Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Disappearing Swans: Descartes' Demon -- the Ultimate in Diabolical Deception

The Disappearing Swan.  Now you see it.   Now you don't.
Descartes' Demon has fog machines,  fake signs,
and much much more to mess with your head.
This is the fourth in the series "Many Shades of Black Swans", following on the introductory post "Think You Know Black Swans? Think Again." This one is named "Disappearing" because the emphasis is on deception to the ultimate degree.

The Disappearing Swans are mostly a rhetorical fiction -- an imaginary and socially constructed entity that is treated as real for the purposes of persuasion.  They are often mentioned as reasons why we can never understand anything about any variety of Black Swan, especially those with "intelligent adversaries".  I'm including Disappearing Swans in this series mostly for completeness and to make distinctions with other, more common Swans like Red Swans.


A "Disappearing Swan" is an all-powerful deception process that defeats any estimation system, or at least any we might come up with.  Here are the other elements:
  1. The generating process has to be capable of extreme outcomes, such as that of the Grey Swan or Red Swan.  Deceptive capabilities alone aren't sufficient because they alone don't generate any extreme outcomes.
  2. Any evidence we might have is grist for the deception process, thus the more we think we might know, the more we can be deceived.
  3. The estimation system is any reasoning or modeling process combined with the all-powerful deception capabilities of the diabolical player.

Main Features

"Descartes Demon" is useful explain the main features of the Disappearing Swan.  It is a hypothetical entity created by the philosopher Rene Descartes, who introduced it in a skeptical scenario called the "deceiving demon argument" to challenge our beliefs that an external world exists, i.e. that we might simply be "brains in vats".  "Descartes Demon" is supposed to be a malicious, demonic non-God that has “employed all his energies in order to deceive me”.

Essentially, it's sole purpose and interest is to screw up our estimation process.  It would have to control the generating processes and maintain complete history.  It would also have to have complete information about our estimation process so that it can mimic any output pattern and change those patterns arbitrarily, use our own information and capabilities against us to defeat any estimation process we might apply.


The best examples come from science fiction and spy thrillers, though they don't fulfill all the requirements:
  • The Outer Limits (TV show, introduction premise) -- Narrator: "There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits."  Note that this is only the premise of the show.  Even though there was an episode called "The Invisibles", none of the episodes were centered on this "we control everything" premise.
  • Mission Impossible (TV show) -- From Wikipedia: "[Their plan] almost always involved very elaborate deceptions, usually several at the same time. Facilitating this, certain team members were masters of disguise, able to impersonate someone connected to the target or sometimes even the target himself. ... Various other technological methods were commonly used as well. The team would often re-route telephone or radio calls so these could be answered by their own members. Faked radio or television broadcasts were common, as were elevators placed under the team's control. In some missions, a very extensive simulated setting was created, such as a faked train journey, submarine voyage, aftermath of a major disaster, or even the taking over of the United States by a foreign government. A particularly elaborate ploy, used on more than one occasion, saw the IMF working to convince their target that several years had passed while the target was in a coma or suffering from amnesia."  While the outcome was often extreme for their target ('neutralized" is the euphemism), the IM team never wielded any power for extreme outcomes for society at large.
  • The Truman Show (movie) -- The movie is about a reality television program in which a man's entire life, since before birth, is filmed by thousands of hidden cameras, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and broadcast live around the world. What made this possible is a synthetic world that was created and controlled by the show's producers. The town was called "Seahaven" and it was is a complete set built under a giant arcological dome in the Los Angeles area.  Again, the team that created and managed the Truman Show and the dome did so with benign and beneficial intent (at least superficially) and they did not have capabilities to generate extreme outcomes for society.  Another lesson from this movie is to help us understand just how expensive and involved it is to deceive one person -- a man who was conditioned not to question or explore.
  • The Matrix (movie) -- In the movie, "The Matrix" is a simulation of the world as it was in 1999 used to keep enslaved humans docile. The enslavers were intelligent machines that were created in the 21st century and have since taken control of the Earth's surface. There's a lot more going on in the movie plot, but clearly diabolical deception on a grand scale was a key feature. Likewise, the plot featured extreme consequences on a large scale -- domination of Earth. But again, consider the resources and time scale needed to implement all this relative to any adversary we know of today.
There are probably other, even better examples, but these are the ones that come to mind as I write.

There are almost-but-not-quite examples from military history.  For example, the Allied D-Day invasion included a very elaborate and expensive deception operations, code named Operation Bodyguard.  However large and successful, we can't describe it as all-powerful in the sense described above.  The Allies certainly didn't devote unlimited resources to it.  The deception just needed to be good enough to wrong-foot the Germans, especially in their resource allocation decisions.

Why Disappearing Swans Can Be Extreme

With all-powerful deception capabilities alone, no Disappearing Swan is possible because it can't generate extreme outcomes on a large scale.  The additional capability to control or trigger a generating process from one of the other colored Swans is necessary.  As the examples above illustrate, even in fiction those generating processes are nearly always absent.

Why Disappearing Swans Can Be Surprising

Radical surprise is the central feature of Disappearing Swans, especially in their ability to defeat any estimation process and to use our accumulated evidence against us.

How To Cope with Disappearing Swans

First, don't jump to the conclusion or assume that you are facing a Disappearing Swan.  In fact, do the opposite and challenge the plausibility of such a rhetorical fiction.  When you deconstruct it, you'll find that such an opponent is almost always infeasible in practice due to limited resources or impossible in principle.

Rather than facing Descartes Demon, it is much more likely that we are deceiving ourselves via blind spots, delusions, and other cognitive malfunctions.  Most of the time, Pogo is right on when he said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

But if you have some basis to believe that you are immersed in an elaborate deception, then you should actively gather as many pieces of information from as many diverse sources as you can.  The more unconventional, the better.

Also, evidence related to processes and resources devoted to deception can be sources of useful intelligence themselves.  Certainly, when facing any sophisticated adversary, you should include these in your intelligence activities and estimates.

Finally, if you discover an extreme case of deception, then it's also a good sign that the likely consequences (i.e. the generating process) are going to be very limited.  Maybe extreme for a single person (even you) or a small group, but not for large groups or societies.

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