Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems

From the introduction to a book that was my companion for some years: Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems by John H. Holland.  

How does evolution produce increasing fit organisms in environments which are highly uncertain for individual organisms?

What kinds of economic plan can upgrade an economy's performance in spite of the fact that relevant economic data and utility measures must be obtained as the economy develops?

How does an organism use its experience to modify its behavior in beneficial ways (i.e. how does it learn or "adapt under sensory guidance")?

How can computers be programmed so that problem-solving capabilities are built up by specifying "what is to be done" rather than "how to do it"?

What control procedures can improve the efficiency of an ongoing process, when details of changing component interactions must be compiled and used concurrently?

Though these questions come from very different areas, it is striking how much they have in common.  Each involves a problem of optimization made difficult by substantial complexity and uncertainty.  The complexity makes discovery of the optimum a long, perhaps never-to-be-completed task, so the best among tested options must be exploited at every step.  At the same time, the uncertainties must be reduced rapidly, so that knowledge of available options increase rapidly.  More succinctly, information must be exploited as acquired so that performance improves apace.  Problems with these characteristics are even more pervasive than the questions above would indicate.  They occur at critical points in fields as diverse as evolution, ecology psychology, economic planning, control, artificial intelligence, computational mathematics, sampling, and inference.

The subject of this post is nothing so lofty as those listed above.  Rather, it is just the very worldly subject of prostitution in Hong Kong.  This is an example of adaptability.  There is a Chinese saying: 道高一尺, 魔高一丈, which means that when the forces of good goes up one foot, the forces of evil will figure out a way to go up by ten feet.  Thus, it is always a game of cat-and-mouse between the police and the lawbreakers.  Every time that the police develops a new tactic, the lawbreakers will figure yet another way to go around it and so on.  This is the story of two competing systems adapting to each other in a changing environment.

Here is the latest development as reported in Oriental Daily.

An old business model was for the prostitutes to stand in the street and openly solicit customers.  Once upon a time, that was how it was in some areas of Hong Kong, such as Shumshuipo.  The highly visible sight of a whole street lined with prostitutes was enough to cause massive civilian complaints, and the police swept away that model with the use of physical presence, surveillance and undercover actions.

A more contemporary business model was for the male pimps/handlers to solicit customers, and then bring them upstairs to complete the transaction.  Since there is no direct public contact between the client and the prostitute, it is harder to press criminal charges  This was known as the Mongkok model.  Customers do not like this, as they have not viewed the merchandise and they are reluctant to go into a place where they might be robbed.

But today we live in a high-technology age.  Hong Kong is a place where there are more mobile phones than people (note: some people own several phones).  Many mobile phones have audio-visual, such as photograph and video display, live video conversation, and so on.  So we now have the latest business model based upon these technologies.

In Shumshuipo today, the male pimps/handlers are still soliciting customers as before.  When a person expresses interest, the handler would bring out his mobile camera phone.  The handler will display a photo album of prostitutes, and even short videos in which the females introduce themselves and their specialized services.  The customer can select their preference.  If the customer has some doubts about the female, the handler can dial the female and allow the customer to talk directly on the videophone.

This is a high-tech version of the goldfish bowl.  The customer can scan the entire roster of females, including seeing them in full nudity.  The females can also explain the fee structure directly.  The customer does not have to proceed upstairs until both parties are in agreement, and both sides have some form of assurance that there is no misunderstanding or misrepresentation.

Where does that leave law enforcement?  If the prostitute were to stand in the street and haul people upstairs, she may be found guilty of the crime of persuading others to commit an immoral act based upon the testimony of an undercover officer.  The legal point here is that the 'customer' may not have the prior intent until he was stopped in the street by her.

However, prostitution is not a crime in itself in Hong Kong.  If a prostitute chooses to set up in a small apartment of her own (一樓一鳳) and a customer knocks on the door and they complete a transaction that involves monetary payment, there is no crime (provided that the female has reached the age of consent and does not have problems with resident status).  This is simply a consensual sexual act between two adults, followed by a gift of friendship.  In this arrangement, though, the prostitute has a problem with advertising her services.  How would the customer know to find her?  If she uses a neon sign on the outside of the building, the police can remove it as a public nuisance even though they cannot arrest her.  This meant that signmaking shops in the Mongkok and Shumshuipo districts do a booming business since the signs have to go back up as quickly as they are removed.

With the new technology-based approach, the prostitutes won't even need signage.  They use surrogates to solicit on their behalf.  The principal evidence will be some photos and videos on a mobile phone (assuming that this was seized) and possibly a videocam phone call (which will be an alleged conversation unless there was a recording).  This will make the cases harder to prove.  So far, this business model is growing around Ap Liu Street, Fook Wing Street, Fook Wah Street and Yuan Chow Street in the Shumshuipo district.

Rest assured that the police will adapt themselves.  They will have to.  If they fail to do so, Hong Kong will be flooded with these services.  For now, the forces of evil have grown taller.  In the worst case, if necessary, the law will have to be changed if we have to insist on the rule of law.