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Extropy: An increase in Complexity

Given the maddening, white knuckle ride in the markets of late I decided to include this piece on Extropy so our readers can get more acquainted with the astonishing level of change that we are witnessing on a daily basis. Since the market volatility is surging again and likely to remain high throughout this winter, we have attached this article on extropy in an attempt to put this extreme change in perspective.

Change is increasing at a geometric rate and have been for years. This increase is universal in nature and not limited to capital markets as the evidence will show. The bottom line is that we must accept and understand this trend so we can better adapt to it. It will pay to be flexible in your portfolio strategy as well as your thinking on nearly everything because placing limitations or remaining too rooted in outdated beliefs could hamper your integration with the new reality just beyond the horizon.

This article traces the six paradigms of human communication over time, from spoken language to the world wide web and beyond. Much like the Mayan Calendar chart in the following section, it relates the advancement of that progression from linear to geometric to a projected quantum leap in the coming years. It centers entirely on the acceleration aspect of this evolution so that its subtle yet mystifying dynamics are more readily absorbed. While I disagree with their take on the coming sixth paradigm, I do believe it does capture the texture of change we will see in the coming years.

Extropy: An increase in Complexity

from the Incipient Posthuman

In exploring the transhumanist ideas on this site, start with the Introduction. Then read the expanded sections on this page that present five key concepts:

1. EXTROPY: New scientific theories suggest that open systems in general will tend toward an increase in complexity.

2. KM: Our capability for knowledge management (KM) continues to grow exponentially, and with each leap forward a new era in human development is achieved.

3. EVOLUTION: The process of evolution on Earth has not concluded with humans; it still proceeds today, and is about to take a dramatic turn.

4. SINGULARITY: Due to an exponentially increasing acceleration in the development of science, technology, economics, and human potential, we may be approaching a time when progress happens so fast that its direction and results cannot effectively be predicted.

5. TRANSHUMANISM: A new philosophy is emerging to assist us in making the transition from human to posthuman.

Extropy: An Increase in Complexity

The entire universe is composed of matter and energy. As matter and energy interact, change occurs. Within systems, this change leads to organization. Eventually, it seems, the interaction between matter and energy creates life. And from life arises intelligence.

The propensity of life to seek, to grow, to expand, to push the boundaries outward and upward is well established and understood. Life ceaselessly strives for propagation, for reproduction. In the process, through random mutation and natural selection, life continues to experiment with greater orders of design, complexity, and intelligence.

“This acceleration is the consequence of the increasing complexity of organisms and the increase in genetic variation associated with it. There is a directly proportional correlation between the degree of genetic variation and the speed of evolution. When variation increases (for example, at the moment the eukaryotic cell with a nucleus of pairs of chromosomes, which makes sexual reproduction—and therefore a continuous recombination of genetic material—possible, is created), then there is greater choice for natural selection and evolution moves up into a higher gear. The continual increase in complexity and heterogeneity of organisms and their environments has led to evolution of life being characterized by an exponential acceleration which has continued to the present day.”

(from “Transhumanism” by Jos de Mul, © 2002 World Transhumanist Association)

This increase in order—referred to by some transhumanists as extropy and called negative entropy or negentropy by many scientists—can be seen to have begun even before the advent of earthly life. From out of the primordial energy of the Big Bang, first came matter, then stars and galaxies, and eventually planets possessing a suitable mix of chemistry and environment that would lead to the formation of life.

“Carl Sagan, in 1977, popularized the idea of accelerating development within a universal reference frame, with his Cosmic Calendar (a.k.a., the ‘accelerating cosmic timeline’), highlighting the ever faster emergence of important physical-computational events throughout the known history of the universe. Recently, Eric Chaisson (Cosmic Evolution, 2001) has brilliantly given this cosmologic acceleration of complexity a clear thermodynamic basis, in terms of the quantity Phi, the free energy rate density.

“The pioneering work of Sagan, Kurzweil, Chaisson, and other systems theorists, strongly implies that there is something about the construction of the universe itself, something about the nature and universal function of local computation that permits, even mandates, continuously accelerating computational development in local environments.”

(from “What is the Singularity?” by John Smart)

Physicist and educator Eric Chaisson, a leading thinker among the growing body of scientists who recognize a natural basis for increasing complexity, or extropy, writes:

“Cosmic evolution has guided matter from a state of simplicity to a state of complexity. Advancing over the course of time, evolutionary change has fashioned intelligent life on at least one planet—Earth—and possibly on others as well. Since earliest times, evolution has consistently favored those organisms able to gather and understand information efficiently. This is apparently true whether the organism was a primitive microbe swimming in the early primordial sea, or a semi-cultured ape-man roaming the ancient forests of our planet.”

Order begets more order. Complexity breeds greater complexity. Intelligence inevitably increases. That’s the way things work in the cosmos.

Here on Earth, accelerating rates of learning and technological progress have created a positive feedback loop. Human civilization rides an ever ascending spiral, climbing faster and farther with each passing era.

“Today we are in the midst of a … momentous evolutionary transition: the human-led fusion of life into a vast network of people, crops, animals, and machines. A whir of trade and telecommunications is binding our technological and biological creations into a vast social organism of planetary dimensions. And this entity’s emergent powers are expanding our individual potentials far beyond those of other primates.

“This global matrix has taken form in only a few thousand years and grows ever tighter and more interconnected. The process started slowly among preliterate hunter-gatherers, but once humans learned to write, they began to accumulate knowledge outside their brains. Change began to accelerate. The storage capacity for information became essentially unlimited, even if sifting through that information on the tablets and scrolls where it resided was hard. Now, however, with the advent of the computer, the power to electronically manipulate and sort this growing body of information is speeding up to the point where such processing occurs nearly as easily as it previously did within our brains. With the amount of accessible information exploding on the Internet and elsewhere, small wonder that our technology is racing ahead.”

(from “The Last Human” by Gregory Stock)

Six Paradigms for Knowledge Management

  • Paradigm I – Spoken Language
  • Paradigm II – Written Language
  • Paradigm III – Printing Press
  • Paradigm IV – Computer
  • Paradigm V – World Wide Web
  • Paradigm VI – Artificial Intelligence

During the age of Homo sapiens sapiens—approximately the last 100,000 years—our capacity for knowledge management (KM) has increased exponentially. There is a clear and direct correlation between our steadily accelerating capability for KM and measurable progress in other significant fields. Several distinct paradigm shifts, or great leaps forward, can be seen.

In earliest proto-human times, before spoken language [Paradigm I] was developed, KM was limited to a single brain, or, at most, to that plus whatever could be communicated with grunts, sign language and body language. With the perfection of verbal symbolic language, our prehistoric ancestors were able to share at least some of the contents of two or more brains; KM capability was effectively doubled. This period—during which an individual person could be estimated to have had relatively easy access to the equivalent of the contents of about two modern books (call it EBK, for Equivalent Book Knowledge)—endured for perhaps 100,000 years.

Until written language [Paradigm II] was invented, all KM still had to take place within human brains, that is, within our limited and notoriously unreliable memories. But when information could be written down, stored, and then later retrieved and read, it represented a tremendous advance. Records could be kept far more accurately, and ideas could be communicated between people who, in both distance and time, were far apart. Modern history was born. Writing so improved KM that it made civilization possible. This period—during which an individual might have had relatively easy access to ten EBK—endured for about 5,000 years.

But as important as the development of writing was, it still represented a slow, time-consuming process, subject to mistake and laborious to duplicate. Only a small percentage of humans learned to read and even fewer to write, because there was little demand for it. Almost all human energy was expended in hard physical labor.

The invention of the printing press [Paradigm III] was the next leap forward in KM. Replacing hand-written records with automated printing was not only a tremendous increase in speed, but also in accuracy. Human scribes may have been sincere and dedicated, but their methods were unavoidably prone to error. With the printing press, ideas and data could be reliably and rapidly disseminated—making possible the Industrial Revolution. This period—during which an individual might have had ready access to 100 EBK—endured for about 500 years.

In the 20th century, creative thinkers began envisioning a new method of KM, one made possible by digitizing data. When the computer [Paradigm IV] was invented, far greater amounts of information could be stored than in printed books, and it became much easier to share—powering the Information Age. This period—in which many individuals could easily access 1000 EBK—endured about 50 years.

The most recent revolution in KM has taken place just within the past ten years. The invention of the World Wide Web [Paradigm V] made it possible for millions of computer users to quickly and easily share data. A single computer can store and retrieve the knowledge contained in thousands of books—but today countless computer networks are interconnected via the Internet and individual humans on every continent enjoy nearly instantaneous access to more information than all of humanity had known in prior centuries.

As shown on the chart below, the numbers tell a dramatic story—so dramatic, in fact, that I was unable to create a graph that would fit on the page and still show anything useful. Even if you choose to quibble with my admittedly arbitrary estimates for Equivalent Book Knowledge (EBK), it is obvious that our ability to store and retrieve information has followed an exponential path.

What will be the Sixth Paradigm?

Paradigm I 2 100,000 yrs
Paradigm II 10 5,000 yrs
Paradigm III 100 500 yrs
Paradigm IV 1,000 50 yrs
Paradigm V 100,000 10 yrs

What will be the Sixth Paradigm?

As computer storage capacity continues to increase explosively, it will soon outstrip our human ability for effective knowledge management (if this has not happened already). Fortunately, before long we will enjoy the assistance of artificial intelligence [Paradigm VI] that will not only provide access to needed answers, but also will be smart enough to ask questions we could not even formulate. This can be expected to occur within the next 15 to 20 years, if not earlier, and will make available to many humans the knowledge equivalence of at least 100 million books—an astonishing 100,000,000 EBK. Try putting that on a graph!We stand today on the threshold of a period unlike any that has gone before, a time of rapid and (r)evolutionary advancement in almost every area of our lives.

The Next Step in Evolution

Evolution isn’t a perfecting principle; it works on the principle of “just good enough”. If you really want to design something for a task, you have to look at the diversity of organisms out there and then get inspired by principles.

Robert J. Full, Professor of Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley

Evolution is a process that functions entirely without conscious direction. But the nature of the process is such that in the long run it apparently rewards greater complexity and intelligence.

There must have been many aborted trial designs (all randomly created) that had the potential to develop into intelligent, self-aware beings before the progenitors of humans happened to be in the right place at the right time. We are a lucky accident. But the process itself seeks out lucky accidents and tests them, allowing only for the survival of the fittest.

“After more than ten billion years of cosmic evolution, the dominant species on planet Earth—the human being—has learned to tinker not only with matter and energy, but also with evolution. Whereas previously the gene (strands of DNA) and the environment (whether physical, biological, or cultural) governed evolution, 21st century Earthlings are rather suddenly gaining control of aspects of both these agents of change.

“We are now tampering with matter, diminishing the resources of our planet while constructing the trappings of utility and comfort. And we now stand on the verge of manipulating life itself, potentially altering the genetic makeup of human beings. The physicist unleashes the forces of nature; the biologist experiments with the structure of genes; the psychologist influences behavior with drugs. We are, quite literally, forcing a change in the way things change.”

(from “Cosmic Evolution” by Eric Chaisson)

On our planet (and perhaps on planets in other star systems), life forms have achieved consciousness and have developed enough intelligence to deliberately manipulate their environment on a large scale. That intelligence has been used to create civilizations, to develop cultures, to build cities, to write books, to explore the nature of our world, and to seek an understanding of the origin and destiny of the universe.

Now one might wonder if it is possible to evolve any further. Are we humans the pinnacle of evolution, the highest life form to be achieved on Earth?

The answer is both yes and no.

At this point, human beings are the pinnacle of evolution, by far the smartest and most capable creatures yet seen. Given enough time, random genetic mutation (the primary source of evolutionary development) and natural selection could well result in the creation of a species superior to Homo sapiens. But the key phrase is “enough time”. Evolution at this level takes place over eons, not decades or centuries or even millennia. Long before that time, we humans will have taken matters into our own hands.

Human-created technology is the cutting edge of evolution on this planet.

Ray Kurzweil, Inventor

For the first time in the 4.6 billion year history of Earth, a species will engage in directed evolution: the intelligent design and formation of beings superior to themselves. We have, in fact, already begun. Early on in the computer age, prescient thinkers could see where the process of continually building better and faster machines would logically lead.

Mass-produced, fully educated robot scientists working diligently, cheaply, rapidly, and increasingly effectively will ensure that most of what science knows in 2050 will have been discovered by our artificial progeny!

Hans Moravec, Scientist

The next stage of development will lead to superior beings that are not human: they may be part human and part machine or they may be purely machine; they will probably be both. In either case, they will be posthuman.

“The road to our eventual disappearance might be paved not by humanity’s failure but by its success. Progressive self-transformation could change our descendants into something sufficiently different from our present selves to not be human in the sense we use the term now. Such an occurrence would more aptly be termed a pseudo-extinction, since it would not end our lineage. Unlike the saber-toothed tiger and other large mammals that left no descendants when our ancestors drove them to extinction, Homo sapiens would spawn its own successors by fast-forwarding its evolution.”

(from “The Last Human” by Gregory Stock)

Biological evolution was followed by a cultural and technical (r)evolution, which must be measured in terms of tens of thousands, and subsequently in thousands, then hundreds of years, and now, in the age of information technology, perhaps even in decades.

Jos de Mul, Scientist

Exponentially Accelerating Change

Today, in the early years of the 21st century:

  • The speed and power of computers continues to increase at an exponentially accelerating pace.
  • Rapid advancements in nanotechnology and the potential for quantum computing continue to startle even experts in the field.
  • The human genome has been 99.99% decoded, an achievement thought nearly impossible just a decade ago.
  • Truly seamless virtual reality and practical artificial intelligence are being discussed in terms of “when”, not “if”.
  • Reverse engineering of the human brain is already underway and could be fully completed within two decades.

A few hundred years ago, progress could be measured century by century. But during the past 50 years, orders of change have begun occurring on the scale of decades. Following this trend to its logical and apparently inevitable conclusion, we can expect to see significant, noticeable and profound changes taking place over the course of just a few years, then within a year, a half year, a month, a week — a day?

Paleontologist Gregory S. Paul and logics systems designer Earl Cox foresee “a hyper shock future, nothing like the contemporary world—nothing like what we humans are used to, or have grown to expect. All the concerns we have today, and all the plans we are making to meet them, will be swept away by the changes that are likely in the next century and those that follow—changes we have thought would take centuries, millennia, or even millions of years to come to pass.” MORE

Experts predict that the next 30 years will see as much progress as the last 140 years; science, technology, and society will be as different in 2033 as today’s world is different from 1863!

In 1863 there were no electric lights, no telephones, no radio or television, no automobiles or airplanes, no computers or antibiotics or routine vaccinations. We had no understanding of bacteriology, thermodynamics, aerodynamics, cognitive science, astrophysics, quantum mechanics or relativity. What equally important discoveries and inventions will be made within the next 30 years? What things that we cannot even conceive of today will be commonplace then?

The world has changed more in the past 100 years than in any other century in history. The reason is not political or economic, but technological—technologies that flowed directly from advances in basic science.

Stephen Hawking

The Coming Technological Singularity

One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

John von Neumann (to Stanislaw Ulam)

Many believe we are headed inexorably toward a technological singularity*. The dizzying—and accelerating—pace of development could surpass our ability to predict what is possible. In practical terms, we may always be able to see what the near future holds, but the range of “near” will continue to shrink as the metaphorical event horizon comes closer and closer. MORE

* There are two standard usages of the word singularity. In mathematics, the point where the value of an otherwise finite and continuous function becomes infinite is called a singularity; an example would be an exponential increase that creates a curve so steep it approaches infinity. In cosmology, a singularity refers to the point where mathematical modeling breaks down; one example is the inside of a black hole, the point just beyond the event horizon, where it is impossible to say what happens; another example is the instant before the Big Bang, in which time, space, and energy were all contained within a single point. Both the mathematical and cosmological definitions serve well as metaphors in thinking about the impact of hyper-accelerated technological progress.

“In general terms I think of the singularity as a useful methodological fiction defining the limits of foresight in the face of techno-cultural transformation—an ideal limit, not an actual instant at which we could somehow arrive—where transformation is so widespread or totalizing that we cannot describe outcomes as either positive or negative because we have lost every frame of reference on the basis of which to make that assignment. I think it is useful to specify such a limit because it reminds us that straightforward extrapolation will rarely yield predictive successes, and ever less so with the passage of time so long as technological trends continue. But it is also useful to insist that the limit case is ideal rather than real, since the whole point of such an idea is surely to spur greater rigor and foresight and care in the face of these transformations, rather than panic or passivity.”

Dale Carrico, Professor, U.C. Berkeley

“The Singularity will be, perhaps, the ultimate culmination of human cultural evolution. In chronological time, most of that evolutionary history, perhaps a million years, was involved in simple tool construction, and in perfecting language as a means of communication. Language allowed also for the codification of thought, a way for a person to communicate with his own mind. Technology accelerated a little faster when language became written, and speeded up quite a bit more when Gutenberg mechanized the process. Textbooks were written and education on a mass scale became possible.

“Most of the scientists, engineers, and technicians who were ever alive are still alive, with all their collective brainpower. Computers have extended their computational power, and of course, the Internet has allowed cheap and rapid communication between scientists as well as intercomputer discourse.”

(from “Surviving the Singularity” by Steve Alan Edwards)

Positive Feedback Loops

A key point to keep in mind is that the rate of progress we marvel at today will be dwarfed when intelligent machines are able to design their own successors. That’s when the real fun begins.

“Once artificial intelligence reaches human level, there will be a positive feedback loop that will give the development a further boost. AIs would help constructing better AIs, which in turn would help building better AIs, and so forth.

“In contrast to what’s possible for biological intellects, it might be possible to copy skills or cognitive modules from one artificial intellect to another. If one AI has achieved eminence in some field, then subsequent AIs can upload the pioneer’s program or synaptic weight-matrix and immediately achieve the same level of performance. It would not be necessary to again go through the training process. The intellectual achievements of artificial intellects are additive in a way that human achievements are not, or only to a much less degree.

“The marginal utility of improvements in AI when AI reaches human-level would also seem to skyrocket, causing funding to increase. We can therefore make the prediction that once there is human-level artificial intelligence then it will not be long before superintelligence is technologically feasible.”

(from “How Long Before Superintelligence?” by Nick Bostrom)

When will all this take place?

Nobody knows for sure, but it is likely to be a lot sooner than most people expect or will be prepared for. Many experts believe we will see dramatic changes such as benign invasive nanobot medical care, superhuman artificial intelligence, and mind-brain uploads within the next 30 to 40 years. Others expect it will take at least 50 to 100 years. Still others claim this could all become reality within the next 10 to 20 years.

“Many of the techniques required for the realization of the three outlined alternatives (genetic engineering of the human organism, the construction of cyborgs, and the development of artificial life and artificial intelligence) are already reality—or at least in the process of development. Furthermore, if we take the exponential acceleration of evolution seriously, then neither can we comfort ourselves with the thought that this will take ages. Even the failure of artificial intelligence research, with its unrealistic expectations, gives no reason for complacency. A characteristic of exponential acceleration is that we tend to overestimate its effects in the short term, while often grossly underestimating its effects in the somewhat longer term.”

(from “Transhumanism” by Jos de Mul, © 2002 World Transhumanist Association)

The Philosophy of Transhumanism

Transhumanism is high-tech life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness beyond human limits.

Michael LaTorra, Teacher

Transhumanism is a radical new approach to future-oriented thinking based on the premise that the human species does not represent the end of our evolution but its beginning.

Transhumanists believe that we should use all available means to improve the human condition. This is nothing new—we have been doing it for ages with fire, farming, steam, bicycles, antibiotics, vaccines, dental prosthesis, cell phones, etc. Transhumanists take this common sense approach to its natural conclusion: we believe that modern science and technology can safely improve the human condition by overcoming natural limits, and that they should be used to this end. So if today, for example, we say “yes” to therapeutic cloning and cryonics research, tomorrow we will say “yes” to aging reversal and intelligence enhancement.

In general, transhumanism takes a pro-technology stance, but insists that our deployment of emerging technologies ought to be done in a critical and ethical manner. New fields of research such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have associated risks and benefits; used unwisely these technologies could have disastrous consequences for humanity. The risks and benefits of rapid technological development raise a number of ethical questions that the philosophy of transhumanism seeks to address.

Transhumanism is formally defined as:

(1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

(2) The study of the ramifications, promises and potential dangers of the use of science, technology, creativity, and other means to overcome fundamental human limitations.

Transhumanism can be viewed as an extension of humanism, from which it is partially derived. Humanists believe that humans matter, that individuals matter. We might not be perfect, but we can make things better by promoting rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, solidarity, and democracy. Transhumanists agree with this but also emphasize what we have the potential to become. Not only can we use rational means to improve the human condition and the external world; we can also use them to improve ourselves, the human organism. And in doing so, we are not limited to traditional humanistic methods, such as education and cultural development. We can also use technological means that will eventually enable us to move beyond what some would think of as “human”.

It is not the shape of our bodies or the details of our current biology that give humans a special dignity, but rather our aspirations and ideals, our ability to think and our ability to care. To a transhumanist, progress is when more people become more able to deliberately shape themselves, their lives, and the ways they relate to others, in accordance with their own deepest values.

Through the accelerating pace of technological development and scientific understanding, we are entering a whole new stage in the history of the human species. In the near future, we will face the prospect of real artificial intelligence. New kinds of cognitive tools will be built that combine artificial intelligence with new interface technology. Molecular nanotechnology has the potential to create abundant resources for everybody and to give us complete control over the biochemical processes in our bodies, thereby allowing us to eliminate disease and unwanted aging. Through the redesign or pharmacological enrichment of our pleasure-centers we may have the option of enjoying increased emotional well-being and a richer diversity of emotions, or a greater capacity for steady commitment to our life projects or to a loved one.

On the dark side of the spectrum, transhumanists recognize that some of these coming technologies could potentially cause great harm to human life; even the survival of our species could be at risk. Seeking to understand the dangers and working to prevent disasters is an essential part of the transhumanist agenda.

Transhumanism is today entering the mainstream culture, as increasing numbers of scientists, scientifically literate philosophers, and social thinkers are beginning to take seriously the range of possibilities that transhumanism encompasses. Organizations of concerned transhumanists have been formed to advance this philosophy; to promote discussion of the possibilities for radical improvement of human capacities through emerging technologies; to understand, manage, and direct the development of these technologies in a way that will preserve and protect the best of what makes us human while reducing or eliminating the worst; to raise public consciousness of these matters; and to assist in the orderly but urgent reorientation of our society in view of the massive changes just ahead. The two most prominent international organizations of this type are the Extropy Institute and the World Transhumanist Association.

The following is an official statement from the World Transhumanist Association:

Transhumanism is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding and evaluating the possibilities for overcoming biological limitations through technological progress. Transhumanists seek to expand technological opportunities for people to live and to enhance their intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.

Emerging technologies raise profound scientific, technical, social, and ethical issues. The WTA was founded in 1998 to support discussion, research, and public awareness of cutting-edge transhumanist thinking. Both present technologies, such as genetic engineering, information technology, and pharmaceuticals, as well as anticipated future capabilities, such as nanotechnology, machine intelligence, uploading, “paradise-engineering”, and space colonization, are part of the transhumanist ambit. Risks as well as benefits are explored, with the ultimate aim of developing workable strategies and policies to enable societies and individuals to navigate the waters ahead.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Plausible scenarios range from the extinction of intelligent life to a posthuman future that could be very wonderful and happy indeed.