The Fuzzy Revolution
Bart Kosko preaches a math apocalypse

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice -- but Bart Kosko makes a pretty good case that it's math that will do the job. Not just any kind of math, but an obscure branch of math called "fuzzy logic" that hardly anybody but Bart Kosko understands. Never mind Salman Rushdie, this is the guy we ought to deep-six -- before it's too late.

See also...
... by Paul McEnery
... in the Scope section
... from October 14, 1999

But we're all good western liberals, so we'll try and understand him instead. God help us, that means we'll have to read his new book, The Fuzzy Future: From Society and Science to Heaven in a Chip (Harmony) or, for the slow readers in the class, his recent sci-fi thriller Nanotime (Avon). As he puts it, "the one book tells, the other shows." Which means he managed to sell on the research for the novel, the clever bugger.

Fuzzy logic is the branch of math that says that science isn't about absolute truth, it's just a heap of guesses at a reality that's much more complicated than that. But Kosko also draws out practical applications of that theory. The Fuzzy Future is part bog-standard libertarianism (with a side of Reaganomics), part extropian hooting-and-hollering, part small boy reveling in the Tolstoy and Clancy school of military exchange, and part Rube Goldberg engineering of unlikely theory, all bound up in 100 pages of inscrutable equations in the footnotes.

Heady stuff. But in person, Kosko's a very physical guy who towers over you and shakes your hand like a man who used to design cruise missiles. Which he did. Which makes it a bit worrying that his favorite music in the world is Wagner's end-of-the-world opera, the Ring cycle.

GETTINGIT: What brought you to fuzzy thinking in the first place?

BART KOSKO: Because I learned the power of binary logic -- but then I suffered a crisis of faith because I couldn't find a single statement of fact to which it applied. Saying that the sky is blue, or grass is green, that is not a hundred percent true. The very canons of science say that it has to be not just a provisional statement of truth, but partial, and even then in something of an extreme limited case. Which is a literal counterexample to its own logic.

Let me elaborate on that. When I was 18, I had lost whatever remained of any religious notions I might have had because I really learned physics well, and there wasn't any room for the old God. I found somewhere to stand in math and logic. And this is the trouble: When you're standing at the very heart, you find bullshit. Someone who had lost his faith earlier, found it in science, yet lost a second faith -- that's why it was devastating, for me anyway, and that created a zealotry.

I think it's a relevant point with fuzzy thinking -- if you can't trust mathematicians or scientists, then you can trust no one. You can't trust me. You can take nothing on faith. You have to rethink it all from scratch, including the tools of logic itself.

GI: In The Fuzzy Future, you talk about science, politics, and engineering. Where's the fuzzy logic in all this?

BK: First of all, obviously a fuzzy theorist is going to look at the world through a fuzzy prism. For example, "How do you upload yourself onto a chip?" Here is the fuzziest fact of all. The problem with current schemes in theory is a binary shock, when all of a sudden you die in meat, and wake up in chip. So how do you do it consciously?

We could cut out that little chunk of your brain and replace it with an equally functioning chip, maybe a more powerful chip. We could keep doing it, while you're wide awake. So in the end, you've completely transferred to a network of chips, and your brain is a bunch of sodium chunks in a jar of formaldehyde. Now, that's classic shading from A to not A, just one example of fuzz.

There's also the issue of digital rights, the right to encode your own bits in your own way, so we can take this issue of encryption encapsulated as a First Amendment issue, because when your identity is encoded in a bitstream, you'd better have pretty damn good encryption.

GI: Is that why you oppose Clinton?

BK: Sure. His attack on the Internet, continuing to outlaw the export of encryption technology, and the V-chip looked like an explicit violation of the First Amendment. And he's sanctioned massive violations of the Fourth Amendment -- search and seizure laws -- and other due process amendments. It's also hard to reconcile Reagan's war on drugs with the notion of a free market of drugs. I have a copy of the Constitution right here....

GI: You walk around with a copy of the Constitution in your pocket?

BK: Yes I do. And in Article I, Section 8, it actually enumerates the powers of the federal government. Of course, the Democrats and Republicans equally break faith with the Constitution. They're both hypocritical and I can support neither. But using a fuzzy square here to demarcate both positions, I show that the "third party," the Populists and the Libertarians, also differs in itself among each other, more than either one of those differ from the liberals and conservatives.

And I want to make another point. Opposites, here, are liberals and conservatives. And libertarians and populists. These are the extreme binary corners. And it's interesting that the Gallup poll showed that the U.S. population spreads out pretty much evenly in the middle of the fuzzy square instead of at the edges. This is a good sign that it's a meaningful distinction. If everyone were just in one quadrant, it probably wouldn't be.

GI: What you're saying is that we need both a third and a fourth party?

BK: Which is fine. Third, fourth, let them compete. The real question is not the number of parties, but how much of our rights should be subject to vote. That is really what happens here.

GI: Would you support Jesse?

BK: Anyone outside the system, yeah. I think, I'm someone who favors the candidate who maximizes liberty, which is my main thing. I'm not interested in maximizing compassion. I'm not interested in maximizing wealth. That's fine if it happens, but that's not the summum bonum. Freedom of action is. In that case, Jesse Ventura is the best candidate.

GI: So how can people use fuzzy logic to take control for themselves?

BK: People wonder how fuzzy logic is going to affect their lives, and how digital activists can get involved. Well, almost always, the system gives more power to those in power -- with one exception, and that's what I call this fuzzy tax form. Right now, zero percent of tax money is given over to the discretionary choice of the taxpayers. One percent every four years, surely the state can part with that? Ah, but if one percent, why not two or three? At least every four years, taxpayers could get to dedicate at least 10 percent of tax revenues wherever the hell they want it to go.

Rationing resources is always right at the heart of all politics. The fact that we don't have a single experiment is a little suspicious. It isn't because the technique itself is so inherently flawed or dangerous that it will lead to some social catastrophe. It's because those in power see this as ultimately chipping away at their power -- the power of elected, and especially appointed, representatives.

GI: That all sounds encouraging, but what would be an example of where fuzzy logic goes bad?

BK: I wrote a story called Cool Earth which illustrates that you can't get the science right, because there's way too many decimal points. The most we've ever gotten right is at most 14 decimal places. Big deal. You need calculate it to infinity to acquire "black and white" status. You'll always have the divergence of chaos eventually.

About a hundred years from now, we're all concerned about global warming, and someone has the bright idea to give the earth a gravity push, and move to this orbit a little bit further out from the sun. This is truly science fiction, but it's physically plausible to take a passing large asteroid, and put a little nuclear explosion on it, so it forms a real elliptical orbit flying around the moon. Which technically would work -- if the sun were a nice sphere, and if the Earth were a perfect spheroid and so on, and if a certain kind of mathematical expansion were accurate out to ten turns.

Meanwhile, the Hoover Dam breaks, Europe freezes, all the other non-linear facts occur -- a suicide squad of nuclear greens gets the crazy idea to move it back. Being a non-linear world, the moon kind of cracks up. At first you have a bombardment of meteorites, just at the dust level that burn up in the sky. And now for the bigger asteroids... huge impact, collisions at 25,000 miles per hour, and bigger and bigger chunks, forest fires everywhere, and a nuclear blast effect and finally the big pancake impact, the final death chime.

There's something exclusively based on this concept that fuzz implies chaos. A wonderful ending of the world through scientific manipulation -- and it would work, it would work. It's the kind of thing a guy like me would love to do.

Paul McEnery is sure that the mosquito that just bit him carries West Nile Fever.