The Future
by David Ashley, December 12, 2016

There are fundamental flaws in the prevailing beliefs of what the future has in store for us. Personally I believe there will never be a human colony on mars, humans will never visit other stars, we'll never discover faster than light travel (and most likely neither will we discover artificial gravity), fusion power most likely will never be viable, we will never be visited by aliens. Star Wars and Star Trek are pure fantasy, and nothing whatsoever like those could exist anywhere in our universe.

On the other hand I believe the universe is saturated with life, and most likely intelligent life is very common. The vision I have for the future is based on solid theoretical foundation, and is actually far, far more wonderful and glorious than than what popular culture imagines.

First of all, abandon all obsolete faith-based notions:

  • There is no god or gods, there never was, and the existence of the human race and the universe itself were not due to intelligent design
  • The universe has existed forever and will exist forever. It is not winding down, it is not expanding, it is not gaining entropy, it will not end in a final inescapable heat death. It will keep going on just as it is now, churning, mixing, evolving, recycling, forever.
  • There is no soul connected with each human or animal or whatever. Human intelligence arises from the physical processes in the human body itself. There is no need for any mystical, spiritual force to be involved.

    If you can manage to at least pretend that the above statements are true, you can then have a chance at following along.

    The only accurate vision of the future is held by Science Fiction authors. Not all of them are right, but it seems only Sci-Fi authors are even close to being correct. My guess is if you could pick and choose among all Sci-Fi written over the last 100 years then everything that has happened and will happen over then next million years will have already been guessed by at least someone. As a species we suffer no shortage of imagination. But the problem is overall we tend to prefer easily grasped fantasy than complex reality. Someone once said "The majority is always wrong," and there may be some truth to that. It's a shame, really, because the truth about what the future will be like is so achingly beautiful. It's tragic that it can't be shared by more people. I guess that's part of why I'm writing this down.

    Where to start? Let's start first with what intelligence is. This is something I've been working on most of my life, and I've made great progress, but I'm not going to convey all my insights here. Suffice it to say that what we concieve of intelligence is just the learning of useful responses when we're confronted with stimulus from the universe we're living in. Infants are born knowning practically nothing, but by the time they are adults they can function in society and no matter what situation they are likely to find themselves in they know how to behave. This need be no more complex than just years and years of existing where any action that doesn't work results in pain of some sort, and so next time some other action will be more likely to be tried. We could just be creatures of habit, and once we discover a habit that works we have no tendency to alter it. How the learning is accomplished and how actions arise from stimulus is too complex for this essay. But suffice it to say I've got a good handle on those and many other issues related to intelligence.

    Now, if we accept that intelligence is something going on inside the human body (especially inside the human nervous system, particularly the brain), then we can ask the question, "Can intelligence arise anywhere else?". The answer is yes. The human body accomplishes the computation necessary for intelligence by making use of spiking neurons. Spiking neurons make use of ions flowing across permeable membranes, where the permeability changes dynamically on various timescales. The underlying machinery, however, depends on what is essentially analog computation using exponential growth and decay of ion and protein concentrations. A key thing to realize is this is not necessarily efficient, in terms of how much energy and matter is involved. There may be many different ways computation can be accomplished that gives rise to intelligence. All we know is that in the case of the human form, it works.

    Speaking of energy, when we consider the energy requirements of a single human, there is actually a huge amount of energy that is not necessarily even counted, but nevertheless ought to be. Whenever one animal consumes another animal, the energy in the body of the animal eaten is used up quickly to maintain the life processes of the eater. This is relatively efficient but nevertheless a lot of energy is wasted. But since animals need to keep eating, they need to keep eating other animals, and so they're actually consuming all the stored energy of each eaten animal, as well as the entire tree of animals the eaten animal has itself consumed. There was a discussion of this I saw somewhere, where first you start with plankton in the ocean using raw minerals and nutrients in the seawater and sunlight to reproduce and (perhaps) move around. Then small creatures consume the plankton and reproduce, in the process wasting some large fraction of the energy involved (say 90% or more). Then larger creatures consume them, and there is an equivalent 90% or higher loss of energy, used up just to maintain life. This keeps going several more steps until we get to the top of the food chain, which presumably is us, and by that time when we consume 500 calories of fish it might actually represent millions of calories of energy collected from the sun.

    And there are a lot of humans. And the story is the same for land-based animals, like cows, pigs, chickens. To keep humans alive actually consumes a gargantuan amount of energy, when all of it is taken into account. This actually isn't a big problem per se, the sun after all is blasting plenty of energy out in all directions that would just get lost or wasted anyway, and it is going to be doing so for billions of years more, so it's not like there's any shortage of energy. Rather, the point is that if we accept that the goal of intelligent life is to engage in intelligent thought, then using a growing number of humans as vessels is very, very inefficient, and it almost certainly must be the case that something more efficient could be devised.

    Now this efficiency is what we have to keep in mind at all times. People love to imagine a human colonly on mars, or humans visiting mars. I like to think of it this way. Suppose there were two intelligent species on earth, both equally intelligent, coexisting peacefully side by side. Suppose they are humans and elephants. They decide to cooperate to send an astronaut to mars to visit. Which is better to send? A 150 pound human, or a 2000 pound elephant?

    Clearly the human is the better choice. Getting to space is all about weight. Everything costs dearly in terms of rocket fuel (energy) when you have to lift it out of the earth's gravity well and get it into orbit. To put a man into orbit would require a much, much smaller rocket than putting an elephant into orbit, just in terms of the difference in weight. Sending an intelligent agent to mars everything gets vastly more difficult. In the end we can either choose to take the simpler road of developing technology to send a human to mars, or go down the much more difficult approach of sending the elephant. Both species would be forced to agree: Send the human.

    OK. So if it makes sense to choose a human over an elephant to be the astronaut, isn't it clear that sending an intelligent robot or machine would be even better than the human, if it can get the job done? That's precisely why NASA sent robots out to explore the solar system, because they're lighter, tougher, more reliable, and they need far less support infrastructure to keep them functional. So again, if we want to deposit an intelligent agent onto the surface of mars, wouldn't it make a lot more sense for it to be an intelligent machine than a human? The answer is yes. Of course that assumes we have the human-level intelligent machine available to send in the first place. I assert that it would be a better approach to the whole problem to focus on developing the human-level intelligent machine to send to mars than to focus on the far more mind boglingly massive approach of putting a man on mars.

    Now we can use the same line of reasoning to rule out any possibility of ever sending humans to other stars. Getting men to the moon was easy. Getting men to mars is vastly more difficult. But getting men to the nearest star is perhaps billions of times more difficult still. I'm sure humans will never be able to make it happen. Particularly when we realize that even if humans could make it happen, they would never actually choose to do so. In fact, stars are so far apart that it's almost certain that any advanced civilization would choose never to send a physical spacecraft to another star, even if it was operated by intelligent machines. Stars are just too far apart. Rather, what will be passed between stars will just be information itself, probably in the form of light, and no matter at all. More on that later...

    More and more as we advance in technology we see that we are spending more and more time escaping from reality, in the form of video games, television shows, movies, music, books, browsing the internet, entering forms of virtual reality. This trend is not going to reverse or even slow down. Rather it will continue accelerating. Moreover we're moving away from spending time in groups, in favor of spending more and more time in solitary amusements. It's just a question of convenience. If you can satisfy a basic desire quickly without needing anyone else's cooperation, you'll get in the habit of doing that more and more. Technology is heading towards a point where we are all online in virtual worlds all the time, interacting with other actual humans in the real world less and less. And as computer AI improves, more and more we will each surround ourselves with our own ensemble of personally tuned assistants and companions, whose very purpose is to satisfy our individual desires. In this sort of world, other humans become uncooperative, unwelcome guests in our own personal eden. Whether or not this is a good thing in the long term remains to be seen, but the direction things are going is undeniable.

    Now, as machines get more and more intelligent, more and more they will take over the tedious burden of human labor. You can forget about the concern of who will pay for these machines?. Wikipedia and other community projects prove that people will work together towards a common, desirable goal even when money and profit play no role whatsoever. Sure, there will be stinking rich people that get their rocks off by being marginally better off than average, but they're irrelevant. True wealth will be available to all humans, sooner than most people can imagine. No, each human won't be able to have a sprawling 100 acre estate and a 20,000 square foot mansion. But neither will there be any value in having that.

    Instead, the future is one of constantly increasing demand and availability of computation itself. As stated earlier, intelligence is just a form of computation, and human intelligence is almost certainly very inefficient in terms of computation. And as time goes on humans are making use of more and more computation in their quest for entertainment. It is inevetable that at some point intelligence in the human form will be supplanted by intelligence in the virtual reality / computational realm. And once in that realm there are no longer any limits (or more accurately, there are a completely different set of limits). I assert that along the way we will develop technology to "read out" the state of the human nervous system and brain and capture the essence of what makes each individual human unique. That information can then be translated to manifest the same individual's consciousness in the virtual realm. This is very important so you need to be sure to understand. Everything you know, everything you've learned, every memory, every habit, and every detail about your body will be scanned and digitized, and so a perfect copy of you can be instantiated in the realm of virtual reality.

    The you in the virtual world would feel exactly like you, and you would be unable to perceive any difference. Well, actually at first there is an almost certain likelihood that the virtual realm itself won't be as rich and vast and chaotic and so full of variaty as the real world. We can point telescopes up at the sky and capture absolutely unimaginable amounts of information pouring in on us. There is a vast universe out there churning along. In a simulated reality we can't hope to duplicate anything like that. But do we need to?

    The human mind itself can't even perceive all the information flowing around the universe. So all we really need to do is provide the simulated human mind with enough information so it can forget that it is in a simulation. I think that would be very easy to achieve. And also there are all sorts of tricks that can be done. Suppose a human in the simulated reality points a telescope at the sky, what would he see? When that occurs, it would be easy enough to relay what a real telescope pointing at that same place in the sky is seeing down into the simulated reality. We see a taste of this right now with google earth. Imagine if google earth was real time, so you could zoom down onto any point on the planet and see what's going on right now. It wouldn't matter to you that you're not actually looking through a telescope at the actual surface of the planet. All that matters is the information itself.

    OK so assuming we have human-level intelligence existing in a simulated reality, what is to stop us from increasing the level of intelligence? There are all sorts of ways we could be more intelligent. We could have more memory, less of a tendency to forget. We could be better able to concentrate, for longer periods of time and on things of much larger complexity and detail. Our vision could be improved also. A huge part of the human brain is devoted to processing visual input. Wouldn't it be nice if your vision was much higher resolution, and wouldn't it be cool if you could see behind you also? Why not, anything's possible in the simulated realm. Everything is limited only by the amount of computation that can be brought under one's control.

    I envision a future where humans get bored with the real world and eventually migrate to the simulated world, and from there the demand for computation just keeps growing. Maybe the way it works is you live a normal human lifespan, then when you die your body and brain get scanned and you wake up in the simulated universe. Or maybe the scanning can be done without harming the body, so you could make a copy of yourself and it could exist in the simulated universe alongside you in the real universe. But then they'd diverge. The simulated version of you would increase its intelligence and it would learn more and more and would make greater and greater use of computation. It is inescapable that the real human consciousness that gave rise to the copy in the simulated universe will quickly become essentially a moron in comparison. But such is the price of progress.

    Some may find this vision horiffic. I find it beautiful. I also believe that it is inevetable, and even if factions conspire to prevent it or control it nothing can be done to prevent it short of exterminating the whole human race. And that would really be a tragedy. In fact, the quickest way to "heal" the earth (make it as if humans had never come into existence) would be to make humans themselves obsolete. And that will happen once we separate out the essence of intelligence from the human form currently needed to compute it. It's not clear to me what would happen then. Perhaps some humans stay behind and so the surface of the earth is left as a kind of borderless zoo, and the forests and animal habitats can recover.

    The demand for computation will be insatiable. But I don't imagine it would be necessary to obliterate the whole surface of the earth by converting it to computational machinery. Rather I imagine the crust of the earth, underground, would eventually get honeycombed with computational machinery, leaving the surface intact. The computational machinery can be anywhere, and there are plenty of resources available below the surface. Collecting solar energy would be the only real need for access to the surface. But I expect some compromise could be made where the surface of the earth is left as a sort of living garden, fertile ground for the next intelligent species to arise.

    In fact I don't even think the earth would be the best place for building the computational hardware. Computers are very inefficient. They generate a lot of waste heat. It's known that if you can cool the hardware down very much, down below liquid nitrogen temperature, you can very much speed up computation. I even imagine in the near future we'll have supercooled cpu and memory chips that are encased in insulating material and communicate through fiber optic pipes to the outside. It may be they have to be kept at all times close to liquid helium temperatures, otherwise they will be destroyed. But when kept cold enough they could operate a trillion times faster than current processors. The only energy required will be compensating for heat leaking through the insulation, which will end up being negligible.

    So if cooling things down is a good idea, and the earth is generally a very hot place in comparison, might there not be better places to colonize for the purpose of growing computational capacity? I imagine the rings of saturn might be a very good place to move to. The rings are so huge and sprawling that the earth itself would look like a ping pong ball floating in a bathtub. The material of the rings is practically motionless relative to itself. You have a thick, cold region filled with raw material. What a great place to construct huge computing nodes that drift along lazily just churning away, computing virtual realities for the intelligences inhabiting them.

    I envision a reality where everyone is "god" in his or her domain. Everyone has some basic amount of computation available for their use, and that basic amount would continue to grow as technology is improved and as more computational machinery is constructed (the nodes in the rings grow larger and larger, growth limited only by the available energy and material). But it seems clear that the basic amount of computation would be absolutely unimaginable in today's terms. We're talking trillions of times the capacity of all computers and memory on the earth combined. Our technology is really quite primitive, when it comes right down to it. There is plenty of room for improvement.

    So each "god", or perhaps "entity" is a better term, is master of its own domain. It could clone thousands of copies of itself and then they could all work together, in parallel, to accomplish some creative task. It could create a copy of itself that has reduced capacity for thought, with a carefully edited set of memories, and then it could create a virtual reality for the copy that it could experience, unaware that it is even in a simulated reality. As it exists the parent entity could be constantly experiencing what the simulation is experiencing, adding to its own richness. Entities could devote some of their capacity to creating spectacular virtual realities, perhaps not even populated by humanoid creatures. Games we can't possibly even imagine now could become possible, with whatever arbitrary physics is desired. Perhaps these creations would become a form of currency, exchanged between entitites. Or maybe computation itself is the currency. Perhaps an entity can trade a portion of its computational allowance for a desirable simulation from some other entity. So especially creative entities would be rewarded for their work, and there would be an extra incentive to create new material and not just endlessly consume existing material...

    Now in this scenario, time as we perceive it will be excruciatingly slow. To the entities in the simulated realm the earth going once around the sun might become something especially rare. If they're operating at a million times faster than we are, then one year in our time is a million years in their time. Transits of mercury in front of the sun would be even more rare and precious events.

    And if time in the simulated reality is sped up, the distance between stars is correspondly greater. It is inescapable that even when these god-like intelligences have the means to mount an interstellar expedition, in the end they would realize there would be absolutely no point whatsoever in doing so. The reason is very simple. There is no possible surprise. That's the whole point of exploration in the first place: You go there because you have no idea what you will find. But since there can be no economic justification for going to another star for the purpose of gathering resources (since the cost of transporting resources is so very much greater than the value in the resources themselves), the only reason would be for discovery. But very quickly it will become obvious that no matter what would conceivably be found in the other star system, we can imagine things far more interesting.

    Astronauts found this out when they visited the moon: The moon is a dull, boring, repetitive place, and the earth is where all the action is. Just as people are turning inward, finding that they themselves are more fascinating than other people (observe the rise of selfies), as a species evolving we will conclude we ourselves are far more interesting than anything we could discover by visiting a nearby star. So we won't even consider going.

    Meanwhile, suppose there already is an intelligent species occupying the other star. We'd be invading their territory. It would have consumed a vast amount of our resources just delivering a probe to a nearby star. Any intelligent species there would have no trouble whatsoever obliterating the probe, just on the offchance that it has hostile intent. Well, they'd at least quarantine it after having first completely sucked all possible information out of it, merely to satisfy their own curiosity. But once they've learned all they can from our probe, they now have no reason whatsoever to make available computational resources to whatever intelligent entities that were passengers on the probe, allowing them to "live" again. Rather they might grudgingly allow a small portion to be made available, but certainly far less than they had enjoyed back on their home star. There simply would be no viable reason for them to be more generous. By definition they'll already be hungry for ever more and more computational capacity anyway. They'll only share their finite resources if there is a compelling reason for them to.

    The only other hope is that the nearby star hasn't yet evolved intelligence. Well then it might make sense for the probe to set up shop, finding a good spot, and constructing a colony.

    But I expect that any intelligent life evolving in a star system will find itself pretty much stuck with whatever resources it has nearby. It seems like we might have no cause for concern, it looks like there's plenty of energy and matter for us to make use of. But imagine a barren planet circling a tiny white dwarf star, practically devoid of any other material (maybe the remnants of a supernova that already blew everything away and this is all that's left). We might pity them for their lack of resources...

    So if it's not reasonable to expect intelligence to migrate from star to star, what would pass between stars? I expect there already is plenty of superintelligent life spread uniformly throughout the universe. And what I expect is that it would make very good economic sense to beam information to nearby stars, in the hopes of joining the existing galactic network. See, I expect that there is an existing network of star systems, each communicating with their neighbors, transmitting a constant, dense stream of information, one-way. Basically it would make sense for each star system to just freely send out whatever information it deems valuable and interesting. The timeframe of years for the round trip would be so long there couldn't be any back and forth negotiation. Rather share and share alike would be the norm. This was the culture with commodore 64 game piracy in the 1980's. Some people would go around from place to place carrying a box of disks. The disks would be new stuff already received as well as blanks. So the "trader" would arrive, and then there would be a period of copying where each side got a copy of whatever the other side had that was new. If a node is visited by more than one trader then the node performs a useful service and all traders benefit without ever having to meet each other directly.

    In the interstellar network each member would send all its new information to its neighbors, and they at the same time are sending all their information in the opposite direction. It becomes a matter of efficient implementation that if A sent something new to B that B will know there's no point in consuming scarce bandwidth sending that thing back to A. Rather each node in the network will efficiently distribute information wherever it will be new, including any information the node has to contribute. We're talking about laser arrays sending modulated pulses of light to nearby star systems. These would require power, so resources that could be devoted to computation will have to be invested in transmission. So even when only light is passing between stars, there will be an economy. Maybe each node only sends its very best information along.

    In this scenario every new node that comes online (after having developed a sufficient level of intelligence) will be welcomed by all neighbors. Picture two star systems very far apart communicating with each other. In order to transmit far enough they need a large amount of energy to power their laser arrays. Now if spontaneously an intelligent species arises on a star system exactly in the middle, both of the original pair will be delighted: They now only need to send their information 1/2 the distance, and so the power requirement will drop by a factor of 4. And even though the middle guy is having to send to 2 neighbors, his burden is still 50% of what the original pair had to invest.

    So even if an intelligent member of the network has nothing original to contribute, it still provides value just as a relay, and it gets to enjoy the information it relays.

    I imagine a kind of interstellar culture shock. Just as isolated native tribes are overwhelmed when they are discovered by modern society, where very quickly they realize all their greatest accomplishments are like the toy buildings a toddler might build, might not our own superintelligent community find itself to be absolutely pathetic when compared to the beauty and culture of the information it will start to receive, which is by definition going to be nothing but the best the galaxy has to offer?

    This concept of the intellerstellar network offers some possible insight into why we haven't detected any sign of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The fact is intelligent life will evolve so quickly into the virtual reality / simulation realm that any random radio transmissions will seem as just a very short blip, so the liklihood of us happening to be listening to the right star system at just the right time would be negligible. However there is a very good chance neighboring star systems with existing intelligent life are already aware of us and are just waiting for us to evolve into the next higher level so we can join their network. In fact they might already be sending us streams of information. I'm not surprised we haven't picked up on it yet.

    For one thing, their scale of time will be very much different from ours. From their point of view we'll be operating perhaps millions of times more slowly than they are. So even if they're sending us information it might be so complex and dense that we don't even recognize it as such. Secondly, it may be a policy that the information stream is intentionally obscured, as a means of preventing any intelligent species from too early tapping into it. It may be the universe loves variety more than anything else, and each new intelligent species growing into superintelligence is only valuable if it can follow its own unique path. If we were to pick up the information from other stars too soon we'd never really get a chance to find out who we are...

    Another reason we might not have detected any information being sent to us is that energy resource limits dictate its form be so efficient that we can't even imagine what that form is. We're able to use telescopes to pick up the absolutely staggering waste of energy stars are throwing out into the void all the time, but it could be that is nothing at all similiar to what the stream of information will be like. Finally one other reason that comes to mind is the neighbors are waiting for a clear signal from us, in the right form, announcing ourselves to the universe, and until they get that they have no reason whatsoever to direct their scarce resources sending a stream to us.

    It may be that if we were smart enough and fully understood the physics of this universe it may be there is a single, best way of sending the most dense stream of information from one star system to another, and we just haven't figured it out yet.

    Let's explore a bit what interesting information might be transmitted across the network. Our human science fiction movies are embarrasingly unoriginal. Look at Star Wars: You have humans, plus other humanoid aliens. Ditto for Star Trek. The chances are very very small that all intelligent life in the universe is similiar to evolved monkeys. We could transmit to our neighbors what it's like to exist as an evolved monkey in our world. And they'd send to us what it's like to be them in theirs. What if they evolved underwater, what might their life be like? Maybe they have dozens of hands and many eyes looking in all directions, maybe like a big spider. Maybe they evolved in a pool of molten metal, and our existence would seem unimaginably cold to them. The reality is we can't even hope to imagine what variety exists out there.

    A thing I wonder is, "What then?" The game No Man's Sky recently was released, to general crushing disappointment. It didn't come close to living up to the hype. It's a lonely, solitary game. Each player exists alone in a universe with no hope of finding any companionship, doomed only to go from planet to planet seeing what wonders they contain, out of a galaxy with trillions upon trillions of star systems algorithmically generated on the fly. The act of discovering a star system magically creates all its parameters in the instant it is first visited. But visit 10 or 12 planets and they start to seem... the same. Endless variety but within a very limited realm. Huge letdown.

    It may be that after tasting the delights flowing around the galactic network for long enough, after experiencing practically limitless godlike power to shape virtual realities and enter them, at some point the realization might set in that no matter how much capacity to perceive, think and remember an entity has, even an infinite amount of time would not be enough to explore everything, and after exploring only the tiniest, tiniest subset of possibility it might become inescapable that there is no point to it at all. I imagine when that happens an entity might choose to just... stop. It might donate its share of the computing resources to the rest of the community. It might commit a form of suicide and just wipe itself out completely. Perhaps other members of the community pick over the remnants of its existence, adding whatever interesting tidbits to their own being, before the computing resource are distributed amongst the remaining members.

    It might be there's no point to the whole thing, after all. Intelligence, I mean. But it seems to me even if there never was any point to it, it certainly was more interesting going through the whole thing than to have not done so. It seems to me even pointless existence is better than no existence at all... There's no beauty in nothingness, because there's no one there to appreciate it.