More Than Death, Fear Decay

Most known “systems” decay, rot, age, and die. We usually focus on the death part, but the more fundamental problem is decay (a.k.a. rotting, aging). Death is almost inevitable, as immortality is extremely difficult to achieve. Systems that don’t decay can still die; we sometimes see systems where the chance of death stays constant over time. But for most complex systems, the chance of death rises with time, due to decay.

Many simple physical systems, like chairs, decay because the materials of their parts decay. Such systems can often be rejuvenated by replacing those materials. More generally, simple modular systems can be rejuvenated by replacing the modular parts that decay. For example, it is possible to spend enough to maintain most cars and buildings indefinitely in a nearly original condition, though we rarely see this as worth the bother.

Complex adaptive systems (CAS), such as firms, have many parts in complex relations, relations that change in an attempt to adapt to changing conditions. When a CAS changes its design and structure to adapt, however, this rarely results in modular sub-designs that can be swapped out. Alas, the designs of most known CAS decay as they adapt. In biological organisms this is called “aging”, in software it is called “rot”, and in product design this is called the “innovators dilemma”. Human brains change from having “fluid” to “crystalized” intelligence, and machine learning systems trained in one domain usually find it harder to learn quite different domains. We also see aging in production plans, firms, empires, and legal systems. I don’t know of data on whether things like cities, nations, professions, disciplines, languages, sports, or art genres age. But it isn’t obvious that they don’t also decay.

It is not just that it is easier to create and train new CAS, relative to rejuvenating old ones. It seems more that we just don’t know how to prevent rot at any remotely reasonable cost. In software, designers often try to “refactor” their systems to slow the process of aging. And sometimes such designers report that they’ve completely halted aging. But these exceptions are mostly in systems that are small and simple, with stable environments, or with crazy amounts of redesign effort.

However, I think we can see at least one clear exception to this pattern of rotting CAS: some generalist species. If the continually changing environment of Earth caused all species to age at similar rates, then over the history of life on Earth we would see a consistent trend toward a weaker ability of life to adapt to changing conditions. Eventually life would lose its ability to sufficient adapt, and life would die out. If some kinds of life could survive in a few very slowly changing garden environments, then eventually all life would descend from the stable species that waited unchanging in those few gardens. The longer it had been since a species had descended from a stable garden species, the faster that species would die out.

But that isn’t what we see. Instead, while species that specialize to particular environments do seem to go extinct more easily, generalist species seem to maintain their ability to adapt across eons, even after making a great many adaptations. Somehow, the designs of generalist species do not seem to rot, even though typical organisms within that species do rot. How do they do that?

It is possible that biological evolution has discovered some powerful design principles of which we humans are still ignorant. If so, then eventually we may learn how to cheaply make CAS that don’t rot. But in this case, why doesn’t evolution use those anti-rot design principles to create individual organisms that don’t decay or age? Evolution seems to judge it much more cost effective to make individual organisms that rot. A more likely hypothesis is that there is no cheap way to prevent rot; evolution has just continually paid a large cost to prevent rot. Perhaps early on, some species didn’t pay this cost, and won for a while. But eventually they died from rot, leaving only non-rotting species to inherit the Earth. It seems there must be some level in a system that doesn’t rot, if it is to last over the eons, and selection has ensured that the life we now see has such a level.

If valid, this perspective suggests a few implications for the future of life and civilization. First, we should seriously worry about which aspects of our modern civilization system are rotting. Human culture has lasted a million years, but many parts of our modern world are far younger. If the first easiest version of a system that we can find to do something is typically be a rotting system, and if it takes a lots more work to find a non-rotting version, should we presume that most of the new systems we have are rotting versions? Farming-era empires consistently rotted; how sure can we be that our world-wide industry-era empire isn’t similarly rotting today? We may be accumulating a technical debt that will be expensive to repay. Law and regulation seem to be rotting; should we try to induce a big refactoring there? Should we try to create and preserve contrarian subcultures or systems that are less likely to crash with the dominant culture and system?

Second, we should realize that it may be harder than we thought to switch to a non-biological future. We humans are now quite tied to the biosphere, and would quickly die if biology were to die. But we have been slowly building systems that are less closely tied to biology. We have been digging up materials in mines, collecting energy directly from atoms and the Sun, and making things in factories. And we’ve started to imagine a future where the software in our brains is copied into factory-made hardware, i.e., ems, joined there by artificial software. At which point our descendants might no longer depending on biological systems. But replacing biological systems with our typically rotting artificial systems may end badly. And making artificial systems that don’t rot may be a lot more expensive and time-consuming that we’ve anticipated.

Some imagine that we will soon discover a simple powerful general learning algorithm, which will enable us to make a superintelligence, a super-smart hyper-consistent eternal mind with no internal conflicts and an arbitrary abilities to indefinitely improve itself, make commitments, and preserve its values. This mind would then rule the universe forever more, at least until it met its alien equivalent. I expect that these visions have not sufficiently considered system rot, among other issues.

In my first book I guessed that during the age of em, individual ems would become fragile over time, and after a few subjective centuries they’d need to be replaced by copies of fresh scans of young humans. I also guessed that eventually it would become possible to substantially redesign brains, and that the arrival of this ability might herald the start of the next age after the age of em. If this requires figuring out how to make non-rotting versions of these new systems, the age of em might last even longer than one would otherwise guess.

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