The Smart Cow Problem (and corollaries)

You should be familiar with the smart cow problem, of course “you”, being that imaginary demographic which actually regularly reads these uninsightful and overall useless posts – essentially a universe composed entirely of people who are essentially clones of me. Something quite possible in some post or immediately pre-singularity time, probably not in the immediate present.

Nonetheless, the smart cow problem posits an imaginary fence restraining several cattle. There’s lots of them, and I don’t know if you can call it a herd, or if there’s some esoteric name for groups of cows (ergleflarg, I guess I am allowed to make one up, or at least, at this point I assume that it might be a reasonable power of the writer, as you should probably concur, my dear clones, unless I don’t generally hold this position, so in such a case you should regard this parenthesized point with little weight clouding your judgment of my character – a point not greatly aided by the verbosity of this comment – and even my main point can not be helped by this tangent of significant magnitude). You can safely assume that most of these cattle aren’t terribly intelligent, because as anthropocentric beings (I assume the Robot Congress of 2036 has decided to retroactively include non-biological intelligent agents under the greek root anthropos or has equivalently ruled in favor of some more politically correct terminology), we deem creatures such as cows to be inferior in general to circumventing the masterful power of human (as these fences, at least the ones which I am referencing, the contemporary and very likely non-2036 ones, which I presume instead have been repurposed to keep humans in their proper place) ingenuity (I also assume my tangents are long enough that they require the reader to skip back to the before the previous parentheses to gather the much needed context and should probably invent some blog format which aligns text in such a way that the context is more optically accessible, which also brings up an interesting discussion as to whether the eye necessarily reacts to some variation of Fitt’s law, whereby the eye has a seek time proportional, yes that cool looking half mutilated lemniscate, to log(distance), or if eyes have such marvelous motor control that seek time is simply O(1)). The theory is that we make a fence so that virtually no cows can get through (however cow-tastic lock picking skills they may possess), we have a safe fence capable of reliably containing cows (or the humans, if the Robot Congress of 2036 decides to rule, which will instead probably be a consortium because consortium is a much cooler word – an axiomatic fact which defies, nay, transcends, which I should enclose in some parentheses, but may render this sentence unparseable to a non recursive grammar parser that some future civilization may employ, which would be unworkable for a reason which is particularly relevant to the overall, albeit colluded, thesis, the need to be ruled by any group).

Except these sort of thresholding scenarios don’t fare well in real world scenarios – scenarios where the threshold is subject to continuous probabilistic variation – where the gamut of cow intelligence is quite broad (one of those cattle may be in fact rather the female elephant from the Coldplay Paradise video, mistaken for some animal that it also clearly isn’t by possibly a less than exemplary intellect). This is really quite similar to the way reflectivity (I think the sciencey word for this situation is albeido) on the surface of planets needs to actually be quite a bit higher than what’s sufficient to (via the greenhouse effect) retain a good amount of heat, because the temperature of an object isn’t an exact movement of the particles, but rather an average, the mean. This means that there’s some probability distribution for the excitement of the particles, where some, though probably a very small, yet calculably finite, number exceed the threshold. This of course sort of spoils the metaphor of the smart cow problem, because the entire notion is meant as a metaphor which keeps things simple and tangible to ordinary intellects, and instead, I created a metaphor to an already clear metaphor which inevitably complexifies (Yes, I made up another word) it. Let us instead, come back to this simple and grounded metaphor (the original one – the one with cows). This fence will inevitably fail when an above average intelligent cow has the misfortune of being stuck with the inevitably mediocre cows. Outliers are expected, but this scenario is particularly interesting because the fate of the entire group of cattle is vested on the success of the above average intellect (I am of course, employing hyperbole to some extent as there’s quite likely no reason that these particular cattle are at risk for death and destruction, unless of course this metaphor represents a more abstract concept in which these may be the parameters, and I need not specify or risk restricting the reach and breadth of this marvelous concept).

This outlier, a singular outlier, doesn’t merely lead to a temporary fault in the system. It ends up creating a gap that can not easily close, or makes subsequent opens incredibly easy. It’s a cow injecting (disregard the end of this sentence, because it frankly pales in comparison to the visage of a spotted cow brandishing an intravenous needle while donning a white lab coat) a catalyst into some massive chemical reaction, lowering the activation barrier. The gates are opened, and can not be closed. The Rubicon is crossed, and the Caesar Cow (much better than the Rise Of The Planet of the Apes monkey, because that doesn’t alliterate) shouts Alea Iacta Est rather than something to the effect of third person reference to first person linking verb visceral and universal abstract yet concrete noun (Caesar is home, in case the future robots don’t have a built in imdb database, or if some unenlightened human attempts to interpret this mess). There’s no turning back (because I’ve already made all these random allusions to trite phrases).

Cattle rush in through the newly opened gates, and the entire system of the fence falls apart with the singular addition of one, inevitable animal, which exceeds the designed and probable thresholds.

Sadly, a corollary of this is the dumb cow problem. You may be a fairly mediocre cow and still manage to do the (fairly trivial, even for a cow) task of walking through an opening. But there are those cows, which are so far in the opposite direction of a smart cow (equally unlikely, though in practice regrettably they seem less unlikely), that they end up doing the opposite thing. A cow fails so hard (in the task of walking through an already open door) that it manages to lock everyone else out (those who favor some karmic justice may envision the cow getting trapped in the mechanism and dying in a particularly violent way).

That’s my dumb cow problem.


About antimatter15

I am literally an upside down penguin. No, I'm not a gas mask, which I have been told this profile pic looks like in low resolutions (or squinting). But I have one. Or at least I'd like to pretend I do so you don't chloroform me. In truth, I only have eye protection, because apparently hackers can make your PC explode. Literally. Cool right? Well, that's why I have these safety googles within an arm's length - Well, for that or if I need to peel an orange.
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