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Friday, September 13, 2002

Frequently Asked Questions About the Meaning of Life
By Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Published 1999 and updated 2000
The Low Beyond

What is humanity's place in the cosmos?

The same place held by all the other technology-using species now briefly living on or around the ten billion trillion (1) stars in this Universe: Our role in the cosmos is to become or create our successors. I don't think anyone would dispute that something smarter (or otherwise higher) than human might evolve, or be created, in a few million years.  So, once you've accepted that possibility, you may as well accept that neurohacking, BCI (Brain-Computer Interfaces), Artificial Intelligence, or some other intelligence-enhancement technology will transcend the human condition, almost certainly within your lifetime (unless we blow ourselves to dust first).

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
        -- Vernor Vinge, 1993

The really interesting part about the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence is the positive-feedback effect.  Technology is the product of intelligence, so when intelligence is enhanced by technology, you've got transhumans who are more effective at creating better transhumans, who are more effective at creating even better transhumans.  Cro-Magnons changed faster than Neanderthals, agricultural society changed faster than hunter-gatherer society, printing-press society changed faster than clay-tablet society, and now we have "Internet time".  And yet all the difference between an Internet CEO and a hunter-gatherer is a matter of knowledge and culture, of "software".  Our "hardware", our minds, emotions, our fundamental level of intelligence, are unchanged from fifty thousand years ago.  Within a couple of decades, for the first time in human history, we will have the ability to modify the hardware.

And it won't stop there.  The first-stage enhanced humans or artificial minds might only be around for months or even days before creating the next step.  Then it happens again.  Then again.  Whatever the ultimate ends of existence, we might live to see them.

To put it another way:  As of 2000, computing power has doubled every two years, like clockwork, for the past fifty-five years.  This is known as "Moore's Law".  However, the computer you're using to read this Web page still has only one-hundred-millionth the raw power of a human brain - i.e., around a hundred million billion (10^17) operations per second (2).  Estimates on when computers will match the power of a human brain vary widely, but IBM has recently announced the Blue Gene project to achieve petaflops (10^15 ops/sec) computing power by 2005, which would take us within a factor of a hundred.