Fill the universe with life

I was thinking about the economics of building human-level artificial intelligence. Some people refer to this as the singularity, but I dislike the term because it implies a vertical asymptote, which is misleading.

Anyway, there are two immediate consequences …

  1. It will soon lead to artificial super-intelligence. Once we figure out a design for intelligence we should be able to scale it arbitrarily, by adding more CPU and memory – barring legislative responses such as the Turing Police.
  2. It will become cheaply available to the masses. Unless the hardware relies on a rare element, the only limiting factor to mass deployment will be energy: to manufacture them and to run them. However, there are plenty of untapped sources of clean energy – geothermal, thorium fission, tidal – that aren’t used because they’re not cost-effective. But they’re usually expensive only because of high labour costs in the supply chain, and these will disappear with the availability of AI.

So, once everyone has unlimited super-intelligent labour at their command, what are they going to do with it? Travel to the stars? Build mind-blowing works of art? Of course. But what could you do that would push the limits of a super-intelligence? I’d try filling the universe with life.

Three rules …

  1. Not DNA-based. Simply adapting DNA-based life is too easy, and in any case it will only work in environments with liquid water.
  2. Must not compete with existing life. The aim is to increase the amount of life in the universe – and make better use of the available energy – not to engage in zero-sum competition with life in existing niches.
  3. Proper self-replicating life. In other words life forms that consume energy and raw materials from their surroundings and use them to grow and reproduce. Preferably reproducing with mutations and genetic mixing so they can evolve. Factory-made robots don’t count.

In theory life can exist wherever there is an energy source and suitable raw materials. So the gas clouds of Jupiter and the upper atmosphere of Venus are obvious candidates, as are places like Titan and Europa.

But let’s get ambitious and non-organic. After all, we’ll have super-intelligent AIs working for us. How about creatures that live in the sun’s corona? Giant gaseous life-forms that live in nebulae. Something that survives and reproduces in the molten core of a planet. Or a purely space-based ecosystem of creatures that eat orbiting dust and rocks, and navigate using the solar wind and magnetic fields.

Difficult challenges, sure, and well beyond our current capabilities. But the pay-off would be enormous. Biodiversity is an intrinsically beneficial outcome, providing resilience in the face of calamities, and greater efficiency in the utilization of resources. If things go horribly wrong, it increases the likelihood that life will survive and recover.

Of course, there are some mutually-exclusive motives that can drive the design of new life …

  1. Curiosity. Build the minimum viable life form for an environment and see what it evolves into. Some of the adaptations may be useful to us, in the way that organisms living near deep-sea vents secrete enzymes that are now used in industrial processes.
  2. Design for intelligence. Analogous to biodiversity, cultural diversity leads to greater Ricardian gain from trade. The more different a culture is, the more likely they are to have something unique to trade with us, to our mutual benefit. And trading with an intelligent species that dwells in the Earth’s mantle would be pretty awesome.
  3. Design to host human consciousness. This raises many issues, but imagine if these life forms could host human minds. Maybe not running at the same speed, and probably with access to different senses, but with a human personality. “Humans” could then colonize the universe and survive for billions of years.

If you’re expecting me to conclude with “how to get there from here” speculation, it’s not going to happen. We are a long way from human-level intelligence, and I haven’t seen any approaches that show much promise. So I guess this article counts as science fiction.