Monday, July 29, 2013

Vision of the Future -- Gray Goo and Exponentially Expanding Consciousness

In the deep future I see, machines of inconceivable complexity radiate outward from the Earth like rays from the Sun. They are tiny, sophisticated, self-replicating seeds with the sole objective of converting all matter they come in to contact with in to exact replicas of themselves. Their purpose is to wake up the "dumb matter" of the universe by taking cold, unstructured matter and restructuring it in to computational substrate.


Because the only thing that really ever matters is computation. We can easily convince ourselves of this by seeing that consciousness is a form of computation, and further that consciousness is the canvas on which all other experience is painted on. If any kind of experience is important to us, then consciousness, and therefore computation, must surely be more important.

One might argue that claiming "consciousness is all that matters because all of our experiences are felt through the medium of consciousness" is to ignore why consciousness is important to us in the first place: the experiences. Without experience consciousness is empty. In analogous words, a blank canvas is not interesting to look at. This quickly degrades into a "chicken-or-the-egg" problem. Without consciousness, experience is impossible, but without experience consciousness is boring. Therefore, one cannot be more important than the other. And, this may be true, but the reason computation is so valuable is because not only does it encompass consciousness, but it can also produce and simulate experience. Computation supersedes both. Regardless of which precedes the other, consciousness or experience, it makes no difference since computation realizes both.

What is likely the most amazing fact that I can think of, and one that I happen to spend a significant amount of time thinking about, is that consciousness seems to be a built-in feature of the universe. There's nothing truly mysterious about consciousness (in the sense that it's not supernatural or scientifically unknowable), it's simply the emergent property of arranging physical chunks of the universe in just the right way. Sure the details of how to arrange those chunks are a little more complicated, but from a high-level overview, that's essentially what consciousness is. You can take a relatively small amount of hydrogen, and given enough time, produce an entity that can think about the fact that it used to be a relatively small amount of hydrogen. Consciousness is, quite literally, the universe conceptualizing itself.

That thing that I describe as "my life" is simply the collection of experiences inflicted on my physical body over the course of a few decades during which my body is lucky enough to possess just the right properties for consciousness to emerge. After this period (and before it too), my body will continue to undergo change, but the properties necessary to host consciousness will no longer be there, and those changes wont really be experienced in the way that they would be at this moment.

In that brief span of time when our bodies do possess consciousness, we crave experience. Since experience is just information processed by our consciousness, in a very real sense, all we ever crave is information.

Along this line, civilization is simply the process of reorganizing the physical universe in a way that makes "pleasant" information most accessible to the most number of conscious entities. All of culture -- that is the creation and appreciation of art, science, and entertainment -- is to this end as well, to create and consume information.

Thus, if we take this understanding of civilization to it's logical endpoint, we see that the end-game of any intelligence (human, alien, or otherwise) is to fill the universe with as much positive conscious experience as physically possible. In fact, not only is "waking up" the universe the end-game of any intelligence, it would be difficult to argue that it's not also its moral obligation. If we take the utilitarian approach to ethics, namely that what's good is that which minimizes suffering and maximizes pleasure, then certainly the creation of galactic super-intelligences, capable of joy and ecstasy orders of magnitude greater than what humans can experience, is a moral good.

For these reasons, I believe that the ultimate state of the universe is a conscious one. In a way, this is very fitting. Since it's inception through evolutionary selection, consciousness has been a self-replicating process. Technology will enable that process to continue on to cosmic scales. The universe sowed the seeds of consciousness at the bottom of the gravity well that we call Earth (and most certainly other planets as well), and those seeds will eventually blossom in the form of universe-wide consciousnesses. It's as if the universe had consciousness in mind all along.

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