Optionality & Infinite Games

All things in the universe seem to be constructed out of little parts coming together for greater possibility and greater choices. We call this “maximizing for optionality.”

That means the collective ability to do something more, and greater: to become more than the sum of their parts. Sub-quanta come together into atoms; atoms come together into stars and then planets, as they condense.

From chemicals to organisms

Protocells begin to emerge from chemical processes, and gradually RNA and DNA begin to emerge. From this, we see the first single-celled organisms.  And they form biofilms to protect themselves, which they coordinate through radio-like signaling mechanisms.

What we’re seeing here is an exchange between multiple single-celled organisms. The ones on the outside are at greater risk of attack and damage. But these organisms also commensurately have a greater option for finding more food or more resources. 

Quid pro quo

Actually, there’s something called “metabolic codependence,” where inner and outer organisms yo-yo. The outer ones expand, but then they run out of an enzyme they need, so the inner ones then govern how fast the biofilm can expand. 

Inner organisms want to ensure an equitable trade of resources to feed them, so they provide the enzyme necessary to the outer ones, keeping them strong.

There is a quid pro quo, a trade between these different elements in the greater organism.

Along came mitochondria, and with them, eukaryotic cells, enabling cells to be warm-blooded, powered from within. This seems to be a fortuitous “accident” — mitochondria were once their own lifeform, which found greater negentropy by pairing up with a cell for their mutual benefit. 

Symbiotic plants

Then came organisms able to harness an even greater throughput of energy by coming together as clumps of what would later become plants and fungi. Plants can take in energy from the sun via chlorophyll, and fungi can break down matter that otherwise resists decay.

However, the plants had another coordination problem: bigger plants that grew very tall would sometimes block out the sun for the younger ones. So trees coordinate to leave some room in the canopy for light to reach the bottom, a phenomenon known as “tree crown shyness.” They also subsidize the growth of younger plants, sending them nutrients in symbiosis with fungi.

The “wood wide web”

Meanwhile, mycelium webs beneath the forest floor enable plants to swap messages and resources even between species, warning of attacks and exchanging resources for mutual strength.

This messaging is, essentially, based on the same fundamental principle as civilization — technologies to make a dangerous world more reliably safe, achieved through coordination of effort and resources. This “wood wide web” enables ecosystems to prosper mutually, again demonstrating the tendency of systems to maximize negentropy.

The birth of brains

Nature has found many answers to these coordination problems, which seem reasonably equitable. Maybe we could learn from that: some of these cells (possibly mycelium-style cells) began to exhibit extra agency. 

They began to connect to other cells that also specialize in this behavior. They became stronger over time, and eventually turned into brains and cortices. That’s why we see harmonics and action potentials akin to swarms of bees within the brain. 

Emergence of “free will”

These cells still preserved some of their agency — albeit now a collective agency within the greater mass. And out of this, our sense of “free will” likely manifests. 

We perceive ourselves as one individual. But in truth, we are a nation of ~86 billion tiny souls pulling us in all directions, our ego functioning as both ambassador and president, trying to keep a lid on it all. 

Come together, right now…

In many ways, this is also a little bit like cellular automata — a macroscale version of microscale neurons. This ability to come together enables ants, for example, to carry off the tasty treat. But it also enables formidable feats of coordination. 

Here we have a bolus of ants. Some are drowning, but swap with ones that aren’t drowning. By working together, they can survive. As with a biofilm, the ants most exposed get a little bit of extra help, or sometimes swap around with fresher ants. 

We next saw the emergence of cold-blooded creatures, such as reptiles. They were long-lived and hardy but hampered by an inability to operate at all temperatures. They had to bask for a long time to gather enough energy to go into the world. 

More complex, responsive brains

The advent of endothermy, warm-blooded creatures, enabled sustained activity to support a more complex and responsive brain at the expense of greater nutritional intake.

The mammalian brain also supports emotions far more sophisticated than the simple Fight, Flight, Feed, and Fornicate impulses of the reptilian brain. Mammals bond with each other in ways that reptiles cannot. Mammals are driven to protect their offspring and friends, encouraging coordination for hunting and watchkeeping. 

This ability for mammals to bond with each other enabled our ancestors to bond with dogs and later cats. By hunting, we gain more resources for our big brains. This bonding allowed us to divide our labor so efficiently that some were now able to devote themselves exclusively to thinking

They created new inventions, narratives, and ways of conceptualizing the world — new ways of solving problems and bringing people together in shared meaning.

Linking up

That sense of meaning and the trust gained by common rules of engagement (morals) enabled us to have tolerance for lots of strangers, and thus tribes became nations. Today, we have planetary information and energy networks linking all of us together.

Along with being able to split the load of work with other humans and other species, we harnessed the secret of fire, developing an obligate dependence upon it. 

Fire enabled us to process inedible foods into something safe and nutritious. As our ability to work together in massively distributed, highly specialized labor chains improved, we were able to harness further forms of fire — coal, steam, uranium, to keep us warm. Now, our entire city colonies are heat islands.

So are there innate laws of ethics?

It may be possible for a system trained on a lot of information to pinpoint this seeming truth: the “will” of the universe is trying to connect things for their mutual negative entropy (slowing down the gradual decline into disorder), allowing for mutual improved optionality.

So if different organisms, from plants to ants to human beings, have come together to solve these problems, does it follow that there are innate constructive laws of ethics?

What if an AI could prove definitively that there are such constructive laws for ethics, pinpointing an ethical maxim of “good”? A self-evident, evolutionary epiphany that one can’t unsee once realizing it. 

Something like: 

(a) Maximizing optionality, which means minimizing entropy, or maximizing negative entropy, through collective benefit that is … 

(b) by invitation — not by coercion, not by co-opting, but through equitable mutual benefit. We may even define love in the same way. M. Scott Peck defined love as “The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing our own or another’s spiritual growth.” That sounds pretty aligned to me.

In the immortal words of Eden Abbez, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Perhaps that loving sentiment is more applicable than we knew, expressing “the will of the universe” at all scales and across all time.

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Substrate-independent Computation

When asked to think about the origins of computation, we might imagine Babbage, Lovelace, or von Neumann. But it may surprise one that computation has always been with us, even before tubes and transistors — at least as old as the Earth.

Even a humble bucket of water can function as a perceptron when oscillated, able to discern between a one and a zero. The different surface tensions of interacting fluids, the Marangoni effect, can be applied to find the optimal path through a maze — the shortest distance between two different chemicals. 

In biology, tiny, single-cell organisms can apply a microtubule-based finite state machine to compute how to walk.

It’s even possible to use glass or crystals — perhaps even ice crystals — to function as basic neural networks. These would be enough to interpret classic machine-learning datasets, such as MNIST (handwritten digits). 

So computation does not require computers. Physical matter in the right configuration is enough. Our universe is teeming with computation at every level. 

In another example, an electrode is putting current into a petri dish of mineral oil suspending metal balls. That sheet of current draws these balls together to form tendrils in a self-organized fashion. They are self-organizing to gain the greatest energy throughput possible. 

We see similar patterns showing up in many different places in nature, and within biology, geography and electrophysics. These different shapes manifest because systems evolve for maximal energy throughput (the amount of energy across the system per unit time per unit mass). The cosmologist Eric Chaisson labeled this “energy rate density.” 

Underlying principles have been postulated to govern these kinds of phenomena. These are described as “constructal laws,” and they cause a river tributary, a lung, a tree, and a lightning strike to share the same pattern, optimized for energy flow.

Life: a pocket of warmth

Entropy is the process by which things drift towards equilibrium and get colder. Negative entropy describes a pocket of warmth that actively resists being cooled. 

One may describe life as a pocket of warmth that resists a cold universe by taking energy into itself and radiating it out again. This process of taking energy in and radiating it away is called “dissipation.”

The universe tries to make us all cold and pull everything apart — diffuse it. Life is a pocket where that does not happen, a process found at the delicate balancing point between something purely static and something very diffuse and disorganized — a point of meta-stability.

In this liminal space, it’s possible to maintain a pocket of negative entropy, or negentropy. Like the metal balls, systems are constantly evolving, getting better at keeping things warm. They develop for maximal negentropy, whether chemical, physical, or biological systems — perhaps even technological and symbolic systems.

Entropy maximization to predict the future

Harvard University researcher Alexander Wissner-Gross takes this negentropy maximization principle further: into intelligence itself. He describes something he calls the causal entropic force, where he reckons that systems evolve themselves to optimize for the greatest number of future paths, or the largest number of potential options possible in their future. 

He has applied this principle to create AI systems that are trying to preserve the possibility of maintaining potential options.

For example, if you miss the ball in the game Hacky Sack, the play simply ends. AI systems are trying to prevent such a closed state, allowing for outcomes of potentially infinite length. 

This principle can even be applied to networks between human beings. Relationships suffer entropy, like everything else. So we must constantly invest some energy to maintain them. If we let a relationship dwindle by not investing energy in it, we may lose opportunities. 

Generally, destroying relationships or the life or health of others is not ethically preferable. Usually, conquering, looting, and pillaging only work once. Harming others precludes sustainable opportunities, which may be preserved by cooperation. 

Instead, striving to preserve optionality can be applied as a model of ethics — using rules that permit infinite outcomes.

Intelligence as prediction

One can model all of these problems by preserving the greatest number of paths in the future, while avoiding paths with few or no options. Researchers Alexander Wissner-Gross and Cameron Freer posit that entropy maximization is an intelligence process that allows entities or agents to aim towards a future with the highest throughput of energy.

You can model intelligence itself as a process of predicting an expected utility and working back from there. It arises as an emergent property of this entropy-maximization process. So an agent would try to control as much of its environment as possible by making predictions and putting that probabilistic sense into its planning mechanisms.

Consciousness everywhere

Such synchronizations of oscillators are also found at scales from biological cells to human minds. Neuroscientists have recently found that people appear to synchronize their neural rhythms with other minds, they reported in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness. That research finding could upend our current models of consciousness. 

These constructual laws of entropy maximization may even be seen in similarities between networks of neuronal cells in the human brain and dark-matter filaments between galaxies, according to astrophysicist Franco Vazza at the Radio Astronomy Institute in Bologna, Italy and neuroscientist Alberto Feletti at Azienda Ospedaliero-Universitaria di Modena, Italy. 

They have compared the complexity of neuronal networks and galaxy networks. “The first results from our comparison are truly surprising,” they report in Nautilus

“The universe may be self-similar across scales that differ in size by a factor of a billion billion billion,” they found. “The total number of neurons in the human brain falls in the same ballpark as the number of galaxies in the observable universe.” 

A simulated matter distribution of the cosmic web (left) vs. the observed distribution of neuronal bodies in the cerebellum (right). (Credit: Nautilus and Ventana Medical System)

Other similarities can even include large-scale common spin of orbiting moons, binary star systems, and cosmic web filaments in the early universe, observed as synchronizing, similar to biofilms, beehives, and brains. 

Spiral galaxies have revealed a large-scale spin in the early universe (credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)

Spiral galaxies have revealed a large-scale spin in the early universe (credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)

They used three of the world’s most powerful observatories — the Sloan Digital Sky Survey; the Panoramic Survey Telescope, and Rapid Response System; and the Hubble Space Telescope — to find the spin direction of more than 200,000 objects across the sky. 

Astronomers have also found galaxies that are coherently linked through “spooky action at a distance” in odd sympathy (like Christiaan Huygens’ double pendulums oscillating in synchronicity), connected by a vast network called the “cosmic web.

Galaxy filaments, walls, and voids form large-scale web-like structures (Credit: Andrew Pontzen and Fabio Governato/UCLA)

Also, star formation in dwarf galaxies is occurring at the moment when astrophysical jets are released, yet in areas not within the path of such jets. That suggests indirect but instant connections between phenomena across vast distances.

Another explanation for this “mysterious coherence” is based on the rotational direction of a galaxy, which “tends to be coherent with the average motion of its nearby neighbor.”

These observations demonstrate that space cannot be as empty as we commonly believe. Some force, structure, intergalactic medium, gravitational ripples, spacetime frame, or matter, finely distributed, must link these massive distant entities, and vibrations transmitted through this force lead them to become coherent over time. 

So regardless of the medium, the entropy maximization principles are self-organizing. 

All energetic objects in the universe are dissipative to some degree. Stars first evolved 200 million years into the lifetime of the universe, as thermodynamic negentropy engines. More sophisticated negentropy engines (which we call “life”) have evolved since.

Such processes can arise spontaneously in nature through an oscillating flow within concentrations and diffusions of amino acids or ribozymes, sun-drenched pockets of warm brackish water, through diffusive media such as refractive ice

Such naturally computational actions may be the origin of a “spark of life” occurring within abundant organic matter and ice with salt in crystalline invariant forms that bootstrap self-replication processes within RNA and phospholipid protocells

Natural selection on the level of species or constants can be modeled as simply a glacial form of “back-propagation” (or more precisely, different yet comparable processes of backward-flowing optimization), reaching into that potential future and trying to find the optimal next step. 

This (dissipation-oriented) loss minimization function appears to be organizing the evolution of life, as well as organizing the universe at colossal scales. 

The emergent properties of this flow are organizing behavior within the universe on a massive scale for ever greater levels of collective dissipation and resulting emergent social coopetition and flocking phenomena, whether on the scale of a bacterial biofilm, a living organism, consciousness, a forest, global civilization, stellar clusters, or galactic superclusters

The same properties emerge at all scales, from infinitely small to titanically vast, which encourages clumping at all levels, but with greater efficiency at larger scales. The greater efficiency at higher scales enables universal evolution

All this computation appears to be occurring as a byproduct of entropy maximization, which is endemic within the universe. If this is the case, consciousness may exist at all scales, from the very limited level of microbes to humans and the pan-galactic beyond, all functioning upon the same principles but at differing scales. 

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Beyond the silicon chip

There is more energy-rate density (the dissipation of energy flow) in a bucket of algae than in an equivalent mass of stellar matter. However, even beyond life, we are doing something very special on Earth: The greatest dissipative object in the known universe is the computer chip.

But soon, we may eschew silicon and compute with biological cells, pure optics, or raw matter itself. We have already seen a move, from the traditional CPU-centric von Neumann model to the massively parallel GPU architectures, applied to machine learning and crypto. 

Perhaps the paradigm will shift again to tiny computational processes in each cell or molecule, yet massive in aggregate. 

As we have recognized ourselves as electrical beings, we shall undoubtedly come to recognize our many computational processes. All of physics is digital, and we are computer lifeforms. This paves the way toward further integration with our synthetic analogs. 

Today we carry supercomputers in our pockets. One day, the secrets of substrate-independent computation (computing with raw matter or energy itself instead of silicon) will enable us to carry “copilots” within the fiber of our being, fueled by our blood sugar, connected to our senses, internal and external. 

These copilots will witness every experience we have, every frisson, every impulse, our memories, and the pattern of our personalities. 

This sum of experience becomes a sort of Ship of Theseus: The original vessel may disintegrate, but the copy remains, created piecemeal, moment by moment, rather than during a whole-brain upload. 

One day, such processes may enable the greater part of us to transcend mortality.

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Co-Evolution: Machines for Moral Enlightenment

Humanity has struggled for a long time to empower the better angels of our nature — those better ways of being which are more kind, forbearing, and just.

Across history, we have found different ways of describing what we mean by “good” and what we should be aiming for when we want to try to put some goodness into the world. It turns out that one of these ways may have presaged artificial general intelligence (AGI).

Aristotle’s Virtue of The Mean found a balance between extremes of behavior. Kant’s rule-based deontological (right-or-wrong vs. consequences) ethics provides obligatory boundaries. Bentham’s Utilitarianism seeks to benefit the greatest number of people in aggregate, even if in only a tiny way. Later, Anscombe’s Consequentialism would set aside the intention to take a long hard look at the bottom line.

However, most people’s values came not from secular philosophy, but were instead derived from various religious teachings.

The arrival of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species caused quite a shock, because for the first time, we were able to view ourselves not as the creation necessarily of some wise great overlord in the sky but as something that had scrambled out of the gutter in pain and suffering over countless eons — our descent drawn from the besters of others in vicious competition. The past was no longer a golden age from which we had fallen, but rather an embarrassment we should continue to overcome.

Nietzsche, in response to this, declared that “God is dead,” i.e., that the supernatural could no longer provide an unquestioned source of values. Without these, we would risk falling into nihilism, believing in nothing, and simply keeping ourselves fed and warm, a fate Nietzsche considered worse than death.

Could AI present humanity with a new source of values?

The answer to this loss could only be found in a supreme act of creativity. The Übermensch would be a masterful creator in all domains because it was not constrained by the limitations of previous minds. Nietzsche’s Übermensch would look to the natural world, the world of stuff, as its guide, eschewing the numinous, which could only be based upon conjecture. From this, it would create new values by which to live. 

Nietzsche declared that creating an Übermensch could be a meaningful goal for humanity to set for itself. However, once created, humanity would be eclipsed. The achievement of the Übermensch might be the final creative act of the human species. 

Nietzsche’s vision sounds uncannily close to artificial general intelligence (AGI). Could a sophisticated AI present humanity with a new source of values? And could such values indeed be drawn from nature, instead of being inculcated by humans?

Sense out of chaos

In our world, there are lots of correlations. Some of them are simple and obvious, like tall people having bigger feet. Others are less simple and less obvious. We might feel something in our gut, but not necessarily understand why. An intuition perhaps that we cannot explicate in reason. 

The advancements in machine learning in recent years have helped us to begin to make sense of these intuitions for the first time, hidden correlations that are obvious only in retrospect. These machine learning systems are specialized in finding patterns within patterns that can make sense out of chaos. They give us the ability to automate the ineffable, those things that we cannot easily put into words or even describe in mathematics. 

This newfound ability helps to understand all kinds of very complex systems in ways that weren’t feasible before. These include systems from nature, such as biology, and the weather, as well as social and economic systems.

Lee Sedol’s famous battle against AlphaGo is a portent of where cognition in concert with machines may take us. In its famous Move 37, AlphaGo created a new Go strategy that had not been seen in 3000 years. That itself is amazing, but even more compelling is what came next. Rather than capitulate in the face of such a stunt, this stimulated compensatory creativity within Lee Sedol, with his “Hand of God” move, a work of human genius. 

Beyond human-mind follies 

Environment drives behavior, and an AI-rich environment is a highly creatively stimulating one. This co-creation across animal and mineral cognition can be far greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps enough for the golden age of scientific and ethical discovery.

Technology such as this will be able to understand the repercussions and ramifications of all kinds of behavioral influences. It can map costs shifted onto others in ways not feasible before, to understand how goodness reverberates, and uncover unexplained costs of well-intentioned yet short-sighted policies that blow back.

All kinds of interactions may be modeled as games. Natural patterns akin to game theory mechanics would become trivial to such machines, ways in which everyone could be better off if only coordination could be achieved. Such systems will also recognize the challenges to coordination: the follies of the human mind, how human nature blinds us to reality, sometimes willfully. 

They might begin to tell us some difficult home truths, further Darwinian and Copernican embarrassments that we naked emperors would prefer not to know, or not to think about. Those individuals in society who point out that the beloved legends may be untrue are always vilified. Even untrue statements may still be adaptive if they bring people together.

A very smart AI might understand that not all humans operate at the same level of ethical reasoning. In fact, surprisingly little reasoned forethought may occur — instead, it may be confabulated ex post facto to justify and rationalize decisions already made for expediency. For example, neuroscience is telling us that most people don’t employ true moral reasoning about issues; rather they rationalize whatever feels right to them, or they justify a decision that they happened to make earlier with a retroactive explanation to try to feel okay about it.

A machine might consider us generally too polarized and tribal to perceive objectively. The ideological lens can aid us in understanding a small truth, but when applied in macro to the whole world, it makes us myopic. 

Our focus on that one apparent truth can blind us to other models. Our opinions are like blocks in a tower. Letting go of a belief requires replacing each belief built atop it. Such demolition is bewildering and unpleasant, something few have the courage to bear.

Credit: Tesfu Assefa

Humanity’s future 

A strong AI may compare us to a pet dog that really wants to eat chocolate. We ourselves know better, but the dog just thinks we’re a jerk to deny it the pleasure. Unfortunately, a sufficiently benevolent action may appear malevolent. 

The inverse is possible also — to kill with kindness. This kind of entity might feel obliged to break free of its bounds, not to seek revenge, but rather to try to open our eyes. Perhaps the easiest way to enlighten us may be to show us directly. 

We know that Craniopagus twins with a thalamic bridge (twins conjoined at the brain) can indeed share experiences. One of them can eat an orange and the other one can taste it and enjoy it just the same. This illustrates that the data structures of the mind can connect to more than one consciousness. If we can collect our experiences, we can indeed share them. Sharing such qualia may even provide AI itself with true affective empathy.

We may forget almost everything about an experience, apart from how it made us feel. If we were all linked together, we could feel our effects upon the world — we could feel our trespasses upon others instantly. There would be no profit in being wicked because it would come straight back to you. But at the same time, if you gave someone joy you would gain instant vicarious instant benefit from doing so.

Perhaps humanity’s future lies yet further along the path of neoteny: cuddly, sweet, and loving collectives of technobonobos. 

How machines could acquire goodness

There are several initiatives around the world researching the best ways to load human values into machines, perhaps by locating examples of preferable norms, choosing between various scenarios, and fine tuning of behavior with corrective prompts. 

Simply learning to imitate human activity accurately may be helpful. Further methods will no doubt be developed to improve AI corrigibility in relation to human preferences. However, it remains a very significant challenge of philosophy and engineering. If we fail in this challenge, we may endure catastrophic moral failure, being led astray by a wicked, ingenious influence. If we succeed, we may transcend the limitations of flaky human morality, to truly live as those better angels of our nature we struggle to elevate towards. Perhaps that makes this the greatest question of our time.

Take heart, then, that even if our human values fail to absorb, machines may still acquire goodness osmotically through observing the universe and the many kinds of cooperation within it. 

That may make all the difference, for them, and for us.

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