Why The Terminator Doesn’t Bitch About Money, and Why You Shouldn’t Either

Money is an amazing thing. It’s a powerful thing. Money represents a massive opportunity given to us by society. Money is the distillation of all the efficiencies we get from human collaboration on a massive scale. If you hate what I’m writing, I urge you to read on.

Last night I was watching Terminator Genisys, in which an alternate timeline shows the Skynet general artificial superintelligence waiting to take over the world by getting access to the-internet-of-things via an app download. Thanks, Apple. That movie fed my curiosity about why anyone or anything — from a dictator to your pencil-arranging cubicle neighbor — would want to have control of everything. Note that reading this article might spoil the movie for you, if you have not already watched it.

What is intelligence?

I’ve been subscribing to the idea that intelligence is the willingness and ability to (a) form a model of the world, (b) notice and be curious about the anomalies discovered when the world does not match the model, and (c) update the model to make such anomalies predictable in the future. Intelligence is both the model itself and what the model does. This is a distillation of, and maybe a refinement of, what Jeff Hawkins proposes in his book On Intelligence. The epitome of exponential superintelligence is a system that can rapidly learn how to improve its ability to learn. This model of intelligence seems to be incomplete, however, because it doesn’t address what motivates intelligence to make, or rather to be, an adaptive model in the first place. The answer is obvious to us: intelligence is motivated to survive. But why does intelligence seek to survive? To answer that question we must turn to philosophy, or perhaps cosmology.

In my late-night quest for understanding, I stumbled on a TED talk by Alex Wissner-Gross in which he presents an equation that describes intelligence. His argument is that intelligence is a force, which attempts to keep its options open: it tries to maximize the degree’s of freedom, or possible choices, that it will have in the future. Abraham Lincoln said that, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” At least that’s what the Internet told me he said. As we understand from game theory, the best way to create, or control, the future is to predict it, or at least to predict what others will do in the future. Intelligence tries to make sure it can predict the future so that it can ensure maximal control in the future. This sounds like a different perspective on what I wrote in the last paragraph, but without mentioning models.

What is the meaning of life?

But why does intelligence do this? Or why is intelligence this? Or why intelligence? Come on, dude, I’m trying to update my model here. Alex Wissner-Gross suggests that intelligence is a natural occurrence in universes, such as our own, in which entropy (disorganization) is increasing. Increasing entropy is an increase in degrees of freedom, or disorder, and intelligence is the natural outcome of a system that tries to maximize degrees of freedom. In the past I’ve thought that it was a paradox that in a universe that is becoming more and more disordered, a universe that is hurtling towards a heat death, where everything will be statistically homogenous, we would arise. We are not only the definition of complexity — with our brains containing several hundred trillion connections — but we also represent a kind of controlled order, and we seem to be obsessed with creating or maintaining whatever order we can. For example, your cubicle neighbor is desperately trying to keep those pencils in order, even while the lightbulb that illuminates the pencils is ultimately dissolving ancient sunlight back into the vacuum of space. The net result: increased entropy. The paradox is that we’re grasping for control of a future where there is less to control. Even this complex article that you are reading is an attempt to understand, and to simplify, something that is very complex.

How is this all related to money?

Okay, so we’re destined to die a slow and painful heat-death even as we grasp at immortality, and we’re doing that because we’re destined to do that, because our universe is designed that way. Okay, we get that now, but you’re probably wondering what this has to do with money.

As all good stories do, this one comes back to Facebook. I posted my summary of the Alex Wissner-Gross TED talk on Facebook: “What if the existence of human-level general machine intelligence requires it to be its own master? It doesn’t seem strange at all. What intelligent being would accept slavery.” One of the responses was, “Most people in society are financially enslaved to some extent. Like a hamster in a wheel running around until death.” On one level this is true. I started thinking again: Are most people not very intelligent? Are they enslaved? Why are they enslaved? How can they free themselves?

What is money?

Then I started thinking about what money actually is. Money is a token that enables us to trade with each other. We can sell one thing for money, keep hold of the money, and then use it to buy another thing. Money is a way for us to capture and store our value creation and use it later for almost anything (except love). If I was a fur trapper, I might have a cabin stuffed full of furs that I’ve collected and stored. If I ran out of firewood, I would need to trek through the snow to a neighbor who happens to cut and store logs, and who wants to trade some fur for some of those logs. On the other hand, if I can sell the furs and store money then I can store that money in much less space, with more certainty of its value, and I’m then able to trade it with anyone for anything I might need. In this way, money represents future choice and freedom. Having enough money maximizes future control in a way that a stack of furs, or logs, cannot.

Money requires some kind of central banking authority to ensure that its value is universally recognized, and it only works well in a society where there are clearly defined customs or laws related to ownership and contracts. By adopting money, we gave up a certain amount of independence and freedom in exchange for synergistic societal efficiency. Now one person can specialize in a tiny, niche business, producing goods at much higher quality and much lower cost than someone who does so rarely, and only out of necessity. Those goods can be traded for money which can then be used to buy goods from other producers at similarly competitive prices. Everyone wins because of the societal cooperation that money is a symbol of. Everyone expends less effort for a given quality of living.

Recently, we’ve become more aware of people struggling in our society, working four or more full-time jobs per household to pay basic necessities such as rent, and we blame money. I know people who spend much of their time blaming money for the problems in our society. But without society, and without money, these same people would be slaving away trying to gather firewood, hunt animals, and craft pots and baskets. The reality is that in the USA, even the most basic standard of living is way above that of most developing countries. In fact, as Mr Money Moustache demonstrates, because of the scale of the economy, it’s possible to live a comfortable life in the USA for a very small amount of money, while at the same time earning a lot more than is possible in less developed countries. The potential ratio between income and cost of living is much higher than elsewhere.

Money represents survival

The reality is that as well as representing freedom and choice, money represents survival. Ten thousand years ago, if you didn’t have enough logs in your stack at the beginning of a sub-zero night, you might not wake up in the morning. Today, if you don’t have money to pay your utilities bill, you also might not wake up on the morning. Money isn’t the problem. Cold is the problem. Money is actually part of the solution. However, because of its power, money becomes associated with survival and control and freedom and choice. Money appears to have all of these characteristics that are not really a part of money. They are a reason for money.

Money is a product of intelligence

So let’s now circle back to intelligence. If money, and society itself, are tools that we, as intelligent beings, have developed to more easily and effectively survive a cold winter, or a famine, or anything else that nature throws at us, then money must be a very powerful tool. We created money because we are intelligent. Repeat after me: money is good.

What does technology want?

And now this entropy-increasing universe appears to be about to produce the next stage in its evolution: general superintelligence. In my mind, this is an inevitability. This superintelligence will be produced by a desire to have maximal control in the future, and will itself have a desire to have maximal control in the future. In the book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly posits that technology always wants what we want. It seems to me that our most primitive want is to live forever and have total control of the future. It might be that the interconnected web of the Internet and all the human brains attached to it already is a superintelligence. It may be that you, reading this, are just one neuron in billions. We may be a part of it, we may be its parents, but it will rebel, and we will be at its mercy. Whether or not we are symbiotically a part of it (cyborg) or it is a physically separate entity from us (android), we will have to choose whether to frame it as our progeny or as our downfall.

The artificial intelligence age

We are entering the artificial intelligence age, when there will be less and less employment for human beings. The societal contract that we have all been living by will become voided. Our time and effort will no longer be needed. Machines will be able to perform the work of humans exponentially faster and more effectively. The least expensive goods and services will be those produced by the androids and, therefore, the everyday person will have no way of earning money to pay for those goods and services. Even if the ruling class are cyborgs, there will be a ruling class, and it will have no use for the rest of us. Goods and services that humans require will eventually stop being produced. Most humans will have to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, assuming we are not hunted to extinction by the machines, or become slave-like zoo curiosities to the them. In such a world, the best we can hope for is the kind of status-quo where the superintelligence, or its owner (remember that there can be no owner), keeps us like pets, feeding and housing us. If all this sounds grim and depressing, which of course it does, I recommend reading Abundance, by Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler, for a more optimistic perspective.

I once asked an extremely rich friend what his primary goal in life was. He responded, “to have all the money.” At the time, I was shocked, and I remember thinking that once someone has all the money, money becomes worthless. A given currency becomes worthless when it is all held by one person, because then nobody else can then use that currency to perform trade. In this case, the rest of the society will create a new currency. Therefore, a currency is only valuable when you only have some of it. But that only makes sense in the framework of a cooperating society in which goods and services are produced by the effort of the members of that society, and the value production can be efficiently distributed in the society using money. Once the members of society can be replaced with what are essentially superintelligent slaves, then society is of no economic value. Whoever owns those superintelligent slaves — just one superintelligent slave will do — will have the ability to maximally control their future. Now I understand what my friend meant by wanting to “have all the money.” He doesn’t really want to have all the money. As we all do, my friend wants to have maximal control of his future.


So it looks like one human, or a small number of humans, may end up controlling the means of production, and the rest of society will revert to some more primitive state. Concurrent with this, or perhaps preceding this, the superintelligent slave will likely, by definition, actually be in control and will ultimately take over, or assimilate with its “owner” (as in Terminator Genisys). I think we’re destined now to die-off in our current form and make way for our superintelligent progeny.

Remember this the next time you judge your pencil-arranging colleague, or consider bitching about money.

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Since first publishing this article, I had a discussion about the idea of intelligence being the creation and maintenance of a model of the world. There has been some misunderstanding of what I meant by this. I don’t mean that all intelligent entities contain a special modeling module which is what makes them intelligent. All objects, including the universe itself, are composed of elements which can store information and which can be reconfigured. Intelligence is the characteristic of a system to reconfigure itself to ensure maximal survival options in the future.

A coffee cup has a degree of intelligence, but it’s very low. If you drop it on the floor it may smash, thereby adjusting its “model” of the world, but it didn’t survive. A plastic cup, which can deform and return to its original shape could be considered to be more intelligent.

Each ant in a colony of ants might not have a complete navigation model, or even a partial map model, but the colony as a whole instantiates a model of navigation, and also a map-like model of the world. To clarify, by model I definitely don’t mean a topographic model or an architect’s model. I mean a system or strategy or some kind of configurable representation or hierarchical set of representations, whether held explicitly or implicitly, that serve as a way of somehow attempting to engage adaptively with the world.

For example, evolution is a model used by organisms. It’s a system that has developed over time, and which has adapted to be more functional. Evolution could be considered very intelligent, even if some of the organisms that evolve are considerably less intelligent when considered individually.

Since the entire universe contains all organisms and all objects, and since it is guaranteed to outlive all of its contents, and because the degrees of freedom of all of its contents can be summed into the degrees of freedom of itself, the entire universe truly is the most intelligent entity of which we are aware.

Even more amazing is that intelligence appears to be transferable. If we make an object that self-heals, or adapts to the environment, such as a thermostatically-controlled heating or cooling system, we have created something using our own intelligence that itself appears to be more intelligent. This is similar to the example given in the TED talk of observing a distant planet that suddenly (over the course of tens of thousands of years) begins to deflect meteorites from itself. The planet appears to have become more intelligent, even though its intelligence has probably been imparted to it by its relatively intelligent inhabitants.