Emergent Stupidity

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I recently read an interesting article titled The Talent Myth— about the notion that if you take a bunch of talented people and put them into an organization, you can expect thereby to get a talented organization.

It turns out not to be necessarily the case, but it got me to thinking.

I've known a lot of people at the nation's space agency over the years, and for the most part they are smart, dedicated folks. Many of them pull their hair over the decisions that come out of NASA. But there are also many who justify those decisions. Until, that is, they retire or resign, at which point I've often heard them say something like, "How could I have made that decision?"

How to explain it?

People studying life and intelligence in the hope of creating artificial life or artificial intelligence often refer to these phenomena as emergent properties — side effects of putting a bunch of entities together that interact with certain rules.

For instance, individual ants are as dumb as a bag of buckwheat. They have very primitive programming to do very basic things when confronted with various situations. Yet somehow, when congregated in a colony, the ant colony itself can behave in what appears to be an intelligent manner. Attack it, and it will defend itself, often in sophisticated and responsive ways.

Another example of this is the chevron flight of geese. No goose is permanently in charge, or organizes them into the V-shaped pattern. But each goose has a few basic (presumably instinctual) rules — fly to one or the other side of the bird ahead of you, and slightly behind, to pick up a little benefit of its backdraft. Don't create a parallel line — if the bird in front of you is to the right of the one in front of it, you stay to the right as well. Only one bird can draft another, unless it's the leader. Trade off and lead occasionally.

That's it.

When we program these rules into artificial computerized lifeforms, they will fly in similar V's. No more organization than that is necessary — no need for a permanent leader or organizer.

Of course, the most obvious example of lots of dumb things appearing to be (or in fact actually being) smart is the human brain. No neuron or synapse is intelligent. But put a bunch together, and you can get an Einstein, or a Mozart.

Of course, you can also get a Cynthia McKinney or an Alec Baldwin.

So clearly it's not enough to just put a bunch of dumb things together — how they are put together matters as well. But it at least offers the possibility that if you had a large enough bagful of Michael Moores (admittedly, it would require all of the burlap that the world will produce for the next century or so), you might have a chance of getting something intelligent as a result.

But to get back to my NASA example, I have a theory that the converse is true as well. You can aggregate a bunch of really smart things (like rocket engineers) and come up with something really, really dumb — an entity that would make decisions that no single individual among them would ever make, sans psychotropic drugs. Call it, if you like, the "committee effect."

I'm not sure how to quantify it, but I suspect that it's kind of like the rule for determining the resistance of a parallel network of resistors.

[Danger Will Robinson! MATH ahead!!]

If resistors are in series, that is, connected end to end in a long row of them, it's easy to determine the total resistance — just add them up. So two resistors of ten ohms each become one resistor of twenty ohms when one end of one is connected to one end of the other, and the resistance is measured across the two free ends.

Parallel resistors, in which both ends of the resistors are connected to each other, so that the current flows through them all simultaneously, instead of first one and then the next and so on, has a different rule to compute the net resistance.

It's: Total Resistance = 1/((1/R1)+(1/R2)+...+(1/Rn))

where the "R"s represent the individual resistances, and there are n resistors. In words, it's the reciprocal of the sum of the reciprocals of the individual resistances.

For the example given above, it would be one over the sum of one-tenth plus one-tenth, or one over two-tenths, or one over one-fifth, or five ohms. So instead of doubling the resistance, as in the series case, we've halved it.

It can be shown (exercise left for the algebra student) that if all of the resistors are of equal value, the formula simplifies to the original resistance divided by the total number of resistors.

[End MATH]

Which is a frightening thought, if the same rule applies to my "emergent stupidity" theory. Assuming for simplicity that everyone in a government bureaucracy has the same I.Q. (it doesn't change the answer that much if you allow variation, but assuming that they're equal makes the calculation much simpler, as one can see from the formulas above), that means that the net I.Q. will be that I.Q. divided by the number of agency employees.

If you add the number of lobbyists and interest groups to the mix, you can drive it down another order of magnitude in value, to the point that it has the intelligence of a lobotomized fern (only slightly smarter than Joe Biden).

And my theory would seem to be borne out by the quality of decisions coming from, for example, the U.S. Agriculture Department, or the INS, or the State Department.

All of this, of course, is a long way of saying that I'm not encouraged by the prospects of merging several federal agencies and departments into a much larger (and probably dumber) one called the Department of Homeland Security, and then actually entrusting it with homeland security...


I got very little in the way of response to my cryonics in space column last week, except for this email from Lee Holum:

I have seen articles about cryonics over the years and wonder what will actually happen if someone tries to revive somone who has been frozen. It might be like a computer with no software. If all the programming disappears from a computer, you have nothing left but a pile of machinery. At least with a computer you can reload the software.

All of the research to date indicates that the human mind isn't like your computer, in the sense that it loses its memory if the power is turned off. People have been put into a state in which their heart was stopped, their breathing ceased, and their brain waves were a flat line (for example, in open-heart surgery), and been revived. They seemed to think that they were the same person afterward as before (though we obviously have to take their word for it).

Think of the human mind as more like the BIOS on your computer. Even when it's turned off, it knows how to wake up and load the things it needs to function and know who it is. Human memory seems to be static, not dynamic.

The theory may be wrong, but cryonics doesn't offer any guarantees — just hope.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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