The End of Possibility

Once upon a time, down on the farm, ordinary lives had few options. Only a few neighbors were available as friends or lovers, only a few careers were possible, and most careers had rather predictable daily schedules. (Forager work varied only a bit more.) By contrast, cities, travel, and even war offered many exciting possibilities. Fiction celebrated these things, and fiction itself offered even more possibile experiences.

Our modern world is chock full of cities and travel, and many career and leisure options. Our diverse fiction celebrates this expansion of possibility. In fact, endless expanding possibility seems central to our modern view. We all “know” that new techs expand our possibilities, and an endless series of new techs lie ahead, each more unpredictable than the last. Science fiction emphasizes a blizzard of strange futures, from which most folks take the lesson that the future is so unpredictable that there is little point thinking about it. Most think we can’t even count on basic physics, as new paradigms could change everything.

But in the long run, this faith in endless possibility is completely wrong. Yes our dreamtime era is fantastically rich with change and possibility, but on cosmological time scales this simply cannot last. And not only is it possible for foresee outlines of the future, it is important that we do so.

Yes, our physics isn’t the last word, for but for most practical purposes it is damn close. New physics will only make a difference in incredibly unusual cases. Our understanding of basic economics is also hardly the last word, but we still understand enough for it to give useful insights into future societies.

Yes, new tech have recently given us each more options, but this is mainly because new tech tends to make us each richer. Wealth gives options. If our descendants are, as I suspect, much poorer than we, they may well have fewer options than us. And eventually economic growth and tech innovation must slow to a crawl. Our finite universe simply cannot continue our exponential growth rates for a million years. For trillions of years thereafter, possibilities will be known and fixed, and for each person rather limited.

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  • Ely

    A friend once posited a working definition of happiness as the experience of perceiving future positive changes that you believe are probable. I wonder how your analysis above squares with human biological happiness, and whether people will care about this.

  • Russell Wallace

    We don’t have to postulate new physics to observe that when smart people try to predict the distant future, we do worse than random chance, and the smarter the would-be predictor, the lower the accuracy.

    The truth of the matter is that speculating about the future, being necessarily a far-mode activity, can do nothing but harm. We cannot know the future, but we do have a choice: we can let it develop as it will, or we can try to poison it. You yourself acknowledged some months ago that would-be futurology is pure poison. Why not just _stop doing it_? There are plenty of real, knowable phenomena in the present to blog about.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      when smart people try to predict the distant future, we do worse than random chance, and the smarter the would-be predictor, the lower the accuracy.

      Cite?

      • Russell Wallace

        Take a look at the history of predictions. I’ll give you an example I was around for: the Cold War. If you wrote a list of possible outcomes on a whiteboard and got chimpanzees to throw darts at the whiteboard, at least a few percent would hit the actual outcome by random chance. But of all the hordes of academics, futurologists, science fiction and popular science writers and intellectuals of every sort, writing enough on the topic at the time to fill a library, not one that I ever came across, _not one_ got it right. (I’ll freely admit I didn’t predict the actual outcome either.) Smart humans do a worse job of predicting the future than chimpanzees throwing darts at a whiteboard.

        The real future and futurology are for the most part disjoint things. Let’s not let the latter poison the former. It’s not like there’s any shortage of important and at least potentially knowable things in the present to write about.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        You described a trend: less smart means more accurate. I was curious about the evidence backing up this belief.

      • Shira Calpurnia

        That’s a terribly erroneous conclusion, Russell Wallace, comparing apples to oranges at its worst. If you had humans throw darts at a board and compared their results to the results of the chimpanzees, and the predicted results, you’d have a valid argument. Otherwise, please don’t embarrass yourself saying that a simple array of random data points equates to more accurate prediction than guesses in an obscenely complex system.

  • http://www.andreasmoser.wordpress.com Andreas Moser

    That’s why we have to learn to be happy without ever more technology, money. And it’s possible: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/i-discovered-paradise/

  • Marcus

    “We understand enough about economics”, uttered in the same breath as “we know a lot about physics”? Only economists believe that, as part of their never ending struggle to establish economics as a hard science that can be uttered in the same breath as physics, despite the continued reliance of economics’ on its almighty tool of…statistics.

    • richard silliker

      AMEN!!

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Physicists also rely on statistics.

    • http://www.uweb.ucsb.edu/~criedel/ Jess Riedel

      Physicists rely heavily on statistics. The trouble with economics isn’t its use of statistics, it’s the impossibility of most controlled experiments.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        The experiments are possible, but most would consider them unethical.

      • Ilya Shpitser

        There are lots of ways around the inability for controlled experiments.

      • Scott Messick

        It seems to me the real problem with economics is politics: people do not have the conceited notion that they should know better than expert physicists, and do not create powerful incentives for expert physicists to distort our understanding and perception of their field.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        If one of the presidential candidates is elected, we will get a test the 9-9-9 tax plan of Sim City in the real world.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        @daedalus2u, if the 9-9-9 plan goes into effect, that wouldn’t be a controlled experiment (it wouldn’t even be a natural experiment like North Korea/South Korea or East Germany/West Germany).

    • steve

      I find the difference between economics and physics amusing. Basically, it seems to me that economics understands the why very well, but are nearly clueless about predicting the how much.

      A refinery blew up and restricted demand, so the price of oil is expected to go up. Why? Supply and demand of human choices. How much it will go up is anyones guess.

      While the exact opposite seems to be true of physics.

      Release this ball in a vacum and it will accelerate towards the earth at exactly 9.8 m/s2 due to gravity. Why? Because gravity just does that.

      Nearly perfict prediction with all the explanatory power of “just because”.

  • david

    Yes, our physics isn’t the last word, for but for most practical purposes it is damn close. New physics will only make a difference in incredibly unusual cases.

    Morley (of Michaelson-Morley fame), 1903:

    The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that “our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

    Remember when all the unsolved problems of physics could be listed as the cavity problem, the photoelectric effect, and the perihelion precession of Mercury?

    • david

      Actually Michelson, not Morley. Whoops.

    • Lord

      Except it is those incredibly unusual cases that will have the most profound consequences for civilization and life as they are harnessed and made common. It is not what we know but what we don’t. The problem may be less understanding everything than losing the ability to expand our knowledge much beyond what we already know as we reach the limit of our powers.

    • Doug S.

      You forgot the specific heat of gases. (Classical mechanics gives an incorrect prediction – and cannot explain at all why it depends on temperature.)

  • Chris Gregory

    I agree with the commenters above. We’re going through a particularly nihilistic phase of history, I suspect, with a general consensus that the future looks bleak. But I suspect this has more to do with a beleaguered and threatened middle-class attempting to force a return to dominance. Austerity measures benefit the middle-class pretty much exclusively. I think that these dystopian prophecies have a lot in common with the sort of reversed utopianism that helped the National Socialist Party get into power.

    People have been predicting the end of natural resources at least since the second century AD by people who greatly underestimated the power of human ingenuity. I really don’t see any reason to think that we’re going to run out of new ideas. I see no real evidence to support the notion, beyond questionable, Malthussian-style calculations. And I don’t see the point in trying to predict our imminent doom either, unless you’ve got some personal interest in doing so (pecuniary, moral or otherwise).

    • Paul

      I agree.

      Even a lower-class person today has more “possibilities” than previously in history…he can visit many different websites ( high possibility / low resource usage ) or take a plane to a different continent.

      Possibly in the distant future there won’t be much oil or plastic or nitrogen or whatever, but we will likely have a billion films, websites, books, mathematics lectures, symphonies, etc to watch with our high-efficiency super hologram projectors.

  • Robert Koslover

    Some people worry about the coming work week. Some worry about the coming elections. Some worry that the world that their children are inheriting may be less pleasant than today. And some even worry about the long-term future of our country and our freedoms. But very, very few worry that immortal “ems” (which are expected to replace humanity) might themselves someday fail to experience their full intellectual and emotional potential, all while they expand beyond our merely-local galaxy cluster, and ultimately come face to face with the inevitable entropy-death of the universe.

  • William Newman

    I can’t quite understand the mindset of physicists like Michaelson unless they were somehow convinced that many phenomena were necessarily outside the realm of physics. Why is there a periodic table? Why are there spectral lines? Why do some materials conduct electricity and others not? Why are some materials transparent and others not? Why do some isotopes release a ridiculous amount of energy by radioactive decay? Why are some elements common and some rare? All of those are understood in considerable detail today and were not even in the first decimal place ca. 1900.

    I half agree with Robin Hanson that we might be close to the limits of fundamental physics, because the remaining puzzles don’t seem nearly so pervasive as they were as recently as 1920. However, some remaining puzzles (known weirdnesses in cosmology, and the endless catfight between QM and relativity) involve sufficiently huge unknowns that I don’t think we’re ready to reason usefully about asymptotic limits of technological civilization.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    The period that humans have experienced exponential growth is quite short, not more than a few hundred generations. Were humans before that time unhappy? Why does happiness require perpetual exponential growth?

    How many lovers does it take to be satisfied, and who (but a teenage boy) imagines that the number must increase exponentially? Why would anyone want to be the lover of someone who needed exponentially more lovers to be satisfied?

    I personally think that the infatuation with greed and illusory growth is the root cause of the problems in the economy today. Real growth is difficult because value must be created. Illusory growth is much easier because people only need to be tricked into thinking something is valuable.

    If some people require exponentially expanding wealth to achieve and maintain satisfaction, why should the rest of humanity accommodate them because they will never be satisfied? Probably the best thing for people who need exponential growth to be satisfied to do is not reproduce. The need for exponential growth to be happy is a curse that will doom their descendants to lives of misery worrying about their descendants who will suffer the same cursed life.

    If a finite universe isn’t good enough for someone, they should become religious and develop a belief in an infinite afterlife.

    An individual can have exponential growth in wealth simply by killing off other individuals and taking their wealth. I happen to think that is a poor way to satisfy anyone’s self-perceived need to experience exponential growth in wealth. There are not a small number of people who are doing so right now.

    It would be a grave mistake to curse ems with the need to experience exponential growth in wealth to experience satisfaction. That is something that should be edited out of anyone who is thawed or otherwise emulated.

    • Alistair Morley

      Interesting.

      Do you really believe that the modern era is uniquely concerned with greed, or that most growth is illusory?

      Remember, you are commentating on an economists blog.

  • http://www.flowidealism.org Michael Strong

    In a world of voluntary exchange in which we can apply the principles of specialization, discovery and exploration of new niches, and competition to improve the quality of goods and services pertaining directly to human experience, the possibility for improvement strikes me as potentially endless. In a completely entrepreneurial economy (i.e. anarcho-capitalism), we might find ourselves in a state in which entrepreneurs competed for new ways to create ever-more perfect and wonderful experiences from morning to night. We have no idea what these might be, we have no idea what the improvements might amount to, and there are likely to be unlimited categories of human experience developed that do not even exist at present.

    Consider the refinements in relatively free-to-develop categories such as wine or music. I’m not an oenophile, but I’ve never heard wine experts suggest that we have reached the end of the road with respect to the experience of drinking wine. And although much commercial music seems repetitive and banal, have we really reached the end of the road with respect to auditory experience? If we had free markets, or entrepreneurial opportunities to make improvements, in education, community formation, and legal systems, we would begin to see new categories of experience developing, and ongoing fractals of new possibilities of experience. Fifty years ago skateboarding and snowboarding didn’t exist, yoga and tai chi were not the developing industries they are today, most forms of what we now call “ethnic food” were distant shadows of what they are today, etc.

    As far as I can tell, the complexity and subtlety of human experience has no limits. We are in a very primitive state of experiencing all that our DNA-determined neuronal capacities are capable of. Do our bodies feel all that they are capable of feeling? Are our emotional symphonies perfect? Has the art of relationships approached its peak state? Which dimension of human experience has built-in limits of any sort?

    If the number of potential neuronal connections in the brain exceeds the number of molecules in the universe, and new dimensions of experience, the vast majority of which have not yet been developed, each involve entirely new systems of neuronal connections that have not yet been developed in ordinary human beings, we have a long way to go.

    I can’t prove rigorously that we’ve got millions of years of possibility remaining, but at least to me it strikes me as much more of an open question than it seems to be to you.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      As I discuss in the linked post, we are finite physical beings, who don’t care that much about the difference between a pretty good experience and the very best possible experience. Once we can produce such nearly perfect experiences with nearly the minimal possible cost, there just won’t be much more progress possible.

      • nazgulnarsil

        The future is “supposed” to be an adventure. Of course people are going to regard the notion of vast numbers of human analogues living lives they evaluate as “merely satisfactory” as bleak. In order for this to change people would have to start believing in 2 things: the future and very large numbers.

      • T L Holaday

        A future where the possibilities are known and fixed and for each person rather limited sounds disappointing, but a future where nearly perfect experiences are available with the minimal possible cost sounds attractive.

      • Scott Messick

        Robin, you do seem to assume that people themselves do not grow in complexity. If you’re right that they become poorer, this would probably be a corollary. If not, people might be able to expand their taste in unbounded ways (while still controlling enough of themselves to maintain their sense of identity), and, in theory, enjoy immortal lives with unlimited possibility (ignoring for a moment problems with the heat death of the universe, etc.).

      • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

        Scott, even in the past, larger beings like clans or cities had more possibilities, and longer lives. Not clear what was the “real” size of beings.

      • roystgnr

        A lot of future predictions sound much more or less optimistic depending on the spin you put on them. I think it was in a Stephen Baxter novel that I saw it pointed out that, because the human brain is probably a finite state machine, there is a finite number of experiences that we or our ems can have. It continued in this fashion, somehow presenting the idea of a future in which any imaginable experience is possible as a *bad* thing.

  • Prakash

    I’m not sure that it is possible to say that physics has reached its limit or is reaching the same. Cosmologists freely admit that over 95% of the universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy, phenomena for which there is no experimental evidence or clear explanation, only speculations.

    It is one thing to say that a field is reaching its limit when its coverage is extensive and explanatory power is great. But when a field freely admits that over 95% of the phenomena it is studying is still mysterious, then I don’t think it is right to say that it is approaching its limit.

    This is of course, totally different from the applications of physics. Once we know the ultimate and correct physical laws, we need to be able to reconfigure a whole lot of things. eg. We need to set all our nearby stars to their optimum burn rates. There is still a lot of learning left to do.

    Only after that is completed, we can all sit and play angry birds till the protons decay.

    • Finch

      Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems there are two important physical assumptions from which Robin’s analysis derives: (1) The speed of light is a real limit; and (2) There’s some limit on density we can achieve. (1) seems pretty likely, recent experiments notwithstanding. (2) seems pretty questionable, though Robin has been dismissive of this in the past, criticizing any ideas about the manipulation of spacetime (like engineering black holes) as speculative.

      If you buy (1) and (2) then, yeah, there’s a real limit on growth and it’s all a question of distribution at some point.

      I think most physicists believe dark matter, when explained, will follow quantum mechanics and general relativity, and therefore be subject to (1) and (2) in the same manner as ordinary matter. Admittedly, that is speculative, too. From the outside looking in, physics doesn’t look like a particularly well settled field. People might have been more confident 20 or 30 years ago than they are today.

      • Ilya Shpitser

        Why is (2) problematic? There are physical limits on density beyond which gravitational collapse happens. Did I miss something?

      • Finch

        (2) is about density of information, which doesn’t necessarily require high density of matter. There are hypothesized bounds on information density, but my understanding is that they are speculative, being based on theories of quantum gravity which are not supported (or denied) by experimental evidence. Basically they require some sort of discreteness in spacetime. But I’m not a physicist, so my understanding could easily be wrong.

  • Tyrrell McAllister

    Yes, new tech have recently given us each more options, but this is mainly because new tech tends to make us each richer. Wealth gives options. If our descendants are, as I suspect, much poorer than we, they may well have fewer options than us.

    Can you flesh this out a bit? Is it so unlikely that our descendents will have many subsistence-level lifestyles to choose from?

    At first, there was only one subsistence-level way to make a living: foraging. Then, with the agricultural revolution, there were two options: foraging and farming. The industrial revolution brought many more, with many subsistence-level jobs doing different things. Shouldn’t we expect the em revolution to bring another exponential jump in the number of lifestyles from which a poor subsistence-level worker can choose?

  • superflat

    no disrespect, but i love when smart people say/write such dumb things. robin seems to think we’re close to end time, tech wise, but there’s a vast amount we don’t know even about simple issues (how do wings provide lift, how does anesthesia work, and on and on and on). it’s also funny to compare current physics to newton, and thus deduce it’s close to where we’ll end up. i think modern physicists think newton’s models help you do lots of stuff, but basically don’t reflect the (bizarre) underlying reality of the world. look at how wrong people were about crystal structure in the 80s, or psychology (blank slate anyone?), and you can see how unlikely it is we’ve got a clue. at base, i think even the smartest, like robin, are little better than chimps in comparison to what we can see coming. and just as we scoff at some person from the middle ages who thought there was little progress to come, we should scoff at robin’s post.

  • Mitchell Porter

    Consider the proposition that the discovery of the periodic table was “the end of possibility”. Or even the discovery of the multiplication table!

    If it one day becomes obvious that we are living in metastable M-theory vacuum #267,904,176,383,054 … then that’s an end to fundamental physics. But it’s not the end of much else. Most of life involves massively complex structures (by subatomic standards), with a number of states that increases exponentially with scale.

    I would side with Robin, against some of his commenters, when he says that there cannot be an endless series of fundamental paradigm shifts. And I would side with the commenters against Robin, when they question his confidence in the indefinite adequacy of prevailing paradigms, except around the edges.

    Here’s an example. Most of the attempts to explain CERN’s superluminal neutrinos (that don’t involve error) preserve causality at the expense of Lorentz invariance. Relativity says you should be able to use FTL neutrinos to send signals backwards in time, so people are saying, e.g., maybe we’re stuck on a 3D braneworld, the neutrinos can take shortcuts through the extra dimensions, and true Lorentz invariance only applies in the full hyperspace.

    But let us suppose that relativity is true and that the neutrino travel times really do express some superluminal effect; and that paradox is avoided because of its weakness and nondeterministic nature. (Or you could even resort to an old idea of David Deutsch’s, in which time-travel paradox is resolved via many worlds: when you change the past, you end up in a different branch than the one you started in.) Nonetheless, one might expect the effect to lead to something like very weak future-detection abilities. The first occasion on which a cosmic civilization begins to harness it would then potentially open it to signals and influences from the whole future of the universe.

    The technological harnessing of superluminal neutrinos would begin to look like the technological harnessing of electricity: the revolutionary introduction of a new force into everyday life. There was a time when electricity meant lightning, and getting a mild shock after you walked on a carpet. Now it is domesticated, courses invisibly throughout our cities, and powers millions of appliances. A neutrino-mediated channel of information from the future would be even more disruptive culturally.

    But even that discovery can only happen once (unless you forget it). So in the long run, Robin is right: at some fundamental level, the world is not going to be repeatedly turned upside down *forever*. But after those transformations are finished, there’s still the complexity frontier. The space of available states – mind states, society states, technology states – is exponentially large. The dreamtime might be viewed as prehistory, the era when people didn’t know what they were doing. History only *begins* once the conceptual foundations are sorted out.

  • Tim

    Mr. Hanson,
    You suggest “new tech have recently give us each more options, but this is mainly because new tech tends to make us richer.” Have you read Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation? He discusses this notion at length using the analogy of low hanging fruit and asserts that most of the new tech low hanging fruit has already been plucked. It may improve our lives to a certain degree, but does not create wealth to the extent innovations in the past have. After reading your post, I pause to consider that we are closer to the end of possibility than we know. Not because the technology won’t advance, but because the policy and economy that would support continued advances is crumbling.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Tim, that is a very interesting comment.

      As I was thinking about it, I started thinking about the very large numbers of people in less developed countries who have not experienced very much of an increase (or any) in wealth due to technology, even the very low hanging technology like clean water. Some of them have directly experienced adverse effects from technology via the high prices for conflict minerals supporting warlords and exploitation. Oil revenues seem to have mostly benefited dictators or others trying to gain power, political or economic, not to achieve a better life for the people of a region.

      It seems to me that when wealth is ultimately used to acquire zero-sum power (i.e. as in a monopoly, or politics, or status), that the net benefit of that wealth really is zero-sum. The average person is not better off because what ever non-zero-sum wealth trickles down, they have lost more in the zero-sum power that has been lost.

      If someone wants to use wealth to acquire zero-sum power, then they have to restrict wealth acquisition because if everyone had wealth, then it wouldn’t be useful to acquire zero-sum power.

  • Doc Merlin

    Unless spillovers are so vast after the singularity that it doesn’t matter than wages are near zero.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    Re: Once we can produce such nearly perfect experiences with nearly the minimal possible cost, there just won’t be much more progress possible.

    There is no such thing as a “nearly perfect experience”, though. Utility counters are bounded only by the size of the universe – so: no matter how much fun you are having, there’s practically bound to be an experience that is 1,000 times better.

  • majus

    Limits to growth apply, obviously. But the assumptions that current economic context or innovation impacts can be extrapolated beyond tomorrow seems weak, and as for the next million years, any knd of prediction seems ludicrous. If there’s some dark reality behind Fermi’s paradox (no aliens, hence something is preventing interstellar expansion of civilizations), then we might be doomed to a cycle of collapse and regrowth, perhaps of diminishing amplitude due to resource depletion, and extinction is always a possibility. But if we survive and master nanotech, inhabit or are replaced by machine intelligence, and figure out a way to travel to the stars, the limits to growth recede hugely. Biological evolution alone would make us into something else in far less than a million years.

    Have I missed some underlying assumption? Like maybe that the honeypot of ideal virtual lives is an insurmountable barrier to other forms of progress?

  • Philo

    “Yes, our physics isn’t the last word, for but for most practical purposes it is damn close. New physics will only make a difference in incredibly unusual cases.” This seems ‘way overconfident, given the obvious difficulty of accurately predicting the long run. By the way, even if the second sentence were true, we might develop techniques to make those incredibly unusual cases less unusual–i.e., to *produce* them–if they involved something beneficial to us.

  • richard silliker

    How about a definition for growth that is rational. One that arises directly out of cause and effect.

    How is it POSSIBLE that you can predict the end of novelty?

  • Steven Ehrbar

    72% of the universe, under current theories, is unexplained. 23% of it is up in the air after the new dwarf galaxy results. The last 5% is still is vulnerable to being upended by the result of an experiment we’re just now gearing up to be able to make at the LHC.

    And yet you’re sure “New physics will only make a difference in incredibly unusual cases.”

    At least Lord Kelvin had some reason to think physics was almost solved.

  • simon

    I’m surprised Robin appears to have so little understanding of the economic implications of his own “what if uploads come first” scenario.

    With mature computing technology, each upload requires a very small amount of phyical resources to sustain. The first units of these resources can be obtained with much less labour than they can sustain. As population grows and resources are strained, the MARGINAL cost of obtaining resources increases until the marginal cost of obtaining resources, in equilibrium, equals the value of the labour that can be produced from them.

    However, the fact that the marginal resource can barely sustain the labour needed to produce it does not erase the huge value produced by the non-marginal resources and labour. This huge value is of course not enjoyed by the labourers as the price of the resources equals the marginal cost. It is instead enjoyed by owners of land and capital, physical resources in raw or worked form. So the real situation in this scenario is one where perhaps the vast majority of people are very poor but some are very very rich indeed. the rich will have plenty of possibilities open to them.

    Of course, this whole scenario assumes that government will maintain property rights (or property owners can sustain them on their own) while not intervening in the free market. That seems unlikely, an intervention such as putting population controls on ems while levying a land tax and redistributing the proceeds would dramatically improve the situation of the ordinary labourer and there would be heavy pressure on governments from the poor to intervene like this.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Tyrrell, yes there should be more subsistence level careers than in the past. But eventually that set won’t expand much.

    superflat, I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of progress coming. I’m saying that process will end “soon” on cosmological time scales.

    Mitchell, Philo, and Steven, I’m skeptical of superliminal neutrinos, and other new physics with near-term practical applications. Yes new physics might eventually find important applications, when we are powerful enough to regularly deal with such unusual physical states, but by then growth will have slowed to a crawl, and the new physics can’t dramatically increase growth rates for more than a very short time, cosmologically.

    Tim, recent fluctuations in US male median wages have little relevance to the long term trends I’m discussing.

    Doc, that seems quite unlikely to me.

    Tim, it might be possible to create creatures that care without limit about more and more subtle rearrangements of matter. But humans aren’t such creatures.

    simon, no doubt there will be some rich, and they’ll have more possibilities. Regions that greatly tax em population will put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Yes governments often intervene, not often to help the poor.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    What is there “competition” for? For computational resources? For silicon to produce computational resources? For access to ems to enslave and torture? For status? For energy? For experiences to fill up km3 upon km3 of memory?

  • Steve

    I suggest reading more Freeman Dyson, he calculates that even if our universe slows down due to cosmic expansion, beings could still have an infinite number of thoughts, they just take longer and longer. Emphasis on infinite, that is really big, equivalent to infinite possibility.

  • Terry

    Reminds me of the Bruce Sterling short story “Swarm”. An excellent story that discusses the theme that Intelligence may be an evolutionary dead end.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    As I understand it, some humans claim to be hedonists – whose aim is to experience (or sometimes create) the maximum possible bliss. In some cases, if their nature limits their bliss, they are happy to modify their nature.

  • mjgeddes

    Exponential growth must end at some point yes, but this is hardly the end of possibility.

    Godel’s theorem specifically tells you that any finite system of axioms capable of basic arithmetic has associated truths that cannot be proven within that system. This shows that in mathematics at least, the pool of radical new insights is infinite. It also proves that the Bayesian scientific paradigm cannot fully capture rationality. Only analogical inference (categorization) can provide the electric *sparks* of insight that can *leap across* ontological gaps and beat Godel.

    Of course commentators have correctly pointed out the huge gaps in cosmology and physics (72% of mass unexplained dark energy, 22% of mass unexplained dark matter), and no complete reductionist theory of physics due to the unresolved conflict between GR and QM.

    Even after the fundamentals are understand and growth becomes linear , there would still be never ending possibility insight to be had in how things are put together, aka Godel, complex systems etc,

    Look to the Hall of Worlds, for it is there that all super-intelligences have gathered! The possibilities of the Hall can never be exhausted, because the Hall is transfinite. All things begin and end in the Hall.

    “Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
    There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
    Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
    go down this road we’ve been so many times

    The grass was greener
    The light was brighter
    The taste was sweeter
    The nights of wonder
    With friends surrounded
    The dawn mist glowing
    The water flowing
    The endless river

    Forever and ever”

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  • superflat

    again, this seems to me like a chimp thinking that we’re eventually going to run out of sticks to use as tools, so things are finite. we really just have no idea, and even saying this is based on what we currently know seems wrong to me, because what we currently know seems to be very little (so factor that in, and it’s hard to predict anything). seriously, are you saying that if we find our way into the multiverse (there’s good scientific support for the prospect of infinite (many) worlds) things will be limited? i’m not saying i buy the many worlds hypo, instead wave function collapse seems more likely to me. but it’s still a very real possibility. and that’s just now. what about in 500 years, if we’re still around? i get that you think you’re making a basic mathematical point about the amount of stuff in the universe, but that’s assuming one universe, and also leaving aside the infinite complexity you can get from finite stuff interconnected in various ways (there are a lot of possible chess games/moves).

  • Ari T

    “Science fiction emphasizes a blizzard of strange futures, from which most folks take the lesson that the future is so unpredictable that there is little point thinking about it. Most think we can’t even count on basic physics, as new paradigms could change everything.”

    Most don’t count on basic physics; care for a source for this claim? I think you are making a non sequitur by connecting basic physics with unpredictableness of the future. Deterministic behaviour does imply a predictable behaviour. Technology has very chaotic nature. Its one thing to say that economic will probably grow at some level for 50 years, and say what the top 50 companies will be in same time.

    Besides what’s the track record of physicists versus 50-to-100-year future predictor experts? If you ask physicists about what happens when an apple falls, he’ll probably have the right answer. How many people who predict future to 50-100 years in advance, actually get it right? One of the implications of mostly efficient markets, is that on the outside you really cannot tell which experts are going to be right. Maybe nanotechnology will be big, maybe it won’t be.

    I think its important to think about the future, I mean we certainly have people investing with very long timeframes, and we always think about the future, especially for ourselves, but we have to understand the highly choatic nature, where small differences in local conditions can make massive differences in the final outcome.

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