Time Travel Roundup

Fittingly, for a year that many of us would like to fast-forward past or, alternatively, rewind and start different, 2020 has ushered in a massive shift in time travel discourse. Time travel into the past, once thought to be theoretically impossible, became theoretically possible thanks to advanced math and simulations. 

Retiring the Grandfather Paradox

Thus far, assumptions about time travel into the past have included the “grandfather paradox,” wherein one’s ability to alter the course of events culminating in their own origin (like killing a progenitor or ancestor) meant traveling into the past involved a poenial internal contradiction. Whether stepping on a butterfly or distracting your mother from your dad’s courtship, the classical assumption has been that if you alter the causal arrow’s path, you could cease to exist. An ordered universe couldn’t allow that to happen. 

As it turns out, the universe is more elastic than previously thought. Researchers at the physics program at University of Queensland, longtime leaders in time travel research, produced a paper explaining mathematically what we can also explain through narrative analysis: if you go back in time and “try and stop patient zero from becoming infected with Covid-19,” something else will happen to result in the same outcome. For example, you may get the virus yourself, or someone else would. Ultimately, something will happen that’s “close enough [to what did happen] so that the time traveler would still exist and would still be motivated to go back in time.” 

Queensland scientist Fabio Costa explained this concept earlier this year, though not in easily accessible terminology. His paper’s abstract explains that “complex dynamics is possible in the presence of CTCs [closed-time-like-curves], compatible with free choice of local operations and free of inconsistencies.” Another member of the Queensland team explains, “Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts the existence of time loops or time travel,” and this suggests that “space-time can potentially adapt itself to avoid paradoxes.”

This is a huge development as, up until now, the paradox (and not the mechanics) seemed to rule out backwards-directed time travel altogether. We are still left wondering why, if it’s possible, we haven’t yet been visited by travelers from the future (perhaps we have), but that’s a question for another time. 

Professor Mallett’s Time Machine

The Queensland work suggests that Einstein’s “time loops” contain the seeds of backwards time travel. University of Connecticut physicist Ron Mallett not only agrees, but has built an experimental device to test the theory. Fascinated with H.G. Wells and haunted by the death of his father, Professor Mallett takes, as a starting point, Einstein’s observation that “the stronger gravity is, the more time will slow down.” Gravity isn’t so much a “force” as a bending of space by large objects. If space can be bent, Mallett reasons, it can also be twisted. In other words, wormholes, wherein one can travel both into the past and back to the future, are possible. The scientist and his time machine can be found here.

Time Travel Simulators Are A Thing

University of Queensland researchers have been at this for a while. A few years ago, they constructed a time travel simulator that “simulated the behavior of a single photon traveling back in time and interacting with an older version of itself.” This provides more concrete evidence that reality will stretch to fit our time travel scenarios. This is the advantage of quantum mechanics over classical physics. One article compares quantum time travel to classical time travel by using the examples of the Avengers: Endgame and the Back to the Future movies. The latter series “represents time travel through classical physics,” where Marty’s alteration of events threatens to erase his own existence, while “Endgame is a model of quantum time travel,” where characters can manipulate events and it’s obvious that timelines are alterable.

It’s a long way from theory to practice, but it’s nice to know that we won’t be incurring any paradoxes when we finally decide to go back in time and warn people about Covid-19. 

Could Better Communication Fix Tesla’s Troubles?

Public communication is vital to business maintenance, and this importance only increases when a company’s products are on the cutting edge of its field’s technology. Why? Because edgy tech is . . . edgy. It doesn’t always work perfectly the first time and customers must be prepared to sign onto some degree of unpredictability. 

Maintaining a customer base requires updated information about them, and regular communication; this reality encourages us to ask whether Elon Musk and Tesla could do a better job containing some of their recent legal troubles with better communication and expectation management? 

In addition to the many hassles and image management problems Tesla has had lately, customer complaints about its products have become more intense. The company is facing class action lawsuits or complaints which are likely to become such lawsuits in the near future. One recent cause of action has been the failure of a critical instrument in the vehicle: the media control unit and touchscreen. In many instances, this hardware allegedly “froze, crashed or went black entirely” while the car was being driven. 

Of course, it’s not enough for the malfunction to occur; that won’t get a plaintiff into court, even if it happens often. Allegations Tesla “was well aware of the widespread malfunction,” on the other hand, will; and such an allegation is quite a dangerous one.

The allegation essentially suggests that Tesla was already aware of the issue prior to receiving consumer complaints about it. This forces us to ask the following questions: what if Tesla had immediately acted to fix the problem once they allegedly became aware of it? What if that commitment were accompanied by frank and direct communication, both with the public and with individual drivers who experienced the malfunction? It’s likely that Tesla having done so would have opened it to damages liability, but those damages would have realistically been far less than those from a class action suit argued before a jury. 

Furthermore, what’s happening presently seems to be part of a larger pattern that’s characterized Tesla. In China a few months ago, “Model 3 owners discovered last week the company had quietly downgraded the computer chip inside their vehicles to an older generation” — a deliberate stealth replacement and public misrepresentation. Tesla even half-apologized for it, blaming coronavirus, asserting the global pandemic led to a slowed production rate that somehow “forced it to ship with the old chip.” Given the outcome — Tesla executives had to go before Chinese government officials and explain themselves, and they had to give consumers a free upgrade anyway — all of this communication and concession could have occurred in a more open framework in the first place. 

And even after all that, Chinese Tesla drivers are still considering a class action suit, exacerbating any of Tesla’s losses associated with this dilemma. Getting out in front of mishaps means really getting out in front of them, and that requires a proactive communicative strategy, as well as an underlying values commitment. In this example, Tesla displayed neither. 

It will be interesting to see the outcome of current local hearings in a municipality of Germany, where Tesla is facing public objections to building a new plant. This, of course, is something auto manufacturers routinely have to deal with. Again, however, Tesla is a different target, because their technology is more audacious and their leadership less conciliatory than in the rest of the auto industry. 
Part of the good faith efforts that companies like Tesla can communicate to clients is their regulatory compliance. What is true of product liability and class action law is also true of Big Tech and New Auto Tech: claims must be accurate, regulatory compliance must be evident, and there must be clear and proactive demonstration that a corporation is not trying to skirt the law. Tesla appears to dismiss the law in many instances, and its attitude could easily be perceived as mocking, or “scofflaw.” A different communicative ethics could result in fewer antagonistic relationships for the company.

Will Ransomware Threaten Municipal Election Security?

Lucas Ropek put up a moderately long piece on Governing last week on the threat of ransomware attacks on state and local government websites, and the specific threat such attacks may pose for elections. Ransomware comes from the world of cryptovirology, the use of cryptography to design troublesome and powerful software that can create “trapdoor” scenarios where only the attacker can undo the damage they create. Lucas dives deep into the problem, interviewing Aman Bhullar, chief information officer for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. 

The piece also cites Andy Kroll’s thorough treatment at Rolling Stone last January that expressed strong concern about foreign elements throwing the election into chaos, allowing the incumbent president to claim it was rigged and clog the electoral system up with litigation rather than conceding. But Kroll’s piece also contains a grain of hope: although the current administration is not fully prioritizing cybersecurity, and the Senate won’t “vote on bipartisan bills that would require transparency by tech companies on advertising spending and make paper backup ballots mandatory in elections,” government security agencies have still accomplished a lot on their own, unencumbered by an administration that doesn’t really know how they can prohibit what they are refusing to prioritize.

But Lucas’s Governing story is really about local elections, which remain a concern because of paid cyber hitters. Federal law enforcement agencies can chase down those bad players after the fact, but there is currently no national cybersecurity system in place covering municipalities, or even state governments. 

Granted, there is a federal Election Assistance Commission that hosts a website on security and election preparedness, but the content is primary advice and the site does not provide much in terms of additional resources. There are articles like “Using your procurement process to improve security,” which ignores the lack of meaningful procurement power for many municipalities in the wake of devastating losses in income thanks to anti-tax ideology and Wall Street shenanigans. Municipalities are seemingly all alone in this fight — they had been on their own through the Obama administration, and are on their own even more so now. 

So although Russia and China aren’t interested in state and local elections, individual “cybermercenaries” can be paid to mess things up, and they have the ability to do so. Bhullar concedes that “the incentive for criminal hackers to target county election offices is high.” 

Concern over county elections was amplified when cybersecurity company BlueVoyant released a report a couple of weeks ago. The report suggests that municipalities across the country vary greatly on experience, technical knowledge, and political prioritization of election cybersecurity. 

It’s important to note that the threat is not in the manipulation of vote counts. The real threat is public confidence in elections, and that threat is definitely already impacting US elections. In fact, it has done so since before 2016: long before the president claimed millions of undocumented immigratnts were voting, or investigations concluded that Russian hackers had interfered with elections. If this lack of confidence trickles down to municipal and state races, however, it could damage solid local bulwarks for confidence in democracy itself. 

One innoculatory force that writers on this topic aren’t considering is the role of candidates and campaigns themselves, and how they communicate with their voters. If it’s true that bad-faith or paranoid candidates can spread disinformation concerning the legitimacy of elections, its similarly true that good-faith candidates can use technology found in services like Accurate Append, deep canvassing tools, and their own technological portfolios to communicate with voters during election crises, or even talk about issues of election security before voting begins. It could be both provocative and hopeful to hear candidates explain election security challenges and also pre-empt their opponents’ irresponsible speculations about it.

Using High-Speed Rail to Help the Poor

It’s no secret that the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in scaling its infrastructure. Now, recent news from China seems to have relegated the U.S. even further back. The South China Morning Post reported last month that “China’s unprecedented railway spending boom,” which has been going on for several years, will last at least another decade and a half. China’s railway conglomerate — the China Railway Group — is state-owned. In August, the Group published a blueprint that calls for another 200,000 kilometers (125,000 miles) of railways by 2035. This will be a stunning 41 percent increase over the status quo. 

The object here is development, and although China’s infrastructure boom has long been criticized for its environmental impacts, railway transit complicates this claim (more about that in a moment) and the most obvious impact of railway development has actually been poverty alleviation. For example, high-speed railway was partly responsible for lifting almost 1000,000 residents of Zhangjiakou, co-host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, out of poverty in the last several years. 

This isn’t just Chinese propaganda; the World Bank shares the optimism about high-speed rail as an essential part of a model for poverty alleviation. As Martin Raiser — the World Bank’s director for China — recently said, high-speed rail is a game-changer for economic development. It creates “changed patterns of urban development, increases in tourism, and promotion of regional economic growth.” 

But such extensive infrastructure investment could never happen in the U.S., right? After all, we’re told that people don’t like mass transit here. That would be discouraging if it were true; but, American voters in both urban and rural areas have, in fact, long expressed a desire for better mass transit. A 2018 survey showed “support for government funding of public transportation encompass[ing] every age group with 93% of millennials, 85% of Gen X respondents, 80% of baby boomers and 61% of seniors in agreement.” The survey also showed support exceeding 80 percent in every region of the country, including places like the Western U.S. with its wide open spaces.

In many ways, support for public transportation is a sleeping giant for political candidates seeking policy platforms that can help poor people, the climate, and those desiring economic revitalization. Collecting such opinions and dialoguing about them is something that political candidates in local and national races should do regularly. Otherwise, it’s easy for candidates to buy into the false narrative that public transportation is unpopular. The long-term trajectory of increased mass transit ridership is shockingly consistent and remains very different from what those opposed to transit funding want us to think. Recent decades have shown massive increases in ridership over time, outpacing growth in the number of miles logged by personal vehicles on the nation’s highways. 

This is the kind of information that can be gleaned from, or shared with, voters and campaign supporters using tools like data append services. Candidates can easily reach people who are among the increasing numbers of working class folks who rely on public transportation to get to work. Just as easily, they can reach those concerned with meeting their daily and long-term expenses and who see the advantage of ditching their cars in favor of buses and trains.  

Of course, voters are also concerned about the environment. What about the considerable carbon emissions that might come from building more railways and trains? After all, the climate crisis hurts poor people the most. But Raiser also points out that biting the bullet on train development now means potentially large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Mass transit is one of the best ways to meet people’s needs and achieve massive carbon reductions at the same time.

The Indelible Influence of Asimov: Apple’s Streaming Service Debuts Foundation

It has inspired innovations in sociology and psychology. It has sparked the imagination of liberals like Paul Krugman and conservatives like Newt Gingrich. It even shares credit (or blame) for some of Elon Musk’s innovations. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is, arguably, one of the most influential literary creations in history. And now, it’s finally going on screen. Two prior attempts to put the series on the big screen — in 1998 and 2008 respectively — failed. But the new TV series, first grabbed up (and later abandoned) by HBO began development in 2014, and will finally debut via Apple TV+. Apple TV+ doesn’t have a whole lot of content yet, but the Foundation acquisition will help define the service. 

Asimov’s iconic series, the winner of a one-time-only Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” concerns a mathematician — Hari Seldon — who predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire, its descent into a 30,000 year-long dark age, and the formation of a second empire. Seldon achieves this prediction using statistical analysis of mass occurrences–essentially “big data,” as we would call it now. In response to these predictions, and foreseeing a destructive anti-intellectualism accompanying the fall of his empire, Seldon creates “foundations” of scientists and engineers on opposite ends of the galaxy as seeds for the new empire. 

The premise is almost wholly unique in science fiction and literature in general. At the very least, it’s one of the most original and nuanced story premises around. The premise inspired an initial series, then a collection of preludes and sequels, and eventually spinoffs and variations by other authors. It was apparently a challenge to put it on the screen in the right way. Apple is using Troy Studios in Limerick, Ireland, to complete the ten episodes of the series. 

One thing this production has going for it is that some of the producers already have strong sci-fi and fantasy credentials, the most notable of whom is David S. Goyer, who previously worked on The Dark Knight. Josh Friedman, who left the project earlier this year but will retain executive producer credit, also headed up the Sarah Connor Chronicles series. Jonah Nolan of Interstellar was first tapped to write the series. 

Of course, none of those productions capture the conceptual scope of Foundation. In a strange way, the closest analog to Asimov’s work is Douglas Adams’ satirical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and comparison to Asimov there is self-consciously obvious. The key to that comparison lies in each author’s use (Asimov first and Adams in satire) of the Encyclopedia Galactica — an encyclopedia containing all knowledge in the known galaxy. Carl Sagan has a chapter in Cosmos dedicated to the concept, and Adams contrasts it with the more user-friendly Hitchhiker’s Guide. 

Back in 2014, when HBO first announced its intent to produce the series, Mark Strauss at Gizmodo described the significance of the project. What is fascinating about Foundation, Strauss wrote, is that it both epitomizes and defies science fiction as a genre. Although it’s a story of the “fall and rise of future galactic empires” the story “contains virtually none of the usual tropes that are associated with science fiction.” There are no aliens even though the characters are found across an entire galaxy. Society is neither utopian nor dystopian. The faster-than-light technology and other technological advances act “as the background, not the driver, of the plot.” 

Foundation’s psychohistorical theme is enduring and has influenced writers, musicians, social scientists, politicians, and others. While it’s doubtful that a television adaptation will do justice to the depth of its themes, I’m going to watch with an open mind.

The Impact of Ancient Encryption

Communication is an essential part of humanity, and, presumably, we need to be honest in most of our communicative acts in order for society to function. Yet, dishonest communication has often been a driver of history, and systemic communicative dishonesty — like encryption and cryptography — has been around for millennia. In fact, the development of this practice in the ancient world and humanity’s continuous engagement in it can be seen as a testament to the ingenuity and intellectual capacity of human thinking. 

Discussions of ancient cryptology consistently reference the “Caesar shift,” but cryptographic symbol-making and code breaking happened long before Caesar. These were done to protect the commercial secrets of craftsmen and merchants, rather than exclusively for warfare. For example, a clay tablet in Mesopotamia from around 1500 BC encrypted a secret recipe for pottery glaze. The Kama Sutra includes information for secret cryptography between lovers, something that contemporary politicians may want to make use of. 

Still, military use seems to be the main purpose for the growth of cryptography in the ancient world. Take the Caesar shift, a monoalphabetic substitution code. It simply called for a shift of three letters; in English, A becomes D, B becomes E, Z becomes C, and so on. Although it seems obvious now, “the shift” — or Caesar cipher — served its purpose for hundreds of years, likely because many enemy troops were illiterate and even the most learned officers and analysts may not have had sophisticated enough command of enemy language to know what characters made up a foreign alphabet.

Around 800 A.D., Arab mathematician and philosopher Al-Kindi developed the technique of frequency analysis, forever cracking Caesar cyphers. Still, shifting letters could work, it seemed, if the shifts were not of a simple-minded consistency.  Enter the polyalphabetic encryption method: the first letter of a message could use one shift. The second could use another shift, and so on. Frequency analysis would be capable of breaking these codes too, but doing so would take much longer. This cat-and-mouse game between frequency analysis and symbol-shifting would become the trans-historical theme of symbol-based cryptography. 

Another step in the evolution of cryptography was the homophonic substitution cipher, which replaced alphabetic systems with non-alphabetic symbols. This technique is thought to have originated in the fourteenth century. Like the polyalphabetic variant of substitution, homophonic systems could also vary; this time, however, the variations themselves would be varied, with high-frequency letters having greater variations than low-frequency. For example, if the letter S is a commonly used letter, the code would create different substitutions for S in the first instance, the second instance, etc. This created yet another challenge for frequency analysis, and the cat-and-mouse game of encryption and decryption continued.  

By WWII, complex and temporally variable substitution cyphers (codes changed each day) were testing the limits of computers. The machines would have to slowly calculate tens of thousands of combinations, in the hopes of cracking codes within 24-hour cycles in order to gather bits of information. Meanwhile, revolutionary digital and sound-based encoding were changing the entire nature of secret communication through pulse-code modulation

Today, we still rely on encryption, and encrypt everything from secret non-state currencies to personal data. Managing data is, therefore, an essential aspect of our lives. 

Despite the frequency of dishonest communication and the relevance of such communication to the functioning and dynamism of human society, only a tiny percentage of humans actually understand the processes of encryption. It’s fun, regardless, to see the thread running from rudimentary symbolic manipulation in Mesopotamia or the Roman Empire to pulse-code modulation for verbal and audio encryption to the locked (and sometimes unlocked) encrypted currencies of today. The common denominator is substitution — the (dishonest) gesture of making a symbol mean something that’s not what it says. 

Sci-Fi Pets Roundup

In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin includes dogs in his list of essentials for a good life. “There are,” he writes, “three faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.” In many science fiction scenarios, spouses and money are in short supply, but pets — either of a traditional earthling or exotic alien nature — are more common. An animal companion might save the main characters’ lives, provide comic relief, or stumble upon a clue or revelation that changes the course of the plot. 

Below, you’ll find a small list of memorable science fiction and fantasy pets. I’ve tried to keep it to creatures that are not intellectual peers to the protagonists (so no Blood from “A Boy and His Dog” even though that canine is intriguing), because I want to preserve something of the pet relationship. Some of these pets are earthlings, some are not, and some are in a class of their own. 

First we have Willis the Bouncer from Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read a little about Willis, and watch a clip from the Fox animated miniseries of Heinlein’s book, here. Bouncers are furry ball-like creatures that are alternatively adorable and weird (they can also extend out certain appendages so they aren’t just fur-balls like tribbles). Their most endearing (and plot-developing) trait in the book is their mimicry. They can memorize and recite entire conversations, which is instrumental to the book’s protagonists stumbling upon other characters’ conspiratorial machinations. 

Our second example is more fantasy than science fiction and, perhaps, more horror-comedy than anything else. Zero, the ghost dog from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is quite adorable, very faithful and, above all, cheerful. His cheer is much needed by Jack the Pumpkin King, who faces an existential crisis that constitutes the primary storyline.  Zero is noteworthy, I think, because he is undead, but still endearing — an important character in a film whose uniqueness stems from establishing the sheer everyday normality of an entire community of the undead.

Next, we have the roach — yes, cockroach — from Disney’s animated sci-fi feature-length film Wall-E. The roach is mildly adorable — which is translated to the audience through its actions and connections to the robot Wall-E. This persona also relies on the cliche that if civilization ever collapses, cockroaches will play a prominent role in post-civ management. They do, after all, survive everything. This particular pet gets shot and smashed up, and still manages to survive. The roach also facilitates the relationship between Wall-E and Eve, in this way providing a degree of practicality and necessity to their existence as far as the plot is concerned. 

Finally, we have Samantha, the beloved German Shepherd from I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic film based on the novel of the same name. Neville, the main character, is a mostly-lone survivor of a global virus, working to develop a cure for the disease. Samantha  helps Neville with hunting for food and staving off hives of mutants. She dies a tragic, heroic death in the story, which brings emotion and humanity — as is the case with most pets in storylines — to the story

Although some of these pets challenge French author Colette’s famous quote that “our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet,” they each still prove to be the perfect companions to often reluctant heroes. So let’s raise a glass to the pets of science fiction

Are We In A Videogame, Or Something Else?

A prominent theme in both science fiction and advanced physics is the possibility that our lives are not truly our lives, that everything we thought was true was an elaborate lie—that this reality is not what we think it is. The most popular articulation of that theme is that we are part of a scientific experiment, a simulation. 

Even before the Matrix science fiction series, the idea that humans were experiments or simulations took hold in short stories and novels (it was the twist of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). But things got interesting last year, when Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrum published a paper arguing for three possible explanations of reality, one of which suggested that since advanced civilizations would have the ability to create many simulations of reality, there would be more simulated worlds than non-simulated worlds, and thus there was a good possibility we were living in a simulated one. The same year, 2019, computer scientist Rizwan Vok published a book with the provocative title The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics, and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In A Video Game. 

The argument even got a creative boost from Elon Musk who, when he wasn’t freaking out about the apocalyptic potential of artificial life, was pontificating that we’ve gone from unsophisticated games like Pong to “photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year. Soon we’ll have virtual reality, augmented reality.” And, he continues, given the billions of combinations of video game setups using such realistic technology, “it would seem to follow that the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” Not a precise or even cogent argument, but one that points out the reasonability of doubting our own authenticity. 

The “we’re in a video game” hypothesis has one big problem: Why? This is what physicist Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth asks regarding Bostrum’s articulation of the argument. Why would an advanced society run a simulation about a less-advanced society? Anything they could learn from doing so could be gleaned in more efficient ways. So if we’re concerned about the motives of third party actors—or simulators—then we are likely to find the hypothesis inadequate. 

In fact, both Musk and Gleiser ignore an important additional possibility: That we may be in a sort of simulation, but it’s a simulation of the premodern, not the postmodern. We could be characters in a psychedelic vision: a dream-state induced by mushrooms or other psychedelics. What’s more—that collective vision could be quantum. 

How do you figure? Well, psilocybin produces a brain-state like the brain-state of actual dreaming. Another naturally-occurring chemical, DMT, creates visual hallucinations that are almost universally described as trips into alternate reality or dimensions, like elaborate dreams.  So call this the dream hypothesis: our lives are psychedelic dreams featuring ourselves and others as characters. Maybe we’re all having hallucinations; maybe we are the hallucinations. 

Where does quantum reality come in? Quantum reality is very much like a dream, and some of the more dream-like, un-logical facets of advanced quantum theory, like form-shifting neutrinos capable of having two identities at once, a common dream phenomena. At least one thinker believes dreams may be interactions between quantum parallel worlds. 

For some reason, the psychedelic quantum dream hypothesis sits better with me than the “we’re inside some alien’s PlayStation” hypothesis, and not because, as Terrance McKenna would have put it, mushrooms take us back to the premodern in order to push us forward into the postmodern. What mainly inspires me about the dream hypothesis is how easily it could descend into a (hopefully) delightful chaos, like the scene in the animated movie Rarg where, having discovered the kingdom inhabited by the characters was a sleeping man’s dream, everyone begins turning into pink flamingos. 

Furry, Feathered or Otherwise Non-Human Electoral Candidates in Fact and Fiction

Humans have been imagining non-human animals as human for at least 40,000 years and probably longer. The “Lion-Human” of Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany is 32,000 years old. We have invented non-human beings who stand for human traits, and anthropomorphized imaginary animals. We have even integrated non-human animals into human activities (think of all the driving dog anecdotes and don’t laugh but there are projects underway to teach dogs to drive) as a way of deconstructing the supposed human-centric complexities that make humans uniquely equipped to run the world. As long as there has been political satire, satirists have portrayed the fallibility of human political activity through the lens of non-human animals, free to exaggerate the gestures and tendencies we find irritating in each other as political agents. 

In the real world, and just confining the phenomena to the United States (there are numerous instances elsewhere), many localities appear open to non-human municipal leadership. A black lab was elected mayor of Sunol, California in 1981; a golden retriever won the same position for life in Idyllwild, California in 2014; not to be outdone, a cat won the mayorship of Omena, Michigan in 2018. In 2019 in Fair Haven, Vermont, the mayoral contest came down to a Nubian goat and a Samoyed dog, and the goat won by two votes. Party-level elections have animal attraction as well: a mule named Boston Curtis won a Republican precinct seat in Washington in 1938–unanimously, 51 votes to zero.

There have been many more nonhuman candidates than electeds. Given how easy it would be to exclude these beings from ballots legislatively, one could conclude that municipalities’ acceptance of the occasional canine mayor (or in the case of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, canine mayors in perpetuity since 1998) serve as a performative critique of politics taking itself too seriously. 

While non-human electeds in the real world may serve as satire for the political process, in children’s literature, many anthropomorphized animals have served as learning devices and satirical targets centered around the personalities of the candidates and the complexities of holding elected office. There’s President Squid, by Aaron Reynolds (illustrated by Sarah Varon), about a cephalopod who is the epitome of egotistical candidates (reason number four: presidents love to talk, and Squid talks all the time). And Paul Czajak’s Monster Needs Your Vote (illustrated by Wendy Grieb) offers up an animal pol with good intentions, who changes his platform in response to other people’s feedback, to focus more on education and literacy.

But ruling the pond is definitely the 2004 book Duck for President, by the acclaimed Click, Clack, Moo team of writer Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin. Duck gets fed up with what he perceives as Farmer Brown’s autocratic rule and decides to run for leader of the farm. Because no self-respecting duck would run for office without doing some research, he visits his mayor and governor’s offices, then the White House. He returns having decided that serving in office is too much work, all complexity and no fun. First Lady Laura Bush read this book to children on the White House lawn in 2007. This was not perceived as ironic by anyone.

Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: “There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.” The history of animals in American electoralism in fact and fiction suggests that this may not always be due to assumptions of our own superiority.

Robots May Gain The Right to Vote, But Can They Electioneer?

This is not about the potential of Android phones to facilitate voting. It’s about whether the other kind of android⁠—the artificially intelligent robot type⁠—would not only have the abstract right to vote, but would have the potential to be a full participant in the electoral process. To “electioneer” means to actively participate in campaigning (or at least passively do so through the wearing of buttons or whatnot–but let’s talk about active campaigning).  

More than a bit has been written about android voting rights. The basic argument is based not simply on AI robots becoming more like humans, but on the progressively thinning line between robots and humans, in bodies as well as minds. But the position on the robot mind is still important. Leading AI scientist Ray Kurzweil says robots will gain “consciousness” by 2029. Elon Musk wants to ensure that such conscious artificial beings are “friendly.” Perhaps extending voting rights would be an acceptable olive branch. Whatever one considers to be the main arguments for and against AI robot suffrage, we’ve heard the case made. 

But there are two other questions. The less predictable one, but more relevant to those of us who work in campaigns, is whether AI robots would be involved in campaigning in addition to simply voting. It’s an extension of that right, though: although there are instances (including the increasingly controversial policies of some states to disenfranchise felons) in which one may not vote but still might choose to campaign, philosophically the right to vote generates the enthusiasm and interest of the citizen in campaigning. Will campaigns be able to hire robot consultants? Welcome robot volunteers? 

The immediate objection is that an AI unit with a quantum processor could make all sorts of predictions pertaining to voter geographies or demographics. It could also develop strategic microtargeting algorithms similar to those practiced by politicians around the world since 2016, techniques that have basically bypassed the deliberative process of campaigning to spread negative messaging, disinformation, and more, overwhelming the ability of fact-checkers to scrutinize campaign messages.  Of course, if nations were to pass laws prohibiting data-driven social media microtargeting, they would presumably also prohibit robots from doing it. Other than that scenario, we may be looking to a future where candidates could recruit armies of robot volunteers who could go door-to-door without getting tired, keep making phone calls without wanting to stab themselves in the ears after 2 hours, and so on. 

The more predictable question is whether androids could run for office. Isaac Asimov published a short story, “Evidence,” about allegations that a politician and mayoral candidate named Stephen Byerly is actually a robot. But Asimov doesn’t resolve the question of whether the laws existing in his universe (which prohibit robots running in elections) are just or unjust. Instead, Byerly’s identity is never completely resolved, but some characters speculate that android elected officials would not be a bad thing. 
Of course Asimov’s three laws of robotics effectively undermine any feasible scenario of robots running for office. In particular, the imperative that a robot must obey human beings’ orders would strip a robotic leader of any effective agency or leadership ability. At the very least, any scenario involving robots as elected officials requires jettisoning Asimov’s laws. And I suspect that the “following orders” law will be hard for those of us in the real world to let go of as we move closer to autonomous AI.  It appears more likely that robots, when they develop consciousness, will make themselves useful helping human candidates win, rather than trying to win office themselves–unless some kind of robot-proletarian revolt comes to pass.