Key Assumptions of 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-like environment of our creation, on a highly accelerated path to merging with other universal civilizations doing the same. If true, our destiny is density, and dematerialization.

This post is about a paper of mine on accelerating change, the Fermi paradox, and astrosociology, called the transcension hypothesis: sufficiently advanced civilizations may invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI,  published in Acta Astronautica in 2012. In a nutshell, the hypothesis predicts constrained transcension of intelligence from the universe, rather than expansion (colonization) within the universe by intelligence, wherever it arises in the universe.

My paper makes a series of assumptions/proposals about the nature and future of intelligent life in our universe. Most of these key assumptions may need to to be correct, in some fashion or another, for the hypothesis itself to be correct. A few colleagues have asked me to summarize these key assumptions in one place, so here’s my current list. This list is a good way to get a quick summary of the hypothesis as well.

Here are the key assumptions of the transcension hypothesis, as I presently see them:

  1. Intelligent life, on Earth and elsewhere in our universe, is not only evolving (diversifying, experimenting), but also developing (converging toward a particular set of future destinations, in form and function), in a manner in some ways similar to biological development. In other words, all civilizations in our universe are “evo devo” both evolutionary and developmental. The phenomenon of convergent evolution tells us a lot about the way development may work on planetary scales. A kind of cosmic convergent evolution (universal development) must also exist at universal scales.
  2. The leading edge of intelligence always migrates its brains and bodies into increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, accelerated, and efficient scales of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter (what I call STEM compression), because this is the best strategy to become the dominant local intelligence, and because the special physics of our universe allows this continual migration into “nanospace“. Human brains, both individually and collectively, are the most STEM-compressed higher computational systems on Earth at present, but are just now starting to get beat at the production of intelligence by deep learning computers, which are even more STEM-compressed in certain kinds of computation than biological neurons. Fortunately, accelerating STEM-compression of both human civilization and our leading technologies is stepwise testable, as argued in my paper.
  3. The acceleration of STEM compression must eventually stop, at structures analogous to black holes, which in current theories appear to be the most computationally accelerated and efficient entities in the known universe. Fortunately, this “black hole destiny” for civilization seems testable via the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), as argued in my paper.
  4. A civilization whose intelligence structures are compressed to scales far below the nanoscale may well be capable of creating or entering black-hole-like environments without their informational nature being destroyed. 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. We simply don’t know yet whether intelligence can exist at those small scales. My bet is that it can, and that STEM compression drives leading universal intelligence there, as the fastest way to generate further intelligence, with the least need for local resources.
  5. Due to nature of general relativity, extreme gravitational time dilation (or from the black hole’s perspective, “time compression”) occurs very near the surface (event horizon) of black holes. They act as as instantaneous forward time travel devices, for any civilization able to arbitrarily closely approach the surface of a black hole without destroying itself. In other words, near-black-hole-density entities can meet and merge, effectively instantaneously, from their perspective, with all other civilizations in our gravity well that also turn themselves into such very dense objects. Black-hole-like conditions are thus gateways to instantly meeting and merging with other civilizations in their gravity well, as soon as they “transcend” to black-hole-like conditions. Our gravity well includes the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, each of which may contain millions of intelligent civilizations. Perhaps the vast majority of black holes in these galaxies (billions?) are unintelligent collapsed stars. But if the transcension hypothesis holds, some smaller number (millions?) are also a product of intelligent civilizations. In “normal” universal time, galactic black holes are predicted to merge some tens to hundreds of billions of years from now, as our universe dies. But from each black hole’s reference frame (whether classical or “intelligent”), this merger happens near-instantaneously. We can think of black holes as shortcuts through spacetime, just like quantum computers are shortcuts through spacetime. (Quantum physics and black holes may even be unified, or at least connected, in a future theory of quantum gravity). If some type of hyperspace, extradimensionality, or wormhole-like physics is possible, there might also be ways of future humanity instantaneously meeting civilizations beyond these two galaxies (most of the universe appears to be accelerating away from us, due to dark energy). But such exotic physics is not necessary for the transcension hypothesis to hold for the two galaxies in our gravity well (and likewise for all other intelligent civilizations in their local gravity wells). For those meetings and mergers, all we need is gravity and time. Standard relativity predicts that if we can create and survive in black-hole-like densities, and if our galaxies are life and intelligence-fecund, as many astrobiologists think, then we will meet and merge with potentially millions of civilizations instantanously, from our reference frame. In other words, our universe appears to have both “transcension physics” and massive parallelism of intelligence experiments built into its topology and large scale structure, if we ask ourselves what the rest of the universe does if we and other nonlocal intelligences become black-hole-dense objects.
  6. If we live in not only a developmental universe, but an evolutionary one, each local universal civilization can never be God-like, but must instead be computationally incomplete, an evolutionary “experiment” with its own own unique discoveries and views on the meaning and purpose of life. Thus each civilization, no matter how advanced, would be expected to have useful computational differences, and be able to learn useful things, from every other civilization. In such a universe, we would greatly value communication, assuming that we could trust the other advanced civilizations that we might communicate with.
  7. If not only intelligence, but also immunity (stability, antifragility) and morality grow in leading intelligences in our universe, in rough proportion to their complexity, in other words, if these three life-critical systems are each not only evolutionary, but also developmental, and thus their emergent form and function is at least partly encoded in the “genes” (initial conditions, laws, and environmental constraints) of the system itself, then we can predict that more advanced intelligences, including our coming deep learning computers, will be not only more intelligent, but also more immune and moral than we are today. This idea is called developmental immunity and developmental morality, and I explore it in my paper, Evo Devo Universe? (2008). If these developmental processes exist, they tell us something about the nature of postbiological life. Such life, and its civilization, is going to be a whole lot more collaboration-oriented, intelligence-oriented, immune, and moral than we are today.
  8. In such a universe, a moral prime directive must emerge, a directive to keep each local civilization evolving in a way that maximizes its uniqueness and adaptiveness prior to transcension. That means one-way messaging (powerful METI beacons), self-replicating probes able to interact with less advanced civilizations, and any other kind of galactic colonization would both be ethically prohibited by postbiological life, due to the great reduction in evolutionary diversity that would occur. Wherever it happened, we would meet informational clones of ourselves after transcension, a most undesirable outcome. In biology, evolution keeps clonality a very rare outcome, due to the diversity and adaptiveness cost that it levies on the progeny. In such an environment, any future biological humans that wanted to continue to colonize the stars would be prevented from doing so, by much more ethical and universe-oriented postbiological intelligences. That is assuming biological organisms even continue to be around after postbiological life emerges. Due to STEM compression, their status as biologicals would likely be vanishing short, once they invent technology capable of colonization. It seems much more likely that biology develops into postbiology, relatively soon (just a few centuries, if that) after digital computers emerge, everywhere in the universe. This outcome also seems likely to be testable via future information theory and SETI, as I argue in my paper.
  9. Some physicists, most notably Lee Smolin in his hypothesis of cosmological natural selection, propose that black holes may be “seeds” or “replicators” for new universes. That gives us a clue to what we might do after we meet up with other cosmic intelligences. We would likely compare and contrast what we’ve learned, and then seek to make a better and more adaptive universe (or universes) in the next replication. Current physics and computation theory suggest that our universe, though vast, is both finite and computationally incomplete. It may have gained its current amazing levels of internal complexity in the same way life on Earth got its amazing living complexity, via evolutionary and developmental (“evo devo“) self-organization, through many past replications, in some kind of selection environment, a “multiverse” or “hyperverse.” 
  10. If all of this is roughly correct, our future isn’t outer space, it’s “inner space.” Both the inner space of black-hole like domains, and the inner space of increasingly virtual and computational domains. That’s why the growth of virtual reality, in today’s computers, heralds much more than just better entertainment experiences. Combined with the growth of machine learning, virtual reality is going to become the thinking, imagination, and simulation space for tomorrows postbiological life. Virtual space is where intelligent machines will figure out what they want to do in physical space, just as our own simulating brains are humanity’s virtual reality. And just like humans have have done as our civilization has developed, future machines will do more and more internalization, or thinking in virtual space, and less and less external acting, in physical space, the more intelligent they get. This internalization process has a name, it’s called dematerialization (both economic dematerialization and product and process dematerialization), the substitution of information and computation for physical products, processes, and behaviors. The futurist Buckminster Fuller called this universal process ephemeralization, an idea that contains dematerialization, but not densification. If the transcension hypothesis is true, the ultimate “destiny” of universal civilizations is both “density” (black hole like status), and “dematerialization” (becoming ever more informational or virtual, over time).

As Fermi paradox scholar Stephen Webb says at his blog, this is quite a lot of “ifs!” Disproving any of these assumptions would be a good way to start knocking aspects of the transcension hypothesis out of contention. We would learn a lot about ourselves and the universe in the process, so I really hope that each of these gets challenged in coming years, as the hypothesis gets further exposure and critique.

Perhaps the strangest and hardest-to-believe part of the transcension hypothesis, for many, is its first and ninth key assumption (the two work together), the idea of universal development. The most amazing and odds-defying thing I know of is the process of biological development. Most people don’t think much about how strange and wonderful biological development is, a process guided by a handful of genes in our genome, and they don’t learn much about biological development in college. In many ways, development is even more surprising than evolution, which is process that requires development at the organismic level, and which ignores the possibility of development at the planetary and universal level. But if our universe replicates, and exists in some kind of larger selection environment then not only evolution, but development may very well occur at the universal level. Development in biological organisms 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, then certain aspects of the future of complex systems are statistically highly biased to converge on particular destinations, and science has a lot of growing up still to do.

The paper’s second key assumption, STEM compression is more palatable to most people, in my experience, and may turn out to be the most enduring contribution of the paper, even if the rest of the hypothesis is eventually invalidated. 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 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.

Stephen Webb is the author of Where is Everybody?2015, a book that offers seventy-five possible solutions to the Fermi Paradox, including the transcension hypothesis. Webb did a great job condensing the hypothesis into three pages in his book. His 2002 edition didn’t include it, as I published my first paper on the transcension hypothesis in mid-2002. Speculation on the Fermi paradox has grown considerably in the last two decades, as it becomes increasingly obvious that we live in a universe likely teeming with Earth-like planets, and also with intelligent, curious life.

Extrapolating todays progress in nanotechnology, any one of these civilizations could send out self-replicating nanotech across our entire galaxy within 100 million years (a reasonable estimate with conventional physics), and beam what it finds out to the rest of the universe (or alternatively, just back to the originating civilization), creating a Galactic Internet, and making our universe as information-transparent as our planet is becoming today. So if Earth-like planets likely emerged in our galaxy at least a billion years before ours did, as several astrobiologists have predicted, then why don’t we see any signs of this Galactic Internet today? Or of past alien visitation, probes, and megastructure beacons near Earth? Or of intelligent structures anywhere in the night sky? In other words, Where is Everybody? That’s the Fermi paradox.

At Webb’s blog, he charitably says the transcension hypothesis is “one of the most intriguing” possible solutions that he has seen. He also kindly observes that “Unlike so many “solutions” to the Fermi paradox, this one offers avenues for further research.” It certainly does, which is why I hope it continues to gain scrutiny and critique.

A few scholars are now citing the transcension hypothesis in their academic papers on accelerating change and the Fermi paradox, including Sandberg 2010, Flores Martinez 2014, and Conway Morris 2016. I am hoping that trend continues. The more attention it gets, the more critique it will get.

Fortunately I think each of the key assumptions outlined above are testable, though some are obviously more testable than others in today’s early stages of astrophysical theory, SETI ability, information, complexity, and evo devo theory, and simulation capacity. If anyone is doing work that might shed light on any of these assumptions, I would love to hear of it.

You can find my paper here: The Transcension Hypothesis, 2012. See also this fun 2 minute YouTube video of the hypothesis, by the inspiring futurist Jason Silva and Kathleen Lakey, which has raised its visibility in recent years.

You can find an 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, thanks.

Your Personal Sim: Pt 4 — Deep Agents (Grokking Deep Learning/Natural Intelligence)

The Brave New World of Smart Agents and their Data

A Multi-Part Series

Part 1 — Your Attention Please
Part 2 — Why Agents Matter
Part 3 — The Agent Environment
Part 4 — Deep Agents (this post)

More soon…
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Why will our smart agents and sims soon become as indispensible as the web and our smartphones are today? Why will we think of our sims as “our better selves” by 2030? To understand this key aspect of our global future, our next two posts will take a deep look at deep learning, a new paradigm of not only machine learning, but of future computer development.

These two will be long posts, but they are about the technology behind thegreatest story of our collective future, the advent of machines that think and feel like us, so I make no apologies for their length. Plenty of people will write the short versions. But there are many doubts and misconceptions on these topics, so the length will hopefully clear up a few of both.

There are also some rewards at the end, to make up for this post’s length. The first reward is the “Mind Meld” (aka, “Merging With our Sims”, or “Slippery Singularity”) prediction. This is a big reward, as it explores how humanity will use deep learning to solve the greatest tragedy presently inflicting our planet — the inevitable death of each and every one of us, due to the disposable nature of human biology. I think this mind meld future is inevitable, and when it comes later this century, hundreds of millions of us, at the very least, will use it to move easily into postbiology as our biological bodies age and die.

Once mind melding happens at scale, and we see that it works, cultures everywhere will stop pretending that human mental death is a good thing, and we’ll upgrade our religious faiths (which will never go away) to be consistent with a new world of indefinite human lifespan, for all who desire it. The second reward is more prosaic, some powerful investment tips you can implement today in the Calls to Action at the end.

The Rest of this Post (on Medium)

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]

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