Friday, May 9, 2014

Personhood, assimilation of matter and scarcity

[Warning:  speculation ahead.]  In a previous blog entry I discussed that with the singularity will come the ability to incorporate unlimited matter in our persons, which seems worth a quick elaboration.  After the singularity, it is likely that people will not be defined by the typical boundaries of a human body.  With the singularity will come the ability to redesign complex systems, such as the human body, and eventually to design entirely new kinds of bodies for our minds.  At a trivial level, this could mean that some people would add an extra pair of arms, as easily as people now add body piercings.  More importantly, people could choose to augment their brains.  This could be done biologically, by increasing the actual neuronal brain mass that people have to remember and process experiences, it could be done on a hybrid level by wiring non-biological computational elements into a biological brain, or it could be done non-biologically by entirely replacing the brain with a non-biological computational unit (i.e. the mind uploading championed by Ray Kurzweil).  Additionally, there is no reason why a person will need to be limited to a single physical object like a human body.  For instance, a person may choose to distribute their physical presence among a dozen human bodies, robotic bodies, or human and robotic bodies.  A person's mind may exist in a giant data center somewhere while her bodies are merely avatars to the physical world, or the mind may be distributed among multiple different bodies, each doing an independent piece of the perception, thinking and feeling done by the whole mind.

These possibilities are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather are described to illustrate that there are no laws of physics to confine "personhood" to the boundaries of a single familiar object such as a human body.  Right now, the boundaries of a person correspond to the boundaries of a human (or perhaps animal) body, but that is only a peculiarity of the Darwinian evolution that created currently existing people.  Evolution never hit upon high-speed wifi, and without it distributing a person among different objects is tricky.  Bees hives and ant colonies function in many ways (though not perfectly) as a single unit.  To a significant degree an individual bee does not have its own independent drive for survival, reproduction, etc., but rather preserves its life and takes actions only to the extent that doing so preserves the life of, and furthers the interest of, the hive.  But for whatever reason bee hives did not evolve the intelligence, self awareness, and other qualities that we typically associate with personhood.  Despite the fact that all examples of consciousness that we know of are confined to individual bodies, that is merely an accident of the evolutionary process that created us, rather than a feature of consciousness itself.

Furthermore, personhood will not be limited to predefined structures and shapes.  A person could grow to encompass a planet, or a solar system, or could shrink her consciousness down to a speck of dust.  To make any progress understanding the singularity you must discard the notion that the human body is a fundamental unit of personhood.

Once you do that, it is natural to wonder how people will choose to shape their physical manifestations.  One answer is that they will shape their physical manifestations in whatever way permits them to pursue their goals most effectively.  One thing that will be indispensable to achieving most sets of goals is intelligence (this is tautological if you define intelligence as the ability to choose actions to effectively accomplish goals).  Thus, it seems like a reasonable supposition, that most people, absent any countervailing forces, will seek to increase there intelligence as much as possible.  There are two possible ways to increase raw intelligence:  (1) improve the use of existing computational matter and (2) acquire new computational matter.  Assuming that at some point there are diminishing returns to improving the use of existing computational matter, a reasonable assumption is that most people will soon start acquiring and incorporating whatever additional computational matter is available to them.

We know of no limits to the principles that more computational matter can be used to increase intelligence and greater intelligence can improve ability to pursue and achieve goals.  Thus, if a person is not using matter for something else important to her, she might as well incorporate the matter into her brain.  There may be diminishing returns to increased intelligence, but even if there are, she might as well gain the meager returns if the matter is freely available to her and she has no other use for it.  Even if she does not want to enlarge her brain she might as well incorporate the matter to be used at a latter time, if for nothing else, to transform it into energy later.

The implication is that most people will seek to assimilate all matter in the universe, that they do not value more highly in some other state, into their persons, as brain, body or stored energy.  The notion of freely available matter that remains a public good simply because nobody wants very much of it (such as ocean water, or air) will not exist.  Whereas a human body can only use a very limited quantity of ocean water or air, in the post singularity there will be no limit to how much people can use.

This does not mean that all matter will be incorporated into people.  For one, individuals may prefer not to assimilate certain matter if assimilation conflicts with their goals.  For instance, if one of your goals is to preserve the biosphere of the earth, assimilating all the matter of the earth by decomposing it and reconstituting it as brain matter will clearly be counterproductive.  Secondly, just as we currently manage some common resources through government, resources may be managed post singularity too.  Certain resources may be legally off limits for incorporation into individual bodies.  (What it means for something to be legally off limits after the singularity, is something that I intend to explore in future blog posts.)

What seems probable in this environment, however, is that we will be living in a world of near perfect scarcity, where every particle of matter is either incorporated into someone's person or is off limits for another reason, such as government restriction.  The notion of abundance, that somehow there will be excess resources, not already claimed by someone is inapplicable to the singularity.  Instead, many of the same dynamics which make resources in the modern world scarce will make the resources after the singularity even more scarce--chiefly, competition for limited resources.

However, as I mentioned in a previous article, there may be an extraordinary difference, in that, for the first time it may be possible to articulate what a truly fair distribution of resources would look like, and to implement that.  I hope to write about that more soon.