The evening sun sets on the horizon. An owl hoots ominously. You stare at the ant hill in disbelief. You’ve checked the data many times, and there’s only one remaining hypothesis without vanishingly small probability.
Ant colonies are intelligent. Not the individual ants—but the colony as a whole. They process information in a way metaphorically similar to what brains or GPUs do, without any of the constituent neurons or transistors being intelligent.
Through a somewhat haphazardly administered battery of tests you’ve determined the colony’s intelligence level to be around that of an average human. Despite only containing about a million ants.
But the world would not have looked like this had ant hills always been intelligent. No, they became intelligent, for reasons unknown, starting this week.
You realise that the world, as they say, will never be the same.
But what, exactly, are the consequences of this?
This week’s challenge: babble 50 ways in which the world would change if ant colonies of sufficient size had the intelligence of a human.
What would governments, entrepreneurs, or artists do differently? Would companies build use-at-home interfaces for talking to colonies? Would governments seal off colonies from public access? Would ant poison become illegal?
You tell me.
Following a suggestion since last week, I’m changing the scoring system a bit. From this week onwards, you gain a star by completing the challenge, and lose a star for missing a week. (Instead of losing all your stars for missing a week).
Here are the current rankings. Great job everyone!
★★★★ gjm, jacobjacob, Tetraspace Grouping
★★★ Mark Xu, Bucky, Yonge
★★ Turntrout, Slider, Harmless
★ tinyanon, mingyuan, Rafael Harth, habryka, romeostevensit, WrongPlanet, Raemon, MikkW, amplemaple, Max Dalton, athom, johnswentworth, ryan_b, Ericf, CptDrMoreno
(Max Dalton and Turntrout answered a previous week’s challenge, but they did it within the last week. Slider and Elizabeth made submissions that were great in many ways, but ultimately disqualified. For motivation see their answers and my comment where applicable.)
This is week 5 out of my 7-week babble sprint.
Last week was a personal babble, so this week will be less so. I chose this week’s challenge because it relates to this question:
What is creativity for?
It might sound like an obvious question, but I want to give one gears-level answer. It relates to a particular tactical manoeuvre that I think is crucial in your rationality toolkit.
Let me give some examples.
Your company wants to make tablets. However, making the touch screens require a rare, expensive material. This means you can’t make a profit from the tablets. Nonetheless you manufacture them; sell them at a loss; and build up market share. Eventually, a new discovery is made, and the cost of the raw material shrinks massively. Your company makes a massive profit as you can already ship the product and have most of the market.
In your workplace, collaboration and interaction happens in-person. Over the watercooler, in meeting rooms, by desks, etc. When covid strikes, everyone is forced to go remote. This prevents in-person collaboration from happening. However, it also makes other forms of collaboration easier. Suddenly location doesn’t matter. You can work with a colleague across the country as easily as working with colleagues across the road.
You want to make a medical imaging startup, but the machine learning technology is not yet good enough for your use case. Yet, you make a bet and start applying for the regulatory permissions. Eventually, there’s a technological breakthrough, and you have the legal machinery in place to immediately start building the idea.
What do these examples have in common?
You are trying to optimise some goal under some constraints. Suddenly, the constraints shift. New paths open up. The previously optimal strategy is no longer optimal. The gameboard changes. And the winners are those who can reorient quickly, or who come prepared.
I heard the following second-hand from a very successful entrepreneur:
It’s important to walk around with lots of half-crazy ideas, which are such that one puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit. Because in a few years you might find that, surprisingly, the piece falls into place, and the idea suddenly becomes realisable.
There is also a similar anecdote about Feynman:
Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
This week’s babble follows in that spirit.
(I previously wrote about this during the beginning of covid. It is also related to the notion of an OODA loop. Johnswentworth also has good LessWrong posts about it, but I can’t find them right now because my chrome is super slow for reasons I don’t know.)
A note of caution
To get stronger, a tennis player might lift weights. They do some motion with the weights (like a bicep curl) and their muscles grow. Out on the court those same muscles are used to swing the racket. However, a tennis player who tried to use the same arm motions to swing the racket as they used to lift weights, would probably perform terribly. They have misunderstood the connection between training and performance.
The babble challenge started out in a similar manner. We did some very artificial babbles, about going to the moon or escaping locked rooms. The idea was that we’d train the muscle of creativity. Then, whenever we needed it in real life, it would have grown stronger.
Last week we tried a more direct babble, on solving a problem in our lives. When I did it, I felt a bit like the tennis player trying to swing their racket the same way as when they were doing a bicep curl. I felt like I went too directly at the problem, while misunderstanding the mechanism.
We’ll see how this week feels.
Rules (same as usual)
50 answers or nothing. Shoot for 1 hour.
Any answer must contain 50 ideas to count. That’s the babble challenge.
However, the 1 hour limit is a stretch goal. It’s fine if it takes longer to get to 50.
Post your answers inside of spoiler tags. (How do I do that?)
Celebrate other’s answers.
This is really important. Sharing babble in public is a scary experience. I don’t want people to leave this having back-chained the experience “If I am creative, people will look down on me”. So be generous with those upvotes.
If you comment on someone else’s post, focus on making exciting, novel ideas work — instead of tearing apart worse ideas.
Reward people for babbling — don’t punish them for not pruning.
I might remove comments that break this rule.
Not all your ideas have to work.
I’ve often found that 1 great idea can hide among 10 bad ones. You just need to push through the worse ones. Keep talking. To adapt Wayne Gretzky’s great quote: “You miss 100% of the ideas you never generate.”
My main tip: when you’re stuck, say something stupid.
If you spend 5 min agonising over not having anything to say, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being too critical. Just lower your standards and say something, anything. Soon enough you’ll be back on track.
This is really, really important. It’s the only way I’m able to complete these exercises.
Now, go forth and babble! 50 consequences of intelligent ant colonies!