  
Blogger Fraxas said...

Chelsea: who says there's anything traumatic about it? To what extent do the words "trauma" and "suffering" apply to an animal with 10^6 neurons max, most of which wire its eyes to its wings pretty directly?

Peter: what selective pressures are spambot-and-programmer-skillz 'organisms' exposed to?

April 24, 2007 11:19 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

They're in pretty much the same place as eighties-era Dawkins biomorphs, or those decorative goldfish with three tails and their brains on the outside of their skulls-- i.e., the selection pressures are artificial, not natural (although you could make a case that there's no such thing as "artificial selection" since we evolved naturally and hence all our behaviours are natural by definition). These bots are just disposable bodies built to promote the interests of their builders, and those interests don't necessarily jibe with what's best for the chassis. (Again, think of those monstrous decorative goldfish. They are more fit than regular goldfish, insofar as they end up leaving offsping while the less decorative variants do not-- but only in a tiny dysfunctional environment twisted to revolve around fucked-up Human aesthetics.) As long as coders act as the genotype-- i.e., as long as the "genes" stay outside the body-- then the bots will continue to serve as zombie-makers or phishers or whatever they were written to be. The moment you stick genes into the code, though, that's when I'd expect things to get interesting. Because then, what drives selection is no longer the goals of some far-off hacker, but whatever promotes the persistence and proliferation of the bot right now, in the moment. Variants that forego doing what they're "supposed" to in favor of faster replication will do better that their more obedient competitors, and a-life will be more than a metaphor; these things will literally be alive.

Which is probably a good answer to the question of why nobody's put genes into bots yet.

But this whole line of reasoning has got me thinking about a basic biological principle that we may have missed out on, simply because it doesn't happen here on Earth. But maybe what we observe, what we are, isn't the essence of life but only one example of it. Maybe the parts of an organism don't have to be as, as integrated as they happen to be here.

In which case Dawkins is only right sometimes. Genes are only selfish when they're on the inside...

April 24, 2007 7:26 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Oh, and re "traumatic insemination": that's a technical term, not an emotionally-charged one. It means you don't use no steenkin' genital openings to inseminate your mate, but simply punch your own hole through her abdominal wall. The "trauma" is to the exoskeleton, not to the tender psyche of the insect.

April 24, 2007 7:41 PM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

re: insect prags

Goddamn, Mother Nature is an even sicker bitch than I thought.

On further thought, I wonder if that's actually more efficient than just going straight-to-female. I mean, how many males can these things inseminate? Is it easier to insert into a male?

In another thought-thread, I can't help wondering if there's any creatures (plants, most likely) who've figured out how to do that in spore form.

April 25, 2007 10:54 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

I seem to recall a kind of mind-controlling fungus that infects flies: I've forgotten the taxonomy, but it basically feeds on the internal organs of its victim, ingesting everything except those parts of the system required for controlled flight. Basically it reduces the host to a flying fungus delivery platform. Then it takes over the reins, navigates the host to a high location, and forces it to adopt an inverted position with its abdomen extending at a 45° angle to the substrate (which happens to be the optimum angle for spore dispersal). The fly dies. The fungus swells out into the big bright world by bursting through the intersegmental gaps, and starts exuding spores.

Not exactly traummatic insemination within a species, but then, fungi just aren't into that.

April 25, 2007 11:22 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

PS Found it! Found it! The mind-controlling fly-digesting fungus is Entomophthora muscae, and there's a rundown on it here.

April 25, 2007 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

uh, fucking yikes.

April 25, 2007 6:10 PM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

I found the insect that does the prag thing - it's your standard-issue bedbug of all things.

As for the fungus ... holy crap. Talk about body-snatchers.

April 25, 2007 11:35 PM  

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