On the need for colonization

There’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a couple of years, about how the usefulness of the universe to our kind of life peaked before we were even on the scene and is now in rapid decline.  About how Earth probably only has about a billion years of useful life left in it, and how stars don’t last forever either, nor will they continue to be born forever, and how the galaxies are gradually escaping our reach. And about how even matter itself will eventually disappear, and we had better saturate the universe with smart people long before that, both to solve that problem and to maximize enjoyment of life and appreciation of the universe.

But fortunately someone else saved me the trouble.

Life is Good; Awareness is Better

(This article was originally written in 2005.  I’m reposting it as part of decommissioning my old website – although I don’t think it’s particularly well written, I find it still aligns with my current thinking surprisingly well.)

Executive summary: Wow, minds are really freaking nifty things. Let’s do everything we can to continue them forever.

Written April 17, 2005. Thanks to Frink for suggestions and corrections.

The universe is big and expensive, and right now it doesn’t seem to be doing anything terribly useful. Indications are that the universe has a finite useful lifetime, and a good portion of that lifetime has already passed. Also, most of the visible universe appears to be really dumb, in that it’s not doing anything intelligent. I propose we do something about both situations..

Let’s back up a bit and look at how (we think) we got to where we are now.

The Past

At some point the universe started existing. We’re not sure exactly how, but it did. Unless I’m imagining it, which would raise all sorts of hairy questions. Let’s assume for the same of discussion that I’m not imagining it.

Theory projects that at first the universe was fairly uniform and didn’t have much structure, let alone useful things like particles out of which to build matter. After expanding and cooling for a while, matter started to condense and form structures. Because of the physical behaviors peculiar to this universe, it formed atoms with many distinct structures and interesting properties, like the ability to combine with other atoms to create larger structures, and the ability to change configurations under the influence of energy. Oh, and that little bit about warping space in large quantities, too – that weak but useful effect we call gravity.

Mainly thanks to gravity and the strong force, all that matter settled down into the familiar forms we know today: galaxies, stars, planets, asteroids, comets and so on. Our best guess is that it has now been 13 billion years or so since the universe first blinked on.

But all that matter out there that we can see is dumb. Even the kind that burns in stars and spews energy out all over the place. It all just sits there flying around in boring, repetitive paths dictated by gravity and occasionally bumping into other matter. Let’s call all this dumb stuff passive matter. Passive because it takes no initiative; it just reacts to its situation in ways that can be easily predicted with the methods we call the laws of physics.

A little while back – just a few billion years by current reckoning – something interesting started happening on this here mud-ball we call Earth. A bunch of complex molecules were sitting around in the plentiful water, and started getting all excited by the energy coming from the local star. These chemicals got busy with each other in all sorts of different combinations, and after trying an astronomical number of different configurations they hit on something truly remarkable: self-replicating molecule-machines. Well, self-replicating machines will tend to replicate themselves and spread, and before you knew it they were all over the place.

Out of all this random, unguided chemical experimentation came the first cells. These amazing little structures are a nanotechnologist’s wet dream. They’re programmable molecule factories that are programmed by molecules, and can be set up to generate copies of themselves as well as to perform actions that are useful on a scale larger than that of the cell itself. Like change shape or transmit electrical or chemical signals to other cells. Nanotechnologists love cells because their existence proves that nanotechnology can be an extremely fruitful pursuit. After all, it’s thanks to these naturally evolved molecule factories that life is so common on Earth today – quite an accomplishment for something that arose naturally. The remarkable thing about cells is that they can exist at all – evidently this universe is well-suited to complex small-scale interactions, which is great for us because without that we couldn’t think.

Anyway, once cells became popular things started moving pretty quickly. Cells started to clump together and exploit their ability to take on different properties by differentiating to form co-dependent communities where individuals were poorly suited to survival on their own but had abilities that helped the whole group survive. That idea took off too, and led to the enormously complex collections of cells we call plants and animals. Again, it’s marvellous that the universe allows this sort of self-organisation, even if it’s entirely driven by chance and the ability to survive.

Somewhere along the way some cells became specialized for mobility and some for sensing, and others connected the two so that what the sensors detected could affect what the motors did. That caused yet another sensation, and before you know it critters were evolving eyes, ears, complex nerve bundles and all sorts of muscle-powered contraptions for chasing, evading and eating each other. All in the name of better enabling their cells to replicate and spread, of course.

These nerve complexes – what eventually became brains – are of great importance. Here’s a particular physical configuration of matter – the neuron – that can make very simple decisions. Here is the first appearance of what I’ll call active matter. Neurons enable matter to take actions not dictated by brute force physics and chemistry. Although neurons (and their much simpler cousins, transistors) operate entirely within the constraints of physics and thus can be said to be purely reactive, they add something that isn’t part of what we consider normal physics: the ability to compute. They can perform integrations over time and cooperate with other computing elements in complex networks to produce reactions that are extremely difficult to predict. It’s always true that if we knew the exact state of every neuron in a brain at a given instant in time, we could calculate what the next decision would be. However, we’re still so far from being able to do that that we still see the process as voodoo, and even if we do eventually understand it that won’t change the fact that it happens and is useful.

Somewhere along the way the brains developed even more useful abilities like short-term and long-term memory recording, reason and communication with other brains. Remember that all this was driven by the sieve of evolution, which is a blind process without any end purpose or goal. If it weren’t the case that brains were useful for survival in the environment they arose in, they wouldn’t have got very far. Similarly, enhanced brain powers like reason exist because they enabled creatures that had them to survive and reproduce more effectively. It’s important to remember that nature doesn’t give a fig about big brains; the only reason we have them now is because they have enabled us to survive up to this point in time.

The Present

At some point, brains seem to have gone beyond the needs of survival though. The lineage that eventually became confused little Homo Sapiens, despite its relative physical uselessness, survived by developing more and more brainpower. It got to the point where those brains were able to reason recursively – ie to think about thinking, and to realize that they existed. It went even further than that – these brains, hosts to the new phenomenon of mind were able to imagine things – to internally create symbolic realities for the purpose of testing ideas – something that would have been very useful for hunting and defense, and eventually became a form of entertainment as well.

Brains that host minds are the next step beyond merely active matter. They’re proactive matter. Matter that can make plans for the future that have nothing to do with the immediate needs of survival.

This is where it gets really interesting for me. The thing we call mind is still beyond our understanding, but a few things are clear: it arises out of sufficiently complex and correctly configured arrangements of active matter, and it’s a very special phenomenon because it creates what is effectively spontaneous action of matter. Matter that contains mind is proactive in that it can direct its own action and although constrained by the laws of physics does not always have to take the simplest route offered by physics.

Let’s pause for a moment to look at a few details I skipped over in that last paragraph.

That phrase “correctly configured” is interesting. Not all arrangements of matter that can switch signals result in mind. It’s difficult to recognize when an object contains a mind or doesn’t, but we generally agree that more complex behavior indicates a greater likelihood of a mind being present. We consider ourselves (well, most of our species anyway) to all have minds. It’s not unreasonable to consider certain other animals, such as simians, cetaceans, elephants, dogs etc to have minds of a sort, since they do display some ability to learn and reason. Whether or not they contain that essential spark of self-awareness is open to debate and will be so for a long time yet.

Computers demonstrate very complex behavior, but we don’t consider them to have minds. Why not? Because we know exactly how they work and we can predict their actions with perfect accuracy. We consider the actions of computers to be driven by the simplest brute-force laws of physics, even though they do use active matter in the form of transistors. The catch here is that, in part because we don’t have an adequate understanding of how our own minds work, we haven’t figured out how to give computers the critical structures necessary to generate minds.

Our own critical structures arose out of chance. By fortuitous accident, individuals with brains capable of handling greater abstractions appeared and were better able to survive and reproduce than their dullard cousins. Two of our most important abilities – the ability to learn and the ability to remember – work by physically rewiring our brains in response to complex stimuli. That doesn’t happen automatically when you make a big brain. You can’t just create a random arrangement of neurons and expect it to spontaneously perform useful functions. Those abilities appeared piece by piece by chance, and by an even more fortuitous chance the neurological structures that make learning possible became encoded into the complex molecular programs that cause those little molecule factories we call cells to generate babies. Once babies with the ability to learn and reason from memory started to be born, their offspring inherited that ability and there was no more getting rid of it.

It follows that we if we try hard enough we will eventually discover (though perhaps by accident) a way to make either computer hardware or software self-programming in an analogous way. Some minimum initial configuration will be needed to generate an electronic mind, but once the process is started it will become as difficult for us to predict its actions as it is for us to predict the actions of other humans.

It’s also reasonable to assume that it will eventually be possible to copy a mind from a meat-based brain to a semiconductor-based one. If it is possible to perfectly reproduce the behavior of meat brains at the cellular level, which I believe is an entirely reasonable assumption, then it is definitely possible to reproduce a meat-based mind inside a digital simulation.

And yes, the statement that minds are unpredictable can be countered by arguing that if you know the entire state of a mind, you can predict its actions by cranking through the physics. Similarly if you know the entire state of a digital mind you can predict its next action by cranking through the logical equations. Even if we do become able to make such accurate predictions of behavior, the fact remains that the behavior of minds is very complex and definitely in a different class from passive matter and from simpler forms of active matter. Proactive matter (matter that contains minds) takes action that depends not just on the immediate physical circumstances, but on everything that has happened since that piece of matter first gained a mind.

Now, back to our story.

I’ve established that it is my belief that mind arose from the series of fortuitous events we call evolution, and although the rules of this universe permit mind to exist, mind is not a necessary consequence of this universe. It is also my belief that matter containing mind (proactive matter) is qualitatively different from mindless matter. Of course, that difference is only valuable to mind itself, since the universe doesn’t care, and so it falls to us minds to care about it and preserve it.

As yet we have no idea how common mind is in the universe, and therefore it behooves us to work hard to preserve and enhance what mind we have. It is our most valuable attribute.

We are only just beginning to devote a significant amount of thought to considering mind itself rather than the simpler problems of existing. We are still subject to the whims of evolution and could conceivable erase our own capacity for advanced reason through misguided reproduction. However, mind and understanding give us the ability to seize control of our own evolution. Our minds have enabled us to subdue the environment to the point where it poses little threat to our survival, and that removes the evolutionary incentive to become smarter. As far as survival goes, we only need to remain smart enough to maintain our security.

I say that’s not enough. Our recent curiosity-directed exploration of the universe beyond what affects our daily lives has revealed that our survival is governed at a coarse scale by things that we cannot control as long as we remain on this planet. We are in constant danger of being crippled or wiped out by a collision with a stray chunk of passive matter. It’s a small risk, to be sure, but it’s a risk that is always there and that means it’s likely to get us one day. Furthermore, we know that the star we depend on for energy won’t last forever; it’s already in its middle age. We’ve recently become aware that there are deadly wavefronts of energy out there that can kill us all from many light years away, and unlike asteroids not only can we not see them coming, we can’t do much to stop them anyway. And we are aware that there many things and many potential dangers that we don’t yet perceive or understand.

To me all of this mandates not only increasing our powers of mind but spreading mind as far and wide as possible to ensure its survival. We need to take an active role in developing and spreading mind, and that means pushing hard on understanding ourselves, trying to enhance ourselves and to create new forms of mind. Preferably ones that don’t depend on meat so heavily, so that they’re easier to disperse through space and protect against the rigors of the universe.

Barring our premature extinction, I am certain that one day most of the minds in this corner of the universe will be things descended from human, but which our present selves would barely recognize as being human. Many people seem to object to such thoughts. Does it really matter? Would our protohuman ancestors consider us the same as them? Probably not. To me, all this lip-flapping about how important it is to be human is pointless; isn’t it enough to be a mind? Being a sentient, intelligent, self-aware self is far more important than being the particular ill-defined flavor of mind we call human. The difference between mind and mindless is far, far more important than the difference between human mind and nonhuman mind. Ensuring the survival of mind takes precedence over ensuring the primacy of the quirky thing we call the human mind, though it would certainly be nice to at least remember what it means to be human.

By the way, what does it mean to be human? I often see people spouting off about how important it is to be human, but they never give any specific reasons why it’s better than the (as yet unknown) alternatives. You can’t very well say it’s better to be a human mind than a nonhuman mind until you have a selection of nonhuman minds and a way to make meaningful comparisons between them. And how can you compare minds without being able to experience alternate states of mind?

The Future

Now, there is a lot we don’t know about the universe yet. We don’t know how galaxies get their striking spiral structures, which by what we do know should get smeared out due to different rotational speeds at different radii from the center. We’re certain the universe is still expanding, but we don’t know for sure whether it will continue expanding forever or eventually reverse and collapse.

Either outcome spells death for us as we are now. If the universe expands forever without somehow rejuvenating itself (which pretty much requires importing energy from other universes), it will eventually become a uniform void with no matter and a constant, very cold, temperature. It’s impossible for mind in any form we can conceive of to exist without either matter or energy differentials, preferably both. And if the universe eventually contracts, we’ll be crushed.

Therefore, the long-term goal of mind must be to find a way to either preserve the universe in a useful form forever, or to escape into another universe – possibly one created by mind for that purpose.

An interesting offshoot of that thought is that mind may become the means by which universes communicate with each other, or even reproduce. Universes themselves might evolve through the action of mind.


It’s pretty much all covered above. We have to find a way to preserve mind past the natural end of the universe. That end requires thorough understanding of both the universe and of all the forms of mind. Those goals in turn require more and better minds, and protection from extinction by the often forceful interactions of passive matter.

I suggest we start with these simultaneous avenues of attack:

  1. Improve our understanding of our bodies and minds so that we can enhance both.
  2. Work to try and create artificial minds and/or translate human minds to operate in sturdier, more efficient non-meat brains.
  3. Work to improve all technologies that enable exploration and travel through space.

Fortunately we’ve already started on all three, but there are problems. For bizarre reasons that I think must be rooted in unthinking superstition carried over from our animal ancestry, many people oppose medical research and development vital to the first goal. Achieving better understanding of mind is vital to the second goal, and so far we haven’t had much luck although we’ve only just started. Finally, we were doing well at the third goal for a while, but after going to the moon it all fell apart and got mired in the irrelevant muck of politics and economics. Development of space has to be opened up to everyone – governmental regulation will only smother it.

And what am I doing to promote mind? Well, writing this for starters. As for more affirmative action, give me time. I’m just getting started in this life, and hopefully those medical advances will enable me to live long enough to accomplish something worthwhile. Our mayfly lifespans have been a major hindrance to long-term development until recently.

TED addiction sets in

I’m really starting to like TED talks. They’re short, often you can just listen to them without the visuals, the presenters are usually skilled and entertaining, and there are lots of interesting topics.  Here are a few favorites out of what I’ve watched so far.  More to come!


VS Ramachandran on your mind – He talks about an assortment of neurological disorders and treatments, none of which is new to me, but at the end he talks about synesthesia and draws some very interesting speculation about creativity as a function of brain structure.

Christopher deCharms looks inside the brain – Using real-time FMRI to begin mapping between thought and reality in both directions.

Henry Markram builds a brain in a supercomputer – Computer models of how brains work, specifically the beginnings of simulating human brains in digital computers.  This is something I’m interested in getting into, and I’m glad someone is finally heading in this direction.

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization – On the importance of mirror neurons.


Ron Eglash on African fractals – Wow, I had no idea.


Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in action and Janine Benyus shares nature’s designs – Taking nanomaterial designs from nature.  I heartily approve.

Dean Ornish says your genes are not your fate – Very short, but a good exhortation to improve your health.

Dan Buettner: How to live to be 100+ – Lifestyle lessons from the regions that produce the most centenarians.

Global Threats:

Peter Ward on Earth’s mass extinctions – Interesting theory I hadn’t heard before, that many of the Earth’s mass extinctions were caused by hydrogen sulfide emissions from the oceans, triggered by rising temperatures.


Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions – Oh, hell yes! He says what we’re all thinking!

Richard Dawkins on militant atheism – First time I’ve seen him speak.  Totally agree.

Randy Pausch: Really achieving your childhood dreams – Its long, but totally worth listening to.  He totally deserves the standing ovation he gets at the end.


Gregory Stock: To upgrade is human – Echoes a lot of my own sentiments.

Juan Enriquez shares mindboggling science – Starts talking about the US economic problems, but then gets into convergence of biological and robotic technology, mentioning a few things I hadn’t heard of, leading into discussion of upcoming evolution of our species.

Aubrey de Grey says we can avoid aging – This is the first de Grey output I’ve consumed, and I’m quite impressed.  Especially with how he characterizes the crazy attitudes of death advocates.


Theo Jansen creates new creatures – The sculptor explains how his wonderful “animals” work.  He sounds almost like a proper crackpot inventor too – he wouldn’t be out of place in Gizmo.


George Dyson on Project Orion – I’ve been a fan of Project Orion for a long time, but this talk adds some personal detail about the people involved that I hadn’t heard before.

George Smoot on the design of the universe – He has some 3D animations of that long-range galaxy survey.


Julian Assange: Why the world needs WikiLeaks – First time I’ve seen Assange speak.

James Nachtwey’s searing photos of war – Powerful photographs.

Bill Strickland makes change with a slide show – Heartening. I had no idea this sort of thing was going on.

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity and Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! – this guy is an excellent speaker, and I really like what he has to say about education.

Clifford Stoll on … everything – Holy cow, I love this guy!

Book review: “Spaceships of the Mind” by Nigel Calder

Picked this up on impulse during a recent used bookstore crawl. Turns out it’s actually the companion book to a Beeb TV special that I haven’t seen, but it stands on its own just fine.

The material is a little dated but not too much. The author relates the results of interviewing a selection of space travel visionaries and comparing their statements against known science. The general theme seems to be cautious optimism: space travel is really expensive (but dirt cheap compared to, say, any small war) and really difficult, but there is hope in the future, at least for interplanetary travel.

The point is repeatedly made that space is actually abundantly rich with the energy and materials needed to support us; we just need a minimum level of life support and automation to get us to the point where we can capitalize on them. He mentions how a simple solar-powered or nuclear-powered machine can separate raw ore from the moon or any asteroid into its component elements, which a suitably advanced robot factory could then assemble into habitats and spacecraft for us. That part still needs some work, but we’re on it. Materials and manufacturing have come a long way in the last few decades.

He also covers a variety of propulsion methods that can be used to toss canned monkeys around in space. Heavy bias away from chemical reaction engines and towards solar sails, laser launchers, ion engines and fission and fusion explosion drives, which is all good. Even so the conclusion is that moving canned monkeys around even within the solar system is very hard because of our ridiculous life support needs, and interstellar travel is out of the question until we can fabricate habitats large enough to support life self-sufficiently for decades in interstellar space and figure out how to maintain a balanced, closed ecosystem for that length of time.

He also touches on the politics of moving into space, and while he doesn’t dig into it much this is where things get really pessimistic; he hints towards making a case that we have political motivations not to go into space. While establishing industry in space would be good for bringing material and energy resources to Earth, conditions will likely be harsh with Earth-based corporations and governments pulling the strings; there will be a strong motivation for any humans working in space to secede and form their own government. That’s a loss for Earth in terms of trade, capital investment and military safety that will tend to override any initial desire to invest in space industry, or at least will prevent space industry from reaching the necessary population and self-sufficiency levels to become independent. So we need to figure out an inarguable way to motivate ourselves to do this thing, or else we’ll never get off this rock.

So while the book is a little dated, it does still constitute a good discussion of the practical challenges still facing us in our attempt to move outward.