The Race to Inner Space: Our Ever Faster, Smaller, Smarter, and Wealthier Future

Seeing, Guiding, and Benefiting from Accelerating Physical and Informational Change

Humanity’s advances to date have been accompanied by great leaps in the density, diversity, and virtuality of our societies, and in the miniaturization and efficiency of our technologies. Among these and other variables determining social progress, two stand out as particularly special. The more our intelligence gains access to “Inner Space,” both to the domain of very small size scales (“Physical Inner Space”), and to the domain of very powerful brain-based and computer-based simulations (“Virtual Inner Space”) the faster we learn to generate major new economic, social, and adaptation benefits for civilization. This “race to Inner Space” may turn out to be the dominant developmental trend for our species.

The Cosmic Calendar: 13.7 Billion Years of Universal History Depicted Over A Cosmic “Year”. Lovely creative commons image by Wikipedia author Eric Fisk.

As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density  and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.

Certainly humanity’s ability to think, act, and shape our world has grown ever faster, more powerful, and more novel since Australopithecus garhi, perhaps our earliest tool-using ancestors, fashioned the first stone tools more than 2.6 million years ago. We are also much more densely associated in our cities, and engaged in far more virtual activity than our ancestors. Since the advent of currency circa 5,000 years ago, human wealth production has also become an increasingly instantaneous and virtual economic process, today involving trillions of dollars in daily foreign exchange and billions in program trading. Though modern economies experience occasional recessions, these grow rapidly shorter with time, and even the worst now last less than one decade, just one seventh the typical human lifespan. Surprisingly, these periodic slowdowns are not even visible on long timescales. The curve to the left, charting GDP per capita in Western Europe from 1000-1999 AD, with data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, shows that global wealth production now grows almost instantaneously fast over the span of a century. Reporting on this in The Economist in 1999, the authors said it “looks less like an inevitable process and more like a single, astonishing event.” In my opinion, this acceleration, just one of several special Inner Space trends in human civilization, clearly does look like it might be an inevitable process, and it is precisely this parochial attitude, this failure of vision and lack of willingness to ask unpopular questions about value creation and technological change, that keeps today’s media from seeing and reporting on accelerating complexity development, and that keeps today’s economic theory ignorant of the inevitable accelerating benefits that come from our investments and actions in Inner Space.

At the same time, as Kevin Kelly notes in What Technology Wants, 2011, the redundancy of our technology and its distributed knowledge systems protects this accelerating planetary process of wealth and knowledge creation better than ever before. While individual nations, regions, companies, and individuals regularly suffer slowdowns and catastrophes, our global system, like an organism with a developing brain and immune system, rebounds from damage faster, stronger and better the more complex it gets. The story of our accelerating resiliency to complexity disruption, however, is even more ignored, ridiculed, and unaccepted today than the story of accelerating change. We need to fix this state of affairs. The longer we ignore planetary processes of collective intelligence and immunity development, the longer our political, economic, technological, and social policies remain unenlightened, ineffective, and focused on the wrong goals. The longer we wait to study these processes with the rigor they deserve, the longer we remain burdened with preventable suffering, living in the flatlands below the knee of the next growth curve of capacity building, intelligence advancement, and wealth creation.

I believe that humanity’s collective intelligence, wealth, and resilience have accelerated for so long because, via STEM compression, we have continually learned how to move our intelligence into ever smaller domains of nanotechnology, or Physical Inner Space, thus escaping resource limits, while at the same time, developing ever smarter simulations, or Virtual Inner Space, so we can “think more” and “act less” in the search for new capabilities and wealth-creating innovations. Today, a growing proportion of our leading innovations happen either at very small scales in physical, chemical, or biotechnological processes, or inside computers and their networks and software. It is only these special systems that use less and less physical resources to produce more and more social value, a process that the futurist Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization,” or doing more and more physical transformation (“acting”) and simulation (“thinking”) with less and less space, time, energy, and matter, or STEM. In a very real sense, we are “moving the world” to Inner Space at an accelerating pace, as depicted in the fullerene (“buckyball”) molecule enclosing Earth in the pretty picture to the right by nanoscientist Chris Ewels.

In humanity’s great race to Inner Space, we are on the edge of major new breakthroughs in nanotechnology engineering, and of the web becoming a metaverse, the most intelligent and valuable natural environment on the planet. We may soon see such infotech and machine intelligence advances as a conversational interface (a web that understands us when we talk to it), digital twins (aka “smart agents”, semi-intelligent avatars that can model and represent us), a valuecosm (quantified maps of all our values and goals), and statistical measures of our individual and social progress. These seem likely to be very empowering and democratizing innovations.

These same nanotechnologies and information technologies offer all the leading solutions to today’s greatest global challenges, including cheap energy and CO2 reduction (nanosolar, which doubles global installed base every two years, and halves its cost every ten years, engineered algal biofuels, which for some applications are now the same cost as oil, fuel cells, etc), food (a genetic green revolution), water (nanodesalination, which doubles global installed base every six years, and halves its cost every nine years), reducing poverty, overpopulation, and slums (smart internet, internet TV, online education, science and technology education, entrepreneurship, women’s and civil rights, green cities), reducing crime and terrorism (global transparency and sousveillance) and bioterrorism (immune system aids like DRACO), and building trustable machine intelligences and robots (we may evolve our machines to be trustable, just as we have bred domestic animals to be trustable, without “designing” them). Even human death is in the process of being challenged. For those who die today, one path to further life may be chemical brain preservation at death, followed later by advanced and inexpensive nano and information technology. Every major human problem we see today has one or more Inner Space technical solutions on the horizon.

How do we help more of our leading countries, institutions, corporations, and entrepreneurs to understand and benefit from our civilization’s apparently inevitable race to Inner Space? How do we get this realization to become part of the story of Big History, told to all curious children who seek to understand the universe? As the pace of life speeds up, many people and organizations react with fear and fundamentalism to accelerating change. How do we help them instead to embrace the most humanizing technologies, and to develop a continual learning and evidence-based culture? For how much longer will our political and corporate leaders continue to severely underfund global nanotech? The world’s governments spend just $10B/yr annually on nanotech R&D funding, with the US spending just $2.2B annually, primarily via the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This is just 0.3% (0.003) of our $740B defense budget in 2010. Just 0.06% (0.0006) of our $3.5T in federal spending. Since 2011, China now spends more on nanotech R&D than the US, with just one fifth our GDP. This positions them to start far more of the nanotech jobs of the future. We should be competing much more on that front.

We also seriously underfund global infotech. The US spends almost all of its unclassified investments in infotech R&D through the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. As of 2007, NITRD spending was just $3B/year. You can bet it hasn’t gone up since then, given our recent economic woes. How long until we change our priorities? How many great nano and infotech solutions to our present global problems are we presently ignoring, instead wasting most of our precious time, intelligence, and energy on far slower, cruder, and less inefficient “Outer Space” technologies and strategies? I suspect every nation on Earth, and many companies, spend a good deal less on nanotechnology and information technology education, research, development, strategy, and entrepreneurship than they should, given the continually accelerating returns delivered by these special technologies. I know that nations and companies rarely have good forecasts of accelerating returns in Inner Space to guide their policy, or to time their product development strategy, because I’ve been a scholar this field for ten years now. The world, by and large, is not yet awake to this trend. We are all running a race, but most of us are not yet conscious of it. That needs to change.

Fortunately, some nations, regions, and companies do a much better job promoting technological progress than others. Some prioritize science and technology policy, education, research and development, innovation, and foresight. Some encourage competitions and give scholarships and hiring priority to the most technically proficient, innovative, and entrepreneurial. But few nations give sufficient access to credit and other startup resources for their best technology entrepreneurs, or create fair competition environments to allow both large and small businesses to create new technology products and services. As citizens, we often don’t measure and rank our local, state, and national politicians for their science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship credentials, and reward them with our votes. As consumers, we don’t always look for, rate, and buy the smartest and most resource-efficient products and services, as soon as they become available. I believe the best way to improve the world is to recognize where it is going, to Inner Space, and to see the powerful role that each of us can play in building a much faster, smaller, smarter, and wealthier future for all of us.

[This is the abstract of a talk I will give at Global Future 2045 in Moscow, February 2012, to a community of Big History scholars, entrepreneurs, futurists, and transhumanists. Hope to see you there.]

Thoughts? Disagreements? Corrections? Let me know, thanks! [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

The Transcension Hypothesis: Do Advanced Civilizations Leave Our Universe?

Low-mass X-ray binary (LMXRB) star system. Strange as it seems, Earth’s future may look something like this, with us inside a black hole of our own creation, on a highly accelerated path to merging with other universal civilizations doing the same. If true, our destiny is density!

Below is the abstract of a paper of mine recently accepted for publication at Acta Astronautica. The paper considers the question of whether universal complexity development, and thus universal progress, has some long-term directionality and predictability to it. If so, this would be big news, as it would help clarify questions about the future of intelligence in our universe. The transcension hypothesis asks whether our civilization is rapidly developing into something analogous to a black hole. Most people don’t know this, but black holes are the most computationally efficient entities that we know of, at present. They also do some very unusual things to spacetime. Black holes are forward time travel devices, as any civilization that can enter them without destroying itself will merge effectively instantaneously with all other civilizations that do the same. From outside the black holes, in our “outer space” universe, it takes many billions of years for all the black holes in our galaxy to merge. But from their strange perspective, due to extreme gravitational time dilation, these mergers happen nearly instantaneously. Some physicists also argue black holes may be “seeds” or “replicators” for new universes, thus giving us a clue as to what we would do after we meet up with other intelligences.

How might we accomplish such a crazy feat as entering a black hole without destroying ourselves? By rebuilding ourselves into very, very small structures, probably below the atom in size. You may not know this, but there are 25 orders of magnitude in size between atoms and the Planck scale. This is almost as large a size range as the 30 orders of magnitude presently inhabited by life on Earth. If you’ve heard of nanotechnology, you know that life’s leading edge today, humanity, is doing everything it can to move our complexity and computation down the smallest scales we can. We have been very, very successful at this shrinking over the last several hundred years, and our ability to miniaturize and control processes at both atomic and subatomic scales is growing exponentially. In fact, human brains themselves are already vastly denser, more efficient, and more miniaturized computational devices than any living thing that has gone before them. But they are positively gargantuan compared to the intelligent computing devices that are coming next. OK, enough strangeness for now, on to the abstract. Hope you like it!

Abstract: The emerging science of evolutionary developmental (“evo devo”) biology can aid us in thinking about our universe as both an evolutionary system, where most processes are unpredictable and creative, and a developmental system, where a special few processes are predictable and constrained to produce far-future-specific emergent order, just as we see in the common developmental processes in two stars of an identical population type, or in two genetically identical twins in biology. The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we haven’t seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations. A few potential evolutionary, developmental, and information theoretic reasons, mechanisms, and models for constrained transcension of advanced intelligence are briefly considered. In particular, we introduce arguments that black holes may be a developmental destiny and standard attractor for all higher intelligence, as they appear to some to be ideal computing, learning, forward time travel, energy harvesting, civilization merger, natural selection, and universe replication devices. In the transcension hypothesis, simpler civilizations that succeed in resisting transcension by staying in outer (normal) space would be developmental failures, which are statistically very rare late in the life cycle of any biological developing system. If transcension is a developmental process, we may expect brief broadcasts or subtle forms of galactic engineering to occur in small portions of a few galaxies, the handiwork of young and immature civilizations, but constrained transcension should be by far the norm for all mature civilizations.

The transcension hypothesis has significant and testable implications for our current and future METI and SETI agendas. If all universal intelligence eventually transcends to black-hole-like environments, after which some form of merger and selection occurs, and if two-way messaging is severely limited by the great distances between neighboring and rapidly transcending civilizations, then communication with feedback may be very rare, an event restricted to nearest-neighbor stars for a very brief period prior to transcension. The only kind of communication that might be common enough to be easily detectable by us would be the sending of one-way METI or probes throughout the galaxy. But simple one-way messaging or probes may be not worth the cost to send, and advanced messaging or probes may provably reduce the evolutionary diversity in all civilizations receiving them, as they would condemn the receiver to transcending in a manner similar to that of the sender. If each civilization in our universe is quite limited in what they can learn given their finite computational resources, and if many civilizations evolve in parallel and in isolation in our universe for this reason, then a powerful ethical injunction against one-way messaging or probes might emerge in the morality and sustainability systems of all sufficiently advanced civilizations, an argument known as the Zoo hypothesis in Fermi paradox literature. In any such environment, the evolutionary value of sending any interstellar message or probe may simply not be worth the cost, if transcension and post-transcension merger are elements of an inevitable, accelerative, and testable developmental process, one that eventually will be discovered and quantitatively described by future physics.

Fortunately, transcension processes may be measurable today even without good physical theory, and radio and optical SETI may each provide empirical tests. If transcension is a universal developmental constraint, then without exception all early and low-power electromagnetic leakage signals (radar, radio, television), and later, optical evidence of the exoplanets and their atmospheres should reliably cease as each civilization enters their own technological singularities (emergence of postbiological intelligence and life forms) and recognizes they are on an optimal and accelerating path to a black-hole-like environment. Furthermore, optical SETI may soon allow us to map an expanding area of the galactic habitable zone we may call the galactic transcension zone, an inner ring that contains older transcended civilizations, and a missing planets problem as we discover that planets with life signatures occur at a much lower frequencies in this inner ring than in the remainder of the habitable zone.

Read the full article here: The Transcension Hypothesis, 2010.

See this beautiful 2 minute YouTube video of the hypothesis, by the inspiring futurist Jason Silva and Kathleen Lakey.

I think the strangest and for many, hardest-to-believe part of the transcension hypothesis is the idea of universal development. The most amazing and odds-defying thing I know of is the natural process of biological development. Development is a form of future-specific selection that is far more constrained than what we call natural selection, and if something similar is happening on a universal scale as well, along with all the much more intuitive evolutionary processes, then certain aspects of the future of complex systems are highly biased to proceed in particular directions, and science has a lot of growing up still to do. Fortunately I think many of the pieces of these speculations, such as STEM compression, are stepwise testable, which is encouraging.

You can find a good overview of the evo devo (evolutionary and developmental) universe hypothesis in my chapter-length article, Evo Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture, 2008.

Comments? Critiques? Feedback is always appreciated but never expected.

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