Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Parasite

The last nonfiction book I snagged from the library was, well, it was both fascinating and flawed.

Plight of the Living Dead, it was called.  Its author describes the process of zombification and mind control in the natural world.  Not fake movie zombies, mind you.  Real, oh dear Jesus that's disgusting zombies.

Various fungi, worms, and wasp larvae have over thousands of years evolved to the point where they don't just consume the creatures they infect.  They control them, forcing them to engage in behaviors that destroy the host, but are beneficial to the parasite.

Typically, this involves making an ant, or a things that make them more likely to propagate the parasite.  Like, say, an ant climbing up to a high place, so that the fungal spores that are about to burst from its contaminated innards can be distributed.  Or sabotaging the instinct to hide in the shadows, so that the hapless ant can be eaten by a larger predator, which will then be infected itself.

Fascinating.  But the book was often a wee bit preachy, as it took every instance of this bizarre coadaptation as evidence to remind his readers that THERE IS NO GOD and it's a COLD CRUEL UNIVERSE.  It gets a little much, in a comments section troll sort of way.

Still, the book was 87% cool, and resonated interestingly with the manuscript I've been recently working on.  That manuscript is the story of the rise of the machines, the good ol' classic trope of AI waking up to overthrow we weak and foolish humans.  The spin:  it's told from the perspective of a young woman who has chosen to help our robot overlords root out the last vestiges of human resistance. 

There's a tremendous fear of the impact truly sentient AI would have on humanity, one that echoes through the minds of the tech disruptors who now run our economy.  We can't let these systems become aware.  We'd be swept aside.  Or made into puppets.  Or slaves.  We'd cease to be human.

And for the billionaire tech disruptors who hold the reins in our society from the tastefully appointed salons of their 105 meter yachts, it'd mean they were no longer in charge.  There's that, too.

But looking at evolved systems of parasitic control and zombification in the natural world, you can't miss this truth:  Sentience is not a prerequisite for control or dominance.  AI doesn't have to be awake to rule us.

A fungal infection does not control the mind of an ant because it is smarter than the ant.  The fungus has simply adapted, over hundreds of millions of iterations, to the point where it can make a more sophisticated organism do precisely what it wants.

Working with and warping the ant's own behavior, this strange, simple parasite can rule it.

Which makes me think, of course, of the algorithms and processes of our own peculiar machine intelligences.

Facebook is not self-aware, though it can recognize your picture.  Google is not awake, though it knows everything you do.  That Alexa sitting quietly listening in your living room and that Siri surveying the inside of your pocket has no sense of self.

But they do not need to be smarter than us to control us.  They just have to constantly be evolving and improving, plugging into to our fundamental social and biological drives in ways that are iteratively more effective at holding and directing us.

What's most peculiar: we all know this.  It's not really news.  "Social media zombies?  Sure. No kidding," we say, as we go back to check our feed yet again.  We don't seem to care.  Eh.

That strange not-caring, oddly enough, is another sign that a biological system has been compromised by a zombifying parasite.


Guess I should go post this to Facebook now.