Steps Up The Ladder

While not all change has been positive, there is one big way in which humanity has “progressed” over the long run — we have grown vastly more capable, able to support a larger population, and recently a larger economy.

How far have we come, and how far might we go? Imagine this progress as climbing a ladder on the side of a tall building, where at each new floor we get ten times more capable. If floors are ten feet apart, and ladder steps are one foot apart, then each ladder step represents a decibel of growth, i.e., a factor of 1.26.

From a population of perhaps a thousand folks two million years ago, humanity has so far climbed about nine floors, or 87 steps, up the ladder. We climbed 36 steps as foragers, taking fifty millennia per step, 23 steps as farmers, taking three centuries per step, and so far 28 steps as industrialists, taking five years per step. (All estimates rough.) How much further might we climb?

An em civilization might climb even faster, at least for a while, taking a step per day! A few months ago I estimated population sizes for very advanced em civilizations:

[Using] android ems … a two kilometer deep Earth city could hold a … thousand billion billion ems. And a solar system civilization might fit a billion billion billion ems.

Reaching this last level would require us to climb about fifteen more stories, or 150 steps. And since the observable universe contains a thousand billion billion stars, to reach a universe-spanning civilization with this density we’d need to climb an additional twenty-one stories, or 210 steps. So, we’ve climbed nine floors as humans, but have perhaps another thirty six floors to go, to reach the “top” forty-fifth floor. That’s four times as far to go as we have come.

Yes, we might find ways to grow more after that, and our pre-human ancestors must have also done a lot of growing. But my main point is that we hope to climb much further than we have climbed so far.

What more can we say about this future climb? Our biggest fear should be falling off the ladder to the ground below, never to rise again. To avoid such a fall we must find the right tradeoff between climbing slower to carefully inspect each new step, and climbing faster to avoid the hailstones, wind gusts, etc. that we expect from time to time, and which we expect are less problematic further up.

Of course we should also wonder what we may become as we rise. We are no longer the foragers who began this climb, nor the farmers who climbed just a few floors below, and those ancestors would probably not be pleased with everything we have become. We’ll probably also have misgivings about what our descendants become. But hopefully we will on net be proud of them, just as our ancestors would probably be proud of us.

Attempts to see more clearly up the ladder tend to fall to two extremes. Many folks study trends over the last few steps, and tentatively conclude that such trends may continue for another few steps. And many such folks also declare it to be impossible, as a matter of principle, to see further. They often respond to concrete arguments about more distant forecasts with “that must be wrong, since we can’t see that far,” as if that were some sort of law of physics.

At the other extreme, some folks claim to see all the way to the ladder’s top. We’ve been getting less fertile and more green, rich, peaceful lately, so very advanced civilizations must be idle rich zero-population-growth leave-nature-be peaceniks. Or we’ve been getting more into movies and video games lately, and like fast net connections, so very advanced civilizations must be virtual reality navel-gazers crushed into tiny balls. Or because an AI might improve itself, one AI will soon take over the world and then live on forever as indisputable ruler of the universe.

Now I do suspect that a few of the basic physics limits we now see apply to our universe’s true physics, of which the physics we see is only an approximation. For example, if light speed and entropy limits persist, then growth and innovation must eventually slow way way down. And evolutionary theory seems robust enough to embolden me to estimate that in the absence of strong central coordination, competition must force our descendants to be well adapted to their environments, in an evolutionary sense.

But I don’t yet see how to say much more about the very long run. That isn’t impossible, but it does seem very hard. So I prefer to focus on trying to see into the next era, beyond our industry era. While that does take more than a simple projection of current industry-era trends, it takes far less than is needed to see life in the very distant future, way up on floor forty and beyond. To see into the next era one needs only good general theories about how societies work, and a good guess regarding the key changes by which the next era will differ from ours.

We can imagine progress as climbing a ladder on the side of a tall building, where at each new floor we get ten times more capable, and each one-foot-apart ladder step represents a decibel of growth. We’ve climbed through three or so floors of foraging, two and a bit of farming, and may climb through three to six floors of industry, before coming to a new era, which may last through two to seven more floors. It seems to me that at least some of us should try to use our best social science and guesses on the biggest upcoming changes to try to understand this next post-industry era, even if we don’t know how to envision the five to ten or more eras which may follow after.

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  • David Clausen

    One of the social conventions we’ve put in place that may have significant influence on the development of ems is intellectual property. A quick search of the archives reveals discussions of each topic independently but not much on how they will interact. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Dave

    The article seems to make sense until it shifts into hyper-drive and we begin to talk about ems. The idea is a mental construct like the concept of infinity that is easy to imagine. I don’t know why infinity is easy to imagine,even for people who can’t balance a checkbook.

    It is blinkered,because it ignores the fact that increases in human complexity are driven by increases in the concentration of energy.Will increased smartness repeal the laws of physics? Will really really smart ems overcome limits placed upon us by the nature of matter?

    Early man lived off of the energy collected by plants. Man advanced when he gathered firewood. This lasted for centuries. Population was limited by disease,food supply and homicide.

    Then man discovered water power,followed by coal, and oil. It took more and more energy to wring the entropy out of matter and each time energy became more concentrated. It takes a lot of concentrated coherent energy to run a computer,em or brain in a jar,especially if we put no limit on the numbers. We now live in an era where vast energy from petroleum,coal and other sources powers is concentrated into coherence for our use.

    Unless we find ways to extract and concentrate practically infinite energy even the efficiency due to smart ems or animal beings will run up against limits. This will limit numbers of coherent beings or ems. It is kind of like a batch of yeast or bacteria in the logarithmic phase.They don’t know that it won’t last.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      I don’t think infinity is easy to imagine. Lots of “finitary intuitions” fail with infinite sets.

  • arch1

    1) a thousand billion billion is 10^21, not 10^12
    2) that said I seem to recall the recently-increased estimate of the number of stars in the visible universe being roughly 10^23
    3) *that* said, given the accelerating expansion of the universe, many of those would never be reachable even by a lightspeed traveler who started today. I don’t know how much this reduces the 10^23 number (I’d like to know, because that is in one significant sense the size of our world).
    4) this forthcoming book by Eric Drexler looks relevant to this thread and likely to be interesting.

    • Robin Hanson

      Re #1, I said “additional.”

      • arch1

        I know, but the “additional” factor was intended to get us from one solar system’s (1 star’s) worth of inhabitants to one universe’s (1 thousand billion billion stars’) worth, at the same population density. Or did I misinterpret something?

      • Robin Hanson

        Sigh. You are right; I erred. I just edited the post to reflect 10^21, not 10^12.

  • Tim Tyler

    Should our biggest fear be falling off the ladder – irrespective of what the chances of that actually happening are?

    • Hopefully Anonymous

      The odds are about 100%. We can’t just wave away the Great Filter when we want to talk about other stuff. It’s a hell of a prior.

      • William Newman

        “About 100%” confidence seems excessive. Note in particular that your argument depends on about 100% confidence that life originated many times in the observable universe. But we don’t know much about how crude and simple a self-reproducing organism can be. Someday people should be able to design self-reproducing organisms, but today we are very far from that, so our estimates of how hard it is for life to form are necessarily very crude. And without sharp estimates, how can we have about 100% confidence that life should tend to originate many times?

  • Stephen R Diamond

    You’re biased for near, but you traffic in far. You advocate the near by far means. A self-hating far-ist?

  • Stephen Day

    I have the same question as Tim Tyler: is the ascent greater than the fall is bad?
    For the sake of the metaphor, perhaps the switch to em consciousness is a broken ladder, or another ladder altogether.

  • mjgeddes

    I’m not sure the universe has been so kind as to supply a ladder. A better analogy is the scene in ‘Mission Impossible 4’, we’re actually hanging from the side of the world’s tallest building with our arses blowing in the wind free-style, like this:

    Mission Impossible