Here’s what is notably not being said to the young and desperate: you are more than your inability to find a job. Your value to a potential employer is not the sole measure of your worth as a person. If you can find only precarious, exhausting, depressing work, or if you can’t find work at all, that doesn’t mean you are useless, lazy, or a “waste of space”.
The discovery of electric bacteria shows that some very basic forms of life can do away with sugary middlemen and handle the energy in its purest form – electrons, harvested from the surface of minerals. “It is truly foreign, you know,” says Nealson. “In a sense, alien.”
Nealson’s team is one of a handful that is now growing these bacteria directly on electrodes, keeping them alive with electricity and nothing else – neither sugars nor any other kind of nutrient. The highly dangerous equivalent in humans, he says, would be for us to power up by shoving our fingers in a DC electrical socket.
To grow these bacteria, the team collects sediment from the seabed, brings it back to the lab, and inserts electrodes into it.
First they measure the natural voltage across the sediment, before applying a slightly different one. A slightly higher voltage offers an excess of electrons; a slightly lower voltage means the electrode will readily accept electrons from anything willing to pass them off. Bugs in the sediments can either “eat” electrons from the higher voltage, or “breathe” electrons on to the lower-voltage electrode, generating a current. That current is picked up by the researchers as a signal of the type of life they have captured.
"Basically, the idea is to take sediment, stick electrodes inside and then ask ‘OK, who likes this?’," says Nealson.
At the Goldschmidt geoscience conference in Sacramento, California, last month, Shiue-lin Li of Nealson’s lab presented results of experiments growing electricity breathers in sediment collected from Santa Catalina harbour in California. Yamini Jangir, also from the University of Southern California, presented separate experiments which grew electricity breathers collected from a well in Death Valley in the Mojave Desert in California.
Over at the University of Minnesota in St Paul, Daniel Bond and his colleagues have published experiments showing that they could grow a type of bacteria that harvested electrons from an iron electrode (mBio, doi.org/tqg). That research, says Jangir’s supervisor Moh El-Naggar, may be the most convincing example we have so far of electricity eaters grown on a supply of electrons with no added food.
But Nealson says there is much more to come. His PhD student Annette Rowe has identified up to eight different kinds of bacteria that consume electricity. Those results are being submitted for publication.
Nealson is particularly excited that Rowe has found so many types of electric bacteria, all very different to one another, and none of them anything like Shewanella or Geobacter. “This is huge. What it means is that there’s a whole part of the microbial world that we don’t know about.”
Discovering this hidden biosphere is precisely why Jangir and El-Naggar want to cultivate electric bacteria. “We’re using electrodes to mimic their interactions,” says El-Naggar. “Culturing the ‘unculturables’, if you will.” The researchers plan to install a battery inside a gold mine in South Dakota to see what they can find living down there.
NASA is also interested in things that live deep underground because such organisms often survive on very little energy and they may suggest modes of life in other parts of the solar system.
The room of the modern person is stark, but in its simplicity it exudes wealth and sophistication. There is just an iPad and a simple bed or futon. None of the old-time accouterments, which signified intelligence, artistic interest, or a curiosity about the world, are evident. There are no magazines, books, or records anywhere. Just perhaps some high priced toiletries in the bathroom. Everything she needs is on the iCloud.
How long before we’re convinced that hands, arms, legs, and appendages are just bothersome?
The cyber-lords have already convinced us that maps, paper, pens, and even push buttons are somehow incredibly inconvenient and clumsy, leaving us scraping and pawing like drooling bug life on their flat digital dildos. Google’s search engines and applications have likewise taught us to refrain from using our apparently out-of-date and hopelessly inefficient brains.
What’s next? Giving up all thought, consciousness, history, and agency.
Hoarders are the only thing standing between these incomprehensibly rich, all-controlling, indecent, digital super-despots and the complete destruction of any alternative consciousness — and indeed any non-official history or interpretation of the world.
One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us.
Here’s a recent example, Ross Anderson on human extinction as quoted/linked by Kottke. It’s a discussion about how a benign AI might be poorly designed and lead to our downfall. What happens is the AI is given a goal that is proximate to helping people but not identical to (because no one even knows what that means).
The scenario imagined is one where there is a button that humans push if the AI gets an answer right and the AI wants to get a lot of button presses, and eventually it realizes that the best way to get button presses is to kill all the humans and institute a rapid fire button-pressing regime. (This, by the way, is the same instrumentalist train of logic that leads to sexbots.)
You would have this thing that behaves really well, until it has enough power to create a technology that gives it a decisive advantage — and then it would take that advantage and start doing what it wants to in the world.’
And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that
1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world
2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans
3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.
I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.
What if the private pursuit of profit was—for a long time—proximate to improving the lot of humans but not identical to it? What if capitalism has gone feral, and started making moves that are obviously insane, but also inevitable?
For a very long time, the AI dedicated to maximizing profit saw the path forwards through innovation, new products, better living for customers. But then at some point it realized that is had the ability to just reshape the planet in its image. So it did that instead.
Computer Writes Message on Toilet Wall
A group of computer scientists and artists have built a robot that writes graffiti on toilet walls. The research team spent three years taking photographs of text written on the inside of toilet cubicles in bars, restaurants, park toilets, sports stadiums and universities. They then transcribed the text and fed it to an algorithm programmed with machine learning capabilities that could determine tropes and phrases commonly used in toilet scribble. The algorithm was then installed into a small robot that can crawl undetected through public spaces towards the toilets. Once inside the toilet cubicle, the algorithm generates a new message (based on all the graffiti in its memory) in a unique hand-written font. The robot, installed with a mini printer, prints the graffiti as a sticker and sticks it to the wall, and makes its escape.
The head of the research team, Dr Hannah Brown, says that the project was inspired because of the intimate and highly personalised nature of the language people use when writing toilet graffiti. Trained as both a computer scientist and poet, Brown explains she feels compelled to explore what it is that makes human language distinctively human, and that toilets were a good place to start.
"I started taking pictures of toilet graffiti around 5 years ago for a poetry project," Brown recounts. "I wanted to make a collage poem out of the text, but in the process I discovered that each piece of graffiti on its own was unique and sincere, and illuminated the life of the person who wrote it, their entire personality, their hopes for the future, their insecurities, everything. I thought they were, on their own, the most perfect poems I’d ever seen, destined to be removed and disappear under turpentine and an old rag. I wondered: if toilet graffiti is such a personal and sincere act, could a computer write toilet graffiti?”
Despite a few technical mishaps, Brown feels that the experiment has so far been a great success. “Our algorithm is generating graffiti that is sometimes heartbreakingly sincere. The other day it wrote: “I am in love with red head with freckles!” I’ve started to feel this strange tenderness for our little robot. I often have to remind myself that it’s just a mashup of the confessions and fantasies of thousands of real human toilet writers.”
The project has been criticised on social media for being a waste of time and money. “Why would we want to teach a computer how to vandalise,” one tweeter asked? Brown defends the project on its artistic merit. “This project isn’t only about the algorithm and the robot. It aims to bring up a more foundational questions about our humanity. I’ve always wondered: why do people write things on toilets? It is completely anonymous, an art form that is practiced for no specific audience, but for an imagined audience. It is the individual communicating to the collective. In a way it is like a prototype Internet.”
By studying the messages that the algorithm is generating, Brown hopes to learn more about the nature of sincerity. “We’re often told that in the digital realm privacy is the greatest commodity. I disagree: I think sincerity is much more valuable.”
pub toilet graffiti as pre-digital, anonymized social media is a great call, autonomous robots operating as secret algorithmic sigil-makers in public space is just… I just… I… I’m gonna have to lie down for a bit and think about that.
I think, in times of feeling misunderstood or misrecognized, we cathect to the strangest objects, and mine these days is Tom Cruise, who I feel so much strange fascination and empathy toward, partly because he seems so blocked—libidinally, personally—in his public life, but also because he still manages to communicate something pretty brilliant and often affecting in his performances. Also, maybe, because no one really seems to like him all that much, everyone seems convinced that my affection for him can only be read as camp. Which, ok? A friend called me “Tom Cruise’s Last Fan.” But he’s an outsider dork who seems still relentless in his attempt to be the best mediated self he can be. His devotion to authentic performances is admirable.