Google and The Red Queen – An Essay By Extropia DaSilva

extropia-at-thinkers-20090302_001No, it’s not about Google Wave — but you still might find it entertaining reading! — Gwyn

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”

– Lewis Carrol.


This essay, which is all about the evolution of search engines, begins (peculiarly enough) with the extraordinarily toxic rough-skinned newt, which can be found in the Pacific Northwest. Of all the things you might be tempted to eat, this orange-bellied critter is not one of them. It produces a nerve toxin powerful enough to kill 17 fully-grown humans. All of which seems rather over-the-top. After all, a fraction of the poison would be sufficient to kill most natural predators. Why, then, has the rough-skinned newt evolved such a powerful toxin?

Well, it has a nemesis in the form of the red-skinned garter snake. This snake has evolved immunity to the newt’s poisonous defences and can happily snack on it without suffering much harmful effects. So, the incredible levels of toxin that the newt evolved came about because of a kind of arms race. The newt evolved toxins as a way to avoid being eaten. The red-skinned garter snake evolved resistance. This set up environmental conditions that favoured newts with more potent toxins, which in turn favoured snakes with more effective resistance.

Scientists have a name for this kind of arms race. They call it a ‘Red Queen’. The name comes from a character in Lewis Carrol’s ‘Through The Looking Glass’. In the story, the Red Queen takes Alice on a long journey that actually takes her nowhere. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. And that is what has happened to the Rough-Skinned Newt. Despite the enormous advances it has made in the evolution of toxic defences, it still gets eaten by its nemesis.


Now, I know what you are thinking. ‘Come on Extie, what has any of this got to do with Google?’

Well, I want to talk about the evolution of search engines and how competition among Google and its rivals, plus the environment that weeds out less effective competitors, might push search software into becoming as comparatively powerful as the newt’s toxins. I believe we are heading for an ‘ultimate Google’ and that this will have interesting consequences for the relationship between humans and avatars.

The first question we need to look into is this: Is it correct to say technology evolves? Sometimes, when I have referred to technological evolution during Thinkers discussions and elsewhere, other participants have objected, pointing out that evolution applies to the natural world and not to artificial things.

While Darwin’s theory is obviously the first thing anyone thinks of when the word ‘evolution’ is mentioned, the word itself existed before  he established his theory. According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of evolution is, ‘the process of developing into a different form’. Compare the earliest airplane with modern airliners, or your computer with the calculating machines of the 1950s. Who can deny that, over the decades, most technology has indeed gone through a process of developing into different forms?

As if that were not proof enough that it is indeed legitimate to talk about technological evolution, scientists who study Nature are quite comfortable talking about it. In his book ‘Evolution’, Carl Zimmer wrote, “ a new form of evolution has come into being. Culture itself evolves… In the 1960s, humans stumbled across a new form of culture: The computer… there is no telling what the global web of computers may evolve into”.

In the book, ‘The Origins Of Life”, John Maynard Smith asks the kind of questions most commonly associated with transhuman and singularitarian issues:

“Will some form of symbiosis between genetic and electronic storage evolve? Will electronic devices acquire means of self-replication, and evolve to replace the primitive life forms that gave them birth?”

As for everyone’s favourite scientist — Richard Dawkins — (not one to suffer misrepresentations of Darwin’s theory), he observed that “there is an evolution-like process… variously called cultural evolution or technological evolution. We notice it in the evolution of the motor car, or of the necktie, or of the English language”. But he also makes the important point that “we mustn’t overestimate its resemblance to biological evolution”.

Indeed not. Although biological and cultural evolution are just similar enough that some scientists wonder if some of the same principles are at work in both of them (Dawkins’ concept of ‘memes’ is perhaps the most famous comparison), in other ways technological evolution is unlike natural selection.

Perhaps the biggest difference can be highlighted in the following way. Consider those early fish that dragged themselves out of the water and evolved into land-based animals. You sometimes see this described as a grand conquest of the land, but those fish did not drag themselves into dry land in order to achieve the goal of  colonising it. They were only doing what they had to do in order to survive at the time. Although it may seem so with hindsight, natural selection does not have any predetermined goal. It is not heading anywhere, particularly.

But now consider the evolution of rocket-engine technology from the German V2 missiles to the mighty Saturn V. Unlike natural selection, we can imagine a goal and imperfectly guide technology towards realising our dreams in the future.

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  • >And what of mind uploading

    >This knowledge is revealing flaws in the common conception of self. Traditionally (in the West at least), the self has been attributed to an incorporeal soul, making “I” a fixed essence of identity. But neuroscience is revealing the self as an interplay of cells and chemical processes occurring in the brain — in other words, a transitory dynamic phenomena arising from certain physical processes. There seems to be no particular place in the brain where the feeling of “I” belongs, which leads to the theory that it is a number of networks that creates aspects of self.

    Gosh, you had me right up until the end, there, Extropia, I thought it was a story about Communism, what with the Red Queen and all, but instead, it’s a story about Fascism!

    Glad we got that sorted!

    Prokofy Neva
    Director, Society for the Pluralarity, NE Chapter
    Corresponding Member, Association for Neuronic Coherence
    Secretary, Movement for the Promotion of the Feeling of “I”
    For Our Freedom, but…not yours, with totalitarian ideologies like this! Yikes!

  • Extropia DaSilva

    Prok, I am a bit surprised at the passages you chose to quote. I expected people to take issue with the idea of dust-sized sensors here, there and everywhere, exhaustively monitoring the daily activities of groups and individuals, and I also expected people to have a negative opinion of using neuroscience to reverse-engineer the brain’s perception of value in order to make more effective advertisements. I do not know if such things are ‘communist’ or ‘fascist’, but I can appreciate that some people may not like the idea of technologies like that.

    But what the passages you quoted have to do with any political ideology has quite escaped me. I must be missing something obvious, would you care to elaborate on why the move away from notions of a fixed essence of identity towards the self as a dynamic phenomena is ‘fascist’?

  • You’re not someone I’m interested in engaging with, Extropia, because I view you as essentially someone who is certifiably insane.

    Fascists and communists and other totalitarians try to disrupt and disintegrate the integrity of the individual in order to beat a person down, break them, and take them over. Locke, for example, always spoke of the persistence of the self across thinking sessions, if you will. All the great classics and liberal thinkers have always talked about the dignity of the individual as a whole and integrated being, whatever divisive motives, thoughts, impulses might occur within this integral being. Those ideologies that try to make the individual seem like a bundle of chemicals, nerve endings, societal constructs, blah blah, are reductivist and of course trying to justify taking political power over the individual. Divide and conquer.

    Of course the self as “dynamic” is fascist because it implies that the individual isn’t himself, isn’t real, isn’t whole, isn’t sovereign, and therefore this or that piece of him, this or that “I” or collection of feelings or mechanical actions can simply be taken over — by code, groups, institutions, chemistry, science, whatever – ostensibly for his “betterment”.

    If you have to explain the problem of the individual and fascism at this basic a level, you can’t talk to a person normally, as they are not speaking in good faith, or are so abstracted from common sense as to be really delusional. I think in your case, it’s more the latter, but both are operative. Gwyn’s indulgence of you makes her suspect.

    Good bye.

  • I’m fascinated how you can jump from philosophy into ideology by using the “self” as an example. If I read you correctly, any form of definition of the self that is based on the notion that the self is correlated to external experiences (in the sense that it takes groups of people to co-validate their sense of self; thus, “self” is not merely what you think as “self”, but what all others agree upon what your self is), leads to totalitarianism (either communist or fascist).

    So all social constructs based on altruism and inter-relationships lead to totalitarianism?

    On the other hand, the egotistical approach where self is an isolated phenomena that requires self-pleasing at the expense of others, leads to liberal societies.

    Hmm. It’s worth thinking about.

    And of course, if you wish to “suspect” me of believing in the fundamental altruistic and compassive nature of human beings, I’m guilty as charged!! If that leads to totalitarianism, I have no idea, but I can tell you that I have been taught otherwise 🙂

  • Extropia DaSilva

    …so, Prokofy, you respond to my reply with “You’re not someone I’m interested in engaging with, Extropia”. Uhuh. So your response is, you do not intend to respond. And then you go ahead and respond anyway. Oh, well, I cannot complain since my essay argues that minds are not fixed, but dynamic, fluid and changeable:)

    “Fascists and communists and other totalitarians try to disrupt and disintegrate the integrity of the individual in order to beat a person down, break them, and take them over.”

    Yes, something along these lines is aparrent in the last few chapters of Orwell’s ‘1984’, in which- through torture and bonkers philosophical arguments- O’brien strips Winston Smith of his identity and remoulds him into a perfect citizen of Oceania. At one point, O’brien declares “reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal”.

    I find it hard to believe that this is an accurate assessment of objective reality. But, when it comes to a virtual world like SL I think it works, up to a point. After all, any virtual world exists by virtue of the people who bring their imaginations to it, and use artifacts designed to be cognitive extensions to add to the accumulating content of that world. Where it breaks down is in the fact that the SL community is no single-minded thing where everyone must conform to some totalitarian’s version of the truth, nor do I think any online world hoping to keep people interested indefinitely ever should be or could be.

    ‘the self as “dynamic” is fascist because it implies that the individual isn’t himself, isn’t real, isn’t whole, isn’t sovereign’.

    The self is a pattern that is reasonably consistent. It is not some immutable object that can never change, but nor is it totally chaotic and ‘noisy’. It is somewhere between those two extremes.

    ‘If you have to explain the problem of the individual and fascism at this basic a level, you can’t talk to a person normally, as they are not speaking in good faith, or are so abstracted from common sense as to be really delusional. I think in your case, it’s more the latter’.

    In my experience, when people say ‘this is true’ or ‘this is wrong’, they really mean ‘this does (or does not) conform to my prejudices’. Common sense evolved to model a very tiny slither of reality, but the sciences I am interested in routinely pushes past our mind’s comfort zone. Of course, when we try to piece together a picture of what is going on at this deeper level of reality, it all looks crazy and in violation of common sense. To me, though, the crazy person is the person who believes their common sense view of reality is a perfect model of how reality actually operates. That is the one true delusion that a person can be prone to.

    ‘Good bye.’


  • Extropia DaSilva

    Thought I might include a couple of quotes from articles posted recently ‘Technology Review’:

    Google’s Sergey Brin is quoted as saying “Perfect search requires human-level artificial intelligence, which many of us believe is still quite distant. However, I think it will soon be possible to have a search engine that ‘understands’ more of the queries and documents than we do today. Others claim to have accomplished this, and Google’s systems have more smarts behind the curtains than may be apparent from the outside, but the field as a whole is still shy of where I would have expected it to be”, which agrees with my assessment that search software will strive toward AGI.

    In the article “Cell Phone That Listens And Learns” we are told, “a group at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH, has created software that uses the microphone on a cell phone to track and interpret a user’s activity…In testing, the SoundSense software was able to correctly determine when the user was in a particular coffee shop, walking outside, brushing her teeth, cycling, and driving in the car. It also picked up the noise of an ATM machine and a fan in a particular room”. Here we see another step towards a better understanding of ‘what you are doing’, one of key requirements of improving search software and artificial intelligence.

    So, as the Emperor said in ‘Return Of The Jedi’, “everything is proceeding as I have forseen. Mwahahahaha!”

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