Developmental Densification, Computronium, and Transcension Hypotheses
The first major developmental trend we should consider, as we saw in Chapter 2, is that there is a Great Race to Inner Space going on in leading complex systems on Earth, and two kinds of inner space to understand.
First, leading systems increasingly enter Physical Inner Space, “densifying” or “intensifying”, and miniaturizing their computational processes, engaging in a process I call STEM compression of information production. The most complex new systems are always both denser and more efficient (or in plainspeak, “compressed”) users of Space, Time, Energy and Matter (STEM) resources to produce complexity, computation, and intelligence. The more we study universal history, the more it seems every major complexity transition, from galaxies, to life-catalyzing planets, to eukaryotes, to prokaryotes, to humans, to cities, and now, to intelligent computers, occurs via STEM compression of information production.
Human brains, the most complex inner space machines we’ve yet seen, pack 100 trillion unique synaptic connections into a three pound piece of electromagnetic meat, an amazing level of computational density, one not yet exceeded by anything on Earth. We think in hundreds of milliseconds with just a few Watts, an incredible degree of STEM density and efficiency of information production. Yet digital computers may soon be more than a million-fold denser, faster, and more complex. STEM compression to generate ever more adaptive CCI is the physical reason why accelerating change continues.
Second, leading systems increasingly enter Virtual Inner Space as well. They “dematerialize” or intelligence-enable their core features. Think of how cultural knowledge in brains substitutes for (makes unnecessary) various physical processes, or complex information inside a smartphone substitutes for various physical devices. Such systems become increasingly informational entities, thinking (virtualizing, simulating) more and acting less in the physical world, growing their store of meaningful knowledge. In living beings, we might also call that dematerialization process a growth of consciousness, which is essentially a high-level simulating system. Dense matter is still their substrate, but the specific matter is less and less important to the information’s survival. The more dematerialized (virtual, intelligent) a complex system gets, the more ways it has to find a solution to any problem of further growth in its abilities. Dematerialization to generate ever more adaptive CCI is the informational reason why accelerating change continues.
So D&D (Densification & Dematerialization) isn’t just a fun game we played as kids, it’s a good shorthand for two universal trends that intelligence always seems subject to, going to Physical and Virtual Inner Space, the more complex it gets. Our destiny is density, and dematerialization.
In the near future, it’s obvious that the densest and most intelligence-enabled cities, corporations, communities, and technology platforms will continue to beat out the less dense and less smart versions of these things. But what will our most densified and dematerialized intelligences look like in the longer run, farther future?
Beginning in the 1980’s, a physicists and few science fiction authors began talking about computronium, a proposed theoretically most efficient use of the universe’s STEM resources to do computation. Some also speculated that leading intelligences will continue to reorganize their local physical resources into the most effective computing matter possible. Eventually the physicists and information theorists started calculating what a computronium device might look like in our universe. In 2000, physicist Seth Lloyd argued that it would be a black hole, apparently the densest and most efficient computational devices allowed in our universe. In other words, all intelligences, if they are to continue accelerating their computational abilities, will get increasingly denser, faster, and more efficient, and perhaps eventually they all look like black holes.
On a personal scale, consider how an uploaded digital human, if such dematerialization arrives for humans in coming decades or centuries, will likely be vastly more computationally densified, and capable than a biological one, as transhumanists argue. It is also likely to be immune to informational destruction, another developmental trend we will turn to in a coming subsection.
With respect to human civilization, cities are vastly more dense and efficient at information production and innovation than the villages that came before them. Corporations beat out cities, and our emerging human-computer partnerships, including small decentralized systems like scrum, clearly beat out corporations, for innovation at least. A lot of good social science research on densification remains to be done, but there is already a good starter literature on it. See my papers below for some citations.
If our societies continue to accelerate their density and virtuality too, then their core brains and knowledge stores at least, if not also their physical bodies, will increasingly look like computronium. We’ll move our local brains and bodies from nano to femtotechnology as fast as our science and technology allow us. How many more migrations, how many more substrate portals, will we likely travel on the way to black hole-level density and virtuality? That is a great question for future research.
Let me offer a bit of personal history on how I came to this idea. As a 12 year old middle-schooler in 1972, reading National Geographic articles on the universe and musing about the Fermi Paradox, the question of why we don’t see any aliens, if the universe is isotropic (presumably populated with many other Earth-like planets), I began to wonder whether the reason we don’t see any intelligent civilizations is because they all invariably enter black-hole-like domains as their civilizations develop. I imagined them all relentlessly densifying, packaging up what they’ve learned and transcending the universe rather than expanding within it, presumably so they can rapidly meet others who have done the same and go do something even more interesting in the Great Beyond.
I kicked this idea around with friends for the next few decades. Meanwhile, a few physicists began to converge on aspects of it. In 1992, physicist Lee Smolin offered a model, cosmological natural selection, arguing black holes may be “seeds” for new universe production in the multiverse. Once Lloyd published his findings on black holes as ultimate computation devices, I was ready to publish this interesting speculation in 2002, as “Answering the Fermi Paradox”, in a 2003 interview with Phil Bowermaster of Speculist.com, as “Interview with John Smart,” and again in 2011, as “The Transcension Hypothesis”. In my 2008 book precis, Evo Devo Universe?, I called this concept Cosmological Natural Selection with Intelligence (CNS-I). I think it’s an obvious extension of cosmological natural selection, and I hope it will get more attention and critique in coming years. Universes that self-organize to produce intelligence, as long as that intelligence can nonrandomly improve the adaptation of successor universes in the use of multiverse resources, or simply increase their relative speed of replication, will increasingly displace all other replicating universes in the multiverse. In this hypothesis, intelligence is the replicator, or gonads of the universe, and black holes are the places we go to form the “seed” of the next universe.
It turns out that black holes are not only uniquely good at computation, they are instantaneous one-way (to the future only) forward time travel devices, due to the strangeness of black hole physics. In an aging universe, that means we may meet and merge with the other nearby civilizations, as all black holes in local groups of galaxies ultimately merge by gravitation after many tens of billions of years. This civilization merger may happen near-instantaneously for us, as black holes, like quantum computers, offer “shortcuts through time.” It all sounds quite strange. But read my paper if you’d like some more on the hypothesis.
Note that the transcension hypothesis is 180 degrees opposite to the typical futurist views of humanity’s descendants as space colonizers. I call that view the expansion hypothesis. Today, almost everyone I know is in the expansion hypothesis camp, and I think they’ve all got it wrong. We shall see.
In the transcension hypothesis, while the adolescence of every species involves some exploring of local outer space, as they mature, civilizations soon migrate their bodies and brains into computronium, and inner space. They don’t head out to other stars, because the physics of black holes tells them they will near-instantaneously meet all the other intelligences in their galaxy simply by going inward, not outward.
Again, if developmental densification (intensification) is a universal trend, all civilizations around the universe are doing the same thing we are here. And if the current speed of densification continues, I think it’s very likely that we’ll see a tech singularity as early as this century, and postbiological life will then start studying us and integrating us into its faster, smarter, stabler, more ethical nature. Could that be our obvious future? Each of us should think this through. We shall see, as they say.
In an evo devo universe, transcending civilizations will even stop sending messages to other planets, because they realize that every intelligence is incomplete, and to maximize evolutionary diversity, every civilization in the galaxy deserves to take its own unique path toward transcension, so they can meet and compare their different views. Because it would take only one rebellious civilization to colonize an entire galaxy, a kind of Moral Prime Directive (a form of advanced interdependence and integration) would have to emerge to keep every advanced intelligence in our universe moving toward transcension. Such a process would of course not be evolutionary, but developmental. To explain the Fermi paradox, this kind of predictable, behavior-constraining development must be statistically highly likely for the universe and its galaxies as a whole, in the same way that biological and psychological development are predictable, constraining processes that apply to organisms and their organ systems as a whole.
Do you know Stephen Hawking’s lovely illustrated book, The Universe in a Nutshell (2001)? If the transcension hypothesis is true, “Civilization in a Nutshell” would be a good sequel, because that’s where all our local accelerating progress may well end up: in a space no larger than a large walnut. That’s the size Earth will be if it turns into a black hole. That’s how dense our local densification trend may take us. If that’s where computronium lies, then such a future, as strange as it sounds, is the most reasonable one to expect at the present time, given what we know so far.
If the transcension hypothesis holds for our future, the question of what happens to information and complexity, once it enters black holes, seems critical to our long-term survival. We have some tantalizing glimpses of black hole information theory today (see the Holographic principle), but lots of questions remain. For example, if all universal civilizations ultimately transcend to black holes as our universe dies, will we do so as informational “seeds” or as conscious entities?
Here’s a fun question: If you entered a Star Trek transporter, assuming one exists, and came out the other side, all you would be in between is information, with a recording media storing you during the trip. So are black holes something like Star Trek transporters? Are they a maximally dense recording media and universal transporter for intelligence? If so, a transporter to where? To the multiverse, to meet myriad other civilizations and compare what we’ve learned? To another universe, to restart our life cycle?
I don’t know if a black-hole-like future for our civilization is inevitable. At present, this is just a hypothesis. But it’s one I’ve held for my entire adult life. It was also the first clue that led me to the idea of universal development, as a counterpart to universal evolution. I’m looking forward to seeing the transcension hypothesis tested by astrobiologists and theorists in coming years, and seeing if it holds up. So is the transcension hypothesis true? Or is it an indefensible step beyond Densification and Dematerialization (D&D), as a universal trend?
We don’t yet know. But to riff on a really great line spoken by Ellie Arroway in Contact (1997): The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger, and far more intelligence-generating and computationally parallel, than anyone ever dreamed of before. So if each unique civilization doesn’t get to survive, transcend and interact, before or after the universe dies … seems like an awful waste of information. Right? J
As a college student thinking about universal development, I told friends I one day hoped to write a book that would explore that topic as a counterpart to Darwin’s great work on biological evolution, On the Origin of Species (1859). My work would be titled On the Destiny of Species, as a homage to Darwin, and as universal development tells us about destinations, a key frontier of foresight and science. Just as with Origin, Destiny would be rich with examples and great argument, enough to convince skeptical scientists that development and its associated systems are real processes, operating at multiple scales. As am no longer pursuing a science career, I will likely never write such a book. But I truly expect that someone eventually will.
My precis, Evo Devo Universe? (2008), article, The Transcension Hypothesis (2011), and Chapters 2 and 3 of this Guide are homages to that idea of a collective Destiny of Species. If we live in an evo devo universe, processes of development at all scales will become increasingly clear to us as science and foresight advances, and a set of developmental destinies will be increasingly obvious.
To a first approximation, if we ignore the rest of the Eight Goals, which is not a wise idea in general, the destiny of intelligent species on Earth might be summed up in three words: densification, dematerialization and transcension. Our (evo devo) reality is much more complex than that of course, as we’ve said. But these three words give us a rough big picture of potentially fundamental developmental features of the universe that we do not control, things that may be “in the universe’s hands.” Is this claim true? We shall see, as they say.
Perhaps the most important point in contemplating the future of densification (intensification) is that thinking developmentally, and testing our thinking via careful study of densification trends on Earth, may yield major gifts of foresight in coming years. Each of us must do our best at making explicit all our implicit developmental thoughts, and getting them critiqued by a cognitively diverse crowd.