Humanity’s Far Future: No Galactic Empire?
I’ve always been a space fan. When I was a child, I used to watch every Shuttle launch, read every space science book, watched every Star Wars movie, & dreamed of being an astronaut. When I came to college, I studied physics & joined the UCLA Rocket Project, with aspirations of helping Elon Musk colonize Mars through SpaceX. Indeed, my sailing team nicknamed me “Rocket Man” and gave me a shot glass with a rocket sticker. So one can imagine my pain when I stumbled upon an idea so compelling, so powerful in its explanation, that I can’t help but conclude its validity — the idea that the future of humanity is not outer space colonization & expansion, but a race to smaller space & inner space, towards the virtual & nano realms.
Where did I first find this concept? Well, there is a field of studies known as Future Studies, or Futurology, which deals with forecasting probable, determining possible, & creating preferable futures. These futures can be personal, organizational, societal, or even universal. In this field, there is a futurist named John Smart who published a book known as the Foresight Guide — you can find the online version at this link. Suffice it to say, this book changed my entire conception of humanity and the universe.
So what is this model of the universe? It requires understanding a few key concepts: complex adaptive systems, & evolutionary development. Complex adaptive systems are now being understood to underlie most of the phenomena we observe in nature, from economies, societies, & ecosystems, to brains, technology, & possibly even the universe itself. It is a system where agents (think people, organizations, nations, animals, etc.) interact with an environment to produce macro-scale effects that are not predictable at the individual scale. Their individual, complex interactions create large-scale change over time as the environment & the agents interact with each other. Physically, these systems can be shown to be a result of the laws of thermodynamics — namely, that entropy (chaos, disorder) must always increase. These complex adaptive systems result when there is a free flow of energy into an environment (far from equilibrium). The substrates that use this energy (the agents of the complex system) work to create these complex systems that are essentially information structures, or extropy/negentropy (the opposite of entropy).
Why does the free motion of particles arrange itself in such a way? Various research models & simulations have shown that creating such systems helps dissipate the free energy faster, causing a global increase in entropy (chaos) while creating a complex adaptive system (more order, more information structures) locally. Indeed, there is a connection between these systems and the principle of least action from classical physics, which is one of the most fundamental postulates of modern physics. It appears to be a universal phenomenon to dissipate free energy as fast & efficiently as possible, with the byproduct of such dynamics yielding all structure, information, order, & evolution in the universe as we know it. As information is fundamentally different from matter, which is scarce & constrained, information can instantiate itself on a variety of substrates, and the sharing of information only creates more information (think about this for a second: when you share a picture, do you “lose” that picture, or now are there just two copies?). With the rate of information growth proportional to the information present in the system, this growth quickly balloons. This is where the “exponential growth” of technology & evolution exists. These complex adaptive systems, living as information structures in thermodynamic systems injected with a free flow of energy, thus undergo exponential growth in their complexity & information.
Zooming out to a cosmic perspective, one can consider the entire universe to be one giant thermodynamic system dissipating free energy & undergoing various thermodynamic “phase transitions” as its complexity grows & information instantiates itself into a new substrate. Thus, in a thermodynamical sense, cosmological, biological, chemical, cultural, social, & technological evolution are all different phases of one complex adaptive system, each system progressively dissipating free energy & producing information in an exponential manner. However, while the cutting edge of physics, mathematics, & complexity science is suggesting this model, to understand the full dynamics of how these systems change over time requires the paradigm of evolutionary development.
The evolutionary developmental model of change essentially states that a complex adaptive system changes via two fundamental processes: evolution, in which an environment selects individuals or agents to replicate under variation, & development, which is statistically likely, convergent processes or forms of change that do not vary under time. To fully understand this, one must realize that evolution as a process is really an accumulation of information about the environment stored in the agents that interact with that environment. For instance, all of the living creatures on Earth contain latent information in their biological structure, courtesy of eons of adaptation, about how much oxygen is present in the atmosphere, the peak wavelength of the Sun’s radiation spectrum, the gravity of Earth, the seasonality of our climate & much more. This accumulation of information over time leads to the observable notion of a directionality to evolution, history, & the universe as a whole. This is the notion of development. By the simple process of variation, selection, & replication, evolution inadvertently creates a direction, a developmental sequence, that it is guaranteed to converge on based on the environment. Considering how dynamic environments are, these convergent developmental forms appear to be the most adaptive for the widest variety of environments.
The presence of these two processes creates a model of change in complex adaptive systems coined by John Smart as the 95/5 rule: roughly 95% of change we observe is evolutionary, creative, random, unpredictable, & drive change from the ground up (think about agents driving a society or economy). However, these processes only describe 50% of the dynamics. The other 5% of change is developmental, constraining, & directs from the top down (think about the formation of states, or natural road networks formed by insects and animals between food and water sources that then funnel all animals down their paths). This developmental arrow has two key effects, the importance of which will become clear soon. First, the definition of progress in an evolutionary sense is to allow agents to do more with less. It’s clearly more adaptive to be able to accomplish more with less work, and as a result, evolution favors these agents who are fitter. This process is known as dematerialization or ephemeralization. Secondly, this driving force of increasing information & complexity in complex adaptive systems requires denser & denser allocations of complexity (order, extropy, information structures) in space, energy, & time. This process, known as densification, is another reason behind the phenomenon of acceleration in technological development we all experience.
Thus, now we can integrate our full understanding into one cohesive model (don’t worry, I’m getting to why space travel is not our future). Essentially, one can conceive of all structure & systems in the universe as a giant complex adaptive system. These systems live far from thermodynamic equilibrium, accumulation information structures & complexity at an exponential rate & undergoing phase transitions between various substrates of information growth. These systems change evolutionary developmentally, with 95% of the processes changing unpredictably, but 5% changing predictably to constrain further development and create maximal adaptiveness. This developmental arrow is predictably driving the system towards greater and greater densification and dematerialization of its processes & agents. This is the universe we live in, and our very existence as humans is a manifestation of this process.
Here is where things get crazy. Given now that we have this model, we can extrapolate it further to see where the future of humanity’s global complex adaptive system will take us. Luckily, physics has a simple answer: black holes are the densest & most information-laden objects in the universe. Most people know that black holes have infinite density (or so we currently think), but what is not commonly realized is that owing to the laws of quantum mechanics, information about particles that fall into black holes cannot be lost. Stephen Hawking himself spent many years musing about this fact. Thus, *drum roll please*, it appears that the end state of humanity is not a galactic empire spanning trillions of planets, but rather a supercomputer-black hole — a posthuman civilization that rearranged all the matter in its star system for valuable computation. This is the densest, most dematerialized, & apparently most adaptive state for our complex adaptive system — indeed this system essentially drops out of the universe all together. John Smart calls this the “trancension hypothesis” — that advanced civilizations don’t colonize stars but rather explore virtual worlds, run trillions of simulations, & explore inner space & the nano-meter realm. It is also a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox — these civilizations are out there — undetectable, living in black holes that are comparable to the mass of the sun (and thus difficult to detect unless they merge with another black hole).
Now, before anyone talks about how exploration is in our blood and we will always want to travel the stars, lets consider a few caveats. Space is not particularly well-suited for biological travel — radiation, low-g, & other cosmic effects destroy us quite easily. Coupled with the advance in digital technologies, human-machine interfacing, & artificial intelligence, and it is quite easy to see that if we colonize the stars at all, it will be a post-biological, digital intelligence. However, we must consider what would be valuable to such a posthuman civilization. These beings would have multiple copies of their minds, have no need for food, water, sex, domination, or any of the other uniquely biological desires. Of course, one of these desires is the desire for physical exploration — resource acquisition, science, & domination & settlement. When you can live on infinite virtual worlds, have effectively limitless resources, & can run countless simulations to discover the nature of reality, what purpose is there to travel elsewhere? At best, a few local star systems may be assimilated for resource acquisition but given the pain of traveling even at light speed across the galaxy, it simply makes no sense. Furthermore, since complex adaptive systems accelerate in their information development, sitting in a black hole is actually the most effective way of producing novel information structures. Since time is heavily dilated, the universe will evolve much faster in front of this posthuman society. Eventually, the orbits of all bodies in the Milky Way will decay (due to gravitational waves dissipating energy), and these digital blackholes, as they fall towards the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, may encounter others like it, where these civilizations may exchange their unique perspective on the universe. John Smart suggests that this is the role of life in the universe — to accumulation information about the universe, and eventually leave it to create a new universe, allowing for infinite replication of this evolutionary developmental dance. In that sense, even the universe is a living organism, replicating and interacting with the multiverse environment, with life as its seed to sprout new universes. Other possibilities for this posthuman civilization are discussed in this link.
I hope now you can see why this idea is so compelling. It gives life a unique purpose in our universe, integrates virtually every science and discipline into a grand narrative, & intuitively feels right when we look at the long arc of time between the Big Bang and now. Of course, like all models, it could be wrong, but something tells me that there is validity to this view. Every new advance in VR, AI, or Computing brings us a step closer to this end state, and I am thrilled to be along for the ride. I still find space captivating, & I still believe colonization of solar system must and will happen, but “Star Wars” will never happen. This next century will constitute the next great “phase transition” from biological to digital life, and I am excited to experience the evolution & development of the universe.