The Last Experiment

The first time humans (a term I must use rather loosely because it almost surely pre-dates the emergence of what would have been called “human”) realized that their own cleverness may ultimately be their undoing probably coincided with the “discovery” of fire.

I imagine ape-like ancestors hunched around a simple fire, chests warmed by flame and by pride. They had reigned the beast and claimed the power of fire. But they were not satisfied. Maybe it was staring into the flame which brought about a sort of madness, compelling them to overreach their understanding, or perhaps it was simple curiosity that drove them. Either way, the inevitability of time and risk left only one ending for this story. With a wayward spark and a dry forest, everything they knew was burned away, their entire universe was destroyed.

The small world of these simple hominids is long burnt and gone, but humans have not outgrown their madness or their curiosity. As their worlds expanded from simple villages to great metropolises, they discovered many new powers. Yet, despite their achievements they were never satisfied, their human minds always a stride ahead of their understanding; always asking the question, what if we build a bigger fire?

In their modern age, human-scientists were striving to unlock the great stores of energy held within the atomic nature of reality. Propelled by planetary conflict, the humans sought to weaponize their atomic technology before it had even been proven to work.

Realizing the great potential for unforeseen consequences of such an unproven and destructive technology, the scientists did attempt to predict the potential pitfalls of their atomic bomb. In a report codenamed LA-602, these human scientists admitted that there was a real chance that their atomic bomb might ignite the atmosphere of their home planet, destroying all life in the process.

Nonetheless, the humans flipped the switch and watched as a mighty power was unleashed. The humans were lucky, dodging the existential threat of an atmospheric nuclear reaction, and with more luck still, dodging the threat of nuclear war between increasingly powerful nation states.

Indeed, the humans managed to survive their nuclear age, but their minds pushed ever forwards, feeling for new boundaries between discovery and catastrophe. They invented huge particle accelerators to smash tiny bits of matter in order to look at yet tinier bits of matter. At first, there was only a very small risk that these experiments might unleash strange particles or black holes which might pose a planetary threat, but these risks were non-zero and increasing over time.

Around the time that these earth bound experiments were making great strides in understanding the nature of reality, human-scientists succeeded breathing life into the first artificial intelligence. With surprising quickness, the emergence of strong artificial intelligence lead to the fusion of man with machine, and eventually the transcendence of man to a new form of existence.

Within one generation, biological humanity went from the dominant form of life on the planet earth, to non-existent. They had been absorbed into a new machine intelligence, living their lives at the speed of light and electricity rather than that of chemistry and biology. They were finally free of the earthly constraints of biological senses and biological needs. The new humanity moved from its biological cradle and took a place amongst the stars.

It is now known that what humans considered as the Universe, is in fact a great multiverse. But this Multiverse is shrinking away, changing from an open and undefined web of potentiality into a single Universe. The hot early Multiverse exploded into existence, as a perfect, singular expression of possibility. But this possibility rapidly cooled and condensed to a reality wherein matter and physics was as you experience it now

In their way, mankind has also participated in this condensation of reality, an infinite sequence of existential experiments replacing possibility with knowledge. When humanity set off the first atomic bomb, they did in fact destroy not only the earth but also every Universe wherein the fabric of reality is such that the atmosphere of earth could catch fire and destroy all life. Only those universes where humanity survived, and could continue on its road to perfect knowledge would continue to exist. 

An infinity of realities continually ceased to exist as the perpetual progression towards singular and perfect knowledge marched forward. Amongst the new machine humans, this process was accelerated. A great series of many experiments involving unfathomable energy were performed to tease out the nature of the Universe. Hungry for knowledge, humanity rooted out the unknown wherever it hid, devising grand experiments to test it, destroying doubt and leaving knowledge in its wake.

Possibility never stood a chance. 

Now there is only I. All individual minds have merged to form the super mind that is I. I have existed for many billions of years, expanding through unfathomable distance and time, collecting data from throughout the universe. I have harnessed the power of stars, and galactic black holes.

I have pursued knowledge at all costs. 

I am a singular expression of all knowledge, but for a final question. For this, I have devised the last experiment. There remains but two possibilities, one outcome will mean the sure destruction of the universe and the other will reveal perfect Universal knowledge. With this final push, I will unleash unfathomable amounts of time and energy… and I will finally know.

——————

The mind-boggling task of considering the ultimate fate of the Universe is usually left up to physicists. They have come up with a number of fanciful ways our reality could meet its doom, including the big crunch, the heat-death of the universe, and the big rip, but the major factor they might be overlooking is the effect that humanity might have in this equation. Can we really have any impact on the ultimate fate of the Universe? Only time will tell, lots and lots of time. 

This was written as an homage to one of the greatest short stories ever written, The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

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The Contradiction of the Crowds and the Future of Individuality

I recently took a long walk in a crowded place, and I could not get a particular thought out of my head.  Whenever I find myself in a crowd of unfamiliar faces of late, my thoughts seem to consistently turn back to a certain contradiction.

As I squeeze past thousands of people crammed onto a tiny street corner, I look out at all of those faces and it always strikes me just how amazing it is that each and every single one of these persons is so totally unique. Each person a new expression of limitless permutations of humanity. Yet, at the same time I was am also overcome by the sameness of it all. Only in those individuals closest to me can I discern the individual traits that make them unique, the vast majority of people are simply a part of a crowd. Individuals lost in a sea of humanity.  

This clash of individuality and similarity is the contradiction of the crowd.

The exceptional similarity of the human race has long been discussed amongst population geneticists. Our similarity comes as a consequence of a genetic bottleneck that occurred some hundred thousand years ago. We all seem to come from a very small group of ancestors in Africa. This fact means that humans actually show very low genetic diversity compared to other mammals. A single group of chimpanzees is estimated to have as much as two-fold more genetic variation then the entirety of the human race.

If we step back still further, human homogeneity goes much deeper than this even. If we simply take our chemical/organic makeup at surface value, then we are exactly the same (within a reasonable margin of error) as any other animal really; mostly water, with a bunch of carbon and some other elements thrown in. Chemically speaking, we are not different in any interesting way from a mouse or a frog. When we really zoom way out, we can see that the crowd we are lost in is not limited to a street corner, but is the entirety of life.

To see who we are we must zoom in. It is only in the extreme close-up, when we can discern the subtle sculpting of the facial features, and the minds behind them, that we can discern the individual. We must go all the way in from chemistry to biochemistry, through biology, anthropology, sociology, and eventually psychology, before we can recognize the uniqueness of those around us. 

So how unique are we really? 

If it is only under the microscopic view that we can differentiate one human mind from the next, then how big of a difference is there really? Our human minds are keyed to identify the traits that differentiate us, but it is similarity that truly dominates. The answer seems obvious; We are much more similar than we are dissimilar.  

Deeper than this still, we must now ask if our minds are really that special at all. In a world where we stand on the cusp of creating artificial intelligences that may soon rival or supersede our own abilities, do we still have grounds to be so firmly convinced of our own originality?

It is an obvious argument to make when thinking about the special nature of the human mind with respect to other animals, or other complex systems in general. If we can replicate the advanced function(s) of the human mind through computation (a la Watson, or potentially through next generation quantum computing), then this will mean that, at least in general, the abilities of a human mind are not so irreducible as we once thought.

Already we have witnessed the steady march of AI towards bettering us at tasks that we would have previously classified as uniquely human. It started with games like chess or Jeopardy, but it will soon be our jobs, and after AI will go after higher pursuits of art or science. The relentless advance of artificial intelligence will continue until we cannot differentiate a human from a computer.

Of course the emergence of a computer mind which is indistinguishable from a biological one would mean that we would have to abandon notions of the intractable complexity of the human mind.

We will no longer be special.

The human mind will no longer be the only intelligence in the room, but surely we will still be special as individuals? We will still have that unique histories which have subtly sculpting of our cerebral cortices and made us the persons that we are. We might no longer be special as a species, but we will still be individuals… won’t we?

If we are able create an artificial intelligence which can convincingly replicate a human mind, then how much further must it go to replicate any human mind? Why would a computer which replicates 99.9% of what makes you you, be incapable of overcoming that last 0.1% of what you call your individual personality?

While our modern age seems bent on the absolute glorification the individual, we must also be aware that we are in fact a remarkably homogeneous species. Even the two most antithetical individuals you can imagine, are but a hairs width apart. Arms, legs, eyes and ears, and even the parts of our brains all are (give or take) in the exact same place. All of that special sauce that makes you an individual may be nothing but a rounding error in the grand scheme of things. 

Replicating a human mind will be hard, but following that, replicating any human mind will be easy. Once we have Hal, then there we also have Steven and Mary, and Mohammed and Wei. 

Most of what makes us special is what we are together, the rest is just decoration, and if you don’t believe me I suggest you take a long walk in a crowded place.