Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
(Part 3 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")
...The Lady Sensory said, in an unsteady voice, "My lords, a third ship has jumped into this system. Not Babyeater, not human."
The holo showed a triangle marked with three glowing dots, the human ship and the Babyeater ship and the newcomers. Then the holo zoomed in, to show -
- the most grotesque spaceship that Akon had ever seen, like a blob festooned with tentacles festooned with acne festooned with small hairs. Slowly, the tentacles of the ship waved, as if in a gentle breeze; and the acne on the tentacles pulsated, as if preparing to burst. It was a fractal of ugliness, disgusting at every level of self-similarity.
"Do the aliens have deflectors up?" said Akon.
"My lord," said Lady Sensory, "they don't have any shields raised. The nova ashes' radiation doesn't seem to bother them. Whatever material their ship is made from, it's just taking the beating."
A silence fell around the table.
"All right," said the Lord Programmer, "that's impressive."
The Lady Sensory jerked, like someone had just slapped her. "We - we just got a signal from them in human-standard format, content encoding marked as Modern English text, followed by a holo -"
"What?" said Akon. "We haven't transmitted anything to them, how could they possibly -"
"Um," said the Ship's Engineer. "What if these aliens really do have, um, 'big angelic powers'?"
"No," said the Ship's Confessor. His hood tilted slightly, as if in wry humor. "It is only history repeating itself."
"History repeating itself?" said the Master of Fandom. "You mean that the ship is from an alternate Everett branch of Earth, or that they somehow independently developed ship-to-ship communication protocols exactly similar to our -"
"No, you dolt," said the Lord Programmer, "he means that the Babyeaters sent the new aliens a massive data dump, just like they sent us. Only this time, the Babyeater data dump included all the data that we sent the Babyeaters. Then the new aliens ran an automatic translation program, like the one we used."
"You gave it away," said the Confessor. There was a slight laugh in his voice. "You should have let them figure it out on their own. One so rarely encounters the apparently supernatural, these days."
Akon shook his head, "Confessor, we don't have time for - never mind. Sensory, show the text message."
The Lady Sensory twitched a finger and -
WE ARE SO GLAD TO MEET YOU!
THIS IS THE SHIP "PLAY GAMES FOR LOTS OF FUN"
(OPERATED BY CHARGED PARTICLE FINANCIAL FIRMS)
WE LOVE YOU AND WE WANT YOU TO BE SUPER HAPPY.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE SEX?
Slowly, elaborately, Akon's head dropped to the table with a dull thud. "Why couldn't we have been alone in the universe?"
"No, wait," said the Xenopsychologist, "this makes sense."
The Master of Fandom nodded. "Seems quite straightforward."
"Do enlighten," came a muffled tone from where Akon's head rested on the table.
The Xenopsychologist shrugged. "Evolutionarily speaking, reproduction is probably the single best guess for an activity that an evolved intelligence would find pleasurable. When you look at it from that perspective, my lords, my lady, their message makes perfect sense - it's a universal friendly greeting, like the Pioneer engraving."
Akon didn't raise his head. "I wonder what these aliens do," he said through his shielding arms, "molest kittens?"
"My lord..." said the Ship's Confessor. Gentle the tone, but the meaning was very clear.
Akon sighed and straightened up. "You said their message included a holo, right? Let's see it."
The main screen turned on.
There was a moment of silence, and then a strange liquid sound as, in unison, everyone around the table gasped in shock, even the Ship's Confessor.
For a time after that, no one spoke. They were just... watching.
"Wow," said the Lady Sensory finally. "That's actually... kind of... hot."
Akon tore his eyes away from the writhing human female form, the writhing human male form, and the writhing alien tentacles. "But..." Akon said. "But why is she pregnant?"
"A better question," said the Lord Programmer, "would be, why are the two of them reciting multiplication tables?" He glanced around. "What, none of you can read lips?"
"Um..." said the Xenopsychologist. "Okay, I've got to admit, I can't even begin to imagine why -"
Then there was a uniform "Ewww..." from around the room.
"Oh, dear," said the Xenopsychologist. "Oh, dear, I don't think they understood that part at all."
Akon made a cutting gesture, and the holo switched off.
"Someone should view the rest of it," said the Ship's Confessor. "It might contain important information."
Akon flipped a hand. "I don't think we'll run short of volunteers to watch disgusting alien pornography. Just post it to the ship's 4chan, and check after a few hours to see if anything was modded up to +5 Insightful."
"These aliens," said the Master of Fandom slowly, "composed that pornography within... seconds, it must have been. We couldn't have done that automatically, could we?"
The Lord Programmer frowned. "No. I don't, um, think so. From a corpus of alien pornography, automatically generate a holo they would find interesting? Um. It's not a problem that I think anyone's tried to solve yet, and they sure didn't get it perfect the first time, but... no."
"How large an angelic power does that imply?"
The Lord Programmer traded glances with the Master. "Big," the Lord Programmer said finally. "Maybe even epic."
"Or they think on a much faster timescale," said the Confessor softly. "There is no law of the universe that their neurons must run at 100Hz."
"My lords," said the Lady Sensory, "we're getting another message; holo with sound, this time. It's marked as a real-time communication, my lords."
Akon swallowed, and his fingers automatically straightened the hood of his formal sweater. Would the aliens be able to tell if his clothes were sloppy? He was suddenly very aware that he hadn't checked his lipstick in three hours. But it wouldn't do to keep the visitors waiting... "All right. Open a channel to them, transmitting only myself."
The holo that appeared did nothing to assuage his insecurities. The man that appeared was perfectly dressed, utterly perfectly dressed, in business casual more intimidating than any formality: crushing superiority without the appearance of effort. The face was the same way, overwhelmingly handsome without the excuse of makeup; the fashionable slit vest exposed pectoral muscles that seemed optimally sculpted without the bulk that comes of exercise -
"Superstimulus!" exclaimed the Ship's Confessor, a sharp warning.
Akon blinked, shrugging off the fog. Of course the aliens couldn't possibly really look like that. A holo, only an overoptimized holo. That was a lesson everyone (every human?) learned before puberty, not to let reality seem diminished by fiction. As the proverb went, It's bad enough comparing yourself to Isaac Newton without comparing yourself to Kimball Kinnison.
"Greetings in the name of humanity," said Akon. "I am Lord Anamaferus Akon, Conference Chair of the Giant Science Vessel Impossible Possible World. We -" come in peace didn't seem appropriate with a Babyeater war under discussion, and many other polite pleasantries, like pleased to meet you, suddenly seemed too much like promises and lies, "- didn't quite understand your last message."
"Our apologies," said the perfect figure on screen. "You may call me Big Fucking Edward; as for our species..." The figure tilted a head in thought. "This translation program is not fully stable; even if I said our proper species-name, who knows how it would come out. I would not wish my kind to forever bear an unaesthetic nickname on account of a translation error."
Akon nodded. "I understand, Big Fucking Edward."
"Your true language is a format inconceivable to us," said the perfect holo. "But we do apologize for any untranslatable 1 you may have experienced on account of our welcome transmission; it was automatically generated, before any of us had a chance to apprehend your sexuality. We do apologize, I say; but who would ever have thought that a species would evolve to find reproduction a painful experience? For us, childbirth is the greatest pleasure we know; to be prolonged, not hurried."
"Oh," said the Lady Sensory in a tone of sudden enlightenment, "that's why the tentacles were pushing the baby back into -"
Out of sight of the visual frame, Akon gestured with his hand for Sensory to shut up. Akon leaned forward. "The visual you're currently sending us is, of course, not real. What do you actually look like? - if the request does not offend."
The perfect false man furrowed a brow, puzzled. "I don't understand. You would not be able to apprehend any communicative cues."
"I would still like to see," Akon said. "I am not sure how to explain it, except that - truth matters to us."
The too-beautiful man vanished, and in his place -
Mad brilliant colors, insane hues that for a moment defeated his vision. Then his mind saw shapes, but not meaning. In utter silence, huge blobs writhed around supporting bars. Extrusions protruded fluidly and interpenetrated -
Writhing, twisting, shuddering, pulsating -
And then the false man reappeared.
Akon fought to keep his face from showing distress, but a prickling of sweat appeared on his forehead. There'd been something jarring about the blobs, even the stable background behind them. Like looking at an optical illusion designed by sadists.
And - those were the aliens, or so they claimed -
"I have a question," said the false man. "I apologize if it causes any distress, but I must know if what our scientists say is correct. Has your kind really evolved separate information-processing mechanisms for deoxyribose nucleic acid versus electrochemical transmission of synaptic spikes?"
Akon blinked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw figures trading cautious glances around the table. Akon wasn't sure where this question was leading, but, given that the aliens had already understood enough to ask, it probably wasn't safe to lie...
"I don't really understand the question's purpose," Akon said. "Our genes are made of deoxyribose nucleic acid. Our brains are made of neurons that transmit impulses through electrical and chemical -"
The fake man's head collapsed to his hands, and he began to bawl like a baby.
Akon's hand signed Help! out of the frame. But the Xenopsychologist shrugged cluelessly.
This was not going well.
The fake man suddenly unfolded his head from his hands. His cheeks were depicted as streaked with tears, but the face itself had stopped crying. "To wait so long," the voice said in a tone of absolute tragedy. "To wait so long, and come so far, only to discover that nowhere among the stars is any trace of love."
"Love?" Akon repeated. "Caring for someone else? Wanting to protect them, to be with them? If that translated correctly, then 'love' is a very important thing to us."
"But!" cried the figure in agony, at a volume that made Akon jump. "But when you have sex, you do not untranslatable 2! A fake, a fake, these are only imitation words -"
"What is 'untranslatable 2'?" Akon said; and then, as the figure once again collapsed in inconsolable weeping, wished he hadn't.
"They asked if our neurons and DNA were separate," said the Ship's Engineer. "So maybe they have only one system. Um... in retrospect, that actually seems like the obvious way for evolution to do it. If you're going to have one kind of information storage for genes, why have an entirely different system for brains? So -"
"They share each other's thoughts when they have sex," the Master of Fandom completed. "Now there's an old dream. And they would develop emotions around that, whole patterns of feeling we don't have ourselves... Huh. I guess we do lack their analogue of love."
"Probably," said the Xenopsychologist quietly, "sex was their only way of speaking to each other from the beginning. From before the dawn of their intelligence. It really does make a lot of sense, evolutionarily. If you're injecting packets of information anyway -"
"Wait a minute," said the Lady Sensory, "then how are they talking to us?"
"Of course," said the Lord Programmer in a tone of sudden enlightenment. "Humanity has always used new communications technologies for pornography. 'The Internet is for porn' - but with them, it must have been the other way around."
Akon blinked. His mind suddenly pictured the blobs, and the tentacles connecting them to each other -
Somewhere on that ship is a blob making love to an avatar that's supposed to represent me. Maybe a whole Command Orgy.
I've just been cyber-raped. No, I'm being cyber-raped right now.
And the aliens had crossed who knew how much space, searching for who knew how long, yearning to speak / make love to other minds - only to find -
The fake man suddenly jerked upright and screamed at a volume that whited-out the speakers in the Command Conference. Everyone jumped; the Master of Fandom let out a small shriek.
What did I do what did I do what did I do -
And then the holo vanished.
Akon gasped for breath and slumped over in his chair. Adrenaline was still running riot through his system, but he felt utterly exhausted. He wanted to release his shape and melt into a puddle, a blob like the wrong shapes he'd seen on screen - no, not like that.
"My lord," the Ship's Confessor said softly. He was now standing alongside, a gentle hand on Akon's shoulder. "My lord, are you all right?"
"Not really," Akon said. His voice, he was proud to note, was only slighly wobbly. "It's too hard, speaking to aliens. They don't think like you do, and you don't know what you're doing wrong."
"I wonder," the Master of Fandom said with artificial lightness, "if they'll call it 'xenofatigue' and forbid anyone to talk to an alien for longer than five minutes."
Akon just nodded.
"We're getting another signal," the Lady Sensory said hesitantly. "Holo with sound, another real-time communication."
"Akon, you don't have to -" said the Master of Fandom.
Akon jerked himself upright, straightened his clothes. "I do have to," he said. "They're aliens, there's no knowing what a delay might... Just put it through."
The first thing the holo showed, in elegant Modern English script, was the message:
The Lady 3rd Kiritsugu
temporary co-chair of the Gameplayer
Language Translator version 3
Cultural Translator version 2
The screen hovered just long enough to be read, then dissipated -
Revealing a pale white lady.
The translator's depiction of the Lady 3rd Kiritsugu was all white and black and grey; not the colorlessness of a greyscale image, but a colored image of a world with little color in it. Skin the color of the palest human skin that could still be called attractive; not snow white, but pale. White hair; blouse and bracelets and long dress all in coordinated shades of grey. That woman could have been called pretty, but there was none of the overstimulating beauty of the fake man who had been shown before.
Her face was styled in the emotion that humans named "serene".
"I and my sisters have now taken command of this vessel," said the pale Lady.
Akon blinked. A mutiny aboard their ship?
And it was back to the alien incomprehensibility, the knife-edged decisions and unpredictable reactions and the deadly fear of screwing up.
"I am sorry if my words offend," Akon said carefully, "but there is something I wish to know."
The Lady 3rd made a slicing gesture with one hand. "You cannot offend me." Her face showed mild insult at the suggestion.
"What has happened aboard your ship, just now?"
The Lady 3rd replied, "The crew are disabled by emotional distress. They have exceeded the bounds of their obligations, and are returning to the ship's Pleasuring Center for reward. In such a situation I and my two sisters, the kiritsugu of this vessel, assume command."
Did I do that? "I did not intend for my words to cause you psychological harm."
"You are not responsible," the Lady 3rd said. "It was the other ones."
"The Babyeaters?" Akon said without thinking.
"Babyeaters," the Lady 3rd repeated. "If that is the name you have given to the third alien species present at this star system, then yes. The crew, apprehending the nature of the Babyeaters' existence, was incapacitated by their share of the children's suffering."
"I see," Akon said. He felt an odd twitch of shame for humanity, that his own kind could learn of the Babyeaters, and continue functioning with only tears.
The Lady 3rd's gaze grew sharp. "What are your intentions regarding the Babyeaters?"
"We haven't decided," Akon said. "We were just discussing it when you arrived, actually."
"What is your current most preferred alternative?" the Lady 3rd instantly fired back.
Akon helplessly shrugged, palms out. "We were just starting the discussion. All the alternatives suggested seemed unacceptable."
"Which seemed least unacceptable? What is your current best candidate?"
Akon shook his head. "We haven't designated any."
The Lady 3rd's face grew stern, with a hint of puzzlement. "You are withholding the information. Why? Do you think it will cast you in an unfavorable light? Then I must take that expectation into account. Further, you must expect me to take that expectation into account, and so you imply that you expect me to underestimate its severity, even after taking this line of reasoning into account."
"Excuse me," the Ship's Confessor said. His tone was mild, but with a hint of urgency. "I believe I should enter this conversation right now."
Akon's hand signed agreement to the Lady Sensory.
At once the Lady 3rd's eyes shifted to where the Confessor stood beside Akon.
"Human beings," said the Ship's Confessor, "cannot designate a 'current best candidate' without psychological consequences. Human rationalists learn to discuss an issue as thoroughly as possible before suggesting any solutions. For humans, solutions are sticky in a way that would require detailed cognitive science to explain. We would not be able to search freely through the solution space, but would be helplessly attracted toward the 'current best' point, once we named it. Also, any endorsement whatever of a solution that has negative moral features, will cause a human to feel shame - and 'best candidate' would feel like an endorsement. To avoid feeling that shame, humans must avoid saying which of two bad alternatives is better than the other."
Ouch, thought Akon, I never realized how embarrassing that sounds until I heard it explained to an alien.
Apparently the alien was having similar thoughts. "So you cannot even tell me which of several alternatives currently seems best, without your minds breaking down? That sounds quite implausible," the Lady 3rd said doubtfully, "for a species capable of building a spaceship."
There was a hint of laughter in the Confessor's voice. "We try to overcome our biases."
The Lady 3rd's gaze grew more intense. "Are you the true decisionmaker of this vessel?"
"I am not," the Confessor said flatly. "I am a Confessor - a human master rationalist; we are sworn to refrain from leadership."
"This meeting will determine the future of all three species," said the Lady 3rd. "If you have superior competence, you should assume control."
Akon's brows furrowed slightly. Somehow he'd never thought about it in those terms.
The Confessor shook his head. "There are reasons beyond my profession why I must not lead. I am too old."
Akon put the thought on hold, and looked back at the Lady 3rd. She had said that all the crew were incapacitated, except her and her two sisters who took charge. And she had asked the Confessor if he held true command.
"Are you," Akon asked, "the equivalent of a Confessor for your own kind?"
"Almost certainly not," replied the Lady 3rd, and -
"Almost certainly not," the Confessor said, almost in the same breath.
There was an eerie kind of unison about it.
"I am kiritsugu," said the Lady 3rd. "In the early days of my species there were those who refrained from happiness in order to achieve perfect skill in helping others, using untranslatable 3 to suppress their emotions and acting only on their abstract knowledge of goals. These were forcibly returned to normality by massive untranslatable 4. But I descend from their thought-lineage and in emergency invoke the shadow of their untranslatable 5."
"I am a Confessor," said the Ship's Confessor, "the descendant of those in humanity's past who most highly valued truth, who sought systematic methods for finding truth. But Bayes's Theorem will not be different from one place to another; the laws in their purely mathematical form will be the same, just as any sufficiently advanced species will discover the same periodic table of elements."
"And being universals," said the Lady 3rd, "they bear no distinguishing evidence of their origin. So you should understand, Lord Akon, that a kiritsugu's purpose is not like that of a Confessor, even if we exploit the same laws."
"But we are similar enough to each other," the Confessor concluded, "to see each other as distorted mirror images. Heretics, you might say. She is the ultimate sin forbidden to a Confessor - the exercise of command."
"As you are flawed on my own terms," the Lady 3rd concluded, "one who refuses to help."
Everyone else at the Conference table was staring at the alien holo, and at the Confessor, in something approaching outright horror.
The Lady 3rd shifted her gaze back to Akon. Though it was only a movement of the eyes, there was something of a definite force about the motion, as if the translator was indicating that it stood for something much stronger. Her voice was given a demanding, compelling quality: "What alternatives did your kind generate for dealing with the Babyeaters? Enumerate them to me."
Wipe out their species, keep them in prison forever on suicide watch, ignore them and let the children suffer.
Akon hesitated. An odd premonition of warning prickled at him. Why does she need this information?
"If you do not give me the information," the Lady 3rd said, "I will take into account the fact that you do not wish me to know it."
The proverb went through his mind, The most important part of any secret is the fact that the secret exists.
"All right," Akon said. "We found unacceptable the alternative of leaving the Babyeaters be. We found unacceptable the alternative of exterminating them. We wish to respect their choices and their nature as a species, but their children, who do not share that choice, are unwilling victims; this is unacceptable to us. We desire to keep the children alive but we do not know what to do with them once they become adult and start wanting to eat their own babies. Those were all the alternatives we had gotten as far as generating, at the very moment your ship arrived."
"That is all?" demanded the Lady 3rd. "That is the sum of all your thought? Is this one of the circumstances under which your species sends signals that differ against internal belief, such as 'joking' or 'politeness'?"
"No," said Akon. "I mean, yes. Yes, that's as far as we got. No, we're not joking."
"You should understand," the Confessor said, "that this crew, also, experienced a certain distress, interfering with our normal function, on comprehending the Babyeaters. We are still experiencing it."
And you acted to restore order, thought Akon, though not the same way as a kiritsugu...
"I see," the Lady 3rd said.
She fell silent. There were long seconds during which she sat motionless.
Then, "Why have you not yet disabled the Babyeater ship? Your craft possesses the capability of doing so, and you must realize that your purpose now opposes theirs."
"Because," Akon said, "they did not disable our ship."
The Lady 3rd nodded. "You are symmetrists, then."
Again the silence.
Then the holo blurred, and in that blur appeared the words:
Cultural Translator version 3.
The blur resolved itself back into that pale woman; almost the same as before, except that the serenity of her came through with more force.
The Lady 3rd drew herself erect, and took on a look of ritual, as though she were about to recite a composed poem.
"I now speak," the Lady 3rd, "on behalf of my species, to yours."
A chill ran down Akon's spine. This is too much, this is all too large for me -
"Humankind!" the Lady 3rd said, as though addressing someone by name. "Humankind, you prefer the absence of pain to its presence. When my own kind attained to technology, we eliminated the causes of suffering among ourselves. Bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic conflicts are no longer permitted to exist. Humankind, you prefer the presence of pleasure to its absence. We have devoted ourselves to the intensity of pleasure, of sex and childbirth and untranslatable 2. Humankind, you prefer truth to lies. By our nature we do not communicate statements disbelieved, as you do with humor, modesty, and fiction; we have even learned to refrain from withholding information, though we possess that capability. Humankind, you prefer peace to violence. Our society is without crime and without war. Through symmetric sharing and untranslatable 4, we share our joys and are pleasured together. Our name for ourselves is not expressible in your language. But to you, humankind, we now name ourselves after the highest values we share: we are the Maximum Fun-Fun Ultra Super Happy People."
There were muffled choking sounds from the human Conference table.
"Um," Akon said intelligently. "Um... good for you?"
"Humankind! Humankind, you did not likewise repair yourselves when you attained to technology. We are still unsure if it is somehow a mistake, if you did not think it through, or if your will is truly so different from ours. For whatever reason, you currently permit the existence of suffering which our species has eliminated. Bodily pain, embarrassment, and romantic troubles are still known among you. Your existence, therefore, is shared by us as pain. Will you, humankind, by your symmetry, remedy this?"
An electric current of shock and alarm ran through the Conference. The Lord Pilot glanced significantly at the Ship's Engineer, and the Engineer just as significantly shook his head. There was nothing they could do against the alien vessel; and their own shields would scarcely help, if they were attacked.
Akon drew in a ragged breath. He was suddenly distracted, almost to the point of his brain melting, by a sense of futures twisting around these moments: the fate of star systems, the destiny of all humanity being warped and twisted and shaped.
So to you, then, it is humanity that molests kittens.
He should have foreseen this possibility, after the experience of the Babyeaters. If the Babyeaters' existence was morally unacceptable to humanity, then the next alien species might be intolerable as well - or they might find humanity's existence a horror of unspeakable cruelty. That was the other side of the coin, even if a human might find it harder to think of it.
Funny. It doesn't seem that bad from in here...
"But -" Akon said, and only then became aware that he was speaking.
"'But'?" said the Lady 3rd. "Is that your whole reply, humankind?" There was a look on her face of something like frustration, even sheer astonishment.
He hadn't planned out this reply in any detail, but -
"You say that you feel our existence as pain," Akon said, "sharing sympathy with our own suffering. So you, also, believe that under some circumstances pain is preferable to pleasure. If you did not hurt when others hurt - would you not feel that you were... less the sort of person you wanted to be? It is the same with us -"
But the Lady 3rd was shaking her head. "You confuse a high conditional likelihood from your hypothesis to the evidence with a high posterior probability of the hypothesis given the evidence," she said, as if that were all one short phrase in her own language. "Humankind, we possess a generalized faculty to feel what others feel. That is the simple, compact relation. We did not think to complicate that faculty to exclude pain. We did not then assign dense probability that other sentient species would traverse the stars, and be encountered by us, and yet fail to have repaired themselves. Should we encounter some future species in circumstances that do not permit its repair, we will modify our empathic faculty to exclude sympathy with pain, and substitute an urge to meliorate pain."
"But -" Akon said.
Dammit, I'm talking again.
"But we chose this; this is what we want."
"That matters less to our values than to yours," replied the Lady 3rd. "But even you, humankind, should see that it is moot. We are still trying to untangle the twisting references of emotion by which humans might prefer pleasure to pain, and yet endorse complex theories that uphold pain over pleasure. But we have already determined that your children, humankind, do not share the grounding of these philosophies. When they incur pain they do not contemplate its meaning, they only call for it to stop. In their simplicity -"
They're a lot like our own children, really.
"- they somewhat resemble the earlier life stages of our own kind."
There was a electric quality now about that pale woman, a terrible intensity. "And you should understand, humankind, that when a child anywhere suffers pain and calls for it to stop, then we will answer that call if it requires sixty-five thousand five hundred and thirty-six ships."
"We believe, humankind, that you can understand our viewpoint. Have you options to offer us?"