Engineering Utopia

I’ve already talked about how things can go very, very wrong with AI. With no God to save us, we’re left with physics—and nothing in the laws of physics says that humanity won’t fail miserably and die. But neither does physics prevent us from creating a future better than anything we can presently imagine—a real utopia.

Imagine our caveman ancestors looking up at the birds soaring overhead. They could not have imagined that, thousands of years later, millions of humans would fly around the world in jets each day. Our ancestors looked up at the stars and planets, too—never dreaming we would one day walk on the moon. There was once a time when the average human couldn’t expect to live much past age thirty.

It’s easy to underestimate what the future will bring. When thinking about a post-intelligence explosion universe, it’s important to recognize that the benefits of a successful intelligence explosion could be much greater than we can currently imagine, for our imaginations are limited.

Another thing we have to realize is that these changes don’t have to take place over thousands of years. Many of the technologies upon which utopia could be built are in the process of being developed now, and future technologies will be developed much faster if enhanced whole brain emulations and superintelligent AIs are developing them. Economist Robin Hanson reminds us:

Though such growth may seem preposterous, consider that in the era of hunting and gathering, the economy doubled nine times; in the era of farming, it doubled seven times; and in the current era of industry, it has so far doubled 10 times. If, for some as yet unknown reason, the number of doublings is similar across these three eras, then we seem already overdue for another transition.1

What I’m about to say may sound like science fiction, but that’s no reason to dismiss it. We have a long history of turning science fiction into science fact. And it doesn’t stop now.

Real Utopia

“Utopia.” It’s an easy concept to comprehend once you realize that it’s what we have always been seeking. We’re changing the world around us to fit our needs and desires like no other creature before us. But, with machine superintelligence on our side, we could be vastly more successful at realizing utopia than ever before. Consider what a time traveler from a post-intelligence explosion universe might tell us:

My consciousness is wide and deep, my life long. I have read all your authors—and much more. I have experienced life in many forms and from many angles: jungle and desert, gutter and palace, heath and suburban creek and city back alley. I have sailed on the high seas of cultures, and swum, and dived. Quite some marvelous edifice builds up over a million years by the efforts of homunculi, just as the humble polyps amass a reef in time. And I’ve seen the shoals of colored biography fishes, each one a life story, scintillate under heaving ocean waters.2

Utopia is not a world in which humans are subjected to a never-ending source of empty pleasure. Citizens of utopia have the technology to simulate and experience thousands of environments and worlds. There is no shortage of novel and meaningful experiences.

Citizens of utopia are not mindless drones who never use their brains to solve anything. Just as making a video game easier does not always make it more fun, citizens of utopia still face challenges and experience the joy it is to overcome them.

Utopia is not meaningless, predictable, or boring. People living in utopia become stronger, not weaker, over time. Their lives grow more exciting and wonderful, their emotions more varied and exciting. They become more fulfilled as time goes on, not less so.

Utopia is a world in which our experience is limited only by our desire and imagination.

No Pain

Let’s start with something simple: Imagine a life without pain. Pain is not a law of physics. It is a consequence of (1) current human biology and (2) our ignorance about how to modify or transcend it. Pain is just a mechanism stumbled upon by evolution to inform us that “you should avoid that” or “you should take care of that injury.” But we could have systems that give us that information without also giving us pain. That’s how today’s AIs do it. In the future, we’ll be able to master pain, in human bodies and other substrates.3

And that’s nothing compared to the best of what could come, if we do AI right.

No Death or Aging

We wouldn’t just eliminate pain; we could do away with death and aging as well. Death and aging aren’t written in the laws of physics, either. They, too, are merely consequences of current human biology and our ignorance about how to modify or transcend it. Turritopsis nutricula, the “immortal jellyfish,” is biologically immortal because it didn’t evolve to die after a few decades like humans did. And if our minds are uploaded to computers, we’ll be able to make backup copies and achieve digital immortality.

Would you even want to live indefinitely? I think Patrick Hayden got it right when he said, “Personally, I’ve been hearing all my life about the Serious Philosophical Issues posed by life extension, and my attitude has always been that I’m willing to grapple with those issues for as many centuries as it takes.”

Eliminating death and aging isn’t just wishful thinking or science fiction. The more we understand how aging and death work, the more we will be able to control them.

Radical Abundance

In 1959, Richard Feynman gave a lecture called “Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In it, Feynman talked about how nothing in physics prohibits us from constructing objects atom by atom. He considered the implications this would have for storing information, chemical synthesis, and manufacturing. Decades later, the field of nanotechnology emerged, inspired by Feynman’s lecture. Today we are able to construct some things atom by atom, just as Feynman predicted, and our powers to do so grow every year.

Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) was envisioned shortly thereafter. MNT is the technology we will use to build the future. With intelligently-guided nano-factories or self-replicating nano-bots and a stock of materials, we will be able to rapidly erect arbitrary structures. If we can rearrange atoms in whatever configuration we want (as long as they obey physical law), we can make a banana without having to grow it. We can make a car without needing large factories to assemble it. If it’s made of atoms, you can probably make it with MNT and sufficient intelligence.

Why is this important? Poverty exists, in great part, because of poor resource allocation. If food and housing were as abundant as, say, air, then nobody would be homeless or starving, and MNT would make it ludicrous to buy a car for tens of thousands of dollars. Things that we consider luxury items today would be, more or less, equally accessible to everyone. When you’re able to manipulate matter at the atomic level, making a block of diamond is just as easy as making a block of coal.

Endless Adventure

The implications of a safe and effective MNT would go beyond eliminating poverty and making our lives easier. MNT opens up possibilities for creating much more powerful computers, because data storage and processing structures could be arranged as perfectly and efficiently as is physically possible.

What could we do with such vast computational resources? Think of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. Pandora, a fictional world, is magnificent, breathtaking, and very different from our own. Yet, for all its fantastical elements, people’s experience of that world felt real. A bunch of moving images on a screen created an experience so profound, that people left the theater depressed at the thought that they could not live in Pandora.

Imagine creating a computer simulation of Pandora and being able to enter that simulation. You could live as an inhabitant of Pandora for a whole lifetime. You could see, hear, taste, and feel this universe just as intensely as one would in reality. We could simulate thousands of different universes and experience them all.

Engineering Utopia

These examples suggest a bare minimum for how good a positive intelligence explosion could be, in the spirit of exploratory engineering. The actual outcome of a positive intelligence explosion will likely be completely different, for example much less anthropomorphic.

Once again: our current limitations aren’t fixed by physics, but by the limits of our intelligence and the resources that can be used at our current level of intelligence. With self-improving machine superintelligence acting on our behalf, our biological limits can be transcended.

Humans have always wanted more than what the universe gives us by default. We want to experience sounds that do not exist in nature, so we make music. We want to taste something more delicious than anything that would grow by itself, so we cook, and we develop cuisines. We want to explore worlds beyond the one in which we evolved, so we build ships, cars, planes, and spaceships to carry us off into distant lands. We invent literature, film, and art to experience the world from a different perspective.

We are, and have always been, engineering our own utopia. With superintelligence, we will have the opportunity to do it faster, better, and more completely than ever before.

But only if we try. Only if we decide that utopia tomorrow is more important than slight improvements to our already rich lives today.

I wrote before:

We find ourselves at a crucial moment in Earth’s history. Like a boulder perched upon a mountain’s peak, we stand at an unstable point. We cannot stay where we are: AI is coming provided that scientific progress continues. Soon we will tumble down one side of the mountain or another to a stable resting place.

In which direction will you push on the boulder?

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1Robin Hanson, “Economics of the Singularity,” IEEE Spectrum 45 (6 2008): 45–50, doi:10.1109/MSPEC.2008.4531461.

2Nick Bostrom, “Letter from Utopia” (Forthcoming revision, 2010), accessed November 10, 2012, http://www.nickbostrom.com/utopia.pdf.

3Ben Goertzel, “The Technological Mastery of Pain is Both Feasible and Desirable,” H+ Magazine, May 28, 2012, http://hplusmagazine.com/2012/05/28/the-technological-elimination-of-pain-is-both-feasible-and-desirable/.