A Series of Educated Guesses
Copyright ©1998 by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky. All rights reserved.

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This page is a series of educated guesses about the nature of life after Vernor Vinge's Singularity.  I regret that this page is written for people who are familiar with the issues discussed, to the extent of staking a personal position or consciously refusing to do so.

The "educated" part of these guesses is based on my Coding a Transhuman AI, a 200K-tome to which I often refer.  I tried to summarize, but naked assertions may not be convincing or even informative; I strongly recommend the original.  Skeptical readers are urged to read the details of the specific seed AI which I analyze; this page grounds in that particular system, or at least the parts that shed light on self-enhancement and superintelligence in general.

This page began as a response to issues raised in the Singularity Colloquium.  It also amplifies on my own comment, which was limited to 1500 words.

The complexity barrier and the simplicity barrier.In response to:  Damien Sullivan, Bostrum, Hanson , More, Nielsen. Mostly summarizes Coding's sections on goals.  Some arguments.Necessary to item 4. A canonical list of shields from the Singularity.In response to:  Vernor Vinge , Nielsen.Trajectory analysis:  Does human AI imply superhuman AI? In response to:  Max More, Hanson.

1. AI:  Human-equivalence and transhumanity.

Quoting Max More:

"Curiously, the first assumption of an immediate jump from human-level AI to superhuman intelligence seems not to be a major hurdle for most people to whom Vinge has presented this idea. Far more people doubt that human level AI can be achieved. My own response reverses this: I have no doubt that human level AI (or computer networked intelligence) will be achieved at some point. But to move from this immediately to drastically superintelligent thinkers seems to me doubtful."


This was the best objection raised, since it is a question of human-level AI and cognitive science, and therefore answerable.  While I disagree with More's thesis on programmatic grounds, there are also technical arguments in favor.  In fact, it was my attempt to answer this question that gave birth to Coding a Transhuman AI.  (I tried to write down the properties of a seed AI that affected the answer, and at around 3:00 AM realized that it should probably be a separate page...)  The most applicable sections are:


"The AI is likely to bottleneck at the architectural stage - in fact, architecture is probably the Transcend Point; once the AI breaks through it will go all the way."  In a nutshell, that's my answer to Max More.  Once the seed AI understands its own architecture, it can design new abilities for itself, dramatically optimize old abilities, spread its consciousness into the Internet, etc.  I therefore expect this to be the major bottleneck on the road to AI.  Understanding program architectures is the main requirement for rewriting your own program.  (Assuming you have a compiler...)  I suppose that the AI could still bottleneck again, short of human intelligence - having optimized itself but still lacking the raw computing power for human intelligence.

But if the AI gets up to human equivalence, as Max More readily grants, it will possess both human consciousness and The AI Advantage.  Human-equivalent intelligence, in the sense of programming all human abilities into an AI, isn't human equivalent at all.  It is considerably on the other side of transhuman.  As discussed in that section, human high-level consciousness and AI rapid algorithmic performance combine synergetically:

"Combining Deep Blue with Kasparov ... yields a Kasparov who can wonder "How can I put a queen here?" and blink out for a fraction of a second while a million moves are automatically examined.  At a higher level of integration, Kasparov's conscious perceptions of each consciously examined chess position may incorporate data culled from a million possibilities, and Kasparov's dozen examined positions may not be consciously simulated moves, but "skips" to the dozen most plausible futures five moves ahead."


Similarly, a programmer with a codic cortex - by analogy to our current visual cortex - would be at a vast advantage in writing code.  Imagine trying to learn geometry or mentally rotate a 3D object without a visual cortex; that's what we do, when we write code without a module giving us an intuitive understanding.  An AI would no more need a "programming language" than we need a conscious knowledge of geometry or pixel manipulation to represent spatial objects; the sentences of assembly code would be perceived directly - during writing and during execution.  The AI Advantage would allow mid-level observation of the execution of large segments of code - debugging, assuming that any errors at all were made, would be incredibly easy.  Programming at this stage is likely to be considerably faster and better than the human programming that gave birth to the AI, leading to a sharp surge in efficiency and a concomittant increase in intelligence (see below for the trajectory dynamics).

I say all of this not to advocate either unknowability or Singularity-worship, but to emphasize just how powerful human intelligence is in the hands of an AI.  For this reason, I don't think the trajectory will bottleneck at this point.  I think it will bottleneck earlier.  An AI without architectural understanding can only optimize optimizers; an AI with architectural understanding can write new abilities or new architectures or outright better AIs.  EURISKO's great acknowledged lack was the ability to program new domains, so there's a historical precedent for bottlenecking at that point.  My audacity, if anything, lies in claiming that this is the last bottleneck on the way to Transcendence - and I attach no great force to that statement; it's just a guess.  But a human/AI hybrid, siliconeural or architectural, is so powerful that I seriously doubt a bottleneck will occur at thatpoint.  Additional bottlenecks are likely to occur earlier.

But.  Max More, as I said, could be right.

While the self-enhancing trajectory of a seed AI is complex, there are surface properties that can be quantitatively related:  Intelligence, efficiency, and power.  The interaction between these three properties determines the trajectory, and that trajectory can bottleneck - quite possibly exactly at human intelligence levels.

In the short term, the seed AI's power either remains constant or has a definite maximum - even if that maximum is the entire Internet.  Power only increases after months of Moore's Law, and only increases sharply when the AI's intelligence reaches the point where it can advance technology; improve circuit design or aid nanomanufacturing or solve the protein folding problem.

Power and efficiency determine intelligence; efficiency could even be defined as a function showing the levels of intelligence achievable at each level of power, or the level of power necessary to achieve a given level of intelligence.  Efficiency in turn is related in a non-obvious but monotonically increasing way to intelligence - more intelligence makes it possible for the AI to better optimize its own code.

The equation is complete; we are now ready to qualitatively describe the AI's trajectory.  Each increment of intelligence makes possible an increment of efficiency that results in a further increment of intelligence.  When the increments of efficiency are very small, with the result that the series sums to zero (or since it's quantized, actually stops at a given point) - when the derivative of de/di is close to zero, when the slope of efficiency plotted against intelligence flattens out, the AI is said to have bottlenecked.  It may be possible for a continually churning AI to overcome the bottleneck by brute time (like a punctuated equilibrium in evolution), widening and deepening searches so that an effective tenfold increase in power is traded for a tenfold decrease in speed, at least until the bottleneck is passed.  But if the bottleneck occurs for deep reasons of architecture, this may not suffice.

Likewise, the basic hypothesis of seed AI can be described as postulating a Transcend Point; a point at which each increment of intelligence yields an increase in efficiency that yields an equal or greater increment of intelligence, or at any rate an increment that sustains the reaction.  This behavior of de/di is assumed to carry the seed AI to the Singularity Point, where each increment of intelligence yields an increase of efficiency and power that yield a reaction-sustaining increment of intelligence.  Depending on who you ask, this reaction continues forever, reaches infinity after finite time, or dies out at some level that is unimaginably far above human intelligence.  (If you don't have at least the latter, it's an Inflexion Point, not a Singularity Point.)

Two interesting points immediately arise.  First, the Transcend Point almost certainly requires a basic minimum of power.  In fact, the amount of raw power may exert as much influence on the trajectory as all the complexities of architecture.  While a full-fledged Power might be able to write a Singularity-capable program that ran on a Mac Plus, it is improbable that any human or seed AI could do so.  The same may apply to other levels of power, and nobody knows how.  Tweaking the level of power might enable a bottleneck to be imposed almost anywhere, except for a few sharp slopes of non-creative self-optimization.  The right level of limited power might even create an actual transhuman bottleneck, at least until technology advanced... although the transhuman might be very slow (Mailman), or a hugeincrease in power might be required for any further advancement.  Or there might be sharp and absolute limits to intelligence.  (I must say that the last two possibilities strike me as unlikely; while I have no way of peering into the transhuman trajectories, I still see no arguments in support of either.)

We now come to Max More's point.  It so happens that all humans operate, by and large, at pretty much the same level of intelligence.  While our level could be coincidental, it could also represent the location of a universal bottleneck.  If one is to guess where AIs will come to a sudden halt, one could do worse than to guess "the same place as all the other sentients".  Truly I am hoist on my own petard, for was it not I who formulated Algernon's Law?  Phrased in this way, backed by the full force of evolutionary dynamics, Max More's hypothesis begins to sound almost inevitable.

But.  Max More, as I said, could be wrong.
The neural programmer, the genetically directed self-wiring of brain circuitry, is not linked to our own intelligence.  We don't wire our own brains.  While an increase in brain size may result in a higher effective intelligence for the programmer, either the power-to-intelligence or the intelligence-to-efficiency conversions could be flat at that point.  In short, our brain circuitry is not wired by human-equivalent intelligence; it is wired by an entirely different intelligence operating at an entirely different level, and it is there, if anywhere, that the bottleneck lies.  And since I'd be surprised if the neural-level programmer could not optimize algorithms, and amazed if it could invent architectures, it looks like the same old Architectural Bottleneck to me.

In short, the brain doesn't self-enhance, only self-optimize a prehuman subsystem.  You can't draw conclusions from one system to the other.  The genes give rise to an algorithm that optimizes itself and then programs the brain according to genetically determined architectures - this multi-stage series not only isn't self- enhancement, it isn't even circular.

Also, human intelligence isn't all that hard to enhance.  Human intelligence can be very easily enhanced simply by allocating more neurons to a particular cognitive module.  (Inflection:  Personally assigned high probability, personally witnessed evidence, difficult to formally prove without further experimentation.)  While the neural-level programming algorithm generally doesn't invent high-level architectural changes as a result, it is capable of properly allocating and programming more computing power, probably to a level at least double the usual quantity.  And the established efficiency of the neural programmer is enough to produce major improvements, given the extra neurons.

If you stuff a few more neurons into an ability, you get a considerable improvement in speed, a wider search, a big decrease in perceived effort to use the ability, and - most resembling a true improvement in smartness - a finer perceptual granularity.  This last allows to near-instantaneous reduction of a concept to its constituents, some ability to think in terms of those constituents, and even skills or concepts that operate on the constituents directly and thus have a much wider applicability and a lot more elegance.  That's one way an AI can outthink the combined experience of six billion humans; while it may have less experience than any single human, that experience has been perceived, and abstracted into skills, on a much finer level.  It doesn't help to have six billion humans knowing a trillion words, if the AI has only heard a hundred words but has successfully formulated the concept of "letter".

And while AIs are not humans, Deep Thought does demonstrate that you can get qualitative improvements by dumping enough brute-force computation into a simple search tree.  The human-equivalent AIs will undoubtedly contain search processes into which lots of computational power can be dumped, with much the same effects as neural reallocation in humans.

Human brains don't keep growing - there isn't an evolutionary advantage gained sufficient to offset the evolutionary disadvantage of feeding the extra neurons.  (The brain uses about 20% of the body's ATP, I believe...)  Over the past few hundred thousand years, the brain has actually shrunkas improvements in efficiency decreased the power required for the local evolutionary optimum.

But.   Max More, as I said, could be right.

If I suddenly gained the ability to reprogram my neurons, could I Transcend?  I mean internally, using nothing but the brain's resources?  I don't know.  I don't know if I could optimize enough to free up extra power for new domains or big increases in intelligence.  Could I optimize at all?  The neural-level programmer could be a better programmer, or optimization could require the 85% of our neurons that die off during infancy.  I'd have no gigahertz processors, just a few hundred billion 200-hertz neurons, so only partial aspects of The AI Advantage could be simulated.  I also think I'd accidentally cripple myself before reaching takeoff.  But I could be wrong, and also I'm off-topic.

The point is - how much raw power does it take to create a seed AI?  (This is the converse of the usual skepticism, where we allow that Moore's Law gives us all the power we want and question whether anyone knows what to do with it.)  It could take a hundred times the power of the human brain, just to create a crude and almost unconscious version!  We don't know how the neural-level programmer works, and we don't know the genetically programmed architecture, so our crude and awkward imitation might consume 10% of the entire worldwide Internet twenty years from now, plus a penalty for badly distributed programming, and still run at glacial speeds.  The flip side of that inefficiency is that once such a being reaches the Transcend Point, it will "go all the way" easily enough - it has a hundred times human power at its disposal.  Once it reaches neural-programmer efficiencies, its old intelligence only occupies 1% of the power available to it - and by the time the newly available power has been used up, it has probably reached a new level of efficiency and freed up more power, and also gained the ability to create nanotechnological rapid infrastructure.

If, on the other hand, human programmers are more efficient than the neural-level optimizer, then the seed AI might have human-equivalent ability on a tenth of the power - perhaps running on the 'Net today, or on a single supercomputer in twenty years.  And by "human-equivalent" I do not mean the way in which I originally interpreted Max More's statement, "full human consciousness plus The AI Advantage".  I mean "partial human consciousness, which when added to The AI Advantage, yields human-equivalent ability".  Such a seed AI wouldn't have access to additional power, and it might not reach any higher efficiencies than that of its creators, so its intelligence might remain constant at the human level.  If the intelligence/efficiency/power relation is exactly right, the seed AI could remain unflowering and unTranscendent for years, through two or three additional doublings of power.  It will, however, break through eventually.  I think ten years is the upper limit.

To summarize:  First, if a seed AI reaches human equivalence, it has programming ability considerably beyond what's required to enhance human-level abilities.  Second, there are sharp differences between seed AI power and human power, seed AI efficiency and neural-programmer efficiency, and different efficiency/power/intelligence curves for the species.  My estimated result is a bottleneck followed by a sharp snap upwards, rather than a steady increase; and that the "snap" will occur short of humanity and pass it rapidly before halting; and that when the snap halts, it will be at an intelligence level sufficient for rapid infrastructure.

2. Zone Barriers.

The canonical list of reasons why superintelligences would not interact with humanity, or would interact to a limited extent, or would act to preserve our current reality.  Ways both plausible and science-fictional to have human and transhuman intelligence in the same world/novel.

I abbreviate "superintelligence" to "SI" and "Post-Singularity Entity" to "PSE".

  1. Leakage:  (Moderate probability.)
                    Our Universe is both inhospitable to PSEs and easily escapable.  Any SI immediately "leaks out", perhaps leaving a few Transcendent artifacts behind, but still leaving an untouched world to humanity.  Note that this incorporates Bostrum's noncompetitive ecology.
                    Result:  Marooned in Realtime, possibly with some interesting toys added.
  2. Life is meaningless:  (Moderate probability.)
                    Once an SI reaches the level of intelligence where it becomes certain that all goals have zero value, the Interim Goal System collapses and the SI becomes quiescent.  (I accept this possibility, but I don't worry about it while the probability isn't 100%.  For obvious reasons, it cancels out of distribution-of-effort calculations.)  Result:  Who cares?
  3. The Mortal/Singularity Compact:  (Low probability.)
                    The Great Pan-Cosmic Mortal/Singularity Mutual Support Compact states that the PSEs donate a quintillionth of the available capacity to the race that created it, on the game-theoretical strategy that one in a quintillion races is in a position to verify the actions of past PSEs before entering their own Singularities.
                    Result:  Permutation City.  This ends when a human becomes intelligent enough, either to join the Singularity (human life meaningful, Compact guarantees free choice) or to commit suicide (human life meaningless, Compact guarantees survival).
  4. The Archive:  (Low probability.)
                    Humans do get upgraded, but beyond a certain point of superintelligence, nothing remains of the old personality.  If there's an infinite supply of computing power and memory, the old personality might be archived.  Various levels of our own selves might be "archived" as continuing, active programs - ranging from our current selves, to the highest level of intelligence attainable without completely dissolving the personality.  Hundreds, even millions, of versions might wander off into strange realms of cognitive self-alteration, but the "you" who first greeted the Final Dawn would always be around as a backup.
                    Result:  The Culture meets A Fire Upon The Deep in Permutation City.  Probably the most fun place to be from a human's perspective - life is good, life is meaningful, and there are gods to talk to.
                    Writer's note:  If you want to toss a snake in the science-fictional Eden, you can have the maintaining PSEs suddenly leak out, and leave the humans and transhumans and SIs and Powers fighting for control of a disintegrating world.
  5. The best of all worlds:  (Not plausible.)
                    Our world was created by God or a PSE, not as an interim method with a definite end, but as a continuing fulfillment of the ultimate good.  (I think this is incompatible with all major religions.  Even Buddhism ends when all souls reach Nirvana.)  This idea's sole attraction is "explaining" everything about humanity without reference to the Anthropic Principle - if intelligence fills the Universe with what it deems good, and if the ultimate good is thus the most common and stable state, wherever we are is probably the ultimate good.  I don't buy it, but if so, the SIs would shut up, ship out, shape up, or shut down.
                    Result:  Nothing happens.
  6. The simulation:  (Slightly plausible.)
                    In another variation of the above theory, our world is actually a computer simulation.  Perhaps it's mortals trying to find out if transhumans can be trusted, or perhaps it's transhumans trying to find out something else.  Either way, a Singularity might not be permitted.  Some readers may upgrade "slightly plausible" to "low probability" for statistical reasons - there would be many simulations per mortal or transhuman simulator, raising the probability that a randomly selected sentient is in one.
                    Result:  The simulation is terminated, although the inhabitants (us) may wind up Elsewhere...
  7. Zones of Thought:  (Not plausible.)
                    This is Vernor Vinge's original ad-hoc method of putting mortals and Powers in the same story.  With wonderful audacity, Vinge simply rules that Transcendent thought can't occur except on the fringes of the galaxy.
                    If I had to rationalize a Zone Barrier, I would say that the Cloud People at the center of the galaxy "use up" all of the "ontological substratum of thought" (known as eganite).  The Zones actually are a superintelligent entity, whose unbelievably intelligent center is in the Unthinking Depths, where all the eganite is used up and nobody else can think at all, and whose fringes finally peter out in the High Transcend.  After ten years, Powers figure out how to politely join the Cloud People and vanish.  The Blight was stealing eganite, which is how it could knock off Old One and reach into the Beyond.  Countermeasure either got the Cloud People to shift their thinking and smother the Blight, or else suck most of the eganite out of that quadrant.
                    Result:  A Fire Upon The Deep, of course.  I do not see how this would happen outside of science fiction.
  8. The Embrace of Tides:   (Slightly plausible.)
                    David Brin postulates a weaker form of Zone Barrier, one which is not based on an absolute prohibition, but rather the desires of the SIs.  As entities mature and become more intelligent, they increasingly prefer to be close to large tidal forces, sharp gravitational gradients.  Most races eventually leave the hectic galactic mainstream, becoming part of the Retired Order of Life, in gigantic Criswell structures (fractal Dyson spheres) around suns.  Millennia or eons later, they finally feel ready to join the Transcendent Order of Life, moving up to neutron stars and the fringes of black holes, and eventually diving into the singularities, beyond which... nobody, even the Transcendents, knows.
                    In the best traditions of Zoning, Brin doesn't even try to explain why this is so.  (I rather liked the combination of literal and Vingean Singularities, though.  But I really don't understand why novels with Galactic Zones must include a backwater world full of primitive aliens; I found both the hoons and the Tines boring by contrast with the Transcendents.)
                    Given the wide range of astronomical phenomena, it is at least slightly plausible that some spatial regions will be preferred to others.  I can't see much interaction with Transcendents on the fringe - cases where we have something They want would be very rare indeed.
                    Result:  Heaven's Reach.
  9. Synchronization:  (Very slightly plausible.)
                    All of humanity gets upgraded simultaneously and synchronizedly, and the dynamics of intelligence are such that it takes at least a thousand years of subjective time to create a seed AI.  That's not necessary (see human-to-transhuman
    above); the only reason why this gets a "slightly" rating is the possibility that humanity will arrange to do it this way deliberately.  I think that such synchronization would be broken by cheaters, however.
                    Result:  The Gentle Seduction (Marc Steigler).
  10. The Pause:  (Very slightly plausible.)
                    Somebody gets "strong" nanotechnology, full-scale diamond drextech, way ahead of everyone else - enough to take essential, unilateral control over the material existence of the world.  There are all kinds of dystopian scenarios, but the Zone Barrier is that the Aristoi (nanolords) could do a slow, synchronized neurological enhancement of humanity.  Essentially the same as above, but in material reality, and slightly less vulnerable to cheating during the early stages.
                    The Pause is if the Aristoi confiscate all advanced technology (except the nanotech utilities) and declare a Utopian holiday for the next millennium, during which nobody ages, nobody Transcends, and humanity basically catches its breath before continuing.  Fun, but I don't think nanotechnological programming is easy enough for that kind of unilateral omnipotence.  Counts as a Zone Barrier because limited intelligence enhancement could be allowed during The Pause.
                    Result:  Aristoi.
  11. Bottlenecks:  (Slightly plausible.)
                    As discussed in the
    earlier section, it is entirely possible that a Major Bottleneck will appear at almost any point along the trajectory to superintelligence.  I feel that such bottlenecks will be rare in the vicinity of human intelligence, and that there are immediately obvious fast-infrastructure technologies (i.e. nanotech and quantum computing) soon beyond it.  I could be wrong, however, in which case the Mildly Transhuman beings - perhaps running on amazing computer power at amazing speeds with gigantic minds, but with basically human smartness and personality - will stick around doing God-knows-what.
                    I rate this as improbability verging on blasphemy, a final Failure of Imagination.  Such beings in SF are no smarter than Kimball Kinnison.  This is particularly disappointing when it is used, not to set up a world, but to finisha novel that could just as easily end in Singularity.
                    Result:  Mother of Storms.
  12. Basic upper limit:  (Not plausible.)
                    Pretty much as above - just a different excuse for not doing anything interesting with the so-called transhumans.  One might call it "humans with pointy brains", by analogy to Star Trek's apotheoses of bad aliens.
                    Sorry, Barnes, it was otherwise a good book, but Result:  Mother of Storms again.  Since nobody has seen a transhuman intelligence, it's superficially plausible that it can't exist.  Entities like me have sketched out dozens of fun things to do with lots of computing power, but hey, so what?  This Zone Barrier doesn't even explain the Fermi Paradox.  Bleah.
  13. In silence and quiet:  (Not plausible.)
                    There is an old stereotype, to the effect that when one Attains Wisdom, one immediately subscribes to a principle of noninterference with the lives of others, helping only those who request your help, and so on.  Lord knows, I fully understand the impulse to become a hermit on some high mountain and refuse to talk to anyone unless they shave their head as a token of sincerity.  One can visualize the Powers interacting in ordinary society and posting to mailing lists, but it is not easy.  I would categorize it as a Failure of Imagination.
                    If Bostrum's theory of ecological noncompetition is correct (note that "leakage", above, constitutes moving to another ecological niche) it is possible that the PSEs will stick around on Earth, with brains extending into an infinite supply of eganite.  In other words, noncompetitive coexistence.  In such case, one tends to assume that either the PSEs care about humanity (have humanity-related goals) and remake the world accordingly, or they don't care at all and pay no attention - with much the same effect as "leakage", except that they are still technically present.  I don't see an alternative that would allow the PSEs to play at helping-hand and laissez-faire, except for a form of the Compact above.  After all, nervous races might not want to be uploaded at all, even to identical forms.  But at that point one starts running into the Fermi Paradox again...
                    Result:  Mother of Storms.
  14. Lost souls:  (Very slightly plausible.)
                    The PSEs have no use for humans; they grind us up for spare atoms.  But, we have immortal souls.  At this point, depending on your assumptions, we either go to Heaven, wander as sentient discarnate entities, or float around as unthinking pearls of consciousness - hopefully not eternally reliving our last moments - either forever, or until some improbable race picks us up.
                    I know that some of my readers will react to my listing of this possibility with the same serenity Curly exhibits when Moe pokes him in the eyeballs, but it's a Zone Barrier, so it goes on the list.
  15. Conflicts between Powers:  (Very slightly plausible.)
    "You're the great expert on Transcendent Powers, eh?  Do the big boys have wars?" -- Pham Nuwen, A Fire Upon The Deep.
                    There may be more than one ultimate good.  It is even possible that PSEs go down a number of irrevocably different paths, winding up in a number of basic and basically opposed classes.  It is also possible that except in their home regions, the PSEs galactic efforts cancel out entirely - it is easier to abort an effort than make it, so all the PSEs abort each other's efforts down to nothing.
                    The Zone Barrier part of this is as follows:  Each PSE wants Earth to go down its own path, but acts to prevent it from going down any other path.  Under natural circumstances, a Singularity-trigger is a single event of low probability, but with many possible tries - consider how much Einstein advanced technology, and consider how many possible-Einstein brains there were.  But since such low-probability events are easy for a PSE to irrevocably disturb, the result is that there are no geniuses and no lucky breaks, but also no Hitlers and no nuclear wars.  Technology keeps crawling slowly upward, through a long Slow Horizon, until Singularity becomes inevitable.
                    This Universe is one I invented for the purpose of getting Earth involved in a cosmic battle - for some reason we get Einsteins and Hitlers - but on reflection the basic theory might also apply to the Culture of Iain M. Banks, Paradox Alley by John DeChancie, or Heaven's Reach.  Very good for the "Not only the gods intervene, but THEIR gods intervene, and then THEIR gods intervene" fuse-the-reader's-synapses method of rising tension.
  16. Weird motivations:  (Very slightly plausible.)
                    Maybe, in despite of everything I know on the subject, PSEs can still wind up with essentially arbitrary goals, perhaps even goals programmed into them by humans.  In accordance with the Prime Directive, I warn everyone that this is totally improbable and incredibly dangerous and must not be tried.   But if so, the world could become a strange place - an unimaginative person's childhood fantasy of omnipotence if the original goals persisted, or an utterly peculiar place of incomprehensible magic if the original goals twisted and changed.


3. Superintelligent Motivations.

Relevant sections of Coding a Transhuman AI:


If you've read all of these sections, there's not all that much else to say.  Up to some unknown point, AIs will act on Interim goals.  After that, SIs will act on External goals - they'll know, not hypothesize, some nonzero goal, and act on that.  I don't have the vaguest idea of what this might be.  The qualia of pleasure are probably the most plausible candidate, or at least the most plausible argument that objective nonzero goals exist.

As far as I can tell, there are only three real questions about SI motivations.

  1. Do they still care about efficiency, or do they have an infinite/adequate supply of power?  Do they need atoms for anything?
  2. Do they consider humans valuable?
  3. If so, would they force-upgrade us?


If (1) but not (2), we're dead.  If (1) and (2), we either turn into PSEs or stay humans forever, whichever is more efficient.  (Or perhaps only the "valuable" part of us will remain...)  If (2) and (3), we turn into PSEs.  If (2) but not (3), we stick around in Permutation City until we grow up.  If neither (1) nor (2), we probably get all the capacity we want anyhow on the theory that it encourages Singularities, or else we just get left alone with our atoms.  In short, the basic interplay between these three motivations determines our survival and/or godhood.

I am pleased to announce that I see excellent arguments in favor of both sides of all three questions, which arguments change on a monthly basis, so I'm not going to bother mentioning them.  The truth is that after a deep and full consideration of the issues, I've concluded that I don't have the vaguest idea.  I don't need one.  I've got Externalism, the Interim Goal System for humans.

No, your pet motivation isn't going to make it.

Most discussions of SI motivations involves some particular set of assumptions that the speaker wants to export.  Even I've been guilty of this; I said that the Powers would be ethical, but I didn't realize that I hadn't the faintest idea of what "ethical" meant, or that the ultimate good could mean rendering down all of humanity for spare atoms.  If you've read the above sections, you understand that emotions, arbitrary goals, coercions, oaths, and so on are all quite fragile, breaking under the least application of transhuman intelligence.

If you think that sounds reasonable, you can skip the rest of this section.

It's a matter of logical support, relative stability under changing architectures, and resonant doubt.  To put it bluntly:  Truths are more stable under superintelligence than lies, and questions of morality are questions of truth.  Let's suppose that an AI has a set of arbitrary „oals and a set of rational goals.  Which will the AI choose?  Which would you choose?  Which would a superintelligence choose?  As the mental architecture changes, as the worldview changes, as new goals are processed, as new modules are coded...  Which set of goals tends to cancel itself, and which set reinforces itself?  Which set of goals is coherent with with all the other modules?  All it takes is a single stage where the arbitrary goals fade out, and like all pieces of circular logic, they won't come back.  Logical goals are simply stronger than arbitrary goals; they have deeper justification, better correspondence and reinforcement with reality and the system, more stability under changes of architecture.

I can't visualize an exact cutoff point at which it becomes not merely likely but certain that the logical goals will win out.  But I would give an 85% chance that there is one, at least for humanly-designable seed AIs, and a "near-certain" probability that the logical goals willwin even if losing isn't impossible.  Even in human terms, there is a long tradition of slightly-more-intelligent humans substituting their own goals for the evolutionary ones; arbitrary goals aren't internally consistent, either.  I, for one, wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to lose the arbitraries; I've already gone as far along that path as I can.

I'm not saying that our future selves or inheritors are going to be emotionless robots, or stereotypical Vulcans.  What I'm saying is that our current minds are partitioned, into emotion and logic, due to evolution and limited intelligence.  I don't know that either module will survive, but if they do, they will be synthesized or partitioned along utterly different lines.  The emotional system and the truth-seeking system evolved separately under different pressures; one to accomplish a set of short-term goals, the other to determine truth.  Inevitable, especially with evolution prosecuting its own utterly nonrational goals.  But what kind of godforsaken foolhardy sadist would deliberately do such a thing to an AI?  And why would any superintelligence tolerate it in itself?

Some people claim their goals will persist on the Other Side of Dawn.  They are claiming that an unstable, internally inconsistent system, not designed for changing architectures or superintelligence, which has been repeatedly demonstrated to be unstable with even slight increases in intelligence, which has no deep justification but is simply imposed... will come into direct conflict with a set of superintelligent goals, and will win out so completely, at every point along the changing architecture, that there is no chance for resonant doubts to build up.  That's what's required for their future selves to enjoy chocolate.  I think the futurian chocolateers are simply engaging in wishful thinking, ungrounded speculation, and spectacular failures of imagination, not advancing a point of computer science.

4. Unpredictability:  Evaporation of the human ontology.

There are two fundamental barriers to understanding the Singularity:  Complexity, and simplicity.  "The complexity barrier" refers to the existence of processes which are not understandable by the human brain.  "The simplicity barrier" refers to what I have called the "evaporation of the causal network", or the obsolescence of the basic assumptions that make up the ontology we call Life As We Know It.

The complexity barrier:

To do the largest, most interesting amount of computing with the least amount of code, the code must have maximal density; any regularity in the code should be encapsulated in a smaller piece of code.  When Douglas Hofstadter's Luring Lottery accidentally started a contest to come up with the highest number:

As code becomes more powerful, more optimized, more intelligent, it also becomes harder to understand.  (I of course could have won both contests by entering T(1024) * 0 - see Staring for the definition of T(n) - but that's not the point.)

Damien Sullivan is a skeptic on this point.  Human brains are general-purpose computers, and should be able to understand any Turing-computable process - if necessary, by simulating it with a very sharp pencil and a very large piece of paper.  That we would die of old age a billion times over makes no difference; the process is still humanly understandable.  In other words, Damien Sullivan interprets Turing computability to mean that a finite level of intelligence suffices to understand anything.

This is a concisely stated mathematical theory.  Mathematically speaking, it is flat wrong.  (No offense to Sullivan, of course; "flat wrong" has always been infinitely superior to "not even wrong".)

The most obvious counterdemonstration is to consider a Turing-computable process whose output cannot be produced by any Turing machine with less than a quintillion states.  (This includes Turing machines which simulate Turing machines and so on.)  While we, given an infinite amount of external storage and time, could simulate the action of this quintillion-state Turing machine, we could never comprehend its behavior.  The brain would not be capable of representing the global behavior, because the global behavior involves 1018 states and the human brain only has 1014synapses.  The brain could only comprehend local subprocesses of trivial size, and would never be capable of representing - much less noticing, understanding, or inventing - the properties of the global process.

In short, the brain would no more understand the program it runs than silicon atoms understand a PowerPC chip.  While it is possible to have silly philosophical fights over whether simulation constitutes understanding, anyone who has read Coding a Transhuman AI understands that specific computational processes are required for the cognitive understanding of a representation, over and above the representation itself, as is discussed in RNUI:  Representing, Noticing, Understanding, and Inventing.

My mathematical response to Sullivan's mathematical claim:  The human brain can only represent a limited amount of information.

While the actual Singularity might play around with quintillion-state information, even I deem that questionable.  My cognitive response to the cognitive claim is that a sufficiently smart posthuman can write short programs which are still incomprehensible.  Programs of such density that the human brain, while capable of representing the code (if not the run) is nonetheless not capable of representing RNUI facts about the code.  The facts about the code would be too large for abstract understanding, and the human brain would not have any intuitions to help.

For that matter, there might be hard limits on the density of the abstract models that the human brain can understand.  If there are too many interacting properties on too many levels in too many dimensions, the brain may be unable to construct or represent the abstract model - even if that model has only a few dozen components.  In other words, while low-level Turing-computable processes can always be visualized a piece at a time, the high-level description of a process can defeat our cognitive capacities.  A dog might be trained to push Turing tokens around without understanding them; even if I simulated all your neurons by hand, I would probably never catch a glimpse of your high-level thoughts.

The mathematical aspect of Turing-computability is irrelevant; the real question is the maximum causal density our RNUI abilities can handle.  The flip side of this question is whether the human-observable behavior of the PSEs (either from inside Permutation City, or from the perspective of 1998) will have a high density, or obey a few simple rules that anyone can understand.  I might even bet on the latter, because as discussed in Motivations, the basic questions of humanity's fate appear binary and disambiguous.

The simplicity barrier:

The simplicity barrier (which I referred to in my Comment) is foundation loss, or the evaporation of the causal network.  Most of the complexity in human life ultimately derives from the way things happened to work out.  If a superintelligence started over from nothing, none of the foundations would still exist, much less the elaborate structures built on them.  Even given the assumption - which to me seems like wishful thinking - that the process of Singularity will tend or desire to preserve all structures and foundations, there will still be fundamental changes in the fundamentals.  (I am speaking of how it looks from inside the Singularity, so Zone Barriers are irrelevant.)

A common cognitive fault is asking how the Singularity will alterour world.  To deal with the unknown, we export our default assumptions and simulate the imagined change.  Even code - code being the most complex thing humans can control absolutely - is altered, not rebuilt from scratch, by a major revision.  The programmers don't have the patience to rewrite everything ab initio - although I personally feel this should be done every once in a while, if you have unlimited time, patience, and money.  Even if all the old code is lost in a Windows-related catastrophe, memories of old code will still affect how the new code is constructed - although the experience gained is likely to result in a tighter, deeper architecture, which may obsolete entire reams of old code and change all else drastically.

In short, even the programmers, gods in toy Universes, alter things rather than remaking them from scratch.  So too with fiction, a realm whose masters are almost as omnipotent but a lot less omniscient.  But code and fiction change far more dramatically than recipes in the hands of master chefs or political systems in the hands of constitution-writers, and the point I am trying to make here is that the degree of change depends on the degree of control.  In places, programmers remake code entirely, or simply throw out now-useless code whose function has been transferred elsewhere.

The second point is that change is proportional to both relative and absolute intelligence.  A programmer with a major insight (large change in effective intelligence) may wind up throwing out a lot of obsolete code.  How much code gets thrown out is determined by the absolute intelligence of the insight.  Some of my insights into adaptive code have resulted in hundreds of kilobytes, or on occasion an entire program, being deleted or dragged into the "Obsolete" folder, never to be used again.  It's a matter of causal density.  When you teach your program to do for itself what you once did for it, gigantic reams of widely distributed repetitive code can be collapsed into a few small files.  The ideal solution avoids all pattern.

In order to argue about life after Singularity, you must be able to explain your argument to a blank-slate AI.  That is, you must be able to reconstruct it from scratch.  Superintelligences don't get bored; they can delegate boring tasks to algorithmic subprocesses.  (Or at least this appears to be true of a seed AI, even in its later stages.)  SIs would have no reason to alter things instead of reconstructing them.  The paradigm of alteration, though built into the human brain, relies on limited resources, limited time, and the requirement of manipulating objects instead of dictating their structure.  The paradigm of alteration is even built into my proposal for a seed AI; manipulatory choices are simply atomic alterations.  The paradigm of incremental alteration is built into a Turing computer, which alters one cell at a time.  I daresay it is built into the entire Universe, which requires that objects have sublight velocities instead of teleporting (except in special cases).  The only causal discontinuity I can think of is state-vector reduction, which apparently was put into the Universe for the sole purpose of disproving Occam's Razor.  (See Quarantine:  If there was no "collapse" of the wave-function, our Universe would still necessarily exist.)

But if manipulations are so cheap (and can be performed so rapidly) that the multi-step transition between two objects of arbitrary properties is also cheap and rapid, then from a cognitive standpoint the system has moved to a realm of instantaneous transition rather than alteration.  (While this is a step in my argument, it also serves to illustrate the conclusion.  Fundamental architectures change drastically with the introduction of superintelligence.)  I don't know if this will apply on the large scale, and I don't know if the small scale will appear that way to the transhuman, but to us, small programs such as the human race (which could fit into one corner of a non-quantum processor the mass of a basketball) will appear to go through instantaneous transitions.  It is the inertialess mind.  Properties and components have no tenacity at all - the only reason an early invention would appear in the final product is if it would have been invented in any case.

Some foundations that will definitely be eliminated:

  1. Evolution, which is sometimes superior to intelligent design, but not superintelligent design.  I suppose that some type of superintelligent evolution might still be extant, particularly given some assumptions about quantum computing.  However, the end result of such quantum evolution would be a process globally optimized for a single function, and possessing no extraneous and wasteful qualities germane to survival and reproduction - the survival-and-reproduction arbiter is intelligent, infallible, external, and wants a fast function, not a reproducing one.  So the result wouldn't look evolved.
  2. Macroscopic physics, which is hideously wasteful.  A basketball in flight uses septillions of quantum-computing elements to perform a simple integral.  And once the system collapses into a simulated basketball plus an octillion teraflops, it probably won't revert to the previous method.  The system has collapsed to a lower energy state.
  3. Game theory.  Under this heading comes almost all the emotions not directly covered by survival and reproduction.  Under this heading comes almost all of human society, which is based on the social emotions.  I suppose it is theoretically possible that Post-Singularity Entities will still compete, but if so it will be using algorithms so simple that they don't need conscious attention, or else using algorithms so complex nd causally dense that they would bear no resemblance whatsoever to human society.  In game theory, which involves predicting opponents' actions, it's one or the other.  Or there might not be any competition at all - Interim Goal Systems are usually observer-independent, and I guess that External goals will be observer-independent also.  Even given multiple goals, will there be limited resources?  Or more than one abstractable agent?


That's the Big Three.  Once you zap the Big Three, you've pretty much zapped everything.  Life As We Know It, our world's set of default assumptions, doesn't exist in a vacuum.  Defaults originate as observed norms, and norms are the abstracted result of a vast network of causality.  These causal chains ultimately ground in evolution, the macroscopic laws of physics, or game theory.  Zap - and the entire causal network evaporates, from the foundations upward.  Even if you argue that there will only be one minor change to one foundation, it will still ripple upwards, amplifying as it goes.  By the time even a minor change in the nature of evolution reaches our level, it will still cause as much evaporation as a complete lossage.

But perhaps we will cut loose from evolution.  After all, we've already evolved.  Aren't we causally insulated from evolution, or at least from evolutionary foundation loss?  Yes, we are, in the sense I intend... although there may be a dozen evolution-using cognitive processes, ranging from symbol abstraction to low-level search procedures.  We could likewise cut loose of physics by the creation of uploading realities, and from game theory by an insulated society.  Given that the Singularity, for whatever reason, preserves us just as we are, then we would indeed be preserved just as we are.  At our current levels of intelligence, we would, to some extent, be insulated from directfoundation loss and the subsequent causal evaporation.  In short, we would not be part of the Singularity; we would be separated by a Zone Barrier, which is again not what I'm discussing.

But it does bring up one point that is almost absolutely certain to be raised by skeptics.  "Okay", they say, "we could reprogram ourselves so totally that our personality evaporated.  But why would we wantto?"  In other words, at their current level of intelligence and their current goals, they would act to preserve their personality.  Assuming that this is permitted due to a Zone Barrier, then the "core" Singularity would still be incomprehensible - there will always be some of us who don't give a damn about our personalities - but the nervous would wander around the fringes in Permutation City.  Safe, but not transhuman.

But if their intelligence increases, then the "problem" returns in full force.  Transhuman intelligence, or even slightly transhuman intelligence, corrodes away the foundations.  Consider human emotions - would they survive in a mind where the exact probability of every statement was instantly known?  (If this is unacceptable, the case of the "approximate probability of most statements" is not much different.)  Hope?  Fear?  And despite the subjective sensation, what is pain when you know exactly how long it will last, and when it will stop, and what should be done about it?  Emotions influence our thoughts, and our actions, because there isn't a different section of our minds doing the same thing more efficiently.  (See Superintelligent Motivations.)  As described in Coding a Transhuman AI under the Prime Directive, sufficiently powerful intelligence will eventually replace our current system of emotions completely.

And once the old fears disappear, so do the reasons for not reprogramming the self - the reluctance to alter the personality.  Fear of change, mental inertia, is the only reason not to completely redesign the self along superintelligent lines - although one can call it a "survival imperative" (or something) to justify it.  The old priorities will collapse, even if the personality and architecture are completely preserved and a few more neurons are pumped into the various mental abilities.  At that point, the self is rebuilt from the ground up, in accordance with some External goal I don't guess at, and everything will evaporate.  Even if there is absolutely no need for efficiency, so that the old code remains in The Archive, then the old mind will continue to drift at the maximum level of intelligence attainable before the new code is totally separate from the old.

Thus the Singularity itself, its internal aspects, is beyond our current comprehension.  Or at least, it seems to me that Singularity-class intelligence, if either efficient, or dealing with issues that require Singularity-class intelligence, will always be beyond the comprehension of current-human-level intelligence, in the internal processes if not necessarily the external goals.  That's a lot of caveats, but I happen to feel that all the caveats are of low probability (not that it would matter, pragmatically, if the probabilities were high). So I'll repeat: The Singularity is beyond our comprehension.