But what about an effort to preserve old software as software has changed, mutated, and evolved? Where can one find the grand early firsts? In the physical world, we can review how, say, buildings of worship evolved over the millennia through the Darwinian process of meme evolution, structures that show the incredible diversity of such structures: Mayan pyramids, Greek temples, (Somehow I can’t picture an Egyptian house of worship), Muslim mosques, Russian Orthodox onion-shaped roofs, the great cathedrals of Europe, the plain simplicity of the Shakers, the steeples of New England, .. and that’s not even scratching the surface of that one meme.
But suppose you wanted to see the same sort of historical display of software, which certainly is as real as houses of worship: they are both memes. But one is hard tissue that fossilizes readily, and the other is soft tissue that disintegrates quickly and thus is lost to fossilization. And that’s whay software will not be able to be seen in the same way.
Jordan Pearson reports in Motherboard:
Code is heritage.
Software has shaped our lives and culture for decades, and now the United Nations will make a push to get world governments to work toward preserving it.
On Monday, UNESCO, one of the founding agencies of the UN, announced a partnership with the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) to preserve every piece of software under the sun. Last year, INRIA kicked off its Software Heritage project with the mission of collecting software source code and ensuring it’s never forgotten. The project has so far logged 58 million projects and billions of source files.
“We live in a digital world, but we don’t know how it works—what’s behind the machine? It’s software,” said Davide Storti, a UNESCO spokesperson, over the phone. “If you know how software works, you might better understand the world you live in. So, it’s important for education, and that kids have access to this notion.”
“It’s something that governments should participate in,” he said.
Read More: Programmers Are Racing to Save Apple II Software Before It Goes Extinct
Software preservation is a massive undertaking, especially outside of sought-after programs like video games, and one that requires a lot of collaboration and time. That’s why, with the current partnership, UNESCO will strike up a conversation among its 195 member states about how they can work to preserve code-as-cultural-heritage.
“Member states might agree that they want to do this, but nothing will happen,” Storti said. “So, we’re partnering with a public institution that is doing this.”
“[INRIA’s] software is real, it’s there, it contains millions of software projects, so it’s thanks to our partner that we can bring value to the conversation,” he continued.
There are a few software preservation projects out there right now, many of which are run by hobbyists, obsessives, and enthusiasts. For example, a group of hackers led by Jason Scott of the Internet Archive are currently on a mission to crack and preserve every piece of Apple II software before they’re lost forever.
“It’s important to not only discuss the preservation itself, but also how these small initiatives can talk to larger initiatives,” Storti said. “As we see it, we look forward to organizing debates on exactly this kind of subject.”
There’s clearly a lot of firming-up to be done, but UNESCO is ready to start the conversations that may lead to government-led software preservation. And with . . .
Memes stand out quite clearly in this example, and the fact that they evolve is clear.
It’s also clear that this sort of preservation is specifically a job for the government. Businesses come and go and cannot (any longer) be expected to focus on anything other than maximizing shareholder value: profits uber Allës is the current mindset/meme. So business won’t do it. But, as the article explains, it is worth doing. The only funded entity in sight is the government, and governments in general take on the responsibility of preserving the nation’s cultural heritage (which quite specifically consists of memes: that’s what culture is).
In the future it seems likely that people will want to know, “How did we end up in this situation?” and at those times having a record of the software family of meme evolution would be very helpful. Example: Shortly after the moment our new AI overloads take over completely, we might well be curious as how that happened, since no one was working toward that.
But that’s the nature of evolution: no one was working toward bringing about those weird courtship rituals in the previous post. Those are due purely to the process of evolution, not with a purpose in mind. Just as the random combination of letters will in time produce a masterwork, so the random interactions of meme-creators will in time produce the Great AI. Thus the emergence of the Great AI will similarly be due not to our actions’ specific intentions—that is, we are not working toward that purpose—but as an outcome of meme evolution much as the courtship rituals emerge from lifeform evolution. In particular, our minds are rooted in the evolution of lifeforms. Mind is an emergence, a phenomenon seen in various contexts (life itself being an emergence). And with minds we got memes, which evolve extremely rapidly—look at meme evolution since 1700, for example. And ultimately one would expect another emergence, which might well be the Great AI.
It will just emerge, and as a result of our own activity— building faster computers with more memory and figuring out machine learning and how to apply it, and hooking things together. As with lifeform evolution, not all mutations are beneficial, and many meme mutations are in effect pruned by natural selection. But the ones that work continue to evolve in various directions, so culturally we develop things as odd as those courtship rituals. All those working on various aspects of the Great AI are, in effect, parts of it: the cells, as it were, whose intelligence is directed toward doing things from which the Great AI will emerge: not designed, but evolved.
That does offer one possible way to increase the odds that the Great AI will be benign. (It’s clear already that memes themselves may not be benign—cf. North Korea.) Note the environment determines which variants are adaptations that survive and flourish and which are maladaptations that weaken and go extinct. That’s true for lifeforms and for memes. As the oceans become more acidic with climate change (absorbing CO2), that affects how well different lifeforms fare. Some will go extinct, others will flourish, giving rise to many species. When the environment change, natural selection picks winners and losers. The change be very slow, or quite sudden (e.g., the asteroid strike) The effect is a change in the direction of evolution. Evolution is like a snowflake: the patterns show the humidity and temperature of the air at the snowflake as the snowflake formed, so the snowflake is a record of those changes. Similarly, the evolution of lifeforms is a record of environmental change (with the environment in this including other lifeforms).
For memes, we are the environment. That is, we are the hosts for cultural knowledge (memes), so we determine the survival value of various memes. Indeed, in history you can trace out how certain memes arose, flourished (or not), branched, etc. Take a man’s tie. It originated as a scarf, divided at bow ties and long ties, has various small variants in knots, and branched off in various subspecies: the Western string tie, the lanyard, and so on. So if we want the Great AI to evolve in a benign direction, we need to provide an environment that encourages that—and we are the environment.
And it’s clear that we can change the meme environment. Donald Trump has had a very strong impact on which memes flourish and which are struggling. I fear, however, that the meme environment now being developed reduces the chance that the Great AI will be benign for humans. (Again: North Korea is a bunch of memes that turn out not to be good for their hosts.)
The control we have is very indirect, but it does seem important to go a direction different from the one President Trump is headed.
I hope you’re a fan of singularity sci-fi. You may be living it pretty soon.