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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Computronium (p. 354)

From chapter "Technotopia: Industry"

There’s a logical endpoint to this belief, in the minds of some futurists, and it goes far beyond turning silicon into computers. Here’s how the argument goes, according to some futurists who call themselves “extropians” (from the word “extropy,” the opposite of entropy). Some of the first digital computer parts were vacuum tubes, also called thermionic valves, which we used to modify electrical signals. They were about the size of light-bulbs, and were invented in the late nineteenth century. They were replaced by the transistor, a solid-state device the size of your thumbnail, in the middle of the twentieth century. Standalone transistors were largely superseded by microchips, and a row of microchips fifty long would be smaller than the diameter of a human hair. According to extropians, there’s no reason this couldn’t go on forever (“The Law of Increasing Returns”), with computation taking place in components the size of a single molecule, a single atom, even using hypothetical structures within atoms themselves. According to some, matter itself could eventually be reconfigured at a sub-atomic level to be optimized for computing, turned into a material dubbed “computronium.”

What would be the purpose of such a material? Some futurists have suggested you could build something called a “Jupiter brain,” a single planet-sized hunk of computronium (getting enough matter for such a project would likely require dismantling an existing planet and manipulating it at the atomic level). Not to be outdone, others have suggesting building a much larger “matrioshka brain,” a set of concentric computronium spheres as large across as the earth’s orbit, which would monopolize all of the energy output of the sun and use it for computation.

And how would such vast computation potential be employed? It’s been suggested that a planet-sized computer could be used to run simulations of reality—kind of like in The Matrix—including simulations of human beings who had their brains scanned and “uploaded.” In this simulated environment, the argument goes, human intelligence would no longer be constrained by the biological limits of the brain, and would develop into God-like beings. Generally speaking, those who describe such a future don’t have a specific goal in mind for massive amounts of computation, except that sufficiently-developed artificial intelligences would be able to develop more advanced artificial intelligences than themselves, and so on, in a runaway cycle dubbed “the Singularity.”

Computer scientist and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker casts doubt on the plausibility—and desirability—of computronium: “Although it’s a cute idea, I think computronium is a fundamentally spurious concept, an unnecessary detour. Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations just by sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere everywhen is computing at the maximum possible rate. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.

“In an extreme vision . . . Earth is turned into a cloud of computronium which is supposedly going to compute a virtual Earth—a “Vearth”—even better than the one we started with.

“This would be like filling in wetlands to make a multiplex theater showing nature movies, clear-cutting a rainforest to make a destination eco-resort, or killing an elephant to whittle its teeth into religious icons of an elephant god.”

Rucker goes on to point out that there are no shortcuts for the work nature is already doing: its complexity is irreducible.

Others have asked, if you were living in a poor simulation of reality, how would you know? What would you compare it to? Especially if your psyche were only a poor imitation of an actual psyche?

It sounds like science fiction—it is science fiction—and I hope it stays that way. But the extreme extropian future doesn’t interest me because I think it’s a literally probable outcome—it’s obviously not—but instead it interests me because it’s such a remarkably (and inadvertently) clear articulation of the pathology of civilization. It’s a digital manifest destiny. It encapsulates civilization’s willful denial of the laws of ecology and of physics (the very name is in contravention of thermodynamics), as well as its myths of inevitability and immortality. The dream of continual expansion and “progress.” It takes civilization’s drive for control to a new level—the vision of tearing apart the entire solar system and remaking it from the sub-atomic level. And all that to support an imaginary world where they can become as gods, the pantheon of their own mythology.

High-tech trappings aside, the story is strikingly familiar. For millennia, those in power have been dismantling the real world to shore up an imaginary one defined by control instead of diversity—a toxic mimic of the real world. Quarrying mountains to make artificial mountains—monuments to themselves—wrapping themselves in cocoons of civilized culture and infrastructure, attempting to project and imprint their thoughts and words and propaganda on the entire world.

But unlike the fantasy, their work is rough and incomplete. There are still wild places and wild people left; there are cracks in their toxic mythology; we are still born with feelings and knowledge that they (and then we) can’t completely suppress. So again, we can ask the question, how do you know if you are living in a poor simulation of reality, a toxic mimic of reality? Well, if you’re reading this, it’s safe to say you do know, that you’ve seen through the mythology.

The question is, what are you going to do about it?